Can everything mean something in particular? What do walruses mean?
What does this pondering walrus mean to you right now? What will this walrus mean to you in twenty years? If your children’s children discover this secret meaning a century from now, would they approve?
Do walruses typically need approval? Why do you? Does it have anything to do with asking about what things mean?
What does it all mean?
The Tang dynasty Zen master Mazu (709 – 788), famed for shouting, striking his students and giving them strange, uncommon answers to questions, one said:
When you make a fist with your hand,
your fist is nothing but the hand.
In Umberto Eco’s piece on fascism for the New York Review of Books, he uses Wittgenstein’s idea of family resemblance and example of games to understand the “structured confusion” of fascism:
The notion of fascism is not unlike Wittgenstein’s notion of a game. A game can be either competitive or not, it can require some special skill or none, it can or cannot involve money. Games are different activities that display only some “family resemblance,” as Wittgenstein put it. Consider the following sequence:
1 2 3 4
abc bcd cde def
Suppose there is a series of political groups in which group one is characterized by the features abc, group two by the features bcd, and so on. Group two is similar to group one since they have two features in common; for the same reasons three is similar to two and four is similar to three. Notice that three is also similar to one (they have in common the feature c). The most curious case is presented by four, obviously similar to three and two, but with no feature in common with one. However, owing to the uninterrupted series of decreasing similarities between one and four, there remains, by a sort of illusory transitivity, a family resemblance between four and one.
This is a point that can be made about fascism, apples, cats, philosophers, or anything else in our world. I typically use apples to explain this idea of Wittgenstein, and was pleasantly surprised to find Eco using it to understand fascism, as I am teaching Wittgenstein for Intro Philosophy this week, and fascism for Social & Political Philosophy next semester.
I have enjoyed this bit from Mel Brooks’ History of the World since I was a little kid.
So good, but “Grrrrrrrr…”
In discussing Buddhism and the subjectivity of perspective, one of my students mentioned Magritte’s Son of Man, the famous painting of an apple concealing a man’s face. The apple, an object we desire, conceals the subject, the idea that lies behind this painting. Reality appears to us as simply there, bare and objective, which conceals that our reality is also our own individual perspective, which we learn through investigation and reflection. Much of human experience and the history of philosophy across the globe is concerned with either separating the objective from the subjective or describing how the two are intertwined. One couldn’t ask for a more perfect illustration than Magritte’s painting, whose title suggests that this has been the simple problem in the faces of all the descendants of Adam and Eve ever since the apple.