Ethics? Where?!? & Why Should We Care?
What is Ethics, What is Thought, and Who Do We Think We Are?
Welcome to Ethics, where we learn about how all-too-human humanity is, and hope humanity remains humane. We will talk first about what thought is, and then what ethics is. I’m Eric Gerlach, or someone who resembles him so closely, you can trust me on this. Not anybody else, just each of you, me, and me.
we will discuss ethics, all the reasons you haven’t done anything wrong, why it was like that when you got here, and how to avoid things in the future, like library fines. I teach philosophy, which clearly does humanity a lot of good, like sarcasm, and ethics is the branch of philosophy which tells us how to argue we shouldn’t do what most of us don’t want to, or don’t want done to ourselves, which we do, don’t, or want, often without arguing first. As Ambrose Bierce, contemporary of Mark Twain, defined it in his Devil’s Dictionary, Christianity is a religion well-suited to the needs of our neighbor, possibly south of the border. He also defined the self-centered as people with poor taste, more interested in themselves, than in me!
Bodhidharma, who some say carried Zen from India to China, said the tallest thing in the universe is the self, but the largest thing, no taller but walking just as tall, is the mind. In Zen, all is mind, never-changing, and whatever else wanders in. Perhaps for some of us, possibly Bodhidharma, I don’t know and he didn’t choose to, the mind is as tall as the self, but far wider, possibly widest if all is mind, and that is worth re-minding. I grew up in the 80s, and when we encounter egos in others, Christians, Bay-Aryan Buddhists, or the 80s, there is always something there to remind us, yes? No? I’ll show myself out. It makes minding all this a Sisyphean slog, but rolling a rock up hill gathers gains and builds character, one of us at a time.
Wittgenstein, my favorite modern philosopher, said we can’t teach ethics, but I’m getting paid, and you’re getting credit, or something out of the bargain, so we’re all going to go through the motions anyways. Like French postmodern philosophers and others who use words, Wittgenstein was speaking rhetorically, saying something somewhat true we often miss as if it’s fully true to make it stand out. Wittgenstein also said you can’t command someone to understand ancient Greek, but you can command them to go learn ancient Greek and come back, hopefully with some understanding between us. We could torture people for not speaking Greek immediately, but the rest of the Spanish Inquisition will think we’re weird and won’t sit with us at lunch.
Why can’t I teach you ethics right now, even if you get credit for your work at the end? Many things take time, like you with your work, whether or not we have the right rules or rulers. No one can teach us to care if we shake our heads hard enough, but we can put ourselves in a position to care over time, using our words, diagrams or an elaborate system of pulleys. Wittgenstein thought philosophy, thinking about thinking, talking out how we talk things out or don’t, improves us ethically, much as Epicurus said we can’t live well without wisdom, but both thought for many there is no try, like Yoda is there says, or know how to try, so they don’t grow, which lets me earn a paycheck with as clear a conscience as can be afforded.
Thankfully, some of us are already somewhat ethical, as our parents or guarded legalities didn’t pat us one too many or too few times on the head and ruin everything. We’re not starting from scratch, here, nor have we. It’s possible most of you are sociopaths, though the odds aren’t great, for me or you sociopaths. Most of us are not like the lizard people who secretly rule New Zealand, who don’t care if dogs love them, the pathological monsters! Most of us rise to the highly-prized level of common narcissists, monsters who don’t kick dogs so dogs will love them, which is all the dumb dog’s problem, as they can’t get a word in. I personally enjoy what some psychologists call self-aware narcissism, though who are they, or any of humanity, to tell me anything about my personal private problems that don’t involve psychologists or my non-existent children?
For most of us, pride is a serious pack of lions, and caring about caring is sharing. Heraclitus, my favorite Greek philosopher, said we are all apes to the gods, pride is the human disease, and dogs bark at everyone they don’t know. Thankfully, like Heraclitus, we are mortal, and in the meantime, between things, some of us gain glimpses of self-awareness, what everyone else calls the obvious, in our own individual case. Perhaps there is perfection beyond human pride and lives, but death, like that scary guy in Happy Gilmore, is waiting for each of us in the parking lot, and we only have some time to see what takes time for each to see.
Hume, my favorite Scottish philosopher, the only Scottish philosopher I know, said you can’t get an ought from an is. If we agree what is is (we usually don’t), that doesn’t mean we agree what we should do with is, or what our neighbor needs to take more seriously. I teach philosophy, logic and ethics, and while philosophy and logic classes focus on epistemology, a fancy, finely marbled, garbled and gabled, multiple syl-ab-eled word that means how we figure out what is, ethics focuses on ought, so we will talk out what is a bit, but mostly oughts and shoulds, whether or not we should talk out is or apples, let alone politics or labor practices.
