Monday, 6 July 2015

Conference Report: British Personalist Forum International Conference 2015; Episode 104

At very long last, and much to the relief of all concerned, we bring you now the final instalment of our gripping new 117 part series: The 2015 British Personalist Forum International Conference, A Report

Episode 104: The Last Gasp
Curare-tipped darts; I forgot to mention the half-dozen curare-tipped darts protruding from the lithe yet muscular form of our heroic chairman, Alan Ford; their colourful flights, beautifully crafted from the feathers of rare jungle birds, waved gently in the pre-luncheon breeze. He looked as though some homicidal acupuncturist with a passion for Sherlock Holmes stories had struck him down. 
     Fortunately, the aforementioned tweed jacket which Alan sported during the entire conference provided more than sufficient protection from poison darts, stampeding horses, speeding motors, lead piping, gun fire, and antique daggers. You just can’t beat a good English tweed.
     Alan, we were delighted to discover, was fine. He had simply decided to take a short rest beneath the table in order to recruit himself before lunch was served. 
     And what of Conti? Well may you ask. Charles, it seems, had himself nicked off to get some lunch amid all the kerfuffle. Both he and Alan were back in their customary places by the time the plenary sessions began. 

     The two plenary sessions were given over to international speakers, fast friends to many of us there that day: Jan Olof Bengtsson and Juan Manuel Burgos.  Jan Olof took the first and set out bravely to defend what he calls the “Personal Idealist conception of the finite self”.  Against whom, he was defending it, I should hesitate to say, since just about all of us there were ready to give it a go, but defend it he did with no shortage of vim and verve.  His jumping-off point was the auseinandersetzung between personal and absolute idealism, respectively represented by Pringle-Pattison and Bosanquet; his focal point, the mode or nature of personal existence: “substantive” or “adjectival”.  All of which has significant impact on whether and if so how the very idea of “the absolute” has any part to play in personal idealism and perhaps any philosophy at all.
     One of the things which struck me as particularly interesting about Jan Olof’s paper -- aside, that is, from the well-seasoned meat of the argument, which I couldn’t hope to reproduce here -- was just how far idealist thought has come from those antediluvian arguments about what and where the “real” is to be found.  Realists, meanwhile, continue mumbling and stumbling about, raking toothlessly over the same old arguments, and waving their increasingly flaccid phalogocentrism in our faces as though J. L. Austin, Hamsphire, Strawson, and, yes, Wittgenstein, had never put pen to paper.  What I don’t understand is why anyone would care whether anything, let alone “the world” (whatever that means), exists independently of our encounters with it. Isn’t there enough to do -- and stop doing -- with all that we do encounter?
     That is not to say that I consider myself an idealist, except perhaps in the colloquial sense of being someone perpetually setting themselves up for disappointment.  In fact, Richard made a point of asking me what I am -- philosophically speaking, that is.  “I know you’re anti-realist, but what are you?”  He said, provocatively.  Anti-realist?  Naughty, very naughty.  Can’t be “anti” something which is unintelligible.  Philosophical and, worse, theological realism comes under the same umbrella as square circles, honest politicians, leftover wine, popes who preach that not having children is selfish, people who say they don’t like the film Casablanca, and so on: it isn’t really wrong or mistaken as such, it’s just incoherent.
     So I’ll give you the same carefully considered response I gave Richard: I’m just like any other man, only more so.  And my profound gratitude to the brothers Epstein for that superb line.  Besides, as anyone who read my report of the Lund conference will know, “danger” is my middle name. 
     But I digress. I do think that Jan Olof is right in saying that there are, for the personalist, many valuable resources in idealist thought, resources to which it would be unwise to allow old fashioned prejudices against the Bishop of Cloyne, to blind us.  

