This evening I find myself stuck in, if you like, existential indecision between two powerful forces.

It is the end of term and I have several days of fun activities before everyone goes home, so I’m thinking back on the term, and it’s been a ridiculously happy one. This is because I’ve been engaged very strongly with my subject again. I feel incredibly fortunate. I know exactly what I want to do after this degree, the infamous Oxford graduate philosophy course, and the path is clear and not insurmountably obstructed anymore. Academically I know what I need to do, which is, get high philosophy marks, and because I have somehow re-engaged with things this term as I haven’t done for the past year and a half. I am better at reacting to the times when work is hard; I know how things work now, and it goes well. This is not to say that revision and exams aren’t a challenge, but this huge obstacle is fading. How fortunate that this has happened now, just in time.

While people doing admissions for this course will look at results on individual papers, so will not just see an overall grade damaged by maths, there is the problem of funding which is more grade-dependent. But I’ve been thinking about this for ages. I have been banking my student loan for the past two years, I have money from working in the sixth form and some from parents all saved up and gathering interest for precisely this purpose. So I think things will be okay.

It is good to have things set out before me like this, achievable. This is all bound up with my worldview that philosophy is the thing to do. This is because there is a sense in which I find the concerns of my subject unerringly nagging; I want to know how I should go about believing and thinking, and even perhaps how I should go about living, and further I am convinced that the ways of Oxford analytic philosophy is the best grounding to go about this. This is not to say that I think this approach has all the answers; I’m not sure anyone would say that of it. But it’s the best place to start, I am convinced, and this is why I have the Oxford graduate course mentioned above, which is said to be the best graduate philosophy course in the world, so fixed in mind as the thing to be doing next.

While my ideal of enquiry and the enquirer in this subject is always changing as I learn more, it persists in its dominating priority. We all think different things are important depending on what we’re doing, but most of us have a few things we really value that come out when we have a calm head and think or discuss the issue. And for me this ideal comes out at the top of the list every single time. Cool.

Except maybe not. I have a friend who is very concerned with personal relationships of all kinds and often brings up the issue in discussions where I haven’t seen the personal side of the coin; she’ll say, if we’re wondering about someone we’ve met who we don’t understand, ‘I wonder if he’s okay with that person being like that?’ or something. She reads this blog from time to time and says, ‘that was really cold, did you really mean that?’ at something I’ve said. And she points out: how can you, Sean, have any personal relationships at all when this ideal of yours always comes first? (my phrasing) And I think she has a pretty good point, which I’ll now try to bring out in my own terms, because I recently came across it in, of all things, studying analytic philosophy.

Michael Stocker has an article called ‘The Schizophrenia of Modern Ethical Theories’ where he argues that modern ethical theories that try to classify all actions into right and wrong according to something like happiness or something like duty all force any follower into a state of schizophrenia. This is because they give something ultimate value that isn’t what one should value if one wants to do certain things that the theory says are good. The main example he uses is love of all kinds i.e. all relationships beyond the most common courtesy, though, the point is best brought out with the example of a very serious relationship. Now, the theory might say that such relationships are a good thing because they make everyone happy, or perhaps the theory says that they are good because they help us to understand ourselves better and thus develop as people, or something. But it is impossible to be in a relationship of love with this motive, because to be in that relationship you have to genuinely care about the other person, rather than caring about them because of the happiness or self-development.

It’s quite a simple point, really, and perhaps I have stated a simpler version than Stocker’s, not doing his thoughts justice which may be saying something more complicated. But now, here is the application: make the ideal the end of always pursuing abstract enquiry. Instead of saying that relationships are good because of happiness or something say instead that they always come second to something—through various physical and mental limitations i.e. I’m human, I can’t enquire all the time, but still, enquiry comes first. Then, according to the above argument, I cannot love.

And I think I do end up in this position. I have written before about how I feel very detached from almost everyone I know. There are maybe two people I feel unconditionally connected to, if you like, none of which are my parents or sister or anyone you might expect. The point is not that I desire more close relationships—no-one has more than a few, nor should they. The point is that I feel unable to connect to others who I do not know so well—a connection does not have to be super-close to be a connection, it just has to be genuine, to feel real. This is not to be confused with the worry one can have about projecting a fake facade to certain individuals or something; I am always myself, but that self doesn’t connect.

So these are the two forces. Philosophy and relationships. And I think there is wider application to being genuinely devoted to other activities; not writing them off as distractions. Is it possible to actually care about lots of things while maintaining this devotion? There is no sense in which I can choose to drop this devotion, by the way, at least, not through thinking things through in the way that I do when I talk to people or when I write things on here. I’m sure my worldview could be changed up by experience, somehow, but it’s definitely not something I could initiate: this is, as far as I can tell, a pretty important part of my personality. And nor would I want to. It is me who cares about it so much! But it is also me who wonders if he can care about other things too.

I hope to find this way. Otherwise, I am forced to accept loneliness, because as this philosophical ideal is so important for me, this is just a price I must pay. I really really hope that attitude is the one I should be holding, for it is most definitely the one I hold.


Hmm. I feel I should say something in reply to this, but I honestly don’t know what to say.

I should say that “The point is not that I desire more close relationships—no-one has more than a few, nor should they” I do disagree with this: some people do have more than a few, and /this is okay/ (this is oddly prescriptive of you, who is otherwise very careful not to subscribe others to your own beliefs & worldview).

More generally: I think it is possible to care deeply about something which is not a person while still being able to care about other things. I think the very fact of your feeling loneliness is an indicator of this: loneliness is, in some sense, a longing for caring. Philosophy may always, for you, be your greatest love: but I don’t believe it is necessary for it to eclipse all else.

Comment by james Thu 08 Mar 2012 12:25:24 UTC

Interesting! We tend to agree with James and although ,at this time ,philosophy is your greatest  love,we  feel you will ”  miss out ” in life if other things/relationships do not feature alongside it at various times .

Comment by G and G Sun 11 Mar 2012 15:55:16 UTC
comment D6W44A1VL44REJQ4

Love’s Philosophy
The fountains mingle with the river,
And the rivers with the ocean;
The winds of heaven mix forever
With a sweet emotion;
Nothing in the world is single;
All things by a law divine
In another’s being mingle–
Why not I with thine?

See, the mountains kiss high heaven,
And the waves clasp one another;
No sister flower could be forgiven
If it disdained its brother;
And the sunlight clasps the earth,
And the moonbeams kiss the sea;–
What are all these kissings worth,
If thou kiss not me?

Percy Bysshe Shelley

Comment by lkarag Mon 19 Mar 2012 22:33:41 UTC