One of the main divides in debates about what is and should be both, in the wisdom, philosophy and ethical speculations we find in many cultures is what ancient Greek skeptics called dogmatism and skepticism, but I don’t believe them. I am skeptical myself, and a bit of a cynic, a quarter Scottish, and not nearly as humorous, which could be the coffee, and our species hasn’t learned how to use all ‘o science since Sumerian city states to throw sandwiches down from high-rises to all the starving children yet, not in Glasgow nor anywhere else in the Empire, which has been decently Christian, white and scientific so far, all around the world, in fact.
I am also half German, though it isn’t my better half, uber all. In the last century, the Germans, like the French, much more-so than the Anglophonics, which is most of the finest barbershop quartet yet, sing that science, religion, politics, and anything worse, like passing art movements, may have helped humanity with objective Truth, which is capital, but nobody subjective knows anybody objective they trust entirely, unlike Truth itself, always nearby, but in the next neighborhood over. We mortals have thought, which may be true, whether or not we find or feel it reasonable.
It isn’t clear where words come from. Tristan Tzara said the secret is truth is made in the mouth, and he still considers himself, and us, quite charming, though he is now dead, so no longer an artist, nor a liar, but farewell him for we shall use no art. Do you know any objective, rational people, after all of this science, civilization and literature since Sumer, personally? I saw a bumper sticker once as a kid that read, We’re objective, depending on your military objectives. That seems Sumerian enough of a memory to me.
My modern family has German psychologists, which is a confusing hereditary condition. Germans tried ancient religions, modern sciences, even art, on occasion, and after all that they tried politics, which didn’t work. Between the Scots and the Krauts, I try to be the cynical Sour-Krautes, point out the huge manatee at large, and how the sausage is made. Sadly, sometimes it’s speedboats in Florida.
Dogmatism can be converted into as many syllables as objectivity, the belief that something, anything, religion, science, politics, art, is true in all times and places, absolutely, and skepticism can be similarly re-worded as subjectivity, the belief that something is true in some times and some places, by perspective. We also use the words black and white, sadly, to mean all or none, what we take to be, objectively, and shades of grey, or more golden for Dorothy, many colors of the rainbow, to mean some and some, with subjective perspective.
I myself go back and forth between impressions of ranking officers and cosmic hippies to give dogmatism and skepticism voices, the larger industrial complex of my life. If I think of dogmatism, I think a few good men need me on that wall or else You weakened a country today, soldier! When I think of skepticism, I think Culture is the cult, man! with Terrence McKenna, if he’s still around somewhere, or Mel Brooks’ Roman legionnaire, who tells us, We got to let the coolness get into our vertebrae, rather than, Close the gate! We haven’t seen anything like these in politics lately, not since imaginary Roman times.
Do all-or-none certainties free us, and form a base that helps us move to stand for good? Or do they bind us, blind us, wall us in and force us to do evil? Do shades of grey, degrees of certainty, many choices by degree, even in this job market, free us, or do they fool us, and allow us and others to slouch towards more of the same? It could be all this simply continues, each of these things and all of them together, as much of what we call meaning, and life, and ethical experts continue to debate their library fines.
Let’s say you keep meeting your enthusiastic supporters, who are often more vocal than librarians. That doesn’t mean you’re getting 99% or 1% of the vote either way, absolutely, because 1% is several million people. Let’s say we help all the Nazis, in the 30s, or even worse, Puerto Ricans today. Even if we kill a few thousand here or there, micro-Hitlering while multitasking, that may not make us right about anything, no matter how much it’s supported. If it isn’t enthusiastic support, perhaps it’s ideal, abstract morals, without bias? Perhaps the few, or the masses, are off and evil, but the masses, or the few, follow rules, and these rules lead the few, or the masses, to be good?
We would like to know what the rules are and rulers would be who support us rather than hold us back, but we remember the other, some pile of chumps, on the other side of the aisle or borderline, who believe in the wrong religion, or nation, or scientific theory, and they are all immoral and irrational however they are opposed to us, untrustworthy, not worthy of enduring trust, not following the right feelings, words and people, or they follow emotions, texts and authorities blindly, whichever fits my point presently, both ways, sometimes in the same sentence, but almost certainly in the same paragraph. Do these same systems change us, or do we remain the same? How much has religion, science or politics improved the enemy, or ourselves? Should we turn to art, or find something more profitable?
