Before launching into a long (and possibly boring if it’s not your thing) philosophical monologue I’ll start with the interesting bit, i.e. Halloween celebrations. Tomorrow night I’ll be celebrating in a most traditional, pagan fashion around a bonfire in the big field behind Vauxhall station. It looks absolutely amazing and it’s all free!
To the monologue. The best part of formally studying Philosophy is coming across moments in canonical philosophical literature where an established thinker wonderfully puts into words something you’ve always thought but couldn’t express – or even when you did, you were dismissed because you’re not an established thinker. Now you can write that thing you always thought in an essay and be able to back it up with a footnote. You can also keep up hopes that once you’ve developed the thing further and had more original thoughts on it, someone will financially support you getting a PhD on the subject and some day you will publish the thing and become an established thinker yourself. I had plenty of these “yes someone said it” moments when reading Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer’s collaborative work Dialectic of Enlightenment. Reading this wonderful book is, for me, an affirmation of the validity of my thoughts and feelings perhaps even more so than reading Being and Nothingness and that’s saying something (nothing personal, J-P, you’re still my homie).
The thing I’ve always thought, but never really found the right way to express or anyone to give a crap about, is that being rational and scientific probably isn’t the only way to approach the world. I’m fascinated by the supernatural, am curious about the things people imagine in order to explain the world around us, and madly in love with folklore and fairytales. Quite radically, I believe these can be as important as empirical science in understanding life. It’s radical because, as my new friend Max argues in The Eclipse of Reason, the value of being rational is simply not to be disputed. It’s the ultimate sacred. It’s…kind of what the Judeo-Christian God was in the Middle Ages.
I’m not pro-religion in any way; I wholly disagree with being homophobic or banning abortions because something was written in a book six thousand years ago. I understand the scientific method and why medical doctors are so annoyed about homeopathy. My case is philosophical, not anti- or pseudoscientific, and most importantly, not a case for abandoning rational science in places where it’s needed; for example, we can all probably agree that a fever is lowered more efficiently with paracetamol than by making a sacrifice to the fire gods. In fact, for sake of analogy, my case is to suggest that it can be a good idea to take paracetamol AND to pray to the fire gods. Metaphorically speaking.
In the Dialectic, Adorno and Horkheimer philosophically argue that the Enlightenment project has the exact same goal as myth and religion: to explain the world around us. To be purely philosophical, the result is the same. The seeker arrives at an explanation that helps them understand life a little better, but isn’t perhaps completely satisfying. The seeker proceeds with their daily life in light of the new piece of information and makes choices in the light of it; and they must, because the multitude of choice in life is overwhelming and without an explanation for why things are the way they are or what is a better thing to do than another, the person would be crushed under a wave of existential anguish and possibly lose their will to live altogether (trust me, I know a thing or two about anguish). For example, why is it light and warm for part of the year and dark and cold for the other part? We know it’s because of the Earth’s axis being in a certain angle. The ancient Celts knew it was because there were two worlds, and there had to be a winter in this world so there could be summer in the Otherworld, and vice versa. An Enlightenment thinker would look at the previous two sentences and say with complete certainty that the first one is the truth and the second one is a silly folklore belief and anyone who still thinks that is an idiot. But a budding philosopher such as myself might see two different ways of seeing the world: one materialistic, one idealistic. One possible to prove empirically, one that could or could not be the case but could never be proven. Two explanations that are not in any way, even when examined with the strictest logic, mutually exclusive. The first is rational, the second irrational – but if Rational is the last remaining sacred in our secularised world, is it not the task of the critically thinking, inquiring mind to dare to challenge it on occasion? A philosopher would ask, what is the truth anyway? Can there be a statement which has always been and will always be, in all situations, indisputably true? This budding philosopher has always thought that the universe is too vast for it to be possible that there is a simple explanation for all its phenomena, and that sometimes two seemingly opposite statements can be equally valid – perhaps one is true on one occasion and the other on a different occasion. There might even be a time when a fever won’t lift after taking paracetamol but disappears as soon as the fire gods hear the prayers, and it will never be possible to know if the fire gods did it, if it was a placebo effect, or if the paracetamol just took a little longer to kick in for some reason – but perhaps right now nobody will give a crap about the truth because all that matters is that the fever is gone. (Metaphorically speaking.)
And sometimes it’s fun to entertain old beliefs for the sake of tradition, which is what this time of year is all about. Lately I’ve been exercising my existential freedom by pretending I’m living in the 1800s – ignoring the nearby Lidl and buying all my food in Kingston town’s ancient market, and going for long walks in the countryside. My Halloween celebrations will follow in a similar fashion, and I willingly give up expensive drinks and ruining my hard-worked-for costume in a sweaty nightclub in favour of a storytelling night around a bonfire and an All Saints Day mass in a medieval church. I’m not bothering with these silly contemporary costumes either, but might conceal my identity in 19th-century masquerade style, to protect myself from whatever unfriendly spirits might arise as the veil between the worlds lifts…