Monday 31 March 2008

Submit to the human touch

The Human Touch, by Michael Frayn

‘Hence it happened that the active side, in contradistinction to materialism, was developed by idealism – but only abstractly, since, of course, idealism does not know real, sensuous activity as such.’

In my youth, these words, written in 1845 by Karl Marx’s in the first of his ‘Theses on Feuerbach’, struck me like a bolt of lightning. On reading them I there and then decided to consign all idealist philosophy to the dustbin of history, safe in the knowledge that materialist philosophy would, from that point on, be able to fully account for and assist in the development of ‘the active side’ of man. Only a philosophy that based itself on the concrete and demonstrable side of man’s nature, I believed, would be capable of comprehending and changing the world (which was, after all, ‘the point’, according to Marx’s famous eleventh thesis). Everything else was mere religion.

Of course, at the time I was approaching the problem of knowledge from my own, personal, anti-religionist perspective. In consigning idealism to this immense historical dustbin I was at the same time consigning my church-going past. I was facing the future independently, without God on my side. Fair enough for an angry teenager, I suppose.

Today, however, things are different. Of course, God the Father still does not exist (and I have no intention of returning to the fold even on an ironic basis); but, for sure, God the man-made idea has a reality that needs explanation, not dismissal. Furthermore, I no longer face the future independent and alone. Alongside me I have a wife and children, family and friends, acquaintances and colleagues, and an entire human race with which I share certain linguistic, cultural, and political characteristics. And such characteristics do not easily conform to the solid, materialistic vision of what is real. One cannot touch a language, or pocket an integer, or provide the co-ordinates of a moral judgement.

Nevertheless, languages, numbers and judgements are real, and they shape our lives no less than do the weather, our bank balance, and our blood pressure. Marx was well aware of this and his materialism was so much more sophisticated than my immature matter-bound, iconoclastic doctrines. His first thesis quite rightly recognises the service that idealism has performed for human thought in showing that the world around us has an ideal, human content. Marxist dialectics has always recognised that the ideal side of human existence can never be reduced to the mechanics of matter, and this is in keeping with the great idealist philosophers – Vico, Rousseau, Kant and Hegel – who helped develop the method before Marx. These philosophers knew that in coming to grips with the tangible world we thereby come to grips with our intangible selves.

So where does this leave us? And what on earth has this to do with the man who wrote the screenplay for the amusing mid-1980s John Cleese comedy film Clockwise (for Frayn is he)? Well…everything.

In recent years philosophy written for the layman has languished, vaccillating between the crude materialism of Richard Dawkins on the one hand and the semi-religious how-to-live nonsense of Alain de Botton on the other. Indeed, modern thinking seems to have regressed to around that time three hundred years ago when Newton’s clockwork universe held out the promise of explaining every last human action, much to the dismay of the priests and the subjective idealists. But, after reading The Human Touch, I believe that if anyone can break through today’s philosophical impasse then Frayn can. This may be unsurprising. After all, in Clockwise he showed us that the world of human affairs does not run like clockwork, and that to believe it does is the surest way of being brought down and held at the mercy of more complicated human motives.

The central idea in The Human Touch is that the world reflects our human characteristics back at us. This idea stems from a study of analogy that Frayn carries out through most of the book, and this allows him a degree of flexibility in his thinking: ‘Analogy offers some explanation, as rules do not, of how categories are extended to colonise the unknown’ (page 364). From mankind’s earliest times right up to the present day, Frayn shows how the human ability to see a similarity in things that are different has resulted in the great technological and theoretical leaps. For instance, counting began when early man perceived a non-physical resemblance between his sheep and his fingers. Several thousand years later, Einstein’s theory of relativity was born of an analogy between a beam of light and the tram that carried him daily to his place of work at the patent office in Berne.

So, despite all we are routinely told about man’s insignificance in an infinite universe, or about his randomness in an infinitesimal world, Frayn nobly lifts himself above all this, and shows us significance and meaning. Insofar as all our discoveries (even those stumbled upon by accident) involve us first seeing things in a new way, the world ‘out there’ has a human face. According to Frayn, the world would not be the world without the prior involvement of man’s creative powers and insight. The playwright Terence wrote ‘Nothing human is alien to me’; the screenwriter Frayn could perhaps have written the counterpart to this: nothing alien is inhuman to me.

Frayn pursues this theme through all areas of human knowledge and activity. He begins at the epistemological foundations of modern philosophy, namely, the swirling, incessant sense data that we have a tendency to label as solid objects. Frayn fully acknowledges the impermanent and elusive nature of this data, but – wholly to his credit – he resists the urge to reduce the world of objects to the data that compose them, as so many idealists have done before him. Bishop George Berkeley famously denied the existence of matter by reducing it in this way in his Principles of Human Knowledge (1710). In a reversal of direction, but applying exactly the same idea, the secular authority Richard Dawkins frequently denies the existence of God by reducing Him to the brain states of His individual followers. But Frayn is no such reductionist: he lays down a convincing case for both permanence and impermanence existing as two sides of the same coin. Indeed, without permanence, there can be no impermanence (and vice versa).

