Mark Conard reveals the metaphysical truths lurking under the rug in Tarantino’s cult classic.
Nihilism is a term which describes the loss of value and meaning in people’s lives. When Nietzsche proclaimed that “God is dead,” he meant that Judeo-Christianity has been lost as a guiding force in our lives, and there is nothing to replace it. Once we ceased really to believe in the myth at the heart of Judeo-Christian religion, which happened after the scientific revolution, Judeo-Christian morality lost its character as a binding code by which to live one’s life. Given the centrality of religion in our lives for thousands of years, once this moral code is lost and not replaced, we are faced with the abyss of nihilism: darkness closes in on us, and nothing is of any real value any more; there is no real meaning in our lives, and to conduct oneself and one’s life in one way is just as good as another, for there is no over-arching criterion by which to make such judgments.
Quentin Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction is an odd film. It’s a seemingly complete narrative which has been chopped into vignettes and rearranged like a puzzle. It’s a gangster film in which not a single policeman is to be found. It’s a montage of bizarre characters, from a black mobster with a mysterious bandage on the back of his bald head, to hillbilly sexual perverts; from henchmen dressed in black suits whose conversations concern what fast food items are called in Europe to a mob problem-solver who attends dinner parties early in the morning dressed in a full tuxedo. So, what is the film about? In general, we can say that the film is about American nihilism.
First, a quick run-down of the film:
PART I : Ringo and Honeybunny decide to rob a coffee shop. Jules and Vincent discuss what a Quarter Pounder with Cheese is called in France. They collect a briefcase which belongs to Marsellus Wallace from Brad, Marvin, et al. Before Jules kills Brad, he quotes a passage from the Old Testament. Marsellus has asked Vincent to take Mia (Mrs. Marsellus Wallace) out for the evening, and Vincent is nervous because he heard that Marsellus maimed Tony Rocky Horror in a fit of jealousy. Vincent buys heroin and gets high, then takes Mia out to Jack Rabbit Slim’s, a restaurant which is full of old American pop icons: Buddy Holly, Marilyn Monroe, Ed Sullivan, Elvis; they win a dance contest. Mia mistakes heroin for cocaine and overdoses; Vincent has to give her a cardiac needle full of adrenaline to save her.
PART II : Butch agrees to throw a fight for Marsellus Wallace. Butch as a child receives a watch from his father’s friend, an army comrade who saved the watch by hiding it in his rectum while he was in a Vietnamese prisoner of war camp. Butch double crosses Marsellus and doesn’t throw the fight; his boxing opponent is killed. Butch must return to his apartment, despite the fact that Marsellus’ men are looking for him, to get his watch; he kills Vincent. Butch tries to run over and kill Marsellus; they fight and end up in a store with Zed, Maynard and the Gimp, hillbilly sexual perverts. The perverts have subdued and bound Butch and Marsellus, and the perverts begin to rape Marsellus. Butch gets free and saves Marsellus by killing a hillbilly and wounding another with a Samurai sword.
PART III : Returning to the opening sequence, one of the kids Jules and Vincent are collecting from tries to shoot them with a large handgun; he fails, and Jules takes this as divine intervention. Jules and Vincent take Marvin and the briefcase; Marvin is shot accidentally, and the car becomes unusable. Jules and Vincent stop at Jimmy’s, and Marsellus sends Winston Wolf to mop up. Jules and Vincent end up in the coffee shop which Ringo and Honeybunny are robbing. Ringo wants to take the briefcase, but Jules won’t let him. Jules quotes the Biblical passage again to Ringo and tells him that he would quote this to someone before he killed that person. This time, however, Jules is not going to kill Ringo. Ringo and Honeybunny take the money from the coffee shop; Jules and Vincent retain the briefcase.
As I said, in general, the film is about American nihilism. More specifically, it is about the transformation of two characters: Jules (Samuel L. Jackson) and Butch (Bruce Willis). In the beginning of the film, Vincent (John Travolta) has retumed from a stay in Amsterdam, and the content of the conversation between Jules and Vincent concerns what Big Macs and Quarter Pounders are called in Europe, the Fonz on Happy Days, Arnold the Pig on Green Acres, the pop band Flock of Seagulls, Caine from Kung Fu, tv pilots, etc. These kinds of silly references seem upon first glance like a kind of comic relief, set against the violence that we’re witnessing on the screen. But this is no mere comic relief. The point is that this is the way these characters make sense out of their lives: transient, pop cultural symbols and icons. In another time and/or another place people would be connected by something they saw as larger than themselves, most particularly religion, which would provide the sense and meaning that their lives had and which would determine the value of things. This is missing in late 20th Century America, and is thus completely absent from Jules’ and Vincent’s lives. This is why the pop icons abound in the film: these are the reference points by which we understand ourselves and each other, empty and ephemeral as they are. This pop iconography comes to a real head when Vincent and Mia (Uma Thurmon) visit Jack Rabbit Slim’s, where the host is Ed Sullivan, the singer is Ricky Nelson, Buddy Holly is the waiter, and amongst the waitresses are Marilyn Monroe and Jane Mansfield.
The pop cultural symbols are set into stark relief against a certain passage from the Old Testament, Ezekiel 25:17 (actually, largely composed by Tarantino himself):
The path of the righteous man is beset on all sides by the iniquities of the selfish and the tyranny of evil men. Blessed is he, who in the name of charity and good will, shepherds the weak through the valley of darkness, for he is truly his brother’s keeper and the finder of lost children.
