Between You and I (Part I of II)

We all recognize the differentiation between the “I” in my conscious identity – that separate being who speaks thoughts silently in the privacy of one’s mind; the one who “sees” the external world, and decides upon acts and restraints of acts; then, there is the “self” which is seen by the reactions of “others” we encounter:  a friend who, upon seeing, smiles and greets with familiarity; the wife who responds differently and with intimacy; the child who treats the person who is the “I” as seen by others, in a manner differently than other adults; and through the myopic perspective of reactions – raised eyebrows; a smile; a frown; a “look” of recognition; we consciously recognize that there is an “external” world which “sees” the “I” in a manner different from the self-recognition of the “I” in my internal world of thoughts, ideas, desires and language-games.

This is not an attempt to revisit the controversy as expounded in Gilbert Ryle’s ‘logical behaviorism’ in his major work, The Concept of Mind; I do not want to get bogged down in whether there is the infamous “Ghost in the machine,” or revisit the problem of Cartesian dualism, the pendulum of historical philosophical debates between Descartes and Hobbes.  Auguste Rodin’s famous sculpture, le Penseur, is indeed thinking; whether by words, strings of words, or in a wordless suspension of meditative cogitation, we can certainly say that, with his right hand raised to his chin area representing a universally recognizable posture, he is in a classical stance of deeply contemplative public persona.  Now, were we to ask The Thinker, “What are you doing?”  The limitless potential responses may alter our initial presumptuous view of the matter:

“I was thinking about murdering my mother.”   Though we may be somewhat taken aback by the contemplated action (the classical posture may be deemed to be somewhat incommensurate with thoughts of pre-meditative murder), the fact that he is conceptually mapping out the plan certainly verifies a man who is “thinking” — Freudian implications aside (concerning thoughts of murdering one’s mother, which might complicate things further by bringing up the concept of a “subconscious”.  This, we will have to set aside for the time being).

“I had no particular thoughts at the moment.”  This might surprise the questioner, because the public posture taken would seem inconsistent with the statement, but we would generally not consider this to be shockingly disjointed; for, we might excuse the person as attempting to hide his true thoughts; perhaps the interruption of our question resulted in a dismissive response because le Penseur wanted to return to his deep state of contemplation; and, finally, the statement itself, “I had no particular thoughts at the moment” is a reflective response of self-awareness on the state of his immediately-preceding mental state, which shows a certain degree of thoughtfulness, nevertheless.

“A bee stung me just below my lip, and I paused, sat down, and placed pressure on my injured area with my right hand.”  Here, an apparent inconsistency develops between the acknowledged posture of meditative thoughtfulness, our assumption that one who postures in that manner reflects a depth of contemplation, and the statement by le Penseur.  One’s disapproving reaction to such a statement might, of course, be somewhat mitigated if we detected an expression of sheepishness or an apologetic tone in his voice; and some other reactions might include:  for the cynic, it would reinforce the view that very few humans actually engage in much contemplative thought; for the naïve onlooker, it might scar one for future encounters; and so it goes.

And, of course, there may be limitless other possible responses, all of which underscore the view that there is a difference between you and I; there is a “you” that I see, and I interpret based upon an “I” which is you; and there is the “I” which is me, which I distinguish from the you which is your “me”.

For, whichever statement The Thinker were to make, and whatever the reaction of the onlooker, the encounter between le Penseur and “the other” only reinforces the acknowledgment of the reality:  there is a difference between you and I.   In this world of “I”, the focus in recent decades has been the increasing emphasis upon self, satisfaction of self, self-esteem, the importance of self, and the penultimate focus upon the betterment of self.  The Copernican Revolution of the philosophical stature and status of the I; the reversal of identifying the “other” as an objective being in an objective world, and recognizing a commonality of definition:  that man is a ‘rational’ animal; and with it, a fixed coordinate that all can agree upon; to the Existentialist abandonment of a recognized objective cosmos with meaning, and instead to posit that we simply are, and that there is no fixed coordinate of our essence – that the “I” of the “self” can strive to create an essence.  And so it goes, where you and I are essentially left without coordinates in common.   We have come to a point where we believe, and “feel”, an estrangement with the world.  The compass which guides the subjective being in an objective world no longer can be depended upon, because the coordinates no longer provide the level of certainty necessary for effective guidance.   And so we are left with a subjectivity within which we must find our own personal meanings.  But since most of us are not bright enough to attain a satisfactory level of meaning, we despair of the meaninglessness of our personal ventures.

The “I” possesses what we ascribe as a “personality” – a uniqueness which is, at its most basic level, distinct and distinguishable from someone else.  Now, one could argue that the difference is of no consequence; go into any Steiff Bear store and the appearance of each stuffed bear distinguishes each from the other.  Add a sequence of recorded sounds and exclamations and growls and whistles, and we have a distinctive “personality” different from one Steiff bear from another.  And, indeed, each Steiff bear has a distinctive look; each has an outward appearance of a “personality” different from another.  As the universe of words and concepts is limited by the convention of each age at any given moment in history, so the difference between one personality from another is merely the difference of sequence and groupings of words, delivered by a changed pitch, executed by an appearance distinct from another.  There is no “ghost in the machine”; merely a machine.

