Sunday 4 December 2016

Review: The Consolations of Philosophy: Reflections in an Economic Downturn by Paul O'Grady (Ed)

Columba Press, €14.99

Published 20/03/2011 | 05:00

'WHY should an economic downturn lead to an interest in philosophy rather than any other subject?" asks Trinity College's Joseph McLoughlin in a chapter of this book entitled "The Consolation of Craft".

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Why indeed? There are many of us who dismiss the importance of philosophy in our lives; viewing it as some arcane discipline best left to white-bearded men in the archetypal ivory towers of academia. Philosophy, we assume, is too impractical, too theoretical, too "pie in the sky" to hold any relevance for us in our post modern lives.

This attitude isn't helped by the fact that philosophy is also deemed too esoteric to be taught in secondary schools, and by a conspicuous dearth of people who describe themselves as a "philosopher" on their CVs -- if they wish to be taken seriously by potential employers, that is.

Philosophy, however, is arguably the most important discipline we can learn ourselves, or teach our children. A solid grounding in philosophy provides a strong basis for dealing with just about everything else in life: politics, business, science, relationships, disappointments, money and the lack of it.

And in a time of radical change, when previously accepted norms have been so quickly, and sometimes frighteningly, overturned, philosophy's emphasis on sound reasoning and rigorous thinking may go some way to help us make sense of our current affairs, of the world about us and of our place within it.

As Paul O'Grady, editor of The Consolations of Philosophy, points out, many philosophers have specifically addressed the issue of facing misfortune and suggesting strategies for understanding and coping with the vicissitudes of life.

He says that Socrates' edict ' know thyself' is at the core of all philosophical inquiry; essentially, having an examined, chosen philosophy is the difference between living life consciously versus unconsciously.

It is, ultimately, the difference between figuring out exactly how we all managed to get to where we are now and making damn sure we don't make the same mistakes again -- and continuing on, rudderless, confused and angry, making the same mistakes and desperately hoping for a different and better outcome.

(Now, perhaps, is a good time to make the argument that philosophy should be a compulsory subject in Leinster House.)

Here, I will have to admit bias. I spent five years in the stimulating environs of Trinity College's philosophy department and, without putting it too dramatically, it was here that I learned how to deal with life, the universe and pretty much everything else. It was all relevant. Most importantly I learned how to think. And that it was usually preferable to do so before I acted.

TCD's department of philosophy has continued the tradition of being relevant to Irish life by launching The Consolations of Philosophy: Reflections in an Economic Downturn. The book is based on a series of popular public lectures given at the college last year by a variety of lecturers, which I, along with many other curious Irish people, attended to great personal benefit.

As editor O'Grady writes: "The last three decades have seen dramatic changes in Irish society. A relatively homogeneous culture was altered by greater exposure to wealth, multiculturalism, travel, secularism and mass media ...

"In recent times the demise of the Celtic Tiger has led people to look again at their values and sense of the world. Institutions of Church and State which traditionally gave guidance on such issues are routinely questioned and subjected to sceptical scrutiny, leading to many people feeling at a loss in making sense of their lives. However, there is a wealth of reflection on just such cultural change in the philosophical tradition."

And that's exactly what this engaging and elegant book goes on to prove to us.

From Plato to pragmatism, Kant to consumerism, we are given the tools -- as O'Grady puts it -- "to challenge the consensus view, to make one reflect and defend one's assumptions". Each thought-provoking, entertaining chapter gives us a different "take" on a philosophical worldview -- with emphasis on the "consolations" to be found within each.

But to be a philosopher is to be the ultimate contrarian -- the Socratic "stinging insect" -- which means when we find ourselves placidly sated with our philosophical consolations, we are brought up short by Paal Antonsen's provocatively entitled chapter "Against Philosophical Consolation", in which he argues that academic subjects, and particularly philosophy, should not be in the business of providing consolation.

Even more provocative is the tale he uses to prove his point: "Once during a dinner conversation, Gore Vidal asked Noel Coward: 'Is it true you've never had sex with a woman?' Coward could affirm this, but an unconvinced Vidal continued 'not even with Gertrude Lawrence?' -- to which Coward responded resolutely, 'particularly not, Miss Lawrence'."

Coward is wittily insinuating that the whole point of his homosexuality is that he is not attracted to women -- in particular those as feminine and sensual as his beautiful co-star.

Similarly, Antonsen argues that the objective rigour of philosophy makes it particularly unsuitable for providing solace -- or indeed any specific goal apart from knowledge.

Ultimately, everything is part of a philosophical argument -- even the sexual habits of playboy Noel Coward and his platonic amour Ms Lawrence.

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