How Philosophy Captivated Me

I recall the precise moment I became enthralled by Philosophy, much as some people remember just what they were doing when a shattering piece of world news reached them. A disaffected student, I was sitting in a lecture given by Professor Peter Winch, gazing, bored, at his moving figure as he paced up and down between the aisles, musing aloud, pondering urgently, on whether moral terms such as “good”, “bad”, “right”, ‘wrong”. had any meaning, and if so what it could be. I had managed, mainly through parental pressure, to get myself enrolled on the degree course in philosophy at Birkbeck College, London University, after an inauspicious start studying Arabic. My father was Egyptian, and my headmistress had advised me to discover my “roots”, failing to understand that I had no aptitude for languages, and that my father was a Christian, a member of the Coptic minority, and had stayed in England, after graduating as a doctor, to get away from the Arabic speaking Muslim majority of his birthplace. Now as I watched Professor Winch, I became aware that I had never before witnessed anyone thinking on their feet. No teacher had ever communicated to me her own intellectual puzzlement, or allowed me to share in her self-questioning. I was rapt as Professor Winch, combining   logical ingenuity and deep seriousness – in true Socratic style (though I did not yet recognize it) – entertained claim after claim, building each up to the hilt, so that its refutation seemed nearly impossible, and then, having tried to make it fly,  refuted it, only to raise it again, and yet again to demolish it.  Suddenly it seemed to me that all that mattered in life was here. Soon Winch introduced us to Soren Kierkegaard, the great 19th Century Danish Christian Existentialist, and I would sit on the top of buses engrossed in his Fear and Trembling, learning how the Knight of the Faith defied conventional morality. That agonizing adolescent sense of the pointlessness of everything which had assailed me through my teenage years gradually dissipated.  So I took my first steps on the long road to becoming a philosopher: it was the beginning of a life of adventure and passion.