Wednesday, 22 August 2007

Professor Pete

One of the best things about staying in Oxford years after you've failed to escape the gravitational pull of the University is the fact that once in a while you get surprise phone calls out of the blue from friends who used to study or work here, wanting to drop by for dinner while they are in town giving a seminar/visiting a library or a lab.

In the next two months we're due a number of these visits, but yesterday we were thrilled by a pop-in from our old friend Professor Peter Simpson, who I believe I have mentioned at least once on this blog.

Pete teaches philosophy at the City University of New York and is self-confessed Aristotelophile. We became friends many years ago, in fact Pete is one of the many dear friends I inherited from my mother. Back when he was a young graduate student trying to impress my mother, he took my sister and I to movies and introduced us to Monty Python and the Holy Grail.

Nowadays Pete is high on my list of the cleverest people in the universe. He wrote a book about Pope John Paul the Great in which it was clear to any reader that he actually understood all that continental philosophy stuff...! (Not me; I'm more comfortable with the writings of the current Pope Benedict, whose work is at least couched in language and concepts I can follow...)

I told Pete how I'd fallen under the influence of his beloved Aristotle when writing the second of the Joshua Files books. (Fellow writers, if you haven't read the Poetics yet, I can't recommend it enough.) I mused aloud how it was possible for one guy to be so incredibly prolific as Aristotle apparently was, dominating his contemporaries across both natural sciences and political philosophy, as well as knocking out a 42 page masterpiece in which he explained and laid down the principles of western drama, principles which stand to this day.

Pete's answer was very interesting. "It's because he was such an empiricist. He used exactly the same technique as when he analysed the world of animals - he first collected data, looked for patterns and governing principles. He collected all the Greek plays he could get hold of, especially the award-winning ones. He had his students help him complete the analysis."

So Poetics wasn't just the work of a guy who sat musing and philosophizing about what he'd seen down the Greek theatre - it was a scientific approach to the understanding of dramatic structure.

The benefits of a scientific education, hey? I can't say enough good things about one. (Although I also wish I'd been trained to think with the razor-sharp logical clarity on philosophical matters as Professor Pete. He could argue the hind legs off a snake! First he'd argue the case for the legs...)
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