Ludwig Wittgenstein has this quote that goes something like ‘philosophy unties knots in our thinking, hence its results will be simple, but philosophy is complicated because it needs to match the complexity of the knots that it is trying to untie.’ I like this quote a lot but I am wondering why do I like it so much. Here are some (possible) answers:
1. It is a truism I identify with. There is a tone to much of the philosophy I have read over the past few years that seems so obtuse. An art history professor I have worked with in my time at Ohio State once told me when I was struggling with reading Heidegger that I was trying too hard, “you need to try and let the text wash over you instead of wrestling it into submission.” This advice sounded patently ridiculous; it also turned out to be completely true. But that didn’t make any of the other stuff I have read any less daunting. What I have found, though, through reading is that it feels like I am clearing brush to make a path and then, seemingly out of nowhere, a clearing emerges and a line or two of text appears to hold the entire world. Would I have the same experience if I just stumbled upon those lines out of context? I don’t think so, but maybe.
2. It makes me feel and sound smart. This part is so petty but it is also there. I could describe this in a number of ways but I will just take a stab at one today. One of the members of my committee, Philip, has an office that is just floor to ceiling books. His desk, one of those large L-shaped modern desks, is usually covered with stacks of books that look precarious. I go and talk with him and I just can’t believe one person knows all this shit. I mentioned an idea once and he told me, “Oh, here are somethings you might be interested in. If you reach down on the second shelf there by your bag, grab those four books to take with you.” He has a command of his library that was uncanny. With that in mind, I was telling him once how dumb I felt writing. I just couldn’t believe this was worth much to anyone and I was making totally obvious points and I was stupid and, and… He looked at me and said, “Michael, everyone feels that way sometimes.” There was real empathy in the way he said it. Looking over my own precariously stacked books I can see both the work that I have done to read and come to terms with all this stuff and feel like I have something to say. Casually dropping Wittgenstein quotes is born out of that insecurity that I am not very smart and proof that I have done some work. That’s something, right?
3. It is a way to communicate with other people. Some much of what I have been doing is profoundly isolating. No one has any idea about how I spend my day. Shannon is the closest to understanding, and maybe some of my classmates, but I can’t have much of a conversation about what I am working on because it just gets so dense so quickly. We all have different shorthands. Shannon can communicate with her boss in a language I don’t understand. Conversely, I can’t explain to most people why I think Briony Fer is a bad ass. I worry that my language and ideas have gotten too particular and that I won’t be able to have a conversation with anyone ever again. This, obviously, isn’t true and I realize now that this whole thing may seem so pretentious but we can still trade Big Lebowski quotes, right? This quote is one of those things I have been able to share with different people and I feel like we are at least in the same ball-park when I talk about what I am working on. Very quickly I see people come to some insight about the idea that I would have never had on my own. That’s really meaningful to me. It helps break down a wall and allows me to understand whoever I am talking to as a more fully human person. I think that’s what I want more than anything right now; to be able to see everyone as fully human…maybe I will write about that next time. Thirty minutes is up.
Gratuitous Miles picture (hanging with him in his new room).