If we hate any of this, we can call it incoherence in our enemies, and if we love it, we can say it’s covering our bases with critical thinking, alongside our allies. As Husselbeck wrote, friend of Tzara, dialectics, fancy Greco-German critical thinking, so you know it’s critical and undividedly self-aware, is the fine art of glancing at our opponent’s position before crowning ourselves the victor. Critical thinking covers all the bases, but we people with human error unto us are hardly objective nor rational, as we don’t entirely follow, nor follow rules, and our most brilliant moments are finding incoherence and hypocrisy in our own thinking, or the thinking that has been there the whole time, most often in the thinking of others.
Unless you know a fact or a theory that is fixed in all time and space with absolute certainty and no other possible worlds, perspectives or positions apart from this, then facts and theories are solid and fixed, but also fluid and flexible, as if they are us and our agreements, and not the tree talking to itself when we aren’t around about it’s further fall. This is one of the ways we constantly accuse someone else of playing the problem while we are the solution, the unfixed who can’t move like we can, the stubborn who can’t establish what we see so plainly, right as rain, sensed with the eyes in front of the face, as if only we have eyes in the front of the face, as well as all around the head.
In this class, we will study the history, eyes and ideas of Egyptian, Babylonian, Indian, Greek, Chinese, French, German, British and American ethics, focused on how cultures express ethics as objective or subjective, as collective and personal, with some Wittgenstein, though he is Austrian, somewhat German, and was confused like myself, as the Germans weren’t great at politics, as previously stated and only recently attempted. Perhaps now it’s on proper stationary. Ancient dogmatic philosophers often speaks of truth as a solid, and skeptics of truth as fluid. Wittgenstein said truth toady is like a gas, fully present until we twist the wrong valve, and then gone with the wind and on fire like Confederate money. Objectivity is an elaborate system of mirrors it seems no one can afford, whether or not they have the cash.
I have had many students raise their single hand collectively and ask, Can’t we believe in both objectivity and subjectivity? I patronizingly tell them, FOOLS! Since the 50s and 60s, full adult human beings, with all of their rights, have been free to interact with things and some others at lunch counters as if all things are both subjective and objective, Jimmy, in strange, changing and interactive ways. We can look at many things in our all-too-human reality like the optical illusion of the duck-rabbit, with a face on one side of the head like a duck, and another on the other like a rabbit. We can get it Mary Poppin’, children, and pop back and forth, looking at it both ways, and then look at it as something we can see both ways, which is confusing, like staring at the optical illusion after we know what it is, and continues to be. This allows more possibilities and a choice, which is all we call rational action in nicer words. Zizek made the ingenious observation we can stare at a finger and close either eye, watching it jump back and forth, so when we open both eyes, we know what we see is more than one thing, overlapping.
If children in one village are shown what they are told is a picture of the head of a duck, and in another the same as the head of a rabbit, whether or not we should show either thing to children, Wittgenstein said it is possible both villages could look through a picture book, see the same head on the body of a duck as a duck, turn the page, see the head on the body of a rabbit as a rabbit, and no one of either village knows they have seen the same head twice, in different positions, a strange sort of unconscious agreement in full daylight, as both first see a duck, and then see a rabbit, and could then see the head again in completely opposite ways, which is how they were both raised. Let that sink into your head, no matter what you feed it or your children.
All of us use answers, questions, dogmatism and skepticism, like stubborn conservative traitors and cowardly liberal terrorists, to engage in dogmatic and skeptical practices, trusting and distrusting each other and all incarnated authorities. I am of a very libertine persuasion, though I could be persuaded otherwise. As Groucho Marx said, I have my principles, and if you don’t like ‘em, well, I have others, and all these clubs have jerks like me as members. Even I know that most would find it reasonable to immediately exclude a sex-offender from a list of babysitters, and I don’t even have kids yet! I’m that empathetic! It’s almost empathic, like psychically paying attention to faces!
It’s hard to argue for the offender, but Wittgenstein said it’s hard to argue we don’t have two hands, or argue that G.E. Moore has two hands, which we don’t practice arguing and Moore isn’t using anymore, but it’s not logically impossible it’s all a hologram, just like it’s not impossible to use Moore’s hands, with an elaborate system of pulleys. It’s just anti-social of us. Wittgenstein said we should always leave the back window ajar in our thought experiments, so we can imagine ridiculous situations where parents line up for the latest restrained sex-offenders if they continued to work like a magical charm with the proper authorities in place, rather than those we have now, or have ever had. We do know how to redirect and network instincts with cultures well, and are well into all of that.
