Sunday, August 28, 2011

Surfacing, or superficial out of superficiality

[Warning: what follows is somewhat experimental. I'm not sure that I really try to say anything very original here, but I do try to put it in an original way. Sometimes when I read it through it appears to make sense, other times, I have little faith that someone else would be able to follow it, or would see the connections that I think are there.]

(I meant to type 'surfaces' rather than 'surfacing,' but I think I like the slip.)

Here's how I write some blog posts: two or three ideas I have or things I read strike me as somehow related and I try to articulate the relation. I suspect these relations are as much invented as discovered, but invention is OK. Today's ingredients: Duck's Roxy Music post, Kelly Dean Jolley's reflections on Wittgenstein's saying that "essence is expressed by grammar," and j.'s thoughts on Wittgenstein on calculating in one's head. Also this. There is also this abandoned post of mine from a few days ago:
Expressing emotion is not like expressing milk. In the latter case, the milk is there before and after the expression. It just changes place. A cry of pain or a look of delight, though, don't move the pain or the delight from inside the body to outside of it. There is no such thing as pain outside a body, and maybe no such thing as delight inside or outside a body.
I can express the pain I feel in my stubbed toe by exclaiming, but this does not get the pain out of my toe (even if I do feel better--the pain does not travel up my leg and out through my mouth). If you hear the pain in my cry you do not hear something that is in my toe (as if you might hear it better if you pressed your ear to my toe), even if the pain in question is in my toe. So if we think of pain as a thing, it will seem to be a very strange kind of thing. It might be better to think of it as not a thing really at all.

So what? Well, something like what goes for pain goes too for thoughts, emotions, and feelings. If these are all weird phenomena that are observable only by their owner then it might seem as though each of us is trapped inside our own body, in an essentially incommunicable world of sensation. Sure, I can tell when you are probably in pain or probably happy, but what your pain or happiness are like, what they really are, is forever beyond my ken. Kant was accused of killing God by reducing him to an unknown x, and there is a sense, I think, in which the reality of other people is denied by this kind of metaphysics or skepticism or whatever we want to call it. Their personhood, one might be tempted to say, is denied by regarding their inner lives as forever unknowable by me. Their status as non-zombies is questioned thereby.

John Searle, as I recall, has 'refuted' behaviorism by encouraging people to pinch their arms and thus prove that pain is real. But if pain is this-sensation-that-I-have-when-I-do-this, then no one else can have it. I can vaguely think that they probably (or even must) have something somehow similar, but this can't mean much to me. (Perhaps they will have an inner life in a secondary sense.) I am then the paradigm, or the host of paradigms, and others are merely inferior copies. Only I have the real thing when it comes to pain, joy, etc. Only I could conceivably have it, since it is defined in terms of my experience. Everyone else is at best a pale copy, a world of ideas to my world of impressions. I am the world of forms, they are caves filled with shadows. I am the only real person. Reality stops at my skin. Everything else is a video game, which, of course, I am stuck playing and might care about. But it can't possibly matter as much as I do.

Everything I do, then, becomes a matter of altering my consciousness, as Sam Harris has almost said. This is one way to make sense of some characteristic features of contemporary life, such as drug use, pornography, and video games. These might sound like solitary pastimes, but you can live solipsistically (as if the world were an experience machine) with others almost as easily as you can alone, and it's usually more fun to do so. They might also sound like typically male pleasures, but stereo-typically female pastimes like shopping could easily be added to the list. (And, of course, plenty of men like 'female' activities and vice versa.) I don't think there is anything essentially gendered about this phenomenon.

In sum, if the ultimate reality is my consciousness or sensations, then everything else is basically just a stimulus. And what stimulates are basically surfaces. So a superficial, two-dimensional life can seem to be both the only one there is and disappointingly flat and (therefore necessarily) empty. Alone in a swirl of sensations I cannot meaningfully communicate with others, even if I know what to do to get them to behave as I want (and which sounds their making spell trouble for me, etc.). I have no peers. The only meaning there could ever be is what I impose on my experience.

