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Campaign for World Domination: Progress Report

Some time in the early hours of this morning, the “page views” counter of my Wittgenstein blog clicked over into five figures.

PI views total

Small beer compared to many, I know, but I’m still surprised and pleased that an amateur blog on such an esoteric subject could attract a steady stream of hits from all over the world. And of course like anyone who runs a blog for more than two days I’m completely obsessed by my stats page and what it might or might not show me. Here, for example is the info on where my readers come from:

PI views per country

Ah, I love that map! It turns blog writing into a sort of game of intellectual Risk: once I’ve turned the entire atlas dark green then the whole world will be mine! MINE! (Except that I can’t, of course; Blogspot stats only show you the top ten entries, so my small but hugely satisfying hits from China, Pakistan and Kenya are hidden from view.) But ego-massaging aside, what does the map say about the global state of interest in Wittgenstein and philosophy more generally?

Well, the most obviously striking feature is the thumping dominance of the United States. I mean, you might expect them to be top given that a) my blog is written in English and b) US  philosophy seems to have a strong emphasis on what’s known as “analytic philosophy” (the area in which Wittgenstein worked). But 41%! That’s huge!

The next two on the list are no great surprise, either. Wittgenstein spent most of his professional life teaching at Cambridge and his work still features strongly in UK philosophy courses. On the other hand, he was from Austria and wrote in German, which I assume would help boost his popularity in German-speaking countries – and Germany was a German-speaking country last time I checked.

I must admit, however, that it intrigues me to see Russia in fourth spot. I have no idea what the philosophical climate is like there – has it changed since the break up of the Soviet Union? Is philosophy a thriving discipline, and if so what sort of philosophy is considered “hot” at the moment? Whatever the answers, there certainly seems to be a significant (I’d say “surprising”) level of interest in Wittgenstein. In fact, things are made even more intriguing when you realise that it was only after a year of so of writing the blog that Russia started to show up at all. Before that: zip. So they’re reached fourth spot despite giving the western world a twelve-month head-start. Does that say something about growing internet penetration in the country? Or an increase in the level of Russians who speak English? Or are those five hundred-odd hits all accounted for by a few obsessives who return to the site more often than is healthy? It’s perhaps worth noting in this context that India is another nation that’s made the top ten despite being completely absent for the first year of the site’s existence. They, like Russia, are a growing economic power in the world. Is that a coincidence?

The other surprising feature is the poor showing by France. Like Germany and the UK (and unlike, say, Spain or Italy) France has a long and venerable tradition of philosophical inquiry. And yet they languish in sixth spot and are only ahead of Latvia (Latvia!) on alphabetical order. If I had to guess I’d suggest this reflects the so-called “continental/analytic” divide – basically, two different approaches to philosophy which started to go their own way in the 19th century, with France most strongly representing the continental approach and Britain and the US championing the analytic side of things. To give an indication of how deep the divide was, I graduated in 1988 and my philosophy degree contained not a single lecture on Hegel, Nietzsche, Satre or Derrida. Not one. Since then things have supposedly improved, and many philosophers make bold claims about how the whole issue has been consigned to history. Certainly, when I was Warwick Uni in 2003 they paid much more attention to continental philosophy. All the same, my blog stats suggest the divide has not entirely disappeared.

Finally, for the tekkies out there, here are my browser stats.

PI views per browser

Is Firefox catching up with IE, or is it just that philosophers prefer it? I wouldn’t know – I’m a Chrome man myself.

Oh, btw, you can read the Wittgenstein blog at


Thoughts on The Brothers Karamazov

What am I to make of this beast of a book? This cluttered, passionate, awkward, ironic, heartfelt, clumsy, questioning, fever-dream of a novel?

Well, for a start it clearly deserves its reputation as one of the great works of European fiction. And this is true despite the fact that, viewed as a stand-alone work, it is dramatically unsatisfying and patchy.  Of the three brothers, Alyosha is introduced as the novel’s “hero”, yet after the first third he fades to an occasional onlooker.  Ivan is given two tremendous set-pieces (“The Grand Inquisitor” and his discussion with the Devil) but not much else.  And even Dimitri’s story, which takes up the bulk of the book, is left frustratingly unresolved.

