He began to search among the infinite series of impressions which time had laid down, leaf upon leaf, fold upon fold softly, incessantly upon his brain; among scents, sounds; voices, harsh, hollow, sweet; and lights passing, and brooms tapping; and the wash and hush of the sea, how a man had marched up and down and stopped dead, upright, over them.--from Virginia Woolf's To the Lighthouse.
The number of books in the world is infinite, and one is forced to glimpse and nod and move on after a moment of talk, a flash of understanding, as, in the street outside, one catches a word in passing and from a chance phrase fabricates a lifetime.— from Virginia Woolf (1930) Street Haunting: A London Adventure
I assume most of my regular readers will have registered the allusion to Hume in the title of D&I. In doing so I imitate Virginia Woolf’s example, whose To the Lighthouse is, in part, an extended meditation not just on the connections and gaps among impressions but also on the nature of philosophy worth having. In particular, in reinvigorating the “old quarrel between philosophy and poetry” (Plato Republic), her novel indicts professional philosophy; our ilk is, we might say, too often ‘brave in thought, timid in life.’ The key passage in the novel is Mr. Ramsay’s soliloquy:
It was true; he was for the most part happy; he had his wife; he had his children; he had promised in six weeks' time to talk "some nonsense" to the young men of Cardiff about Locke, Hume, Berkeley, and the causes of the French Revolution. But this and his pleasure in it, his glory in the phrases he made, in the ardour of youth, in his wife's beauty, in the tributes that reached him from Swansea, Cardiff, Exeter, Southampton, Kidderminster, Oxford, Cambridge--all had to be deprecated and concealed under the phrase "talking nonsense," because, in effect, he had not done the thing he might have done. It was a disguise; it was the refuge of a man afraid to own his own feelings, who could not say, This is what I like--this is what I am; and rather pitiable and distasteful to William Bankes and Lily Briscoe, who wondered why such concealments should be necessary; why he needed always praise; why so brave a man in thought should be so timid in life; how strangely he was venerable and laughable at one and the same time.--from Virginia Woolf's To the Lighthouse.
Some readers, possibly distracted by the intellectual challenge, may accept the invitation and construct the lecture advertised about “Locke, Hume, Berkeley, and the causes of the French Revolution.” Fictions are quite capable of motivating actions, after all. Perhaps those readers ought to keep in mind, that many of the counterfactual “young men of Cardiff” will die in the trenches in France before long. Would that change the content of their imagined lecture?
But we must now allow ourselves be distracted into ignoring that Mr. Ramsay is a deformed human being. It’s not just his excessive love of praise, his excessive social conformity, and his excessive fondness for his own speech, that are signs of deformation. The central failing is his timidity; he lacks courage to embrace his own feelings and thereby becomes cruel toward others’—he is unreceptive because if he were receptive he would have to make space for the contrary feelings to be found within.
We don’t learn if it is his training that has deformed him or if it is deformed human beings that become professional philosophers. (The novel offers evidence for both views.) The novel strongly suggests, however, that the deformation gets replicated in the next generation of philosophers. (Recall this post inspired by Ruth Chang’s analysis of the deformation of intellectual reflexes in contemporary professional philosophy.) To Ramsay’s modest credit, there are evidently lucid moments when he is not self-deceived about his self-deformation(s), but he is not capable, and unwilling, to change ways.
While the novel leaves no doubt that much professional philosophy is a species of escapism from living, finding "consolation in trifles," the novel as such is not anti-philosophical, however. For it raises a profound philosophical question: must one necessarily “pursue truth with such astonishing lack of consideration for other people's feelings,” or is a more humane academic philosophy possible? In addition, the novel offers impressions, glimpses really, that nod toward a fuller vision of life: the vision, which celebrates chance and felt beauty, is, thus, not entirely Platonic because this “vision must be perpetually remade” by each of us in this possible experiment called 'life.'