And I will strike down upon thee with great vengeance and furious anger those who attempt to poison and destroy my brothers. And you will know my name is The Lord when I lay my vengeance upon thee.
Jules quotes this just before he kills someone. The point is that the passage refers to a system of values and meaning by which one could lead one’s life and make moral decisions. However, that system is missing from Jules’ life and so the passage becomes meaningless to him. Late in the film he teils us: “I’ve been saying that shit for years, and if you heard it – that meant your ass. I never gave much thought to what it meant – I just thought it was some cold blooded shit to say to a motherfucker before I popped a cap in his ass.”
The absence of any kind of foundation for making value judgments, the lack of a larger meaning to their lives, creates a kind of vacuum in their existence which is filled with power. With no other criteria available to them by which to order their lives, they fall into a hierarchy of power, with Marsellus Wallace (Ving Rhames) at the top and themselves as henchmen below. Things come to have value in their lives if Marsellus Wallace declares it to be so. What he wants done, they will do. What he wishes becomes valuable for them and thus becomes the guide for their actions at the moment, until the task is completed by whatever means necessary. This is perfectly epitomized by the mysterious briefcase which Jules and Vincent are charged to return to Marsellus. It is mysterious because we never actually see what’s in it, but we do see people’s reactions to its obviously valuable contents. The question invariably arises: what’s in the briefcase? However, this is a trick question. The answer is really: it doesn’t matter. It makes no difference what’s in the briefcase. All that matters is that Marsellus wants it back, and thus the thing is endowed with worth. lf Jules and Vincent did have an objective framework of value and meaning in their lives, they would be able to determine whether what was in the briefcase was ultimately of value, and they would be able to determine what actions were justified in retrieving it. In the absence of any such framework, the briefease becomes of ultimate value in and of itself, precisely because Marsellus says so, and any and all actions required to procure it become justified (including, obviously, murder).
In addition to the pop iconography in the film, the discourse on language here concerns naming things. What is a Big Mac called? What is a Quarter Pounder called? What is a Whopper called? (Vincent doesn’t know; he didn’t go to Burger King.) When Ringo (Tim Roth) calls the waitress “garçon,” she informs him: “ ‘garçon’ means ‘boy.’ ” Also, when Butch’s girlfriend refers to his means of transportation as a “motorcycle,” he insists on correcting her: “It’s not a motorcycle, it’s a chopper.” And yet – and here’s the crux – when a lovely Hispanic cab driver asks Butch what his name means, he replies: “This is America, honey; our names don’t mean shit.” The point is clear: in the absence of any lasting, transcendent objective framework of value and meaning, our language no longer points to anything beyond itself. To call something good or evil renders it so, given that there is no higher authority or criteria by which one might judge actions. Jules quotes the Bible before his executions, but he may as well be quoting the Fonz or Buddy Holly.
I’ve been contrasting nihilism with religion as an objective framework or foundation of values and meaning, because that’s the comparison that Tarantino himself makes in the film. There are other objective systems of ethics, however. We might compare nihilism to Aristotelian ethics, for example. Aristotle says that things have natures or essences and that what is best for a thing is to ‘achieve’ or realize its essence. And in fact whatever helps a thing fulfill its nature in this way is by definition good. Ducks are aquatic birds. Having webbed feet helps the duck to achieve its essence as a swimmer. Therefore, it’s good for the duck to have webbed feet. Human beings likewise have a nature which consists in a set of capacities, our abilities to do things. There are many things that we can do: play the piano, build things, walk and talk, etc. But the essentially human ability is our capacity for reason, since it is reason which separates us from all other living things. The highest good, or best life, for a human being, then, consists in realizing one’s capacities, most particularly the capacity for reason. This notion of the highest good, along with Aristotle’s conception of the virtues, which are states of character which enable a person to achieve his essence, add up to an objective ethical framework according to which one can weigh and assess the value and meaning of things, as well as weigh and assess the means one might use to procure those things. To repeat, this sort of a framework, whether based on religion or reason, is completely absent from Jules’ and Vincent’s lives. In its absence, pop culture is the source of the symbols and reference points by which the two communicate and understand one another; and without reason or a religious moral code to determine the value and meaning that things have in their lives, Marsellus Wallace dictates the value of things. This lack of any kind of higher authority is depicted in the film by the conspicuous absence of any police presence whatever. This is a gangster film, in which people are shot dead, others deal and take drugs, drive recklessly, etc., there are car accidents, and yet there is not a single policeman to be found. Again, this symbolizes Marsellus’ absolute power and control in the absence of any higher, objective authority. There is one small exception to this, which I will note in a moment.
