Sunday, January 01, 2006When I sit down to write, there comes the question of what to write about. Life is full of interesting things, and even my life contains a few of them. But we often best express ourselves not by talking about our own thoughts or lifes, but by considering a bigger picture, or a smaller one, even a fictional one.
If you ask people what they think, they are usually glad to tell you. But if you start asking questions, you'll find that they don't know. They have beliefs about themselves, beliefs formed by what they've been told, or what they want others to believe about them. In this regard, the impression we give of our thoughts is a picture we create. It is not us, but a story we tell about ourselves.In order to find the essence of a person, what you need is not what they have to say about themselves, but what they say in general, and how they say it. Tennyson tells us:
Yet all experience is an arch wherethro'
Gleams that untravelled world whose margin fades
Forever and for ever when I move
Yet we are not those experiences, neither the sum total of all we've seen nor even of all we've done. We are prisms, refracting those gleams and glimmers of life and making individual perception of a universal world. This is where the postmodernists, the realists, the skeptics and every other school gets it wrong. It's not that there is no fundamental, universal and absolute reality. It's that we lack the sensory and cognitive equipment to capture it perfectly. This is why it is possible for morality and truth to exist, yet none of us can claim to offer the final word.
In apprehending the world, then, we must act as the scientist who has stumbled upon the chance to picture a sharper microscope or a telescope that offers a superior magnification. To extend - and abuse - the prism metaphor, we are our own masters of opticks, grinding away at the lens through which we see life in an effort to adjust it to give us what we perceive as a clearer picture. How we go about this makes a big difference. Those who seek perfect images often go sadly astray, breaking or distorting the lens through excessive grinding, while others accept a fuzzier picture, trying to compensate for the distortion by understanding of theirs and the world's confusions instead.
The Economist had a fascinating article (you might have to watch an ad to get in) on evolution and what's up with the idea of being human the other day. It noted that human beings appear to be the only animals that play games with set rules. A later section suggests that the value of intelligence is that it works well for attracting a mate, like peacock feathers. That is, humans didn't evolve to become intelligent for immediate practical applications, but rather because intelligence is an attractive and attracting characteristic. In this regard, the playing of games takes on a special value - it provides an artificial context where the clever and the well-toned - depending on the game - can maximize their ability to shine.
Comes the question: What if the ultimate game is the Wittgensteinian language game? What does that do to discourse? And what does it do to truth? Are the sticklers guarding the world from error? Or maximizing their reproductive possibilities? And does this mean, finally, that the complex marvels of humanity have nothing on the animal kingdom, save their complexity?
I would suggest that there is one problem here: The language game may be a game, as artificial as football in its arbitrariness. But that does not mean there is no reality underneath. It just means my motives - and yours if you're arguing against me in your mind - need further investigation before we decide that the notion that "The truth is out there" means that "the truth" is what we're really looking for or likely to find.
It seems to me, as we approach a new year, that it behooves us to spend a little less time getting things just so and a little more time appreciating the need for margin for error - in our deeds and in our thoughts. Take it easy on others. Take it easy on yourself. And keep with the language games - they're the best games we've got.
posted by gbarto at 12:59 PM