Friday, 20 July 2012

Covey, Heidegger and the Love of Wisdom

On Monday evening the Hull and East Riding Humanist Group, to which I have been associated since its conception, hosted a talk by the soon to be faculty member of the University of Tokyo, Dr Michael Gillan Peckitt. Michael is something of an expert on the philosophy of the existentialist Martin Heidegger (a branch of philosophy popular in Japan due in part to a relationship between Heidegger and Buddhism/Taoism) and his talk was about Heidegger’s friendship with the existentialist Karl Jaspers. My interest in this subject was prompted in part by the fact that the founder of the British Humanist Association Harold J Blackham, who died three years ago at the grand old age of 105, wrote a book called “Six Existentialist Thinkers” which featured chapters on both Heidegger and Jaspers. I have been reading Heidegger all week and I have come to the conclusion that he wrote interminable nonsense.  I have since found that I am in good company in thinking this, the once president of the BHA Bertrand Russell commenting on Heidegger’s book: “Highly eccentric in its terminology, his philosophy is extremely obscure. One cannot help suspecting that language is here running riot.” Freddie Ayer, another BHA president had a similar opinion. Besides talking much nonsense, Heidegger was a terrible fascist and Nazi until the end. It’s a shame that humanism is more closely linked to Nietzsche and Heidegger because of their atheism than the more religious Kierkegaard and Jaspers. It’s an association Heidegger himself renounced in his 1947 “Letter on Humanism”.  Indeed Heidegger was an early expositor of anti-humanism as promoted in the latter day by thinkers such as John Gray (the professor of European Thought at the LSE, not he of “Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus” fame). Sartre was an atheist but a more positive influence on humanism than the rest.
I learnt today on the BBC Radio 4 Today programme that the American business and “character ethic” guru Stephen Covey had died on Monday, the day of my Heidegger dicussion. I read a tribute from Covey’s fellow business guru Tom Peters in the Washington Post with great interest, especially since Covey’s famous second “habit of highly effective people” focused on imagining what people would say about us in our obituary. Peters said:

“Professionally, the term ‘humanist’ could have been invented to encapsulate Stephen’s work.”


“many with whom Stephen had direct or indirect contact surprised themselves as they marched forward with their own enhanced humanism, courtesy of his work and example”

Stephen Covey was well known for his Mormon faith, a religion I would usually take a critical stance on, but I can see why Peters calls him a humanist. Humanism in its true sense is philosophy in its true sense, from “philo” meaning "loving" and “sophia" meaning “wisdom".  Covey had the gift of focussing on what kind of behaviour constitutes the life lived well. He didn’t write dense, incomprehensible "fashionable nonsense" in the style of Martin Heidegger or Jacques Derrida. If anything he was accused of stating the obvious, but I have long thought common sense not so common and Covey leaves a legacy of clear thought about habits of thought worth adopting, eminently more worth the effort of reading than the phoney continental philosophy of postmodernism all too prevalent in intellectual circles.

Wednesday, 4 July 2012

Higgs, the god particle and me...

It has been reported in the media that the well-known TV comedian and actor Eric Sykes has died. I have always found the obsession with celebrity culture and the attention the media pay to the lives of celebrities vaguely embarrassing, but today will not go down in history as the day a TV personality died. No, the 4th July 2012 will be remembered for the announcement made by the scientists at the European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN) that after spending over six billion pounds on the largest scientific apparatus ever constructed, the Large Hadron Collider (LHC), the much discussed Higgs boson has finally been detected. Seeing the photos of the reclusive Peter Higgs breaking down in tears and seeking to turn attention away from himself took me back to 1988. I was then an undergraduate at the University of Edinburgh and would sit in the common room of the James Clerk Maxwell Building each morning with my flat mate, who was studying physics and another friend I attended my mathematics lectures with, sipping coffee and chatting between lectures. Sometimes a middle aged academic who often wore a black polo neck top would sit across the table from us never speaking. I once asked my flatmate, “Who is that guy?” and was told it was Professor Higgs. Apparently, he had postulated the existence of a new particle sometime in the sixties. Twenty-four years have passed, my flatmate went on to do nuclear physics at CERN, my other friend dropped science and is now a top hedge fund manager and I…well, I didn’t go on to either of those things. Why should it be that I remember this as if it had some significance? Peter Higgs is now justly famous for his contribution to the scientific enterprise and I suppose me remembering being ignored by a famous physicist is even more ridiculous than people remembering seeing, speaking with or being sat next to any other celebrity, yet I do remember it. Does the fact that Higgs really is a great man whose name will live for centuries to come make any difference? Not at all. Ideas are sometimes much bigger than the people who have them and perhaps we should spend more time focusing on the development of our own ideas, however apparently insignificant, rather than try to live vicariously through some vague association with celebrity or someone else’s achievements.