Doug Bruns

Posts Tagged ‘Wittgenstein’

First Sentences of Philosophy

In Philosophy, Writing on March 12, 2013 at 6:00 am

If you were a book, your opening sentence would be my first impression of you. It is that type-set handshake, that eye contact, the initial body language of our literary relationship, from which I will decide whether we might become friends. I should warn you, I am exacting when it comes to first impressions.

I have on at least two occasions here surveyed first sentences of literature. (First Sentences, and First Sentences II.) I thought it might be of interest to run the same exercise with some classics of philosophy, to see how the thinker begins the engagement. At first glance, it appears that the philosopher is less cordial–less needy?–than the artist-novelist. That is, I guess, to be expected of a writer less interested in drainage and more interested in hydraulics. So, to make it easy, I pull some books off the shelf, from the Philosophy section:

Despite my comment above, Robert Nozick (1938-2002), provides one of the best opening sentences of any genre, From his

The Unreadable Book?

The Unreadable Book?

Philosophical Explanations:

“I too, seek an unreadable book: urgent thoughts to grapple with in agitation and excitement, revelations to be transformed by or to transform, a book incapable of being read straight through, a book, even to bring reading to a stop.”

Karl Jaspers (1883-1969), Philosophy (vol 1.):

“Philosophy means to dare penetrate the inaccessible ground of human self-awareness.”

A favorite thinker, Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900), from Genealogy of Morals:

“We are unknown to ourselves, we men of knowledge–and with good reason.”

And, for grins, Nietzsche, again, in a sentence which shows why he was, arguably, the most literary writer of the thinkers, from Thus Spake Zarathustra:

“Three metamorphoses of the spirit do I designate to you: how the spirit becometh a camel, the camel a lion, and the lion at last a child.”

Heidegger begins his magnum opus with a quote from Plato: “For manifestly you have long been aware of what you mean when you use the expression you use the expression “being”. We however, who used to think we understood it, have now become perplexed.” Then the first sentence of Being and Time:

“Do we in our time have an answer to the question of what we really mean by the word ‘being’?”

From Sartre (1905-1980), Being and Nothingness, the opening chapter titled, The Phenomenon, comes this twist:

“Modern thought has realized considerable progress by reducing the existent to the series of appearances which manifest it.”

And here, the doubt-filled precision of Wittgenstein (1889-1951), from Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus:

“Perhaps this book will be understood only by someone who has himself already had the thoughts that are expressed in it–or at least similar thoughts.”

Wittgenstein, as an aside, lays claim to the most wonderful last words. From his death-bed: “Tell them I’ve had a wonderful life.” Lovely.

____________________

The Book of Dead Philosophers, Simon Critchley

The Book of Dead Philosophers, Simon Critchley

If you’re in the mood for an eminently readable survey of the history of philosophy, I recommend Simon Critchley‘s The Book of Dead Philosophers (2009). It is entertaining, fun (last days of the big thinkers), and when you’re finished, you will have touched all the bases of philosophy.

Lies We Tell Ourselves

In Philosophy on February 12, 2013 at 6:00 am
Steve Ballmer, Microsoft CEO

Steve Ballmer, Microsoft CEO

Under the heading: “Lies we tell ourselves” –this quote:

“Google’s not a real company. It’s a house of cards.”

That’s Steve Ballmer, CEO of Microsoft. He’s a super smart guy, so we chuckle in that superior and satisfied way  (as I type on my Apple Air Notebook). I came across this quote recently, did a bit of research and believe he really said it. (“The problem with internet quotes is you don’t know if they’re true.” ~ Abraham Lincoln) I can’t find an attribution date, but will give Big Steve the benefit of the doubt and assume he made this observation when Google was still a nascent upstart, not the monolithic giant we now recognize. But still, Big Steve should, I think, know better what is lurking in the shrubs, waiting to steal his Power Rangers lunch pail.

So, what lies are we telling ourselves? In business we might, à la Steve Ballmer, proclaim some notion of invincibility–and believe it to be so. That didn’t work out so well for Steve. The same might apply to any and all aspects of life. I don’t want to belabor this notion, but the quote brought me up short.

What, I wonder, have I told myself and “believe” that will, at some future date, prove to be ridiculously wrongheaded? Do you ever ask yourself this question? You should–I’m just say’n. I’ve tried to divest myself of cherished notions and beliefs, attempt to take everything at face value as much as possible, try not to infuse experience with notions preconceived. But in a twisted way, even these exemplary motives seem qualified as “lies I tell myself.”

I cannot escape the recursiveness of such thinking. “I am lying.” That is one of the word-games philosophers sometime play. If I say I am lying, then am I lying in saying I am lying, which would mean I am telling the truth? But I said I was lying. Get it?

Word games. So painfully frustrating. But words are all we have. Really? “Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent,” said Wittgenstein.

Okay, time to move on. I’ve always wished to be an old philosopher and sometimes I can’t help myself. At least I’ve accomplished one out of two.

“Oh, the vision thing.”