They, and you know what they say, can continue to work out the reasoning we say is behind it but isn’t fully here yet, and we hope the reasoning is in Godot’s lap, riding sidecar to Grandma, and will be coming ‘round the mountain any minute now. That, in a nutshell, is the history of all-too-human authority and anything else that works for some of the people some of the time, any pile of people larger than we can personally know or throw far that is also a word we share. I have found all walks of life can agree to this, and more, and less, and yet, several thousand years ago in the Rg Veda, the oldest and central holy text of the Hindus, we can read in the dim past, in the dim present, All creatures on Earth run around trying to Be, not realizing they already are.
It is excellent, and ethical advice for us, and more of why you can’t teach this stuff, nor need to. My students keep saying, this ancient Chinese or Indian or Greek philosophy is perfect for modern Americans, and ourselves! I reply that they shouldn’t speak in such confusing sentences, nor all together at once, as it’s hard for me to think, and it clearly shows us ancient Chinese city-folk were entirely unlike our countryside. Chinese philosophers had their prejudices, much as we have ours today, between city and country, where men can’t dare on in ease, but where people think about people who think, there’s several things said worth repeating. Confucius says, some bumpkin asked me a question and my mind went blank, but I thought about it for awhile and eventually came up with something.
From the skeptical and pragmatic side, the point is to help us be fruitful as we journey, not certain of the destination, though we all pick our passions and poisons, and Buddha said a jug fills drop by drop, forming a thick chord, or band. Buddha and Wittgenstein share a common thread that can be found throughout their thinking, much as Confucius said the common thread in his thinking is compassion. Rather than look at a thing as based in one other thing, such as Confucian compassion, looking for the single element as inner essence, what Wittgenstein called the lure of the secret cellar, we can see each thing as several other things interacting and interweaving, what Buddha called Codependent Arising, like a Tom Clancy novel about therapists taking over a submarine.
So, what is thought, philosophy, or ethics? Several things. Thought, itself, is several things, and this is a central point, one worth repeating to dogmatic and skeptical thinkers who try to base thought in one element, such as words, or logic, or emotions, or morals. Many say that there are rules, or true feelings, as opposed to what they hate. When a monk asked what the true meaning of Buddhism is, Joshu said, Is there anything else you don’t like? How about a mixed salad? Thought interweaves perception, emotion, imagination, and verbalization, what we sense, what we feel, what we think, and what we say, all together as thought. It could be anything else, but much we think and interweave as our thoughts is several of these four, not one of them. To have ethics, we at least need feelings about things, and hopefully people.
Confucius said that if someone speaks well, it doesn’t matter if they’re terrible overall. Is it the objects that surround us that make us ethical? What if our feelings are in the right place? What if we think of something good to do? What if we say the right words, with the right feelings, with the right thoughts in place, while using our eyes and ears? None of that may turn out right, but nothing turns out right that isn’t some interconnection of those, so there is certainly better and worse, here and there, but there may be no rules in words overall, no good things we always think, no feelings that guarantee success, and no objects that hold us close, other than the snugly. It remains to be seen if the snugly is properly ordered.
Many abuse the words logical and rational today who can afford to, and command audience, just like using moral or legal to get away with anything. If anyone tells you that some of us are rational and logical, when we are wonderful and terrible with everything, remember we’re the only place we find thoughts and words we ever like, and we find thoughts and words that seem logical and grammatical we do and don’t like throughout all our common history. You may have been slightly misled, and still have major trust issues, as we all do, unlike New Zealanders. Remember: They are reptiles, and don’t see us, feel for us, or think of us as we do, so don’t listen to their lies.
If thought doesn’t follow talked-out worded rules entirely, does that mean we are all equally illogical? If we don’t always follow faithful feelings, or feel for the rules rather than others, does that make us equally unethical? Clearly not, as we all feel there is better and worse, in ourselves and others. As such, in ethics, it is best, if we can’t entirely teach it, to show ourselves how and why we thought this and that way in the past, as we reason, feel and occasionally argue about what we should feel, think, say and do.
What is Thought? & What Isn’t?
