Future, Present, & Past:

~~ Giving itself latitude and leisure to take any premise or inquiry to its furthest associative conclusion.
Critical~~ Ready to apply, to itself and its object, the canons of reason, evidence, style, and ethics, up to their limits.
Traditional~~ At home and at large in the ecosystem of practice and memory that radically nourishes the whole person.

Oυδεὶς άμουσος εἰσίτω

Monday, January 11, 2010

cats & dogs

As always, in media res; anyone claiming there’s another way is either a prophet or a con artist. This is a long-ish post (one of many, eventually, but the longest so far) on what the work-in-progress I’m trying to work out on this site is supposed to be progressing towards. It’ll also give a fair example of the way I think-by-composition, should anyone be remotely interested.

This blog is made up of working notes towards a book (or possibly a “blook,” if it stays online); but in a sense there are two books I’m trying to sort out here, and I am not sure they will not be fighting like cats and dogs all the way through. The “cat” is easy to write, for by definition, it is what gets written easily. It’s the stuff that comes out in white heat, though often half-baked (or less), as an idea grows and transforms and draws other ideas into its sphere. The cat is easily distracted, with a short attention-span and a tendency to pounce. It plays with ideas and loses them under the couch, and almost doesn’t care if I’m there or not. The “dog,” on the other hand, is loyal and steady, but requires much more attention. Whereas the cat will bring me, day after day, little trinkets, the dog wants to herd a whole flock of ideas in a single direction—but that takes work. This second book is like unfinished business that has sat for years in the attic or the hall closet, needing to be seen to and always taking more time than I thought once I get around to it. It’s a whole series of parts without any obvious instruction list for putting them together.

One could plausibly describe these two books as a young man’s book and an old man’s: a book being thought out only in the writing, not knowing where it is going; and a book written to set in order things in memory, conclusions—not dogmas but habits, more or less conscious—already reached. In other words, it’s a book written In the Middle of Life’s Journey.

It occurs to me that my clever dichotomy may give the false impression of a nice order. Actually, both the cat book and the dog book are disheveled things, scattered and cluttered. For in “white heat” it is possible to write in any number of styles (admittedly, not always well) according to the subject; if the cat has pounced on a scholar, it makes little scholarly pawprints everywhere; if it has pounced on poetry, its pawprints might scan or at the very least look a little lyrical. But the cat is by definition interested in what it has right now. The dog, for its part, has its work cut out for it precisely because what it has to order and shepherd is, well, what the cat dragged in, once, long ago, and forgot about. This has been very different over the years, and not infrequently from day to day.

About the only thing these two books have in common, one might say, is their starting point.

My starting-place is the same as that of all philosophy: astonishment. Wonder. Yes, this; but also an incorrigible itch to make this wonder articulate. Wonder is named as the beginning of philosophy by Aristotle, who adds in the Metaphysics [1.2 982b] that “the lover of myths is also in a way a philosopher, since myths are made up of wonders.” Aristotle is a man not in most respects much like my cat—neither my cat-book, nor my actual cat, which freezes or leaps in unfeigned astonishment at every twitching leaf. But then, Aristotle calls wonder the beginning of philosophy, not the whole thing. Articulation—that’s the dog-book—is also essential. Astonishment by itself is, I am tempted to say, a noble response, even a grace; no genuine philosophizing is possible without it. But not every moment of wonder turns into the thoughtful perplexity that is philosophy. Feeling bafflement is perfectly compatible with being satisfied with it, or merely stumped; but if either of these are one’s first response, no articulation occurs.

And one can see why. This articulation is a struggle. Take the old question: Why is there something rather than nothing? If you have never felt the radical, dumbfounding wonder behind this question, it is unlikely that having someone describe it to you will make it seem like a diverting topic for an afternoon reverie. If you have felt it, you will understand how maddeningly difficult it is even to put it into words. To me it feels like trying to find a good fingerhold on the Great Wall of China in order to lift it up and look underneath, while standing on top of the wall. To ask “why is there anything?” is in a way to be asking for a spot outside of everything to be the explanation. And yet, the question will not go away, no matter how often one hears explained, patiently, that it arises because of a kind of grammatical mistake. Indeed, Wittgenstein says of this wonder that anything at all exists, that it cannot be coherently phrased in the form of a question, “nor is there any answer to it;” indeed, “all we can say about it can a priori be only nonsense.” But Wittgenstein,
who may plausibly be held to have started the “it's a grammatical mistake sort of approach with these kinds of remarks, also called the urge to formulate these questions, to run up against the limits of language” as he called it, “a tendency in the human mind which I personally cannot help respecting deeply,” and added that “I would not for my life ridicule it.”

Every effort to ask “The Question of Being” is a rushing or an infiltration of these borders. (T.S. Eliot called this sort of thing “raids on the inarticulate;” but I think “raids” is a bit strong for the style of my own attempts, which are more like reconnaissance missions). Ken Wilber boils down all such attempts to two kinds. Wilber opens Sex, Ecology, Spirituality with the disarming sentence, “It is flat-out strange that something—that anything—is happening at all.” There are, he suggests, two responses to this realization: either one can believe it is purely fortuitous—a response Wilber calls the philosophy of Oops—or one can hazard something other, as has always been asserted by the great spiritual traditions. One might contend that even this hazarding is bound to either include
this “something else in the everything that is happening (and so risk an infinite regression), or not (and so beg the question). Why not just stay with Oops? And yet there is a good deal of difference between arriving at Oops at the end, as Quentin Meillassoux does in After Finitude, and starting out with it, remaining with it and being satisfied with it.