In Creativity, Curiosity, Life, The Examined Life on January 3, 2013 at 6:00 am
Report on the annual slate cleaning.

Report on the annual slate cleaning.

I used to joke that my only New Year’s resolution was to not make New Year’s resolutions. It’s a tired little ditty now and I don’t bother with it. (I’m sure my old logic professor would smile then discourse on the inherent irony in all things tautological.) No resolutions for this hard-bitten curmudgeon. But that does not stop me from exercising my annual habit of purging my space of annoying and distracting artifacts of the previous twelve month’s existence. I like the slate clean. Indeed, I should clean it every day but repeatedly fail to muster the necessary discipline for that. There is probably a correlation to the amount of Maker’s consumed at day’s end and the lack of late post meridiem discipline, alas the occasional surrender of the cerebral cortex to dissipation–but that is altogether another conversation.

Yesterday I wiped the white board clean. Almost.

I installed it a couple of years ago after a young friend, a documentary film maker, convinced me of the benefits of “brain-storming.” I confess that I never fully grasped this brain-storming business. My natural inclination is to seek cover during a storm and my experience with the board proved no different. Who wants a storm, really? Give me a nice sunrise. In other words, the board didn’t get much use after the initial enthusiasm wore off.

So, as I said, I wiped it clean yesterday.

–But for one scribbling. Here is what I kept:

  • Stay true to your vision.
  • Nurture your talent.
  • Do what you love.
  • Wake Up!

I don’t know where I stumbled across these four–for lack of a better word–rules. But they are important enough to keep them on the board. (For perhaps another year?)

I think I like them because they, upon reflection, are surprisingly oblique, and I am naturally drawn to things that are difficult, a weird and annoying personal quirk I figured out in my youth. Though pithy and resounding of feel-good truth, these are not easy admonitions. Here’s the thing:

“Always look to the language,” said Christopher Hitchens (appropriately penned in his wonderful little book, a rif on Rilke, Letters to a Young Contrarian (2001)). The language that jumps out at me: vision, talent, love–and of course Wake up!–these are words that challenge. (“The limits of my language means the limits of my world,” observed Ludwig Wittgenstein.)

Consider: What is my vision? How do I best exercise my talent, assuming I’ve figured out what that is? What do I love? And for god’s sake, how does one wake up? To honestly wrestle with these notions is no small matter. Sure, there are easy and pat answers, but the easy path most frequently lacks insight. (Case in point: a former US president quipping, “Oh, the vision thing.”) I’d rather be dismissive then settle–but I can’t dismiss this stuff. I can’t because even at 57 years of experience I can’t answer the questions with the depth of understanding I believe warranted.

So, as you are likely used to if you’re a long-time reader here at …the house… I leave you without answers, only more questions. (“I know that I know nothing,” said Socrates.) I hope they are new questions: what is your vision/what is your talent/what do you love/how do we wake up? It’s a new year and if nothing else, a set of new questions gives us something to work on.

Best,

D

A Peripatetic Theory of Knowledge (redux)

In Adventure, Life, Philosophy, The Examined Life on August 29, 2012 at 6:00 am

North of the “Pine Curtain”.

As noted previously, I’m into the woods. (What is the draw to pine and moving water?–that is a contemplation for another time.) Out and gone, as it were. So, I leave here thoughts from eleven months ago. I present, A Peripatetic Theory of Knowledge:

There is a quote in the new Alpinist magazine (#56) that caught my eye. Mountaineer Joe Fitschen comments, “Wittgenstein talked about getting to know a region, whether on the ground or in the mind, by just wandering around, eschewing maps and other guides, coming at the territory from different angles until you feel at home. I call it the peripatetic theory of knowledge.” I like this notion. I’ve considered the value of walking around, sauntering as it used to be called, elsewhere. (You can find my essay on the topic, Metaphor: On Walking, at The Nervous Breakdown.) It, walking around, is a balm for the soul, good for what ails you.

But Fitschen’s observation is more than that. I’ve spent a great deal of time in my head over the years, though largely with the guides (books) Wittgenstein recommends eschewing. Now at this place in life, I am beginning to question the value of all that quiet time, all that contemplation. If you’ve been following this blog the past year or two you might have noticed a shift from–with a nod to Guy Davenport–”The Geography of the Imagination,” to “The Geography Under My Feet, My Sleeping Bag, My Canoe.” Fitchen, citing Wittgenstein, gives weight to replacing the cerebral with the physical. I’m reminded of another mountain climber, Jim Whittaker, the first American to summit Everest (1963). “I don’t reflect much,” said Whittaker. “I just do it.” (Nike, by the way, rolled out their “Just Do It” campaign in 1988.) A life of action versus a life of the mind, interior monologue, exterior dialogue–a classic lineup.

