Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Niether Duck Nor Rabbit

As a follow-up to my last post and the comments: as I was reviewing my discussion with Reshef, it occurred to me that my not knowing what the "right" response is on some nights when I stare into the vast sky and can, on the one hand, be filled with thoughts of our smallness and the seeming groundlessness of things, and then, on the other hand, with thoughts about how wondrous the whole world is--perhaps this state of not knowing, of not moving decidedly into either aspect (or way of viewing the world), is itself a "position" rather than a failure to know what the "right" position is? Perhaps this is obvious to those who have considered the issue of aspect-seeing, that the real temptation is to think that the tension between seeing things one way or another must ultimately, in all cases, be resolved. That the true "resolution" is to resolve to learn to accept certain fundamental ambiguities, to accept the tension between apparently contradictory aspects. Perhaps this is why Simone Weil says, in Gravity and Grace:
The contradictions the mind comes up against—these are the only realities: they are the criterion of the real. There is no contradiction in what is imaginary. Contradiction is the test of necessity.
This might shed a different light on Wittgenstein's distinction in the Tractatus between the worlds of the happy man and the sad man, or show that there are different ways of being the happy or the sad. On the one hand, the happy man might be the one who sees the world as a wondrous miracle, and the sad man the one who sees everything as awful and pointless. But on the other hand, the happy man might be the one who has accepted the tension between the two aspects (and yet sees and feels the weight of both aspects, at different times, forcefully), and the sad man the one who cannot accept this ambiguity.


  1. It would be hard to argue with someone who was so thoroughly convinced that life is a wondrous miracle that he was never sad or angry about anything. But it's hard to imagine a human being who was really like that. If someone seemed to be happy in that way I think it would be hard not to feel that they were some kind of fool, although quite possibly some people would regard them as holy. I don't think I would know what to make of them, and I'd want to see how they lived, how they handled various situations and events, before making a judgment. Perhaps I would never reach a conclusion about them.

    It's easier to imagine a human being who is happy in the other sense, the one who sees both aspects. A person like this won't even seem to be a fool, won't seem to be missing anything, and is not in denial. They might be less beatific, but they seem more human. I think I'm just agreeing with you.

    Then again, there's something I'm not sure I agree with you about. In your previous post you talk about moving back and forth between "gazing at the sky on a clear night and being struck by how small and fleeting our lives are, and how silly so many of our concerns, and gazing at the same sky and, like Wittgenstein, wondering at the existence of the whole world (and in doing so, finding it good)." I'm sure the mood might be different in each case, but is there any other tension here? Can't the smallness and fleetingness of our lives add to their preciousness? (Or is that just too precious in the bad sense to be an acceptable thought?) There is no reason for any of this, and yet here it all is. The miracle. And this part of the miracle (a human life, say) is only small and fleeting. So we must take care of it. This is what is terrible about murder or the mistreatment of children, for instance. Or at least it seems possible to think so. The vulnerability of children, and really of all life, is poignant, but their (its) existence is incredible, and exists in another moral dimension (has value in a different currency) from the vulnerability. So to be simply sad because of the poignancy is to be hugely blind. But to be so happy about the fact of existence that you are never at all sad seems either blind in a different way or else something more than human.

    I don't know how intelligible that is. (I think what I'm saying, roughly, is: what Chesterton said.) The meaninglessness of life, its pointlessness, is an aspect of its miraculousness, it seems to me. It isn't awful. What's awful is cruelty, suffering, injustice, etc. (How the world is, to some extent, not that it is.) And of course I don't expect people suffering from those things to be happy.

    Is the way the world is more good than bad? It seems so to me, but of course I don't know. If you were ecstatic you couldn't know that you were right to be so. (A lot of this sounds trite, sorry. I'll stop.)

    1. "The meaninglessness of life, its pointlessness, is an aspect of its miraculousness, it seems to me. It isn't awful."

      - Really!?

      I think I can understand the first half of what you say, about pointlessness being part or aspect of the miraculousness of life. There are bad miracles. But I don't know how to wrap my mind around the second thing you say: that it's not awful. I need help.

    2. Well, it all seemed very clear yesterday but perhaps I'm confused. If I am I'm not sure whether the problem is that I am failing to feel something that others feel or failing to understand something that others understand.

