I deeply dislike the question “What do you really want?” – a demand to name your desire. It has always seemed to me to have an impatience to it, a cut-to-the-chase subtext. And yet, if one cannot offer a reason for the hope that is within you, as the Epistle of Peter urges, something is clearly lacking. In short, the demand for demands may be motivated by all sorts of suspicious agendas, but it is not in itself an illegitimate query. What are the stakes?
I was asked it the other day. What is it you want out of philosophy? It wasn’t so difficult to answer – indeed, had I been a little more careful I would have realized the answer came too easily: I really do want to know. What is the biggest context-of-all-contexts, and how does that work, all-the-way-down? I want the truth.
And – I want to know how, and to dare, to act rightly. To “be a good person,” I believe is the way this is usually put.
The true, the good …. Belatedly, I recognized the terms I was using. I decided to embrace the obvious. Yes, the beautiful: I want to make something, something conducive to this only-life-worth-living, some kind of apt image of the whole. A work. A beautiful work. Maybe that would just be the examined life itself. Or maybe, an artefact. What have I been doing with all these notebooks all these years if not laboring at art?
Alas, I’m not really the sort of person who can leave something alone, when it looks as neat and pat as a made-to-order trinity. A host of reservations flooded in. The truth? Really? This was not just my inner Nietzschean sniggering at me, nor the Darwinian shaking his head: “That’s not really what we’re made for…” Of course I flinch at the truth. Suppose that it is terrible? As for the Good: Leaving aside the fact that I am, as far as I can tell, no further along the path than when I started, the fact is, being ethical costs me, and I balk at that cost about as often as I notice it at all. The balking costs me something too – that is what it means for this to be a question of the Good – but still, I balk. “The evil I would not do, that I do, and the good I would do, I do not.” Leave aside the questions of why this might be the case or how seemly (or not) it is to discuss (for myself I suspect that the less said outside the confessional, the better), but I am pretty much persuaded, by experience as well as by thought, that Father Stephen Freeman is right: I am not, in fact, improving, and moral improvement is not the point of Christianity, at least. (Perhaps it is the point of philosophy. Maybe that’s one difference. Maybe…)
And the beautiful? I want to make a beautiful work, do I? Closer to the truth would be: I want to have made one. Writing – to say nothing of thinking – is a chore, a tedium, is hard. I would far, far rather sit back with friends and a drink at my elbow having spent the day actively and productively writing, than actually spend the day writing. Most days in which I “write” are spent looking out of windows, staring into the middle-distance, frowning at notebooks, rifling through papers, pacing the stacks in the bookstore or library, moving between café counter and restroom.
In short, there’s nothing simple about these desires. They are more a form of conflict than a driving, life-filling passion. Or, maybe better: the way they motivate my life is by way of this conflict.
Moreover, this seems right to me. Insofar as thinking itself, thinking per se, involves a sort of esotericism, it seems to mean a prescinding from every easy shortcut to resolution. Isaiah Berlin famously suggested that it was perfectly plausible that certain goods might be incommensurable. Strauss names some questions “perennial problems;” they have perhaps a limited family of possible “solutions” but no solution has ever been able to persuasively hold the field in perpetuity. Perhaps then there are some conflicts which need to be maintained as such, precisely as agon. Moreover, these terms foreground something that a word like “problem” or “question” does not: there is something difficult, something struggling, about conflict; and this, too, is why there is such a strong impetus – even an ethical impetus – to solve the conflict. Does pursuit of the good entail that we might have to put ourselves in harm’s way or to relinquish something upon which we had set our heart? Suppose the true does turn out to be terrible – why should I let the abyss stare into me? Is there a “best” form of social order – and what if it meant we must forego – or submit to – something less than best? Can a work of poetry or music or painting reveal to us die sachen selbst, or are we left only with a play of images that construe us as much as we them?
To leave these as mere “questions” would be to curate a number of possible answers, hold each curious sample up and turn it so it catches the light, always without that crucial quality the existentialists insisted upon: engagement. Or, for that matter, the Marxists and the conservatives alike: taking sides. The ivory tower armchair is a foolish and reductionist cliché, but it gets at something right: without commitment, philosophy becomes not a game, but not even a game; something idle, frivolous, with no stakes at all. “It is never enough to split the difference,” a friend said to me; “somehow we have to both answer and not.” Or as Michael Stipe put it: “I’ve said too much; I haven’t said enough.”
The whole tangle reminds me of nothing so much as the fourteenth case from the Mumokoan:
Nansen saw the monks of the eastern and western halls disputing over which hall would keep a cat. Seizing the cat, he told the monks: “If any of you can say a word, you will save the cat.” No one answered. Nansen cut the cat in two. That evening Joshu returned to the monastery and Nansen told him what had happened. Joshu removed his sandals, placed them on his head, and walked out. Nansen said: “If you had been there, you would have saved the cat.”Mumon comments:
Why did Joshu put his sandals on his head? If you can answer this, you will understand why Nansen’s deed was not in vain. If not, beware!This story has always called to my mind – for what seem to me obvious reasons – two others: the judgment of Solomon, and Schrodinger’s parable of the cat. As is well known, Schrodinger intended his thought experiment not as an illustration but a reductio ad absurdum of the Copenhagen interpretation; he was trying to call Copenhagen’s bluff. Since then, Copenhagen has called his.
Had Joshu been there
He would have taken charge.
