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Lande Ohne Metaphysik

Pissheadery in Paradise

Two French pissheads admire an exhibit of modern sculpture in the grounds of the Abbey of Jumièges while waiting impatiently for the supermarket to open

Oik scribe Tom Kilcourse lives in an idyllic section of the Seine Valley just downstream of Rouen at Jumièges, the site of the vast ruin of a Benedictine monastery. I guess his encounter (see below) took place in Duclair, a larger town with a supermarket. Pissheadery is, of course, even worse in France than in UK and probably only exceeded by those premier league pissheads the Russians. In France it’s not so obvious, vomit-spattered pavements and street brawls are rare but one might suspect, especially in wine districts, that private pissheadery is endemic. They turn up at the local co-op with plastic 10 litre containers and fill them from something like a petrol pump. Seine-Maritime is not a wine district so the default pisshead tipple might well be beer. I’d guess Tom’s suspicions are right. Top oik script writer Jimmy McGovern has recently remarked that stories are the thing – he wants no truck with poetic prose or abstract rumination (you can come in now James Joyce and Marcel Proust) – the great driver and hook is a good story and growing up in working class Liverpool he was surrounded by them. As are we all – even in rural Normandy.


I unloaded my groceries onto the checkout conveyor and waited for the woman in front to pay. Glancing round I saw a man in his sixties with a can of beer in each hand.

‘Is that all you’ve got?’

He nodded.

‘Go on, then.’ I waved him ahead. He thanked me in a quiet, polite way and took his cans to the till. I weighed him up. He was clean, and his clothing was far from shabby, though cheap. I had seen him before, standing outside the same supermarket, drinking from a can of beer. Having paid, he nodded to me again, and left the store.

As I emerged from the shop he was wheeling a bicycle across the car park. I loaded my stuff into the car and watched him from the corner of my eye. He had stopped by a concrete block on the edge of the car park, leaned his bike against it and opened a can.

As I drove away, I could not help wondering about him. Clearly, he was not a tramp or a beggar, and was in no way rough. Yet, there he was, and had been before, standing alone on a cold day on a supermarket car park drinking his beer. Why? Did he live in a hostel where alcohol was forbidden, or perhaps he had a wife who would bend his ear for drinking at eleven in the morning.

At the moment, I don’t have the answers to these questions, nor am I likely to find them in reality. I am fairly certain though, that I shall answer them to my satisfaction when I meet him again: in one of my stories. He was custom made to become a ‘character’.


Lande Ohne Metaphysik 

England used to be the land without music but another Kraut speciality we have little time for is metaphysics. We are dogged empiricists, commonsensical folk who larf at all that speculative bollocks they go in for abroad. It begins with Bacon who stumbled on the scientific method and continues with Hobbes and Locke. It was Locke who invented common sense according to Gilbert Ryle: 

A good many years ago, I happened to be sitting with Earl Russell in the restaurant-car of a train to North Wales. Somehow our conversation turned to John Locke and I put to Russell this very question, perhaps with some hyperbole: ‘Why is it that, although nearly every youthful student of philosophy both can and does in about his second essay refute Locke’s entire Theory of Knowledge, yet Locke made a bigger difference to the whole intellectual climate of mankind than anyone had done since Aristotle?’ Russell agreed that the facts were so, and suggested, on the spur of the moment, an answer which dissatisfied me. He said, ‘Locke was the spokesman of Com­mon Sense.’ Almost without thinking I retorted impatiently, ‘I think Locke invented Common Sense.’ To which Russell rejoined ‘By God, Ryle, I believe you are right. No one ever had Common Sense before John Locke—and no one but Englishmen have ever had it since.’

Ryle Collected Papers Vol 1 Locke

 I mention this since my current reading of GH Lewes’ Biographical History of Philosophy (1846) makes just this point. George Henry lived in sin with George Eliot. The History isn’t much mentioned these days and is hard to find. Mine came from a Devon bookshop via Abebooks. I thought I’d got a bargain until I opened the parcel and found it was in five pieces with no spine. However, I took it philosophically, lashed it up and it works well.


GHL spends half the book on the Greeks and the other half on modern philosophy from Bacon to Comte. Comte is considered something of a barmpot these days but his positivism was right up George’s street. Comte also invented sociology if further evidence of his insanity is needed. George dismisses the whole of scholasticism (religious claptrap by the likes of St Augustine, Thomas Aquinas etc) and jumps straight from Plotinus (250AD) to Bacon (1600). He mentions Hegel and Kant. The interesting aspect is his particularly English take on philosophy and the emphasis on the primacy of the scientific method.

