Saturday, 29 August 2009

Part one) The benefits of a Socratic education

The image of Socrates is one that immediately paints an image in our minds of a wise, sagely character in flowing white robes lecturing in a Parthenon. This is an absolutely false portrait of the man, who never washed his clothes and used to wander aimlessly in the markets of Athens in the dirty rags of a crazed tramp. In his wanderings he would ask people the big questions “How can one be happy?” “How should we ascertain justice?” “What is our purpose in life?” He gained his education simply by asking others regardless of class, education or background or how they lived their lives.

This sort of attitude toward thinking carries with it with a great deal of maturity. Firstly he never judged that a beggar would have nothing to say about living the good life compared to, say, a rich merchant and he never assumed that to be a scholar one must only study scholars. Socrates recognised the commonality of human suffering, passion and happiness. That set him free to study life in its entirety and began setting about unifying his ideas so that he might condense them into universally applicable philosophies.

I was initially massively bored by his findings, he thought somewhat blandly “Happiness is important to people” but his genius lay in how he said we might go about the business of happiness. His approach, again, initially bored me as suffering from the usual suspects of happiness being friends, food, clothes but then he dropped this bombshell.

“The unexamined life isn’t worth living”

I immediately debunked this preposterous idea knowing many people, who reflect little, if at all, on the nature of their lives and themselves, and live incredibly happy lives free of any misery. Conversely and perhaps more strikingly is that I know many people who reflect regularly on the life they have lived and their lives are awash with despair. One such fellow remarked to me “To examine my life itself actually furthers my depression not lessens it.” So, I thought, using the basics of Socrates' falsification theory, I myself have disproved Socrates' thesis. Take that philosophy, I thought.

As you will have guessed my victory was somewhat short lived, it kept bugging me. How could there be truth in this statement? I think the answer is that there is some truth in what Socrates is trying to say. His task was a hard one given how different we are and different people have different needs so the path to happiness is a varied one. So when attempting to find out what makes us happy he looked at the far more universal attitude we take towards embracing happiness and avoiding hardship. The variables, that can effect our lives, are almost infinite but we can attempt to plan for them. The only way in which we can plan for these is the learning from our own life experience and learning the lessons others have to offer on the common themes of human existence. To get any clarity on these issues these we must ascertain the truth and relevance of any advice given to us. This obviously requires some thought.

I think this style of self-analysis is something we do already consciously or unconsciously, we all have career aspirations, ambitions for the future all of which requires some degree of self reflection. So Socrates was right! Well sort of, self reflection is not the key to happiness but an examined life certainly paves the way to a happier one because it allows us to better understand how to be happy. Unfortunately that unpredictable jester of chance may indeed conspire to doom us to misery or perhaps unmitigated joy but the examined life allow us to better deal with life’s sorrows and develop strategies to better guide us toward the shores of elation. Allow me to explain my little thesis using the awesome power of math.

Socrates' thought
Food + clothes + friends + examined life = Happiness
Dolan’s thought
Food + clothes + friends + examined life > happiness or happiness more likely
And conversely
Food + clothes+ friends- examined life < happiness or happiness less likely

If we already embrace self-reflection why is it a problem? I have two problems: firstly we don’t do it enough and secondly we often do it for the wrong reasons. Self reflection commonly takes off often around the onset of grief. Death is the awful wake-up call that makes us muse on the problems of our mortality. Self reflection doesn’t have to be the bastard child of tragedy.

If you will appreciate self analysis as a potential provider of happiness then I would invite you to give a greater importance to self reflection in your life so you might make more informed decisions on how you might be happier. I also hope that we will also embrace a more Socratic attitude toward education, remembering that everybody is an expert in being alive.

It's nothing more than the worst form of intellectual snobbery to assume that some people have nothing to offer us in leading better lives simply because they are a different race/class/religion/education than from ourselves and yet I see people doing it all the time. I laugh to myself a little now because in a roundabout way they are, in essence, denying themselves happiness. Almost Karmic, isn’t it?

Diminishing our ignorance, increasing our understanding of one another, giving ourselves a greater depth of self-knowledge and a better understanding of how we might become happier people are just a few of the benefits of a Socratic education.

Who said philosophy was useless?

An introduction to the inexperienced view of experience.

What you might ask would a 23 year old have to say on experience? Well before you jump to any obvious conclusions I think it might be a tad unfair to immediately victimise my youthfulness. Firstly it is a na├»ve assumption that a broadness of life experience carries a great deal more wisdom than a somewhat narrower one. This idea is often mirrored in the lives of many of our greatest thinkers. Friedrich Nietzsche was a syphilitic crazed shut-in in his later days, Proust bed-bound most of his adult life and Sartre somewhat wryly declared that “Hell is other people”.