The reason, of course, is that Dostoyevsky intended the book to be merely the first part of an epic series. He died before he could write the rest of the story (The Karamazov Brothers was completed just a few months before his death) and so, of course, what we have is necessarily fragmentary. The interesting thing is that in the final analysis this doesn’t really matter too much. In fact it is curiously appropriate. The inconclusive ending complements the disturbing instability which lies at the heart of The Karamazov Brothers; just when you think you have oriented yourself the ground shifts beneath your feet. Over and over again characters suddenly change, and it’s difficult to tell whether they are revealing their true selves, getting carried away by a momentary enthusiasm, being self-deluded, or just outright lying.

True, the narrator often steers us in a particular direction but he’s usually careful to leave the options tantalisingly open. And, in any case, the book’s instability encompasses the narrator himself. After all, who the hell is he? He is “within” the novel insofar as he identifies himself as a resident of the (fictional) town where Fyodor Karamazov lives. Sometimes he’s at pains to point out the documentary, incomplete or first-hand origins of what he’s presenting (eg, Father Zosima’s final speech and the account of Dimitri’s trial) but elsewhere he recounts with god-like authority events he couldn’t have possibly observed or even heard about (in other words, he writes like a traditional “omniscient” author). At one point (sorry, I forget where) he explicitly refers to his book as a “novel” even though it’s mostly written as if it was a factual account of real events. Is this inconsistency mere clumsiness on Dostoyevsky’s part or is he quietly undermining our faith in the ability of the novelist to reveal the truth about the human condition?

I can’t be sure but I tend towards the latter interpretation because one of the book’s most striking themes (it seems to me) is the elusiveness of humanity. We are enigmatic, strangers not only to others but also to ourselves. Sure, most of the time our behaviour runs along relatively predictable lines but we have something within us (what?) which might at any moment confound our expectations. Is this a nothingness, an abyss where the soul should be, or is it a well-spring of unifying transcendence – something which, for better or for worse, unites us and rises us above the humdrum circumstances of everyday life?

I think the novel leans towards this latter, mystical viewpoint. In fact it’s directly connected to the book’s central contention that we are all guilty of each other’s sins. But even if that’s right Dostoyevsky never gives himself (or us) an easy ride. The elusiveness of humanity can just as easily result in unexpected baseness as sudden piety. A minor but significant example. The book ends with Ilyusha’s funeral. Afterwards the dead boy’s school friends try to help his grief-stricken father who is close to madness. The boys themselves are in tears, overwhelmed by the occasion. One lad, Smurov, is trying to return the father’s hat which he’s discarded despite the freezing weather. And in the middle of it all we get this:

            “Smurov, although weeping uncontrollably and still holding the hat, managed nevertheless, practically without pausing, to pick up a piece of brick that appeared as a red object on the snowy path and threw it at a flock of sparrows that was flying past quickly. He missed, of course, and ran on crying.”

If you ever want to give an example of Dostoyevsky’s disturbing brilliance you could do a lot worse than that.


The Truth About Tony Ben

Review: “The Case for God, What Religion Really Means” by Karen Armstrong

Don’t be fooled by the title; this is not some trite attempt to prove that God exists or that religion is a great thing. Instead, it’s a tremendous, sweeping yet detailed account of the changing conception of religion from the dawn of humanity to the present day. Along the way, Armstrong stresses several themes.

For millennia religion was not seen primarily as a series of propositions to which one was required to assent (“God exists”, etc). Instead, it was a commitment to a particular way of living. At its heart lay a sense of ineffable divinity – an ultimate transcendence that was beyond understanding, beyond words, beyond even such concepts as existence or omnipotence. This ultimate transcendence was called “God” in the monotheistic religions. Although beyond knowing, some degree of contact with divinity was possible through ritual, symbolism and a variety of meditative practices (not just straightforward meditation as in Buddhism, but also theological reflection, philosophy or even the constant practice of humility and generosity). Contact with the ineffable helped people rise above worldly suffering and adopt a more compassionate way of life; it enabled them to become human in a fuller, richer sense.

By around 15000 CE, however, this ancient conception of religion was starting to be overtaken by a new way of seeing things. An increased faith in the power of reason alone to solve all problems helped “literalise” religion. Slowly “belief” changed from a commitment to a way of living to a series of unproven statements to which one assented. Along the way the notion of God changed: he became knowable, describable – a being in the world. Such a notion would’ve been considered idolatrous by older religious figures such as Thomas Aquinas. It made God athing.

