The Hitchhiker’s Guide and Philosophy: An Interview about Adams, Kant and more with Nicholas Joll

NJ_h2g2_PhilosophyRR: When did you read The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy for the first time and how did you encounter that book?

NJ: I am unsure of the year and hence of my age. I think I was about fourteen. My mother, who loved Hitchhiker’s, recommended it to me (and, initially, in book form — although my mother was fond of the radio version too). I even acquired a little metal figure of Arthur Dent, although I used to use it for war-gaming — you know, like Dungeons and Dragons-type role-playing, but with toy soldiers — and my mother didn’t like the hazardous situations that I put Arthur in!

I think it is fair to say that my intellectual and even literally engagement with Hitchhiker’s started a bit later on!

 RR: How did the idea to write Philosophy and The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy come up?

NJ: Once I did see how very amazing, and in particular philosophical, Hitchhiker’s was, and once I realized that there were various Philosophy and … books but, staggeringly, no Philosophy and Hitchhiker’s book, I just had to create one.

RR: Your book Philosophy and The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy is a collaboration. How did the teaming-up with different authors work for you?

NJ: How did it work out? It worked out well, although I did learn some things about being an editor only through making mistakes. How did I get the collaborators in the first place? Partly by using my contacts in the world of philosophy (I knew some of the contributors already, and some of the others were suggested to me by those I knew already). Others I enlisted via advertising. I found that lots of philosophers were keen to write on Hitchhiker’s!

 RR: Was it hard to find a publisher for your work and why/why not?

NJ: It was — because the two main publishers of Philosophy and books worried that the book would not sell enough in the USA. The result, though — I am glad and even smug to say — is that I ended up with a more prestigious publisher.

RR: For me, The Guide is a study of human nature, written as a satire with a science fiction backdrop. There are people who consider it just another science fiction, maybe comical, but that’s it. Do you think the Guide does give this kind of impression?

The radio and TV and film versions of H2H2 (as we may call it for short) can perhaps suggest that — suggest that here’s another piece of sci-fi, but with jokes. Still: the jokes are very funny; the books can give the opposite impression, i.e. that here we have what is primarily a comedy, only set in space; and, once one pays a bit more attention (to any version of H2H2, but possibly with the partial exception of the film), one can see the deeper stuff — the satire and the philosophy.

RR: According to your biography, your concentration is Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason. Is there any part of the Hitchhiker’s Guide that reflects this and how?



NJ: Well, actually, I’ve taught Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason only once. But I’d like to do it again; that book is an important challenge I’d like to re-engage. Indeed, even people much more expert in Kant than I would hesitate to say that they had fully come to terms with Kant. As to Kant and H2H2: one can connect Kant’s ethics (which Kant proposes mostly in works other than the aforementioned Critique of Pure Reason) to the animal–that–wants–to–be–eaten (in Restaurant at the End of the Universe). For details see in my book the chapter by Saunders and Harding entitled “Eat me: Vegetarianism and Consenting Animals.”[1]

Also, Kant was greatly concerned with skepticism — with radical threats to our supposed knowledge of what is going on — and some H2H2 material is relevant to that. I have in mind the “electronically synthesized universes” (again in Restaurant) but also, perhaps, the Earth as a computer and the Man Who Rules the Universe (Restaurant again). Also, one might try to use Kant to challenge Adam’s own philosophical views, those views being, I think, somewhat science-worshippy — a fact that stands in a slightly odd contrast to the more philosophically expansive range that one finds in his fiction. For there’s a sense in which Kant puts science in its place … A prompt for this idea of Kant–versus–Adams is a recent review of my book. Some reviews have complained that I take H2H2 too philosophically (in short: too much philosophy!), whereas this review complained that a more thorough philosophical engagement — with Adams’s own views — was needed (i.e.: too little philosophy!).

RR: This made me smile and reminded me of the time I read Kant’s Categorical Imperative in college. At first glance, Kant seems downright sensible — as long as you don’t start thinking about it. But, the devil is in the details. One of Kant’s topics that fascinated me was his assertion of duty that I couldn’t get out of my mind. It made my head hurt because to some extent it seemed like a circular argument. To sort this out, I called a friend who had studied Latin and Classical Greek. I believe that he has never completely recovered from this discussion —In fact, neither have I. Later, I read Hegel’s criticism of the Categorical Imperative — where he pointed out Kant’s use of tautologies. Up until then, I was only familiar with the tautology term in a literary sense.

NJ: I am going to make your head hurt, I am afraid.

You have in mind, I think, the criticism that Hegel (and others including J. S. Mill) made of Kant’s ethics specifically, the “universal law” formulation ofThe Categorical Imperative,” namely, that the formulation is empty in the sense that it offers us no guidance. In order to understand and evaluate this charge, we need to get somewhat clearer about the idea under attack. Kant’s idea is as follows: If some “maxim” (proposed policy of action) is to be moral, then (for reasons that Kant has argued for already) the maxim must be universalizable. That is, there must be no contradiction in the idea of everyone adopting the maxim. In that way, Kant provides a test for the moral permissibility of actions.