These remarkable individuals despite a seeming deficiency in what I shall call “worldliness” had something to say about how we live our lives. The resonance of their works has arguably the greatest contribution of any intellectual endeavour- it has changed how we think about the world and painted a course on how we might live happier lives.

I’m not denouncing living a rich and varied life, there is fantastic joy to be garnered from both the most carnal desires to the most selfless acts. These people drew their value from the approach they took at examining their own meagre lives and simply by offering up their worldview, however small and however subjective, they gave something precious to us- an insight into the human condition.

One of our biggest failures as human beings is to declare these people as so very different from ourselves. When asked to mimic these individuals in attempting to answer to life’s big questions people will quickly protest their own incompetence “But they were more educated than myself”, “Their understanding of suffering is far better than my own”, “Their personal experience gave them insight I could never have”. I feel here, people are too quick to sell themselves short. When did we become so insecure that we felt what little wisdom we have is so worthless?

I’ve learnt valuable life lessons from the most unlikely of places, coked-up London socialites, strict Mormon fathers and the Television have given me accurate advice directly or indirectly on how I might live better. I think the key to unlocking their worth is in the attitude by which we choose to understand their lifestyle. I think perhaps the biggest tragedy here is that as valuable a source as these people might be for guidance, very little physical record is kept on the knowledge gained through their experiences. If only they all had blogs...

So then, I would feel somewhat hypocritical if I didn’t, at this point, reflect on the importance of our experiences and how we might go about shaping them into into a cohesive life-enriching philosophy. I will not recount my personal experiences directly here, but I would invite you to speculate on what exactly has affected me so personally as to make me want to reflect on the very nature of experience. As always the mazy subject of human experience will require some guidance to prevent us from getting bogged down in tangent or to wander aimlessly along the misty moors of knowledge.

As before my ideas will be split into three areas. Firstly I wish to talk on the importance of self reflection and how Socrates may teach us not only how to ascertain truth in our lives but also how we may use these ideas to make ourselves happier. Secondly I will suggest how increasing our appreciation of art might actually give us a more lucid insight into better ways of living our lives. Finally I will petition you not to let fear cripple your creative expression, for this is the most critical and perhaps the most effective way in which we can communicate the lessons of our existence to one another.

Being white, working class, young, single and atheist living in the UK means I should probably have little, if any genuinely unique life experience but then again I always did like a challenge...

Friday, 28 August 2009

Part three) Why I love Ian, Hate Kelsey, and Why Giles has so many friends

If you have no idea who these people are fear not, I shall explain. One my other pet-hates are the self proclaimed “language Nazis”. I love Ian and miss him dearly because his style of communication was original, flamboyant and unique and he injected variety and spice in every verb, noun and adjective he ever espoused from his lips and best of all he clearly took a genuine pleasure in language that lit up every room he ever frequented. Unfortunately he took issue with my careless use of a split infinitive and to my horror I had to claim ignorance of this grammatical convention.

So I looked it up- it turns out his syntax was wrong and I rebuked him.

It was then I realized I was dead inside. 

I had ceased to enjoy language, merely criticised its usage. I had become one of the self-proclaimed guardians of language that tries to burn away its rich tapestry. These sorts of characters would have killed the likes of Alexander pope, Shakespeare and Wilde who liked to play language games to create new and interesting concepts for us to wrestle with. It is people like Ian who stand in the way of languanges's ability to evolve.

Funnily enough I later found out two things about split infinitives: Firstly that they were invented in a very dubious and misguided attempt to make English more like Latin for completely arbitrary reasons. Secondly split infinitives can be quite beautiful at times, I hope Ian wouldn't have shot Captain Picard for insubordination because he decided "To boldly go" anywhere.

These language fiends with their vice-like attachment to convention, might even be killing our capacity to understand new concepts because they are killing off the language we need in order to understand them. These over-educated-oafs might actually be damaging our intellectual development in a very misguided effort to protect it.

Kelsey is another one for playing these mindless games, “Bath” is the same concept however you pronounce it and one is not better than the other, in the same way that the Queen's English is not better than utterances of a gutter tramp both are unique but equally well adapted forms of communication in the circumstances in which they are utilised. This kind of snobbery is pointless and only seeks to highlight a very illogical attachment to preferred style of speaking and robs us of the capacity to interject the variety of language from which we derive pleasure from and facilitate its evolution into something more precise, grander and more colourful than its previous incarnations.

Some of the sticklers for tradition may argue it is for the sake of clarity, I find this highly amusing, I doubt the journalism world is aflame with debacle created by the misuse of the split infinitive or the pronunciations of the word “Bath” and yet still they persist. Luckily there is hope for us and his name is Giles.