I don't mean that all this is connected logically. Rather, there is an understandable tendency to go from Cartesian (but also fairly natural--Cartesianism is not Descartes's fault) ideas about consciousness to a certain deflated and egoistic view of life. Together these things form something like a worldview or picture: psychological phenomena are things that we own, they are inalienable, inaccessible to others, and (hence) we are alone, with nothing to care about ultimately but ourselves, and nothing worth seeking but entertainment.

This view of things is at least somewhat similar to the view that Iris Murdoch saw as dominating modern literature in The Sovereignty of Good (see pp. 8-9). It is reflected, I think, in the character of Leon in Witold Gombrowicz’s Cosmos, who sits at the dinner table attending to the sensation of rolling balls of paper under his fingers and speaks in a nonsense language of his own. And it shows up in the song "In Every Dream Home a Heartache," about the spiritual and emotional emptiness of life in the kind of house to which we are taught to aspire, in which the perfect companion is a blow-up doll.

So how, if at all, can we escape this idea that we are trapped within the surface of our skin and that everything else is merely superficial? What follows is going to be a little fanciful, but I hope it's both bearable and comprehensible. The view of life as two-dimensional seems to come from the picture of reality as three-dimensional. If everything is just atoms bouncing around then what can matter to me except the atoms that bombard my surfaces? And these are the atoms at the surface of other things and people. So to get a three-dimensional view, maybe we need a four-dimensional picture. Meaning is the 'fourth dimension.' 

A two-dimensional drawing can be seen (experienced, not just imagined) as three-dimensional, and a three-dimensional object or event can be seen as meaningful (or not). Something's having meaning distinguishes it hugely from something that has no meaning, but the meaning is not some other, additional object. It is, I want to say, another 'dimension' (not literally, of course) of the thing. A cry of pain is very different from a mere cry (if I am just testing or exercising my vocal cords, say), but not because it is a mere cry plus some other thing: a pain. A look of love is not just a meaningless way of appearing plus (or caused by) the mysterious inner object known as love. 

The seemingly inexpressible, inner 'object' (pain, love, whatever) is contained in its expression in intelligible behavior or language. Expression ruptures the surface, destroying the two-dimensionality of the world. This makes us vulnerable, and we might prefer to retreat into a private world. (Hence, I think, Nick Cave's treatment of the request to "Say something, express yourself" as a kind of torture in "King Ink.") But understanding expression, understanding the fact that meaning occurs, involves understanding that the flat view of the world is false. We are not each a Citizen Kane ruling over a lonely empire of private goods. Part of the value of Wittgenstein's work, and Heidegger's, lies in this, I think. 

This is not to say that we need such work in order to be saved. It has always been possible to avoid Cartesianism and the problems associated with it. But it's good to have all the help you can get.  


  1. They might also sound like typically male pleasures, but stereo-typically female pastimes like shopping could easily be added to the list.

    From my commonplace book, 28 December 2002:

    "Yet another anti-solipsist argument based on comicality [*]: if solipsism is true, people are prepared to pay substantial sums for mere sense-data. But on the other hand, if solipsism is true, money too is mere sense-data; it is thus only a question of forgoing one type of sense-data in favour of another, which already sounds a lot more sensible. - If solipsism is true, people are prepared to pay substantial sums to secure a certain degree of sharpness and fixity [**] for their sense-data."

    [*] cf. Russell's anecdote about the woman who told him that solipsism was so sensible that she wondered why it wasn't more popular.

    [**] I was thinking especially of purchases of commodities such as artworks, travel, etc., compared to mental images of them that are available free of charge, but vague and fuzzy by comparison.

    I don't mean that all this is connected logically. Rather, there is an understandable tendency to go from Cartesian [...] ideas about consciousness to a certain deflated and egoistic view of life.