      I don't think the whole can have a meaning or a point. That would imply (or suggests to me) that it is a means to an end. But there can't be some further end beyond the whole. So everything, taken as a whole, cannot have a point. And particular things within the whole can and do serve a purpose, but there is no ultimate end that they serve, because the whole has no purpose. I don't see, for instance, how there could be such a thing as "the point of God" or "the point of the universe," and since there couldn't be such a thing it's non-existence is not at all bad.

      Perhaps I should focus instead on our lives and concerns rather than the world as a whole. The smallness of some of our concerns seems comforting to me rather than awful. What about the smallness and fleetingness of all our concerns? I don't know. It doesn't seem bad (or good) to me. It sounds depressing and depressed to say that life is meaningless, but all I can see this really meaning is that life is not the kind of thing that could make sense. And that isn't depressing at all.

      This might sound like point-missing logic-chopping but I'm saying how I feel rather than rehearsing an argument. When I hear the word 'fleeting' I think of shooting stars. They don't have a meaning or a point, but that doesn't bother me. Life itself and each person's life seems like that to me. (Which is not to say that I don't care how long certain people live.)

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    4. This is interesting. You say: “It sounds depressing and depressed to say that life is meaningless, but all I can see this really meaning is that life is not the kind of thing that could make sense. And that isn't depressing at all.” – But if so, then why does it sound depressing in the first place?

      It may be that what you are saying amounts to saying that even the meaninglessness can have more than one aspect; it doesn’t have to be depressing. And I think that’s important. But then again, it has that other depressing aspect too.

      I think at least part of the issue you raise is an issue about the identity conditions of an aspect; or the identity conditions of THIS aspect: How to determine that two people experience the same aspect? Can they see the same aspect and react in completely different ways? This seems possible in the duck-rabbit case, but is it possible with experiencing then meaninglessness of life? – What you are saying implies that even in this case two people can see the same aspect—that of meaninglessness—and have two different emotional reactions. I sort of took it for granted that, at least in this case, the emotional reaction is part of, or is internally connected somehow to, the aspect-experience—that if someone is not depressed by the experience of meaninglessness, then whatever they experience, it is not the aspect Matt was talking about. Perhaps I was wrong.

      One question though: On the view you are expressing, what would be the difference between someone who sees the world as full of wonder, and someone who sees it as meaningless? If both are not awful, then what is the difference?

    5. I think "life is meaningless" sounds depressing because to say of some activity that it is meaningless or pointless is usually to write it off as a waste of time. It is also the kind of thing that depressed people are supposed to say.

      Seeing the world as full of wonder seems more positive, happier, than simply seeing it as meaningless. It could be meaningless but beautiful, or meaningless and horrible, or meaningless and just OK, for instance. But seeing the world as full of wonder also suggests feeling wonder, amazement, and this (as I think you say below) doesn't seem to be a feeling that could be sustained for long. Although perhaps occasional bursts of this feeling could sustain, or be the background to, a generally, but mildly, happy life.

    6. I’m not sure why, but what you say confuses me. “Meaningless” can mean:

      a) lacks meaning
      b) is not the kind of thing that has or lacks meaning

      (In Aristotelian terms, the negation can be either finite or infinite.) I’m not sure which of them you mean by “meaningless.” I think I missed that last time (perhaps I was blinded by an excitement at the possibility of you saying something different than what you actually are saying (I’ll elaborate below)), but now I think that you mean the second thing (mainly because of what you said in the second paragraph of your previous reply). – Is this right? – If so, I disagree. Life can take meaning; not propositional meaning, perhaps, after all it is not a proposition, but meaning nonetheless. Life can even be meaningful in the roughly same way that a person can—with reference to nothing beyond them: not because they have a function, and not because they are meaningful to me, but because they simply are meaningful (absolutely meaningful?).

      I may be missing something.

      Perhaps another reason why I’m confused is because I thought you meant something different when you denied that life being meaningless would be awful: I thought you meant that this meaninglessness itself could be viewed as something wonderful, and therefore non-awful. (That’s why I asked the question last time about the difference between seeing the world as full of wonder, and seeing it as meaningless.)

      So I am still unclear about what you are saying: If you are using “meaningless” in the second sense, then I don’t understand what possible reason you have for denying that life can be meaningful (that there is a sense in which saying that is not nonsense). If you are using “meaningless” in the first sense, then I still feel I need an answer to my question from last time, about the difference between seeing the world as full of wonder, and seeing it as meaningless.