Yet, few of us accept such a conclusion.  Between you and I, we wink at such nonsense.  We know better.   The “common man” believes that there is more to the “I” than merely an automaton with the ability to mix and remix sentence structures.  A lifetime of individuals who have known me, know me as a distinctive personality; I have accumulated a lifetime of experiences which somehow makes me unique – “uniqueness” being defined merely as that which is unable to be recreated by a clever compositing of aspects which are commonplace in their independent parts.

 

“I” have a context

Of course, one can always designate Descartes as the bogeyman.  The cogito encompasses the “I”, because it is the self-referential coordinate which does the thinking; the ‘therefore’ embracing the conclusory existential beingness of the I referring back to the thought process which entails the self-referential I.  But what could this mean than to merely state in tautological absurdity:  the self-referential I is nothing more than the identity learned through the learned use of language.

Thus the frog which croaks, does the croaking identify the existence of the frog anymore than the assertion that the  “I” pre-exists a thinking process, resulting in a conclusion that existence is ascertainable?

Consider #257 of Wittgenstein’s Philosophical Investigations:  “What would it be like if human beings shewed no outward signs of pain (did not groan, grimace, etc.)?  Then it would be impossible to teach a child the use of the word ‘tooth-ache.” —  Well, let’s assume the child is a genius and itself invents a name for the sensation! – But then, of course, he couldn’t make himself understood when he used the word.  —  So does he understand the name, without being able to explain its meaning to anyone? —  But what does it mean to say that he has ‘named his pain’? —  How has he done this naming of pain?  And whatever he did, what was its purpose?  —  When one says “He gave a name to his sensation”  one forgets that a great deal of stage-setting in the language is presupposed if the mere act of naming is to make sense.  And when we speak of someone’s having given a name to pain, what is presupposed is the existence of the grammar of the word “pain”; it shews the post where the new word is stationed.”

Indeed, what Wittgenstein is attacking is the utter lack of contextual memory in the very assertion of the “I” in Descartes’ so-called proof of certitude. Look at it this way:  when a child first learns to maneuver through the object-filled universe, he is taught to identify those objects in his path which, in a very elementary sense, are everything but his “I”.  Thus, he learns that “x is a sofa”, “y is a table”; “spoon”, “fork”, “doggy”, and so on.  We don’t begin to teach a child our language by pointing to him and saying, “Now this is who you are,” and proceeding to identify the wonderful essences which make up the child, precisely because, as a young, malleable and not-as-yet uniquely identifiable personhood, there is not much to work with, at this stage in the game.  But by identifying the object-filled world around him, the very negation of the world – of identifying those things-in-the-world surrounding a being-in-the-world, which are “things” which are not the person seeing the “things” – in that life-long act of identifying everything that is not “I”, one begins to formulate an identity of the “I”.  For the relationship between the objects which are not I, gets connected to the person who identifies those objects, as in, “I want that piece of candy.”  Concurrently, in the normal course of learning about the world of objects, it becomes clear that other object-subjects who can be identified as another “I” treat the “I” who is the me as a subject-object, as in, “I love you.”  Thus, to paraphrase Wittgenstein, a great deal of stage-setting has been forgotten by Descartes.  For, in order to get to the “I”, it necessarily presupposes a lifetime of identifying, with certitude (or as certain as one could be), an object-filled world.

Where does this leave us?  This analysis does not prove any “ghost in the machine” – that very concept which was deliberately intended to be avoided at all costs in this essay.  It does not undermine the precepts of materialism.  It does not threaten the post-modern reductionism of the world into innocuous language games which have no correspondence to an external, noumenal world.  Instead, where this leaves us is to the point of discussing the concept of shame.

But first, let us look at the reversal of the process of witnessing the exciting, mysterious blossoming of the “person”.   In George Orwell’s 1984, Syme describes the process of reducing the “I” to Winston:  “Don’t you see that the whole aim of Newspeak is to narrow the range of thought?  In the end we shall make thoughtcrime literally impossible, because there will be no words in which to express it.  Every concept that can ever be needed will be expressed by exactly one word, with its meaning rigidly defined and all its subsidiary meanings rubbed out and forgotten.  Already, in the Eleventh Edition, we’re not far from that point.  But the process will still be continuing long after you and I are dead.  Every year fewer and fewer words, and the range of consciousness always a little smaller.  Even now, of course, there’s no reason or excuse for committing thoughtcrime.  It’s merely a question of self-discipline, reality-control.  But in the end there won’t be any need even for that.  The Revolution will be complete when the language is perfect.  Newspeak is Ingsoc and Ingsoc is Newspeak.”  Language is the foundation of thought.  Language has life and vibrancy within a context of a community of language-sharing.  To have a “private language” where a sole person is the only person who understands a “language” would be an absurdity; for the meaning of language is found in its very sharing in order to communicate.  Orwell’s 1984 is terrifying in its implications:  that a dictionary (the irony, of course, is that a dictionary is supposed to be a compendium of an ever-growing vocabulary reflecting the richness of a society’s language) is now a deliberate tool of reducing the vocabulary of a totalitarian society, thereby reducing the ability to formulate concepts.

