QA 50! Thoughts at sea


A funny thing happened at the Philosophy Café last month. I got lost. We all set sail on a conversation about “sadness”, but I didn’t know what they were talking about. My mind was clear and present. I just couldn’t relate, couldn’t get a grip, couldn’t participate. And the good ship “we” sailed on without me. Huh.

It’s been a chance to rediscover that – so long as you’re not in real danger, so long as you don’t panic – being all at sea is philosophy’s home ground. Not knowing what’s happening is a condition of wonder, in every sense of the word. It’s also kind of sad.

My experience was essentially – however mildly – one of alienation and exclusion. As if an invisible barrier appears only and precisely at the moment you hit it, dividing and reorienting me, them, in, out, here, there.

From my new vantage point, I could see how the conversation (a “language game”, in Wittgenstein’s phrase) was propelled by mutual appeals to a mutual understanding of the world. You know what I mean? They took that understanding for granted and wielded it together naturally. An understanding I lacked, and to which I had no access. That sense of givenness, access and reception is crucial, both as a metaphor of our understanding and as a criterion of recognition and belonging. It’s scarcely a step from don’t you get it? to what is wrong with you?

If community depends on a shared view of reality – a “form of life” (Wittgenstein) or “lifeworld” (Husserl) ­– our reality also depends on community assent. Is it that contingent? So we apparently believe. No wonder consensus must be so vigorously preserved (conservative view) or broadened (liberal view).

Western philosophy has historically strived to overcome contingency with the authority of universality and scientific objectivity. A universality and objectivity that  served to validate the worldview ­– and served the interests – of a particular circle of elites. No win there.

You know what I mean? Whole worlds ride on that question. Because what if you don’t? What if my meaning baffles you? Suddenly we are strangers, estranged, suspicious. There’s a whiff of violence in the air. Maybe you’re wrong. Maybe I’m crazy or stupid. Maybe we can look at it both ways, agree to disagree. Maybe one will come round to the other’s way of thinking. Maybe one will be forced to. Maybe this world just ain’t big enough for the both of us.

Inclusion and exclusion share a Latin root: claudere, to shut. Include means shut in. Exclude means shut out. It’s also relative. Just as one man’s ceiling is another man’s floor, the barrier that shuts me out may also demarcate an alternate space of belonging. A new “here”, a room of my own, even a new tribe of those who actually do know what I mean. This hearth of individuation and political consciousness-raising is also contingent and relative, only differently.

The problem with divergent worldviews, with not getting each other, may be a problem of verification. Some points of view are clearly mistaken. Some are mad. But who is to say so? How can I accept the validity of a view (even my own), without an external reference or scale? Even as we see every parameter change over time.

The problem of verification in turn may be the desire for certainty about what we know about the world. As if “knowing about the world” were the only means we had to relate to it and to each other, as if it were the only grounds for safety and security. I think that’s a mistake. It might even be crazy.

One of my favourite book titles is Lingis’s The Community of Those Who Have Nothing in Common. Emmanuel Levinas also says that roots of blood and culture are not so definitive, as “man is not a tree and humanity is not a forest”. But how can we recognise that community, that humanity, if our own beliefs and commitments blind us so?

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