This new notion of religion, divorced as it was from communal practices which had previously been its life-blood, was vulnerable to attack. As a mere series of statements it could seem unconvincing or even ridiculous. This vulnerability was only increased by religion’s attempt to co-opt science as a means of making it more respectable. But as science became increasingly able to describe the natural world without any need for a god (conceived as a super-being that created and sustained the laws of nature)the attempt justification through “natural theology” seemed horribly flawed.

The older sense of an ineffable transcendence has never entirely gone away, however. Armstrong argues that it is a mark of the human condition and as such can emerge in some unlikely places – modern physics, for example. She ends by wondering if the naturalistic turn in religion hasn’t now run its course. Perhaps it is time to reincorporate unknowing into our approach to the divine.

This is the third of Armstrong’s books that I’ve read (“The History of God” and “The Battle for God” being the other two). I’d say it was comfortably the best of the three and also, perhaps, the most important.




“Nietzsche – Philosopher, Psychologist, Antichrist” by Walter Kaufmann

An important and thought-provoking book for anyone wishing to get to grips with Nietzsche’s writings. Kaufmann does a good job of combating the various misleading interpretations which have dogged Nietzsche’s reputation over the years: that he was a proto-Nazi; a nihilist; a Social Darwinist; an irrationalist; someone who gloried in war and brutality; and so on. Indeed, whilst there are certainly many harsh (perhaps even shrill) comments in Nietzsche’s books, even a half-attentive reader will be struck by other, much warmer, remarks eulogising generosity, self-restraint and – perhaps above all – friendship. Making sense of these seemingly contradictory passages is one of the problems Nietzsche set his readers and Kaufmann’s book is substantially concerned with showing how they can be brought together in a coherent whole. His arguments are carefully constructed, backed up by quotes from the entire range of Nietzsche’s output (including notebooks and personal letters) and fleshed-out with an impressive range of scholarship.

All the same, while the book certainly increased my understanding of Nietzsche I can’t help thinking something was lost in the process. Nietzsche was a self-consciously enigmatic writer. He loved to shock, question and confound expectations. And he purposely chose to express himself in teasing aphorisms and ultra-brief essays rather than via weighty, system-expounding tomes. This (for me, at least) is undoubtedly part of his appeal. But the more Kaufmann arranges Nietzsche’s thought into a linear argument the more the magic seems to disappear. Nietzsche is robbed of mystery and emerges as just another philosopher – and not a particularly convincing one, either.

This is especially true of the extended discussion of Will to Power. As a metaphorical or “poetic” concept, Will to Power is intriguing and perhaps enlightening – it can certainly act as a useful corrective to sentimental clap-trap about the noble virtuousness of mankind. But when it’s arranged into a carefully constructed system which attempts to express the literal truth about the world then it strikes me as a patently implausible fantasy. Taken either as a metaphysical argument or a scientific theory (and it seems to wander uneasily between the two) it has nothing to recommend it other than the personal preferences of the author. (And the less said about eternal recurrence the better.)

I admire Nietzsche hugely for his style, courage, wit, contrariness, honesty, cheerfulness and psychological insight. But insofar as he was a philosopher at all, he was an anti-philosopher. To represent him as someone in the tradition of Kant or Hegel or even Socrates (who he undoubtedly admired) does him no favours.

Mysticism, Theology and Philosophy

“The head of the sacrificial horse, clearly, is the dawn” – thus begins the Brhadaranyaka Upanishad (how I love the use of “clearly” there). It’s one of the central works of Hindu scripture and when I started reading it the other day I was forcibly struck by the thought that it was almost impossible to imagine a book of the Bible beginning in such a bewildering manner – the nearest, I’d say, was the Gospel of St John (“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God and the Word was God”); and I think it’s fair to say that in the context of the gospels St John sticks out like a sore thumb.

But that’s the thing about the Upanishads: to say the least they wear their mysticism on their sleeves. They are constantly striving to express what they call “the real behind the real”. They present us with a vision of the world in which everything is connected to everything else; everything is literally itself and yet also a symbol for something else; everything grasps and is grasped. And behind it all, within it all, lies Brahman:

You can’t see the seer who does the seeing; you can’t hear the hearer who does the hearing; you can’t think of the thinker who does the thinking; and you can’t perceive the perceiver who does the perceiving. The self within all is this self of yours. All else besides this is grief!

