Autistic Songs

Alan Griswold


Previous Table of Contents Next

The Distinguished Professor of Philosophy

I could spend the remainder of my days railing against that absurdity known as modern academic philosophy, but let me save us the time and concentrate instead on one of its more fatuous examples—Professor A. C. Grayling.


I first stumbled upon Professor Grayling while he was still hacking out a career at the expense of an honest man:

“Once one has sifted his texts and has ceased to be dazzled by the brilliance of metaphor and the poetical quality, one finds much less argument, and very much less definiteness in the crucial conceptions, than is expected in and demanded from philosophical enquiry. This is disappointing.” (Grayling 1988)

I hold little hope for the present age, but I trust history will forever enjoy the irony of that self-assured lecture—Professor A. C. Grayling passing his eternal judgment upon Ludwig Wittgenstein.

And from this noble launching pad, Professor Grayling has embarked upon a two-decade quest to define the very attributes of the word philosopher for my generation: university chairs, societal fellowships, a trenchant volume or two each year, a pleasant abode or so in the country, good food and good wine—lots and lots of good food and good wine. Oh, do not get me wrong. It is not that Professor Grayling has been a renegade in this particular form of philosophical pursuit. Far from it—there are literally throngs and throngs just like him, all scratching out their subsistence in all the collegial wings. But in Professor Grayling we have the man who has established himself at the forefront of this ivory-towered brigade, primarily through the means of his considerable marketing talent. Not only has Professor Grayling proven remarkably adept in bringing his message to the masses, he has managed to bring the very essence of himself to the masses, thereby convincing a weekend breakfast audience that the trappings of a philosophy professor’s life constitute the good life of modern perspicacity. From editorial boards to off-Broadway theater, Professor Grayling has rubbed a hair-bedraped shoulder against nearly every intelligentsia-favored artifact of this all-too-leisurely age, and the Sunday supplement public has eaten it up. Ask anyone in the know: Professor A. C. Grayling has gathered quite the following.

Well, of course he has gathered a following.


And the definiteness in crucial conception propping up this mass appeal? The brilliance of metaphor and poetical qualities tugging at the heartstrings of this admiring audience? Let us sift through Professor Grayling’s dazzling arguments on the subject of death:

“The fundamental question is how to deal with others’ deaths. We grieve the loss of an element in what made our world meaningful. There is an unavoidable process of healing—of making whole—to be endured, marked in many societies by formal periods of mourning, between one and three years long. But the world is never again entire after bereavement. We do not get over losses; we merely learn to live with them.

“There is a great consolation. Two facts—that the dead once lived; and that one loved them and mourned their loss—are inexpungeably part of the world’s history. So the presence of those who lived can never be removed from time, which is to say that there is a kind of eternity after all.” (Grayling 2003)

I admit freely to my bias: I do not belong to the Sunday Times intelligentsia, I am not one of those in the know and I am not a member of Professor Grayling’s admiring crowd. For me this excerpt, along with all the rest, is pabulum I might forgive only coming from a pre-pubescent child—how am I to tolerate it off the pen of a man trumpeting his abilities to think for himself? Elsewhere in his remarks regarding Wittgenstein, Professor Grayling puts forth that Wittgenstein holds the distinction of being the last of a breed—history’s final example of a non-academically trained philosopher. I cannot say for certain whether this assertion of Professor Grayling’s might indeed be true, but if it is, I would note it also marks the end of an entire era—the end of all that has been creative, useful and eye-opening in the realm of philosophical thought. Because there has never been, and there never will be, a true philosopher of the academic kind. When I consider the example of Wittgenstein and others much like him—such as Thoreau, Schopenhauer, Kierkegaard and Nietzsche—I recognize a truism at work that would be dangerous to overlook: a philosopher for the ages cannot possibly be the philosopher of his day. And, of course, vice versa.


Listen. I am just a simple man from Indiana. I cannot distinguish the good life from a good swig of beer. I have not the slightest idea what it takes to be a philosopher. But I do know exactly what it takes not to be a philosopher, and if I could just get Professor A. C. Grayling’s pompous fat ass up on a pedestal, I could put it on display for everyone to see.

Oh, wait—he has already done it for me.

Copyright © 2011 by Alan Griswold
All rights reserved.