on love – from stand-up philosophy


on the new a-level philosophy syllabus

— cross-posted fromThe Guardian

For A-level students in the UK, there is only one exam board that runs a real philosophy course. And that’s about to be changed into yet another religious education course.

For the last nine years, I have taught the AQA’s A-level philosophy course. It’s a good course, and the only one to represent the breadth of philosophy as a discipline in its own right. So I was somewhat surprised to learn that the AQA have this week, without warning or consultation, published a completely new draft syllabus, which is now just waiting to be rubber-stamped by Ofqual.

The new specification completely excludes the previous options to study aesthetics, free will, all European philosophy since Kant, and – most significantly – political philosophy. This will be all replaced with a compulsory philosophy of religion topic, which will make up 50% of the AS course.

The exam board will also reduce the marks given for students’ ability to critique and construct arguments, and more marks will be given for simply knowing the theories involved. Essentially, where young philosophers were previously rewarded for being able to think for themselves and question the role of government, the new course can only be passed by students who can regurgitate classic defences of the existence and perfection of God.

It would not be difficult to see, were one looking for such things, a rather sinister agenda in all this. Secular students who consider the question of God to be irrelevant to their lives will simply not have any other option if they wish to be philosophers.

Meanwhile, the areas that have been casually dropped are the very areas of philosophy that make it a dynamic, relevant and academically rigorous subject. Political philosophy helps us make sense of politics and consider the importance of freedom and justice; considering free will gives us an opportunity to consider our responsibility for our actions. Both of these are apparently no longer worthy of teaching – nor is the option of a detailed reading of philosophical texts like Plato’s Republic or Mill’s On Liberty. It is not merely that the course that has been dumbed down; philosophy itself is being misrepresented.

A representative of the exam board told me on the telephone that it was “too difficult” to comparatively assess students across the different topics which were options before, so they were changing it so that everyone had to do the “most popular” ones. This is a bit like a science examiner saying that it would be “too difficult” to assess both physics and biology, so it would be better to just drop physics altogether.

(The reason philosophy of religion questions appear “popular” with students is actually that many centres ill-advisedly get an RE teacher to teach the course. Not being philosophers, they tell their students to do the religious questions whether they like it or not.)

But there is a broader danger than this. Philosophy – the vibrant, engaging, and often controversial practice of subjecting all concepts and ideas to rigorous logical scrutiny – has struggled for many years to be properly understood as a discipline apart from religious studies. And yet, philosophy is absolutely crucial for a proper questioning of the assumptions we make about government and about our lives in general.

In a climate where university philosophy departments face closure, the very survival of philosophy in the UK depends on philosophers being able to make clear to post-16 students what secular philosophy is and why it is worth studying. It is difficult to see how the new specification will make this anything other than impossible.

Not only will future students not get a representative grounding in philosophy; it is likely that schools and colleges will eventually cease to run a discrete philosophy course, and will increasingly staff the course from RE departments – if they run it at all. The implications for the discipline in general are likely to be devastating.

why i am a feminist

Some time ago I started calling myself a feminist. I’d always been one, but resisted the label; now I’m happy to accept the label. In response to being asked a few times recently what my thought process was for this, here’s what happened.

To begin with, my previous position – a kind of ‘I’d-rather-call-myself-a-humanist’ cop-out – was due to a combination of factors. I misunderstood what the goals of feminism could be and the extent to which they had in fact already been achieved.

I also felt excluded from feminism on the grounds of being male. I once had an English teacher who explained to me that as a feminist, she thought men couldn’t be feminists because feminism was necessarily bad for men.

It’s not like I wasn’t told that feminists are just people who resist gender discrimination. I was told that plenty of times (by one person in particular who really deserves an apology for my stubbornness in acknowledging it).

I also had, underlying the labelling thing, a philosophical commitment to simplifying political language by using -ism terms in their most literal and straightforward sense. That meant I took any word with the suffix ‘-ism’ to straightforwardly mean an ideological position which prioritises the value or concerns of whatever it is that the ‘-ism’ is a suffix of. (so eg, a racist values a race and prioritises racial factors when making judgements; a socialist values society and prioritises that, etc).

