A 25-Year Sabbatical

It was at the very end of my second year at Cambridge that I visited its University Library for the first time.

The 1990s: “I Need Guns. Lots of Guns” But Go Easy on the Books

It was at the very end of my second year at Cambridge that I visited its University Library for the first time.

Being a second-year student of physics, I was one of the first to finish my end-of-year exams. Students of other subjects had exam timetables that kept them busy and stressed for a few days or weeks longer than mine had kept me. I therefore had the relief and release of having completed my year’s work while everyone around me was still in intense study (or panic) mode. Consequently, for a few weeks, I felt that I had the whole place – the town and the university – to myself, to do with whatever I chose.

With no work left to do that academic year, I had a very unscholarly reason for making my first visit to the UL (as the University Library is called for short): I wanted to peruse a copy of the magazine that had put my uncle behind bars more than two decades earlier – Oz Magazine issue no. 28. Since Cambridge’s University Library is one of the UK’s six “Legal Deposit” libraries, commonly called “copyright libraries”, I knew it would have a copy.

I felt almost as subversive as its editors did in 1970 as I ordered it up just for fun while I was surrounded by hundreds of other students who were experiencing the soft terror of their ongoing exams. (I didn’t feel sorry for them as my soft terror had only just ended.)

I remember little of the psychedelically designed and colored magazine that was a piece of cultural, legal and family history. But I do remember how very tame it seemed, given that in its day it was regarded as so outrageous as to become the subject of the longest obscenity trial in the UK's history.

Once I was done and had returned the publication to secure storage, I decided out of curiosity to see what seven million books in one place looked like – or at least as many of them as I would be able to see in a single gaze on one of the library’s floors.

Accordingly, I visited a floor of philosophy texts.

It is very likely that my visual memory of so doing is quite corrupted - but I recall many hundreds of shelves, filled with tens of thousands of books, that stretched out in front of me. They did not reach the horizon - but they might as well have done, for my immediate sense of the place would have been only a little different if they had.

Even in that massive building with its huge floors, there are too many books to store in the usual fashion on regular shelves. The shelves that they sat on were so close together that there was not enough space to walk between them. The seeker of knowledge, having located the shelf on which his book was to be found, which must have weighed over a ton, had to turn a large metal wheel at the end of the shelf to move it somehow a few inches toward one of the adjacent shelves to open up enough space for him or her to walk along it to pick out the desired text.

I felt as ridiculous next to those books as Neo and Trinity looked in that scene in The Matrix, when Neo says, “I need guns; lots of guns” and the screen fills up with absurd racks of weapons.

It was in that moment that I chose not to seek a career in academia. For it was at the moment, looking upon a sea of philosophical musings of the ages, that I felt the utter pointlessness of devoting a life to publishing my own. Any material I produced would surely be utterly lost among all the rest, to be read perhaps only by a handful of human beings who, for their own idiosyncratic reasons, cared about one of the things that had bothered me enough to write about it, just enough to stumble across a bit of my work. That would be the entire outcome of my effort, which would thus make no impact whatsoever on the world at large.

That seemed to me like a thoroughly unacceptable indulgence. To put it plainly, why spend precious time writing philosophy (or anything, really) if one is no Descartes, Hume, Locke, Kant, Wittgenstein, or the like – none of which I would ever be compared to?

As a result, although I could easily have stayed on to pursue a PhD after completing my Master’s degree in the Philosophy of Science, I calculated, quite consciously, that I would learn more and have a greater impact on the world if I exited the Ivory Tower (and the UL). Leaving to develop parts of me other than the intellectual felt like the more responsible decision; staying would have felt like a very comfortable cop-out.

I left Cambridge as an advocate for, but a cynic about, the place. I thought less of that great institution because of my success there. I took a Triple First class degree in physics (in the very place where Sir Isaac Newton and Lord Baron Kelvin, in whose name I even won a scholarship, took their degrees) but my problem was that I knew how I did it. I was no physics genius so I had done it by “sheer brute force”: working bloody hard, ruthlessly targeting the examinations, and motivated by the uncommon insecurity that is nevertheless common to a minority of over-achievers too young to have ever had any sides knocked off of them.

Moreover, I had to walk away from the place precisely because of how comfortable I would have been if I had stayed. I knew how to “play the academic game”, so whereas staying on for doctoral study would required serious effort, it would not have been in the slightest sense risky – and therefore no source of jeopardy or pride (assuming success). A phrase of that my grandfather had passed on to me from his father (a Doctor of Law) crystallized this for me: “Even an ox can become a doctor if he sits on a bench for long enough.” That was consistent with my experience.

The 2020s: Death and Awakening

All of that happened a quarter-century before I scattered my father’s ashes – which I did with other family members just a few months ago.

Dealing with my father’s demise induced another shift of perspective of possibly greater consequence than the moment when I confronted all of those philosophy books in one of the world’s largest libraries. (Visiting the above link will make what follows more sensible.)