Now, Hegel’s emptiness objection (or at least one version of it) is this: the test is empty, in the sense that it can never reveal a real contradiction. Hegel works here from one of Kant’s own examples. The example is of someone who adopts the maxim,

I will increase my assets by every safe means and, more specifically, I will deny a deposit which no can prove … to have been made” (Kant, Critique of Practical Reason, Ak. 27). This maxim, Kant says, would annihilate itself if universalized, for it would bring it about that there were no deposits at all.” That is: were everyone to act on the maxim, no-one would ever give deposits.

Hegel’s objection (from his essay On the Scientific Treatment of Natural Law) is, I think (Hegel is hard to interpret!) as follows. Kant does show that, were everyone to act on the maxim in question, then the institution of giving deposits, or of private property more generally, would break down (and the point is generalizable: universalizing other maxims can lead to other institutions/practices breaking down — thinking of breaking promises). This shows that we cannot have certain maxims if we are to have certain institutions. Thus, the maxim fails the test — generates a contradiction — only if we assume certain contingent facts (in this case, the institution of private property). But Kant means to be working from pure reason; he is not meant to be bringing in ways the world happens to be. So the maxim only fails the test if Kant cheats by bringing in (what we might call) social institutions — and the same goes, Hegel thinks, for other maxims.

Kantians have replied to this objection. The thrust of the replies is, I think, this: Kant does appeal to institutions, but that is not cheating. For, consider these two propositions:

(1) the Earth is round; (2) if one travels around the world, one will eventually reach the end.

1 and 2 contradict each other.

That is so even though 1 is a contingent fact. So one can get contradictions from contingent facts. And that is what happens with the universal law test. Certain maxims, under what are indeed current contingent conditions, result in incoherence. And that is enough to show that they are wrong.

Obviously, much more could be said. (For one thing, part of Hegel’s objection may be this: Kant simply endorses, or at best is silent upon, the largest moral questions in the vicinity, are questions to do with the desirability or otherwise of the institutions in question. For another thing, Hegel has a version of the objection to the effect, not that no maxim can fail the test, but that maxims that should pass the test actually fail it.)

RR: In reference to Hegel’s point about tautologies, and as I understand it, until around the 19th century, tautologies were seen merely as a rhetorical concept or device. Whereas — or at least, I think this is true — Kant construes tautology as a notion of logic. According to your introduction in Philosophy and The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy:

Roughly, a tautology is a statement that is true by definition. Now, ‘Anything that happens, happens is indeed true by definition; but the idea at issue here — the idea about complexity from simplicity — is not.’[1]

Your quote reminds me of a similar quote from the H2H2 “For a moment, nothing happened. Then, after a second or two nothing continued to happen.” or as I see it, there are parallels. Kant says:

The identity of concepts in analytical judgments can be either explicit, or non-explicit. In the former case analytic propositions are tautological.

In part, Kant’s use of tautology arises through logic and reasoning rather than using tautology on a rhetorical level — thus, the law of reason provides us a mathematical-experimental element that can be defined through formulas. Or, to make this easier to understand, Bertrand Russell said: “Everything that is a proposition of logic has got to be in some sense or other a tautology.

There, I did it — I brought Bertrand Russell into the equation.

From my understanding, Adams’s statement,

For a moment, nothing happened. Then, after a second or two nothing continued to happen.’[2]

reflects this type of tautology. The quote suggests that nothing is happening — but, in its true form — you are accosted by a quote dressed up and ready to party. In a nonchalant way, we are led to believe that nothing is happening — which isn’t true. In fact — it is just the opposite — something is happening — which is demonstrated through the word “continues.” In fact, looking at H2H2 more closely — I would say — this type of writing is an element of Douglas Adams’s writing. As you mentioned in the introduction: “‘Hitchhiker’s’ is not above a little philosophy in the same way that the sea is not above the sky.”[1]

The preferred choice of writing would be: The sky is above the sea. So, at first, readers are confronted and have to analyze Adams’s unusual writing style before they can even start on a contextual interpretation — similar, but not quite unlike philosophy. As a lecturer, would you consider H2H2 to be a book in the sense of applied philosophy in general and on Kant and why?

NJ: Well, I’d like to say a few things.

—  If Russell believed that all propositions of logic were in some sense tautologies, then he may have got that idea from Wittgenstein. Certainly the idea looms large in Wittgenstein’s Tractatus-Logico-Philosophicus. However, Russell did have his differences with Wittgenstein about the nature of logic. Still, I am not expert in this area (and, if we bring in Kant — not to mention the whole post-positivist debate on the nature and even existence of analyticity— then things get even more complicated).

— I am unsure that the “moments sentences” involve tautology. True, those statements are empty in a certain sense. Moreover, I can see why you find the use of the word continued (in one of those sentences) interesting. For, if nothing is happening, how can anything continue? The answer to that, I think, is as follows:

To assert that nothing continues to happen is not to assert that there is some thing or process, called “nothing”, that is persisting. Rather, it is to assert that, at both some time T1 and a later time T2, no thing existed and no process was occurring. Or something like that, anyway.