So I made a common mistake and took ‘feminism’ to mean the prioritising and valuing of women when making judgements, to the exclusion of other concerns. And certainly some radical feminists do that, but they aren’t representative of all feminists.

In combination with this, I compounded my mistake by thinking that the legal and cultural progress made in the UK and the USA was sufficient for women to now have the same opportunities as men (for the first ten years of my life, a female Prime Minister had governed the UK), and legal recourse for the occasions when they didn’t.

I also observed a number of situations where it appeared that specific women were in fact able to gain advantages over men by virtue of their being able to, for example, make cynical use of their looks or sexuality, or give an appearance of vulnerability. (I’m aware now that this is patriarchal too).

As a result, I thought that while an ideology which prioritised the value and importance of women may have been valuable at other points in history, it was no longer necessary. I considered that gender equality was still a good thing, but preferred a more vague tag like ‘anti-gender-discrimination’ or something like that.

This analysis was extremely naive.

The year before last, a number of things happened.

Firstly, I found myself in close contact with a number of people who considered themselves feminists but who held positions which I found pretty objectionable. Once, for example, I came up against the idea that childcare should be entirely state-socialised from birth because mothers shouldn’t be expected to provide any care for their children, and there was no way you could ever expect fathers to do it.

Sometimes I came across versions of radical feminist claims about the evils of ALL men, or the claim that ALL men secretly hate women and should be punished accordingly. (Essentialist identity politics like this just ends up in ridiculous ‘not all men…’ debates when that is absoultely not the point – the point is that patriarchy and misogyny exist at all.)

There’s even a version of feminism (particularly prevalent amongst young feminists in Brighton) which regularly seemed to take the position that it was legitimate to treat individual men extremely poorly, particularly in the areas of sex or dating, on the grounds that ‘it’s what a man would do’ and that there was, after all, a ‘war’ going on.

It just so seemed inconsistent with the principle of gender equality that I started to despair. I realised, perhaps for the first time, that I was really genuinely concerned with the fate of an ideology that I valued a great deal more than I thought I had.

I also found myself in a position where I was teaching my A-level politics class about feminism, and for the first time I had to do some serious studying of its history. I had to actually read Wollstonecraft and Friedan and Greer (all of whom I liked very much) and Dworkin and Firestone and Millett (who I didn’t like quite so much) and I saw how incredibly rich the debates within feminism are, and yet how all of these people could still call themselves feminists.

And my attention was drawn to some contemporary liberal feminists and campaigning groups, people for whom it naturally followed that because they were liberals, they must be feminists: if you believe that everyone should have equal liberty and opportunities regardless of the chances of their birth, then you have to stand against things which do harm to people or their liberty and opportunities as a result of their birth sex or socialised gender.

Feminism is absolutely not a monolithic ideology with a fixed set of positions, nor is it a closed group; anyone who is opposed to gender discrimination, who thinks people should be considered as individuals regardless of their gender, can be one. Is one.

I also came to see how there’s a deep tradition of men making contributions to feminism ever since my big philosophical hero John Stuart Mill published On the Subjection of Women, and how he stood in Parliament and argued for women’s right to vote, and I didn’t feel excluded any more.

And so when some feminists made claims about ‘all men’, I could finally go beyond just trying to defend ‘some men’, and make a better argument – that their feminism didn’t look like my feminism – which is about refusing to let gender get in the way of people having all the respect and opportunities they deserve.

The problem is, gender, and people’s assumptions about it, still get in the way of too much. Having had a woman Prime Minister doesn’t mean it isn’t harder for people who happen to be women to succeed in politics, or in business, or in philosophy; and it shouldn’t be. And it is still harder for people who happen to be men to succeed in nursing, or teaching in girls’ education, or being fathers and househusbands, and it shouldn’t be.

And there is still too much gendered violence which wouldn’t happen to people if they weren’t women or girls, and it’s repulsive and of course it’s men’s problem and it needs to stop.