    This is strongly reminiscent of Fergus Kerr's Theology after Wittgenstein, so let me put in a word for that. For Kerr, the single most important achievement of Wittgenstein is his successful critiquing of exactly what you refer to as the "certain deflated and egoistic view of life", which goes closely together for him too with Wittgenstein's critique of Cartesianism. A totally underrated book, and one with a potentially misleading title, as it reverberates far beyond the boundaries of theology and philosophy of religion. For me personally it is up there with The Realistic Spirit, The Claim of Reason, etc.

    (I meant to type 'surfaces' rather than 'surfacing,' but I think I like the slip.)

    Surfacing is a treacherous business in philosophy. Inquiry used to have a long tradition where the titles of critical notices had the form "{author} on {subject of book}". When Ernest Adams reviewed Avrum Stroll's Surfaces (a book on, yes, the ontology of surfaces), the title was quite naturally "Stroll on Surfaces".

    In fact, if you hadn't said it was accidental, I'd have had a hard time deciding which of the two senses of "surfacing" (verb or noun) you had meant.

  2. I like Stroll on surfaces!

    I like Kerr's book, too. It's been a while since I read it, but maybe that's where these thoughts bubbled up from.

  3. And by the way, it's gratifying to see that you have related thoughts too. Thanks for sharing them. It makes me feel less crazy for thinking in such terms.

  4. Thanks for this.

    I am a big fan of Kerr's book, and Stroll's (although I prefer his earlier, co-authored paper, "Talk about Talk about Surfaces" to the book).

  5. Thanks, Bosphorus. I'll look that paper up before starting in on the book.

  6. And by the way, it's gratifying to see that you have related thoughts too. Thanks for sharing them. It makes me feel less crazy for thinking in such terms.

    For me, thinking in such terms is a retention from the earliest philosophy I had as a teenager, which was a Sartrean mix of existentialist moral philosophy and phenomenalist epistemology. University libraries are open to the general public in Finland, and I was a devoted patron of my local one. The first philosophical writer I was seriously interested in was Colin Wilson. Someone at the library had been a fan and acquired scores of his books and pamphlets on the most varied topics, giving me the misleading impression that he was a far more major figure than he is. In many of them he comes across as little more than a crank - his treatment of Wittgenstein, for instance, is bizarre - but I still have fond memories of those days. It was Wilson's essay Anti-Sartre which finally enabled me to move on, a year or two before I first read Wittgenstein. (It's interesting, incidentally, that Anscombe was freed from her youthful phenomenalism by Wittgenstein - cf. Collected Philosophical Papers II, pp. vii-ix - while I was freed from mine by a completely different route.)

    The school I went to was the teaching school of the university's teacher training college, and as there were no philosophy teachers being trained, we were taught philosophy by an assistant professor of sociology at the university. And it was not just the boring Western canon that she taught, but the likes of Althusser, MacIntyre, Husserl. Her two big favourites were probably Foucault and Wittgenstein, and her teaching was my introduction to both - and the unusual combination instantly immunised me against thinking that if you're interested in Wittgenstein, you cannot be interested in X or Y at the same time. Which has proved very valuable.

  7. Yes, that's a valuable kind of immunization to have. I've generally been taught by people who struck me as thinking either that Wittgenstein is right and everyone else (except, say, Weil and obvious people like Rhees) is wrong, or else that Wittgenstein is completely wrong and anyone who thinks anything like him is wrong too. I doubt that's what they really thought, but that's how I reacted, and I was very dogmatic at first. At least then I knew that I was dogmatic. For quite a while after that I think I was probably more closed-minded than I realized. I'm really still in the process of appreciating that there is a current (or family of currents) in the mainstream that does not dismiss Wittgenstein (even if it doesn't always follow him) and that is worth studying. I've been reading Davidson lately and it's striking how often he refers to the work of people like Anscombe and von Wright. Putnam is perhaps an even more obvious example of a mainstream philosopher who is much more friendly to my kind of way of thinking than you might expect from the public face of the mainstream (e.g. some of the better known philosophy blogs).