Every year fewer and fewer words, and the range of consciousness always a little smaller.    The process of reduction leads to a shrinking of the range of consciousness; concepts disappear; thoughts become limited, constricted, coerced into a range of repetitive slogans and meaninglessness.   But, you say, there will always be rebels.  And the rebels will always be able to expand individuality; look at the fall of Communism; totalitarianism is everywhere being shattered and broken; the range of consciousness is ever expanding because the capacity of human rebellion, emanating from man’s inherent creativity and uniqueness, will forever be successful in preventing such a diabolical attempt to delimit man.  Ah, but if only such an idealism of man’s capacity reflected reality – and so it goes.

 

What does it mean “to think”?

Let us digress for a moment.  Sometimes, a tangential pathway leads to the terminal of a maze; while a straight line is always the shortest distance between two points, a circuitous route is often the solution to a problem presented by a maze.  For the very same capacity inherent in a human being – of creativity leading to rebellion leading to an ever expanding range of consciousness – is that same capacity which creates the possibility of a totalitarian state.  While 1984 recognized the diabolical nature of reductionism of consciousness, what would be the result of its very opposite – the infinite exponential explosion of the range of consciousness?

Our digression must first investigate:  “What does it mean ‘to think'”?

Between you and I, we both acknowledge that we engage in the process, in various ways, of this thing called Thinking.  If you disagree with such an assertion, we are probably unable to engage in a Rorty-like¹  “conversation”, because we cannot even agree upon a basic, fundamental activity.  When we speak about “thinking”, do we agree on the common thread of such an activity?  Consider the following different modalities of thinking (and this compendium is by no means exhaustive):

To ponder:  perhaps some semblance of complete sentence structures; periods and intervals of silence; perhaps some confirmation of an underlying, non-conscious (subconscious?) mechanism of problem-solving.  To ponder often involves silence without complete sentences; incomplete concepts.

Problem-solving:  Intense and sustained focus and attention; sequential thought-process; silent paragraphs; images of advanced steps many steps ahead and anticipating a maze of possible problems.

Meditate:  long periods of silence; peaceful blanks of focusing upon a word, a concept, a psalm or a touch of God.

To worry:  repetitive statements of doom; of potentially disastrous consequences and results; of often irrational thoughts and impending images of dire events and occurrences.

Playing Chess:  moves; anticipated moves; mental images of moves and potential counter-moves; fatigue and surrender.

To reflect:  quality and depth, as opposed to a scattering of thoughts without structure; a time to focus upon narrow foundational issues.

Making a list:  conscious and deliberate; constructing word sequence; recalling information for careful annotation.

Remembering while grocery shopping:  attempts at jogging one’s memory; looking at various food items and aisle signs to try and recollect; mental imagery of one’s refrigerator, cupboard, to pick out needs; an attempt to re-imagine the list one left at home.

Shame: an image of self; an image of friends, family, associates and how they view me; a coordinate of statements about one’s self; a collection of public statements, memories, recollections, images, from those other than I; a coordinate, and the reflection to reality.

 

See also: Between You and I (Part II of II)

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¹ Richard Rorty, whom I had the privilege of studying under while a graduate student at the University of Virginia during the mid-80s, was a very kind and thoughtful philosopher.  The irony was that, with all of his encouragement of inter-disciplinary conversations, the Philosophy Department (of which I was a student) looked upon Mr. Rorty with some contempt.  Though considered a “Philosopher”, he was the professor emeritus of the Humanities Department – meaning, the Department of Philosophy, Lite.  Human envy and egocentricities were common roadblocks to such Rorty-like conversations, even between departments in the same University.  But I digress from the digression.

OPM Disability, Human Suffering, OPM Disability…

I often refer to a favorite short story of mine, inasmuch as it serves as a paradigm for why I practice disability retirement law: the master storyteller, Anton Chekhov, wrote a brilliant short story entitled, Grief (translator’s subtitle: “To Whom Shall I Tell My Grief,”), where the cab-driver, Iona Potapov, tells the profound story of human need — of a son’s death; a tale of tragedy, and of human indifference.

And in the course of driving various strangers in his carriage/cab, where he attempts to tell his very personal story of human tragedy, in the end, he must turn to his horse, and speak the mournful song of human desire to the only one who will listen: “That’s how it is, my old horse. There’s no more Kuzma Ionitch. He has left us to live, and he went off pop. Now let’s say, you had a foal, you were that foal’s mother, and suddenly, let’s say, that foal went and left you to live after him. It would be sad, wouldn’t it?”

Each of us has a human tale to tell. The human tale in disability retirement is often one of enduring devotion to one’s life work; of a medical condition beyond one’s control; and the need to change course in one’s life.

