BEGINNINGS OF MY PHILOSOPHIC LIFE

BEGINNINGS

My philosophical life begins with the awe at having thoughts at all. It leaps rapidly forward into "what is thinking trying to prove here?" As fun as knowing this would be, it seems presumptuous, as if I’ve already gone too far. Looked at closely, thinking seems to have no clear goals, except perhaps getting fat on the landscape, like the nose of a hound or the frenetic explorations of a starving rat. This brings to mind an expansion on the familiar tag: some actors and philosophers are hopeless when it comes to eating up the scenery. Much of thought's operational life—especially if I allow it to run on autopilot—seems taken up with the generation of overheated assertions or meta-commentaries upon its own performance. I seek certainty, curiously, although I have never met with any in the realm of thought. My thinking is not of the "rigorous" type found in classic analytic texts or academic journals. Most of what I think needs to be thrown away. I check on this from time to time, as a hungry man rechecks the cupboard. I can never be certain what I have found.


It's a beautiful gesture to say that our talk as philosophers is somehow "truer" than that of others, but like all the others, it seems that on one level philosophers are just doing what everyone else does: talk. We're habituated, one could say, to performing imaginary work with concepts. One thing that distinguishes us as philosophers is that we'd like others to notice this dependency upon the imaginary too. What also makes us philosophers is that we can't effectively stop doing this activity, and it has overshadowed other possibilities and become a way of living. Except when life calls and hands us more fundamental things to do.


In my eyes the world is impenetrably mysterious, and we know nothing about it. I've never been able to step outside this view, ever since I was young.


As an injunction, this might take the form "We know nothing and have no right of utterance." We can agree that our bodies and minds acquire methods for accommodating themselves within this phantasmic circus, and these involve language, but nearly everything we can see is very surprising (although the body-mind does a fair job of papering over all surprises) and we can account for none of it. Yet we talk as if things were otherwise, and how we do go on in this vein! Things rise and fall, in very short order, in ways over which we have no control, and we can establish no ultimate import in any of it, at least through thinking—unless it is a form of thinking that is distractably triumphant. We can see only that both the rising and the falling prove disturbing to us, and for each of us in our own way.


Historically this mysterious face presented by the world has led scientists and philosophers out on a quest for knowledge. Land is won back from the darkness, and flags are planted. All of us who overstimulate the faculty of thinking have done this too, and stored some of our favorite discoveries for re-use later. But all this can also be seen as an accumulation of talk, and talk about, its object. It never, ever exhausts the potential of the object to be described. As a great sage has observed, we can talk about a single thing, literally forever, and never finish describing it. If this act of describing was all of philosophy, I would have lost interest years ago. But for me, the fact that things are mysterious to some of us is the compelling part.


Looking at this style of doing philosophy (in which as background everything baffles me) I am struck by how foolish my position is. I am saying a whole lot about something that I claim does nothing but bemuse me. I am drawn back into this bafflement, over and over, at the same time I type these words, sip my tea, blink my eyes to clear away the mid-afternoon gunk, shift my position to ease my back, check my phone for missed calls, and so on. I say to myself, you can do all these things, all of which presume some sort of "knowing," far from sounding bewildered, and still persist in your bafflement? What do I mean?


So, it is established that I can say many things about the world, inside and out, up and down, imaginary and real. I can produce descriptions of this all, at great length, without any limit except for my patience. I can spend a lifetime describing a single object of my choosing, without exhausting its potential for further description. On the other hand—and here one of the deceptions built into our tongue proves very convenient—I have no handle on its unutterable is-ness. I am struck by its availability, its simple presence. One way to say this, calling on the illusionistic "being" verbs provided in English, is to say, "I can talk endlessly about this bottle cap, but I can never understand what it is." In spite of its defects this sentence conveys some of the limitless mystery I feel when confronted with things. This sentence suggests that I want to translate the bottle cap into some other form more amenable to my understanding. But in fact this is not what I want. I don't seek some reductionistic expression to cover all things. I merely want to pose, in the best possible way, this question:


Why is there something rather than nothing?

My preoccupation with this is like my fondness for beautiful stones.


This primary question caught hold of me somewhere long ago, in a pre-discursive form. Because it is such a basic question, and I was a thinking type, it seemed a natural part of living as a reflective child from day to day. I can’t recall how old I was when it came along, but I remember that the hair on my neck stood up as I pondered it. I do remember that in an early encounter it took the form of "Why is this here?" I would pose this question while looking at a thing, and become dazed by it. This occurred once as I sat on a large rock in a stream, holding a wet, smooth white pebble. These days a student of cognition might adduce a lesion of the brain as the cause, or at least some momentary electrical malfeasance among the wiring, bad diet, or too much of a liberal education. But to me, at the time, things were tantamount to lesions in the fabric of the world, and it struck me that others were far too blasé about it all. Imagine my surprise, then, to discover later that others before me had also asked this same question, in much the same way.


Bafflement has become a touchstone of philosophic understanding, a solid part of my Philosopher’s routine. My eyes close, my fingers spread wide, and I feel a chill as the hair stands up on my neck. I can recall when this form of basic amazement, what I refer to as bafflement, took special prominence in my life.

DRIVING FROM THE PASSENGER'S SEAT

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When my father drove us back home on Sunday nights from our grandmother's house, sometimes I got to sit in the front seat, on the passenger's side. With easy access to the window crank, which had sufficient play to move without opening the window, I could pretend to be in control of everything I could see. Steering, certainly, but after while, all events could be managed from my position of control. This added enormous levels of interest and imagination to those familiar nights, and transformed me into more than a passenger.

