It’s been a while, but at last I’m coming out of my latest attack of nerdiness. This time it was to do with photographic equipment. Obsessing over megapixels and focal lengths, optimum apertures and performance charts, I have spent far more time on the technical side of photography than actually taking pictures. I was dreaming 2.8 lenses with nano coating, of Vibration Reduction that might hold a lens rock steady even in my large and shaky hands. The benefits of a full-frame camera, with all the lenses I might possibly need, seemed to outweigh any discomfort, stooping under the weight of a bulging camera bag. But now I’m in recovery and reflecting on why it is that we are tempted to obsess in this way.
When life seems complicated, it’s always easier to deal with one small question at a time, rather than keep focus on the broad issues. It gives the illusion of progress; it pretends that a problem is more manageable if broken down into its constituent parts; it adopts an inappropriately scientific approach to existential issues. If I can just decide, definitively, which of these two lenses is better, then I don’t have to ask why I am taking photographs. So I dig down, study, compare and come up with answers that will soon be discarded as new factors are taken into account. Although I know I am sinking into complexity, I don’t mind as long as I feel I am making some progress; I pretend that every flaying of arms must help, even as I go lower into the quicksand.
Recovery only starts when I find myself asking ‘Why?’ This runs the risk of a bout of angst, if I conclude that all life is utterly futile, but at least it provides an opportunity to get my head above the water of obsession.
And that’s where philosophy comes in. There are two polar directions of thought – the analytic and the synthetic. To generalize, the analytic seeks precision and digs down into each problem, it is keen on definition, logic and precision in language, it weighs empirical evidence, it appears scientific. It avoids the vague, the touchy-feely or the intuitive. At its most extreme, it breeds the professional philosophical nerd, whose latest paper will be read and understood by no more than a handful of people, and who has successfully defined his or her position on the question in hand with reference to its subtle differences from those of all other thinkers. But, more generally, it is the process whereby big issues (should Britain remain within the EU?) tend to reduce to detailed economic projections (is there a definitive answer to the question as to whether we will be statistically better or worse off, as individuals or a nation, if we Brexit?) and the resulting profusion of detail tends to cloud rather than clarify the essential questions. Chancellors know that it is difficult to predict economic performance one year, or even six months, ahead; and yet there is endless wrangling about whether the average family will by better or worse off by a small amount ten years hence on the basis of this year’s decision. We know, as we study the figures, that they will not persuade. It is not just the margins of error involved, or the questionable assumptions upon which they are based, but the fact that they only satisfy those who have already been obsessing about figures. In the end, the big issue is about Britain’s place in the world, and whether Europe can act coherently, whether economically or politically. But those questions seem too big, so we analyze particular factors and economic implications, balance one thing against another and soon start to sink into an analytic quicksand within which we are never going to discover a simply holistic answer. When we finally vote, it is mostly based on intuition, not the balancing of charts and figures.
The tendency to analytic rather than synthetic thought has cursed almost all areas. Neo-liberalism – the unspoken political and economic assumption of our day – allows us to reduce many political decisions to a weighing of economic benefits and the unchallenged assumption that everyone wants minimum regulation and maximum economic freedom, a view that mostly benefits the wealthy, but which may be packaged as the economic theory of choice (however unrealistic in practice) to those further down the economic pecking order who nevertheless aspire to better things. That GDP may be a fraction of one percent greater or smaller is not really an answer to what I want out of life, but it may be packaged as such.
Stopping and asking ‘Why?’ whether in politics, economics, or photography, is healthy because it forces us to adopt a synthetic approach – linking the particular to the overall, checking meaning in its widest context. And that is why I, personally, regard existential questions as the most important. If we know why we are doing something (or indeed why we are doing anything) then we can set about finding the ‘how’ – thought then becomes a functional and pragmatic challenge with a purpose already in mind.
So, as I go into recovery from this latest attack, I salute synthetic thinking – looking up and making connections, asking the most general of all questions. And that is why I have never given up on the Philosophy of Religion, despite the fact that many of its questions and arguments are still mired in literalism and supernaturalism. It is a branch of philosophy that encourages us to explore the ultimate context – to ask the ‘why’, to seek a sense of meaning that we intuit but cannot define.
On the other hand, if you want advice on the best focal length and aperture combination… Aaaaaagh!