Wonderful year

30 12 2013

It’s been a wonderful year. Looking back over images of the past twelve months I see how new themes have emerged in my work and become threaded into all that I do. Just before Easter, I moved my horses to a new field and I see just how inspirational the Devon landscape has been to me. Living closely with the rhythms of nature has helped me to appreciate simple unfolding beauty, such as the unfurling of new oak leaves, or the appearance of the first bluebells, the changing colours of the fields and the sky.

I’ve shared warm and thoughtful times with friends both in the landscape and in the classroom and learned from every encounter. In the summer, I made new friends with the launch of Thinking Through Philosophy in my home town of Teignmouth and was heartened and encouraged by the generous and open-minded response of all those who came to the seminars. It has helped me to see that philosophy is most relevant and life affirming when it is grounded in every-day living.

Being grounded in what is real has made my year wonderful. As with every year, there have been challenges and sorrows and disappointments; it hasn’t always been easy. Looking back, though, the disappointments have already faded and I see that there have been many more new opportunities and experiences than I anticipated at the start of the year when I was still limping and depressed from a severe knee injury.

Twelve months on and due to regular walks and rides I feel fitter than I have ever been.  I feel joy each time I connect with my horses. They have helped me to be patient and to focus on one step at a time by doing only what I felt physically capable of.  Halfway through the year, I still needed someone to come out with me as I felt too insecure to ride alone. Now when I look back I see how far I’ve come. I can remember the first time I lay on the ground and the feeling of being connected to the earth and knowing that my body was going to get stronger as long as I didn’t push it. Of all the lessons of 2013, the most significant for me is taking note of when I need to rest.

It’s been a year of recovery and recuperation and reflection. Nonetheless, it’s been an active and productive year.  Ideas that I have long wanted to put out into the world are now beginning to take shape. In the autumn I was privileged to help with the training of untouched ponies on Dartmoor through my association with the community interest company the Dartmoor Pony Training Centre. In handling these highly sensitive and reactive feral ponies, I learned to listen even more closely to the signals from my own body language and came away deeply moved by the experience. Those days of silent communication in a light-filled cold barn were thrilling and transcendent. 

In January I am launching Thinking Through Horsemanship, a long-nurtured project that brings together my twin passions for philosophy and for horses and develops ideas I have been thinking about for over a decade. The pilot will launch with a group of young people at Sirona Therapeutic Horsemanship.

Choosing images from the year was difficult, but I was guided by the theme of wonder, one of the key preoccupations of philosophy. To do philosophy is to adopt an attitude of wonder. Here are some wonder moments from the past twelve months.

I wish all my readers a warm and wonderful start to 2014.


New oak leaves


Bluebells in the wood



Cattle though the hedge


Lisa with Dragonfly


Marian with Sheranni


Philosophy in action: Gordon with Naomi


Jet on Dartmoor



Pippa with Stanley on Dartmoor 



July sky




On the verge of knowledge?

13 12 2013


This week I’ve been talking to teenagers about philosophy. Yesterday a boy asked:  what do I get out of it?  Little did he know, but his question was not something I could easily answer. What was he hoping to get out of it? Did he want philosophy to point him in the direction of living a more fulfilling and engaged life, or did he want to know what a qualification in philosophy was worth?

It turned out that he wanted to know whether philosophy was taken seriously as a discipline. Was it equal to studying history or maths or science?  Was it recognised as a proper subject? This is a question that crops up fairly often in philosophy, especially among older students. They want to know that a subject is legitimate before they raise their energy to meet it. They want to know that it will be worth the investment because they are already very busy people. Only this afternoon during a creative thinking session, a sixth former asked with genuine puzzlement and exasperation: “I wonder whether you could tell me why I feel so tired all the time?”

After a quick lifestyle check in which he said he got enough sleep, regularly exercised and drank enough water, he admitted that he is the kind of person who gives life one hundred percent. Whatever he does, he has to give it his all, and that after a while gets exhausting. When I suggested taking half an hour a day to do absolutely nothing except let his mind take a rest from incoming information, he looked doubtful and then thoughtful. He said he might give it a try. I joked that the ultimate challenge now is to do absolutely nothing except give the mind some clear thinking space. In this age of non-stop doing, simple thinking has become the last thing many young people do when they feel overwhelmed and stressed. 

The group wanted to know: if humans are so clever and so successful why haven’t we got to the stage yet when we take time out to think creatively every day? Why have we invented a world of information and forgotten that we need time to get our heads around some of the new stuff that keeps coming at us daily. Why, they wondered, have we created a world in which young people in particular feel under pressure?

‘It’s because we’re greedy and competitive,’ one boy suggested. ‘Is it because we don’t know when to stop?’ another queried. ‘It’s because we have to feel that we’re making progress, and this is the way we’re used to making progress, by new inventions.’ These already overwhelmed boys of sixteen wanted to know whether there might be a limit to our human capacity for novelty and invention. When might it all stop?