As an OPM Disability attorney, I am very busy in my practice. The cost of success, of course, is less time — less time for family, less time for personal pursuits (my first and greatest love is and continues to be the study of Philosophy — that is what I studied in College; that is what I studied in graduate school, before heading off to law school; and I find that, each year, I have less and less time in reading the major works of philosophers — but this is often outweighed by the professional satisfaction I get in obtaining disability retirement benefits for my clients); less time for reflection. I receive many, many calls on a daily basis from clients and potential clients who need to file for disability retirement benefits.

I try and listen to each human story — but to listen to the fullness of each story would be to take away from the time needed to spend on someone else.

That is why, often, I must direct the conversation with a series of questions.  I am not a therapist or a doctor — I am an attorney. If I do not focus upon the direct and impactful issues, and help my clients focus upon the significant issues which directly touch upon Federal OPM Disability Retirement, I am not doing my job. Thus, if I am somewhat focused upon certain foundational issues when speaking to people on the telephone, it is only because I am trying to do the best for all of my clients — to direct and re-direct the issues, like a laser-beam, upon the important issues concerning Federal Disability Retirement.

In doing so, I hope I am not like the indifferent passengers who left Iona Potapov on the side of the road, to have him tell his human story to the only one left to tell: his horse.

Sincerely,

Robert R. McGill, Esquire

Time and Age

Two old people on a park bench; and, of course, the image is one of time passing, of coiffed cauliflower clouds lazily drifting above, bringing passing intermittent shadows on a windblown fall day. A man and a woman; as the jogger passes by, seeing these two elderly figures sitting near, but not intimately so, to one another; the identifying passing thought: an old couple; grandparents; old people from another time. Such thoughts are often fleetingly dismissive; for some reason, each generation believes that theirs is “the one”; that those who are old are irrelevant; that grey hair and wrinkled foreheads; that deeply etched lines showing decades of smiling; of accordion-shriveled upper lips; of canes revealing painful arches and arthritic knees somehow diminishes one’s being.

The young are too busy with projects, plans and purposeful pursuits; Heidegger recognized the profound lobotomized bifurcation of our lives: old age and death are the penultimate ontological end; how we divert our focus upon that telos is the singular key for the young; for to ruminate upon our death is to become overwhelmed with existential angst; of the Prozac generation that we have become; for it is indeed our projects and hobbies which provide the diversion from such ruminations; and so the old have endured and survived, only to come ever so closer to that end which they spent their lives attempting to avoid; for death comes “like a thief in the night”, and all that we can do is hope that our projects and diversions will keep us occupied until the time of eternal slumber.

But it is still a puzzle, is it not, why the young view the old as irrelevant? The old are a source of wisdom, or should be; as Confucius once stated, By three methods we may learn wisdom: First, by reflection, which is noblest; Second, by imitation, which is easiest; and Third by experience, which is the bitterest. But to imitate would be to remind one of impending death; to experience would take us away from our diversions; and to reflect would mean we would have to face ourselves. And so the old are passed by; as joggers see the world peripherally, in a whisk of blurred images, of trees and rectangles of sidewalks; of pets being walked and automobiles passing; and two old people on a park bench. Lovely couple. Old. What’s my schedule for this afternoon?

Time passes; the daily engagement of diversions must be attended to. Otherwise, we may be forced to reflect upon the very worth of our being, and the worthiness of those very diversions which are meant to occupy our thoughts.

For, who among us can freeze time at any given moment of our lives, and honestly declare that we are acting as worthy stewards of such a precious commodity?

 

Fourth parable and lessons: Job owned, but he was not owned

One cannot, of course, improve upon the Book of Job; how Job’s wealth was vast and plentiful; where he was surrounded by his wife, seven sons and three daughters; the company of his friends, a reputation as a man who was blameless and upright; and in an instant, everything was lost.  Yet, when his wife said to him, “Do you still hold fast to your integrity?  Curse God and die!”

But he said to her, “You speak as one of the foolish women speaks.  Shall we indeed accept good from God, and shall we not accept adversity?”  In all this Job did not sin with his lips.  Job 2:9-10.

It was Job who had great wealth, vast possessions; but upon losing his material wealth, he remained steadfast in his faith and joy.  For Job owned, but was not owned.  We mistake sometimes, and think that by not owning, we show virtue; but virtue is the ability to remain faithful upon a test; if the test is forever avoided, one may never know whether your virtue was real, or merely the butterfly’s dream.

 

Lessons from these four parables:

We must always be able to discern between the real and the absurd; to see beyond words; for words must match deeds; words must not merely be a playground of conceptual potentialities, though such conceptual frameworks sometimes have their value and place in the world of humanity.  Yes, a mud puddle could potentially drown a child, but the reality of such an event is remote, and must be viewed as such.  The test of a man may one day come; one must always be prepared for such a test.  And so the sword of a samurai must be ready to be unsheathed; but ever remaining in its sheath, if never used; yet, ready to be used, when called upon.  And virtue cannot be true where no test is ever encountered; un-ness is not a virtue when it is embraced; the virtue of un-ness is in the having, not in the vanity of viewing the Koishu Gardens, and thinking that by not owning, you have grasped the serenity of life.

