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?
A Zen master posed his monks with a problem: “Two monks went walking in the rain. One didn’t get wet. Why?” The monks suggested that one had an umbrella, that the rain was scattered in places, that one walked under the cover of awnings, but the master said that the students were too focused on the words. When the monks finally gave up, the master told them that both got wet. “Two monks went walking in the rain. One didn’t get wet. Two got wet.”
The joke works just as well in ancient Chinese as it does in modern English because language has grey areas and ambiguities. When the master said, “One didn’t get wet”, he could mean that it is the case that one didn’t get wet, such that one remained dry, or he could mean that it isn’t the case that one got wet, rather two got wet. All of the solutions proposed by the monks assumed that one didn’t get wet, the first case, making them blind to the second. It isn’t that the first case is the literal meaning of the words and the second metaphorical or derivative, but rather that we do not expect to hear about one monk and not the other if both got wet or both stayed dry. The joke would also work if the master said both stayed dry, as one didn’t get wet, and the other didn’t get wet either.
The nun and Chan master Wujin asked Huineng to explain passages of the Nirvana Sutra that she still couldn’t understand after long years of study. Huineng asked Wujin to read the passages to him, as he never learned to read. Wujin asked him how he understands the sutra without reading it, and Huineng famously replied that we can use a finger to point to the moon in the sky but don’t need a finger to see it. Bruce Lee uses this to teach his student in the beginning of Enter the Dragon, telling his student to feel, not think, as if he focuses on the finger he will miss the moon and all its glory. For Huineng, the sutra points to the experience, and for Lee the thought points to the action. In both cases, experience in action is the point, not pointing to them.
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.
I recently posted a review of Dreyfus and Taylor’s new book Retrieving Realism (2015) in which I am critical of their treatment of Rorty and pragmatism. In his piece Charles Taylor on Truth (1998), Rorty challenged Taylor to explain or abandon the distinction between “in itself” and “for us”, arguing that we do not need to appeal to an independent, objective reality separate from the forms of life we live. Against Rorty, Dreyfus and Taylor argue that we know our reality through our practices, but also that there may be a single coherent structure of reality independent of our practices. I myself am a proponent of pragmatism, and I agree with Rorty that we do not need truth or meaning in itself beyond what they are for us, nor do we learn about reality as it is independent of our interaction with it through our interactions with it.
From a pragmatic perspective, and in accord with the later work of Wittgenstein, it is nonsensical to speak of reality independent of ourselves or of facts that we have yet to experience. It makes perfect sense to speak of matters deep in space that we have yet to encounter, but it makes no sense to speak of facts deep in space that we have yet to establish. Facts are fashioned in language and judgement through our interactions. Thus, facts do not exist in locations we have yet to encounter and encode, even as we imagine all sorts of things to be there. To say that there are facts we have yet to encounter is to say that there are accurate judgements and descriptions we share that we have yet to discover.
Let us say that there is a green chair we leave in a room out of sight. It makes sense for us to agree with each other, after consultation, that the green chair is in the room and that this is a fact even when we do not see the chair, but only because we have seen the chair, last saw it in the room and have no reason to think it has been moved. The reason that the positivist, as opposed to the pragmatist, wants to say that there are facts independent of our experience is that we are always in the uncomfortable position that what seems like a fact for you and I may, in any instance, turn out to be false. It may be that someone has moved the chair or painted it blue, in which case our “fact” turns out to be false.
We would like our facts to be infallible, but if we cannot speak with complete certainty about the location of a single chair, it is difficult to secure anything we consider true as completely immutable and indisputable. Consider that, if I ask you if the chair is green, you could say that it looked green when you last saw it. However, it would be strange for you to say that the chair looks green right now when we are unaware that anyone is currently looking at it. Just as the Zen Buddhist muses that the tree which falls in the forest does not make a sound if there is no listener to receive it as “a sound”, delimited and individuated, it does not make sense to say that a green chair looks green at this very moment when neither you nor I are looking at it. Rather, the chair has looked green regularly to us when we have looked at it, and this is the evidence available. The question is how we establish and share truth in our interactions with others and things, not how we establish that it is completely independent of us.
Wittgenstein would argue that there are circumstances in which we would be presented with evidence that calls the chair’s location or color into question, and that in the absence of this evidence we would find it nonsensical to question our shared understanding as fact. However, this does not mean that our fact is itself absolutely certain or guaranteed to be true. Rather, there is little need to establish certainty in most circumstances when there are no problems or changes. Thus, it makes sense for us to believe in the fact that the chair is green, but it makes no sense to insist that this fact is absolutely certain beyond disbelief, nor to insist that it is a fact that the chair looks green when we do not know of anyone currently looking at it.
The positivist says that this would make our facts sadly uncertain, and the pragmatist agrees. The positivist says that some things are indisputable, and the pragmatist agrees, as we are not in this moment disputing all things, but we could, if we choose, dispute any particular thing if and when we want to. In philosophy, of course, we upset all kinds of people by disputing endlessly about what the true and the good are, which is useful for developing critical and creative minds.
It is here that we come to our most confusing conclusion: Facts are not simply true, nor are they simply to be believed. Sometimes, our facts turn out to be false and should not be believed. This sounds odd because we use the word in two overlapping ways, both as a positivist who affirms the idea of an independent objective reality and as a pragmatist who rejects it. This is why putting “fact” in scare quotes feels fitting, as in one way a “fact” is a fact, but in another way it is not. A “fact” that turns out to be not true is an agreeable belief fashioned in judgement and language, but it is not in that we cease to agree with it when we find it is false. If something was a true fact but is now false, we could say that it is a fact that is false, or we could say that it is not a fact, as it is false.
I 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.
Similarly, 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.
Thus: 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.