Where Hippocrates meets Socrates

July 23, 2004

Ray Tallis holds a chair in geriatric medicine and a fascination for philosophy. Geoff Watts meets a man of many talents.

From the titles alone of his past half-dozen books you would know that Ray Tallis is a philosopher. From their scope and length, and from the rate at which he produces them, you would also infer that he is no mere dilettante. Open a couple and spend 20 minutes browsing and you'd guess he's a full-time academic, one who might even have acquired a chair in his profession.

If this is what you'd deduced, you'd have been correct - though possibly not in quite the way you'd imagined. Tallis, author of The Explicit Animal: A Defence of Human Consciousness and Not Sausurre: A Critique of Post-Sausurrean Literary Theory to name but two, does indeed have a chair - at Manchester University. But it's not in philosophy; it's in geriatric medicine.

Although doctoring has been Tallis's career and his livelihood, a fascination with philosophy came first. It began in his early teens. When I ask him what triggered it, his one-word reply, "terror", needs some explanation. "All of those arguments that philosophers put forward - that the world isn't real, that other people don't actually exist - I felt as real possibilities. I was astonished two or three years later to discover that people had written these things down." The realisation that his unsophisticated but "engulfing" thoughts could be seriously pondered fired his imagination.

At university, though, it was not philosophy he signed up for. He started in biochemistry, then switched to medicine. He tried various specialties from obstetrics to psychiatry - a slalom of a career, he says - doing whatever he found interesting. He acquired a taste for neurological rehabilitation, then stumbled into geriatric medicine. He enjoyed it, not least for its variety. "I could still do a lot of rehab, but also easier things such as acute medicine, where you get quicker returns." He became a senior lecturer at Liverpool University in the early 1980s, and got his chair at Manchester five years later.

His first substantive book outside medicine was published at the end of the 1980s, but he'd already been writing on philosophy for 20 years. His latest offering is titled I Am: A Philosophical Enquiry into First-Person Being .

The book is a study of self-consciousness and agency and is the second of a three-part philosophical inquiry into the nature of the differences between human beings and other animals. The first, published last year, was titled The Hand .

A volume in praise of manual dexterity is not the obvious starting point for such an inquiry. But Tallis argues that the special properties of the human hand have had an incalculable and hitherto underestimated impact on the evolutionary development of our awareness and understanding of ourselves and our surroundings. The hand, he argues, has moulded our relationship to our own bodies, to each other, and to the world. Indeed, in characteristically punning mode he suggests that mankind might more appropriately call itself "handkind".

The third volume of the trilogy, to be called The Knowing Animal: A Philosophical Enquiry into Truth and Knowledge , will tackle the difference between knowledge and sentience, and its implications.

Although Tallis's non-medical achievements have earned him a couple of honorary doctorates (from Manchester and Hull universities) he has never had any formal training in philosophy. As the academic world is not wholly without snobbery in such matters, I wondered if he'd been conscious of any disdain for this amateur status. Apparently not. "I've been amazed how generous people are - far less prickly than I would be about a philosopher offering a paper on epilepsy or high-level gait disorders."

But how seriously is Tallis viewed by professional philosophers? One who knows him says that Tallis's work, though not as widely known or acknowledged in the trade as it should be, would put him into the top 50 in the UK.

As a medical scientist-philosopher, Tallis has not surprisingly followed the "science wars" debate, and has written about it. He is distressed and angered by the extent to which some branches of the thinking trade are dismissive of the scientific method - indeed of the value of evidence. "I do believe that there are objective truths and objective falsehoods - something that many people in the humanities, surprisingly, pretend not to believe."

He is not suggesting that current philosophy in general lacks intellectual rigour or sound quality controls. Philosophy journals, he says, are among the hardest in which to get published, but he says the discipline does have its "fellow travellers". Some are hellbent on a search for novelty at all costs; others believe that being subversive is by itself a way of changing the world. "After 1968, the Utopian dreams moved from the streets to the seminar room," Tallis says. The Sokal affair - in which physicist Alan Sokal famously had a spoof paper published in the journal Social Text - illustrates the extent to which a charlatan skilled at pressing the right buttons can make headway in the backwaters of social and cultural analysis and criticism. "The shocking message of the Sokal hoax was that everything was subordinated to received ideas, even things such as checking facts, quality control and consistency."

Tallis doesn't confine himself to non-fiction. He also writes novels and poetry. But apart from one novel and half a dozen short stories, his fictional prose output remains in the attic. "I have this idea of a Utopian form of literature that brings together the gossipy narrative interest of a story and the timeless interest of philosophical argument." He hasn't yet cracked it to his own satisfaction - or, as the rejection slips testify, to the satisfaction of publishers. The one novel that did make it to the bookstalls was inspired by his experiences in a hospital. He calls it a metaphysical comedy, a satire on postmodernism. He was pleasantly surprised by the size of the advance. Sadly, the book died of severe critical neglect. "But it did get a very nice review in the Cleveland Plain Dealer ."

Given his devotion to science, Tallis is predictably scathing of Freud, and of any suggestion that humans are in the grip of some kind of unconscious, whether individual or collective. Such ideas, he says, are revered in an uncritical manner by people in the humanities who have little understanding of the evaluation of evidence, or of the extent to which enthusiasts can deceive themselves.

Less predictably, he also has little enthusiasm for evolutionary psychology. He likes to distinguish between true Darwinism - with which he has no quarrel - and Darwinosis: its "pathological variant". Darwinosis is an overemphasis on biology in trying to fathom our nature. "What a shame that we've escaped from being prisoners of theology and are now moving into the prison of scientism. I have no doubt about our biological roots, but I just don't think we are now made up purely of biological needs."

Tallis has gone part time in medicine, so his literary output will presumably move into an even higher gear. But prior to this, how did he find the time? "I always used to get up at five and write for two hours.

Nobody wants you at five o'clock in the morning. That gives 14 hours a week."

Lately, some of those writing hours have also been devoted to medicine.

Hippocratic Oaths: Medicine and its Discontents , his take on the roots of medicine and on its final destination, is due out next month. "It's a robust defence of the fundamental values built into medical science and, in particular, the commitment to evaluation and objectivity."

He's interested in the two roles of the doctor: as healer and as skilled body technician. He accepts the tension between the two, but doesn't see them as inescapably contradictory. "Medicine's become more humane as it's become more effective. The butchery and poisoning of the past wasn't surrounded by much customer care, that's for sure. And as medicine's become more scientific and more effective, so its concern with its humane aspects has actually grown. I spent nearly a year in Nigeria. What struck me was not only that the medicine was poor, but that the care at the human level was very poor as well."

As Ray Tallis fizzes with ideas for future work, further volumes bearing his name will surely be appearing on the bookshops' philosophy shelves. As for the fiction section... he lives in hope.

Hippocratic Oaths: Medicine and its Discontents is published by Atlantic Books, £19.99.

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