“One must not sleep…”

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In his book, Discovering Existence with Husserl, Emmanuel Levinas writes “one must not sleep, one must philosophise.” I’ve long been a little sceptical of this. Many times I have thought, whilst being held hostage by some philosopher or other until late in the night, that quite the reverse is true: in other words, at times one must not philosophise, but instead one must sleep.

Nevertheless, I’m heading down to London tomorrow for an insomniac night of philosophy called My Night with Philosophers, at the Institut français in South Kensington. The event is free, plenty of coffee is promised, and there are some truly excellent speakers laid on. But because I’m not quite as hard-core as Levinas, and I think that on balance both philosophy and sleep are good things, I’ve bought an open ticket home, just in case I flag and want to hop on the last train. However, from where I am sitting just at the moment, it all looks so damnably interesting that I’m tempted to stay the whole course.

The Levinas quote, incidentally, comes in the middle of a discussion of the questionableness of self-evidence in philosophy, and how—in his view at least—phenomenology is a matter of revealing not certainty (as Husserl once thought, at least earlier on in his philosophical career), but instead a kind of quivery equivocation in thinking. I’m busy writing about all this stuff at the moment, for a book deadline that is about to fall at the end of the month (about more anon.); and until I heard about the event at the Institut français, I was going to spend the weekend editing. But looking at the programme, I simply can’t resist taking a short break, and making the trip to London.

All of which gives me a chance to post a small extract from the aforementioned forthcoming book, where I deal with such important matters as philosophy, insomnia, the tragedy of being and coffee:

If you find yourself waking at three o’clock in the morning, assailed by the horror of existence, insomnious and unsettled, you might indeed begin to suspect that there is a deep-rooted tragedy at the heart of being; but with the return of the bon sens that Nietzsche associates with breakfast, you might recognise that the insomnia of the night before was due to a combination of too much time in the melancholy company of philosophers, and far too many cups of coffee. The problem is not in being itself, in other words, but merely in associating with the wrong kinds of being at the wrong kinds of time.

Hopefully—if I hold out that long—by breakfast time on Saturday I will have managed to have kept hold of a degree of bon sens; and if so, I’ll post an update some time over the weekend about how the event went. If you are in London, it’s well worth coming along too. Look out for me. I’ll be somewhere in the corner, red-eyed, clasping a mug of coffee, wearing an Epicurean “Moderation is Fun” T-shirt, and muttering incomprehensibly about phenomenology and insomnia…

Image: My Night With Philosophers Website

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