Joshu snatches the sword
And Nansen begs for his life.
In I Kings ch 3, the famous story goes, two women – “harlots,” says the KJV – are brought, along with an infant, before King Solomon. One of them has lost a child. Each one claims that the living child is her own. Solomon declares the child shall be divided between them; one woman acquiesces, and the other begs the king to give the child unharmed to the other; whereupon Solomon, discerning true motherly kindness, awards the child to the woman who begged for the child’s life. The story – and its many parallels from China to Pompeii, from the Jataka stories to Brecht (and even elsewhere within the Bible itself) – is again one about calling a bluff, indeed about more than one bluff-calling. (In the course of writing this post, I have read a number of feminist engagements with the Biblical story which seek to call its bluff. Some of them seem to me to manifest the worse characteristics of bad deconstructive readings, but it seems to me only fair to note that there are minority reports out there which want to contest the king’s wisdom, or the narrator’s.)
Overlay these stories on each other in a kind of narrative superimposition, and you find something interesting. The necessity of choice becomes a way of making a different choice. One contemporary commentary I discovered, which to my amusement also refers to the Biblical story (confirming my acumen, of course), imagined the “true” mother in the Biblical story scolding Nansen: Oh, you will kill the cat, will you?! You call yourself a monk! You ought to be ashamed! You know very well your vows do not permit you to take a life, any life. Nansen might have responded: break the vow, or break the cat; the vow remains, the cat escapes. In fact, the Blue Cliff Record, which also preserves the story, says that Nansen did not kill the cat; so too the Babylonian Talmud (Makkot 23b) actually ascribes the declaration “she is the mother” not to Solomon but to a voice from heaven. Textual tradition is always self-revisionary. There is saying, and saying.
Schrodinger wanted to insist: the refusal to choose works only so far, and no further. Bohr might have responded: the choice gets made willy-nilly. All you need is a Geiger counter. Nansen might have said: the cat is already dead-and-alive. So are you.
The either/or of the dilemma is supposed to press us to a moment where we cannot not speak. “Say a word,” Nansen commands the monks – dotoku, “express.” (It is also the name of a chapter from Dogen’s Shobogenzo). “Speak a word to me,” the disciples are always asking the elders in the Apophthegmata of the Desert Fathers. It is not just any utterance that is intended; it is a word meant for them; the request is also an act of obeisance.
Dogen also says:
when you use words to express what you have realized, you will leave unsaid whatever is inexpressible through words. Even if you can see that you have indeed expressed what you have realized, if you have not realized that not all things can be verbally expressed, then you will lack the look of the Buddhas and Ancestors, and you will lack the Bones and Marrow of the Buddhas and Ancestors.C.S. Lewis opens his introduction to The Great Divorce with a clarification of his intention, self-consciously answering Blake’s Marriage of Heaven and Hell:
[T]his is not because I think myself a fit antagonist for so great a genius, nor even because I feel at all sure that I know what he meant. But in some sense or other the attempt to make that marriage is perennial. The attempt is based on the belief that reality never presents us with an absolutely unavoidable "either-or"; that, granted skill and patience and (above all) time enough, some way of embracing both alternatives can always be found.The great dilemma is not between Either and Or, whatever those may be. It is between And and Or; between no-dilemma and dilemma, between absolute reconciliation and insistence on discrimination. I know of almost no thinker who has embraced the former, though Erich Unger comes close here:
The genuine, and for a long time to come, the main activity of the mind consists in doing the exact opposite of what is commonly supposed. It is not to criticize or find out what is faulty, but to find out that which is true in any and every philosophical view that is put forward, or at least every view of historical repute. This means refusing to accept as ‘final’ any contradiction between conflicting views, since final contradictions properly belong to the end of philosophical enquiry. Consistency can never be achieved through an analytical or a merely critical procedure; consistency or systematicallity is the joint product of two faculties, differentiation and imagination. (“Do Philosophers Disagree?”)It might seem that Hegel is the ultimate reconciler in the history of philosophy, at least in the West, and indeed, in his claim to have not philosophy but wisdom, he does seem to stake a claim to be beyond conflict. But the figure I know of who goes furthest in this direction is Brook Ziporyn, whose neo-Tiantai stance claims to offer grounds for asserting any claim whatsoever; a remarkable attempt to make Dadaism rigorous, or rigor Dadaistic... In Ziporyn's words,
“the differentiations between things, their conventional designations, as well as any cockamamie philosophical or religious theory or personal illusion about them, are just as ultimately true and untrue as their Emptiness … both of these aspects are just as ultimate as the fact that these two aspects are simply aspects of one another.”(Being and Ambiguity p 16)To put things in a very rough-and-ready way, And/Or can be posed in terms of content or in terms of form.
And/Or is a choice between conflict and reconciliation, tension and synthesis. To choose reconciliation, (“And”) would thus not be to choose both sides, but only one side -- the side of “not choosing” -- but because one has chosen, one has willy-nilly chosen “Or”. And yet: if to insist upon decision (“Or”) is to claim that there is an irresolvable conflict or tension, responsive to no synthesis, this suggests that the other side (“And”) is never refuted. It has a strange status as a perpetually possible illusion, known to be an illusion and yet never able to be dispelled. Choosing one side implies choosing the other side. This is why And/Or remains a dilemma. The cat escapes. Which is doubtless what it really wanted; but it seems to escape by being split.
This game is not a game.