The primrose path?


Every so often, I feel I have been blindsided -kept out of the loop either because I haven’t been diligent in my reading, or, more likely, haven’t thought things through adequately.

Philosophy concerns itself with the fundamental nature of reality, so I had always assumed there were few, if any, territories left untouched. In fact, I would have thought that the very nature of the discipline would have enticed its members to explore the more problematic subjects, if only to test the waters.

Of course, it’s one thing to continue to study the big topics -Beauty, Truth, and Knowledge and so on- but yet another to subject the more controversial, unpleasant issues like, say, Garbage, or Filth to critical philosophical analysis. At best one might argue it would be a waste of time commenting on their existential value. In fact, even suggesting that they might be worthy of philosophical consideration borders on the ridiculous, and the pointless -yet another example of a discipline grown dotty with age.

I have always felt that Plato was on to something in his insistence that what we experience are only particular and incomplete examples of what he called ideal Forms. We can all recognize a chair, for example, despite the fact that chairs can assume many forms, with innumerable shapes and sizes. And yet somehow, out of all the variations, even a child can recognize a chair: they can recognize the chairness of the object, if you will. So, it seems we can all understand the idea that any one particular example of a chair, or a triangle, say, is only a sample of the Forms of chairness, or triangleness… And because the Forms are only describable in the particular, we can never experience the true Forms except in our imagination. The Forms are, in effect, perfect and unchanging, unlike their earthly examples.

Where am I going with this? Well, although we might accept that this imaginary and essentially indescribable Form of what we’re calling chairness is ‘perfect’, could we say the same of other objects that make up our everyday reality -Garbage, for example? Is there an analogously ‘perfect’ Form for Garbage? Even thinking about that seems, well, valueless. Silly.

But, then again, uncharted waters have always attracted the brave -some may say, the unusual– among us. For my part, I was on my way elsewhere when I tripped over an article sticking out like a root on a forest trail. I suppose I should have known better than to start reading it.

‘[C]an the ‘unclean’ – dirt, mud, bodily wastes, the grime of existence – be relevant to the philosopher’s quest for wisdom and the truth?’ the author, Thomas White, asks. ‘Philosophers don’t often discuss filth and all its disgusting variations, but investigating the unclean turns out to be as useful an exercise as examining the highest ideals of justice, morality and metaphysics. In his dialogue Parmenides, Plato gives us an inkling of the significance of philosophising about the unclean, which he names ‘undignified objects’, such as hair, mud and dirt.’ When Parmenides questions Socrates about the issue, even Socrates is troubled and changes the subject. What hope is there, then, to include it as a legitimate topic for philosophical inquiry?

As White observes, ‘The unclean’s ‘undignified objects’ represent a kind of outer twilight zone – a metaphysical no-man’s land – that eludes overarching theories about the meaning of reality… The unclean’s raw existence is a great intractable that rudely interrupts a philosopher’s thinking when it fails to fit neatly into the theory of forms, thus forcing the philosopher to curb hasty, ambitious generalisations, and think even harder and more clearly.’ Of course, it has been suggested that ‘Plato attacked his own theory of Platonic ideas in order to know the truth, not to defend his own preconceived views.’ Indeed, maybe we need to be careful about insisting that any one particular philosophical model should be able explain everything. Even the discipline of physics admits that quantum theory and Newtonian theory seem to belong to separate Magisteria: each has its own domain -its own kingdom. Its own validity…

And yet for some reason, even in my dotage, I am reluctant to abandon Plato’s idea of Forms, no matter how societally objectionable the subject matter. Is there something to be said for, let’s say, filth -as in ‘not clean’- for which there may be a perfect Form? A ‘not-cleanness’ even a child could recognize?

When my children were young -so young that the world was fresh and new- they felt the need to explore: to climb whatever presented itself to their eyes, to look under things for what might be hidden there, and, of course, to taste whatever titillated their imaginations, or seduced their gaze.

As a parent, I have to admit that I assumed I should restrict their investigations to what I felt was safe and otherwise to what I found personably acceptable, but I couldn’t microscope them every second they were in my charge.

I remember one time, shortly after my daughter had learned to toddle around, I took her and her older brother out for a walk in a park near my house. The day was warm, and there was only one available park bench particularly appropriate as a base from which to watch the two of them wander around noisily within a little grassy clearing.

I must have dozed off in the sunlight, because when I opened my eyes the two of them seemed praeternaturally quiet and huddled over something they’d found in the grass. Curious to see what they’d found so interesting, I sauntered over to find my daughter contentedly munching away at something she’d found.

It didn’t look particularly edible, so I gently disentangled it from her mouth. I’m not sure what it was, and although parts of it were white, other parts where she had managed to break through the exterior, were brown and, frankly, disgusting.

“That’s not a good thing to eat, Cath,” I said, as her face contorted into a proto-wail.

“She thought it was popcorn,” my son explained, with a theatrical shrug.

I saw another similar white object on the grass nearby that promptly disintegrated as I picked it up. “That’s not popcorn, Michael,” I said as I brought it as close to my nose as I dared.

