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Thought Itself

The History of Philosophy, Logic & The Mind with Eric Gerlach

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German Philosophy

The Nothingness of Grounds, Ends, and the Meaningless

Children in Laos at the BlackboardI have been thinking lately, in lieu of conversations with friends, about where thinking starts and stops, the grounds and the ends, with the means in the middle. Just as Lee Braver says in his book Groundless Grounds, we do not examine the grounds from which we start as we use them, giving them a kind of nothingness underneath rather than turtles all the way down in an infinite regress.  Wittgenstein’s child at the blackboard is a perfect illustration of this point.  Children learn math as a regular practice, not as a complete and coherent set of rules.  Rules are only called in when there are misunderstandings in following the regular practice, just as road signs are employed when one does not know the way to San Jose.  If we need rules to understand things, then we need rules to understand the rules, and so on, and we have an infinite regress again, this time without turtles.

coffee cupSimilarly, the mundane and meaningless has a nothingness to it for the opposite reason. Consider the things around us that are serving no purpose, which we barely notice.  While we proceed from grounds towards ends, the mundane serves no ends, and thus it recedes as nothing important, bringing us nowhere and to nothing.  Similarly, our ends have a nothingness to them because, in spite of giving things their importance, we do not think beyond them as to where they lead. When I think about pouring myself another cup of sweet, satisfying coffee, I am not thinking about what caffeine will do to my body, and if I am thinking about what caffeine will do to my body, I am not thinking about what significance this may have for scientific studies. One has to move in thought from one to the other, shifting grounds and ends, to put each end in sight.

Zen Circle Caligraphy PaintingThus: The nothingness of grounds is our lack of seeing beneath them, the nothingness of the mundane is our lack of seeing them as leading beyond themselves to other things, and the nothingness of ends is our lack of seeing beyond them.

How Can We Try Not To Try? The Daoist Paradox of Wu-Wei

Effortless Action SlingerlandIn his book Effortless Action, Edward Slingerland delves into a deep paradox found in the work of ancient Chinese philosophers.  Wu-wei, which can be translated as either non-action or effortless action, is a state of freedom, flexibility and spontaneity acquired through the practice of living a good life.  It is identified with life and the cosmos, and can be called the skill of living well, the skill of all skills.

While it can be found once in the Analects of Confucius and then later in the Confucian works of Mencius and Xunzi, it is most prominent in the Daoist works of Laozi and Zhuangzi.  Some philosophers, such as the Daoists, say that it is our original state, that which we had before we were born and early as children.  Others, such as Xunzi, say that it is opposite our original state, which we did not have at all when we were immature, and is only acquired through study and practice.

This presents us with a paradox: How can we try not to try?

mind reason and being-in-the-world dreyfus mcdowellHeidegger was familiar with the works of the Daoists, and it is possible to answer this paradox in a Heideggerian way, relevant to the Dreyfus-McDowell debate about the interrelation of thought and action.  When we are first performing an action, we must think as we act and are clumsy in acting, but after we acquire a skill it becomes second nature and does not require the effort of thinking or being clumsy.  I discussed this in a previous post about Chuck Knoblauch over-thinking while throwing to first base.  Zhuangzi, my favorite Chinese philosopher, illustrates this in the story of Butcher Ding, who learns over the years to trust his actions without thinking and impresses the emperor.

pythagorean YIf one practices living life well, at first it is difficult, but after good habits become ingrained it becomes easy and effortless.  Thus, one can become effortless through effort over time, and the paradox is resolved.  This is similar to the forking paths of Pythagoras, the ancient Greek philosopher who taught that the left-hand path of pleasure is easy but it leads to destruction, while the right-hand path of effort is hard but it leads to wisdom, happiness and tranquility.

The problem is that bad habits are as easy, if not easier, to obtain as good habits, and so we must make the effort to choose what will become effortless.

The Groundless Grounds of Wittgenstein & Heidegger

Groundless Gounds A Study of Wittgenstein and Heidegger Lee BraverA friend of mine recently brought Lee Braver’s book Groundless Grounds: A Study of Wittgenstein and Heidegger (2012) to my attention, and I must say, it is so far an incredible book.  In the introduction, Braver sets out the overall frame of the book, which should be of some interest to anyone concerned with the similarities of the early work of Heidegger and the later work of Wittgenstein:

Both Heidegger and Wittgenstein argue that philosophy that suspends our activity in the world, taking a disengaged theoretical stance, is a problem (Ch 1).  Both argue that this problematic view comes about by conceiving of things as changeless, self-contained objects (Ch 2).  For Heidegger, this is the “present-at-hand”.  For W, it is atomism and private language.  Such bare inert objects do not give us a proper and full view of human life and meaning.  Both argue that we need to see things as holistic and interdependent (Ch 3).  While reality has been primarily understood in terms of knowledge, thought rests on non-rational and unjustified socialization, which includes our spontaneous and responsive activity (Ch 4).  This new conception of thought has particular ramifications, calling into question the Law of Non-Contradiction (Wittgenstein) and the Principle of Reason (Heidegger) (Ch 5).  Our lack of justification in thought does not make thinking worthless.  Rather, it shows us what we take as “groundless grounds”, what we rely upon even if it is always somewhat and in some ways unreliable.

Ancient Greek & Modern European Philosophy, Explained in Donuts

UNBOXED: Nietzsche & the Tightrope Walker between Morality & Nihilism

Nietzsche, the great mustachioed one, said that if we want to be great individual, revolutionary thinkers, we each must take an individual stand between the twin dangers of morality and nihilism.

Morality, the dogmatism, laws, traditions, and rules of the cultures that surround us, can prevent us from thinking critically and improving ourselves and our culture.  However, if we question everything, this can lead to excessive skepticism and doubt, nihilism, such that we believe in nothing and do not have the courage and passion to take an individual stand and create new meaning and truth.

In Thus Spoke Zarathustra, Nietzsche uses the symbol of the tightrope walker to stand for the individual who balances between opposite sides.  We must have the courage to learn from the morals, rules and dogmas, as well as question them freely and critically, taking from them what we each individually choose for ourselves.  We can each use dogmatism and skepticism as we want to to create new truth and meaning, transforming the old.  This became central to Existentialism, and then later Poststructuralism and Postmodernism.

All new thinking is dangerous and risky, but if we are afraid to think for ourselves, we do not take the risk that could pay off and be revolutionary.  The history of religion, law, philosophy and science is made by great individuals who take the leaps that inspire everyone else.  Those who think outside the box are the ones who get to change the box.

Nietzsche inspired other great thinkers to question reality.  Heidegger said we can be boxed up by our use of time and technology.  Sartre said we can be boxed up by social roles and social class.  Fanon said that we can be boxed up by racism, institutional and internalized.  Foucault said we can be boxed up by institutions that divide the normal from the abnormal, the criminal from the legal, and the sane from the insane.

By learning from these skeptical thinkers, we do not get a recipe or rulebook as to how we should be great individuals or what we should choose to do.  Instead, we see how we are boxed up, so that we can think outside the box and about the box, to choose how to think and how to live.

WISE UP: Nietzsche says Science is too Simple

Hipster Nietzsche Meme

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