Anti-Philosophy

After all, he seems to have a lot to say about what can’t be said.”  Bertrand Russell.

Ludwig Wittgenstein came from a  very wealthy family of Vienna, in the time before WW I, a family of musicians, professors, and  suicides. He went to the same grammar school as Adolf Hitler.  His sister was painted by Gustav Klimt, and helped Sigmund Freud escape the Nazis.  He fought in WWI, reading Tolstoy’s Gospel in Brief, while voluntarily manning the point, the most dangerous position, on the front.  Beethoven was his hero.  He was precocious in math, and obsessed by logic.

He would scrutinize his own thinking to find the hidden assumptions that underlie all thinking and the subtle ways that logic fails to be logical.  He would puzzle over the use of  words in speech – what is subconscious to most of us –  and search for  hidden patterns.  He wanted to know how we know, what we know, what can be known.

“Sometimes my ideas come so quickly that I feel as if my pen is being guided.

He was perplexed by the riddles of self reference in logic, the great stumbling block in Bertrand Russell’s attempt, in Principia Mathematica, to derive all knowledge from first principles of logic. Is the set of all sets that don’t include themselves, also a set?

He became anti-philosophical, convinced that philosophical questions were merely linguistic puzzles, and that language, with all of its mixing up of perceptions and conceptions,  hopelessly impaired thought. Truth can only be known by experience, not with thinking, and only shown, with art perhaps, but not with words. Thought and speech are mere ‘social games’ for living a social human life. . . something, sadly, he himself was not much able to do.

“Whereof one can not speak, thereof one must remain silent”.

With his spooky certitude, and mesmerizing stare, he was considered brilliant. For a time, he was thought to have eclipsed all of conventional philosophy.  He was lionized.

John Maynard Keynes:  “I have met God, he arrived on the 4:30 train.”

He lived an eccentric, solitary life, much of his time in a remote cabin in Norway. At one point he gave away all of his enormous wealth, and lived thereafter in near poverty.  He feared going mad, that he might commit suicide. Three brothers did.

He suffered a constant solipsism, an oppressive self consciousness,  haunted by a loss of self connection.  Is my thinking about myself also my self?

He was a disorder of self reference, like the paradoxes of logic that so obsessed him.

Insanity and genius are not the same thing.

“He has penetrated deep into mystical ways of thought and feeling, but I think (though he wouldn’t agree) that what he likes best in mysticism is its power to make him stop thinking.”  Bertrand Russell.

Peace in thinking is the wished-for aim of those who philosophize.”

He was trying to think himself out of thinking too much. He didn’t succeed.

I am a Ghost

 

I don’t really know what the interior of anybody else is like – I often feel very fragmented, and as if I have a symphony of different voices, and voice overs, and factoids, going on all the time, and digressions on digressions…”  David Foster Wallace

David Foster Wallace was always Meta-thinking – thinking about thinking.  He could be insightful, and engaging, and interesting, but get lost in recursions and riddles of semantics, and in puzzles of grammar.

He lived inside his head.

He would talk about the “special sort of buzz” logical thinking could give him.

a gorgeously simple solution to a problem you suddenly see, after half a notebook with gnarly attempted solutions, you about hear a . . .click“.

Boredom was terrifying.  He suffered severe writer’s block. There was this constant, oppressive feeling of something not feeling right, that he wasn’t really, somehow. . . him.  He felt a menacing sense of disconnection with himself.

Being a person was like being a ghost.

Substance use gave him great relief, it helped him feel whole.  He became addicted with a natural ease.

At a Kenyon College commencement, speaking to an audience of avid readers and writers, he tried to warn them about the dangers of the mental life:  be careful! mentation isn’t all it is cracked up to be! you can be a fish swimming in water, and not know what water is.  Stay grounded in simple truths, he said, somehow they are really true.

The word despair is overused and banalized now but it’s a serious word, and I’m using it seriously.  It’s close to what people call dread or angst, but it’s not these things, quite it’s more like wanting to die in order to escape the unbearable sadness of knowing I’m small and selfish and going, without a doubt, to die.  It’s wanting to jump overboard.”

Julian Jaynes famously noted that the mind of Achilles, in the Iliad – a mind solely and completely in the present – is very different from the mind of Odysseus, in the Odyssey – a mind scheming to manipulate appearance and orchestrate the future. Sometime in antiquity, between the Iliad and the Odyssey, Jaynes thought, the human mind had changed.  Perhaps it was the advent of writing, and the emergence of the reading mind.  Reading ignites the imagination.

