On a recent jaunt to London I happened to wander through Camden and up Kentish Town Road. I passed the building where I attended university for four years. Most of it has been gutted and turned into a multi-storey carpark. As a final insult though, the front section has been converted into a big-franchise pizza place.
Sadly I wasn’t carrying a petrol-bomb that day.
It struck me as I walked past, that although many of my beliefs have evolved since my time there – some beyond recognition – that it was nonetheless in that building I learnt the way of looking at the world that I still use to this day.
It was the early nineties and I was studying philosophy in what was – then – one of the most politically radical universities in Britain. It hadn’t been my first choice uni, but nor was it my last resort, and I chose it over a couple of more prestigious (but conservative) places. During my first year it was called The Polytechnic of North London, but it had become The University of North London by my second.
Not saying I had anything to do with that…
The department was heavy on Critical Theory, Deconstruction and all that jazz. And even though that wasn’t where my head was at just then, it was a great environment to study philosophy in… whether it was political philosophy, theology, epistemology, or whatever. There was a sense that – intellectually speaking – everything was up for grabs. Philosophy was an activity, not an archive, and looking back on it I feel genuinely privileged to have spent part of my life in that environment.
In fact, I’m half-convinced that anyone who didn’t study Theories of Rationality at PNL / UNL between 1986 and 1996 is going through life half-blind. Seriously. The number of people who never ask the question, “does what I believe actually make sense?” staggers me. But even among those who do ask the question, there are so few of us who understand that there’s a process that can be learnt for establishing the answer. It’s like this big open secret, hidden in plain sight on the dusty shelves of the philosophy departments.
Of course, while courses like “Discourse”, “Language and Logic”, “Truth, Meaning and Metaphor”, and “The Philosophy of Psychoanalysis” have helped me better understand the world, I’m also certain they’ve helped alienate me from much of it. So it’s been a double-edged sword.
One I’ve been happy to wield, mind.
Nothing is eternal though, and by the time I left university the humanities campus in Kentish Town was already scheduled to close (though I never in my wildest nightmares imagined it becoming a Pizza Fricking Express / Car Park). Recently UNL in its entirety has been amalgamated into London Metropolitan University.
I’ve heard much of the radicalism of the humanities department has disappeared. Where once it occupied its own dark, imposing stone and redbrick bunker, it now lives alongside the business and accountancy faculties in a shiny glass office block on Holloway Road. This has changed the culture of the place apparently. Who’d have thunk it?