And that’s before we even start on transphobia or social and media perceptions of women and girls and a whole heap of other bullshit that I can’t believe I didn’t think was a big deal before.

So to be honest, I don’t care so much now about the accurate naming of ideological positions. If people who are opposed to these things are called feminists, then I’m going to call myself one, and that’s more important.

Having said that, there’s a further realisation I made since calling myself a feminist. It’s that actually, the word ‘feminism’ isn’t even wrong. It is named accurately. Because it isn’t just women, the biological sex, that need defending and liberating.

What patriarchs really demean isn’t women per se, but femininity.

Patriarchs expect women to exhibit traits which they think of as feminine, and then expect feminine people to be subservient. Supposedly ‘feminine’ traits include the ability to empathise, to compromise and show compassion, and be physically slight and beautiful. But also, in the minds of patriarchs, to be passive and deferential. They want feminine people to be submissive, just look pretty, be able to take abuse and neglect and not talk or hit or fuck back.

This is because ‘feminine’ traits are still considered as being of less value than ‘masculine’ traits: aggression, determination to compete, taking the ‘active’ role, stubbornness, avarice, desire.

All of this goes against the principle that as long as it doesn’t harm other people you should be able to have whatever the fuck kind of personality you want.

But patriarchs do harm people. They mainly harm women, because women are very deeply socialised to be feminine. Women who do not fit this expectation are shouted down, threatened, abused. But patriarchs (whether men or women) harm people who aren’t women, too.

Patriarchs expect and despise femininity in women, and fail to comprehend it in men – and despise it just as much.

Patriarchs want women to be ‘feminine’, and ‘feminine’ people of either sex to be weak; they cannot abide the thought that empathy and compassion can be every bit as powerful and courageous as competitiveness or aggression.

The reason Thatcher was loved by patriarchs is because once she had insisted that they see through her having being born female, she made them see her bullish determination and ‘rugged individualism’, and recognise her as one of their own.

They despise Nick Clegg, a politician who looks for compromises and doesn’t mind earning less than his wife.

This is not to say that the traits associated with masculinity are intrinsically bad; there is a time for them (no doubt Clegg could have done with being more stubborn and bullish at times). But there are also times for strong ‘feminine’ traits, and patriarchy will not allow it. It stands between feminine people (the vast majority of whom are women) and the respect and opportunities that they should have.

I’m aware there will be some feminists who object to this analysis on the grounds that like all men, I’m whining about how men suffer too and trying to make it all about men. I’m absolutely not. I’m in no doubt at all that women get harmed significantly more than men, in all kinds of ways.

But the thing which patriarchy demeans is femininity, and it harms everyone. For the most part, it harms women; and it harms all but the most masculine men; and eventually, it harms those masculine men too. A society which fails to give every individual the best opportunities because of mere chance-of-birth features like the set of reproductive organs they were born with, or the fact that they were socialised to be compassionate and empathetic, is not going to succeed as well as it could.

From this perspective, it is easier to see not just why liberal feminism is necessary; but just what a huge task it has ahead of it. Patriarchal thinking infiltrates almost everywhere and harms almost everyone, often without anyone seeing.

The more people start calling themselves feminists – men included – and defending women and femininity from the ridiculous assumption that the feminine are weak and less deserving, the better we will be.

And this is why I am a feminist.

stand-up philosophy: the academics’ edition


On Tuesday night something a little weird and very special happened: about three hundred people turned up, at six-thirty on a Tuesday evening, to hear a bunch of academics talk about philosophy.

There were so many people that we had to run two shows simultaneously because there were just far two many people to fit in the 130-seater lecture theatre.

And I was the lucky, lucky fellow who got to compere it all.


There is some backstory to this. Last autumn, I was talking to Dr. Gordon Finlayson of Sussex University about the idea of Stand-up Philosophy. We were discussing how it could work, who could do it, what its purpose would be, etc. Gordon suggested that since the emphasis would be on serious (but accessible) philosophy rather than comedy, it could be called ‘Philosophy Stand-up: No Joke.’

And then Gordon said that he thought it would be a good idea to talk about it to the rather prestigious and brilliant Forum for European Philosophy based at the LSE, which organises public philosophy events and of which he is part of their planning committee.