Pulp Fiction is in part about Jules’ transformation. When one of his targets shoots at him and Vincent from a short distance, empties the revolver, and misses completely, Jules interprets this as divine intervention. The importance of this is not that it really was divine intervention, but rather that the incident spurs Jules on to reflect on what is missing. It compels him to consider the Biblical passage that he’s been quoting for years without giving much thought to it. Jules begins to understand – however confusedly at first – that the passage he quotes refers to an objective franlework of value and meaning that is absent from his life. We see the dawning of this kind of understanding when he reports to Vincent that he’s quitting the mob, and then (most significantly) when he repeats the passage to Ringo in the coffee shop and then interprets it. He says:
I’ve been saying that shit for years, and if you heard it – that meant your ass. I never gave much thought to what it meant – I just thought it was some cold blooded shit to say to a motherfucker before I popped a cap in his ass. But I saw some shit this morning that made me think twice. See, now I’m thinking, maybe it means: you’re the Evil Man, and I’m the Righteous Man, and Mr 9mm here – he’s the Shepherd protecting my righteous ass in the valley of darkness. Or it could mean: you’re the Righteous Man, and I’m the Shepherd; and it’s the world that’s evil and selfish. Now, I’d like that, but that shit ain’t the truth. The truth is: you’re the Weak and I’m the Tyranny of Evil Men. But I’m trying Ringo, I’m trying real hard to be the Shepherd.
Jules offers three possible interpretations of the passage. The first interpretation accords with the way he has been living his life. Whatever he does (as commanded by Marsellus) is justified, and thus he is the Righteous Man, with his pistol protecting him, and whatever stands in his way is bad or evil by definition. The second interpretation is interesting and seems to go along with Jules’ pseudo-religious attitude following what he interprets as a divine-mystical experience (he tells Vincent, recall, that he wants to wander the earth like Caine in Kung Fu). In this interpretation, the world is evil and selfish, and apparently has made Jules do all the terrible things he’s done up to that point. He’s now become the Shepherd, and he’s going to protect Ringo (who after all is small potatoes in mob terms, robbing coffee shops, etc.) from this evil. But that’s not the truth, he realizes. The truth is that he himself is the evil that he’s been preaching about (unwittingly) for years. Ringo is weak, neither good enough to be righteous, nor strong enough to be as evil as Jules and Vincent. And Jules is trying to transform himself into the shepherd, to lead Ringo through the valley of darkness. Of course, interestingly, the darkness is of Jules’ own making, such that the struggle to be the shepherd is Jules’ struggle with himself not to revert to evil. In this struggle, he buys Ringo’s life. Ringo has collected the wallets of the customers in the coffee shop, including Jules’, and Jules allows him to take fifteen hundred dollars out of it. Jules is paying Ringo the fifteen hundred dollars to take the money from the coffee shop and simply leave, so that he (Jules) won’t have to kill him. Note that no such transformation has taken place for Vincent, who exclaims: “Jules, you give that fucking nimrod fifteen hundred dollars, and I’ll shoot him on general principle.” The principle is of course whatever means are necessary to achieve my end are justified, the end (again) most often determined by Marsellus Wallace. This attitude of Vincent’s is c1early depicted in his reaction to Mia’s overdose. He desperately tries to save her, not because she is a fellow human being of intrinsic worth, but because she is Marsellus’ wife, and he (Vincent) will be in real trouble if she dies. Mia has value because Marsellus has made it so, not because of any intrinsic or objective features or characteristics she may possess.
The other transformation in the film is that of Butch. There is a conspicuous progression in the meaning and relevance of the violence in the story. In the beginning, we see killings that are completely gratuitous: Brad and his cohorts, and particularly Marvin, who is shot in the face simply because the car went over a bump and the gun went off. There is also the maiming of Tony Rocky Horror, the reason for which is hidden from all, save Marsellus. Again, this is evidence that it is Marsellus himself who provides the meaning and justification for things, and his reasons – like God’s – are hidden from us. (This may in fact be what the bandage on his head represents: the fact that Marsellus’ motives and reasons are hidden to us. Bandages not only help to heal, they also hide or disguise what we don’t want others to see.) The meaninglessness of the violence is also epitomized in the boxing match. Butch kills his opponent. When Esmarelda Villa Lobos (the cab driver) informs him of this, his reaction is one of complete indifference. He shrugs it off. Further, when Butch gets into his jam for having double-crossed Marsellus, he initially decides that the way that he is going to get out of it is to become like his enemy, that is, to become ruthless. Consequently, he shoots and kills Vincent, and then he tries to kill Marsellus by running him over with a car.
The situation becomes interesting when Butch and Marsellus, initially willing to kill one another without a second’s thought, find themselves in the same unpleasant situation: held hostage by a couple of hillbillies who are about to beat and rape them. I noted earlier the conspicuous absence of policemen in the film. The interesting quasi-exception to this is the pervert, Zed. Marsellus is taken captive, bound and gagged. When Zed shows up he is dressed in a security guard’s uniform, giving him the appearance of an authority figure. He is only a security guard, and not areal policeman, however, and this is our clue to the arbitrariness of authority. In the nihilistic context in which these characters exist, in the absence of an objective framework of value to determine right, justice and goodness, Marsellus Wallace is the legislator of values, the ultimate authority. In this situation, however, his authority has been usurped. Zed holds the shotgun now, and he takes his usurpation to the extreme by raping Marsellus.
Just as Jules’ transformation had a defining moment, namely, when he is fired upon and missed, so too Butch’s transformation has a defining moment. This is when he is about to escape, having overpowered the Gimp, but returns to save Marsellus. As I said, initially the violence is gratuitous and without meaning. However, when Butch returns to the cellar to aid Marsellus, the violence for the first time has a justification: as an act of honour and friendship, he is saving Marsellus, once his enemy, from men worse than they are. Note that Butch gets out of his jam not by becoming like his enemy, i.e., ruthless, but in fact by saving his enemy.
