josh blog

Ordinary language is all right.

One could divide humanity into two classes:
those who master a metaphor, and those who hold by a formula.
Those with a bent for both are too few, they do not comprise a class.

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1 May '14 11:37:22 PM

'… their personal lives kept bleeding profusely, hemorrhaging if you will, into their professional lives.'

30 Apr '14 09:14:19 PM

'I would have explained that Rashad had grace—and who has fucking grace anymore?'

30 Apr '14 09:06:05 AM

My pride gave way. H. is back in town—been back, since summer. All the way from Africa. We've hardly been in touch since. She had a new job, new husband, new life, and I had—nothing. An embarrassment of despair, trepidation about going out, a story stuck in once place for too long. But Monday was my birthday. I've never been so alone as I have these past few months, jobless, friendless (I feel), living by myself, coming up on an age where I seem to have left youth behind, with nothing to show for the time marked. Except failure, too much now. The saddest sort of failure that just looks like a failure to try, from the outside—the sort that makes you suspect yourself, makes you wish to be believed in. This adds up—added up, for me, to where I figured something, however small, had to change. Not to elect to spend that day, night, alone. So I got in touch with H. and asked if she would eat dinner with me. H. is the kind of person whose judgment you feel confirmed by. You can know that if you're OK with her, you must be doing alright.

The same day, failure on my mind, I hazarded a response, out there on the internet, to a question: why does academic rejection hurt more? Quoting myself:

'As with many of the ritualized/proceduralized forms of acceptance we subject ourselves to in order to become officially counted as members of our disciplines, our employment in permanent academic jobs is premised in part on our potential (in complex, variable, and vaguely defined ways).

But coming off a Ph.D., you have arguably established that your potential has become actual. You accomplished something which is supposed to be not just a school exercise; you belong. (It could even be 'better', i.e. worse, for those who can't find work: you might have been publishing, had your work endorsed by important people with good judgment, etc.)

And you belong in a way which is the condition for gaining the kind of work you are looking for.

But when it actually comes down to finding work, you face rejection on all kinds of counts that cause you to call into question whether you belong in any particular place. And on counts which you seem to have no control over (or you might have, but the die was cast long ago) and which have nothing to do with your main accomplishment. Which all along the way to it has depended on your acceptance by others, on a recognition of your past accomplishments and your potential for more.

It's hard not to feel rejection or non-acceptance at this point to reflect on your potential. And since your accomplishments seem not to matter you turn more and more to your potential: to different ways you can style yourself to people who want different things, to areas you can reach to cover, courses you can quickly learn to teach, research projects you can shift to take up.

Obviously those are often risky and desperate resorts to your potential, especially in a climate where those who hire are conservative for institutional reasons (or worse) and who enjoy a buyer's market for economic reasons. Because they can much more easily rely on official accomplishments of those who do happen to suit their idiosyncratic little demands, of people the market hasn't yet thrown back on themselves.

And evidently, resorting to your potential to get around further rejection doesn't work very well, because the condition you're in materially deprives you of what people in academia need in general to develop their potential, what you had before when you were accomplishing the things that didn't get you a job. So it comes to seem that even your efforts to develop your potential differently, to get you out of the slough, only dig you in deeper.

When you look outside academia, where your accomplishment is impressive but also somehow just a piece of paper, you find that people either regard you as a failure, or as so inappropriate for the rigidly-controlled conditions for career entry or advancement in practically every single kind of job, or as wildly overqualified for almost every job that every non-academic person has, that you can't even get work doing things for which your potential is overflowing.

You come to feel in the end that you have accomplished nothing and have no potential. You can't believe this, but you can't stop feeling it.'

H. and I talk, naturally, about work. More of my story spills out than I want, being sick of saying it and sick of thinking of it by now. But it's been a while. As she reminds me, this was a different country last time she was here. Not that it's much easier for her. We met in school, but she doesn't identify as a philosopher (thank god). She's an activist. She literally does work that matters. Of course, no one pays money for that. Not even just for her ability to make things work. 'It's who you know', she says. She doesn't know anybody. I don't know anybody. Nobody we know can do anything.