And then a few months later, as I was trying to organise my little experimental night in the Jeremy Bentham pub, Gordon said to me, ‘It’s happening. You should come to the next planning meeting of the Forum.’

Crikey, I thought. And then I went along.

The committee of the Forum for European Philosophy convene in a rather ornate meeting room, high up in the Old Academic Building of the LSE. The board is packed with various professors and senior lecturers and is chaired by the Forum’s director, Simon Glendinning. I hadn’t met Dr. Glendinning before, but I knew of him. He is something of a big deal authority on J.S. Mill. On that day he came in wearing a very smart suit with a waistcoat and tie, looking extremely distinguished and – for me – quite intimidating. And there I was – as a comedian – at a table with them all.

I was quite taken aback by how much they seemed to like the idea of Stand-up Philosophy; they had already scheduled an event, and Gordon seemed to have persuaded them to let me compere it.

Simon and the other philosophers were, perhaps unsurprisingly, somewhat hesitant about my suggestion that we invite some stand-up comedians to take part too. But that didn’t matter: the point was that they were interested in the idea.

Afterwards, I worried. Was anyone even going to come? The event had been booked at six-thirty on a Tuesday evening, after exams had finished and outside of term time. It was booked for the Wolfson Theatre, a quite fancy new lecture theatre which seats 130 people and doesn’t allow people to take drinks in. There were no comedians on the bill, and most people outside of the very small world of academic philosophy wouldn’t have heard of any of the philosophers who had been invited to perform.

Surely we would be performing to about ten or fifteen sober postgrads in a room which was too humiliatingly large?


Then, it seemed, philosophy made a comeback.

This summer, the ‘How The Light Gets In’ festival of philosophy and music at Hay-on-Wye seemed to really take off.

I started my night at the Jeremy Bentham pub, and the room has been consistently full (much fuller, in fact, than most comedy nights at this time of year).

A few weeks after that, an event called ‘My Night With Philosophers’ ran a night of public lectures at the Institut Francais; I went to see what was happening and there must have been close to a thousand people there.

And then we put on our event at the LSE on Tuesday.

I arrived at six in the evening, and there were already about ten people sitting in the Wolfson Theatre. That’s our ten, I thought. They’re keen.

Then more people came. And more. And more. They filled all the seats in the theatre by 6.20. And then they just kept coming.

Eventually, Gordon and Simon – who had both volunteered to perform – suggested that we were either going to have to run a second show, or turn away at least a hundred people. So we found some space and ran a second show – simultaneously with the first – with me frantically running between the two rooms, welcoming acts on to the stages, charing mini-Q-and-A-sessions and generally trying to give the whole thing the impression of orderliness.

It was brilliant.

After about an hour and forty minutes, everyone was exhausted but both rooms had seen all six philosophers speak, and they seemed very happy.

There was even a podcast made of the show in the Wolfson Theatre. It’s at http://www.lse.ac.uk/newsAndMedia/videoAndAudio/channels/publicLecturesAndEvents/player.aspx?id=1939


I’m starting to get the impression that many, many people have been interested in philosophy in a much more serious way than most academic philosophers like to think; they just find academic philosophy pretentious and inaccessible.

Philosophy has been concerned for its own survival for a while; academic philosophers are terrified about department closures, and cuts in teaching budgets and research funding. But at the same time, we’ve been gradually making our discipline so completely opaque to outsiders, especially in the language we use, that what we do is often impossible for any normal person to get their head around.

Too many academic philosophers complain that Alain de Botton can sell a million books, while doing almost nothing to make their own arguments available or accessible to the public. Instead, they obsess about whether they can get an article published in tiny niche journals that only about two hundred people ever read. These philosophers are right, I think, to be worried for their survival. And if they don’t survive, who will miss them?

But I think philosophy which makes itself as accessible and unpretentious as possible is capable of thriving. A few academic philosophers are starting to get this: that the general public of non-philosophers contains a huge number of people who are intelligent, curious, and want to know about philosophy. They do want to know what philosophers are doing, and do philosophy themselves, and know how philosophy can be fun and useful and important to them, too.