    7. Thanks. I think I've been mixing up meaninglessness b with what Matt calls the groundlessness of things. If it's possible for life or a person to be meaningful (and I'm not sure that I understand what you mean by this) then perhaps life could have meaning despite the groundlessness of things. This groundlessness strikes me as something that might seem wonderful or awful, but I don't think it's what you are talking about.

    8. Thanks for the clarification. I want to say that it should be possible to talk of life having meaning despite the groundlessness of things. But now that you are saying it like this, my question becomes: what could someone mean by that? “Life has meaning despite the groundlessness of things.”

      Perhaps what I’m most unsure I understand is that idea of the groundlessness of thing—not so much the idea itself (although it is the kind of idea that would merit discussion) but what kind of idea it is. So let me ask: when someone talks of the groundlessness of things, what are they trying to convey? – It doesn’t seem to be about another fact among facts, or the absence of one. And it doesn’t seem to be about another reason among reasons, or the absence of one. It supposedly reveals something deeper about where facts and reasons can no longer be (and can no longer be searched for), something metaphysical. As you said “since there couldn't be such a thing it's non-existence is not at all bad.”

      I’m inclined to describe what people are expressing when they talk about the groundlessness of things as an aspect-experience; it is as if the facts (the familiar facts) somehow attain a different look—the look of groundlessness (if there is such a thing, but that’s a separate issue). But that’s just me. Would you accept that phenomenology? People often don’t like this sort of suggestion; they often think that they mean something more literal. So I wouldn’t blame you if you did not accept my description. But in that case, the question would remain: what do you mean by “the groundlessness of things”?

    9. Yes, I’ve been thinking about this too. I agree that it’s an important idea to try to get clear about. Matt mentioned both the groundlessness of things and the groundlessness of our values, but I won’t try to speak for him. What I mean when I talk about the groundlessness of things is the seeming contingency of the world’s existence, the luck involved in our being here. The world seems like a bubble that popped into existence. It could have been radically other than it is, and it didn’t have to be at all. Even if in some sense a world had to exist, the Big Bang, and the process of evolution that led to the existence of human beings, and the events that led to my birth all seem to have been unnecessary. The laws of physics seem as though they could have been otherwise. The world as we know it seems like an accident.

      I don't know if all this expresses an aspect-experience. It's a thought that I think can perhaps lead to various experiences, but these might vary from a happy feeling that we are incredibly lucky to be alive to a despairing feeling that nothing is reliable. Are these aspect-experiences or just different emotional reactions to the thought that everything could be very different? I'm not sure.

      So perhaps I mean something more literal. But that seems to get us into "turtles all the way down" territory. There can't be any grounds in that sense.

    10. This is very helpful. Thanks. Especially the list you gave regarding what makes you want to talk about the groundlessness of things.

      Just one clarification. You say that those thoughts “can perhaps lead to various experiences.” I would rather say that these thoughts already ARE descriptions of various experiences: the experience of the contingency of the world’s existence; the experience of the luck involved in our being here, the experience of the world like a bubble that popped into existence, and so on.

      Like other cases of aspect-experience, I would claim, there is no distinction between the intellectual (the propositional) and the experiential (or if there is, it is of an entirely different form), and there is no way of describing the relevant experiences other than with the terms, or at least the concepts, used in the original propositions: “the existence of the world is contingent,” “luck is involved in our being here,” “the world is like a bubble that popped into existence.”

    11. Thanks. I think I agree. At least, my attempts to formulate questions about what you say have led to nothing that I want to say.

  2. 1.
    Following up on Duncan’s comment: Does your (Matt’s) suggestion involve an idea of a whole life lived in a constant continuous aspect-experience? (I think some such idea is implicit in Duncan’s comment, I’m not sure it is implicit in what you say.) William Day had a paper about that (I don’t think it’s published, I only heard it at a conference), in which he made a case questioning the intelligibility of that idea. If I recall, he compared it with an example from Nietzsche of a person who doesn’t forget anything. But anyway, I think I understand the attraction of the idea of life of a kind of continuous aspect-experience; I am just not sure if it is an essential part of what you say.

