Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Appearance and reality

I just noticed the Maverick’s comment on C.J.F. William’s obituary here, and was struck by the fact that his wheelchair-bound existence was news. This reminded me of the contrast between what we know of the thought of a philosopher such as Duns Scotus, which is immense, and what we know of his life, which is almost nothing, and what we do know is mostly guesswork based on other facts, and thus is not even knowledge.

CJF being in a wheelchair was in one way the most striking thing about him. I remember helping carrying it – with him in it – up the steps of the Wills building. The building was designed in the grand neo-Gothic manner (in about 1908) and so the flight of steps was about half a mile long, and I remember entertaining with horror the idea of us letting go the wheelchair and it moving with gathering speed to the bottom where it would crash into the porter’s lodge with horrifying consequences, perhaps carrying off a few undergraduates along the way.

But in another way it was the least important, and once you got to know him, you were hardly ever aware of it. He was teaching philosophy after all.

One story he liked to tell was about his special trousers he had, with a zip at the back going right up from bottom to top. A colleague came to collect him one day, and saw a spare pair of these lying on the floor, fully unzipped and looking like a tiger skin rug, except without the stripes. “Now I understand the difference between appearance and reality”, said the colleague.

There was a constant philosophical war going on between CJF and another philosopher in the department, Edo Pivcevic. Edo was Czech, or from some central European place – he was hired by the late Stefan Korner – and was a ‘phenomenologist’ always talking about Husserl and Heidegger, and saying things like ‘to answer the question about the meaning of being we must analyse the being of Man’. CJF was utterly contemptuous of this European stuff, although he taught Frege and Wittgenstein, who were very European in their own way.

CJF also told a Swinburne story. Once Swinburne offered to drive him from some place to another, probably Bristol to Manchester. However, Swinburne qualified the offer by saying he never drove over 30 miles an hour. Thinking he meant urban zones where a 30 mph limit applies in Britain, and thinking this exemplary practice, he accepted. What Swinburne meant, however, was that he drove at this speed even on motorways, where most people are whizzing along at speeds in excess of 70 mph. I don’t know how long it took to get to Manchester up the M5, although I can picture it.

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