He shrugged again, as Catherine began to cry. “I didn’t think it was,” he explained. “And anyway, I didn’t try any…” he added, rather guiltily I thought.

I picked up my daughter to calm her and stared at Michael. “Then why did you let her eat it?” I asked, shaking my head disapprovingly.

His little eyes slid up my face with all the innocence of childhood. “She thought it was pretty…” he explained.

I looked at the aged piece of canine detritus with new eyes. It was kind of attractive, I had to admit…

Sweet Flowers are Slow



It never ceases to amaze me what unfettered minds can discover. Sometimes I wonder how they do it. How they set out 180 degrees from the target and still end up hitting it. Of course, the world is full of answers scattered like flowers in a field, in plain sight for anybody who has learned to see them. It’s not the answers that are hidden, just the appropriate questions. But maybe that’s the point –questions are often like detours pointing away from where you think you want to go, and yet arrive you do, having learned unexpected things along the way –Frost’s Road not Taken.

Socrates, although he initially disavowed the Delphic Oracle’s apocryphal pronouncement that he was the wisest man in Athens, knew that Truth, like Wisdom, was slippery. He realized he didn’t possess all the truth and so he asked many questions, whereas others -those who never thought to investigate- were complacent about their knowledge, unpuzzled by what they experienced, content with their grasp, however tenuous.

Maybe that’s just the way we’ve been taught to interrogate reality, though: if A equals C, and B also equals C, then we need look no further –A, B and C are equivalent, or at least interchangeable and otherwise individually uninteresting. Perhaps it takes a Socrates to ask why that is –or at least why we are satisfied with our assessment.

An article in the BBC News about an unusual approach to decreasing the spread of malaria brought this to mind:  While researchers are trying desperately to engineer a vaccine, there have been many interesting attempts to ameliorate the prevalence of the disease. Some are relatively high tech –like genetically altering mosquitoes to produce genes to prevent the development of the malarial parasite within themselves and therefore stop its transmission to people when they bite; some are more humble methods, more attainable in the short term -such as pyrethroid-treated mosquito netting around beds. I suppose the boundaries between discovery and invention are fluid, but even so, either of them can lead to uncharted territories. New possibilities.

Still, until we do have an effective and safe vaccine, we need to use as many other methods to decrease the ravages of the female Anopheles mosquito as possible –however indirectly they may achieve this. Sometimes you just have to try stuff. Sometimes, you have to think inside the garden.

‘Gardening could be a powerful weapon against malaria, culling mosquito populations by cutting off their food supply, say researchers.’ The idea is to starve the mosquitoes before they get a chance to pass on the malarial parasite. A pilot project in Mali, West Africa, found that ‘Removing flowers from a common shrub appeared to kill off lots of the older, adult, female, biting insects that transmit malaria. Without enough nectar the “granny” mosquitoes starve, experts believe.

‘These Anopheles mosquitoes carry the malaria parasite in their salivary glands and pass it on to people when they bite and draw blood. The infected person can then infect other younger, biting, female mosquitoes – which are looking for a rich blood meal as they become fertile and make eggs – because their blood now contains the parasite. It takes about 10 days for a newly infected young female mosquito to become contagious to humans. By the time she can transmit malaria, she’s pretty old. Although she will feed on blood, she also relies on flower nectar for energy to stay alive.’

So, ‘Experts in Mali, along with researchers from the Hebrew University of Hadassah Medical School, Israel, and the University of Miami in the US, set up a horticultural experiment to see if removing the flowers from this plant might help kill off local mosquitoes. […]Villages where they removed the flowers saw mosquito numbers collected in the traps fall – the total number of mosquitoes across these villages decreased by nearly 60% after removal of the flowers.’

Admittedly, as the researchers concede, although it was an appropriate technique in a place like Mali, ‘it might not work so well in lush tropical regions where nectar-rich plants are in abundance.’

I suppose one of the reasons why this approach intrigued me so much, was that it seemed like a rather simple –albeit laborious- technique for mosquito control. Much like removing standing water that has collected in puddles or old tires where the mosquitoes can lay their eggs, it could be a community-led project that requires no additional external resources. But even more than that, as Professor Jo Lines, from the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, has observed, ‘”It appears to show that by changing the landscape, not using insecticides or drugs, we can make a difference.”’

What a thought –changing, not destroying something to achieve an aim. Being clever and asking the right questions about what was already in front of the eyes of anyone inquisitive enough to actually notice. Curious enough to ask ‘what if…?’

So, back to Socrates who, in the end, conceded that perhaps the Delphic Oracle had been right all along about him being the wisest man in Athens. He was still searching for knowledge, still questioning the completeness of what others had already decided was necessary for them to understand. He was still unprepared to pretend that he knew something he didn’t. To the end, he refused to accept that there weren’t always more questions to ask.

After all, it’s not what you look at that matters, it’s what you see; it’s not what you hear, so much as what you understand… The rest, as Hamlet said, is silence.