Third Parable: Kitaro and the Blind Beggar Boy

Kitaro was a Monk of the Fifth Order; he was ranked by the Society of Elders to be “other-worldly”.  He had lived through the Purge of the Daiku Shogunate; he had survived through the Winter of Three Famines.  He was known throughout the Kinshu Province as The Wise One.  Wisdom was spoken without words; strength was displayed through a stare; Kitaro was visited by princes and royalties from the world over; he owned nothing – but a teapot and two teacups.

On this beautiful morning, with the sparrows chirping in the blossom of the radiant rock garden of Koishu Gardens, where the gravel had been carefully swept in symmetrical flowing waters around the moss-covered boulders, Kitaro was about to sit down for his morning tea.

The morning had seen many beggars wandering about, asking the Monastery for some rice.  One such beggar had been a child of ten who was blind from birth.  What irritated Kitaro – well, perhaps ‘irritated’ was too strong a word, for he had shown no such emotion – was that the boy was, in his opinion, slovenly as well as being blind.  A man can shut out the world with total darkness, Kitaro had thought to himself; but the world still sees such a man.

He prepared to sit down for a cup of tea; he could smell the sweet aroma of the boiling tea in the teapot; he stood just a foot away from the table upon which he sat each morning; and as he customarily did, he turned to the Koishu Gardens to survey the meditative serenity, so that when he would sit, he need not turn to the garden for further refreshment; his mind’s eye would already hold the butterfly’s dream, to enjoy along with the taste of his morning tea.

As he surveyed the beauty of the garden’s lack, he marveled at how beauty is not in the abundance, but in the un-ness; that life was not to be discovered in possessions, but rather in the joy of less-ness; and these life-lessons he had learned well, for he owned nothing – but for the teapot and the two cups, of course – and his joy was not found in material wealth, but rather the simple chirp of a sparrow landing upon the twig of a decaying tree, unbeknownst to the world, as decay is merely the lifespring of age, both of the soul, as well as of the body.

The material world had no hold upon Kitaro, and Kitaro had long ago renounced the materiality of the world around him.  By owning nothing – except for the teapot and the two cups – matter could not matter to him.  As he surveyed the vast desolation of the beauty of the Koishu Gardens, the right side of his lips curled ever so slightly, as if to scoff at the world around him; for the butterfly’s dream was the world he embraced; the material world had no hold upon him; the serenity of un-ness was the world he sat on top of; the rampant greed, and world of capitalism, the vulgarity of consumerism, and the unhappiness of the surrounding universe – he had conquered it all.

Kitaro embraced the serenity of the moment; the moment was as a grain of sand, its quiet beauty as uncomplicated as his own soul; the smallness as significant, as relevant, as existential importance, as man himself.  Kitaro felt no emotion; felt only oneness with the grain of sand, with the peace of the Koishu Gardens.

Suddenly, the serenity of the Koishu Gardens was shattered by a loud crash.  Kitaro turned.  Before him, just a foot away, was the stupid blind beggar boy.  Beside the stupid blind beggar boy were the remnants of what used to be Kitaro’s teapot and two cups, the sole possession of the Monk of the Fifth Order.  “Bakka!” Kitaro shouted, his face turning a crimson radiance.  “Bakka!”  The Koishu Gardens, with their serenity of un-ness, remained unmoved.  The upheaval of the world around never witnessed this episode.  The sudden heaving; the blind fury directed at the beggar boy who was blind from birth, but who committed the unforgivable sin of being stupid, and showing that stupidity by shattering the sole material possession of the Monk of the Fifth Order, revealing how such a small matter, indeed, mattered to Kitaro.

Doing Philosophy and Law

Is wisdom determined by the answer, or the question? Or is the circularity of such a question in and of itself the key to its own answer? How does one attain a state of character, a state of being, such that one has become “wise”? Is this even a relevant question anymore? Are men today attempting, through a life of virtuous activity, to attain a sage-hood stature? Should that not be the goal of each man? Have we become so lazy that we no longer aspire to such a status? I once had a professor who began the class by telling us that he was not interested in our opinions; we had no right to opinions until we gained sufficient knowledge to form such opinions. That systematic methodology is no longer upheld today; with deconstructionism and the post-modern view that all opinions are equal; that relevance and weight of logical force, recognition of facts, truth, and validity – all are subjugated to the overarching primacy of the value of “equality”.