— As to H2H2 being applied philosophy, and to do with Kant: I say a little about applied philosophy below, and I’ve said something about how Kant relates to H2H2 above. But I’ll say a little here. To wit: some of the philosophical ideas that H2H2 explores are indeed applied, in that the questions Adams raises include the following:

• What is worth doing and what is valuable? Here we may think of the disparagement of various professions — for example, middle management — in H2H. Think also of Arthur as sandwich maker. One may mention also the Vogons’ attitude towards beautiful things.

• How should we behave? Consider here the aforementioned animal that wants to be eaten. Think also of Ford’s, “They care. We don’t. They win.”

• Who rules us and with what justification? Think of the stuff about the Man Who Rules the Universe, and of the purely nominal or distraction-providing job of President of the Galaxy.

RR: You mentioned that some reviewers of Philosophy and the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy thought that the book attributed too much philosophy to Adams, or made too much heavy philosophical weather of his books, but that one reviewer wanted a more thorough engagement with Adams’s philosophical thought. From my point of view, much of Hitchhiker’s is applied philosophy. Take, for example, how the character Marvin (who is discussed in Part III of your book) relates to the bovine animal (discussed in part I of your book) and to the mattresses. Are there any plans for a second book?

NJ: It seems that by applied philosophy you mean, or at least include, philosophy that is about how we relate to other sentient beings, and/or perhaps philosophy that is about our general view of the world. I think that some of that stuff falls within the domain of psychology rather than philosophy. Certainly though philosophy has and should have some things to say about various worldviews — for example, about how warranted a pessimistic view of the world is, and perhaps even about how one should cope with pessimism (should pessimism prove warranted). Also: Clearly enough we are getting into the realm of ethics here.

As to my producing a second book: A second book on philosophy and Hitchhiker’s is indeed a possibility; so too is a book of popular philosophy that is not based around Hitchhiker’s. We will see what happens!

RR: Nicholas, I want to thank you for all the time, thoughts, efforts and patience that you put into this discussion. I immensely enjoy this discourse. Also, from a reader’s perspective, a huge thank you for writing this book; not only is it a wonderful supplement for those that want to get into the deeper meaning of Douglas Adams’s books, but also for readers that enjoy a little bit of philosophy now and then. Have a great Towel Day.

Read a review of Philosophy & the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy on the Rabid Reader’s Review site. This book is available as an e-book and in paperback. Read an excerpt and buy on:

Amazon.com | Amazon.uk | Amazon.ca | Barnes & Noble 

Me laughing

Nicolas Joll studied philosophy at the University of Liverpool and Essex. He holds a Ph.D. in Philosophy from the University of Essex. His concentrations are moral philosophy, metaphilosophy, Heidegger and Adorno. He teaches at the Colchester Institute in Colchester, UK. For more information about the Hitchhiker’s, check out Philosophy and the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy and Some Philosophical Topics in the Hitchhiker’s published on his blog. You can also find him on Goodreads.


©2015 Nicholas Joll & Rowan Russell  — All Rights Reserved

References | Sources
[1] Joll, Nicholas (2012), The Philosophy & The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. J. Nicholas, Selection and editorial matter ©2012 Nicholas Joll, Chapters ©2012 their individual authors, (Ed.). London, United Kingdom ISBN 978-0-230-291126

[2] Adams, Douglas (2005), The Ultimate Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, New York, United States of America ISBN 0-517-22695-2
The omnibus edition was previously publish under the title:
The Hitchhiker’s Quartet and also volumes as:
The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, ©1979 by Douglas Adams
The Restaurant at the End of the Universe, ©1980 by Douglas Adams
Life, the Universe and Everything, ©1982 by Douglas Adams
So Long, and Thanks for All the Fish, ©1985 by Douglas Adams
Young Zaphod Plays It Safe, ©1986 by Douglas Adams
Mostly Harmless, ©1992 by Serious Productions

Kant, Immanuel: Critique of Pure Reason (1st edition: 1781, 2nd edition: 1787),
Categorical Imperative (1785)
Hegel, George Wilhelm Friedrich: On the Scientific Treatment of Natural Law
Russell, Bertrand: Logic and Knowledge, Essays (1901-1950)
Wittgenstein, Ludwig: Tractatus-Logico-Philosophicus (1921)

Definition:
Tautology (rhetoric)
Tautology (literary)

For further reading:
Kant, Immanuel (1724-1804) The Critique of Pure Reason, Release Date: July, 2003
Free download available on the gutenberg.org site
Hegel, George Wilhelm Friedrich (1770-1831) Hegel’s Philosophy of Mind
Release Date: March, 2012, Free download available on the gutenberg.org site

Photo Nicholas Joll:
© Wivenhoe Bookshop

Cover photo:
The Philosophy & The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy by Nicholas Joll
The Illustrated Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy and The Ultimate Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams
© 2015 Rowan Russell — All Rights Reserved

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