Philosophy while working on mappa mundi

Having a philosophy means having an idea of what is and an idea of how we know.  Both these ideas may be articulated in words or not.  People have a philosophy without philosophising.  This means they act from principles that they have arrived at in the course of their lives but don’t enunciate what these principles might be.

A development of these ideas can be phrased in adjoined questions such as: What is real? and What is true? All the time in thinking about our purpose and in trying to work out how to live our lives we are accompanied or interrupted by these kinds of questions.  When we meet circumstances in which we find it difficult to recognise ourselves either because the world around us (society and other people) is not in accord with our expectations or ideals or we face situations where we cannot get what we want we either hit out physically or we give ourselves over to thought.

Why it is that people differ in their basic predisposition and come up with different ideas at these crucial times is not easy to explain.  At a very early stage in our lives we are driven by a sense of what is just and fair.  This may instantiate itself in simple situations of distribution within basic human groups.  It really isn’t uncommon to hear a child plead for justice: ‘That’s not fair’.  This may be driven by a basic appetite or alternately an already developed sense of honour.  As we grow up and look at the world around us, we notice injustice and make assessments about how possible it might be to redress it.  Everybody comes into some kind of characteristic interaction with these observations.  The interaction may a kind of settlement or a constant disturbance.

By the age of 19 I had decided that the world (society) was extremely unjust.  What I meant by this was that so many people’s lives were constrained in ways that made it unlikely that they would achieve their potential, that they would be able to do what they could do, what they were capable of doing.  I went further and saw that because of systematic exploitation people were effectively robbed of their lives and made to work for other people’s advantage.  I considered this to be inherent in the capitalist system.  It worked by the extraction of profit that became the private property of the owners.  The political structures simply enforced these property relations though they appeared to be based on equality.  It seemed to me so blazingly obvious that the many were exploited by the few and that people’s lives and development were being held back by a system that enforced inequality and that it would only be a matter of a few years before everybody had similar recognitions and the system and our society would change.  I thought that humanity would free itself from the capitalist system.

I recognised that vested interests existed and by the time I was 22 because of events I had witnessed in Northern Ireland I realised that the people for whom these vested interests operated would fight physically to preserve the system that benefited them. This was the reason why after having found deep confirmation of my observations in the work of Karl Marx and his ‘descendants’ for some years I joined the Communist Party  because I thought that ideas needed an accompanying organisational form.

In the years that followed – the 1970s – it seemed as if I was able to successfully carry out in my work in theatre expressing the values that I believed in.  I was able to live in an illusion that, although it all might be taking a little longer than I thought, the revolution was just around the corner.  I didn’t realise that the victory over the Heath government in 1974, the miners strikes of ’72 and ’74, the success of the struggle against the Industrial Relations Act were all contrary to the general way the world was going.

When Margaret Thatcher came to power in 1979 I suffered a deep shock that sent me into a profound questioning of what I thought was real and what I thought was true.  I had to rethink. On what basis did I feel affirmed by Marx’s ideas. It all seemed so logical.  Materialism, developing forces of production, developing relations of production, exploitation, class struggle, contradiction, revolution, theory becoming a material force…. I had to become philosophical!

In the first instance – maybe because I come from a military family – I was focused on how ideas of politics and social change are figured in armed confrontation.  It struck me that Marx and Lenin’s ideas (not that they were exactly the same!) were articulated through images of conflict that were specific to a war like the First World War where there was a front-line and the magnitude of the force exerted would decide the outcome of conflict.  Of course all kinds of considerations of will and cohesion and knowledge of terrain were important but it seemed as if conflict was somehow resolved by putting ones shoulder to the wheel and the bigger the shoulder the better!

I could see that this was a masculinist and mechanical vision of change.  I had also read and thought through the work of Antonio Gramsci and looked carefully at the metaphors he used about different levels of social fortification or structure and diverse military processes.

I could not help being impressed by the fact that Marx and his descendants seemed to be using models and structuring visions of the world that didn’t take account, for example, of relativity and quantum physics.

I was also very strongly impressed during the course of my recent adventure into the world of Earth Sciences (see Starting Points) by the implicit philosophy of social change that permeated the work:  that ‘scientists’ discover the truth and they then make clear and convincing arguments to ‘policy-makers’ who then, because they are rational and logical (or are supposed to be), act accordingly.  The ‘speaking truth to power’ idea is so similar to the idea of theory becoming a material force that it hardly needs underlining.  Different theories of action and reaction work for different levels of matter but this mechanical, binary ‘logical’ view has always seemed deeply suspicious to me.

Of course Thatcher’s election was a shock but it was also a release.  I have been liberated into confusion!  Nothing has seemed simple for over thirty years!

The events in 1979 made me undertake a ‘philosophical and sentimental quest’ and I mention this in Starting Points.  If I could see the injustice of the world so clearly how could it be that others wouldn’t.  How could it be that the world could remain in the control of the same ruling elites?  I wasn’t just confused, I was also naive!

During this recent period when I have been once again preoccupied by change through work on The Deal and on mappa mundi I have continually returned to the insights given by Paulo Freire about the nature of change.  At one point he describes learning a profound lesson when one of his literacy students announces during the course of a discussion: “Now I see that without man there is no world”.  When Freire investigates this by pointing out that there might be a world without human beings, the man (who Freire has already pointed out is ignorant from the point of view of a ‘banking’ idea of knowledge) responds: ‘Oh no! There would be no-one to say: This is the world”.  Freire then goes on to quote Sartre: “La conscience et le monde sont donnes d’un meme coup” (“Consciousness and the world happen at the same time”) and Husserl in a quotation too long to give here but that can be found on page 63 of the Penguin edition of The Pedagogy of the Oppressed or page 82 of this pdf.

This moment of insight has always appeared to me to be profoundly important without me really knowing why.  During the work on planning our sessions for mappa mundi, Debbie Warrener and I came towards a similar understanding of something fundamental in Joanna Macy’s placing as the philosophical grounding of her work the Buddhist idea of ‘dependent co-arising‘.  At  a certain point, Debbie exclaimed, after struggling with an idea of our human relationship to the environment, “We are it!!”

At the moment when Heisenberg and Bohr came to the conclusion that the irreducible form of matter was both a particle and a wave, they described the formation of matter as being determined by probability.  This conception spirals back to the first work we know of on this question. This was carried out by the pre-socratic philosophers at the birth of modern Western culture in their formulation of atomic theory. At more or less the same time as Heisenberg and Bohr were inventing the basis for quantum mechanics, Rutherford managed to split the atom.  Though I do not have the technical knowledge to be able to explain the importance of the recent ‘discovery’ of the Higgs-Boson ‘element’ I can see that it stands in a line of development from what happened 100 years ago.

This brings me round to the question of philosophy with which I began this blog.  My formulation was to do with the fact that philosophy is concerned with two things: ‘what is’ and ‘how we know’ and already we can see that these two branches of philosophy (ontology and epistemology) could be considered to be one.  It might have to be a continuation of this blog in which I explain (if I can!) why this philosophy seems so important to me.

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