Giles is living testament to the power of language to amuse and entertain. To give you some idea who Giles is, he is basically Phileas Fogg (see how language and identity work both ways?) to the point that I half expect him to be in a top hat and waistcoat flying past my window in a hot air balloon at any moment shouting “Indubitably old chum!” at the top of his voice. Giles, like Ian expresses himself in a fun, interesting and original way, he brings laughter wherever he goes with just the way he approaches language. It's so refreshing and uplifting it makes him impossible not to be liked. Giles like Ian takes real pleasure in language.

It will be no surprise to you that Giles is incredibly popular and will no doubt continue to be so for the foreseeable future- his language skills make him quite the social magnet! Giles ties together all the things I love about language it’s unique yet positive and has variety to it. I think we are all to eager to denounce people who speak in an unconventional and sophisticated way as pretentious or elitist I can assure you Giles is none of these things and all who know him will testify to this. He simply takes pleasure in language.

“Kelsey’s bath is full of grout, But Giles’s style is what it’s all about!”
I love the musical nature of language. Its makes it so easy to remember.

So, I would invite you to cast off the negative incumbency present in the British language and embrace warmer attitude in how we express ourselves to one another. We all know and appreciate those who are great with language and would like to see more of you fall in love with how we communicate, because if that’s how we are, who we are then what better way to facilitate personal development? Most of all like Giles, Ian and myself please readers take pleasure in language.

Part two) The collective identity in language

This brings me unto a little problem I have with the approach to language the British take, at least those of us who practice the form of communication which is cynical and defeatist and depressing. Stephen Fry once said he loved the phrase “Only in America” as a wonderful insight into how Americans are often inspired by the remarkable events that happen in the states. It is a wonderful insight into not only how Americans view their country but also how they view themselves: as can-do people living in the land of opportunity. 

Unfortunately he also comments somewhat woefully, that the situations that would demand the phrase “Only in Britain” would be well, far less remarkable to say the least. I’ve noticed a very annoying habit in English Language that seems to automatically assume the worst in any situation.

“Not Again…” Why are all reoccurring scenarios depressing?
“That’s Typical” Why is something displeasing always considered the norm?
“Whatever!” Basically means something not worth bothering about, the irony is this pretty much can put into any sentence as it’s essentially a meaningless term.

Its very telling of a culture that essentially redefines words in a negative context, and this before we import or even invent new words to use in a negative way! Fop, dandy and the aesthete are practically extinct from common usage it has given away to the derogetory yob, the snob, the Ned, the townie, the dweeb, nerd and pointdexter. This focus in British Language to always dwell on the negative irritates me immensely. If like me, you feel language informs thought wouldn’t it make more sense to have a more positive attitude? Wouldn’t it be more pleasant if we talked to each other in a lighter, brighter tone that focuses on positive aspects of Britishness? I think defeatism begins in the mind, if we communicated in a more positive manner, who knows, maybe we might have more drive and motivation to do more with our lives. A depressing tone in our language sets a depressing tone for our lives- and who wants that?

Many Brits decry Americanisms as corruptions of language but at least they tend toward a more positive evolution of communication, the terms “Positive-empowerment” and “Self-actualization” prove that a new language can grow to create a more positive way of expressing ourselves. I think inventing new words which all basically mean "finding new ways to furfill your potential" is very telling of the American character and its cultural thought. The sheer thought of the number of languages that exist in the world and how they might inform various cultural thinking fills me with such awe, I wish I had several lifetimes to study them all.

The Americanism reminds me quite abruptly that language is in a constant state of flux and that it is a constantly evolving beast, that there are no moral absolutes within language and that means pretty much anything goes in language. Admittedly I wouldn’t be quite so flamboyant with language in a job interview or a church reading, but that’s a question of suitability- convention has never been a good way to judge the accuracy or even the acceptability of anything!

So we must accept that language is without form so we as linguistic creatures are free to sculpt the future of our language. I for one will hope we shall move away from this miserable tone in the British language. It’s unfair to tarnish all of Britain with this depressing brush, I love the fact that the Manchuanians are “Mad for it” as it is and that the Geordies are already “Whey aye”-ing well into the 21st century with equal enthusiasm. I hope we will listen to the merry tone in their dialects to guide us to a more uplifting way of expressing ourselves. I think we would do well to remember that this unique and fantastic regional diversity is one we can enjoy “Only in Britain” and only one part of our culture worth celebrating. 

Perhaps you might adjust your thinking next time you use the words "Only in Britain".

Monday, 17 August 2009

Part one) Language is our prison and our portrait...