Briefly, that shift of perspective resulted in a decision (as the idiom goes), “not to die with the music still inside me.

Over the last decade or so, I have written a lot, taught a lot, and had the pleasure of working quite closely with some great thinkers and teachers – especially in the humanities.

In so doing, I have come to realize with increasing conviction that the “music” inside me is in the form of a few large challenges to prevailing ideas in philosophy that have been brewing in me for years but not yet expressed. They might be worthless, but if carefully worked out and articulated, perhaps there is the tiniest chance that they could provide some new perspectives on some fundamental topics of interest to serious thinkers.

Before my Dad passed away, I had tentatively begun writing some of those ideas down. After I had returned from dealing with his final affairs, with my new clarity about my own priorities and the importance of “playing one’s music”, I put everything else aside and started intensely working them out.

The ideas that I had most “urgently” and “emergently” to write down were in the field of epistemology. I worked and reworked what ended up being a 40,000-word paper in moral epistemology until I had something that I was at least not embarrassed by. And then I wrote 12,000 words in another area of epistemology. To get to that point, I had read more philosophy in a few months than I had read in all of my time since leaving the academy…

It was then, just a few weeks ago, that I read for the first time since I submitted it decades ago, the original work that I had done for my Master’s degree.

I thought I would be embarrassed by it. I was not. On the contrary, I was utterly amazed by it.

In fact, it gave me one of the shocks of my life: it's better than anything I've written since and I don't remember writing any of it.

Stunned, I felt chagrined by the poorer quality of all my subsequent writing (and dare I say thinking?). The feeling was almost physical - probably because I couldn’t help but wonder how much intellectual potential I have failed to realize by the decision I made a third of a life-time ago to leave academia. I found myself re-evaluating downwards everything I've ever written outside the academy (hundreds of articles and a book) and slightly upwards my potential inside it.

And so, with my Master’s thesis in my hand and a quarter century’s distance on it, I was struck in an entirely new way by the awesome power of a place like Cambridge, populated by acute minds, to produce amazing work.

My moral philosophy paper of recent months seemed so much less impressive next to my Master’s thesis. I began to wonder two things, pulling in different emotional directions. On the one hand, could I ever make up whatever academic ability I have lost; on the other, how much more powerful would my paper if I could excavate and express the ideas it contains with the precision and efficiency that I displayed in my last year at Cambridge?

If You Don’t Use It, You Lose It

As briefly mentioned, my first degree was in physics. I realized that I had forgotten all of my physics a long time ago when I pulled out the very papers that I sat for my degree and didn't even know what most of the questions meant - let alone how to answer them. That goes to the truism, "if you don't use it, you lose it," of which I have been all too aware since learning Mandarin (in my late 20s) and then quickly forgetting it through lack of use. Since I didn't pursue physics at all outside the university, I was not shocked (but I was saddened) to have lost it.

However, I have been thinking and writing philosophically (if not academically) for the last dozen years and so did not consider that the same mantra, "if you don't use it, you lose it," applied to my non-scientific output of recent years. Alas, my discovery that my Master's work had been on an altogether higher level than anything I have produced since demonstrated how very wrong I was.

While working on my moral philosophy paper of recent months, I read a lot of philosophy by big names and believe that my best Master's work could go toe to toe with much of it, but I could not say anything like that about anything I've done since. Just for the quality of writing alone, my Master's work stands out to me for its remarkable precision, accuracy and rigor. That was undoubtedly the result of continual access to, and supervision by, some great intellectuals (especially the late and amazing Peter Lipton) in the field – a privilege entirely unavailable in “the real world”.

Thus, to my great surprise, I have come full-circle, having (almost) determined that “refusing to die with the music inside me” demands a return to the place that a quarter century ago I had (what felt like) the highest reasons for leaving.

I am quite astonished to discover that, after a 25 year detour, I must return to the place that nurtures the abilities of people who wish to make music of the type I can make, so that they can make that music to a much higher standard than they possibly reach (almost) anywhere else. Whether I can ever make up what sharpness and skill I have lost outside that place remain to be seen, but I feel an almost moral imperative to try – to find out what I am capable of and to give whatever I have to give to the world. It may have value; it may not; but at least I shall find out.

Before going back on what I thought would be the decision of a life-time, I am compelled to answer those questions that my much younger self rhetorically posed in the university library. “What is the point of writing philosophy, or anything, if one is not going to be Descartes, Wittgenstein, Hume or the like? What of the pointlessness of adding to that huge library a book that hardly anyone will likely ever read?”

My answer is, I think, twofold.

First, the tiny chance of my best ideas’ having an impact outside (let alone within) the library infinitely exceeds the zero chance of their so doing if I don’t express them in their most powerful form possible. Second, what am I living for if not to leave behind the one thing of potential lasting value that I have to leave behind?