Other authors of the history of philosophy are worth mentioning. Russell’s 1946 history is well worth a look. He’s funny, lucid and a great stylist. He deals with the scholastics but neglects the existentialists. Sartre and Heidegger were probably too late to get in but he also ignores Kierkegaard yet includes Byron. His antipathies are politely put down: 

Immanuel Kant is generally considered the greatest of modern philosophers. I cannot agree with this estimate but it would be foolish not to recognise his great importance. 

In conversation he said he considered Kant to be the greatest catastrophe to have befallen philosophy. Russell was another scientific rationalist – probably the last great philosopher with a complete understanding of maths and physics..  

A huge, multi-volumed history is that by Father Frederic Copelston SJ (yep, a Jesuit). I acquired this massive 9 volumed work piecemeal over the years. If I started now I probably could get to the end before I died. Fred appeared on TV with that superb  expositor Bryan Magee. Bry would sit on a sofa and rabbit for half an hour with some other expert on Hegel, Schopenhauer or Kant. Strange how you get endless repeats of Dad’s Army but will never see again Bryan Magee’s Great Philosophers (or get it on DVD). Complete transcripts of these programs are available in Magee’s The Great Philosophers (1987). Copelston was his interlocutor on Schopenhauer – they’d both written books on this sage. Bryan, somewhat immodestly I thought, introduced Fred as follows: 

Of the books in print about [Schopenhauer] in the English language at the time this discussion is being held, the longest and most recent is, I’m afraid, by me; but a monologue would be out of place in this series, so I have invited the author of one of the others to let me discuss Schopenhauer with him. My guest is, in any case, the most distinguished living historian of philosophy: Frederic Copelston..

Fred face was an extraordinary sight. Maybe that’s what philosophy does to you. I recalled David Hockney’s remark on first meeting the aged WH Auden “If that’s his face imagine what his balls look like!”


Freddie Raphael and Ray Monk had a go at a synoptic overview in their edited collection of essays by others: The Great Philosophers (2000). Ray is a distinguished biographer of Russell and Wittgenstein and also a prof at Southampton. He too sneers at the continental tendency: 

For anyone brought up in the analytic tradition of philosophy, it is almost impossible to read the work of Martin Heidegger without hearing in the background the sniggers of the logical positivists. Thanks to the ridicule repeatedly heaped upon it by Rudolf Carnap and A. J. Ayer, Heidegger’s phrase from Being and Time, "Das Nichts selbst nichtet" ("The nothing itself noths") became, for a whole generation, the stock example of the kind of metaphysical nonsense from which the analytic method sought to free us, a warning to philosophers of the kind of rubbish they could end up talking if they strayed too far from the analytic fold. 

When Gilbert Ryle reviewed Being and Time for Mind in 1928, he made a determined stab at expounding sympathetically the early parts of the book, concentrating on what Heidegger meant by "Dasein", but then he had to break off his exposition with the remark: "here, for the reviewer at any rate, the fog becomes too thick". For me, the fog is, from the beginning, impenetrable, and I lose patience more quickly than Ryle with the "hyphenated verbal monstrosities" (as Safranski calls them) with which Heidegger litters his texts: "Being-in-the-world", "Being-with-others", "Being-ahead-of-oneself’, etc. It is tempting to think Heidegger was parodying himself when he defined Sorge (care) as "ahead-of-itself-already-being-in (a world) as Being-alongside (entities encountered within-the-world)"; but self-ridicule was not Heidegger’ s forte.

There you have it. We are indeed a Lande ohne metaphysik. 

If I had to recommend one global survey it’d probably be Roger Scruton’s Modern Philosophy (1994). Yes I know he’s a stroppy, ginger-haired reactionary but he’s also an explainer of genius (and an ex manc oik from Ancoats if that’s any recommendation). This work isn’t biographical but thematic with headings like: Self, Mind and Body – Appearance and Reality – Life, Death and Identity. John Hospers tried a similar approach in An Introduction to Philosophical Analysis (1956 with many reprints) which is available everywhere and was probably a university textbook. 

So I hope this brief survey, sharing my ignorance with you, will give you a few pointers next time you go to the pub and the conversation turns, as it sometimes does, to speculations on whether we aren’t in fact tiny elements in some cosmic chair leg or whether that really was your dead granny’s face you saw in the clouds the other day. Yis, we can do metaphysics if we try – especially after a few pints.