Fairground ride

WHAT is this book about? That’s no easy thing to explain. My original title for this, conceived back in 2011, was ‘Demonstration Piece’. This was going to be my ‘sophist demonstration piece’ — like the writings that have come down from Gorgias: ‘In Praise of Helen’, ‘Defence of Palamedes’, etc.
     One of the motifs would have been flies. No, seriously. Socrates, the ‘gadfly’; Max Stirner who in The Ego and His Own wrote about the ‘spider-web of hypocrisy’ that ‘crippled by the curse of halfness, catches only miserable, stupid flies’ — and then (tragically, ironically, absurdly?) died from a fly bite; Wittgenstein’s ‘fly in the fly bottle’ as well as his ‘wriggling fly’. — When you look at a fly up close, the annoying, buzzing black speck becomes apparent to you as a wonder of creation. What amazing creatures flies are!
     Another motif I considered was ‘an alternative history of philosophy’: Pilate versus Jesus (tragedy or comedy? or something else?), Galileo recanting, Heidegger and the Jewish professors, Marx on the role of philosophers in capitalist society. (The young Marx’s quote about money, ‘I am bad, dishonest, unscrupulous, stupid; but money is honored, and hence its possessor. Money is the supreme good, therefore its possessor is good...’ makes a perfect accompaniment to the famous 1882 painting of Diogenes of Sinope by John William Waterhouse, depicting amused aristocratic ladies with their parasols looking down at the poor, miserable philosopher in his barrel.)
     But then my thoughts took a different turn. I couldn’t get myself to feel strongly enough, either about flies, amusing subjects though they may be, or about the history of philosophy, not even Marx. — I needed to take stock, look back over two decades or more of my philosophical journey, my history, to understand where I had come from — and also where I was going (I didn’t know, then, not fully, that revelation was still to come).
     Hence Philosophizer. It isn’t necessary to have read that book in order to follow these pages. I assume nothing, I assume that you’ve never heard of me, that you have no ideas about me at all. Which is good. It’s better that way, actually. Then you can go back to the earlier book.
     (I discovered, subsequently, that ‘Philosophizer’ is the name of a strong American craft beer. I haven’t yet had the opportunity to sample a bottle, but I am sure it is potent stuff. The word ‘philosophizer’ has undertones, yes, of drunkenness, but also of shooting your mouth off when you don’t have knowledge of the full facts, claiming knowledge or understanding you don’t actually possess — the sort of things ‘amateurs’ do when they attempt to ‘philosophize’. Perfect! I thought. Only a black man can call another black man a ‘nigger’. But you can call me ‘philosophizer’, I don’t mind at all.)
     For 2o years I ran my own philosophy school, ‘Pathways to Philosophy’. I described myself in 1999 as an ‘Internet sophist’ (‘My philosophical life’, in ‘Glass House Philosopher’). I was a sophist who loved philosophy. As I wrote in Philosophizer, ‘... these [sophists] were the best friends the philosophers had. You could hardly slip a fragment of papyrus between the philosophers and the performance coaches who followed their activities with keen admiring interest. With the foundation of the Academy, Plato effectively put an end to that historic collaboration’ (‘Philosophers and sophists’).
     I admire the figures of Gorgias, and Protagoras, and Thrasymachus — but I am not one of their kind. They would not recognize me as being one of them, they would laugh at the very idea. They belonged to the market place (‘flies of the market place’, as Nietzsche writes in his acid prose in Zarathustra) — as I do not. Or, not any longer. (At my very best, on the top of my form, I was a lousy salesman.)
     I am not a ‘sophist’, not the pukka kind anyway, and no true ‘philosopher’ either. My feelings about philosophers and philosophy are more like — regret, even pity. To think what you could have been! Ah, but what’s the point. If the Library at Alexandria hadn’t been torched, maybe the whole course of human culture would have turned in a happier, more wholesome and productive direction. Who knows?
     That is why the old formulae don’t work for me any more. I had to let go. The antics of philosophers of the Academy no longer impress me. Lecture rooms. Seminar rooms. Common room banter. Dusty journals going back to the year dot. The chatter of computer print rooms. Press the ‘Enter’ key and off your article goes...
     What about the past? Yes, there are still thinkers I can admire, and even seek to emulate. Like Nietzsche, or Kierkegaard, or even Stirner. But the notion that there are still ‘great’ philosophers to come strikes me as preposterous.
     — You might have guessed by now that this is not going to be a tidy book. One can’t easily sum it up. So I’m not even going to try. Call it a collection of conundrums, ridiculously impossible challenges, painful reminiscences, diatribes, plus a seasoning of tasteless mockery — a piss take that is utterly serious in its intentions. Seriously what? you might well ask!
     A word of caution, in case you didn’t realize already: this book is not designed to nourish you intellectually or spiritually, or make you feel better about yourself. If that is what you’re looking for you’d better go elsewhere for your reading pleasure. But that’s your own free choice. I take no responsibility for the outcome. Think of this as more like a fairground ride. You’re pretty sure you are going to feel sick afterwards, but you’re tempted nonetheless — by the opportunity to feel strongly about something, anything.
     — I just want to open your eyes.
     So, imagine you are Alice, in Alice in Wonderland, or Through the Looking Glass, or Dorothy in Wizard of Oz — or Neo in ‘The Matrix’ (the movie script cleverly references Alice and Dorothy in the same scene). You are about to embark on a mini-adventure, which is also designed as a course of instruction (kind of, if you are willing to be instructed). Try not to anticipate. Let go, if you can. Let the ride carry you along.
     This book may change you. At least, that is the author’s intention. It won’t make you cleverer or more knowledgeable, or better at spinning arguments. But if you let it, it will give you something more precious: it will show you, or give a hint anyway, of what there is to be seen — I mean, down there.
     You will see things differently — maybe even in colours you have never experienced before. You will become suspicious of things you were never suspicious of before. Just like Descartes, you will learn to doubt things you previously never thought of doubting — including your own precious sense of who you are.


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