We asked gerontologist and philosopher, Raymond Tallis, to comment on his current work and ideas that have influenced him…
Which of your own ideas have you been thinking about most recently?
I am currently engaged on two books. The first isDe Luce, which is an inquiry into the extraordinary fact that we humans make some kind of sense of the world. My focus at present is on the difference between the physicist’s account of reality and our subjective experience of it. For the last month or so, I have been focussing on time and the relationship between the objective time of the physicist and the experience of time, in particular of tensed time (past, present and future) for which there may be no exact correlative in physics. This sounds abstract but in fact it plays directly into our tragic sense of life and, also, our understanding of what we are (or are not). This is made more explicit in the other book I am writing – Brain Rot – which is a critique of what I call neuromythology – the belief that neuroscience can, or will, explain everything about us. The failure to find anything corresponding to tensed time in the (material brain) is one very significant pointer to the inadequacy of neuroscientific accounts of human consciousness.
What idea of someone else has made most impact on you recently?
Over the last month I have been reading two short books by Slavoj Zizek: On Violenceand Welcome to the Desert of the Real. Although I am suspicious of Zizek’s tendency to make very broad and sweeping statements, I am also impressed by his perceptive observations of the nature of politics and of the social world. One idea of his – that there is an inherent violence built into the generalising power of language -has intrgued me. Language yokes together very large numbers of things, irons out differences and permits those higher order ideas and categorisations upon which persecutions and wars are launched. For me this casts light on the fundamental nature of discourse that articulates the world. In short, as happens when you are preoccupied with writing a book, all the books you read seem to lead back to it.
What is the most important book/article of ideas that everyone should read and why?
This is of course and unanswerable question because books are important for different reasons and at different times. However, under pressure as it were, a few months ago, I responded to The Week’s request for my top half a dozen. Here they are and the reasons why:
1. On Nature by Parmenides. He is our cognitive godfather and in the 150 lines of his prosaic poem there occurs the first head-on collision of human knowledge with itself. Plato and Aristotle are his footnotes. You will read his complete works in 15 minutes and require an entire lifetime to feel into the implications of his unthinkable thoughts.
2. The Complete Works of William Shakespeare. So obvious that he is forbidden to castaways on Desert Island Discs, but this doesn’t alter the fact that he is the greatest. As Alexandre Dumas said: “After God, Shakespeare has created most”. And God doesn’t exist.
3. Meditations on First Philosophy by René Descartes. Another collision of human consciousness with itself that has had a huge resonance in Western thought over the last 300 years. Lovely, lucid prose as well. Vertigo, astonishment, joy and panic await those who accept his invitation to question everything.
4. War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy. It gathers up more of human life than any other work of fiction and holds it altogether. Read it and be enlarged. Read it again and be enlarged again.
5. Ulysses by James Joyce. There is no more faithful and inventive representation of the complexity, the connectedness and disconnectedness, of everyday life and consciousness. Ordinary daylight becomes the fabric of a vision.
6. Being and Time by Martin Heidegger. The masterpiece of the greatest philosopher of the twentieth century. In describing human being-in-the-world he transforms our sense of the world from that of a burdensome given to a miracle. That he was such a wicked man casts an interesting light on the relationship between human consciousness at its height, the politics of the real world, and the ethics of everyday life.
You may notice that not all of these are books of ideas. But it is sometimes important to work upstream and downstream of ideas in order to be able to put them in a broader context.
Raymond Tallis is a gerontologist, philosopher, humanist, poet, novelist and cultural critic, and a leading figure in British medicine. On leaving public school, he studied medicine at Oxford University before going on to work at St Thomas’ Hospital in London. He retired in 2006 as Emeritus Professor of Geriatric Medicine at the University of Manchester. Tallis’ philsophical writings have attempted to supply an anthropology acknowledging what is distinctive and remarkable about human beings. His books include Not Saussure, Theorrhoea and After, Why the Mind is Not a Computer: A Pocket Dictionary on Neuromythology and Unthinkable Thought: The Enduring Significance of Parmenides. He has also published volumes of poetry, plays and novels. His latest book is: The Kingdom of Infinite Space: A Fantastical Journey Around Your Head (2008).