But despite the subjugation of Truth to relativism; the absolute anarchy of ideas today, where blurring of distinctions between facts and opinions, between a logically sound argument and an emotionally-charged slogan of vacuity – the primacy of truth may still emerge, when the extreme of mediocrity is once again recognized. I am always profoundly struck, each time I reread Aristotle, by the sheer force of his wisdom. For example, meditate upon the following excerpt from Book III, Chapter 1, (995a – b) of Aristotle’s Metaphysics:

We must, with a view to the science which we are seeking, first recount the subjects that should be first discussed. These include both the other opinions that some have held on the first principles, and any point besides these that happens to have been overlooked. For those who wish to get clear of difficulties it is advantageous to discuss the difficulties well; for the subsequent free play of thought implies the solution of the previous difficulties, and it is not possible to untie a knot of which one does not know. But the difficulty of our thinking points to a ‘knot’ in the object; for in so far as our thought is in difficulties, it is in like case with those who are bound; for in either case it is impossible to go forward. Hence one should have surveyed all the difficulties beforehand, both for the purposes we have stated and because people who inquire without first stating the difficulties are like those who do not know where they have to go; besides, a man does not otherwise know even whether he has at any given time found what he is looking for or not; for the end is not clear to such a man, while to him who has first discussed the difficulties it is clear. Further, he who has heard all the contending arguments, as if they were the parties to a case, must be in a better position for judging.

At its most fundamental level, of course, the doing of philosophy (if there is such a thing) is nothing more than the pursuit of wisdom – to love knowledge, to go after paradoxes and thought-provoking conundrums; to love wisdom for the pure joy of meditative challenges; and part of that process is to confront those ‘knots’, those difficulties; for it is the tackling of those difficulties beforehand which then clears the path for greater knowledge. In this day and age, knowledge is no longer revered; intellectual laziness abounds, for the individual believes that that which he does not know, he can always google. But you cannot google the untying of a knot; you must take the time to attain knowledge by meditating upon the untying of knots; and in that process, one is doing philosophy.

Prior to becoming an Attorney, my first love was Philosophy. I studied Philosophy at Catholic University, then went on to the Graduate School of Philosophy at the University of Virginia, where I had the opportunity to study under Richard Rorty, who was in the Humanities Department at the time. But the practical problems of life intervened, and to become an Attorney was, for myself, the perfect melding of an intellectual component with the practical aspect of being able to make a living. It was a knot of life which I contemplated for quite some time; now, twenty years later, I love the life of law; of the intellectual component of researching Court opinions; the logical component of making sound legal arguments; and the practical aspect of actually helping my clients secure their financial future by obtaining disability retirement benefits for them. And during these twenty years, I have had the freedom to continue to read philosophy, to meditate upon multiple philosophers – from Plato and Aristotle, to Kant, Heidegger, Wittgenstein, Popper, Putnam, et al, and to continue to untie the bounds of knots, within the loving circle of my wife and three wonderful kids.

The Collector

In the seclusion of her life (and one may always view such seclusion as the private portal of one’s soul, or within the lost imaginations of a wandering mind, or the momentary quietude of becoming lost in a pleasant memory from a childhood past), she had been known as a ‘collector’. Her weathered, sun-spotted hands, leathery yet revealing the grace and delicate bones they exhibited in youthful days, friends would comment how she could have a career in television merely relying upon the beauty of her hands; and that was without commenting upon her facial beauty; the beauty of her physical appearance; the beauty of – and the reader would naturally inquire, but what of her soul? For, of course the soul is of paramount importance; it is that which forms the foundation of absolutes; and as was already described, she was a collector in younger days. Her collection, however, was of information; of gossipy tidbits about her friends, neighbors, family and acquaintances; embarrassing moments; of details which one would ask to be forgiven for, or forgotten, or tossed into the attic of one’s past.

She collected and carefully stored such details; and when it was to her advantage, she would bring them out and use them for various purposes: as a tool; as a shield; as a hammer or axe; to defend, to fend, to deflect, to slash or to bludgeon. Such was the contrast between the delicate beauty of her hands, the relative grace and ease with which she moved them, almost in free-flow, as a ballet-dancer, as she spoke and used the weapon of her choice: words. For though we describe by metaphor the power of words, her hands were without such weapons as we ascribe; it was through her lips that such words emerged and spewed, and the wounds inflicted.

How many of us are collectors? How many of us can wash the sins of others, as God washes our own sins merely by our asking? And in her last years, she lived a solitary life, for by words her circle of friends dwindled, cast away and running and hiding from the weapons of words; until one day, she found herself alone, in the solitary confinement of her own words. And though they may merely be words, they build walls around us; impenetrable, surrounded by a moat which cannot be traversed. Collecting is a hobby of sorts; the collector reflects the value of what is collected; and the collection reveals the soul of the collector. Some collect stamps; others collect paintings; still others collect pottery and other such items. But to collect the past acts of your neighbor – ah, that is a collection which is not worthy of the soul of man.

In a Small Town, Part II (You may want to read the first part before you read this)

So, let us continue in this vein; as I often say to my children, “Let us take the following hypothetical,” and proceed to create and build conceptual models of dynamic conundrums; and in doing so, the point of such exercises, of course, is to sharpen one’s core beliefs. For, you see, it is my view that (as I referred to in my commentary on Camus and The Myth of Sisyphus), the pebble which represents man at the inception of his essence must be formed, molded, and each roll down the hill and up again, in picking up values and principles by which one grows and matures and begins to formulate the essence of one’s foundational beliefs; and the methodology in formulating and solidifying such core principles can be aided by encountering and ‘solving’ potential life-challenges and – ah, but this is a mere digression.