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The question has multiple forms: "Does life have meaning?" or "Does my life have meaning or a purpose?" or "Why are we here?" There's been a long parade of conversations and answers to this question, from the supernatural to to the humanistic to those of junk science. Wikipedia has a useful survey on the subject. The analysis inevitably turns upon the values one packs into the term "meaning." All these forms of the meaning question have different answers, of course, except to those who proclaim that the question is meaningless. One thing is hard to deny: nobody knows.


I no longer have a dog in this fight, but I like to reflect upon those who continue to ask this question, and the ideas that propel them. For a good number of people with whom I've spoken, there's a hope that the answer (i.e., "yes") does not rest with them, and that it's "more" than self-determined. In other words, the answer to the question is somehow more true, more convincing, if it comes from beyond their ken. Since it's fair to say we're passengers in this world, all our convictions on this subject just might be second-rate.


At this stage of my life, I have a fairly consistent line on the question, which is that life has no meaning, except for the hard-wired way our bodies convey a continuous stream of virtual implications, about everything. The richness of each moment blossoms without our care or attention. Here's another way to put it: as talkers we have no moments in which there is no meaning, unless we pretend to be in such a situation. You must notice by now that, once again, we are escaping the storytelling process by, yes, telling another story.


SO, as rich and deep as this stream of implications and connections can become, it is not clear to me that we need to seek, somehow, outside this process for the shape of meaning. Outside of this process, how would one find such a thing? This does not mean, of course, that we will stop the seeking, as philosophers, or try to find out more about the edges of our predicament. But as egoic constructs— people with a personal story—we suffuse everything with meanings just by being there, just by breathing. Why is it so important that our lives have another kind of meaning, or our personal story have a meaning, or a purpose, outside of this? What is the meta-story we would like most to tell ourselves, and why? Our urgency on this question can be intense. Sometimes I think what people are really after with respect to the meaning question, is a better version of a story that contains or includes them, since the one they are currently starring in is not unfolding well.


This entire motive evaporates on close and continuous inspection. The fact that this evaporation can occur is a convincing event, when it is conducted thoroughly. Our mental subsystems and emergent personality, the surface layers in particular, are automatically linked via feeling to our fellow humans, and so we cannot resist feeling implicated by everything they do. Thus a story is created at each instant, both coming in and going out as it were, a story which implies characters sharing a destiny and facing a shared outcome. In spite of these automaticities, it is very possible to learn to live without the "tug" of meaning and a compelling story line. When that is accomplished (and no strong purpose is implied here), one seems to be left with the aesthetic appreciation of each moment, the appeal of the beautiful which speaks directly to the senses. Our obsessive storymaking, then, becomes an entertainment, like philosophy.


Perhaps I overstate the case about how real the "living without the tug of meaning" is, since however piercing my insight becomes on the storymaking daemon, he spins and spins without diminishment.


"We" live in a flow. When the flow stops, the self, the person, disappears. This is very simple to see, and not ultimately a big deal. The hard part is getting into position to see it. Much of my life was a preparation for being ushered into the middle of this understanding. I have observed that this "understanding" of which I speak is essentially a nothing form the point of view of many others (this is a whole other topic to interest a philosopher.) Perhaps it seems as if the "stopping of the flow" of which I speak would be equivalent to death. Yes, it is, but not of the permanent kind.

THE VISION OF THE LAMP



THE VISION OF THE LAMP


"He who has allowed the beauty of that world to penetrate his soul goes away no longer a mere observer. For the object perceived and the perceiving soul are no longer two things separated from one another, but the perceiving soul has [now] within itself the perceived object." From Plotinus's First Ennead (8:1) quoted in Otto's Mysticism East and West.

When I was in bed recovering from pneumonia at age 7, one evening I was sitting up in bed, alone in my room. I noticed a maple and brass lamp and shade on the east wall of my bedroom, and the warm pool of light it cast upon the wallpaper. This noticing quickly took on a peculiar and particularly forceful character. My seeing became absorbed with the lamp. My eyes passed closely over every portion of it, the reassuring warmth of the wood, every color and shadow, each coruscation of light that poked through the ivory shade. Every feature of the lamp heralded the fact of its presence as an object in the world.


For some reason I felt a growing exaltation. I was moved, and very happy. It seemed to me that I was noticing something in the world for the very first time. This noticing became a character in my mental pantheon. I knew then and there that I would never be able to see anything using my "old way" of seeing things ever again. I would always remember that it is possible to see things in this clear, direct, and penetrating way. The old way of seeing was suspect and inferior, an avoidance, a low form of sleep, a waste of daytime.


And indeed, for a time at least, I began to "see" everything in this new way. For example, I began to pore through my mother's button collection in the red metal tin from the sewing machine drawer, examining each one of them very closely, especially attracted by the red colored glass ones that held onto the light. I set these out on the radiator top, lined up for future viewing. Sometime later this form of inquiry evolved into noticing that all things have an overwhelming realness and a potential to disarm our emotions that is prior to talking about them.


I remember telling my father and mother in animated fashion about this revelation, but I don't recall the specific terms of their response, beyond attentiveness. In an attempt to memorialize the experience, I took my Fly-Back paddle, removed the ball and its long rubber band, and painted it dark purple (I believe I chose the paddle because it was close at hand and suitable for modification). Then I carved a grown man's hand on the face of the paddle using my father's linoleum block printing tools, so that the hand appeared as a bright concave form in the center. The hand seemed to me remarkably lifelike, with ropy veins like my father's hand, and it had a pointing index finger. I hung the carved image on the wall, beside the lamp, sometimes with the index finger pointing upward. If people asked me about the odd curving plaque I had made, I sometimes said it was the hand of God. Other times it seemed to be pointing towards God. When I looked at it very closely I could say nothing at all about it, but it gave me a chill, and the hair on the back of my neck stood up. It makes me laugh to recall it now, and tears of appreciation come into the corners of my eyes for the strange little person I was then.