What better place to start my reflection on language than in my home of Englandshire which is a veritable hotbed of language deviance, a rich tapestry of accents, dialects and slang. We can travel all the way from Geordieland, to the sunny vales of bumpkin Dorset, from the Manchurian drawl to the scouser swagger all the way from the surf happy corns to the ducking-and-diving-del-boys of the east end and discover a wonderful array of language styles and forms. Each individual and developing a persona each encompassing its own style, steeped in it own stereotype representing its own culture. The striking thing about language is its immediacy in representing all of these things, a subtle cocktail of accent, dialect, vocabulary and grammar which form such lasting ideas of ones character. Indeed, this can be before we have said anything about ourselves!

For example, if I were standing in a room speaking out loud to you, instantly you would be making assumptions about my gender, race, class, upbringing and hometown. The fact I am even writing this will probably invite you to make some guesses as to my education. Language is so wrapped up in who we are we cannot escape it in the same way we cannot escape our own reflection. We might attempt to imitate others but it is likely to be flawed imitation at best, and a laughable impersonation at worst. Certainly some of us are better deceivers than others but we are still exposed as liars in the end.

Now if we accept that language affects how we are perceived, however inaccurately, by others then we will have to accept that it will also affect how we view ourselves. So if we ride the very simple train of thought that suggests how we present ourselves affects how we are perceived it no doubt has an impact on how we then interact, language is now helping us develop an ‘attitude’ towards how we interact with others. This might be reliant on context say in an essay, a job interview or even how express ourselves toward a potential partner but success in these areas is completely dependant ability to express what we want in a clear, persuasive manner without coming across as false or sycophantic. Language may be our intellectual prison but it is one we build for ourselves and one we can improve, expand and develop anytime we please.

I found out to my horror, this was not a new idea I had stumbled upon, Stephen Pinker, Noam Chomsky and Wittgenstein have all mused on the idea that Language is father of all thought. I find this an increasingly convincing idea, for how can I know what to think before I can articulate it in my mind? How Can I discover the legitimacy of anything if I cannot discuss it with anyone? Without language ideas and concepts are eroded because there is no basis for a common understanding. A world without language would be a lonely one and are primary way of understanding truth is through consensus. Orwell once reflected that a totalitarian government would remove justice, freedom and liberty from our vocabularies therefore removing or at least eroding the concepts from our minds, it’s the basis of 1984s newspeak. He is suggesting here that language is the very basis for shaping our world view.

On a more personal level, many of my personal philosophies are derived from the very quotable great literary masters of language. Perhaps this is due to their capacity to condense language into the easily remembered poetic forms, and I simply defy you to forget Wilde's reflection

“Beauty is the greatest form of genius because it requires no explanation”

a reminder to us all of the very simple pleasure of enjoying beauty without having to justify it to yourself and still remains one of the best ways to garner enjoyment in this life. I like that someone with a genuine skill with language can be so influential in how we think.

I hope you'll agree language is our prison and our portrait, but one we make for ourselves- so lets make it as roomy and beautiful as possible. Why? I thought that required no explanation...

Sunday, 16 August 2009

Introducing Language- Why is Language important?

Dolansphere Volume 1

You might think language a peculiar topic to begin to write about- it certainly isn’t one that often penetrates our minds. Language is something so ordinary that we use everyday with everyone that it seems such bland topic for us to really give any thought to yet is so intrinsic to defining who we are.

You might think of me as a ‘half baked’ language professional of sorts, I’ve been a university debater for some seven years now; the university essentially pays me and my friends to develop the language skills of others, occasionally sending us travelling to pit our linguistic wits against other institutions all of which have a vested interested in showing off the best language showcase they can. They do this of course because it is universally recognised that good language skills allow us to create opportunities for ourselves, how can we get what we want unless we have the capacity to articulate our desires? Learning how, when and whom to do this with is valuable tool for everyone.

For those of us who aren’t debaters or actors, poets or novelists language doesn’t have to be a distant concept to us. Although you may not be a 'language professional' it still affects how we are perceived, how we think and eventually who we become as a result. Furthermore we are all appreciators of language whether it be use of allegory in a novel, using a metaphor to explain an example, or using a simple proverb to inform our thinking on a particular topic. Language in all its wonderful complexity has one element that really stands out: its capacity to unify ideas.

So it would seem apt to me to reflect briefly on the nature of language. I was meant to be giving a workshop today developing language skills. Alas that was not to be, and so I committed finger to keyboard and decided to not let my thoughts on language be condemned to the foggy ether of whence they came like so many of its promising brothers. This verbal amble will probably need a little bit of a pre-determined path to prevent us getting lost along the way so I will outline briefly what I wish to cover as I meander around the idea of language.

This article will be split into three areas. The first area will look at how language affects who we are, looking firstly at how it affects how people view us but more internally how exposure to language affects how we understand concepts. Secondly I wish to examine how language is a constantly evolving form of communication and how we might better sculpt a more positive, more effective means of relating to one another. Thirdly I want to briefly comment on trends in language and using my more colourful friends as examples of what I love and hate about language.

I hope you enjoy it.