You see what has been going on here, as the dog and the cat stalk each other warily. Names or issues or phrases are getting dropped in here as if they are part of some assumed common knowledge and not what they are, the flotsam of my own idiosyncratic itinerary through the library and life. This is going to happen all the time, so we’d better figure out what to do. My own preference is not to be talked down to, even at the risk of being presented with information I might not immediately understand. Do you really want the explanatory clause, “Quentin Meillassoux is a contemporary French philosopher,” here? Yes, it’s a blog, for the time being, so I can include links, which are less obtrusive (though potentially more distracting); but are they any less condescending? If you knew Meillassoux’s name already, you are or yawning or rolling your eyes. If you didn’t—well, did I think you didn’t know how to find out?

My criteria for the good reader are those enumerated by Nabokov: “The reader should have an imagination. The reader should have a memory. The reader should have a dictionary. The reader should have some artistic sense.” A pencil and paper might also help. I am going to assume, too, that my reader can use a library, or at least an internet search engine. The reader I hope for is curious enough to look into whatever isn’t immediately made clear—and suspicious enough to look closer at what seems made a little too clear. The reader I hope for will be patient with what might seem like the boring parts, or will give herself permission to skip about and come back, and won’t take umbrage at the author’s apparent assumption that it’s worth hanging in there. For my part, I will attempt to fill in what I think will be helpful, and yes, I put in the links, as I attempt to learn how to ride this curious new media. This inevitably involves treading on some toes, because I will be moving about from discipline to discipline, in what I hope is a responsible way, and this means that one audience might be all too familiar with what is brand-spankin’-new to others.

Brand-spankin’-new, and familiar: this is what everything is all the time. Look at these words.

L o o k a t t h e s e w o r d s.

What is involved when you read this sentence is so astoundingly complex and so familiar that a full account is probably impossible. Perfectly arbitrary (by some criteria) arrangements of dark against a lighter background are scanned by the eye. How much does “scanned by the eye” already presuppose? The mechanism of the eye, the manner in which the photons of light trigger neuroelectric signals in the brain, the translation of these into (sub-aural) sounds, all of this is a synaesthetic miracle. These sounds, these inky squiggles, these arrangements of pixels on a back-lit screen, mean something. The ramifications of this one act are enough to fill a book, an encyclopedia, a library. It took millions of years of evolution, and a relatively brief but quite complex coda of human history, to attain the well-formed eye, the capacious brain, and the language-system that enable this reading. We so take this for granted that “take for granted” is too weak or loaded a phrase. It is not possible for us not to take it for granted. To not take it for granted would actually be to change who we are.

Now my point here is not to swerve off (yet!) into a tour of the history of language, writing, and culture, or the evolution, biology, and physics of perception, cognition, and reading. (Patience, gentle reader). My point is that every moment of our experience involves these unexamined ramifications before and behind. The dance (the clumsy dance) I make between expertise and bluff here is the dance we make all the time. The artist who presents what we “already know” in a new way, who estranges the familiar, and the scientist who attempts to explain something puzzling in terms of what we can regard as established, are both engaged in this dialectic, and each presupposes something of the other. Everything we think we already know is charged through and through with the unacknowledged, the unplumbed, the unguessable; under our feet, the soles of our shoes; under the shoes, the pavement; under the pavement, the ants. The ants on the surface of the earth, the earth hanging in the void of the heavens, the heavens nowhere-because-everywhere. Where do these things come from? And how is it that any of them are at all? This strange question—“why is there anything at all?”—or rather, the wonder motivating this inadequate formulation of a question, turns out to be simply the continuous perplexity behind all the others, the always-present strangeness of the taken-for-granted. Every time an apparent digression sideswipes us here, it is always a sign that the strangeness of things is clearing its throat, asking politely (or perhaps not) for our kind attention.

This is the family quarrel of my cat- and dog-books. What is diverting and new squares off with what is assumed and established. The boringly familiar is re-lit with wonder; the astonishing and unforeseen comes forward to greet us and make acquaintance, speaking a language we can understand. Every moment of our lives is “the middle of life’s journey.” Every instance opens onto an infinite number of possible paths, and this infinitude of questions that can be asked is itself always a signal of the even more mysterious unaskable question, fumblingly expressed as Why is there anything at all?

The discipline of philosophy is to keep this question open, to never get bored with it. The technique of philosophy is to ask as many of the other questions as possible in concert with each other, always opening them back upon this fundamental question. The aim of philosophy is to cultivate the understanding of the answer; an answer which, note, is just as nonsensical as the question, and can only transpire in one as an experience and not a sentence, but which, I want to say, casts a sort of image in language which, as close as I can come, is something like this:

I don’t know, but it is good that there is.

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