Most philosophy concerns words and meanings, arguments and debates. But wisdom is also a matter of perception and intuition. Images can sometimes convey what words cannot. We see in order to understand; intuit before the rational explanation becomes clear. And sometimes - best of all - we just stop and look, perceiving without any need for words.
Here are my reflections each month on a particular image. I hope you enjoy them and use them as a basis for your own reflections. I'd welcome any brief comments you'd like to send, and will hope to include them alongside my own.
Visiting Las Vegas briefly this spring, while travelling overland through the USA, I took a snap of this rather brash building, never imagining the significance it would have by the end of the year. So much has been said about the election that there is no sensible contribution that I can offer in this brief compass. But I'm reflecting on the new pragmatic approach to political truth - not 'Is what I say true?' or 'Can I deliver what I promise?' but 'Will saying this achieve the result I want?' It's not just Trump, the hopeless failure to address truth in anything like an objective form was all too evident on both sides of the Brexit vote. And beneath all this is the valid and important revelation that ordinary voters have for too long felt excluded from the benefits of a neo-liberal and globalised economic agenda. Where do we go from here? I just think about the future and wince.
In the heart of Berlin, near the Brandenberg Gate, lies the Holocaust Memorial. At first, it seems almost innocent - just an area filled with solid grey blocks of stone - and on the edge the blocks are just a couple of feet tall. Some passers-by were sitting on them when I arrived; a family stopped to picnic. But, between them, paths lead you gradually downwards, and as you walk, so the normal sights and sounds of the city become more remote. The blocks reach above your head and you find youself drawn into canyons of menacing shadow. Yet, at any point, you can glance back and see light and colour in the distance. People criss-cross your path, appearing and disappearing between the blocks. Then, as you approach the centre, you recognise just how deep and menacing it is; the sheer scale of what you are drawn into is numbing. Sucked down out of ordinary life into this dark place, the experience induces the sickening chill of remembering the murdered Jews of Europe.
With the ongoing debate over Brexit, I've been reflecting on the nature not just of Britishness but of Englishness, particularly as someone who is pro Europe, with a wife whose passport will continue to be EU red even if mine eventually turns blue with nostalgia. For me, part of the delight in the English countryside is the way it has preserved its innocent traditions. A couple of months ago I visited Thaxted in Essex for a gathering of Morris Men from all over the country. They were a colourful bunch, doing what they love, dressed traditionally and unafraid of becoming caricatures of themselves. It's not particularly English - for local customs and dances exist throughout the Bristish Isles and Europe - but it reflects the importance of locality. When you belong somewhere, and love that place, you can appreciate and share any foreign culture without feeling that you are being swamped or globalised.
I came upon this sign outside a bar in the delightful university city of Heidelberg - no doubt a valuable one to warn passers-by of undergraduates enjoying liquid inspiration to aid their intellectual endeavours. But it set me thinking....
There's a similar warning triangle outside our local church, but that one (reflecting the demographic of the congregation) shows two old people walking with sticks. They have a right to cross the road at that point, whether fast or slow; I have a right to be driving down the road, fast (within limits) or slow. But the exercise of those two freedoms creates a potential for harm, which is why I need to be warned. But what of the drunk? To what extent should I be expected to modify my driving just in case a drunk crosses the road in front of me? Or should others be warned if I am about to stagger into the street? And should that warning have legal force? It strikes me that everything we do depends upon the behaviour - good or bad - of others, and they likewise depend upon us. As soon as I drive on the public road, I am putting my trust in the road-sense of other drivers. We have to take human folly into account in almost all social arrangements, and no laws or warning signs can deal with all eventualities. Even the best organised of societies - and Heidelberg is, after all, in Germany - cannot fully legislate for all the potential interactions between fallible human beings.
I sense rebellion is in the air, and it even extends to the normally law-abiding Durch. This sign clearly forbids the parking of bikes against the railings, but - hey - this is Amsterdam chock-a-block with bikes on a warm summer's afternoon, so I'll just go ahead and chain it up anyway! But I sense this is a tiny symptom of a more general rebellion... (read more)
Is there any positive way to express the chaos into which the United Kingdom finds itself plunged following the Brexit vote? The most hopeful image that comes to mind for me is the mixture of paint with its potential to be used for any number of different works of art. Chaos and uncertainty may be damaging - especially for the business community, which thrives on predictability - but it can also be an opportunity for creative thinking and change, and the freedom to shape the future in ways that had not previously been considered.
