The end of term is only a month off, so, by now, resistances have crumbled and the flattening TL-lights in the grey, soulless lecture room are starting to exert their deadening effects.
Lucky enough for the others, their lives would soon be cheered up. For the course ‘(How) can literature convey philosophy?’, I was doing a presentation on Hemmingway’s A Moveable Feast. Does it convey any philosophy that couldn’t have been conveyed in a non-artistic way?
The book is wonderful and full of passages like
“By then I knew that everything good and bad left an emptiness when it stopped.But if it was bad, the emptiness filled up by itself. If it was good, you could only fill it by finding something better.”
Philosophy is an attempt at understanding. To that end, it strives for clarity and seeks to reduce ambiguity. One way of trying to achieve that is to apply scrutiny to things people say or write.
Close consideration of what Hemmingway writes here, reveals that it’s false. It implies that either (1) there is an unfilled emptiness in me all the time, or (2) the very thing I’m doing now, such as writing this, is “better” than the very best thing that has ever happened in my life.
That is not true.
This is a common phenomenon: when we take such lines seriously, it often turns out that they are nonsensical or inaccurate. These grand claims maysound inspiring, but frequently they are either unhelpfully vague or unhelpfully untrue or unhelpfully both.
So I finished my talk: “There is no philosophical insight or information that can be exclusively conveyed by artistic means.”
And then I went on.
“At least, not in the sense that we’d consider professional philosophy.”
Interestingly, if I’d quote Hemmingway’s line to a non-philosopher, he or she would undoubtedly say that I was “being philosophical”. I’m sure about that.
That gets at something, I believe.
On the one side, there’s professional philosophy. On the other side, there’s what we might call ‘bar philosophy’.
This time I really finished the presentation. I bowed. No one clapped.
Class was over, and as philosophers do I walked home with my head in the clouds thinking about this. It was already dark so this was a risky undertaking but I’m pleased to report that I managed to survive.
There’s a sense in which many things people say are “kinda deep”, but not all statements that sound “kinda deep” would qualify even as bar philosophy. For that, they do need to have substance.
Consider this Hemmingway line:
“They say the seeds of what we will do are in all of us, but it always seemed to me that in those who make jokes in life the seeds are covered with better soiland with a higher grade of manure.”
It definitely conveys something substantial that we can disagree about— on the connection between a capacity for humor and living well— that many would label “philosophical”. It’s bar philosophy.
Or this one:
“When spring came, even the false spring, there were no problems except where to be happiest. The only thing that could spoil a day was people and if you could keep from making engagements, each day had no limits. People were always the limiters of happiness except for the very few that were as good as spring itself.”
Superb bar philosophy.
Interesting question: what is bar philosophy?
Like to read?
Join my Thinking Together newsletter for a free weekly dose of similarly high-quality mind-expanding ideas.