Brhadaranyaka Upanishad. Chapter 3, part 4

Compared to this sort of stuff the books of the Old Testament prophets – perhaps even the Book of Revelation – are relatively straightforward. Obviously I’m not saying there isn’t any mysticism associated with Christianity (or Judaism or Islam, come to that); the very concept of a single, all-powerful God becomes pretty baffling and mystical as soon as you try to unpack it. But that’s exactly the problem: the Bible itself never really does get round to unpacking it. Instead, it focuses on narrative stories, moral laws and warnings of doom to come. Within all this, God is presented (albeit symbolically) in straightforwardly personal terms. He is “our father”, the Lord, etc.

Even more strikingly, the Bible’s two great works of wisdom, Ecclesiastes and Job, seem actively intent on discouraging mystical expression. The moral of Job is: you can’t understand God so shut up. And on surveying the endless troubled flow of human life, the preacher in Ecclesiastes puts it bluntly: “man cannot utter it” (Ecclesiastes, chapter 1, verse 8, KJV). It’s hard to be sure, but it seems to me that in these two books the Bible acknowledges the mystical while warning against sullying it by attempting to put it into words. It is spiritually ascetic and prefers to stand silent in the face of the ineffable.

That’s a respectable response, of course, but it’s also (a) deeply frustrating, and (b) not exactly helpful if you’re called upon to explain or justify the deepest aspects of your religious worldview. Perhaps that’s why Christianity has developed into the theological religion par excellence. The Bible is a pretty long book, but it’s a mere pamphlet compared to the endless tomes dedicated to elucidating such concepts as God, Christ, heaven, the Holy Trinity, the soul, etc, etc. Of course for the most part Christian theology is not presented as mystical. Rather, it claims to be based upon reason. To this day the Catholic Church frowns upon anything that smacks of “mystery”, and even Luther – who called reason a “whore” – used rational arguments when defending his position. But for all that there just is something mystical about Christian theology. The harder it tries to pin down the qualities of God the clearer it becomes that it’s dealing with something that cannot even be put into words, let alone proved by rational deduction. Here’s the brilliant Catholic theologian, Cardinal Newman:

This absence of all potentiality in God obliges Him to be immutable. He is actuality, through and through. Were there anything potential about Him, He would either lose or gain by its actualization, and either loss or gain would contradict his perfection. He cannot, therefore, change. Furthermore, He is immense, boundless; for could He be outlined in space, He would be composite, and this would contradict his indivisibility. He is therefore omnipresent, indivisibly there, at every point of space. He is similarly wholly present at every point of time, – in other words eternal. For if He began in time, He would need a prior cause, and that would contradict his aseity. If He ended, it would contradict his necessity. If He went through any succession, it would contradict his immutability.

The Idea of a University, Discourse III, §7

As a series of rational proofs this is pretty-much hopeless, but surely that’s not where its ultimate value lies? For although it doesn’t make much literal sense it is nevertheless beautiful, evocative and curiously moving. It points to something beyond the words – “the real behind the real”. And this is true of theology generally; its intricate, interlocking web of concepts and deductions starts to look more and more like a disguised, yearning prayer to the Unknowable. St Augustine himself hinted at this when discussing the Trinity: “We say ‘three persons’ not because this expresses just what we want to say, but because we must say something” (De Trinitate). Words are inadequate but silence is not an option. Isn’t that precisely the mark of the mystical?

Seen from this viewpoint, we can perhaps understand the continuing appeal of theology – an appeal which persists despite the fact that in two thousand years it has strikingly failed to establish one single incontrovertible truth about God. That sounds damning, but it misses the point. The conclusions are unimportant; the value lies in the contemplation required to produce them. Theology is disguised mysticism for an age that feels uncomfortable with anything that doesn’t present itself as rational.

Of course, our age isn’t just uncomfortable with the non-rational; it is increasingly uncomfortable with the idea of religion itself. No amount of theology, mystical or otherwise, can compensate for that. I’d suggest, however, that it’s no accident that the birth of science in the 17th Century also saw the re-birth of philosophy. In one sense this is trivially true: early Rationalist philosophers such as Descartes and Liebniz were explicitly reacting to exciting new scientific and mathematical developments. But I think there’s more to it than that. Rationalism, with its emphasis on reason and scepticism, might seem like the polar opposite of religion, but it’s worth remembering that it grew out of theology – or, at least, grew up in its shadow. Theology was the great intellectual construct of the day, and in establishing itself as a credible discipline Rationalist philosophy instinctively adopted many of its methods and approaches. Hence its thirst for eternal truths and unshakable foundations.