I’ve never been one to sit around. There is enough ADD in my temperament to keep me in motion. That has always been the case, but it seems to be picking up momentum and along with it the need to practice the peripatetic theory of knowledge. I think a sense of place has a great deal to do with it. Maine, if one is inclined, invites one to get lost, literally and figuratively. It is a place that will draw on the physical, if one is naturally inclined in that direction. The more I explore this place, the more I am dismayed over my abysmal knowledge of my surroundings. For instance, I plucked a small twig from a tree this morning. There are five or six alternating simple leaves attached. But I cannot identify the tree from this sample, despite my library of guide books. It is a glaring omission in my accumulated knowledge, this simple business of not knowing my surroundings. To quote E.O. Wilson, “The first step to wisdom, as the Chinese say, is getting things by their right names.” I can talk with a modicum of intelligence, say, about the life and thought of Nietzsche but I cannot tell you anything about a tree at the dog park. This is deeply troubling to me and I am setting out to rectify it.

A peripatetic theory of knowledge.

In Life, Nature, Philosophy, The Examined Life on October 24, 2011 at 2:55 pm

There is a quote in the new Alpinist magazine (#56) that caught my eye. Mountaineer Joe Fitschen comments, “Wittgenstein talked about getting to know a region, whether on the ground or in the mind, by just wandering around, eschewing maps and other guides, coming at the territory from different angles until you feel at home. I call it the peripatetic theory of knowledge.” I like this notion. I’ve considered the value of walking around, sauntering as it used to be called, elsewhere. (You can find my essay on the topic, Metaphor: On Walking, at The Nervous Breakdown.) It, walking around, is a balm for the soul, good for what ails you.

But Fitschen’s observation is more than that. I’ve spent a great deal of time in my head over the years, though largely with the guides (books) Wittgenstein recommends eschewing. Now at this place in life, I am beginning to question the value of all that quiet time, all that contemplation. If you’ve been following this blog the past year or two you might have noticed a shift from–with a nod to Guy Davenport–“The Geography of the Imagination,” to “The Geography Under My Feet, My Sleeping Bag, My Canoe.” Fitchen, citing Wittgenstein, gives weight to replacing the cerebral with the physical. I’m reminded of another mountain climber, Jim Whittaker, the first American to summit Everest (1963). “I don’t reflect much,” said Whittaker. “I just do it.” (Nike, by the way, rolled out their “Just Do It” campaign in 1988.) A life of action versus a life of the mind, interior monologue, exterior dialogue–a classic lineup.

I’ve never been one to sit around. There is enough ADD in my temperament to keep me in motion. That has always been the case, but it seems to be picking up momentum and along with it the need to practice the peripatetic theory of knowledge. I think a sense of place has a great deal to do with it. Maine, if one is inclined, invites one to get lost, literally and figuratively. It is a place that will draw on the physical, if one is naturally inclined in that direction. The more I explore this place, the more I am dismayed over my abysmal knowledge of my surroundings. For instance, I plucked a small twig from a tree this morning. There are five or six alternating simple leaves attached. But I cannot identify the tree from this sample, despite my library of guide books. It is a glaring omission in my accumulated knowledge, this simple business of not knowing my surroundings. I can talk with a modicum of intelligence, say, about the life and thought of Nietzsche but I cannot tell you anything about a tree at the dog park. This is deeply troubling to me and I am setting out to rectify it.

Thursday Grace Notes

In Books, Death, Philosophy, The Examined Life, The infinity of ideas, Thinkers, Wisdom on April 29, 2010 at 1:20 pm

There is a phrase that caught my eye in a book I’m reading: “…the search for lives lived as art.” It comes from the biography of the Renaissance writer, artist, and builder, Leo Battista Alberti, by Anthony Grafton. Grafton is commenting on the observation of a previous Alberti biographer, Jacob Burckhardt. The full passage reads: “Burckhardt saw the full aesthetic development of personality as the Renaissance’s highest creative work; the search for lives lived as art, rather than a precise analysis of texts.” Lives lived as art–I love that.

* * *

-A SHORT HISTORY OF AN IDEA-

Never do to others what you would not like them to do to you. ~ Confucius (551 – 479BC)

Do not do to others that which angers you, when done to you. ~ Isocrates (Greek philosopher, 436 – 338 BC)

And as ye would that men should do to you, do ye also to them likewise. ~ Jesus Christ (Luke 6:31)

Hurt no one so that no one may hurt you. ~ Muhammad (570 – 632)

* * *

At dinner with friends last night, we were talking about the passage of time and that it has been six months since our friends got their new dog. “Six months!” I blurted out. Then, perhaps because of an excess of wine, I remarked: “Six months closer to death.” I was met with blank stares and gaping mouths. Note to self: Just because I think it’s an important concept, does not mean I can stomp all over the conversation. And on that note: “Death is not an event in life.” ~ Wittgenstein

* * *

And lastly, I’ve been going through some old journals and found this passage from December, 1980: “The solution to the problems of modernity are usually thought to be: God, democracy, socialism, sex, art, family, economic growth. But these in fact are the problems, not the solution.” I still wrestle with this problem, “the solution to the problems of modernity,” and am disappointed that in thirty years I’ve made no progress.