Tuesday, September 6, 2011

The possibility of an island

Kelly Jolley reminds us of Kant's island of truth in an ocean of illusion:
We have now not merely explored the territory of pure understanding, and carefully surveyed every part of it, but have also measured its extent, and assigned to everything in it its rightful place.  This domain is an island, enclosed by nature itself within unalterable limits.  It is the land of truth–enchanting name!–surrounded by a wide and stormy ocean, the native home of illusion, where many a fog bank and many a swiftly melting iceberg give the deceptive appearance of farther shores, deluding the adventurous seafarer ever anew with empty hopes, and engaging him in enterprises which he can never abandon and yet is unable to carry to completion. (Critique of Pure Reason, A235/B294)
Similar images occur elsewhere. Nietzsche, as j. reminds us, uses related language:
…Indeed, at hearing the news that ‘the old god is dead’, we philosophers and ‘free spirits’ feel illuminated by a new dawn; our heart overflows with gratitude, amazement, forebodings, expectation – finally the horizon seems clear again, even if not bright; finally our ships may set out again, set out to face any danger; every daring of the lover of knowledge is allowed again; the sea, our sea, lies open again; maybe there has never been such an ‘open sea’ (The Gay Science §343, ed. Williams).
Then there is Wittgenstein on Heidegger:
Anyone who speaks of the opposition of being and the nothing, and of the nothing as something primary in contrast to negation, has in mind, I think, a picture of an island of being which is being washed by an infinite ocean of the nothing.  Whatever we throw into this ocean will be dissolved in its water and annihilated.  But the ocean itself is endlessly restless like the waves on the sea.  It exists, it is, and we say: ‘it noths.’  (The Voices of Wittgenstein, pp. 69-71)
And H. P. Lovecraft:
The most merciful thing in the world, I think, is the inability of the human mind to correlate all its contents. We live on a placid island of ignorance in the midst of black seas of infinity, and it was not meant that we should voyage far. The sciences, each straining in its own direction, have hitherto harmed us little; but some day the piecing together of dissociated knowledge will open up such terrifying vistas of reality, and of our frightful position therein, that we shall either go mad from the revelation or flee from the light into the peace and safety of a new dark age.
I'm not sure that the Wittgenstein passage belongs here, but it's hard to think that it wasn't somewhat influenced by Kant's image, however indirectly or unimportantly. That is, I'm not claiming that he is referring to Kant here. Mostly I just want to bring these passages together, but I intend to return to some of their themes in a future post.


  1. Tangential question: So, you think that the 'Dictation for Schlick' is a verbatim transcription? I wonder what you think of Schulte's claim to the contrary ("Waismann as Spokesman for Wittgenstein," see link below). I think the typescripts collected in Voices of Wittgenstein are helpful for interpreting W, but I am curious to know how they are received by scholars.


  2. Well, I did until now! At least, I took it to be close to verbatim. I'll have to read the whole of Schulte's essay and then re-think. Thanks for the link.

  3. I guess the question of the authenticity of the Dictation for Schlick is one of those scholarly questions whose answer we are simply fated never to find out. Just like the question of what exactly Wittgenstein had in mind when he wrote Tractatus §6.54 and placed it at the end of the book. (Which has hardly constrained anyone of any view from confidently voicing their opinion on the matter as authoritative and obviously correct.)

    What, no video? http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kCEmR7JRoHk

  4. You can't beat The Kinks. But my title is taken from a novel by Michel Houellebecq and, bizarrely, there is an album by Iggy Pop supposedly based on that album. So really it should be something like this.