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  • Writer's pictureAlan Dale

My Friend The Surprise Guest

How I came to enjoy philosophy, as a mechanical engineer

I think I first encountered the faintest hints of philosophy, in the final year of primary school. Two events now hazily suggest themselves, sixty years or so later, as warranting that distinction.

Firstly, having attained an unanticipated ascendency in arithmetic, I suffered a rude awakening when the first “problems”, involving more elaborate forms of reasoning, appeared. My mother shared similar reminiscences from her school days. Concepts such as teachers’ powers of exposition featured. I can trace my nascent awareness of abstract ideas, proof, truth, reality, etc. to these commiserations.

The second, unrelated incident had occurred a year earlier. Our form mistress asked us how we interpreted certain passages in the Gospels, about Christ’s reappearance to the Disciples, following His resurrection. I cannot recall my exact answer, but believe it to have been something about their having sensed a presence. Whatever it was, it led to a comment on that term’s report that I have treasured – “he thinks deeply.”

My next memory dates from my second year at the local grammar school. I was now becoming increasingly aware of the periodic inadequacy of language, for explaining theories or principles. Revealingly, our teachers sometimes verged on tacit admission of this problem.

Hence to the incident itself. Having struggled with the introduction of one unknown, the ubiquitous x, we now proceeded to learn about plotting graphs of x against an entirely new arrival upon the abstract stage – y.

What really was y? It had, thankfully, yet to be referred to in the even more arcane usage, as the dependent variable. The lesson proceeded, resembling some badly translated court proceedings about an equally obscure subject.

Finally, the elderly maths master proclaimed, “so we can say that y is a function of x.” He followed this epoch-making announcement by writing it on the blackboard.

I now saw, with frightening clarity, the total incapacity of language to convey any semblance of the meaning at which I was grasping. With the benefit of hindsight, plus the resilience of sixty-odd years’ experience, I marvel at my youthful confusion.

My mother, on the advice of a friend whose daughter was experiencing similar trials, introduced me to the excellent “Teach Yourself” books. I acquired many of these, beginning with “Teach Yourself Algebra”, by one P. Abbott, to whom I am forever indebted. Like a bedraggled prisoner grovelling out of a dungeon, I found clear, enlightening, encouraging chapters on every previously confounding topic, replete with examples and answers. Confidence, hitherto unknown, began a tremulous existence.

We eventually changed teachers. I joined the vast ranks for whom this proved transformative. Fortified by my “Teach Yourself” experience, I now found that same clarity reproduced in the classroom. I began, wonder of wonders, to enjoy the subject.

All this enriched my later appreciation of texts such as Descartes’ “Discours De La Methode”, Hobbes’ “Leviathan” and Russell’s “The Problems of Philosophy”. I encountered these during my undergraduate years, having enrolled, with great trepidation, to read mechanical engineering. What fascinated and consoled me in my faltering studies was a discovery that each of these luminaries’ works repeatedly re-emphasised.

It was this.

They regarded being confounded by the very nature of concepts such as meaning, physical and abstract entities, significance and interrelation as entirely right and natural.

Here was vindication, resonant and writ large! Here were allies, with more credibility than mere academic or practical accomplishment could possibly confer! Every work began with some form of acknowledgement of such difficulties, along with, admittedly, numerous other areas of enquiry. It was enthralling to find topics, with which I had hitherto wrestled, subjected to this tentative yet profound analysis.

Branches of mathematics, such as geometry, served Descartes as illustrations of a far more general category of logical principles, quite apart from his analytical geometry. Systems of classification that suggested, rather than actually used, a mathematical approach seemed to appear in Hobbes’s Leviathan. This successive reversing towards some perceived ultimate origin of analytical justification appealed greatly to me. I was to find it a great help, later on, in my engineering studies.

I have read many peoples’ reasons for recommending the study of philosophy, to gain fundamental insight into diverse systems and aspects of human reasoning. I found them all intriguing. Many overlap mine, as I have attempted to summarise them, in the preceding paragraphs.

I was equally interested in a paper on the nature of political science, by Isaiah Berlin, that I found by chance in a book in my student digs. The subject matter, methods of enquiry, definitions and principles, formed a striking contrast with my chosen discipline.

I would like to end with an amazing discovery from that wonderful TV series “The Great Philosophers, way back in the 1980s.

I will never the forget the blinding flash of incredulity. Certain conclusions of Schopenhauer, (if I had understood the implications correctly), led to implications pre-dating Einstein’s discovery of the relationship between matter and energy, by centuries. This would have been achieved without any mathematical reasoning, such as that afforded by the tensor calculus. It would represent a towering monument to the power of the human intellect.

These discoveries contributed to the development of one of my lifetime interests – the fundamental nature of the relationship between abstract reasoning and physical reality. I think of it whenever I see a cleverly designed or aesthetically appealing piece of machinery, or follow an applicable mathematical theorem.

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