Butch’s transformation is represented by his choice of weapons in the store: a hammer, a baseball bat, a chainsaw, and a Samurai sword. He overlooks the first three items and chooses the fourth. Why? The sword c1early stands out in the list. First, it’s meant to be a weapon, while the others are not, and I’ll discuss that in a moment. But it also stands out because the first three items (two of them particularly) are symbols of Americana. They represent the nihilism that Butch is leaving behind, whereas the Samurai sword represents a particular culture in which there is (or was) in place a very rigid moral framework, the kind of objective foundation that I’ve been saying is missing from these characters’ lives. The sword represents for Butch what the Biblical passage does for Jules: a glimpse beyond transient pop culture, a glimpse beyond the yawning abyss of nihilism to a way of life, a manner of thinking, in which there are objective moral criteria, there is meaning and value, and in which language does transcend itself.
In contrast to the (foreign) Samurai sword, the gold watch is a kind of heirloom that’s passed down in (American) families. It represents a kind of tradition of honour and manhood. But let’s think about how the watch gets passed down in this case. Butch’s great grandfather buys it in Knoxville before he goes off to fight in World War I. Having survived the war, he passes it on to his son. Butch’s grandfather then leaves it to his own son before he goes into battle during World War II and is killed. Butch’s father, interned in a Vietnamese prisoner of war camp, hides the watch in his rectum, and before he dies – significantly – from dysentery, he gives it to his army comrade (Christopher Walken) who then hides it in his own rectum. After returning from the war, the comrade finds Butch as a boy and presents him with the watch. The way in which Butch receives the watch is of course highly significant. His father hides it in his rectum. The watch is a piece of shit; or, in other words, it is an empty symbol. Why empty? For the same reason that the Biblical passage was meaningless: it is a symbol with no referent. That to which it would refer is missing.
The sword is also significant because it, unlike the gold watch (an heirloom sent to Butch by a long-absent father, whom he little remembers), connects Butch to the masculine line in his family. The men in his family were warriors, soldiers in the various wars. Choosing the sword transforms Butch from a pugilist, someone disconnected who steps into the ring alone, into a soldier, a warrior, one who is connected to a history and a tradition, and whose actions are guided by a strict code of conduct in which honour and courage are the most important of values.
Finally, note how Butch is always returning. He seems doomed to return, perhaps to repeat things, until he gets it right. He must return to his apartment to get his watch. This return is associated with his decision to become his enemy. There’s his return to the cellar to save Marsellus, when he transcends his situation and begins to grasp something beyond the abyss. There’s also his return to Knoxville. Recall that the watch was originally purchased by his great-grandfather in Knoxville, and it is to Knoxville that Butch has planned to escape after he doesn’t throw the fight. After he chooses the sword and saves Marsellus, Butch can rightfully return to Knoxville, now connected to his paternal line, now rightfully a member of the warrior class.
© Mark T. Conard 1997
Mark Conard received his PhD in Philosophy from Temple University in Philadelphia and now teaches at West Chester University in Pennsylvania.
• I wish to thank Lou Ascione and Aeon Skoble, who helped me clarify and refine my ideas about the film in discussions we’ve had. Thanks also go to the members of the West Chester University Philosophy Club for their feedback and input when I presented my ideas to them in a lecture format.
• All the quotations in the article are directly from Quentin Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction.
Rick Lewis on libraries, philosophical classics, unexpected discoveries and the challenges of a digital age.
I remember our school library mostly as a place to keep warm and shelter from the rain and playground bullies. It did, however, contain an eclectic selection of books of varying vintages, and idly browsing them gave me my first taste of what it is like to make unexpected discoveries in literature. Once I found a translation of The Clouds, by Aristophanes. That was the satirical play that Socrates blamed, at his trial in 399 BC, for having influenced public opinion against him. But back then I had barely heard of Socrates so I found Aristophanes’ witty send-up of the philosopher and his students a little difficult to follow. A couple of shelves further up, one wet Tuesday, I found an astronomy textbook from the late 19th century, that included a section explaining why space travel would always be impossible (because in space there is no air to push against). And one day I discovered a book by Albert Einstein. It wasn’t his excellent popular guide to his own Theory of Relativity. Called Out of My Later Years, it was a collection of essays on all sorts of topics in morality, religion, culture and international politics. It may be the nearest that Einstein came to writing an actual philosophy book, unless you count General Relativity itself as being philosophy. (And why not? Isn’t it a dazzling triumph of metaphysics, developed from basic underlying axioms with ruthless clarity, despite the counterintuitive conclusions, until it finally gives us a completely new understanding of the universe?)
A library is a place where you expect the unexpected and a single passing reference can send you off to another book on another shelf, and each book might contain dross or might contain a whole universe of thought. But I had forgotten that book of Einstein’s essays until recently I accidentally made contact with its publishers, and discovered that the reason they publish this and six other books by Albert Einstein is rather interesting. So of course I felt I should share it.
Einstein leaving a dinner party in Princeton, New Jersey, in 1951
It seems that after he emigrated to the United States in 1933 Einstein kept a particular affinity for German language and culture. In New York he made contact with other German-speaking refugees and immigrants, among them a Romanian-born philosopher called Dr Dagobert D. Runes. Like Einstein, Runes was a humanist, a civil rights activist and an admirer of Baruch Spinoza. The two become close friends. Runes knew almost everyone in émigré circles, and hit on the idea of publishing books by the brilliant European exiles he knew. In 1941 he launched The Philosophical Library to do just that. Apart from Out of My Later Years (1950), the seven books by Einstein that he published included several collections of letters, one of which is a book of Einstein’s correspondence with his translator discussing how best to translate various passages of Einstein’s work. The value of this to anyone trying to clarify Einstein’s meaning on different points is obvious. Then when Runes himself edited a Spinoza Dictionary, Einstein wrote the foreword.
