Friday, September 09, 2016

Why oh why?

With the publication of Jim Flynn's New Torchlight List and an accompanying series on NatRad, bookish types and media hacks are clamouring to read again my review of Flynn's previous book. Here, I succumb to their demands. The following is my review of Fate and Philosophy, (Awa Press, 2012) published in the September 2012 issue of Metro.

It’s not easy being Jim Flynn. He teaches politics at Otago University and, he tells us in the first lines of this book, every year students enter his courses with a collection of attitudes and opinions. Some of them, happily, leave as “altered beings,” now holding the same views as Professor Flynn about religion, science and free will, among other things. But what about the others? And what about the rest of us? What will become of us, without the wisdom of Flynn?

We will become prisoners of fate, unless we learn to reason about what we believe. And what is reasoning? It is thinking what Flynn thinks, that is what.

A couple of years ago, Professor Flynn decided that his students did not know enough about history. So he wrote The Torchlight List, telling them, and us, what to read – novels, mostly. Not that Professor Flynn is an historian, of course; but he knows the way to learn history is not from them and their history books but from his favourite novels. And now he addresses the central problem of philosophy, the problem of people holding opinions that differ from his.

This is a book about life’s great questions. It says so on the cover (which, for no apparent reason, is illustrated with a photograph of a woman ascending a staircase while wearing a pair of ill-fitting angel’s wings; on the back is a photograph of a field). Life’s great questions, in case you were wondering, are:

What is good?
What is possible?
What exists?

These questions have bothered philosophers for centuries but, happily, Professor Flynn has answered them all to his own satisfaction. Having solved the problems of history and literature, he has now solved the problems of philosophy. He has also written a slim volume of poetry.

In short, Professor Flynn is a wiseacre. He insists he knows it all, that those questions can now be laid to rest. And now, to have a full and happy life, all you need to do is read this grim and humourless book.

This is what to think: there is no God, but there is mystical experience. Science is right. Derrida was wrong – he said bad things about science. Wittgenstein was wrong - Professor Flynn has read one of his essays and found it wanting; he was bad too: he fought in the First World War and gave rotten careers advice to his students. Yes, that bad.

It goes on like this for pages and pages, a litany of instruction and denunciation. On page 217, if you still have your wits about you, finally you will learn what it is all about. Professor Flynn tells us:

Today is my seventy-seventh birthday, so it has taken sixty-five years to replace Catholicism with a personal philosophy I can live with. This book is intended to give you a head start.

Well yes. Professor Flynn has replaced one dogma with another, one of his making. Not surprisingly, his personal philosophy is remarkably similar to those of many other freethinkers who have discovered the Truth and who will broach no argument about it. This is not really a book about philosophy. It is not about the big questions, whatever they are. It is about Professor Flynn.

Worse still, it turns out that this book is the second in Professor Flynn’s Modern World Trilogy, the book about history having been the first. So there is another tome to come. Perhaps Professor Flynn will have discovered that his students are not doing sex right and offer them, and us, a manual of all the correct positions.


John Small said...

oh god, how awful.

it sounds as though he (wisely) rejected (a probably harsh version of) catholicism at age 12 but then spent the next 65 years of his life justifying that decision?

not a great advert for 'life-long-learning'.

Stephen Stratford said...

This is still one of my all-time favourite book reviews.