With people like David Foster Wallace, reading can take the imagination too far.

With endless digressions, and foot notes to foot notes, the writing of David Foster Wallace is more a psychiatric exposition than it is literature.  He conveys for us his lost, unmoored, and painful experience of being. That is his sad contribution.

He waited two more days for an opportunity.  In the early evening on Friday, September 12, Wallace suggested that his wife go out to prepare for an opening…After she left, he went into the garage and turned on the lights.  He wrote her a two page note.  Then he crossed through the house to the patio, where he climbed onto a chair and hanged himself.”

Coastal Journey

Our solar system is not a perfect clock. There have been 16 ice ages in the past million years.

“Small variations in the tilt of the Earth on its axis and variations in the planet’s elliptical path around the sun are all that is necessary to plunge the planet in and out of the freezer. ”   Tim Flannery.

Some 120,000 years ago, modern humans migrated out of Africa, and we kept going, first into the middle east, then on to southeast Asia, with a detour down into Australia, then up the eastern Pacific to the Bering Strait,  and finally into North America.  By 15,000 year ago, we reached the tip of South America.

We evolved in Africa, from a hairy, tree climbing, social primate ancestor.  Somehow, over time, we lost most of our hair, gained a lining of body fat, developed upright walking, a descended larynx that enabled speech, special sweat glands for  thermal regulation, and a diving reflex for swimming.  We became like sea mammals,  more suited for water than the forest or savannah.  Dolphins are our close cousins in intelligence and communication, the whale is the only other mammal to have menopause.  Where and when this happened is a mystery. The Afar Triangle of northeast Africa, on the way out of Africa, may have been a vast, flooded wetlands.  We may have had to swim our way out of Africa.

We followed the coastlines, along the beaches and up rivers, as sea gatherers and fishermen.  Food was plentiful, rich in value, and easy to harvest.  The travel and protection were easier.  We love the beach to this day.

Our journey was during a perilous geologic time.  A warming earth was melting ice, rising sea levels, lifting and shifting tectonic plates,  causing earthquakes and volcanoes. Released by the loss of the weight of the great ice sheets as they melted, continental plates heaved up, and the moon pulled stronger on the increasing tidal waters.  The Pacific tectonic plate, being the largest and the thinnest – only 2.5 miles thick –  moved and cracked the most, aggravating the ‘ring of fire’ of volcanoes, earthquakes, and tsunami’s that pound all the coasts of the Pacific Ocean.

As modern humans arrived along the South East Asian coast, some 70,000 years ago, the shallow, continental Pacific Sundra shelf  waters were flooding, and a great volcano –  perhaps the greatest ever volcano – Toba – in Indonesia on the island of Sumatra, erupted.  The massive blast of volcanic dust blackened the sky, creating a volcanic winter and  mass extinction.  Human life all the way  back to northern Africa was nearly extinguished.

The surviving humans were pushed inland and north, and eventually into the New World.  Floods, tidal waves, receding waters, and exploding volcanoes filled their prehistoric consciousness.  This has carried on to our day, in the creation stories of the world, told by their descendants.

The myths are not myths, they are history.

In the beginning the world was in water, and there was darkness.  And then light came to the sky, and then the sun appeared and separated the earth from the sky.

 

Whiplashed

Timing is in the brain, it is basic to how it works. Neurons prolong instantaneous stimuli, sending them down axon nerve wires, and releasing them at synapse nodes, in variable lengths requiring variable time, on to other axon network circuits.  In this way, the brain creates temporal patterns out of instant sounds, and that is music. The brain is a musical instrument. It is a time machine.

And it can synchronize.  The brain can do rhythm.  And on top of rhythm, dancing with it, like ideas that play with words, the brain can do melody.  Patterns on top of patterns create a live, unified, dynamic experience, like being alive itself.  Body and mind, thought and feeling, rhythm and melody.

Jazz lives on the edge. . . having both rhythm and melody, and having neither.  We like to go into, and out of, and back into, timing, and structure, and point/ counter point.  That is what our lives do, and that is what our neurons do, and that is what we like our art to do.  We seek order and we seek improvisation.  Rhythm paces melody, and melody challenges rhythm. They swing apart, and back together, like partners on the floor. Catharsis and synthesis.  It feels good. We play music and music plays us.

In the movie Whiplash, an elite music school teacher has a very skilled, musical ear.  He has been thru the  scores countless times, with countless students.  He knows their ranges, he is primed to hear their mistakes.  “This makes him a good teacher.”  Don’t believe it. It gives him power, and he uses it.  He uses it to humiliate them, to prey on their vulnerabilities.  He makes them feel that their failures are their fault. A bully with relish.

