The men in the philosophy class are very clever. They help me in unexpected and unpredictable ways. They help me to trust my own experience and to have more confidence in drawing lessons from that experience. They use language well.
During our discussions we sometimes try to apply the ideas of the philosophers that we are studying – and when we do that we often surface our own lived experiences for scrutiny. And when that happens I often learn better ways of thinking about reality.
Most recently we were discussing the American pragmatists. After debating some purely philosophical ideas we turned to discuss their theory of ‘truth’. As we did I asked one of the men to describe occasions in which he had changed old ‘truths’ for new and better truths.
He was generous enough to reflect on some turning points in his outlook and he described episodes in his life when he came to see things differently. One of those occasions was the rejection of a formally held belief that organisations should have the same internal systems and procedures. ‘What,’ he said, ‘could be more self-evident than that the organisation would be more efficient, cost-effective and better at communicating with itself if it used the same IT systems? But this, in fact, is not the case!’ What was most helpful to me was the way he summed up the issue: He said: ‘We all live through and see through the orthodoxies of the age – and these are often only partially correct or plain wrong.’
I was once trapped in an ‘orthodoxy of the age.’ I thought that young children were supposed to have a good night’s sleep. However, my daughter Nathalie hardly ever wanted to go to bed – let alone to sleep. So, when I had finished work – and supper was over – I would read to her. I hoped that the reading would make her sleepy. In the early days I read her the ‘Little Grey Rabbit’ stories and I would notice that her eyes were bright and shining as she imagined and brought into being the world of the rabbit, the squirrel and the hare. Each story took me about 45 minutes to read. And then, when the story was over I thought: ‘Surely it must it must be time for her to sleep.’ But she resisted this. And so a struggle – a war of attrition – would begin. I wondered: ‘Would she eventually give up staying awake and go to sleep?’ Then, after months of misery, I realised that I was thinking through the conventions (the orthodoxies) of the age. Nathalie was simply not a child who needed much sleep. It was not in her nature. (However, I still imagine that it’s a good idea to read stories to children. But even then I suppose one has to beware: although the ‘Little Grey Rabbit’ stories are charming and their use of adverbs is wonderful I imagine that a cultural theorist might well find them ideologically unsound.)