What is thought? Is thought logical? Should thought follow rules, and what rules thoughts so thoughts follow these rules, get in line together, or don’t? Do thoughts rule thoughts? That’s somewhat circular. Do feelings rule thoughts? Are there secret, unthought thoughts, or deeper, unfelt feelings for Freud? Does thought order itself, or order itself to do things, or do we simply feel how things ought to be and start talking? There are many experts and not-so-experts who have thought and said things about thought, life, and saying things, in many ancient and modern schools of thought, and we can’t say everything there is to say about thought, just as we can’t say everything there is to say about anything, not apples nor labor practices, but we can repeat things that others have said, and say things that help us understand thought and show us how we think all day, whether or not we want to.
My favorite modern philosopher, one of the latest, greatest people who thought about thinking and said things about saying things we keep repeating was Wittgenstein, (pronounced, Vick-gen-zshtine as often as possible) who was born in Vienna to one of the world’s wealthiest families so far, argued there is a pure mathematical logic at Cambridge, fled to Norway, taught German children, returned to Cambridge, and argued there is no pure logic, no rule of the rules, but rather repeated situations we take part in, which are inside and outside of us as many things that weave together, much as Buddha taught thousands of years ago in Golden Age India. Both have been called, as Kalupahana puts it, pragmatists, and this seems as good of a handle on them and what I like all together as there is, if we have to paste labels.
With all that in mind, following Wittgenstein, Buddha and anybody else we like, we will talk about what thought is, how much of thought is talking, or logical, and whether or not thinking is logical or follows rules, rules in words, feelings, images or anything, a good frame for starting any philosophy, ethics or logic class, and a good way of introducing my skeptical and pragmatic take on Wittgenstein, which I learned at UC Berkeley, teach at Berkeley City College, and love talking about more than most things, including myself.
As a child, I was educated by a family and species that doesn’t have their act entirely together,, after all the religion, science and politics since Sumer. Perhaps art will save us, but hasn’t yet. Some people are told by white, educated men, like myself, that there is logic and reason, but only particular people have it. When asked what they have that illiterate Inuit do, don’t or didn’t, no one knows yet, not anthropology, psychology, nor any other scientific presence still in our lives and ears, and many don’t dare say since the 60s, not because they know how the Inuit are illogical or unaware of themselves and must stay silent, but have yet to discover how white people such as myself or science are particularly logical and self-aware, let alone aware of the Inuits, or what rules they or we follow in particular, particularly since Auschwitz (pronounced, Ow-Shoe-Wits, like you already know).
It would have been nice for the word genocide, or dystopian science fiction as far as the genre can see, to have happened earlier, but that wasn’t in the tea leaves. At present and at best, most educated Americans, the religious and irreligious alike, praise and orient their pride and identities on the increasing development and production of science, industry, technology or whatever we call it, calling it logical, having given up much on religion and almost entirely on politics for development, even though science was happy to go to war for and feed us as civilization everywhere, working for polytheism, monotheism, atheism, and America follows suit.
I don’t personally know anyone, of any religious or political persuasion, of any level of education, who is willing to wager they know whether or not technology, bows, arrows, counter-intelligence and everything since 50,000 years ago at least, will save us or kill us all, eliminating all the children, like some kind of cyborg that doesn’t stop, and if it doesn’t, won’t be back, nor Beethoven ever again. Whenever anybody tells me they have believed in science since they were four, which I am proud of myself, as my German great-grandfather, grandfather, and father have invested in the sciences with success, I ask them what more or less science will do for the water in Flint, Michigan, and the answer is blowing somewhere in the wind, as it isn’t in Michigan, nor in their mouths, as we turn our heads and say we don’t see, and Bob Dylan learns to sing for the very first time.
Just as man is the deadliest prey, statistically, human thought is the choicest of prizes when it comes to figuring everything out. There is figuring out the world, but there is also figuring out the mind that figures out the world. Butthead, in association with and nearby Beavis, once wisely observed, I don’t like stuff that sucks. Truer words have yet to be spoken. Know thyself, said Socrates, which comes close. Is it the stuff that sucks, or Butthead, and thus ourselves, who don’t like stuff? Does the world itself world, for Heidegger, modern Nazis and everybody else, or is truth in the eye of the beholder, for ourselves, Sappho and her island of ancient Lesbians?
We talk both ways, as if what we see is what is, and then is how we see it, and the most ancient of us did too, with all differences in feelings, convictions, beliefs and opinions between us, and yet anyone could understand what I am talking about, feeling this out, with some lost in translation. Wittgenstein says let’s see how we do all of that, in ways that do and don’t fit together, that we feel and don’t feel fit together, all together and not, which is why he also said we could do philosophy entirely in jokes. He didn’t say we should do philosophy entirely in bad jokes, but I say that, and unfortunately other things.