They just need ways in.

I want Stand-up Philosophy to be a way in. And I am finally starting to think that I am not the only one.

stand-up philosophy #2: ‘justice’

Well, Stand-up Philosophy is definitely working. The audience for last night’s show at the Jeremy Bentham were a strange, slightly mixed bag of philosophy postgrads, comedy fans, people I used to teach…and my family.

But the show was really fantastic – perhaps because we had a line-up of acts who were pretty much perfect in terms of them all being extremely proficient comedy performers, as well as all having interesting and different takes on the question of Justice…

– Dougie Walker opened the show pretty much perfectly with a thing called ‘What’s so fucking great about fairness anyway?’, in which he argued that a lot of the principles of fairness which we associate with the notion of ‘justice’ (ie treating people the same, etc) don’t really work. He nevertheless argued (with some success, I think) that justice would have to be in some way connected with empathy.

– Lindsay Sharman talked about a variety of problems associated with Justice, but in particular (or at least, this was the bit that was most interesting to me) raised some really interesting points about whether a person can be just or unjust to their future self. (She was also very funny – out of all the philosophers involved in the show, she the one about whom most people came up to me afterwards and said, “she was really funny”).

– Tony Dunn approached the problem with an analysis of how justice might apply to psychopaths, considering the fact that it doesn’t make sense to punish psychopaths because their inability to empathise with others means that they often can’t really believe that they’ve done anything wrong. Added to the difficulties when it comes to identifying psychopaths, and the fact that they nevertheless have to be prevented from doing harm to others, he claimed (quite convincingly, I thought, if somewhat depressingly) that perfect justice is impossible in any world which contains psychopaths.

– Andrew Watts headlined the show with a new and fascinating spin on the question, pointing out that the principle that legal judgments must set precedents in order for later cases to be just, had thrown up all kinds of bizarre anomalies when it came to the practical application of justice; he illustrated this somewhat brilliantly with the problems surrounding the legal status of necrophilia.

And the audience seemed to love all of it, and somehow I wasn’t even too embarrassed to talk with Andrew about necrophilia in front of my Mum…


stand-up philosophy 1: the meaning of life

Last night was, as far as I could tell, London’s first ever night of ‘Stand-up Philosophy’, and pretty smashing it was too.

What’s Stand-up Philosophy, you ask? Well, it basically seems to be somewhere between a stand-up comedy night and a public lecture.

My thought was this: I’ve been at literally hundreds of stand-up gigs where an act has actually said something philosophical and intelligent, and thought, I wish they could just make their argument without being tied up in trying to get laughs. Or philosophy lectures which have been really entertaining and accessible as well as insightful, and thought, I wish there was a bar and the possibility of heckling.

So now there is something which has it all. And last night we crammed it – and I mean crammed, there was standing room only for latecomers – into the lovely upstairs room of the appropriately named Jeremy Bentham pub near University College London.

For the first night, we started with the theme question of ‘The Meaning of Life’ – because it does seem to be the first question that people start with in Philosophy. And I tried to answer it, and so did Broderick Chow, Patrick Levy and Ahir Shah, all of whom were fantastic.

Before we started, I thought I’d better set some rules. For example, giving the philosopher onstage 10 minutes or so to make an argument before fielding ‘question-heckles’; not using loads of technical terms, because it was in a pub after all; and a general rule of ‘don’t be a dick’.

Which we all mostly stuck to.

And the audience were fantastic and lovely, and so were the acts. Brody argued that if life can be given meaning, we can do it though attempts to ‘organise’, ‘know yourself’, and ‘be a dog-person’; Patrick argued for a Levinasian other-grounded ethical life; and Ahir argued that life is basically chaotic and that looking for meaning is futile.

And just in case anyone missed it, here is what I argued…



The meaning of life is happiness

I think the meaning of life is happiness – to try and create as much happiness as possible. But ‘happiness’ is a pretty vague word, so I’m going to have to try and explain what I mean.