This vineyard is in Provence, but ithe image can serve for all the many places I love in mainland Europe. This month Britain takes a decision that will effect its future for generations - whether to remain in the EU or leave. I'm not arguing for one side or another here, nor even saying how I will vote, but simply want to express my despair at the terrible level to which British political debate (if it even deserves the term 'debate') has sunk. What is needed, for everyone to take responsibility for what we will decide, is a serious and open discussion, free of narrow political in-fighting and the distortion or exaggeration of facts for the sake of scoring political points. All I observe at the moment is a childish political game. None can predict the future with any degree of accuracy - that is universally acknowledged by economists, for there are always unknown and complex factors to be taken into account - and it is foolish to present possibilities as though they are certainties. This political debate is far too important to hinge on trivialities, narrow prejudices and the internal needs and future of political parties.
Some years ago, I wrote a Teach Yourself book on Political Philosophy (still available!), and was reminded in doing so of all the great and bold thinkers of the past who took the issue of social and political life seriously. Seflishness and prejudice are not the basis on which to decide our future, but rather a good hard look at what is in the interests of everyone, not just in this country but globally.
This month also marks the centenary of some of the most terrible weeks of slaughter at the battle of Verdun - weeks experienced by Paul Tillich and Pierre Teilhard de Chardin in a book I am writing about the impact of war on their thought. If this is the moment to pause and take stock in our thinking about the future of Europe and the need for serious cooperation, not just economically but as human beings and nations with our own unique and treasured cultures, then Verdun provides a horrendous warning and example of what has happened in the past when political decisions have got it wrong.
The classic view from Zabriskie Point in Death Valley, California - one of the many amazing sights from our recent trip to the USA - is at its best in early morning light. Not only does it give a classic lesson on erosion, but also emphasises the wild beauty of a place that is also utterly inhospitable to life. It is almost as if one is looking over the surface of another planet; this is a world without the usual film of blue and green that sustains human and all other forms of life. We, and the biosphere within which we live, is vulnerable and subject to change - a good starting point for any personal philosophy, and also the starting point of Buddhist thought.
March & April
The pollution of the seas by plastic and rubber rubbish, discarded on beaches or in the ocean itself, is illustrated by this rather artistic display overlooking the North Sea in Norfolk, England, of stuff collected from the local beaches - a sad reminder of our routine treatment of the environment.
From early in the 20th century, this photograph shows Miss Langford outside her shop on North Hill, Little Baddow, Essex. She sold a range of general goods, food and - as remembered by my mother, a regular customer as a little girl in the 1920s - sweets wrapped in a cone of old newspaper for half an old penny. Just opposite her shop, the pub (as it is now) also provided freshly baked bread and local fruit and vegetables. You only needed to walk a little further up the hill to find a butcher, a post office and another general store. Haircuts could be had at the back of a house a hundred yards down the road, and your chimney could be swept by the local sweep who lived just a few houses up the road from Miiss Langford's. A village carter made regular trips to town - you simply put a sign in your window, with your shopping list and money ready for him, and he would return with your goods at the end of the day. Even in the 1950s, a baker and an oilman drove round the village on a weekly basis, calling on their regular customers and suggesting what they might like. You could survive in such a village, without ever needing to go even into the town of Chelmsford, seven miles away.
Now only the pubs remain; all the shops have gone. The nearest you get to local supplies are the various on-line supermarket delivery vans bringing you 'freshly clicked' food. For most people now, the village is a commuter hideout, convenient for London and set in superb countryside. With the exception of the Women's Institute (backbone of the nation!) most local organisations stuggle to survive, relying on the small percentage of the inhabitants who want to be involved in such things. Village life, as such, is in gentle decline, and with it will go that wonderful sense of being rooted in a physical location. Friendship groups remain - especially through facilities for babies and todlers, and via the society at the school gate - and long may they thrive, but I can't help but feel some nostalgia for the intensity of village life, for all its factions and gossip.
This photograph was taken at Verdun in 1916 (copied, for purposes of comment, from 'The Teilhard Album'' Collins, 1966). On the extreme right is the French Jesuit theologian Pierre Teilhard de Chardin. He spent the war years serving as a stretcher bearer, and his experience of the horrors of Verdun in 1916 was to transform his idea of God and of the future of humankind. By coincidence, another great religious thinker of the 20th century, Paul Tillich, arrived on the opposite side of that same part of the front as a Lutheran chaplain to an German artillery regiment. He too was shaken by his experience of Verdun, describing it as his personal 'kairos'. In this centenary year, I am working on a book, exploring the way in which the place of religion, the idea of God and ideas about the future of humankind were shaped by the Great War, based on the writings of those two men who inspired me to take an interest in Theology back in the 1960s. It's 90,000 words at the moment and still growing - serious pruning lies ahead before I plan to self-publish it in the summer.