Sunday, June 17, 2012

Alan Saunders 1954 - 2012

Alan Saunders - Philosopher

I'm devastated. My hero, Alan Saunders, has died at 58, of pneumonia. Who the fuck dies of pneumonia in 2012? A romantic might suggest that he was so absorbed in the philosophical traditions of the C18th that he felt he needed a quintessentially eighteenth-century death. It literally carried him off overnight, cocking one resounding snook to the hi-tech glamour of twenty-first century medicine. Pneumonia - what true philosopher wouldn't want to go that noble way?*

The Philosopher's Zone, the ABC program Alan hosted, was a reason to live. It recently moved from the highly inconvenient Saturday lunchtime slot to Sunday at 5.30pm which made it the perfect accompaniment to a Chardonnay and a spot of workclothes ironing. Because of Alan, I even looked forward to ironing time, if not exactly relishing the prelude to the working week.

Like me, he loved Wittgenstein, logic and Buffy the Vampire Slayer. They say he even had Buffy as his screensaver. He was a genuine Renaissance Man. Public intellectuals in this country are a scant commodity and most of them are simply chancers with small minds and big mouths. I doubt Alan Saunders would have considered himself a public intellectual anyway. He wasn't the kind of philosopher who espoused particular beliefs. He was the best kind of philosopher in that he treated all ideas with equal curiosity and had a passion for passing them around that was utterly infectious if you happened to be the person ironing along to his mellifluous dissemination on a Sunday afternoon.

I will miss him for purely selfish reasons but will be forever grateful for the huge legacy of podcasts he leaves behind in perfect, half-hour ironing segments. Priceless are the one-on-one conversations with some of the world's sharpest minds, like this one with another of my heroes Martha Nussbaum.

If you really want to know where Alan Saunders's head resided, you need look no further than this passage from It's all about me, a forum on the philosophy of self, broadcast in 2010.

'I published an article a couple of years ago which began with the words, 'You mean the 18th century Scottish philosopher, David Hume.' My point being that if you do a radio show about philosophy, and a philosopher mentions David Hume, I immediately have to chime in 'Oh you mean the 18th century Scottish philosopher, David Hume', in the fond belief that I'm informing my audience of something that's useful to them. Whereas in fact if you don't know what it is to be an 18th century Scottish philosopher, it's probably not very helpful to be told that that's who Hume was, and if you agree with Hume's argument, you can agree with him whether he came out with it in 18th century Edinburgh, or in 20th century Bratislava.'

You knew that he was having a dig at a clearly outmoded policy but Alan Saunders always conformed to that policy - I like to think in a subversive way. Seriously, anyone who listens to The Philosopher's Zone either recognises the philosophical giant whose surname alone is enough to identify them - Kant, Hume, Foucault, Wittgenstein, Nussbaum etc. - or has the wit to google name-as-heard-on-radio+philosopher.

In this leader-obsessed age where any self-appointee seems able to gather a following on myth and muscle alone, an Alan Saunders is both an anachronism and futuristic dream yet to be fulfilled. If his like comes along again soon, we will be lucky.

My favourite Wittgenstein saying is 'a serious and good philosophical work could be written consisting entirely of jokes.' It doesn't seem appropriate to the occasion so let's go with this one,

'Death is not an event in life: we do not live to experience death. If we take eternity to mean not infinite temporal duration but timelessness, then eternal life belongs to those who live in the present.'

Alan Saunders would have been the first to agree. Sadly, he's no longer here to do so.

*People who know much more about things medical than I do tell me that pneumonia is very dangerous if you also have a life-threatening condition like cancer.