I've hit a breaking point with my recent thoughts about doubt. I need, I see, to think more honestly, and more directly, about what I'm about as a philosopher. To identify myself to others, to know my own aim. Otherwise, I don't know what I'm trying to do—what all my projects are fumbling around to accomplish. This has put me in a contrite mood, with a cautious wish to just let it all be for a while, if only my circumstances were not desperate enough to make me compulsively return to my work again and again, however ineffectually.

At the beginning of the month, birthday rushing up at its end, my wish was instead for a showy accomplishment, one that I could rush through in a month to feel that I had at least done that. As usual with me, a book. Thinking of the personal turn (first-personal turn) a lot of my work has taken in the last five years, I had this nagging feeling that I should have read Montaigne by now. Something has always stood in the way. So maybe that, I thought. But no! Frame's Montaigne is just too boring. I couldn't do it; I couldn't take it personally, couldn't let it be just academic, instead.

But! Last week I chanced into reading selections from Florio's Montaigne, and I'm delighted where before I was bored. I have a foothold I had lacked.

What I want from Montaigne, besides the obvious, I don't exactly know. But the past few days, thinking about my birthday but also thinking back to my first (!) spate of unemployment, to the choices I made then about what to read, what to write, what to think about, the famous passage from 'Of Experience' kept coming to mind:

'What egregious fools are we? "He hath passed his life in idleness," say we: "Alas I have done nothing this day." What, have you not lived? It is not only the fundamental but the noblest of your occupations. "Had I been placed or thought fit for the managing of great affairs, I would have showed what I could have performed." Have you known how to meditate and manage your life? You have accomplished the greatest work of all. For a man to show and exploit himself, nature hath no need of fortune; she equally shows herself upon all grounds, in all suits, before and behind, as it were without curtains, welt or guard. Have you known how to compose your manners? You have done more than he who hath composed books. Have you known how to take rest? You have done more than he who hath taken empires and cities. The glorious masterpiece of man is to live to the purpose. All other things, as to reign, to govern, to hoard up treasure, to thrive, and to build are for the most part but appendixes and supporters thereunto.'

With this my mood is unrepentant. I know I'm not that good a 'professional', stubborn, proud, vain, I know how I undermine myself. Nevertheless, failure weighing me heavily down, I never think, oh, I wish I had lived instead. I have! Some of the most elated days of my life were days where I had thoughts. I count conversations I've had among the most important events in my life. I know how to live by thinking: to think along the way, to live along from day to day with my thoughts. And I know how to share this kind of thought with someone else: how to help them bring it out, keep it going.

This has become, more and more, a source of anger for me. I am not just wistfully describing a history of reveries here. I'm not trying to valorize woolgathering. I have a great real and specific value in a profession which stupidly has no place for me, is incapable of seeing me. And however self-serving this obviously is likely to be, I think my value derives from my pained efforts to take philosophy personally. From a starting point where I, frankly, found very little about philosophy believable, and in a profession dead set on there being nothing personal about anything.

A couple years ago, I was out of my depth in an ethics course in which I still managed to do some things well. One often sticks in my mind. We were reading about Rousseau and kindness and vulnerability. I told the class a story, my story, about what I'd been doing the year before—graduating, teaching, jobless, living at home again with my bankrupted family and my underemployed mom and my jobless dad, reduced like I'd never seen him. I told them about the small pleasures I found in being kind, cooking dinner, cleaning things up—the look of surprise on my dad's face at being treated kindly for no other reason. And then I told them about an offhand remark my dad made one day, as I was headed off to the campus library in town to do some work, and said so: 'you don't have a job', he said, sounding but probably not meaning to be disparaging, deflating, withering. I was hurt and angry at those words, but I just swallowed it and left.

I shouldn't have. The anger I swallowed ate away at my kindness. My vulnerable heart grew smaller. My life grew smaller, ungenerous. Contracted.

There was a young man sitting up front that day, when I told that story, said what I just wrote there about my smaller life. The look of recognition on his face told me what I needed to know about whether there's any place in philosophy for the personal.

'I think I just don't belong', I tell H. 'No!', she protests. 'Philosophy is a place for people who don't belong!'

