I stepped out of my thoughts." So begins Martin Robertson's poem about the sudden unbidden opening of a door on to an unmediated awareness of the world. Soon enough, though, he notices what has happened, and "the door closed as I stepped in".
But is there anywhere untouched by our thoughts, except in a poem? David Cooper poses this question, to which his ambitious book is addressed, more philosophically: "Is there a way the world anyway is, irrespective of how we take it to be?"
In Cooper's view, a negative answer, which he somewhat oddly calls "humanism", will not do, because it is arrogant to believe that the nature of the world is exhausted by our way of experiencing it. A positive answer, dubbed "absolutism", also overreaches itself, because our powers cannot see past their restrictions to an uninterpreted reality. Instead we must admit that this issue is permanently cloaked, for us, by impenetrable mystery, towards which we should adopt an attitude of humility. The best we can do is to think of what lies beyond us as a form of "emptiness" - but in a special sense that needs careful explanation, which makes this an unsatisfactory metaphor.
An analogy that may clarify the nature of the problem is suggested by Cooper's use of the term "pig-ignorant" (to describe a cultural chauvinist). Pigs may in fact notice much that we miss, but the way a pig's understanding of the world falls short of ours can point us to how our own comprehension of reality might be surpassed by an understanding inconceivably different from our own.
The pig, we suppose, cannot grasp the fact that, or the manner in which, humans see things more richly. If there were an intelligence "superior" to ours, we should be similarly unable to empathise with its outlook. Because we have language, we may be one jump ahead of the pig in being able to gesture at the possibility of such an intelligence, but we can no more imagine what it might be like from the inside than the pig can look at the world from our viewpoint. The rose-tinted spectacles on our heads can be removed, but not the human-tinted spectacles built into our minds. If pigs are pig-ignorant, humankind is human-ignorant.
Among Cooper's many virtues is a generous - in attitude and quantity - use of continental and eastern philosophy, still unusual and refreshing in a book by a philosopher from the Anglo-American tradition. But there is a downside here, too, that raises a more general question about the citation of predecessors. Do we really want to hear quite so much about what others have said, often more obscurely, about the issue before us? Cooper makes a good case for the role of the history of ideas, but there are limits.
I have five other sceptical questions to canvass. First, can we talk about what lies beyond our mental powers? Cooper is well aware of the paradox here, and attempts to soften it by distinguishing between "talking about" and "talking 'about'" (don't ask), but one is left with the feeling that somehow a cake is being both had and eaten. Talk of "the One", the "ground of experience", "confrontation with reality", a "truth" "beyond human life" and so forth uses ordinary descriptive language to characterise the indescribable. The temptation to "'eff' the ineffable" is not resisted. Is there in the end any alternative to the silence enjoined by Wittgenstein?
Second, should Cooper be recommending a single "proper stance human beings should adopt towards the world"? "Life may be seen through many windows," as Isaiah Berlin put it, "none of them necessarily clear or opaque, less or more distorting than any of the others."
Third, why does the fact that we have a deep need for an external "measure" of our take on the world show that such a measure must exist?
Fourth, is it not elitist to imply that the right attitude to the world is one that will appeal to "reflective" people who eschew pleasure and enjoy long periods of calm thought?
Finally, must we be saddled with so many rebarbative neologisms? If we can talk about something, why must it be "discursable"? If an outlook is free-standing, why speak of its "dis-incumbence"? One cannot dip into, or quote at will from, a book that depends so thoroughly on special jargon.
"What is there?" This simple question is one of the deepest, most general and most enduring in philosophy. As W. V. Quine remarked, there is an equally simple answer: "Everything." The history of attempts to complicate this answer goes back to the beginning of records, and will continue inconclusively until we are extinct. Readers with a taste for this discussion could do worse than turn to this engrossing book by a gifted philosopher.
Henry Hardy is a fellow of Wolfson College, Oxford.
The Measure of Things: Humanism, Humanity, and Mystery
Author - David E. Cooper
Publisher - Clarendon Press Oxford
Pages - 380
Price - £30.00
ISBN - 0 19 8238 4