“Not that, not that,” or, Writing about distractions from meaning

An observation from today’s writing (delving into aspects of self, self-interest, self-expression, and similar abstractions):

Most of the task of conveying meaning in philosophy can be accomplished by pruning back insignificant things we habitually take as meaningful and hold forth as though we have found something important.

For example: the renaming or restatement of abstractions as though impressive new things have been realized, discovered, or created by words—and then, by the reactions we have to our “new” categories or images, which ideas now enjoy an attributed essential meaning of their own.

Like the stamping of a name on an object’s surface, the object may not change much, but we do notice the impression and sometimes to the exclusion of the rest. The impression of an idea itself “becomes” an object, because it takes on a real set of physiological experiences which are appreciable to us as mental phenomena. These phenomena are like a sort of secondary, epiphenomenal ripple or echo from what we were trying to talk about in the first place!

The philosopher’s pruning of this sort of distraction involves a process of retraining his/our perspective and expectation of substance from superficial verbiage (or the impressions it makes) to what makes reference to phenomena with more original sensory evidence (not excluding internal and subjective evidence, but not epiphenomenal ripples or echoes, either).

In the process of retraining, the philosopher must repeatedly ask himself, “are we really talking about what we think we are, or are we talking about feelings about previous talking?” (This isn’t helped by inheriting quite a bit of talking, some of which has acquired some deep impressions over time.)

Once we do find the phenomena we actually want to talk about in the whole mess, we have a chance to utilize a more phenomenal vocabulary in talking about it; in our talking about the subject, we can recognize experiences we have already had, including immediate and visceral sense experiences. We can therefore relate it to things that fall within our experience (or at least constructions building upon these foundations) instead of interacting with removed abstractions that transform nothing, and primarily reference themselves. We can experience a transformation, a reconnection to our experiences that will inform future encounters with relatable things.

It is the task of responsible philosophers—those who want to achieve something meaningful—to look at our looking-for-meaning (a resounding internal phenomenon) and point out, “no, that bit is make-believe, and that is saying nothing or very little, and it is leading us astray from finding what we are looking for,” far more often than they get to point and say, “Eureka!”

NB: if the reader has made it this far, he or she should observe that—barring a good deal of relatable experience with the challenges of conveying ideas when writing philosophy and/or readings in phenomenology—his difficulty with understanding the above will probably have been considerable. Furthermore, only my turns of phrase that emphasized sensory analogies and departed from abstraction will have been relatively easy to read, and made my meaning easier to comprehend at that moment. This illustrates the power of phenomenally-grounded philosophical writing, and the reader’s relative disappointment at having to slog through the more abstract sort, in which it is extremely easy to get lost.

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2 responses to ““Not that, not that,” or, Writing about distractions from meaning

  1. Good stuff.

    A rambling response; let’s start with one of your sentences:

    “For example: the renaming or restatement of abstractions as though impressive new things have been realized, discovered, or created by words—and then, by the reactions we have to our “new” categories or images, which ideas now enjoy an attributed essential meaning of their own.”

    I would point out that renaming or restatement is how we make progress in clarifying the objects of philosophical discussion. It is the “as though…” qualifier which bears the crucial import of your sentence. The kind of philosophical self-deception that you are describing gets kicked loose at that juncture. This juncture or turn or moment-in-the-flow is what you are trying to characterize for your readers. By extension we can say, once that false or distracting turn has been taken, we are launched into the territory of “insignificant things”.

    So, how do we know what we were trying to talk about in the first place? What happens, or what has happened, when we reach that stage of meaning-establishment? Is there something (perhaps we should say some “cue” or “cues”) that tell us when we are NOT straying into insignificance?

    What is the nature of that “more original sensory evidence?” Is it distracting to use the term “nature” here? Perhaps not if I say more about what I mean by “nature”…

    What tells us that the object we “should” be pursuing is more original? Another way of saying some of this: What makes our perspective more responsive to the “sensory evidence” as opposed to some process of false abstraction?

    The more I think about all this, it seems we could helpfully make it fall within a “Person A conversation with Person B” scenario. Person A has a certain subject in mind to which he has given a name, with a whole lot of explicit as well as implicit (those with a “felt sense” but not yet laid out in full) qualifiers. Person B, in diving into the subject as part of their conversation, might seem to be “on track” but then goes “off track” by chasing some epiphenomenal ripple. Person A notes this and says, “No, that’s not what I meant.” Or possibly, “No, that’s not what we’re talking about.” The conversation now proceeds down several possible paths, but if they are to be responsive to A’s clarification, B will have to seek greater understanding of A’s original intent, and A will have to draw out into more explicit form (he may have thought some things were more explicit for B than they actually were) what he originally intended the subject to be.

    And is it a matter of learning how to develop habits for sensing and conveying original content we don’t have now?

    If we go back to the “top”—i.e. back to what started your blog entry—you were writing about “aspects of self, self-interest, self-expression, and similar abstractions.”

    Allow me to rephrase: the kind of philosophy we’re talking about here concerns the question of who and what we are, what and who humans are, and to my way of seeing things philosophical, one of the most important versions of the question being “what is our nature?” It seems clear that we are beings for whom the idea of a “self” and the idea of “self-expression” can have a powerful influence on the set of things we tend to think about or on how we act.

    And knowing anything about our nature as a result of philosophic contemplation and examination, what the hell do we do, and not do, and what else can we know, and not know? Or, to put it more succinctly, WTF is going on here? Does my recasting the description into this blunter form add anything to someone else’s understanding of the kinds of philosophical questions I choose to pursue? It might tell them I take it seriously, or they may think I take it lightly. They would be right on both counts. I am plagued and delighted by the philosophical work that I have chosen to do all my life, and the only one who could gather any of this would be someone who spends some time talking with me, going through the intricacies of expression and insight and confusion that characterizes this kind of very human yet very rare work.

    If we are to make any progress in this dialogue, which unfolds after us too, we may have to assert that civilization needs to continue, so we better get good at doing this kind of philosophy…

  2. I would have to say that as interesting as the philosophical conversation is to philosophers, and as intriguing and potentially productive as tests of straying or methods of feeling out the conversation might be, we wouldn’t really be able to evaluate all these questions in any sure way without making reference to what happens after and outside of the conversation. The major difference between what I think philosophy should aim to talk about to remain on target, i.e. to home in on meaning in some sense, and the sort of talk for its own sake I disparage a bit, is the effect outside of the conversation. What does it transform, and does it transform anything? Otherwise, we are “just” renaming or restating, not initiating “a reconnection to our experiences that will inform future encounters with relatable things.” “Original sensory” access gets at deeper things in the body/mind that have to do with re-habituation and more than just talking, whereas the feelings of getting at things and reacting to them that are more superficial won’t become significant outside of the conversation.

    Of course, I realize this is practically heretical in Western philosophy, but I don’t think philosophy is worthy of exaltation or particularly useful if it can’t change lives, besides providing intellectual stimulation, classification, and entertainment. Philosophy must serve as a life practice for philosophers or a means to enhance life for non-philosophers, in my way of thinking. If it doesn’t change you, an idea is “just an idea,” and a change doesn’t enhance you, you don’t want it.

    To take the example of what I was writing about, just talking about “self-expression” sounds good at the time and may provide an interesting conversation about distinctions and so forth. But if it’s not also leading to a clearer and perhaps more precise or articulated understanding of how to proceed with self-expression and encouraging that, you are instead talking about talking or feelings about talking, instead of talking about “a reconnection to our experiences that will inform future encounters with relatable things.” The real measure of the words must be found in life, not in the words.

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