Existentialists had good questions and great timesby Andy Martin / February 18, 2016 / Leave a comment
Published in March 2016 issue of Prospect Magazine
“Hold on a second!” says Dr Watson to Sherlock Holmes (or something like that). “How did you work that out?” Holmes has just come up with some astounding observation. He explains his reasoning. “Of course!” Watson responds, much to the annoyance of Holmes, “it’s obvious.” That is how good philosophy works. The reader—or, in the case of Socrates, the listener—should feel that everything that has been said is obvious, so obvious that no one bothered to say it before. Which is why philosophers often come across, in the words of Erasmus, as “foolosophers.” Michel Foucault said everything he wrote was tautological. And the closing line of Ludwig Wittgenstein’s Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus suggests something similar: “Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must remain silent.” Wittgenstein presumably had this line in mind when he claimed to have pulled off two great tricks: one was to have solved the problems of western philosophy; the other was to have demonstrated how little he had achieved in doing so.
Philosophers don’t have to be long-winded. Jean-Paul Sartre’s “Hell is other people” is a memorable one-liner; another is the opening line of Albert Camus’s The Myth of Sisyphus: “Suicide is the only serious philosophical problem.” Of course philosophers can be teasingly elusive. Take Sartre’s lines about “a binary praxis of antagonistic reciprocity.” Any idea what he was going on about? Someone once told me: “That is a description of my marriage.” Sartre went on to argue that all the contradictions of capitalism are contained in that phrase—but he was, in fact, originally describing boxing. (He would probably never have made it as a sports commentator.) Here is Martin Heidegger hymning a pod of dolphins in the Mediterranean: “So too the birthplace of Occident and modernity, secure in its own island-like essence, remains in the recollective thinking of the sojourn.” Take that David Attenborough!