You want to feel my pain and you want me to feel yours. I suffer from chronic back pain. I am autistic. I am also a middle-aged white male born from middle class parents. You do not feel my pain. You cannot know how it is to have an autistic perspective. And I cannot feel what it is like not to be privileged. All we can do is try to understand each other. And to do that the first thing we need to do is to accept what the other reports and accept it at face value. Literally at face value. Because when you say (or I say) that we feel the other’s pain we deceive ourselves into knowing something we cannot know. We are frauds. And, no understanding can come from fraud whatever good intentions we may think we have.
Now you may say that the word empathy doesn’t exactly mean that. You might be right. It is a word and therefore something that needs to be understood in context. Like you need to understand me in context, I need to be give you the benefit of the doubt. That said, you cannot feel my pain, you cannot take my perspective for that would simply be arrogance, and arrogance never leaves room for self-doubt. “What then?”, you might say (if you feel for me enough to be open for my perspective, otherwise just leave this – and me – be).
My propositions serve as elucidations in the following way: anyone who understands me eventually recognizes them as nonsensical, when he has used them—as steps—to climb beyond them. (He must, so to speak, throw away the ladder after he has climbed up it.)
He must transcend these propositions, and then he will see the world aright.”
Ludwig Wittgenstein, Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, Routledge Classics, 1961.
I’m reading Cora Diamond’s “The Realistic Spirit” in which proposition 6.54 is seen as the key to crack the code of continuity in Wittgenstein’s thought. I don’t know about that but I do know this: what she says resonates with why I always liked reading Wittgenstein. It’s not the famous proposition 7 calling bull-shit on philosophy that enticed me, calling bull-shit is easy. It’s the resistance to clear-cut philosophical doctrines and a view of reason as somehow beyond life as we know it which rings true to me.
Is it possible to do philosophy without leaving behind you beliefs that one p or another is true in a deeper way than pointing to the coffee mug and saying that it is on the table? In a way we’re all philosophers who want to believe that what we say matters in a way that is beyond being merely true. Philosophy, I believe (and I believe Wittgenstein believed all his life), is about showing that to be a terrible equivocation. A terrible equivocation more specifically on two crucial real-life common words: the demonstrative ‘that’ and the verb ‘to believe’.
Let me show you that. Maybe if you read on you’ll believe.
“Let us keep this notion of split reference in mind, as well as the wonderful ‘It was and it was not,’ which contains in nuce all that can be said about metaphorical truth.” P. Ricoeur, The Rule of Metaphor, Routledge Classics, 2003, p. 265.
Being a logical kind of guy, I don’t particularly like fairy tales. Still, I think the law of non-contradiction is worse than a fairy tale. It is a hoax. Proven useful to open cans, it wound up opening one full of worms. Its next of kin are identity and the excluded middle. It’s the triumvirate of a logical tyranny that suffocates us to a point of becoming a prejudice against every prejudice.
I believe can-openers are useful tools, certainly if the can they open is critical thought. It is however not the case that critical thought has merit in and of itself. Critical thought is to the good life as food is to a healthy body, not less but at the same time not more. What it allows if taken in good measure is to find the middle; overconsumption though leads to becoming bloated and – full of it – using it as a stick to beat the life out of every argument.
The nice thing about stories is that, as Ricoeur rightly has it, they keep us in suspense and thereby create something new. They’re alive and as such infinitely closer to the good life than any artificial construct could ever be. I will believe in Artificial Intelligence if it can weave or listen to a good story, create a telling metaphor or be insulted by being likened to artifice. Call that the Bervoets-test.
Anyway, let’s make this political.
“Sommes-nous pas bien brutes de nommer brutale l’opération qui nous fait?” M. de Montaigne, Essais III, Chapitre V, p. 132, Éd’s Gallimard, 1965.
[Amateuristic English translation: “Aren’t we brutes for calling the action that made us brutal?”]
It’s been a while. Let me talk about myself a bit: Continue reading
“Jesus replied Fear not Albion unless I die thou canst not live
But if I die I shall arise again & thou with me
This is Friendship & Brotherhood without it Man Is Not.”
W. Blake, Jerusalem Plate 95, in ‘The Complete Poems’, pp. 841-842, Penguin Books, 1977.
There is in philosophy of language the concept of ‘The Principle of Charity’: you cannot understand – and you cannot, therefore, be understood – if you do not apply a reasonable dose of charity in trying to understand what the other says. The Principle assumes more than mere benevolence, Continue reading