So, turning away from the subject, what is thought, itself? Many don’t stop and ask this question before thinking. At some point, none of us did. We just were thinking, weaving several things together in countless ways, such that by the time we could say the word think and mean it, rather than simply repeat the sound like a parrot, we are already thinking, and doing it. All this is fine, as much as it is for each of us, and we know thinking changes and develops, but how does it stay the same for us, all of us, since the beginning? I am not everyone, nor have I been for some time now, and when I was years ago, I was young and in love, but there are several things people do that they need to do to be people that we each weave together as we think all day long. Thinking does not need to be the same thing twice to be several things often.
First, there is perception, also known as sense, also known as experience, also known as seeing and doing anything with any awareness at all. We see things, hear things, feel things and can see, hear and feel ourselves and others see and do all of this, which is what we are watching and listening to as children, as we join in and learn to live as others live and do all the things we do. It is important for each of us to use good sense, as well as use our eyes and ears, all wise advice, unless you’re blind or deaf, in which case, my apologies, I have little sense to lend you, and I’ll need my eyes and ears back by Thursday. Don’t assume the audience sees or hears. Thinking uses sights and sounds, but it doesn’t need to use either. When we are deep in our heads, we often ignore all the sights and sounds around us for good lengths of time. I certainly did as a kid, and still do.
Sense brings several things such as seeing, touching, tasting and hearing apples to perceive the apple as an apple, all of it coming together as one thing in the hand, one thing or many in the mind, and later one word in the mouth, just as thinking brings senses about apples together with things other than senses and apples to think about apples. We can look at an apple, or look at the jerks we’re pretty sure took our apple, who know what they did, and think several things about it, in extension of and including the apple and jerks, to think about them, as if we are dancing about the visible apple and jerks, this way and that, whether or not it amuses the jerks or the apple. The thinking includes and extends what is seen with the eyes, heard with the ears, and felt in the bruises.
Second, there is emotion, also known as feelings, also known as everybody’s attitude problem other than mine, and I’ve got several, more than enough to share. Feelings could be in the fingers, or in the heat of the summer, but when we say feelings and mean emotions, we don’t mean feeling hot or feeling pain, which are somewhat more sensed as something there, as much as we mean feeling fear or happiness, which seems more here, in the mind, as our own motives. We don’t need to draw sharp boundaries between this and that feeling, nor between emotions, but we can watch someone feel a bowling ball and feel how smooth it feels, and we can watch someone smile and feel they feel happy, no matter how we feel about it, and learn what it is for ourselves to be happy or afraid from feeling inside and watching others we feel for outside of us.
Wittgenstein helpfully said we don’t watch our own hands to guess what we will do the way we watch others’ hands to predict what they will do. If somebody was on drugs in the late 60s, nowhere near us or our children today, or had some other kind of psychotic break, they could fear their hands are secretly out for blood, but this is thankfully rare. Similarly, we don’t watch our own faces to feel our own emotions, but we do watch the faces and hands of others, feel their emotions as feelings, and then feel feelings about their feelings, reflecting on them. Do you feel me, and can you dig it? Am I making sense, or do you rather feel what I feel, and thus sense and feel what I mean and intend? Are you using your senses, your feelings, or both, and which more than the other? Which do you feel, or sense I am, as you, but not? I am sometimes not myself, as Barbra Kruger reminded young women at makeup counters, and Franz Fanon people in colonies.
Third, there is imagination, also known as memory, also known as foresight or hindsight, and it isn’t simply eyes, sight or images, unlike my English word suggests, but weaves sights and sounds and other things sensed together, as something sensed but now absent, like perception in the apple, but not sensed as present. Like perception, imagination involves anything, bringing it back to us, in mind as we say, so we can see and hear the apple, consider it in the present, remember it as past or imagine it as possible in the future. We can imagine what it will feel like this summer, if we have felt summer before, or ever been warm and seen pictures, but it isn’t like the real thing. We can imagine the heat, the humidity, and discomfort in cargo shorts without engaging directly in cargo shorts. Like perception, and like thought, imagination weaves many things together, and we use it in countless ways, as long as we haven’t counted or sorted them them all, and we haven’t yet. I don’t know what your weekend looks like.