Now, if I’m right that theology is disguised mysticism, then we might expect to find this aspect embedded in philosophy as well. And frankly, we don’t have to look too hard to see it. For a start, the very notion of reason as a shining light which reveals incorrigible truths (Descartes’ “clear and distinct perceptions”) has more than a whiff of the mystical about it. It is, after all, a metaphor, but a metaphor for what? Since Rationalism is all about plain truths Descartes might have been a bit less poetic here. Instead, we get a little piece of mysticism lurking in the very heart of the Rationalist enterprise. Thereafter the list multiplies rapidly: Descartes’ mind/body dualism; Liebniz’s infinity of souls within an infinity of souls; Kant’s noumena and the binding logical connection between perceiver and perceived (which sounds exactly like something from the Upanishads); Hegel’s world-as-will, struggling through successive dialectical transpositions towards perfect consciousness; Satre’s existential struggle between being and nothingness – on and on to present-day philosophy with its “aspect dualism” and metaphysical truths that hold good in all possible worlds. These are dazzling visions, and even a hard-nosed materialist like Francis Crick is not immune to their lure:

The Astonishing Hypothesis is that “You,” your joys and your sorrows, your memories and your ambitions, your sense of personal identity and free will, are in fact no more than the behaviour of a vast assembly of nerve cells and their associated molecules. As Lewis Carroll’s Alice might have phrased it: “You’re nothing but a pack of neurons.” This hypothesis is so alien to the ideas of most people alive today that it can truly be called astonishing.

The Astonishing Hypothesis (1995) Chapter 1

Philosophically speaking, this is horribly confused. It simply dreams up a conception of “self” to suit its own purposes. But perhaps that misses the source of its appeal. For with its sense of awe and strangeness, what is it if not a deeply sublimated mystical vision? – An attempt to show us “the real behind the real”.

Like theology, philosophy has failed to establish a single incontrovertible truth throughout its lengthy history. But as with theology that isn’t the point. Philosophy is disguised mysticism for an age that has given up on God.

Review: “On Certainty” by Ludwig Wittgenstein

As the title suggests, On Certainty is a sustained meditation on the philosophical problems surrounding concepts such as “certainty”, “knowledge” and “belief”. Unlike Philosophical Investigations, which Wittgenstein spent several years obsessively polishing and refining (though it was never actually finished), On Certainty is first-draft material jotted down over the last eighteen months of his life. As such it is both fascinating and frustrating to read. Fascinating because of the insights it contains and also because it provides a “behind the scenes” glimpse of one of the 20th Century’s greatest philosophers at work. Frustrating because it endlessly circles around the same basic problem, namely that it seems inappropriate to say “I know” in connection with certain propositions (eg, “I have two hands”, “My name is so-and-so”, etc) and yet it seems equally inappropriate to say that I don’t know the truth of such statements. Again and again the same difficulties occur to him, and again and again he turns towards the same (or similar) solutions.

Ludwig Wittgenstein

Ludwig Wittgenstein

Exasperating though this can be, the journey is still compelling. It vividly illustrates the immense difficulty involved in accurately describing the use of terms like “I know”, and the surprisingly subtle and varied role they play in our lives. Nietzsche once commented that writing should always be “a conquest of oneself” and here we see Wittgenstein engaged in just such a struggle as he fights the temptation to be misled by our ordinary forms of expression. His refusal to give himself an easy time – to let himself off the hook – cannot help but produce admiration.

All this is not to suggest that he simply goes round in circles without getting anywhere. Make no mistake: On Certainty contains important observations about what it is to know something; the grounds (and sometimes the groundlessness) of certainty; the link between knowledge and behaviour; and the very nature of inductive reasoning itself. It is both profound and quietly unsettling as Wittgenstein strips knowledge of its metaphysical pretensions and centres it firmly in the life of the human animal.