I HURT YOU FOR YOUR OWN GOOD, AND YOU DON”T EVEN DESERVE IT!

He enjoys it.  And he is good at it.  Kind and considerate, in just the right doses, he keeps everyone uncertain.  Good people are willing to doubt themselves.

A skilled liar, he announces that a  former student, (a former victim), one who had eventually found musical success, has died.  Misty-eyed, our teacher tells his class that it was an accident. He knows it was a suicide.

One student drummer, however, is very determined. He doesn’t just want to be good, he wants to be the best.  Go around obstacles.  If necessary, plow thru them.  He becomes a targeted victim, but he doesn’t relent, he runs the gauntlet.  He does what you have to do with the likes of this teacher, fight back.  His sympathetic father sort of wants him surrender, but he refuses.

People like this teacher are everywhere,  . . . in sports, education, business, politics.  And they often get far.  Good people will defer, they won’t  fight, they dont want to judge.  People like him somehow know that.

They have to be opposed.

Our drummer does it, in the end, with a  unrelenting, exillarating, commanding, and triumphant crescendo of rhythm and drumming. . . and justice.

Heaven and Earth

Newton’s first law of motion: an object is either at rest or moves at a constant velocity, unless acted on by an external force.

There is no escaping this law. It is true on earth, and it is true in space.  George Clooney, in the movie Gravity, knows this, as he unhooks his tether with Sandra Bullock, to give her a chance to survive.  With no hope for himself,  he drifts off, above the beautiful, blue-green earth.  He implores her to survive, and we last hear him calling out, in astonished awe, at his view of the sunrise on the Ganges River.  He is the first man to go to heaven. . . still alive.

In the magical beauty of the earth’s orbit, in the great, pervasive mystery of space, Sandra Bulloch is alone, in terror.  Death could come so quickly, so indifferently, as it has for her companions.  Her anxiety is a storm.  Life and rescue are still possible, her destiny is all up to her.  She will have to save herself.  She grabs onto any hold she can.

All the while, the earth is just there, in all its splendor, the place where everything has happened, and where everyone has lived and died.  There are no signs, up there, of all the human trouble and misery, down there, just an aura of innocence and peace, as if humans never were.

This silent majesty is strangely comforting.  The earth and the stars are right there, and they have the answers.  A great. . . truth. . . is out there.  Lifeless space, the living earth, the mystery of time.  One senses that there is a knowing presence, filling the emptiness.  It is so close, and yet out of reach.  What, really, is this earth doing here?  What, really, is gravity?

This story has biology, too, a man, a woman, and a child. The man sacrifices himself for her, men do that, and she grieves, terribly, for her child, who has died down on earth, sometime ago.  Does she blame herself?  A mother would.  She has suffered love, a force we can’t see, a force that makes humans care more about others than they do about themselves.  It is an attractive force, but it’s not like gravity, it is not inversely proportional to distance.  Loved ones feel part of each other, across space and time.

In this unending, eternal present, why do humans suffer?  The past and the future concern them, and bother them. It is life that feels and suffers the hopes of time.

Like the first sea creature that was able to get on to land, eons ago, she gets back on to earth, to solid ground, back from death and heaven.

Existentialism: “the unfathomable universe and the plight of the individual who must assume ultimate responsibility for acts of free will without any certain knowledge of what is right or wrong or good or bad, a free agent in a deterministic, disorienting, and seemingly meaningless universe.”

Immortal

In 1800, Daniel Steibelt, a celebrated European virtuoso, came to Vienna to duel Beethoven in an ‘improvisation contest’.  With great pomp, in the first round, he won.   Beethoven was not much interested in trying to impress aristocrats.  For the second round, Steibelt was puffed up enough to use Beethoven’s own music in his challenge.  This was a. . . mistake.  Incensed, Beethoven snatched up Steibelt’s own music sheet, marched to the piano, turned the music upside down, went on to mock Steibelt’s ostentatious style, and then transform Steibelt’s  music into a dazzling composition.  Steibelt stormed out, refused ever to oppose Beethoven again, and eventually exiled himself to St. Petersburg, . . . for the rest of his life!

Such was the great Beethoven.  He came to realize that he had achieved absolute musical mastery.  He knew that he could do . . all that can possibly be done . . with music.  Only a master genius can know what that is like, to have no peers, and no hope of being fully realized, in your own lifetime.

