Tuesday, February 07, 2012

Five notable books on philosophy & everyday living

Emrys Westacott, a Professor of Philosophy at Alfred University, is the author of The Virtues of Our Vices: A Modest Defense of Gossip, Rudeness, and Other Bad Habits.

One of five books on "Philosophy and Everyday Living" he discussed with Sophie Roell at The Browser:
The Forest People
by Colin M Turnbull

What does your last choice, The Forest People, bring to the discussion?

Colin Turnbull is a well-known anthropologist who wrote popular books. This book, The Forest People, is about the pygmies of the Congo and he paints a portrait of their lives. Some people would probably say it’s an idealised portrait, and maybe it is. The book had a big influence on me, because it portrayed a form of life which is very different from our own, and very different to the kind advocated by Haidt or Nietzsche. What strikes me about the form of life the pygmies live is that they’re not trying to achieve anything beyond what they already have. We almost take it as a given that we should be striving for things. In The Forest People they hunt, they gather, they set up their houses (they’re nomads), and then they sit around the fire and eat and sing songs in the evening. And they do the same the next day. The kids play, splashing around in rivers and climbing trees. They don’t think there’s any need to do anything more. I find that fascinating. I think it’s a very interesting and important counterpoint to what we take for granted – the preferability of a purpose-driven life. I don’t live like the forest people, but I think contemplating how they live is very worthwhile. When I read this book it raised a question mark for me about some of the values we take for granted.

So a way of life from which some of our central driving forces – ambition, the desire to progress – are absent?

Yes, if you think about the way we educate children – I’m an educator too – it’s a given that children should be ambitious. They should be striving, they should be all they can be, and they should try to leave the world a better place. I’m not saying that’s wrong. It’s just that The Forest People provides a very interesting challenge to our assumptions. For instance, what about living in the present? One of the features of the way we live is that we are leaning into the future at a very acute angle. Children in school are trying to get into college; people in college are trying to start their careers; people in their careers are trying to get promoted. We lean heavily toward the future, and in extreme cases, in China, Korea, Japan, and parts of the US and Britain too, people almost lose their childhood because it’s so devoted to getting on.

I think living in the present and being more capable of enjoying that, of relishing the moment, is something that we easily forget how to do. I am guilty of this too. I think I fail to relish the moment as much as I should because I have that nagging sense all the time that there are things that need to be done and achieved. Of course, it’s also true that, as a result, we have an incredibly dynamic society that’s producing iPads and all the rest of it, and we’re glad about that. We’re talking now by Skype, thanks to the dynamic character of our society and the people who strive. But for all that, pleasure in the moment, in the present, has to be a part of the good life. What The Forest People, as Turnbull describes them, have that seems admirable and enviable is an intense enjoyment of simple things, available to them in the present.

It is a very engaging, readable book, as well isn’t it? It’s not some dull anthropological treatise.

Turnbull was an anthropologist, but he doesn’t write in anthropological jargon. One of the things he’s criticised for is that he tends to include value judgements, which makes him scientifically suspect. I don’t worry about that, since I engage in normative ethics anyway. For me, it brings a form of life alive, and makes me reflect on what we’ve lost and what we can learn, even though obviously we can’t live like that. We can’t go back to that in any way, and we don’t necessarily want to. But you can still think to yourself, “What is there to be envied in the way these people live? What chance is there of recovering something of that in our own lives?”
Read about another book on the list.

See: The Page 99 Test: Emrys Westacott's The Virtues of Our Vices.

--Marshal Zeringue