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A Life Philosophic

“Facts alone are wanted in life”

Most of my working life is spent in a state of dishevelled half-dress writing or reading in my “garden office”, or as I prefer to call it, The Shed. Perhaps there are some writers based in the capital who hop from book launch to literary soirée in an intellectual social whirl, but here in Bristol my attempted bon mots are directed mostly at the cat and my better half.

Every now and again, however, something comes along that offers a brief sojourn in a more glamorous world. Such was the invitation to represent University College London, where I obtained my PhD, on the seasonal alumni series of University Challenge.

At first I was conflicted. On the one hand, here was a once in a lifetime opportunity to appear on a national institution. Something to tell the grand-niblings, in the absence of grandchildren. On the other was the inconvenient truth that I am very poor at factual recall. By revealing my ignorance of basic facts about philosophers’ lives and works, I could face humiliation. I don’t even think I have as wide a vocabulary as a doctor of philosophy would be expected to have. Don’t be fooled by my earlier use of “nibling”, a gender-neutral word for nephew or niece: I had to look it up.

Two things settled it for me. First and foremost, the risks of real humiliation were very small. Most people recognise that the pressure of being on the spot can make people forget the simplest of things and in any case, I have no fear of looking stupid in front of strangers, even millions of them. Unless I did something really idiotic, like bursting out crying or calling Jeremy Paxman “such a nasty man”, people would forget any mistakes I made faster than any redness had vanished from my face.

The second reason was that my all-things-considered judgement is that a gift for factual recall is not the same thing as intelligence. I was reminded of the opening lines of Dickens’s Hard Times, uttered by the onomatopoeic Mr Gradgrind:

“Now, what I want is, Facts. Teach these boys and girls nothing but Facts. Facts alone are wanted in life. Plant nothing else, and root out everything else. You can only form the minds of reasoning animals upon Facts: nothing else will ever be of any service to them.”

Dickens’s satire was so successful that to this day most people associate “utilitarianism” with this kind of narrow functionalism rather than the moral philosophy of Bentham and Mill. If we don’t think that learning boils down to fact memorisation then we should not be embarrassed when others know more facts than ourselves. Indeed, we might even look down on such walking encyclopaedias, seeing them as dumb receptacles of information rather than intelligent, rounded, human-beings. Were Paxman to goad me about my failure to identify the author of a seminal philosophical tome, I would come back with “Philosophy is skilful reasoning, Jeremy, not verbatim regurgitation.”

And yet I can’t help envying those whose minds hold more information than me, facts they can access with apparent ease. I won’t reveal the result of the contest but I was especially impressed by the performance of my team mate Jeremy Bowen.

Gradgrind was wrong that “Facts alone are wanted in life” but all other things being equal, the more facts you know, the better. Since I agree with David Hume that only reasoning of matters of fact tells us anything about the real world, it can only be a good thing to know as many matters of fact as possible.

Good philosophy, when it concerns real world issues, requires both reasoning skills and sound, wide knowledge about how things are. So lacking a good memory for facts may not make me a bad philosopher, but, alas, it does make good philosophising more difficult.

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