The Philosophical Library continues today, still based in New York City but now under the direction of Dagobert Runes’ daughter Regeen, who remembers playing ‘hide-and-go-seek’ with Einstein when she was a small child. Over the seventy years of its existence the company has published more than 2,000 titles, mainly on philosophy, psychology, history and religion. Like the library at my old school, its catalogue is charmingly eclectic, but includes works by 22 Nobel Prize winners. Apart from Einstein’s books its best-known publications include Tears and Laughter by Kahlil Gibran, Classical Mathematics by Max Planck, the English edition of Jean-Paul Sartre’s Being and Nothingness, and works by Karl Barth, Martin Buber, Bergson, Dewey, Simone de Beauvoir, Jaspers, Royce and many others.
As technological change accelerates and independent publishing companies either fold or merge into giant corporations that bestride the oceans, the survival of small-scale philosophy publishing depends on discovering models which work both financially and in terms of meeting the needs of readers. The Philosophical Library uses two such models. Firstly, it publishes classics from its vast back-catalogue as e-books, as this avoids much of the financial risk involved in printing and distribution. Secondly, it offers a ‘print-on-demand’ service, whereby it arranges the printing of a single copy of a book once it has received an order.
The Philosophical Library manages an astonishing legacy of 20th century classics. By contrast, Project Gutenberg takes a completely different approach for older books which have passed out of copyright in the United States, which happens 70 years after the death of the author. The books are scanned and proof-read by an army of volunteers and around 45,000 are now available for free download, though only about 100 of those are philosophy books. The project’s founder, Michael S. Hart, passed away in 2011 but his legacy marches on. Finally I should mention another great project for public domain works: LibriVox. This is a website containing free audiobooks, recorded by volunteers. Its collection includes around 300 philosophy titles and it is a great resource both for visually impaired people and anyone else who likes to listen to books.
What follows is an extract from a forthcoming book called AQA AS Philosophy by Gerald Jones, Dan Cardinal & Jeremy Hayward – an engaging, student-friendly textbook designed to help UK high school students embrace and enjoy philosophy at AS level. It seemed such a useful guide that we decided to print it here as well.
Introductory textbooks like this try to summarise and clarify some incredibly complex and significant ideas. But we cannot capture the depth and richness of the original texts and reading these gives you a chance to get your intellectual teeth into the ideas of Western philosophers in their own words.
As if you needed to be told, philosophy is hard. […] It is hard because philosophical ideas and arguments themselves are so complex, so subtle and nuanced, and they rely on a web of understanding that reaches back more than two thousand years, past Hume and past Descartes, past Aquinas and Anselm all the way to Plato, Aristotle and Socrates. It is also hard because philosophers are not always the clearest of writers:
Lord Macaulay once recorded in his diary a memorable attempt – his first and apparently his last – to read Kant’s Critique: “I received today a translation of Kant… I tried to read it, just as if it had been written in Sanskrit”.
We can excuse the fact that many of the classics of philosophy were written before the Twentieth Century, when the fashion was for longer sentences, which can be hard to follow. Even if we set aside their long-winded style, such works aren’t always clear in their explanations, they often don’t refer to their source-material and sometimes introduce technical jargon to try to express their new ideas.
But there things you can do to help overcome some of the difficulties of reading them. First, don’t try to work it all out by yourself. Philosophy is a discursive subject; in other words it is about engaging with the thoughts and opinions and arguments of others, about debating arguments and clarifying concepts with others, and experimenting with these ideas to see where this takes you. So we recommend, when you read and analyse these texts that you compare your analysis with other people in your class and your teacher, as well as with the summary that we ourselves have made of the texts. Secondly, we have also developed an interpretative framework, some philosophical ‘lenses’, which can help clarify what’s being said, and which you can use to see beneath the surface of the text and start to understand what these philosophers are trying to say.
Below are five lenses which will help you make sense of the original philosophical texts. Take each lens in turn, and apply it to the text, then move onto the next one. If you use all five lenses, and end up with a short, structured summary of what you think the main ideas are then you are well on your way to understanding the extract.
Context: When was this extract written, who wrote it, and why did they write it?
• Talk to your teacher to find out more about the book that this extract is from.
• Go online to get a sense of the biography and stories behind the person who wrote it.
• Go online and search for the book at the Internet Encyclopaedia of Philosophy (IEP) to get a summary of its overall argument.
• Find out what is happening in the book immediately before and after the extract.
Vocabulary: What words appear to be used in a technical way?
• Underline and make a note of those words that seem difficult to understand.
• Check in the glossary or index of this book to see if they’re explained in this book.
• Talk to your teacher or classmates about the meaning of these words.
• Look up these words in a dictionary of philosophy (remember ordinary dictionaries may only record the ordinary meanings of these words, not the philosophical meanings).
Concepts: What are the recurring ideas in this extract?
• Once you’ve sorted out the vocabulary, what ideas are being examined in this extract?
• Check to see if you’ve encountered these ideas before (again look in the glossary or index).