23 Apr '14 11:25:21 PM

'The best thing is to let people know that you a human just like them.'

18 Apr '14 05:36:54 PM

Doubt, or, not taking your word for it.

Nor 'our'.

16 Apr '14 02:08:25 PM


12 Apr '14 05:54:05 PM

A sad thought: I want to have been a philosopher.

To have had doubts that count. For mine to have counted.

11 Apr '14 01:23:35 AM

—Frozen in place lately by the thought that, if the core of Wittgenstein's response to his former self occurs somewhere around §§81–142, and that response differs most significantly with the author of the Tractatus over the status of skepticism, then why shouldn't the metaphilosophical remarks in §§109–133 have just as much to do with skepticism as (I've been saying) those from §§81–88 and §§134–142 do—so that there is a sense in which the remarks on logic and philosophy do not really interrupt this sequence?

Maybe this is a perspective from which it's easier to answer the question: Why is Wittgenstein's later philosophy also a metaphilosophical critique of all philosophy?

The strange form of 'doubt' Wittgenstein seems to acknowledge the standing possibility of in §87—exemplified by someone asking, of a particular explanation of what is meant by some word, what is further meant by individual words used in the explanation, and the words used in response, and so on, down even to very basic words for e.g. the names of colors, thus, in general, withholding a shared understanding of what is meant by these words, of what things are called—is one which philosophy, in its tractarian form, evidently aims to answer, to rule out, to discipline.

Does that mean that philosophy is any less skeptical? No: not, it would seem, if we treat that skeptical question, 'But what do you mean by…?', like a kind of characteristic gesture. Philosophers will ask this no less often—particularly among themselves. And they will ask it in a more terrible, sublime way: 'But what do you mean by "mean", by "meaning"?'. They will get themselves into a frame of mind in which they feel perplexed as to how anyone can mean anything at all, how words mean things. They aim to ask and answer questions like these in such a way that the instigating doubts, the ones that looked fairly innocent, prove on reflection not to be (in the end) disastrous.

That they do this, that they profess a wish not to doubt, and purport to devise or discover reasons why one need not, does not mean that they're not starting out from that same possibility of doubt, as it were conceding it, letting it confirm their fears. They may differ from skepticism as initially voiced, but for Wittgenstein, they do so mainly in their dogmatism, in the emptiness of their assertions, in their illusion of meaning certain things by them. And in the sophistication of their development of something which it is already possible for ordinary people to do—something which we already sometimes do, have, feel: doubt.

If elsewhere Wittgenstein voices doubts of various sorts, directed in various ways, in order to give them a hearing, get them heard, but also to dismiss them, concede them, confirm them, give form to them, rule them out in a variety of ways, and he is regarding (traditional, or his former) philosophy too as a (sophisticated) form of skepticism, then we can expect him to treat it similarly: to voice its doubts, to answer those doubts as voiced, but to go on without supposing that those answers have eliminated all doubt.

What skeptical exchanges appear in the philosophy remarks? In §§116–121, as in the 80s, philosophy's doubts concern the ordinary uses of words—from the other side, as it were, from the far side of a supposed departure from the ordinary. In §§122–129, philosophy's inability to ground the actual use of language (cf. §81) is linked to a supposed reason to need to do so: the technical problems of another discipline, mathematical logic.

In §§130–133 skepticism is almost explicit, fully voiced: despite laying down no theories, seeking no regimentation of language by logic, etc., Wittgenstein does seek to bring a kind of order to 'our knowledge of the use of language'. What threatens that knowledge, in the form of philosophy? Skepticism, it seems:

'Die eigentliche Entdeckung is die, die mich fähig macht, das Philosophieren abzubrechen, wann ich will. – Die die Philosophie zur Ruhe bringt, so daß sie nicht mehr von Fragen gepeitscht wird, die sie selbst in Frage stellen.'

—A philosophy tortured by questions that call philosophy into question is a philosophy consumed by skepticism.

But being able to stop philosophizing needn't mean quelling doubt, putting an end to it (say, as a phenomenon, as an abiding or recurrent human experience). It can mean not giving in to it.

10 Apr '14 08:53:34 PM

Unvoiced doubt.