First of all I should say that I think happiness is something you can actually feel, you can experience it, and it’s something people do in fact want to feel. And I think that’s necessary to make any kind of decent judgment about any proposed candidate for something which might give life meaning; I don’t see how you can make any proper judgments about real things unless those things can be tangibly experienced. We need to try and decide our meaning, and what to do to make that meaning, based on things you can see or hear or feel (and I include emotions like happiness in that).

So metaphysical things like ‘God’s will’, for example, can’t be a contender for the meaning of life, because it can’t be experienced – it’s an abstract concept. Justice, too, is a concept that can’t itself be felt or experienced.

But happiness is something that can be experienced. It can actually be felt. And it’s something that, most of the time, we do actually want to feel. It’s what we look for as a result of the things we do.

So, it’s worth also saying that if believing in God’s will does in fact create happiness (and it very often does) then I have no problem with people doing it at all.

Additionally, the feeling of satisfaction which we feel when we see justice done also counts, I think, as happiness. So if people want to do things which create a feeling of satisfaction that justice is being done, that is great.

But metaphysical concepts like God or justice are a means to an end, and not themselves the meaning of life. The tangible feeling is the goal, because that is the part that we can honestly have some actual experience of.

So, I want to argue that what gives meaning to life is that feeling of happiness, and a meaningful life is one in which we try to do whatever will create happiness.

There are three problems with this:

– The first is, what do I really mean by happiness?

– The second is that if happiness is a consequence of other things, what if we don’t actually always know what will make us happy?

– The third is, whose happiness do I mean?

The first problem, of what happiness is, I’d like to put on hold for a moment – I’ll just say that a lot of people hearing this kind of theory assume it just means shallow hedonistic pleasure, and that’s not what I mean. I mean, I am a big fan of simple hedonistic pleasure (big gulp of beer, smile). But actually I think real happiness is a much deeper feeling, it’s a feeling of satisfaction or fulfilment with life. I will come back to this, though.

So, let’s look at the second problem: that we don’t always know what will make us happy. Because it’s true that most of the time we don’t know what will bring happiness. Anything we might choose to do will bring about all kinds of problems and unintended consequences, and we don’t know what they’ll be.

Fortunately, we can look at a situation and use what we’ve experienced in the past to make pretty good bets. For example, I know that almost every time I see my friend Lawrence, it makes me happy – seeing his face makes me feel happy.

Look at his face! It’s the exact way I don’t feel when I listen to the music of Justin Bieber.

So I can make some pretty well-informed bets – I can choose to spend time with Lawrence’s face, and not listening to Justin Bieber.

Obviously I can’t know for sure whether what I choose to do will make me happy until after I’ve chosen, which I will accept is quite annoying. Especially because it means that, until time stops, one choice will almost create more happiness than another, so there almost always definitely is a right or wrong answer to any decision – I just can’t possibly know what it is until long after the decision has been made.

This kind of consequentialist theory is often quite unpopular because it pleases nobody – it doesn’t please people who want there to be a right answer, and it also doesn’t please people who want there to be no answers.

It’s like saying it doesn’t matter whether you like pizza or not, there definitely is pizza – but it’s not coming out the oven until you’re not hungry, and maybe not even then. It pleases nobody.

But this is not a reason to reject the theory: it just means we have to be cautious, because we can make informed gambles but we can’t be certain. And if we are to ground meaning in what can be actually experienced, then we don’t really have much else to go on. (Pizza is all we’re really getting). So we have to make these gambles in the most informed way possible.

The third problem was, happiness for who?

Well, I think the only realistic answer is, happiness for me. Because I only experience my own happiness, and I don’t really feel other people’s happiness. But this is not necessarily as selfish as it looks, because I can see signs of whether they are happy or not; and if I feel empathy for someone else, as most humans tend to do, then their happiness makes me happy. If I look at Lawrence’s wonderful face and he looks miserable, then I won’t be happy either. But seeing him happy makes me feel happy, especially if I’ve helped make him happy.

And, to go back to the first question, I have found – empirically – that this kind of happiness, a shared happiness with other people, is a much deeper and more rewarding kind of happiness than if I decided to just sit on my own eating chocolate.