Is there an inner or outer here, with emotion or imagination? Some say emotions are on the inside, but they’ve never met my extended family. Sense is much out in the world, on the outside of our skin, but it isn’t entirely, and imagination and emotion are much in the head or heart, as we say, inside of us, in our minds when we’re deep in them, but imagination and emotion are not entirely inside us, but inside and outside of us, in many ways we use all day. The Charvakas of ancient India argued that everything you do not see or hear, that you imagine and don’t sense, is an illusion, so Paris, France is an illusion to most of us right now, and may have been already hit by a tornado, but not for the Parisians. Even the Parisians are seeing some of Paris, not all of it, not all sides of town, talking to everybody, so everybody, even the Parisians, often imagine a postcard picture, or something like it, depending on the view they can afford. The hallway outside your door is imaginary to me, but also you, right now, whether or not you are sitting in the park, or in a different hallway, depending on what is your door to you. I don’t have to know to talk to you this way, and mean it.
That’s just physical objects, like Paris, that don’t have feelings, unlike the Parisians. It’s sometimes easier for Anglophonic folks like myself and the Brits to imagine feelings in the French than feel them ourselves. The Aztecs could feel what’s in your heart, and Bataille called them the most honest civilization, but he was too weird for some of the Parisian Surrealists, so I don’t think we should trust him. He is dead, and can’t hurt us. Death, and/or taxes! We imagine emotions, feeling them and then feeling about them, watching and listening to others if that’s what your into, reading them, reading their faces, hands and body language long before we are literate, or were, since the beginning, all and each, but there is one more element, not sense, not imagination, not emotion, but something involving all of them which is needed for each of us to see a look at a face across the room, feel something somewhere inside, and put it together with imagination such that we can talk it out more or less with ourselves or with others, if that’s what you’re into: Words.
Words are heard, sometimes seen once we’re literate, beyond watching lips move, which is how we know a lawyer is lying, but never the law, which doesn’t have lips of its own. People don’t always enjoy cops or lawyers, and few enjoy a judge. Words are sensed as perceptions, we can learn to read lips, or offer testimony, and we can imagine words, learning to speak silently to ourselves as we learn to speak, and we feel them, and if they caused no feelings at all we would not think or want to, but words are something different, and we use them in thought a lot, and I am using them on you now, along with these images and my feelings, to cause you to imagine and feel, and then later go outside, see things and talk to yourself. Imagine ourselves as a young woman, which makes us ashamed, but isn’t our fault. I blame you people, and your overactive imaginations, not my disturbing words, as I remain a proper lady. Whether or not you interact with others about the world you share and watch what they do or feel about what they think is on you, pal, on each of us from the ground up.
We use words in ways we could use large images as maps, or long, strange sounds as plans, as some kind of soundtrack, could but don’t, but everybody, including myself, just drones on and on and on with words, as if any of you are listening properly to what I am building out, one sentence at a time. We use words to build out and structure what we think, more than large images, or small images, for such a visual creature, could create internal murals and search them with internal eyes to learn new things about our thinking, and what has developed, but don’t. There could be archetypal saint altars deep in our psyches, smaller images embedded and fleshed out, but we haven’t actually seen these, and there could be ways we secretly feel that we haven’t felt yet, and Freud never will, but he isn’t anymore, so I am projecting.
As far as hidden, unseen images, or repressed, unfelt feelings, or secret words so disturbing they can’t be heard, none of this needs to exist for us to be us, and we wouldn’t sense it if it did. Do we ignore our unfelt feelings, as a heart surgeon might ignore their whole family? Similarly, there could be rules in words, or feelings, or something, that we have not yet mentioned or can’t talk out with words or manage to feel entirely, but none of this needs to exist to do the things we do. Rather, there are the ways we use words, and images, feelings, sights, and sounds, and we can talk about all these ways this way and that, inside and outside together, in concert, without confusion, unless you’re drugs and it’s still the 60s.
As Leslie Nielsen said, Jane, Jane, Jane… That name will always remind me of her… If we never heard the word happy outside of us, would we know we are happy, or just feel it and clap our hands, as one feeling, or two, along with all the others, indiscriminately? We certainly couldn’t say, just as Gonzo of the Muppets once picked up the ringing phone, listened, and said, You don’t say! You don’t say! You don’t say! and when Kermit asked, Who was that? Gonzo simply said, They didn’t say.