• Write down a sentence summarising each idea in your own words.
• Talk to your classmates about how the ideas connect with one another in the extract.
Argument: What indicators are there that this extract contains an argument?
• Find signposts that a conclusion is being drawn (therefore, thus, and so, it follows, hence)
• Look for key words indicating whether reasons are being given (because, following, from what’s been said)
• Identify the premises, evidence and assumptions on which the argument is being built
• Check for other signs of argument (however, but, if… then)
• Refer back to the bullet points at the end of the ‘Arguments for the Existence of God’ section for further questions you could ask, to help tease out the argument.
• If the extract is not an argument, then what is it: an explanation, or a criticism, or a conceptual analysis, or something else?
Structure: How could you break the extract down into separate, numbered, ‘chunks’?
• Try numbering in the margins the main points that are being made.
• Use the signposts that you’ve identified to break down the extract into chunks
• Try drawing the ideas on a page, possibly as a ‘mind-map’.
• Write these chunks in your own words.
• Now try rewriting the paragraph as if you were a philosopher (which you are!) by writing down the chunks, in your own words, which flow in order 1, 2, 3, etc.
Paperback Aug 2014 9781471835353 £24.99. Visit hoddereducation.co.uk/Philosophy to find out more and enter the code WK0002844 at the checkout to claim an exclusive 20% discount for Philosophy Now readers.
Mary Midgley says philosophy is about understanding the context and about understanding how we came to be where we are.
I started to wonder about this topic some time back when rumours reached me that, in some universities, no philosophy was being taught except what had been published in the last twenty years. These rumours were hard to check and clearly practice is very variable. It seems cars have been seen in the States with bumper-stickers bearing the message, ‘Just Say No To History of Philosophy’. And Gilbert Harman at Princeton had a notice to that effect outside his office door. It also emerges that the term ‘History of Philosophy’ has changed its meaning. It is now being used to describe all study of older writers, not just study with a historical angle. So Harman’s idea is that you shouldn’t read them at all and should certainly not take them seriously. At Cambridge, a student recently told a friend of mine that he had spent his whole undergraduate career without reading a word of Aristotle, Descartes or Kant. At this, (said my informant) “my heart sank.”
Well, so does mine. But we need to ask just why our hearts sink, and we should ask too what the people who make these changes are aiming at? Wondering about this, I remembered some things that happened in the Thatcher years, when cuts first began to threaten universities. Administrators, sternly told to economize, saw that the quickest way to do it was simply to close small departments. This would also enable them to harmonize with the mystique of ‘centres of excellence’ which was then in fashion. These centres were supposed to be big schools in which the study of a given subject would be so well covered that no other departments elsewhere would be needed at all. Thus, ideally, all the physics could be done at Manchester, all the economics at LSE, and all the philosophy (if any was still needed) at Oxford.
Since philosophy departments were usually small, universities did indeed start to close them. Eight of them in Britain went in the end. As one after another vanished, it struck me that nobody was saying that this ought not to happen. Nobody was suggesting that the subject was important in itself – that universities needed to teach it, that, if they stopped doing so they would become, in some sense, hardly universities at all. Fired by this thought I wrote to a number of the eminent philosophers of the time saying, in effect, “Do something! Write to The Times (which was what one did in those days). Let people know that this is important.’’
Nothing much came of this, but one of the replies that came back still strikes me as significant. I didn’t keep it because it made me so cross, but I remember perfectly well what it said. It came from that very distinguished Oxford philosopher Michael Dummett, and he told me flatly that it was wrong in principle to try to preserve all these provincial academic departments. Philosophy, he said, was a serious and highly technical subject which should only be studied at its own proper level. Any less professional approaches to it were useless and might even do harm. And what Dummett meant by the proper level is clear from a well-known passage in his writings where he said that “the proper object of philosophy” had only been finally established with the rise of “the modern logical and analytical style of philosophizing.” This object, he said, was… “the analysis of the structure of thought, [for which] the only proper method is the analysis of language.” And, not surprisingly, he thought this business of linguistic analysis had now become a highly technical pursuit – something increasingly like nuclear physics – which could only be carried on by people specially trained in it
The question Dummett raised is about the aim – the point, the proper object of philosophy. What are we actually trying to do? And it strikes me at once that, when Socrates talked about the great dangers that threaten human life, he didn’t actually mention the danger of unexamined thought or unexamined language. What Socrates warned us against was an unexamined life. And it is surely the attempt to examine life as a whole, to make sense of it, to locate its central confusions and resolve its big conflicts, that has been the prime business of traditional philosophy. Only quite lately has a quite different pattern of philosophizing caught on – a pattern that is modelled closely on the physical sciences and is reverently called Research. In those sciences, progress can be seen as consisting in accumulating a string of facts, in moving on from one empirical discovery to another. This seems often to be imagined as a mining operation, a steady process of digging through the intervening strata to reach the truth – the precious metal that lies hidden far beneath. In this process, the obstacles that have been removed are, of course, only of passing concern. Once they have been conquered they become irrelevant to the enquiry. That is why, to a physicist, past physical discoveries often have only a mild historical interest. His business is always with the next discovery. This accounts for his exclusive concentration on the latest journals, and also for the very revealing metaphor of the ‘cutting edge’ of research.
