I was having a drink (in the good old days) with a philosophically minded friend and asked him what truth, if anything, his discipline had ever established, given that problems thrown up by Socrates in ancient Athens remained thorny. “Oh, yeah,” he said. “Free will. We’ve cracked that issue.” And? “We don’t have it.”

I was reminded of this exchange while watching Adam Curtis’s mind-bending new series on political philosophy, the theory of knowledge and the basic underpinnings of what we laughably call “reality”. Using a kind of Zen hammer to dismantle any such notion, Curtis leaves you feeling rather like the cartoon cat propelled off a cliff: running perfectly well in the conceptual void until you realise there’s nothing holding you up.

In episode one, by zeroing in a handful of extraordinary 20th-century characters, Curtis weaves a compelling tale of the mental forces and attitudes that help explain our current muddled and melancholic state. Life seems so unsatisfactory while at the same time beyond anyone’s power to transform. Yet the seemingly insignificant, second-rate Chinese screen actress Jiang Qing actually did effect one of the hugest mental shifts in history by forging the Cultural Revolution at the behest of her spouse, Mao Zedong.

Science as a bulwark of Empire rather than the disinterested pursuit of objective knowledge, and fiction as an agent of cultural and political change, are just two themes that are touched on in episode one. An obscure Irish novelist unknowingly influenced the thoughts of millions of young Russians and Chinese, while her father, a Victorian mathematician, proposed theories about logic and algebra of profound prescience for the computer age. The extent to which British self-perception — what racketeer-turned-radical Michael de Freitas called “Englishism” — was steeped in racist ideology in the mid-20th century is laid bare in thought-provoking ways, with a view to unravel and understand, rather than merely condemn. Gender discrimination is viewed through the prism of the high-society divorce of Robin Douglas-Home and the model Sandra Paul.

Uncaptioned images of horror and strange, beguiling beauty accompany the flow of ideas; we are left to decode and contextualise these, as an active demonstration of the film’s reality-building premise. Jim Garrison, prime mover of the JFK conspiracy theory — that a wide-ranging secret cabal orchestrated the murder of the president in 1963 — posited the notion of “Time and Propinquity” rather than logic and causality as a tool to scrape off the official story to reveal underlying patterns. Funnily enough, Curtis could be said to have adopted a similar approach to compiling his meshing narratives. It’s an affirmation that reality can be shaped and altered, by showing the many ways it has been in the past, for good or ill.


On BBC iPlayer from February 11