: 09.09.2010




A prose poem to Stephen Hawking on the occasion of the death of philosophy



Philosophy is dead, you say?

Is philosophy really dead Stephen Hawking?

“Yes” he says, with his mid-Atlantic voice

Generated by infinite cleverness

Well then, you are probably right

You are, after all, very clever

But philosophy is not just for clever people

Certainly, clever people know things about which I am not so certain...

I need to question the world and my place in it

Again and again,

With every day that I live

And everything that I do

I suppose it is a kind of rudimentary philosophy that I do

a philosophy of the everyday

But it is difficult

And when people, whom I respect, like you,

Tell me that philosophy is dead

I take note and think. It is quite a statement Mr Hawking

Quite a statement

At the same time it shows your weak side

The bit of your thinking you haven’t tidied up yet

I don’t blame you though; philosophy is not mathematics is it?

Mathematics is a descriptive language

It gives us the tools to describe the world, mathematically

And that is a very good way of describing the world

As good as poetry and painting, music and film.

Perhaps I should qualify that

Mathematics is the best way to describe the world mathematically

Poetry is the best way to describe the world poetically

Mathematics can make good poetry

But I would understand if you would protest at the idea

That poetry can make very good mathematics

Our cleverness always resides in special areas and does not extend to the whole, does it?

You have managed to describe the world in a very complicated theory

that I do not understand

"M theory" eleven dimensions, or more, no doubt more.

So you are a theorist of physics... a theoretical physicist

Although that sounds a little strange: theoretical physicist

You are a real one!

But all foolishness upon a stick

(As we say in Holland...

I love saying that)

Theory is already half of philosophy

It is the bold and brave bit,

The bit that stands up as lets itself be counted

Every question gets an answer

And answers to questions... are theories

The other half of philosophy is the question

Questions question theories

If I am not mistaken, that is what you do

You ask questions

About the nature of the world

And you put forward theories

Which you describe

And make consistent, iron out,

Using mathematics

So what you are really saying

Is not so much that philosophy is dead

But that you feel lonely in your thought

Philosophy, you see,

Will not die until people like you are dead.

And even then only a particular bit of philosophy will die

Not even the most interesting bit,

When seen by itself, in isolation

That is, without a careful consideration of our place

In this world you describe

And a reconsideration of our wishes

Our judgment

Our ways of doing things

You are a live philosopher

With a lonely philosophy

That only those who can do the mathematics can properly discuss

But I still need to bring up my children

And feed the cat

And worry about the neighbours when making music

You are a philosopher of natural science, a theorist and questioner

You describe the world in formulas

Philosophy is not dead, because you are alive!

It is just becoming a little more difficult

We will catch up though, don't worry

Any language can be learnt, any model can be made graspable

And we will have to make the effort and trust you that it is worth it

Is it worth it, Mr Hawking?

You see I am not sure I can trust you here

The problem you see, is that mathematics cannot tell us how to live well

For this we need the philosophers who speak in different languages to describe the world

The philosophers who speak in sentences and poetry, painting, film, architecture, politics, economics, justice, music..


Perhaps I can turn the tables on you with a little experiment:

Read Spinoza

Not once, not even twice

Read him well, make him your own

And then tell me

How much of his thinking

Needs to be thrown away wrapped in the rubbish bin of your thinking,

If none at all,

Which I suspect,

Then in fact physics

Has been dead for almost all of its wonderful life

A strange death for something that has given us so much fun.


As an occupation, mathematics,

Like all other occupations

Can furnish us with a wonderful subject to devote our lives to

And thus the means to live a good life

Before we die

I believe you have managed that well, heroically, if I may say

You are a man I hold up to the world and say: like him!

And mathematics is fun, like English, Dutch and Chinese, and physics

How alive my thinking feels now that philosophy is dead.


But philosophy does not die

People die

First they die within the first person singular.

The "I" that is the knot tying their bodies to their environment

Then they die in the second person singular and first person plural

That is the you and the we that fall within the jursidiction of loves and friends and enemies

They talk to the dead beacuse they miss them… and thereby keep the dead alive

sort of like physics was alive while it was philsophically dead all that time that it was most alive philosophically

But when they are dead in the first and second person, they still live on in the third person singular

And if they are famous, like you

They live like that for a very long time.

They become almost immortal

And then, when everything comes to an end

As things do, you know…casually

Even the most famous third person singulars die

And nothing will be left of them

A pity really, but there it is.



Contact me at: jacob@voorthuis.net

copyright © jacob voorthuis 1994-2010

All written material on this page is copyrighted.

Please cite Jacob Voorthuis as the author and Voorthuis.net as the publisher.