The human capacity for invention intrigued the philosopher David Hume (1711-76). He believes that the imagination has a primary role in the way in which we access knowledge. One of Hume’s themes centres on the limits of knowledge. He shares with John Locke (1632-1704) the theory that the mind starts out as tabula rasa, or blank slate, and gains ideas through experience or impressions. For Hume, every idea we have is copied from impressions stored in the mind. We might want to design a fantastic building made from glass or ice, something never before seen, and we do this by combining impressions of materials and techniques previously experienced. Hume’s own example is a golden mountain. We might never have seen one, but we could invent one based on what we already know.

Hume’s theories intrigue because it is still not clear how we can know anything. It is one thing to say that we can create new knowledge from existing impressions based on experience, but does that mean that we can’t ask questions about what we don’t know? Do we have to remain within the boundaries of empirical knowledge? My adult seminar group this week wondered about the limits of knowledge and our chosen question delved into the problem of infinity: is infinity indefinable?

Gordon said that questions about what lies beyond what we know are impossible. We simply can’t make the leap. Our minds need to feel secure. Hume would have agreed. He liked his impressions and ideas neat and tidy and would have had no time for speculative nonsense. Bertrand Russell took a similar line, once claiming that the universe is a ‘brute fact.’ It exists. End of question. Get over it.

There were a few contemplatives among the group for whom this was not enough. If facts and evidence and data are the primary form of knowledge, why do we continue to ask metaphysical questions? If we’ve come to a dead end in terms of our method of gaining knowledge, and Russell thought Hume had pretty much said it all, then why do we feel that there is more to be discovered? Why do we dream and speculate and feel a sense of there being something other than the hard facts? And what do children know?

Steve shared a comment made by his three-year-old grandson. One day when they were out walking his grandson took in the scene around him and then turned to Steve and said: ‘When does it all end?’ What he meant was not that particular day out with his grand-dad, but life itself, in all its swirling glory.

To a three-year-old life is infinitely mysterious. I can remember a similar metaphysical moment with a three-year-old nephew one snowy Christmas on a walk through a village sparkling in the sun after a pub lunch by a log fire. As we crunched up the hill, my nephew looked into an immaculate sky and asked: ‘Belinda, is God real?’ I tried not to patronise him or fob him off with …well some people say…I told him about the philosophical arguments for the existence of God and said that he would one day have to make up his own mind about whether they were true or not. I like to think that I gave him something more to think about.

The age of three is a good starting point for philosophy, perhaps three is the ideal age for wonder. In thinking of how the world appears to a three-year-old, we remember that it is not all obvious and precisely thought-through. There are many things that need to be puzzled over and discussed and understood, many things that seem mystifying. Many impressions that have not yet become ideas.

When a close friend’s three-year-old came to Devon for the first time he was puzzled by the grass verges which were particularly intriguing to a boy who had in his short life known only London streets. He was curious and wanted to know. ‘Belinda, are the pavements under the grass?’  I told him about verges – a strange word now I think of it –  and he recombined his impressions. Hume would have said that he updated his imagination. Later on my friend’s son was able to add another new idea. After a particularly exciting time at the beach, he asked: ‘When are we going to that big canal again?’

Three year olds don’t need reminding to ask questions about life; they do so naturally and spontaneously. In recalling these moments of fresh openness to life’s experience, I think of the older boys today, so initially weary and jaded as they talked about the possibility that we might one day know it all, perhaps we would reach a Humean dead-end, until one of them said that there would always be as many creative ideas as there were people. ‘I guess that’s true,’ another said and their faces shone with wonder for a moment.

It isn’t going to end. There are always more questions, just as long as we remember to keep asking them.

I remember me

4 12 2013


picture: commons.wikimedia.org

Ask someone who he is and he will probably point to his body and say something like: ‘I’m John and I’m tall, of slim build and bright eye, and I have long grey hair. I was brought up in Somerset.’ He might go on to say where he went to school, what he studied at university, and who he married.

Who we are is a question that preoccupied the English philosopher John Locke, who was tall and slim with long grey hair and went to Westminster School and then on to Oxford University.  Locke who qualified in medicine and who had many friends and no wife was puzzled about the problem of human identity.

In his Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding Locke considers the problem of how consciousness relates to identity with some delightful examples that range from a remarkable parrot that can speak Brazilian to a philosophical fairy tale about a prince who exchanges places with a cobbler. Locke also muses on the effects of cannibalism on the continuity of the soul and the attributes of his little finger.

Eccentric as this may sound, Locke was known as a common-sense philosopher and his wide-ranging interests and philosophical work covered almost every area of human thought from politics to freedom, education, human rights and property. His views were hugely influential and informed the writing of the American Constitution.