Let us go back to the hypothetical: So let us suppose, that Judy has a sister who is mentally disabled; let us go further and say that Judy showed great promise as a young child, and all of her teachers saw her as a brilliant mathematician, a child prodigy of the arts, or perhaps a musical genius (you may choose any one of the particulars in creating this hypothetical); but at the age of sixteen, Judy’s mother and father suddenly died in a tragic car accident, leaving the two of them – Judy and her disabled sister – as orphans. Judy went to work at the Corner Pancake House to support herself and her sister; let us add to this tragic tale the fact that the dead parents left very little behind, leaving both as essentially destitute. Colleen (Judy’s sister) is 18 at the time, an adult by law; but mentally, she cannot function at a level greater than 6, perhaps 7, at most.

There is talk that she would be “institutionalized”; but alas, Judy will not let that happen. If she can show the well-meaning social workers that the two of them can be independent, then there would be no legal basis to have her “put away”. She works; sometimes double-shifts; Tony treats her like trash; but throughout it all, she smiles serenely, with an inner peace and confidence well beyond her youth; and the reason why she is able to perform the complex ballet of life at such a tender young age, is because she has a purpose, concrete and formulated, created by tragic circumstances, thrust upon her without cause, and some would say with such cruelty of fate; but nevertheless, it is a fate and circumstance, as trying and ‘unfair’ as the fate of life’s tumults can crumble a once-promising life; and here, of course, is the question; not a question which need be answered in a traditional sense; no, rather, it is a question which leaves one with a sense of unease, as all foundational questions are meant to portend; that such a life, in all of its trying circumstances – did it change the reader’s view of the value of Judy’s life? If so, Why?

For by most accounts, we would pass by the Judys of this world; not oblivious, but rather guilty of deliberate and conscious avoidance; and so we go through the customary pretensions of “hello”, “nice to see you”, “how are you”, “fine, thank you”, and yet without going beyond the carefully-circumscribed conventions which never reach beyond the surface-knowledge of a person’s life, character, or value; yet, we make value-judgments, as to the worth of our neighbor, the value of his or her life, without much knowledge of intimate or personal details. Ah, the reader says, now it is different because… Judy now is a figure of sympathy; almost of hero-status, and why is that? Because she is living a life of self-sacrifice, of having given up her personal dreams, of fulfilling and completing the essence of the natural gifts granted to her – that she “could have been” may always be a regret in her life; yet, because she sacrificed for the sake of another, we see her as having value, to elevate her to the status of whispering with awe, “A life well-lived.”

But is this so? The reality of life is that few of us would do what Judy did; we would create complex models of justifications; and, indeed, we do and can; and this is where the reader may become somewhat offended and defensive; indeed, self-denial and self-justification may overtake the reader; for how many have failed or refused to sacrifice the centrality of “self”; put away the aged parents into a nursing home; divorced a disabled spouse; disowned a depressed son or daughter; or abandoned a friend or neighbor because of the trying circumstances; because, to lend support would be to sacrifice a career, an opportunity, a life of comfort. “But it is different because…”; “You don’t understand”; “In my case, I had no choice…” Of course it is different; and each of us can fill in the blanks of the unique and peculiar circumstances which differentiate our particular life-episode from that of Judy. But is that truly so? Or do we elevate Judy to the status and stature of a tragic hero, precisely because we know that we would not have done what she did? Do we, out of a sense of guilt and shame, compliment and applaud the life of Judy, despite the tragedy of having given up all that she did?

Yet, to live with shame and guilt shows our humanity; and alas, that one day we would fail to recognize the hero-status bestowed upon one like Judy; that would be a day to rue.

 

See also: In a Small Town, Part III

In a Small Town, Part I

In the small town, the Corner Pancake House was where all of the girls began their careers. Sometime around the Sophomore or Junior year of Titusville Central High, the girls would waitress, cook, serve the town smart-alecks, and begin their trek from childhood to adulthood. It was the town’s singular rite-of-passage. It would last a year, perhaps two at most; the owner would yell, scream, curse and call each of the girls “lazy no-good s.o.b.s”; nevertheless, sometime “down the road”, each one of them would come back after they had gotten married, or graduated from college, or taken another job in another town, or in some big city, or every once in a while, in a foreign country – they would all make their way back to “Tony” and he would hug them as if they were their long-lost sister.

But there was once this girl – Judy; she never left. It wasn’t as if she wasn’t attractive; sure, she was quiet, perhaps a bit too introverted; and though you wouldn’t call her a “looker”, she possessed a certain sense of quiet serenity; and she stayed. By all accounts, Tony treated her like trash; one would have thought that, after the third or fourth year, when it became apparent that Judy would never leave; that she would remain a waitress at the Corner Pancake House all of her life; that Tony would have begun to treat her well. But it was as if Tony didn’t know how else to treat her. When Judy would leave a piece of microscopic lettuce in a hidden corner behind the salt/pepper/sugar carrier, Tony would take great pleasure in his bellowing voice, calling, “Judy! Get over there and do a proper job! Stop being so lazy and…” and with quiet serenity, without complaint, without emotion, Judy would rush over to the table and correct the infraction.