    Regarding aspects, I’m inclined to say that there are grammatical differences between aspect cases. In some cases, like the duck-rabbit case, there is no need to decide which aspect is right. In some other cases there is (e.g. ‘Is it food or is it the remains of a dead animal?’ or: ‘Is it marriage or just a civil union?’) It is probably not a coincidence that when it comes to the second kind of cases (cases where a decision which aspect is right is called for) it is easiest to give a moral example. – I’m not sure how it affects your case, which seems “moral” in a different kind of way. There is, however, very little agreement about those things—this is in general the case when it comes to aspects. Also relevant is Avner Baz’s claim that aspects don’t necessarily, or even typically, come in pairs. (I think he is right.) So, for instance, looking at your face in the mirror and suddenly seeing your father would be an aspect experience, but there are no two competing aspects here as in the duck-rabbit case.


    1. Reshef,

      Can you say what you mean by a constant, continuous aspect-experience? Do you mean always seeing the duck-rabbit, say, as a duck-rabbit and never as either a duck or a rabbit? I had in mind two kinds of people: one who always sees the world as a wonderful miracle, and one who usually sees it like this but sometimes sees life as awful. So if continuous aspect-experience means always seeing both then I don't think that was (meant to be) implicit in what I said.

    2. I take aspect experience to be different from regular matter of course experience. So, for instance, to experience the duck aspect of the duck-rabbit is not like to regularly experience it as a duck. The aspect-experience usually involves a kind of surprise, what Wittgenstein calls “dawning.” (There is a debate about that between Stephen Mulhall and Avner Baz. I, and what I said is meant to, side with Baz.) Now, this seems to raise a question about the possibility of what Wittgenstein calls “continuous aspect-perception,” (Baz plays down the importance of that, and Mulhall does the opposite) because it seems that it makes it part of the definition of aspect-experience that it will be fleeting, as switches typically are. But to my mind, not all such experiences need to be fleeting, and perhaps what Wittgenstein meant by “continuous aspect-perception” was a more or less prolonged experience of the new-ness of something—keeping the freshness of that kind of experience for a while. This can happen even with the duck. Or take another example. Suppose you are looking out of the window and it all suddenly seems unreal to you. I think it can be taken as an aspect-experience. That experience can have duration, and in this way can be continuous.

      Now, constant continuous aspect-perception would be the experience of someone who experiences things like this all the time—that this is their only mode of experiencing things. (This is what Bill Day questions, and I think Baz would too.) Someone who always sees the world as a wonderful miracle is someone who supposedly has constant continuous aspect-experience. Such a person would on this presumption never see the world as simply there, not particularly interesting, mundane, normal, regular, expected. They would live in a continuous surprise.

      (About your other suggestion—that someone may see the duck-rabbit as a duck-rabbit—I have heard it before, but I confess that I don’t know what I’m supposed to make of it. I always thought that the point of the duck-rabbit example was that you can see it as either a duck or a rabbit. It doesn’t seem to me that the initial suggestion was to say that there is a third aspect: the duck-rabbit aspect. But maybe there is. I’m not sure how it would change things if there were such third aspect, if at all. And in any case, this was not what I had in mind.)

    3. Thanks. The idea of living in a continuous surprise is interesting. It almost seems possible, but there's something funny about the idea.

    4. Yes, it is funny. It is like the whole world changing its aspect on us constantly--as if everything you look at is a duck-rabbit for you, and keeps changing all the time from one thing to another. Arguably, someone who experienced things in this way would not have a world. Their world would disintegrate, or rather, it would never integrate. - I think that's what Bill Day had in mind. It is a really important idea. I wish he would publish that paper.

  3. 3.
    I think you are asking what happiness is. This is the important bit of your insight in this post, and your question. Would that be an adequate way of describing what you are wondering about? – If so, can we simply say that there are two kind of happiness—the two kinds you describe? If so, is this the end of the matter, or is it a further part of what you are asking, which of those two kinds of happiness better? Which of them is REALLY happiness? (A related question about virtuousness (and this connects to what Duncan says towards the end): would the virtuous person be tempted by evil, or would they be beyond temptation? – Is this like, or related to, what you are asking?)

    I think it might be useful to separate here two tasks here, and two questions. Tell me if you think this is useful:

    a) How to come to be able, or to allow ourselves, or to force ourselves, to see aspects—to open up to things that we don’t normally see, to experience life and world anew?

    b) How to be tuned to the RIGHT aspects?

    If I understand, I think what you are thinking of—your concern—somehow hovers between these two questions, and you don’t quite decide which of them is the more important: On the one hand, it seems that the important thing is to become aspect-sensitive, and to be capable of the relevant kind of experience. That speaks to the second kind of happiness you described. On the other hand, there is a question about the proper use of that aspect-seeing ability. This speaks to the first kind of happiness you describe. – If that is right, then does this open a question for you regarding which task is more important—a) or b)?