His thinking on identity follows on from his arguments on how ideas are formed from experience. Locke claim is that we are born knowing nothing, our minds are tabula rasa, blank slates upon which we chalk the marks of experience. There is no such thing as innate knowledge. We are all born equally ignorant.

For Locke, human and animal minds have a starting point of existence, and that remains fixed as part of the identity of that specific mind. Aristotle was born in 384BC and that means that his mind existed then and only during the period that he lived. His mind can’t transmigrate to the 21st century. If you happen bump into someone tomorrow in the Post Office who claims to be Aristotle, you probably aren’t going to be inviting him home to discuss human happiness. Bodies are another matter, though. For we know that bodies do change, and some bodies become unrecognisably altered.

Locke’s enquiry poses many questions. He wonders about oak trees and asks whether an acorn that develops into a great tree remains the same tree. He also muses on horses and considers whether a playful young colt that grows into a mature horse is the same animal even though he now looks completely different. The oak tree is more than its roots, branches and leaves. For Locke, its identity consists of the rather wonderful phrase ‘the vegetable life.’ An acorn, a sapling and an old tree have all partaken of the same life. Young and old are entrained in this life.

My horses now have a completely different shape to when they were born, at present  massive grass bellies, and the particles and cells of their bodies have all renewed themselves many times over. Similarly as the oak trees in their field, they have partaken of the same life; the young colts and the mature horses are on a continuum; young and old have lived the same animal life. When I look at them I see them as they are, but I also remember them as young colts. The arc of their lives is knowable only to someone who has experienced them through time.

When it comes to humans, though, Locke’s ideas get a bit bizarre. He argues that when we say ‘man’ we really just mean human-shaped container. If that human shape had no more reason than a cat or a parrot we would still think of it as a man. A reasoning super-intelligent parrot who spoke not only English, but French, Dutch and Portuguese would still be thought of as a parrot and not a man, however uncanny its powers of speech.

“It is not the idea of a thinking or rational being alone that makes the idea of a man in most people’s sense, but of a body so and so shaped, joined to it; and if that be the idea of a man, the same successive body not shifted all at once must, as well as the same immaterial spirit, go to the making of the same man.”

For Locke, man and person are two entirely different things. Locke’s definition of a person is a ‘thinking intelligent being that has reason and reflection and can consider itself as itself, the same thinking thing in different times and places; which it does only by that consciousness which is inseparable from thinking…’

Locke goes on to say that ‘when we see, hear, smell, taste, feel, meditate, or will anything, we know that we do so.’

In other words, we are our present sensations and our perceptions, and this is what Locke calls the ‘self.’ There is no inner ‘us.’ We cannot be conscious of what we are, we can only be conscious of what we are thinking about, or feeling, or experiencing.

Locke argues that what makes us the same person is not just our body, but consciousness. We need to be aware of our own experiences in order to form a sense of self. Our memories of our childhood form part of our identity, but what we can’t remember is not part of us. The blank parts of our unremembered lives remain inaccessible and don’t form part of who we are.

In order to demonstrate that identity is rooted in consciousness, Locke describes a thought experiment in which he imagines the thoughts, memories and life experience of a prince entering the body of a cobbler. This cobbler would have a prince’s memories, hopes dreams, fears, all of his recalled experiences. Wouldn’t that cobbler then become the prince? Similarly, a prince wakes up with the memories and consciousness of a cobbler, and he feels that he is the cobbler. The fact that he still looks, talks and walks like a prince does not matter. If he has the memories of the cobbler, then he is the cobbler. If the cobbler had committed a crime in his original embodiment and remained unpunished then it is the prince who will go to prison. As Steve pointed out during last night’s seminar, if you are inhabited by someone else then you are no longer you.

Our enquiry touched on beliefs and values as markers of identity. As our beliefs and values can change, it seems that so too can our identity. Most adult people are not the same ‘person’ as they were at six. When I look at a photograph of myself as a twelve-year-old, I’m looking at almost another version of me. What links me to that younger version is a sense of having moved and grown on, in oak tree terms, a branching out. As we grow older we habitually distance ourselves from childhood. As Gordon memorably put it: “when I look back on my life, I remember me.”

This raises the intriguing question: who is the person that we remember? How can we remember ourselves when it is us doing the remembering? And if memory is such a strong indicator of consciousness and identity, as Locke held, then people who suffer from false memory syndrome are condemned to a false consciousness. Locke’s theory of identity led him to conclude that people could not be punished for crimes they could not remember committing. We wondered last night how it would be possible to tell whether someone was lying or not about what they remembered and the implications of this in the law courts. Locke does not consider that forgetting is also part of human identity. Indeed it could be argued that what we forget is perhaps as important to making us who we are as what we remember.


my horses enjoying the vegetable life

more on memory and forgetting here:


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