Finally, I have to say that for me the book is a strangely poignant experience. After the first 36 pages the entries are dated (beginning at 23 September 1950) and as I read on I couldn’t help ticking off the days he had left to live. The final entry, on 27 April 1951, was written just two days before he died. Here’s the very last section, which illustrates both the originality of his thought and the elegance of his prose:

“But even if in such cases I can’t be mistaken, isn’t it possible that I am drugged?” If I am and if the drug has taken away my consciousness, then I am not now really talking and thinking. I cannot seriously suppose that I am at this moment dreaming. Someone who, dreaming, says “I am dreaming”, even if he speaks audibly in doing so, is no more right than if he said in his dream “it is raining”, while it was in fact raining. Even if his dream were actually connected with the noise of the rain.

On Certainty §676

The Hurricane and the Rocket

In the 1970s snooker was all about Alex Higgins. Whether you were a Higgins fan or found him an obnoxious little twerp, it was his behaviour that dominated the game. Was he winning? Was he losing? Had he sworn at the referee? Had he been in a brawl outside a nightclub after a five-day bender? How much were the WPBSA fining him this time? But there was more to it than newspaper tittle-tattle about hell-raising; Higgins’s personality provided the dramatic conflict which defined the game – he gave shape to the meta-narrative of snooker as it emerged from dingy clubs into the bright glare of a multi-million strong TV audience. In short, he made the game about something over and above mere frame scores or names on trophies.

"You want some?"

“You want some?”

It was a story of rebellion against authority; wayward talent versus hard-nosed professionalism; the doomed romantic urge to spit in the face of percentages, rules and the dead weight of common sense. As such, it was remarkably in keeping with the spirit of the times: truculent, cocky, anti-establishment. The 70s was perhaps the last decade when working-class upstarts genuinely believed not only that they had the right to challenge the status quo, but also that their challenge might be successful. From football hooligans to trade union activists to punk rockers it was an age of class confrontation, and snooker (rather improbably) managed to capture the zeitgeist thanks to Alex “Hurricane” Higgins.

But it was part of his genius that he didn’t just play out this drama via tabloid quotes and vodka binges; he somehow managed to embody it at the snooker table as well. Everyone remembers how he went for impossible shots and played at a speed seemingly designed to produce mistakes, but there was also the lithe, anxious way he flitted around the table, and a cue-action which was mainly comprised of nervous tics. Even sat in his chair, sipping lager and dragging on an Embassy, he was more interesting – more alive – than his opponent. Clive James nailed it when he observed that most snooker players are like hunters, methodically lining up the next victim to be despatched into the pocket; Higgins, by contrast, was a fox with the hounds snapping at his tail. The odds were stacked against him but he was fighting for his life, armed only with talent and a thin strip of wood. And it was this hunted quality that made watching him not merely entertaining, or even exciting – it made it compelling.

Or, at least, it did if you were a Higgins fan – and that was the point: he was a touchstone, and your attitude towards him said a lot about the sort of person you were. Were you a romantic or a realist? Orthodox or counter-culture? Roundhead or Cavalier? Because compared to Higgins the likes of Rex Williams, Eddie Charlton and Ray Reardon were unavoidably cast in the role of The Snooker Establishment – sensible fellows who were fine ambassadors for the sport. Perhaps unfairly they seemed to emerge from the repressed world of post-war austerity: the world of ration-books, conformity, national service and Harold Macmillan. Higgins, on the other hand, was very much a man of his times: ostentatious, confrontational and never happier than when biting the hand that fed him. He was Arthur-Seaton-meets-George-Best, and that was why it made sense to call him “The People’s Champion” even though his opponents were just as working class as he was. This was not merely a class struggle, it was a Kulturkampf.

The notion of snooker as an ideological battle-ground was heightened still further by the arrival of Steve Davis in 1980. It’s easy to forget these days, watching him do his “jovial uncle” routine beside John Parrott on the BBC sofa, but when he first burst onto the scene Davis was almost a caricature of a young, upwardly-mobile Thatcherite Conservative. He didn’t smoke, he didn’t drink, he spoke with an icy hauteur in post-match interviews – the guy even turned up at Tory Party conferences making lame jokes about “potting reds”. His game was polished, professional and calculated to punish his opponents’ mistakes. Your nan loved him and the archly-conservative Ted Lowe drooled every time he got down on a shot. So far as being The Establishment was concerned, he made Ray Reardon look like Che Guevara. If you were trying to invent an “anti-Higgins” you couldn’t have done better than Steve “Interesting” Davis.

