Upon Johnson’s Rock: On Existentialism, Monty Python, Scripture, and Academia

There’s a famous anecdote about Samuel Johnson, the 18th-century writer and intellectual. Like all such stories, it changes in the telling. A philosopher friend (usually James Boswell) has presented to Johnson the arguments of idealism—the argument that all we have to go on is the reality of our senses, and that the material reality of matter is not something we can know about except through sensory data—or, one step further, through the sensory data we believe we’re experiencing.

Johnson’s classic response to this challenge is to stand up and deliver a swift kick to a rock (in some versions of the story, it’s a chair) with the words, “I refute it thusly.” This is an example of an anti-intellectual response to an intellectual problem that actually does win the field. This is an example of common sense defeating the silliness of academic theory.

People who are not academics are gratified by the idea that what academics do is theory; that it is inherently silly; and that it accomplishes nothing. Academics are forced continually to defend what they do that could be worth a paycheque—a defense that never seems to be demanded of the other great vague professions of the world. No one asks a systems analyst or a consultant to define in concrete terms their contribution to the world.

People who are not academics like to believe that Monty Python are academics who make fun of themselves. That’s not the case. None of them, save maybe Terry Jones, is a real academic. Mostly, Terry Jones is a writer; he’s only an academic in that he’s a researcher, to the extent that all very good writers are researchers. He’s a brilliant man. But he’s not an academic.

The jokes about academia have slowly, over time, become true. The impracticality of philosophy is a regular joke even among those who take advanced degrees in it (do you want fries with that?). Spending years debating existentialism or solipsism is a little like debating whether or not the light stays on when you close the refrigerator door. More precisely, it’s like debating whether or not the food vanishes from reality when we close the door.

Except in some cases, we are the food in the fridge, or else our friends and our favourite things in life are the food. Maybe, a particular troll of a philosopher might argue, the food is what’s materially, empirically real, and what we should be asking ourselves is whether we continue to exist when that fridge door shuts.

No wonder people accuse the Pythons of being academics. This whole business is very silly—mostly because any fool can see that, practically speaking, there are very simple answers to this question. The first is to examine the fridge or contact the person who made it, who will tell you there’s a little spring-loaded button in most fridges. The door holds it shut when the door is shut, and that turns the light off. You can do it with your hand.

The second problem is a little more tricky: the simple answer is that nobody cares. It’s not that we don’t care whether our food continues to exist; it’s that in every way the food behaves as if it continues to exist the whole time. Leave an egg in a locked fridge for a year, and you will come back to a rotten egg. In other words, we’re safe to assume that time and reality go on as normal within the fridge even while we’re not perceiving it.

If a tree falls in the forest and nobody’s around to hear it, does anyone care? This is another way of framing the same question. We already know what we have to assume: we have to assume this tree makes a sound; it’s safer than assuming for some reason the tree doesn’t. The whole rest of the world continues to behave exactly as if that tree had made the appropriate sound.

People arguing semantics will be quick to tell you it can make a sound, but not a noise, as “noise” connotes sounds we find displeasing, and there’s no one close enough to be displeased by it—like hearing bagpipes across a field or on a lonesome hill (sound) or two feet away (noise). But that’s a matter of taste. The world behaves practically as if everything continues to exist; that’s good enough for most people (including me) to believe it does. To the anti-intellectual, any more thought on the subject is silly, because we already know the best way to behave is as if things exist. If you truly believe you’re the only person in the world, one joke goes, stop paying taxes and see what happens.

Now, here’s another question: who wrote Shakespeare’s plays? Again, according to all non-academics and most academics too, a man from 16th-century Stratford named William Shakespeare. A very small number of academics believe otherwise, advancing theories of other authors (Francis Bacon, for instance) for various unreliable reasons. The very worst of these are the Oxfordians, whose classist prejudice compels them to believe that only the Earl of Oxford could have written these plays. These people are considered the cranks of the ivory tower, about as useless and out-of-touch in academia as regular academics are to ordinary people. But they are doing the important job of calling into question something that we know about reality. Academics have had to do lot of work on Shakespeare, and the British stage, and the history of those plays, in order to disprove the Oxfordians’ ridiculous theory; and the things they’ve learned in the process do a lot more for scholarship than merely putting the cranks in their place.