Now this doesn’t have to be true for everyone. I mean, not everyone knows Lawrence. Other people might find the deepest happiness by excluding other people, and I have to accept that if that is what makes them satisfied and happy with their lives that is ok, too. But for me, what gives me that deep kind of happiness is to share that happiness with other people, to feel I am a cause of their happiness and for their happiness to cause mine. Another word for the way I feel happiness might be the word ‘love’.

But there’s another aspect to this, too, and I think it will get us closer to the answer overall.

Last September, I was at a party, and I was talking to a girl, and I was a bit drunk and probably, I think, hoping I might get off with her. And then she asked me a question.

She asked, if there was a news flash that a meteor was going to hit earth in six hours, and everybody was definitely going to die, what would you do?

Well…what would you do?

And I know a lot of people would think, let’s get drunk, right? Maybe that’s what she was hoping for. But straight away I knew what I would do. I wouldn’t be talking to some random person at a party.

I would find the person whose happiness I know has the most significance for my own. Who it really makes me feel happiest to share my happiness with.

And if they weren’t nearby, I would start running, and I would run and run until I got a stitch so it felt like I was tearing apart and I would just keep running, until I found them.

And I would try to spend the last few hours trying to share with them whatever happiness was still possible. Even if they didn’t want me to! I would still try – I would have to – because it would be my best hope for happiness.

(That person might not be Lawrence. I suspect his wife might get first call on that.)

But the point is this: that even if there is no meteor, time is still limited: it might be in six hours, or six days, or six years, or sixty years – but however much physicists may say time is infinite, my experience of time is that it isn’t infinite. It is very very finite.

Not long after that party conversation, there was an electrical explosion in the badly-wired warehouse I was living in that somehow managed to not kill me.

And that sharpened up the question to which the meaning of one’s own life is the answer. The question is: given that time is limited, how should I spend my time – and who with? – in order to create the deepest feeling of happiness in whatever time remains?

So. Happiness, I think, is a deep feeling of satisfaction or fulfilment with your life and what you do. You can’t ever be sure whether what you’re doing is going to make you feel satisfied or fulfilled or not, but for me, and I think for a lot of people, happiness comes from a shared happiness with other people.

And that – for me – is the meaning of life.

lifetime and legacy

The first person I knew who died was my grandfather.

His name was Alf, but all I remember of him was his face and his laugh – a high, joyful, wheezy chuckle – and that he and my Grandmother used to call each other ‘mate’. “Put the kettle on, mate,” they’d say to each other.

I don’t know why they called each other that, but it was very deeply affectionate. It always sounded friendlier than any stock affective term like ‘darling’ or ‘honey’. Like their love had genuinely been built on being best mates.

In fact, the two of them had been star-crossed young lovers in Liverpool (he was Protestant, she was Catholic – which mattered in the 30s) and both their families threw them out. After the war they worked in factories for the rest of their working lives, and were devoted to each other until he died.

And when he died, in 1989, I was given a watch.

It’s a nice ornate kind of thing, with a classic-looking face and a leather strap. It was engraved “Duncan, from Grandad” – but I’ve always known it wasn’t really from him. To begin with, it was a brand new watch so it must have been bought specially for me when he died; and by the time he was dying his Alzheimer’s had reached the point where he wouldn’t exactly have been able to go shopping for watches himself.

But that doesn’t make it of any less value; it must have been bought by my mother and/or my grandmother, who must have decided that he would have wanted me to have something like that. So it’s from them, really.

But it’s also from him. Kind of. I guess in a way, it’s from all of them.

I think it is very beautiful.

The problem with death is that nobody ever thinks enough about it until they’re faced with it – then it takes them by surprise.

They organise their lives, plan parties, clean the kitchen, complain about the government, and generally go on as if the whole thing will never stop, and then one day they’re hit by a bus, or Alzheimers, or a stroke or whatever and it’s all over. Like that.

According to Alice Osborne, the founder of a project called the Legacy Centre, the number of people leaving wills has dropped dramatically in recent years. The centre is being set up to challenge the taboo of talking about dying; as a comedian and a philosopher, this is obviously something of which I very strongly approve.