With equal determination, and in a highly entertaining style, Frayn pursues similar arguments with regard to the laws of nature (which in fact are as absolute – and as precarious – as the rule of Charles I), space and time (the perceptions of which have changed throughout history, as human social relations have changed), and the world of number and logic (whose tightly defined concept of truth seems unable to be applied to those truths we hold most dear).

Most other writers might have left it at this for a first-time philosophy book, but at this point Frayn launches into the worlds of human action, human language, and human personality, disposing of many of the commonly held ideas that seek to locate and pin down man, that seek to define and contain our decision-making ability. But our freedom cannot be pinned down and boxed up so easily, and Frayn quite convincingly demonstrates this with a number of introspective phenomenological studies. By trying to clarify and uncover what is going on in his mind at literally the decisive moment, Frayn succeeds in showing that there is in fact nothing there that we can grasp. The decision cannot be determined in advance; and afterwards it is too late because by then the decision is fait accompli. The moment of our freedom seems to elude us. This is something of a relief because if it could be grasped, then we would not be free, and the world as we know it – as a world of possibilities – would not exist.

This sort of thinking is exactly what philosophy needs right now – a celebration of man and his unique ability to relate to himself by having his ideas reflected back at him by the world around him. Philosophy needs to appreciate that consciousness and its creations are not chimerical dreams; they are just as much a part of the world as the stars and planets are. Indeed, philosophy needs to appreciate that the stars and planets have an inescapably ideal content, provided by man. Consider the sun, for instance. Since man’s first awakening, this mere ball of fire has loomed large on his horizon and has been the occasion of his desires for power and knowledge, and thus the subject of a number of increasingly penetrative questions. The result of this questioning is the sophisticated understanding of the sun that we have today. In other words, the nuclear fusion taking place in the heart of the sun now belongs as much to man as it belongs to nature itself.

Frayn makes it clear that man has colonised nature with his perceptions and ideas, and for this alone his book is worth reading. However, in clearing the ground of a lot of today’s crude materialism and irrelevant didacticism Frayn has only found himself back at the point where Marx picked up the problem in his ‘Theses on Feuerbach’. I felt that Frayn certainly was trying to develop the active side of man, but – as with all the idealists – only abstractly. His focus throughout the book was on man, but never on men – or women – never on the real people who constitute mankind. For example, at one point Frayn asserts (correctly) that rights are not discovered; they are asserted. But he seems to forget that universal rights have only ever been asserted partially – not by man, but by men (or, rather, one group of men above another). Even Tom Paine, in his dedication to George Washington at the beginning of his Rights of Man, expresses the wish that such rights become universal.

Throughout The Human Touch, and despite his genuine appreciation of the ideas that have shaped history, Frayn never really examines them historically, and in context. His method is phenomenological: he adopts as his viewpoint the present-day individual and his perceptions, rather than historically situated man and his actions. This abstractness is unfortunately to Frayn’s detriment. Examples of the people who devoted their lives to the practical implementation of an ethereal idea such as democracy or liberty or even harmony simply do not feature his study. But it is just through studying these individuals (or even by being one of them) that one gets a feel for the material side of the idea, and a feel for the material conditions that occasion its blossoming.

It is interesting that in the prologue Frayn writes that, despite his book raising many of the big questions in life, ‘it will not help with any of the world’s practical matters, or make us better people’. But here we must beg to differ. Ideas, if they are to relate at all to the physical world, must be held by real people, and in holding these ideas the people in question will perceive the physical world and all its practical matters differently. Some practical problems might even become soluble if the world could be seen in the optimistic light that radiates from Frayn’s book. At the very least, many of the belt-tightening arguments of the environmentalists, which seem to take inert nature as the beginning and end of everything, could be confidently overcome if instead man were to be taken as the measure of all things.

Frayn’s weakness is understandable. Philosophy has always struggled with appreciating the material side of the idea. It is by its nature a contemplative subject, and shies away from the task of trying to establish the truth of an idea in the day-to-day world. It tends to prefer the library to the labour exchange or the laboratory. But at least with The Human Touch we are given the clear impression by Frayn that there is meaning to be discovered in the world, not super-imposed on it like that claptrap from De Botton; and that the spirit of man is not an insignificant figment, as Dawkins would have us believe. OK, Frayn may avoid confronting the world’s practical matters, but perhaps in reading his book we will be encouraged to go out there and confront them ourselves, knowing that they will undoubtedly yield to our real, sensuous activity and submit to the human touch


Ciaran Guilfoyle is the editor of Quest, the quarterly journal of the Queen’s English Society. He studied philosophy at the University of Nottingham


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