Mostly, non-academics don’t care who really wrote Shakespeare’s plays, because the plays behave as if they were written by him, and that’s good enough. Non-academics and anti-academics have less and less to do with Shakespeare now, whose impact on the modern world grows exponentially, even as the average lay person thinks he means less and less to them with each passing century. This is natural; the same thing has happened to Dante, and to Virgil, and to Homer—writers still considered “important” in a distant academic sense, but not in a tangible way people can feel. Almost no one reads Homer personally anymore, even though his hand continues to shape Western culture. The same thing will ultimately happen to Shakespeare. The only way around this ephemeralness, it seems, is to write a holy book. The Prophet Muhammad (pbuh), or the Gospel-writers, or the kohanim who assembled the Torah, have been exempt from the tradition of irrelevance. It’s depressing, then, to think that L. Ron Hubbard’s Dianetics will probably outlive Huckleberry Finn in popular readership.

By the very earliest estimations of its age (Tolkien, for one), Beowulf is about as old as the Qur’an, and yet Beowulf is read by no one at all except academics–and a very special brand of academic, the Anglo-Saxon philologist, treated as especially irrelevant and silly by lay folk, compared to the Canadianists who work on flesh-and-blood living authors like Ondaatje and Atwood. The Qur’an, on the other hand, is read by millions regularly–academics, yes, but also ordinary people who have no interest in academia or the Humanities (maybe people who don’t even know what those are), and who have no formal training. Most powerfully, these non-academics go to the very intellectual task to learn a language that no longer exists–Classical Arabic is very, very different from, say, modern Turkish or Egyptian Arabic–specifically so that they can read the text in its original tongue. Jewish non-academics do this with Hebrew, and have done so to such an extent that it’s revived itself as a language two thousand years or more after the fact.

Imagine for a moment if Beowulf  had that kind of longevity–if the ethnically English people who rode the bus with you cared enough about their old texts to learn a whole classical language (Anglo-Saxon) just to read them in the original. That’s crazy and it’ll never happen. The great irony for somebody like Tolkien is that while the ratio of people fluent in both languages hasn’t changed (largely because one is an unfinished invented language with a very small vocabulary), the number of people who know a few phrases in the imaginary Grey-Elven tongue of Sindarin now outnumber the people who know a few phrases in medieval Anglo-Saxon. In general the works of the past are fading from popular knowledge; Shakespeare had his day but he’s on the way too. Who reads Shakespeare for fun? Academics, that’s who.

This is one reason why I find it interesting that religious scripture has gone the other way. Much of it is concerned with the kind of big questions that we like to think are only important to academics. What happens to us after the big fridge door closes forever and the lights go out? Do we continue to exist on the inside, even if our hungry friends no longer perceive us? Are we, as academic egghead Schrödinger would suggest in silly theoretical terms, both dead and alive at the same time? How is this possible. If only there were a book we could read that spoke to this question.

I fail to believe that non-academics are silly as academics for continuing to ask these irrelevant and sometimes unanswerable questions. I think instead it’s safer to assume that academics are, in fact, confronting questions that are important to ordinary people. In our practical lives we stick to the assumptions that are sensible. We protect our inner-city apartments with door locks rather than crucifixes; we mourn our relatives; we turn to doctors, rather than priests, to save us from heart attacks and cancer. Even very religious people do this. Because it’s not a question of whether or not God exists, whether or not reincarnation exists. People who die the world over behave as if they don’t come back. God, if he exists, works in “mysterious ways” which almost always entail behaving as if he doesn’t.

But these practical questions don’t serve as answers for the majority of seeking people. Locking your doors at night and seeing your doctor are not a substitute for answers about existence–not even for atheists, who are obligated to seek out their own existential answers by other paths. If there’s a link between atheism and academia, and I think there is, it’s not that smart people are always atheists and smart people are always academics. Both of those are untrue. But I think that academia and especially the humanities are in the business of asking difficult important questions and seeking out difficult important answers. And atheistic people gravitate towards that, because it’s something we all need that they can’t or won’t get anywhere else.

Where did Dr. Johnson’s rock come from, and what does it really mean? The swift kick he dealt it may have answered a tough question effectively. But it may also have started more lines of inquiry than it finished–lines of inquiry that are important to academics and non-academics alike, whether or not they couch it in egghead terms.

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One thought on “Upon Johnson’s Rock: On Existentialism, Monty Python, Scripture, and Academia

  1. Enjoyed some parts of this.
    I agree with you pretty much.
    Philosophy is like math.
    Understanding to ask better questions and see what rules to break. And what to respect no matter what. Often it’s not what we think it is.
    It is to the soul and meaning of life as math is to computer science.
    It’s just that can you really teach a person to imagine and ask unimaginable questions and look not deeper, but into the impossible.

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