     The second plenary was given over to Juan Manuel Burgos who is, in case you don’t know, the biggest cheese of all in both the Spanish Personalist and Latin-American Personalist Associations.  Juan Manuel took us on a fascinating expedition into the relations between realism and idealism in personalist thought. Interestingly, the former, he identified with the Continental schools while the latter is a peculiarly Anglo-American phenomenon.  Now, I freely admit that my knowledge of Continental personalism isn’t especially deep; even so I can’t help wondering whether they are all really realists.  Some are, clearly; those most influenced by Thomism, for example: Wojtyla and that crowd.  But Buber? The most cursory glance through the first few pages of I and Thou suggest otherwise.  Whether Buber counts as a personalist is, of course, another matter. 
     I can believe, however, that the American’s are largely idealist in tone and inclination.  That would be just like them.  But the British?  Never!  Apart from anything else, we Brits are far too fond of complaining to be idealists.  More to the point, I’m pretty sure that Macmurray -- a Scot -- wasn’t.  In fact, I seem to remember someone -- Mark Arnold, I think -- telling me that Macmurray was a scientific realist.  Now, I’m not entirely sure what that means -- empiricist of some kind, I suspect -- but Mark has read considerably more of Macmurray than I have, so I’m inclined to take his word for it in this case.  As for the other two stars of the BPF, Polanyi and Farrer, I do not think that they were either realist or idealist.  In fact, I’m inclined to agree with Richard when he suggests that even to ask whether they were realists or idealists is to miss the point completely.  Richard was actually talking about Polanyi, but the same goes for Farrer.  Both men went far, far beyond that archaic dichotomy.  That is why, in Faith and Speculation, Farrer refused to take all those silly old arguments between empiricism and rationalism seriously.  Of course real knowledge depends on discovered facts; who could seriously doubt that?  But facts aren’t discovered without intelligent exploration or understood and communicated without intelligent exposition.  Similarly, in another context, he argued that it is the interplay between events and images (or ideas, or concepts, or what have you) that supplies the key to knowledge and understanding.  Events alone are shy and secretive creatures; unclothed by images and ideas, they might tempt our curiosity but ultimately they reveal nothing very much worth knowing.  Likewise, images sans events are merely ‘shadows on the clouds’. 
     Hence, the real question is how mind grapples physically with both the world and its own identity.  All the rest is sound and fury.

     And so we reach the final scene of our adventure: in which we climb aboard an old DC 10 bound for freedom and the New World; the baddies pull a gun and get a belly full of lead; and Charles and Alan walk off into the night at the beginning of a beautiful friendship.

     The conference drew to a magnificent conclusion with an open session and general discussion. Participants, audience members, and witnesses were all alike invited to comment on the proceedings. Mark Arnold almost set the room alight again by asking whether personalism might be done without having God in the picture.  Fortunately, it was late and we were all pretty done in so daggers remained sheathed, horses unstampeded, and poison darts in their silver Edwardian poison dart cases.  Charles suggested that personalism most certainly could be done minus deity and pointed Mark towards Ludwig Feuerbach’s ‘therapeutic atheism’.  This might seem like a odd thing to say, given neo-ortodoxian kingpin, Karl Barth, once declared Feuerbach to be more theological than most theologians.  I myself might be inclined to disagree with Conti on this point; but then, you see, it all depends what you mean by “God”.
     And so the conference was finally brought to a close with secret handshakes and the customary demands for alcohol.  We cheered, we applauded, we put on our coats and stood around taking pictures on one another’s phones.  It had all been a great success, as everyone agreed.  That, as I may have mentioned previously, was largely thanks to Richard Allen who did all the organising.
     And then, quite suddenly, the lights went out....

     Here endeth the barely coherent and semi-libellous ramblings of our Oxford correspondent; here endeth our world famous and irregular feature: The 2015 British Personalist Forum International Conference, A Report. Tune in next time when our correspondent returns to the medieval world of not particularly rural Ireland, where the sheep run wild and free and a good broadband signal is but a dream, there to continue in his quest to make philosophy entirely inaccessible to ordinary readers and scholars alike.