Now of course this sort of progress does happen and it can go on usefully for a long time. But, even in physical science, it is never the whole story. It can only work so long as there is a given linear pattern, a preset journey which will go reliably from A to B and so on to the end of the alphabet in the expected direction. Even in the sciences, that pattern isn’t always there. Often the next important discovery is going to crop up somewhere quite different – right off to the side of the expected route. Some awkward character such as Copernicus or Einstein or Faraday or Darwin mentions a new thought which calls for a quite new direction, a new way of envisaging the subject. Similarly, Peter Higgs has explained that the work by which he discovered his famous Boson was right off his official line of research, and if it had been noticed that he was doing it he might have been in for trouble. The reason why these people can make their unexpected forays is that they themselves have been looking at things differently. They have found new standpoints from which entirely unexpected things can be seen.
How is this possible? Historians sometimes treat these achievements either as something inevitable or as a kind of miracle due to individual genius. (This is why some misguided people demand a further dissection of Einstein’s brain, as if that would explain his discoveries.) But what is really happening is something both more obvious and more interesting. It is that these original thinkers have stood back from their local problem. They have placed it in its wider context and thought about how it connects with the surrounding scenery. They have been using telescopes rather than microscopes, so they can deal with a larger subject-matter. In short, they have been philosophizing.
This business of looking at life as a whole – finding wider contexts to give sense to our immediate problems – is philosophy’s distinctive activity. It is what makes it a genuinely important occupation, in fact an occupation that matters to all of us. Philosophy is not just one speciality among others. It’s a kind of conceptual geography which looks at the relation between the subject-matters of various ways of thinking and tries to map it. The reason why some philosophers become well-known is not that they have discovered new facts but that they have shifted the whole standpoint of thought. Philosophers have repeatedly brought absurdities to the attention of their age by displaying current customs against a new background and pointing out the strange assumptions that are distorting them. After this, new ways of thinking become possible.
Portrait of Jean-Jacques Rousseau by Édouard Lacretelle
For instance, when Rousseau started his book on the Social Contract by saying, “Man is born free and everywhere he is in chains”, he was lighting up some crashing discrepancies between theory and practice which had to be investigated if current problems were ever to be properly dealt with. Similarly, when this same Rousseau pointed out the strangely unnatural way in which babies were being reared – babies who were removed from their mothers, bandaged onto boards and handed over to carers who might well not care much about them – people started to notice anomalies in their whole idea of what nature is, and how it relates to our species. These anomalies had never struck them before. More immediately, they also started for the first time to pay some serious attention to small children, as they have gone on doing ever since.
It is interesting that our forefathers apparently could not see through these previous muddled ways of thinking until someone like Rousseau pointed them out. The assumptions that had produced these earlier customs simply persisted till some shock was delivered – till they were plainly stated in a form that could be grasped and made more workable. This shows how deeply our thought depends on a mass of unstated assumptions, very much in the way that our physical life rests on the hidden shifting masses of the earth beneath us. We don’t notice these assumptions till things start to go wrong – until, so to speak, the smell coming up from below is so bad that we are forced to take up the floor-boards and do something about it. This is why I have often suggested that philosophy is best understood as a form of plumbing. It’s the way in which we service the deep infrastructure of our life – the patterns in life that are taken for granted because they have never been noticed. This is something both deeper and more outward-looking than just examining the structure of our current thought and language, which seems to be what Dummett was calling for.
Another useful piece of plumbing was done in the late seventeenth century, when John Locke worked out the concept of Tolerance. During most of that century people throughout Europe had assumed that they must not tolerate disagreement. If they couldn’t agree on a single truth about religion, they must just go on fighting till they did, and meanwhile individual heretics must all be converted or punished. The idea that different opinions could perfectly well be allowed to exist side by side was seen as a culpable weakness, leading to anarchy. What eventually struck Locke, and what he managed to express in his writings, was that this system of competing dogmas can’t work because the truth is simply too complex. Nobody ever has the whole truth, and people who grasp different bits of it can, in fact, perfectly well live peacefully together. Indeed, that may be the best way of putting the various partial truths together in the end.
This ‘discovery’ was not, of course, (as scientific discoveries sometimes are) simply a matter of finding a brand-new ready-made fact, such as that the Earth goes round the Sun. It was much more like inventing a new musical instrument and working out how to play it. Locke and the people who worked with him had to learn how to tolerate what had previously seemed intolerable, and how to do business with people they had previously thought were outside the pale. They had to learn, too, how to look at the outer borders of this toleration and decide what must still be regarded as intolerable.
Letter Concerning Toleration
Original title page of John Locke’s Letter Concerning Toleration (1689)
In fact, toleration, like all big philosophical ideas, is a very complex instrument, as hard to play as the cello or bassoon, which is why we still have so much difficulty learning how to handle it properly and why we still need to go on thinking out the ideas behind it. And the other ideals round which we try to structure our lives, ideals such as equality, freedom, compassion, fraternity or sisterhood, justice – are all as complicated as they are attractive. Yet they all have to be thought out and used together by the whole orchestra,
These ideals were, of course, central to the message of the Enlightenment, a message which we now assume is the obvious framework for any decent human life. But the Enlightenment story itself wasn’t always obvious. It didn’t drop ready-made out of a machine called History. It had to be invented, devised with a great deal of hard, grinding work by philosophers like Locke and Rousseau and it has had to be thought through with increasing labour up to the present day. In every age, more work of this kind is needed because the truth about the world is endlessly complicated.
