I Want to Know Y
Time, July 12, 1963

 

FLY AND THE FLY-BOTTLE
by Ved Mehta.
269 pages. Atlantic Press. $4.95.

SOCRATES, AS EVERYONE KNOWS was a tiresome old man who used to buttonhole youths on the streets of Athens and teach them to think straight by making them talk in circles. In their confused gratitude, Athenians served Socrates liberally with hemlock. Since then, relations between philosophers and the man in the street have been, at best, remote.

Anyone who feels that this sorry state should (or could) be rectified had better read Fly and the Fly-Bottle. A spirited if bewildering attempt by a young Indian writer to bring a gaggle of contemporary British thinkers into popular focus, the book leads to two almost inescapable conclusions. One: British philosophers are seldom intelligible even to one another. Two: Author Mehta, who calls himself an intellectual journalist and writes for the New Yorker, did well to devote some of his interviews to historians.

Topsy-Turvy Recollections. Ved Mehta's approach is refreshingly direct. Although he has been blind since the age of three, he courageously taught himself to navigate the world without benefit of cane or canine, studied at Pomona College and Oxford. Stopping off in London recently, and finding philosophers bickering and historians snicker-sneering at each other from behind the learned journals, he resolved to talk to them all and see what the fuss was about.

But as a journalist, Ved Mehta is not quite up to his own assignment. The most charitable view of his book is that it is a bit too successful in communicating to the reader the author's own state of quizzical bemusement as he plunges into a metaphysical brier patch.

Despite many personal details (Bertrand Russell, we learn, smokes a pipe and reads detective stories) and ostentatious visual descriptions of each philosopher's appearance (which the author obviously had to ask for), it is difficult from Ved Mehta's elliptical notes to get a good grip on just what the men are or what they stand for.

What finally remains—perhaps this is all Ved Mehta wanted to convey—is the topsy-turvy recollection of a dozen or so charming fellows, many of whom seem to engage in a kind of verbal nit picking, identified with Oxford and known as "linguistic philosophy." Language is the gateway to knowledge, goes the argument, and analyzing ordinary language is the best way, if not to solve, at least to understand problems. Present-day Oxford philosophers have little patience with the philosophers of the past who wrestled mightily with ethics, metaphysics and transcendental abstractions. As one thinker explained to Ved Mehta: "Why bother listening to men whose problems arose from bad grammar?" Ved Mehta sums up: Once philosophers asked "What is truth?" Now they say, "Look at all the different ways the word true is used in ordinary speech." All these ways summed up is all that can be known of truth.

Hypothetical Hippopotamus. Dryly reporting on knotty puzzles ("If I know that Y is the case, is it possible for me not to know that I know it?"), Ved Mehta often makes the philosophers sound like an act from Beyond the Fringe, never more so than in his scattered notes on Ludwig Wittgenstein, who died in 1951 after helping to father the linguistic movement, and who is regarded as a giant by most British philosophers. "What is your aim in philosophy?" Wittgenstein once asked himself, and promptly replied, "To show the fly the way out of the fly-bottle." Wittgenstein emerges as the kind of brilliant eccentric who will always seem unutterably comic to the layman. "He maintained, for example," Fellow Philosopher Bertrand Russell once reported, "that all existential propositions are meaningless. This was in a lecture room, and I invited him to consider the proposition: 'There is no hippopotamus in this room at present.' When he refused to believe this, I looked under all the desks without finding one; but he remained unconvinced."

Telescope or Microscope. Historians quarrel more than philosophers in Ved Mehta's book, but they seem easier to read (and write) about, perhaps because their haggling hinges upon some old and recognizable problems: What is history? How should it be studied?

From history seen (by Arnold Toynbee) as the cyclical flowering and dying of contemporaneous cultures to history presented merely as a patternless step-by-step unfolding of events, all the old theories still persist. And between Toynbee's long-range telescope and the microscope of such historians as C. V. Wedgwood, there is room for a voluble difference in views. Moralists like Sir Isaiah Berlin insist that historians must pass judgment on the past. A.J.P. Taylor, who has been roundly attacked for implying that Hitler operated on power principles just as serious and rational as those of Churchill, thinks the past can be judged only on its own terms. Between them lies a determinist like E. H. Carr (author of What is History?), who insists that the past passes judgment on itself by what happened—the victorious forces in history, he seems to say, are the right ones.

Scourge of them all is terrible-tempered H.R. Trevor-Roper, Regius professor of modern history at Oxford.  Trevor-Roper writes little history himself but angrily blitzes the offerings of his contemporaries. Determinists are wrong, Trevor-Roper growls, because they leave no room in history for decisive accidents and strange contingencies. Toynbee, he says, is just as foolish in believing that Western society may one day be saved through the growth of a syncretic faith blending half a dozen contemporary religions.

Finding no ground for agreement, Ved Mehta disconsolately turned for a summation to Dutch Historian Pieter Geyl. "History," said Geyl (proving that, if nothing else, he has studied his fellow historians), "is an argument without end."