We don’t name or pick out each shade of color in front of us, but we do see them, much as we can see all the leaves on a tree at once, but go through motions to count them, with the same brain, once we have words and practices of counting. If we did not have words or talking, we would not be able to talk about what we are doing, as part of what we do, interwoven. Unfortunately, in all cultures, people do talk about what we do, and we argue with them, but the divorce isn’t anyone’s fault. It’s the fault of the children, as it always is, because they grow into adults, and at no time are we told what feelings feel good entirely, or what words to say, or how to talk things out such that we say what logic, proper talking, or completely talking anything out is, or whether it follows what rules, in words, or proper feelings.
Immanuel Kant was someone who used many words, some Latin, and even more German, but if we hunted mammoths with him in the Ice Age, we would watch his face to read his emotions and thoughts to work with him, whether or not he would open his mouth outside and say words to us. Edgar Allan Poe’s detective Augustus Dupin, the model for later Sherlock Holmes, said you have to be both a poet and a mathematician to be brilliant, and even better-than-average card players know to read people, even their enemies they are working against, to feel if they feel happy, sad, tense or calm as they pick up a card. If we hunt mammoths with Kant, or even worse seek meaning in the words of his Critique of Pure Reason, we and our primitive, logical, emotive brains are likely reading Kant to see what he likes, what he doesn’t, what he thinks will change or should, and what he thinks is set and unchanging. That much would be much of the meaning, whether or not it’s in German, and whether or not we understand him.
So, in the interweaving of what we sense, what we feel, what we imagine and what we and others say, how do we begin to think of apples? Let’s work out the logic. How does a thought about an apple begin? When the Duck interrupts the Dodo in Wonderland and asks what the Archbishop found in finding it and several other things necessary, he helpfully offers that, to him, it is often a rock or a worm. Sometimes I think about an apple by seeing an apple, not often by tasting it first, but I could be blindfolded. Sometimes I think about an apple by hearing the word, or imagining an apple I want to eat. If someone said imagine an apple, I wouldn’t often see a rotting one, but that counts sometimes. If I say I am hungry, ask for an apple, and you bring me a rotten one, it depends on our circumstances whether or not you understood or did right by me, in ways we can feel and imagine easily. We don’t need to argue you should have used your imagination before or after your feelings, as all this is interwoven. If our thoughts about apples don’t always start as an image, word or object, how can there be a consistent logic to them?
In the end of Alice’s adventures, she sits between the childlike, timid White Queen and the overbearing, over-moralizing Red Queen, and is quizzed on her arithmetic, asked what remains when we take a bone away from a dog, and fails to come up with the answer: hunger, and then temper, which is quite the remainder, one sometimes ignored by mathematicians. Lewis Carroll knew the logic and work of John Stuart Mill, who argued that ever since we are children all we do with logic, reason and thought is gather and divide, as we do with our hands, learning to gather and divide like others for ourselves. Wittgenstein’s work parallels Wonderland in many wonderful ways, he referred to Carroll more than once, and all the thought experiments, fictions and games suggest that we weave words, imagination, feelings and our senses together, and this is what we do well or do poorly, and we do not see, hear or understand rules or rulers who explain anything more to us. Rather, we use our eyes and ears, hands, feelings, imagined visions and real objects all together, for and against others, as Nietzsche said we use Truth.
Wittgenstein, like Nietzsche, my family and other Germanics, were worried about their feelings, as sometimes their feelings didn’t feel like they fit. Poe spoke of four feelings, good, bad, tense and calm, which we watch for in card players, and could in Kant. Wittgenstein spoke of two often in his later work, the feeling things fit, and the feeling now I can go on. There seem to be four again, the feeling things fit, the feeling things don’t fit, the feeling now I can go on, and the feeling now I can’t go on. As best as I can feel, see in faces, listen to voices, and understand, these are interwoven combinations of feeling good, bad, tense and calm, and they make up much of meaning, what some dismiss as semantics. Without motive, no objects get moved and nothing objective is done. These feelings are also not inward and privately subjective, but moves in the games we play, with and against each other, that we share as forms of life.
So: What is thought? I can’t tell you what you will think next, and neither can you, but we do know you and I will weave words together with what we imagine, feel and sense to try things and do things, and we can follow rules, and experts, and rulers, but we don’t know what rules, words, feelings or experiences we always have, or have to have. That clears ground, as Wittgenstein said, sweeps the stage, such that we can stage more. Zhuangzi the Daoist, my favorite Chinese philosopher, called it clearing underbrush. He also wondered where he could find someone who has forgotten words, such that he could have a word with him, which makes more sense with Wittgenstein than it does with many others, as we can stop using words, and come back to using them, hopefully now with some understanding.