• • •
Are we getting any clearer now about what is the real aim of philosophical enquiry? One thing that is already clear surely is that it can’t be at all like the aim of any physical science. Physical sciences spiral inward and down onto particular bits of the truth, which sometimes are ready-made facts, while philosophy ranges indefinitely outward looking for new connections – new ways of thinking and living. So it is quite proper for nuclear physicists to know more and more about less and less. But philosophers are supposed to do almost the opposite – to find links that will restructure the whole scope of our experience and allow us to live differently. Their use is to extend our range. They can bring a landscape in sight that nobody even knew existed.
Of course the contrast between these two forms of thought is not complete because (as we have seen) physical scientists do sometimes have to widen their views in order to shift their focus, and philosophers too must sometimes deal with detailed technical questions. But in their general balance these two approaches really are opposed – not because they are at war, but because they serve quite different needs. Nuclear physicists are normally addressing a limited audience of specialists – people who already share much of their knowledge and want to know more about a particular aspect of it. But the philosophers’ business is something that concerns everybody. Philosophy aims to bring together those aspects of life that have not yet been properly connected so as to make a more coherent, more workable world-picture. And that coherent world-picture is not a private luxury. It’s something absolutely essential for human life,
John Locke (1632-1704)
World-pictures – perspectives, imaginative visions of how the whole world is – are the necessary background of all our lives. They are often much more important to us than our factual knowledge, as may be seen in the case of climate sceptics whose traditional views remain unchanged whatever new evidence appears that seems to disprove them. We all have these background pictures and we usually get them half-consciously from the people around us. We often don’t ask where they came from. But, if we do ask, we shall probably find that they have been shaped by earlier philosophers who have influenced our tradition. For us, at present, that often means the prophets of the Enlightenment, people like Locke, Rousseau, Descartes, Hobbes, Hume, Mill, Marx and Nietzsche. This earlier philosophy does not get obsolete. Far from that, it’s still vigorously alive. It has shaped the way we think. It has deep roots in the soil of our lives and it goes on developing there in its own characteristic way until somebody comes along and rethinks it. That is why people who refuse to think philosophically so often end up trapped in bits of earlier philosophy that they have unconsciously taken on from their predecessors.
The alternative to being enslaved by past thought in this way is to attend directly to what these earlier philosophers actually said and to see how it relates to our life today. If we do this, we shall often find that these people’s message was far more subtle than the crude versions of it that are still working in the tradition. In fact, it is still throwing out shoots that can help us today. The reason why these philosophers caught the attention of their times was (as I have said) not just that they had solved particular problems but that they had lit up life from unexpected angles. They suggested, not just new thoughts but new concepts, distinctive approaches, whole new ways of thinking. Of course none of these new approaches solves all problems, but each of them gives us a fresh stance, fresh tools for the endless balancing act by which we try to understand our confusing world We can see how influential these suggestions still are, not just because people today often still quote from (say) Marx or Nietzsche or Plato or Buddha for their illustrations, but because current thinking as a whole is still often visibly shaped by these people; coloured through in a way that the people using it now are no longer aware of.
So, how can it be plausible to think that they are out of date and we can now forget about them? How could it not be necessary for us to attend to these still influential factors in our lives? The point is not just that – as I’ve suggested – we need to check their details to protect ourselves against distorted versions of their message that are still working in our tradition. We need also to attend to these mighty trees themselves for their own sake. We need to understand them because they have shaped the whole way of life that we still live by. They are still active features of our present life, parts of the tangled forest through which we are still travelling. In fact, the reason why we need to learn about the history of philosophy is just the same as the reason why we need to learn about the rest our history; namely that, without grasping the past, we can’t hope to understand the present.
On the political scene this is obvious. We know that, if we haven’t grasped the past history of the ravenous way in which Western nations competed to gobble up other countries during the nineteenth century, we can’t hope to understand why so many people in those gobbled countries still feel so bitterly resentful towards ourselves. Historical epochs don’t just succeed one another randomly like successive spinnings of a roulette wheel. They are phases in a continuum, organically connected, so that you often really cannot understand where you are now without grasping how you got there.
And if this background is necessary for understanding politics it is still more necessary for our moral and intellectual life. Without it, we can’t really make sense of current conflicts. In particular, any student who is now expected to study the philosophy of the last twenty years without being told about the long sweep of history that produced it is surely doomed to frustration. And this student has all the more right to resent that frustration because (as we have seen) it affects not just his or her knowledge but their whole world-view, their imaginative understanding of life. We need to grasp the story of our past intellectual evolution so as to understand where we are today, just as badly as we need to know about our past biological evolution.
Philosophy, in fact, is not just one specialized subject like another, something which you need not take up unless you mean to lecture on it. Instead it is something we all do all the time, a continuous, background activity which is likely to go badly if we don’t attend to it. In this way it is perhaps more like driving a car or using money than it is like nuclear physics. And perhaps it is more like music than it is like any of these other occupations. Anyway, like good music, good philosophy does not easily get out of date.
© Dr Mary Midgley 2014
Mary Midgley lectured at the University of Newcastle-upon-Tyne until 1980. Her best known books include Beast and Man; Wickedness; The Ethical Primate; Science and Poetry and a memoir, The Owl of Minerva. She was given Philosophy Now’s 2011 Award for Contributions in the Fight Against Stupidity.