People just don’t like talking about death. It’s a big empty amorphous monster that’s out to get us, all of us, and we don’t talk about it. When it happens to one of us, we treat it with the utmost solemnity, and until then we try not to think about it.

On the upside, this allows us to keep thinking we’re immortal, and putting things off (it also means a lot of money goes to the exchequer when we die without leaving wills). The downside is that this does sometimes leave people in a mess when they are dependent on someone who dies without providing for them.

But the biggest problem with not talking about death is not to do with our unpreparedness for death itself, or what what will happen to our things after we die. The bigger problem is a failure to face what death means for us while we are still alive. I think a lot of people have the power to do more with their resources – and not just their material resources – while they are still alive. But they don’t.

Martin Heidegger was obsessed with death. The limitedness of life, he thought, must be faced honestly if we are to make the best of it. An authentic state of “being-towards-death”, he thought, throws all our projects into sharp contrast with the fact that we have a very limited amount of time in which to make those projects happen.

At first, he said, really fully comprehending the fact of your own death makes everything you do appear meaningless; we feel a state of terrible anxiety about it.

But once we’ve come to terms with it, it imbues everything we do with meaning. Life is limited: it happens in a certain period of time, and we have to act on the things we care about, decisively, before time runs out, to make life meaningful.

This is an oversimplification of Heidegger’s point, of course. But that’s okay – it’s a fairly simple point which I think is best made bluntly: what gives life meaning is the things which are important to us before we die – in other words, in our lifetime.

In some ways, it’s banal, which is why it’s such a wonder that so few people really spend much time thinking about it. But your achievements and your goals do matter, to the extent that they matter to you in the limited time of your life.

And most of all, I think – although this is my emphasis rather than Heidegger’s – it is the people who are important to your life, and the time spent with them, which matter. Bearing in mind that in a few years, or a few months, or a few days even, you or they could be gone.

Heidegger gave that state of mind a name which, when translated into English, seems underwhelming. He called it care.

But Heidegger also pointed out that in the process of caring about things, many of us lose sight of how real our limitedness is, with death always on the horizon. We think we’re safe, get sidetracked by novelties, new things and insignificant people, and lose what it is about ourselves which is authentic.

If we do think about death at all, we think of how to survive it in some way, through our ‘legacy’. We think of the practical side of the fact that our physical body will no longer be able to move around and act on the world. So we make wills, set things in order, leave inheritances. We set up what we would like to see happen, almost as if we were actually going to get to stay and observe it; it’s almost as if are just planning to go away for a bit.

And what we forget about is that the most important legacy a person can leave is the memory of their life.

It’s possible – as I have learned, to my very great regret – to be too obsessed with death. Or at least, to make the mistake of thinking that the inevitability of death means we must get the most out of life. I have certainly made decisions based on thoughts which have taken the form, “I am going to die without ever experiencing x – therefore I will need to experience x.

This can be a mistake. It’s true that we must act now, because time is short; but the quest to beat death should not take the form of a checklist. Giving meaning to life has to be deeper – and in fact, much happier and more cheerful – than ticking off a bucket list of fleeting experiences.

It’s about committing yourself to completing the projects that really mean something to you, however challenging they seem; it’s about openly and cheerfully loving those people who you love, whether or not they understand that this is what will have defined your life; it is about being the person you are.

While a person is alive, they cannot get happiness by chasing transitory experiences until those experiences can no longer be chased. And after a person is gone, their life cannot be valued from having completed a list.

By then, your life has its value in the memories of people who knew you and loved you – or who hardly had a chance to know you, remembering your wheezy laugh, and the fact that you called your wife ‘mate’, and, most importantly, the fact that you loved them.

The watch I was given when my grandfather died isn’t very reliable. It keeps stopping. As a timepiece, it is entirely useless.

Still, I treasure it and I wear it every day. Because it isn’t a timepiece in the sense that it tells me the time; it’s a constant reminder of the limitedness of time – and the love that is possible within it.


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