In 1802, in his ‘Heiligenstadt‘ Will and Testament, found only after his death, Beethoven resolved his loneliness and melancholy, and dedicated himself to music.

Little was lacking to make me put an end to my life.  Only art held me back, it seemed to me impossible to leave the world before I had brought forth all that I felt destined to bring forth

And so ‘bring forth’ great music he did, for the rest of his life, taking long walks, writing down the music as it would came to him, in ever present notebooks, absent minded, stubborn, and eccentric.

His music is his autobiography.  Hear the pain, in the Moonlight Sonata. The love of his life told him no. Feel the anguish in Pathetique.  He realizes he is going deaf.  The notes in these pieces are as much like words as any sounds can be, . . .the language of a human soul.

The true artist has no pride.  He sees unfortunately that art has no limits.  He has a vague awareness of how far he is from reaching his goal; and while others may perhaps admire him, he laments that he has not yet reached the point to which his genius only lights the way for him like a distant sun.”

On May 7, 1824, perhaps the greatest day in the history of music, at the Karntnertor Theatre, in Vienna, he performed his last symphony, unaware, in his deafness, that he had raptured the audience and brought down the house.  In its beginning, this symphony is thunderous, and startling, then it is combative and retreating, then accepting and aching, and then, like his life, transcendent in catharsis and joy, culminating in a . . . song,  a song with an sweet, resonating melody that anyone and everyone can keep in their heads, and sing, . . .forever.  On that night, in that theatre, Beethoven gave the everyday world, crafted with the greatest possible musical genius of any human composer, a magnificent and yet wonderfully simple, everyday, popular song.  And we have been writing and singing popular songs since.

American Hamlet

He was just a sickly kid who loved heroes” –  Jackie Kennedy, with Theodore White, 1964.

He had a “rigid and physically distant mother”, and a domineering and demanding father – “We want winners, we don’t want losers around here.”  Jack Kennedy, Barabara Leaming, pg. 61, 2006.

Joseph P. Kennedy, in 1962, was worth of $500,000,000.  The Kennedy’s were not just rich . . . they were super-rich.

It is so natural for the wealthy to be self-centered.  They are more valuable. They do have more to lose.

John F. Kennedy was witty, engaging, charming, a war veteran, and hero.  He was famous from the start, his entire life stage-managed by his father. And he was haunted by losses – his older brother, his favorite sister, war comrades, and his own health.  He was very uncomfortable with emotional intimacy.

I once asked him why he was doing it, why he was acting like his father, why he was avoiding real relationships, why he was taking a chance on a scandal at the same time he was trying to make his career take off.  “I don’t know, really.  I guess I just can’t help it”.  He had this sad expression on his face.  He looked like a little boy about to cry.”  Dallek,  An Unfinished Life, pg. 152.

Kennedy had a sense of history, but he also had an administrative technique that made the gathering of history extremely difficult.  He hated organized meetings of the Cabinet or the National Security Council, and therefore he chose to decide policy after private meetings, usually with a single person.”  James Reston, November 22, 1963.

That single person was almost always his brother.  In the Berlin crisis, the Bay of Pigs, the Cuban Missile crisis, and Vietnam, he was a tentative, secretive, reluctant leader.

During his meetings with Kennedy he [Eisenhower] took pains to urge the President-elect to keep the structure [a fail-safe, layered group of informed advisors] in place. . . Kennedy nodded and smiled, but it wasn’t his way and he had no intention of doing it.”  Bret Baier, Three days in January

And the stakes were getting very high. The window of ‘opportunity’ for a ‘successful’ nuclear first strike against the Soviet Union would close. . . in November of 1963.

Mr President, you certainly can’t say that Dallas doesn’t love you!” . . . And then the plaza rang with the first gunshot. . . The first bullet tore through Kennedy’s throat, and his arms went up as if to block himself from further injury.  His wife turned to him, and just as she did, another bullet shattered his head. . . .She remembered the strange elegance of his demeanor.  “His expression was so neat: he had his hand out, I could see a piece of his skull coming off; it was flesh-colored not white.  He was holding out his hand – and I can see this perfectly clean piece detaching itself from this head. . .He had such a wonderful expression on his face.  You know that wonderful expression he had when they’d ask him a question about one of the ten million gadgets they’d have in a rocket?  Just before he’d answer, he’d look puzzled; . . .and then he slumped forward.”  Jackie Kennedy, Four days in Dallas, Bugliosis, 2009.

 

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Welcome

May you live in interesting times.”

We do.

There is the power to inform,

And the power to misinform.

We must think. . . . and

Think again

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