There were rumors, of course; rumors that Tony loved Judy; that Tony and Judy were secretly married; that Judy was secretly in love with Tony, but because she had promised her heart to a mysterious man in another town, that she could not… But the truth of it was that Tony didn’t know how else to treat Judy; he had never had a girl from Titusville Central High stay and work; and so he continued to treat her like the high school girl he knew her to be, even after years and years. Now, some might say that this is a rather sad opening for a story; but who are we to judge the reasons and foundational values that embrace the life of another? How many of us can know the inner thoughts of Judy; and how can we determine that her life was of greater or lesser value than the girls who came and went, who went on to “glorious” careers, or to exotic sanctuaries of work, play, lives fulfilled or forlorn? The worth of a person must be judged not by the work he or she does, but by the quality of attending to the task before the person. That Judy made sure that each of the tables was prepared for the customers; that the orders were taken with precision and pleasantness; that there was always a quiet smile, and a word of encouragement – are these not the episodes of value? Yet, how often do we pass by the many Judys of this world, and make either a judgment or none at all. Indeed, to not even notice may be the greater mark of cruelty, than to judge that your fellow man is of lesser worth.

 

See also: In a Small Town, Part II

Camus, the Literary Genre, and a Life of Value

For those who are unfamiliar with Albert Camus’ essay, The Myth of Sisyphus, he begins by describing how the “gods had condemned Sisyphus to ceaselessly rolling a rock to the top of a mountain, whence the stone would fall back of its own weight. They had thought with some reason that there is no more dreadful punishment than futile and hopeless labor.” The hero-worship, for Camus, is Sisyphus as the “absurd hero”; his very “scorn of the gods, his hatred of death, and his passion for life,” are the foundational qualities to be admired; as heroes go, it is the sustained perseverance in the face of an absurd life, and especially in “that pause” as he returns, knowing that the eternal toil that faces him will not drain the passion for life that Sisyphus will retain. His scorn for such absurdity is what marks the worthiness of hero-worship status, for Camus.

Thus, Sisyphus represents man’s state in and of the absurd; the rock that he toils for represents the existential historicity of the absurd; and the monotonous eternality of the up-down landscape represents the day to day episodic encounters of a life lived in the absurd. This is merely one viewpoint. The Myth of Sisyphus, however, can be viewed quite differently; from a perspective aside from the absurd; perhaps not with as much drama or poetry; but with greater logical clarity, befitting man’s sense of an ordered, rational universe.

The essential problem with being critical of Camus is not so much the substantive lack of logical coherence in his work (for Camus cares not for such pedantic details); rather, the problem is that Camus is so thoroughly eloquent and poetic in his writings, that any criticism of his work is immediately repulsed based on aesthetic reasons alone (yes, an oxymoron). Indeed, Camus chose the perfect genre for existentialism (read the utter failure and lack of systematic consistency in Sartre’s attempt at serious philosophical pedagogy in Being and Nothingness); for literature allows for lack of structural consistency, and is naturally protected by poetic default – for who can seriously criticize the romanticism of the detached loner-hero?

But such a myth must be stripped; and a different perspective is necessary; for if all truth is relative, and all relative truths can be equally embraced by a sheer power of one’s will; as such, a different story may be proposed as an alternative to Camus, and one which can assert its value with as much force: Sisyphus does not represent man’s state; rather, Sisyphus is not merely the hero, but a god. Man is not the one who toils in vain; rather, he is represented by the rock; it is this god who directs the individual by pushing him where necessary; by assisting him in uphill climbs; by letting him go that he may fall when necessary. Further, when first he was born, the individual thus being pushed was merely a pebble; as the pebble/man matured over time, he made independent choices along the way, and picked up various debris in the course of his journey; the pebble became compacted with junk and jewels alike; and as conceptual frameworks, moral choices, and noetic structures which determined the very choices in life were being formed, accepted, believed and acted upon, the pebble became a rock, and then a boulder. And all along, god pushed, paused at the pinnacle, let go for the individual to fall; and helped him up when needed.

For Camus, of course, such an alternate reality would be repulsive because of the implied determinism of such a perspective – to be directed by a god would strip man of his total freedom of will. But Camus sacrifices a greater value for man’s freedom – that of a purpose-driven life; and that is where his literary genre fails him; for the snowflake without design; a child’s wonderment in the question why; the daily toil for which man lives; the sacrifice of life by man for his fellow man; the love of a child; the love of a man; and the ends for which one will strive to reach that ultimate destination – a life of servanthood, a life well-lived, and life worthwhile; a life of value.

It is a different view; it is not nearly as aesthetically pleasing, or poetically structured as Camus; but alas, nor is it as absurd.