"Maggie, Maggie, Maggie!"

“Maggie, Maggie, Maggie!”

Above all, however, Davis liked winning and he was monotonously good at it. For him snooker really was just a question of frame scores and names on trophies – his name, preferably. And so while in one sense he represented the zenith of snooker’s cultural struggle, he also marked its terminus. Over the next ten years the idea of the snooker rebel was decisively routed. Davis raised the bar in terms of the consistent standard required of a snooker professional and, in the long run, Higgins’s game simply couldn’t cope. A new orthodoxy was established which predominates to this day. After Davis, what you stood for as a human being was unimportant. It was all about winning. It was all about business. It was all about money.

With this in mind, let’s jump forward to the present and consider the dominant figure of the last ten years: Ronnie “The Rocket” O’Sullivan. Certainly there’s an obvious resemblance here with Higgins: an attacking, fast-paced player, dogged by controversy and the fall-out from a colourful private life. But it seems to me that these surface similarities disguise a fundamental gulf between the two players and the societies from which they emerged.

First, there’s O’Sullivan’s game itself. Yes, it’s attacking and fast but, crucially, his basic technique is essentially orthodox. His shot-stance, for example, is a wonderfully refined version of what you’ll find in any coaching manual. He plays with a natural elegance that is a joy to behold. For make no bones about it: when he’s on form Ronnie O’Sullivan is simply the best player the world has ever known. I can remember watching him demolish Stephen Hendry 17-4 in the semi-final of the 2004 World Championship and realising with a shock that I’d never seen snooker played at this level before. His rhythm, shot selection and exquisite cue-ball control all combined to achieve something remarkable: he make the game look beautiful. Nobody would ever have dreamed of saying the same about Alex Higgins.

This sense of beauty is connected to one of the most fascinating things about O’Sullivan: for him the game is clearly not simply about winning. Time after time he thumps his opponent only to complain bitterly about his standard of play and how its shortcomings rendered the victory joyless. He seems to view the game primarily as an aesthetic endeavour. But although his quest for perfection certainly represents an alternative to the Davis cult of professionalism, it is not really a challenge to it. For one thing, it only makes sense if you regularly win; otherwise, you’re just a bad player moaning about playing badly. But more importantly, it is simply too introverted to be confrontational (it might be classed as a “passive-aggressive” approach to snooker). It is a personal rather than a public form of expression; the conflict is internalised and portrayed as O’Sullivan battling against himself as he strives to realise his potential. The other guy is almost an after-thought. This internalisation brings with it an increased focus on feeling, which is often presented in a medicalised format (for nobody’s merely unhappy any more): what mood is Ronnie in? How is he coping with his depression? Will he produce the beautiful snooker we crave or will his inner demons get the better of him?

"Worst. 147. Ever!"

“Worst. 147. Ever!”

The contrast here with Higgins couldn’t be sharper. For O’Sullivan it’s all a matter of how he feels, but with Higgins it was all about what he did. He drank too much; gambled too much; took too many drugs; and behaved in an unruly and sometimes deeply unpleasant manner (just ask Dennis Taylor). Even the explanations of his behaviour tended to be couched in terms of social identity rather than personal psychology: it was all about his class, his generation, his upbringing on the mean streets of Belfast. When did you ever hear anyone make an issue out of O’Sullivan’s class (or any other modern snooker player, come to that)? And Ronnie’s upbringing features in his troubles only via the domestic, personal trauma of his father’s imprisonment.

Here we have in microcosm a cultural shift from public confrontation to private angst. For the 1970’s rebel, if you were aggrieved it was because you found society oppressive. Today’s malcontents, however, are personally unhappy and probably psychologically damaged. It is a modern narrative which invites – nay demands – sympathy for the individual even as it neutralises him and cuts his life adrift from any broader social context. Thus O’Sullivan represents a problem for the snooker authorities, insofar as they’re desperately keen for him to continue playing, but he in no way represents a challenge to them. He perplexes them, but he doesn’t scare them. It is also a narrative which comes alarmingly close to suggesting that if you don’t fit in then you are mentally ill.