    About Wittgenstein: I’m not sure the Tractatus has an answer to those questions. I tend to think that this is one of those points where Wittgenstein in the Tractatus thought he said enough—“that the problems have in essentials been finally solved.” That is, he rightly didn’t take himself to have solved the problems, but only “in essentials”; but he wrongly thought that what’s left are only details of lesser importance. I think that here God is in the details—especially when it comes to the stuff he discusses towards the end of the Tractatus.

  4. So much has already been floated out there that I'm not sure what to say in response or to add. I do think that Reshef's "two tasks" is helpful (I would say BOTH are important, since I don't know how one can do (b) without (a)), and that it's ok to see the end of what I wrote as posing a question about what "real" happiness is. At least, as Duncan suggests in his first comment, we might see someone whose happiness seems completely unaware of the "darker" aspects of some things in life that this seems somehow false, or cheap, or just too insulated in a way that may not be innocent. But then I also worry that happiness is one of those tricky terms that moves about and has different senses and that it might not be helpful to use the modifiers "real" or "really" to engage in debate. Perhaps talk about what kinds of happiness are deeper than others? (Maybe "deep" has some of the same problems as "really"? But then as Duncan suggests, "deep" might refer to forms of happiness--or virtues, too--that are not superficial, sentimental, "precious" (in the bad sense), etc. Maybe "really" can do the same work as long as one is clear what one means.)

    But going back to being "tuned to the right aspects"--maybe one would say (and maybe Duncan was suggesting) that one shouldn't be too "tuned" or worried about those moments in which things seem empty or unreal. At least that shouldn't lead one to stop caring about some things. I know Thomas Nagel has suggested that (or I read him as suggesting) that such feelings might lead to our taking an ironic stance on our concerns that might prevent us from taking things "too" seriously. And that might sound sort of like the kind of indifference that Stoics--properly understood--think that we should cultivate about "externals." But that can't be quite right, because qua parent, I should take the well-being and education of my children very seriously, and I probably shouldn't be ironic about it.

    So whatever I'm supposed to "take" from those moments when things seem unreal (etc.), it can't be that the value I see from other perspectives is unreal. But then I'm not sure what to take. Maybe there isn't anything there to take? Maybe these feelings are like the "impostor syndrome" in which one feels like one is an impostor (i.e. you are a professor of philosophy, but somehow you aren't REALLY a professor, not qualified, you're a hack, faking it, and everyone will figure this out sooner or later--even though you really are perfectly qualified, legitimate, etc.) But I don't know if that's quite right because perhaps these moments can lead to a kind of clearing of one's thoughts (or what Weil calls detachment) which helps one to look back over one's activities and commitments in order to consider what is worth worrying about, caring about, and spending one's quality time doing, if--from a different perspective--nothing matters at all. That is, it might help free us from values that have been imposed on us or that we have accepted thoughtlessly that have led us to drift into a kind of "wrong life" that "cannot be lived rightly" (to riff on Adorno).

  5. Culture and Value, p. 31:

    Slept a bit better. Vivid dreams. A bit depressed; weather & state of health. The solution of the problem you see in life is a way of living which makes what is problematic disappear.

    The fact that life is problematic means that your life does not fit life's shape. So you must change your life, & once it fits the shape, what is problematic will disappear.

    But don't we have the feeling that someone who doesn't see a problem there is blind to something important, indeed to what is most important of all?

    Wouldn't I like to say he is living aimlessly--just blindly like a mole as it were; & if he could only see, he would see the problem?

    Or shouldn't I say: someone who lives rightly does not experience the problem as sorrow, hence not after all as a problem, but rather as joy, that is so to speak as a bright halo round his life, not a murky background.

  6. I apologize for not keeping up with the conversations above. Thanks for the bit from Culture and Value, Reshef. The last bit is quite helpful. I wonder whether this might be wedded to Weil's ideas about contradiction--that when confronted by apparently conflicting ways of seeing things, we might on the one hand see this as a deep problem, or we might come to accept the contradiction. Presumably one has to have good reason to think that the particular contradiction is "deep" and irresolvable before acceptance would make sense (I can't bring myself to say "reasonable" since what reasonable person would accept a contradiction!)...I'll have to flesh this out later.