Thursday, May 27, 2004

Thoughts on thoughts on thought

That was a bit long and rambling wasn't it? Sorry about that. But then, we don't think in nice neat essays with introductions and conclusions, we think in long rambling digressions.

Thoughts on thought

I did a short philosophy course at university. It covered the history of philosophical thought starting with ancient Greece up to the current century. What struck me about the course was that pretty much all of it came down to the argument between two Philosophers, Plato and Aristotle. Their conflicting viewpoints were first expressed in classical Athens and the argument has raged ever since. The argument is about which is more important: reason or experience?

Plato's viewpoint was that the world of ideas and reason is "real", and that what we see is just a dim representation of those ideals.

Aristotle's opposing viewpoint was that the world you see and experience is "real", and that any expression of ideas is just an attempt to express reality in an inexact manner.

Before Plato (who predated Aristotle), the big debate in Philosophy was between Protagoras and Socrates. Protagoras suggested that right and wrong were not absolute but were subjective - that "man is the measure of all things". In other words, what's wrong for a Greek isn't necessarily wrong for a Persian. Protagoras had travelled extensively (for his day) and in particular commented on the Persian practice of eating dead relatives, which appalled the Greeks.

Sokrates in contrast felt that there were absolute standards of right and wrong, whether or not the Greeks or Persians understood them or chose to follow them. It occurred to me recently that this too is just the Plato versus Aristotle argument: Protagoras was arguing from experience, whereas Sokrates was arguing from logic.

I came across these two arguments on the philosophy course, but since then I've seen them more and more in everyday life. As an example, when I worked for the department of transport, I went to a conference on the "value of time". We discussed the question: what is the value of a small time saving? The argument split into two factions. One said that small time savings have no value, because if you ask people what it's worth to them getting home thirty seconds quicker, they say "nothing". The other said that obviously small time savings were proportionately less valuable than large time savings, so thirty seconds are 1/120th as valuable as an hour. During the debate it occurred to me that this was an example of Aristotelian versus Platonic argument.

Some more examples. Christianity is stronly Platonic. What's the point of "I am the way, and the truth, and the life" if really that just means "I am the truth for those who follow me, others have their own truth and that's ok?" Who'd die for that?

Democracy is inherently Aristotelian: it is based on the balance of individual perception, rather than searching for absolutes. That said, it's possible to argue for democracy from a platonic viewpoint, as given the nature of humanity it's a pretty good "least bad" political system in most situations. [Memo to self: Maybe I should write something about democracy?]

Modern postmodernist culture is similarly Aristotelian. Where once we had "any colour you like as long as it's black", we now have 57 varieties of everything, and everyone's viewpoint is equally valid - excepting of course paedophiles, islamic terrorists and illegal immigrants.

So it seems to me that pretty much the whole history of human thought hinges on these two Greek chaps from over two thousand years ago. There truly is nothing new under the sun.

Wednesday, May 26, 2004

Blog ideal

Or idea, for those of you who don't speak Bristolian.

Wouldn't it be nice to be able to put footnotes on these things, or hyperlinks? On the last post I was wondering whether "this blog" meant the whole column or just the one entry. If I could, I'd have put a footnote under "blog" asking the question.

Well just an idea. No doubt there is a way, I just don't know it.


This blog isn't about anything in particular. It has no theme, no concept. After all, people don't.

I thought for a while about giving it a theme. The most likely one would have been to limit it to my thoughts about the news - an (attempted) Christian viewpoint on things.

But while that might be more interesting and more useful, it wouldn't be me - it would only be a part of me. Like anyone, I'm lots of things - most notably a Christian, but also a man, a husband, a dad, someone who works with computers, someone who plays chess, someone with ADHD, etc. These things don't all fit together into a neat whole; no person does. That's what makes people so interesting and life so frustrating.

Tuesday, May 25, 2004

Prose style

My prose style isn't very good. I tend to write long, convoluted sentences. I'm making an effort to improve this: shorter, simpler sentences, fewer adjectives and adverbs, fewer clauses. That's the idea anyway. I still haven't found the happy medium between writing like a four-year-old and writing prose so incomprehensible that even I can't read it.

I suppose this at least provides the opportunity to practice. Whether it will help remains to be seen.

First post

Why have I created a blog? To grab my preferred name before anyone else does. What am I going to put here? I don't know. How often will I post? Only time will tell.

What prompted this was a discussion at work. We felt we needed some way of gossiping about what's happening in the company. Nothing major, nothing bad, just little things: who's leaving, whose jobs are likely to be moved abroad, that sort of thing. The kind of information that smokers get for free, if you count hardened arteries and lung cancer as "for free". It had to be public so everyone could see it, but it had to be anonymous too.

Before you get interested, this isn't that place. But it prompted the idea that I should find out about blogs and see if they might work for that purpose.

I guess I might use this as a space to rant about things, something I seem to do lots. I guess there's also a hope that through doing this I might somehow become someone who understands what blogs are about - a bit like the gosky patties in Edward Lear's nonsense recipe.

Don't watch this space ...