Such were the 70s and such is today. The change time wrought in Higgins was distressing to say the least. His six stone corpse, wracked with cancer, was found on the 24th of July 2010 at the sheltered accommodation he was forced to call home. He had been dead for some days. It was a ghastly, squalid end and yet even so there was something grimly apt about it; not for him the pundit’s microphone, cosily joshing with Hazel and Steve before turning to the crucial issue of whether Ali Carter could beat Shaun Murphy…. Christ! He wouldn’t have been able to read the autocue for the tears in his eyes. No. Belligerent, unapologetic, he played his string right out to the end. But the world had changed and Alex Higgins had stopped making sense. He was a man out of his time. What else was there for him to do except die?

Alexander Gordon Higgins, 18 March 1949 - 24 July 2010

Alexander Gordon Higgins, 18 March 1949 – 24 July 2010

Some Thoughts on Horoscopes

In his essay Wittgenstein and the Interpretation of Religious Discourse, Alan Bailey cites astrology as an example of a language-game we can legitimately criticise due to its irrationality, despite the fact that millions of people believe in it to some degree. Although I think Bailey is badly off-line, I do not intend to give a detailed response here. Instead, I want to offer a few thoughts about my own attitude towards astrology that his essay brought to the surface. They suggest to me that the issue is not entirely about rationality or irrationality. At least in part it’s about one’s personal attitude towards the world as a human being.

To be clear: I don’t believe in astrology, horoscopes and the such-like. I know full-well that all objective tests show there is no correlation between star signs, personality and the events that occur in people’s lives. I also understand how horoscopes are carefully worded to make them too vague to be easily falsifiable while still seeming to offer concrete advice. In short, I think it’s a load of nonsense. And yet….

I have to admit that on the odd occasion I stumble upon my horoscope I do not (indeed cannot) read it with precisely the same attitude I might have towards other dubious pieces of information. There is something about the context or the professed significance of the statement that requires me to regard it in a particular way, even though I do not believe for a moment in its prophetic powers. Despite my scepticism I engage with it on some level. This is not to suggest that my scepticism is illusionary – but neither is my engagement. Ironic, yes; illusionary, no. For a few moments I indulge my credulity (smiling at myself as I do so) and read the horoscope as if it were true. Of course, I then forget about it almost at once and carry on with my life. All the same, it is interesting that it yields a reaction other than derision or complete indifference.

It is difficult to describe accurately what’s happening on such occasions, but I also think it’s important not to use some ad hoc theory to brush the whole thing under the carpet. So one might, for example, be tempted to say “Oh, it’s just a hangover from your childhood credulity”. We often use these “theories of the moment” (so to speak), but – honestly – what grounds do we have for such an explanation? Isn’t it merely a palliative we reach for when we no longer want to be bothered with something? Doesn’t it amount to little more than saying “don’t worry yourself about it”?

The fact is this: the power of prophecy is not completely alien to me, but at the same time I’m a modern man with a modern upbringing who doesn’t believe in such things. And the lurking appeal of prophecy here is nothing to do with ignorance – eg, with being unaware of the power of scientific methodology. It is more animal than that: a strange, instinctive reaction to the world. It is part of my life.

Now, when I meet people who actually believe in such things I tend to feel very intellectually distant from them. I find it hard to understand how they can take this stuff seriously – but part of me does understand it. The attitude I find momentarily pleasing they find compelling. And if you ask them for the grounds of their belief what will they say? They might talk airily about “mystic forces” and “auras” not yet comprehended by science. (Such talk would strike me as similar to the “theories of the moment” mentioned earlier – it serves the same basic purpose: they want to behave like this, but they’re challenged by that, so they grab a fig leaf to cover their embarrassment and carry on as before.) They might, on the other hand, simply admit that they didn’t know how it all worked, but nonetheless it was what they believed in. And that would be that. We behave according to these rules. They don’t. We consider people unreasonable if they aren’t convinced by this way of looking at things. They don’t.

And this is how it is with me: sometimes their flight in the face of reason makes me shake my head at human gullibility, but sometimes, when I’m in a more accepting mood, they seem to add to the warmth, variety and humanness of life.

A final, slightly tangential thought. It never strikes us as odd that we educated, rational folk will quite happily go to see a film about vampires or hobbits or even angels (so long as it’s not too preachy). We have no difficulty at all in bathing in that alternative universe for a couple of hours. We do not screw up our faces when the movie starts and say “Vampires? Seriously? Who made this film, a lunatic?” Rather, it seems the most unremarkable thing in the world. I can’t help thinking that reveals something interesting about us as human beings.


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