I recently joined, then rather shortly afterwards took over leading, a pub philosophy group. We don't meet in a pub - indeed the venue is alcohol free - but the idea is to exercise our brains discussing philosophical questions in a relaxed environment. I offered to take the lead when the founder left as I've studied philosophy and even taught a bit, though that was all rather a long time ago.
This week's topic was,
Mind and brain: One kind of stuff or two? I was asked if I could provide a bit more structure than the somewhat freewheeling discussions we've had so far, which I agreed to do. This meant homework. I dug out my old teaching notes and found a file marked,
Mind Brain notes. That should do. I looked at my old notes and was dismayed to find how much I'd forgotten. What did Ryle say again? Who the hell was Place?* This was stuff I used to know really well and now I couldn't drag it out of my memory at all.
At about the same time, my friend Gill mentioned a Horizon programme she thought I'd be interested in,
The Creative Brain: How Insight Works.** Um, yes, I'd be very interested. That was the area I used to research.
Watching Horizon was an unexpectedly emotional experience. It wasn't just a programme about a topic I used to study, it was all about my work. I'm not trying to claim anyone pinched my ideas, but I'd been doing just those experiments. The scientists featured were my peers. But I left that world six years ago. When I tried to remember the results of a study that was particularly similar to one featured in the programme, I couldn't. The feeling was rather like visiting the town where I grew up: a mixture of familiarity and strangeness; a peculiar kind of homesickness.
I don't really want to go back to that world. Every time I talk to someone who works in a university I'm reminded of all the bad things about institutional life, things that I put up with at the time but I'm very glad to be rid of now. At the same time, it wasn't just a job to me. My work was very central to my self-image, and to a large extent still is: I think of myself as a scientist.
When we moved here I wondered whether I'd miss the intellectual stimulation. I don't, but what I do miss is talking to people who have the same education as me; people who live in the same intellectual environment; people I can make assumptions about. There are lots of interesting people here and it's challenging to discuss ideas with someone who has a completely different viewpoint, but I don't want to be challenged all the time.
I spent too much of yesterday investigating whether I could afford to go to a particular conference that I've been to a few times before. I'd really love to go, but not sure whether I can justify the £500 or so that it would cost, and also not sure whether it's really a good idea. Would it just make me miss that world even more? The thing is, I feel at home there in a way that I just don't here.
* We don't refer to philosophers' ideas much in the discussions, but I'd used these names in my notes as shorthand for fairly lengthy arguments.
** If you watch this programme, please ignore almost all uses of the word,
Creativity.The links between the insight experience and creativity are tenuous, to say the least.