The University of Nottingham has always claimed to pursue the unanswerable and to foster the dreams of young minds. Of course, whilst dreaming big is free, the dreams of today entail student debts, a vicious battle for internships and leave students shackled to two-minute noodles. So, with the expensive and expansive qualities of our dreams in mind, I decide to be ambitious. Armed with the knowledge imparted by a University Arts degree, I grapple with an age-old philosophical problem: “If a tree fell in the woods and there was no one there to hear it, would it make a sound?”
From the positivist school, I have a definitive ‘yes’; the world exists whether or not we are acting within it. It would be human-centric to suggest otherwise. In fact, the sun does not orbit the earth, the apocalypse will not neatly fit into the prescriptions of the Gregorian calendar, and the tree does not bow to the sensory existence of man. However, delving deeper, I find my research somewhat narrow. I stumble upon the interpretivists. They are questioning whether ‘sound’ is merely a figment of our exclusive human reality. Is ‘sound’ thus something completely different within a world no longer shaped by our presence? The philosophers question whether the tree exists at all, the anthropologists wonder where all the humans went and the political economists question whether the tree really ‘fell’ at all, or whether it was merely going through a slump period. The Marxists question whether the tree is a member of the proletariat or the bourgeoisie to determine whether or not it has already lost its voice. The international relations students will first analyse the tree as a symbol of the globalising environment, then question if it is ‘owned’ by the nation state or the global citizen, and debate whether the tree’s death has implications for the ‘cosmopolitan space’. To them also, it is unclear whether or not the tree will make a sound.
It is when wallowing within a sense of my own epistemological doom that I come to my conclusion. Yes indeed, even if this hypothetical tree in this hypothetical wood is isolated in a vacuum far from human contact, for all Nottingham Arts students, the tree has generated sound. It is the sound of a thousand students speculating upon its existence, its motives and its global positioning, through speech, through the sound of scratchy pens to exercise books, and the sound of MacBooks whirring into action. The positivist will spend two years on an honours thesis, the Marxist will found the ‘Tree Society’ for research into the tree’s ‘feelings’ and the international relations student will come to the conclusion that it is irrelevant whether or not the tree exists within the national and global space, and decide to transfer to Law.
Perhaps if we thought less about that one lonely tree, we might give more consideration to the hundreds of trees felled to print off notes required to study these seemingly answerless subjects. However, acknowledging the fact that the University has existed since 1881, and has far from discouraged a flagrant disregard for paper recycling for just as long, that may just prove useless. The student collective speaking out against mandatory hard copy notes – a voice almost as impossible to hear as a tree falling in the woods.