My difficulty is only an — enormous — difficulty of expression.
Writing and reading philosophy are two human activities famous for their inherent difficulty. If philosophy is thinking about thinking, writing philosophy is writing about thinking about thinking, and reading philosophy is reading writing about thinking about thinking. Even this précis suggests how philosophy's circularities begin to curl about us like the prickly tendrils of a brainy briar patch: abandon hope all ye who enter here!
These difficulties go back to philosophy's earliest days. Read this few lines from Socrates:
…you know of no other way in which any given object can come into being except by participation in the reality peculiar to its appropriate universal; and in the cases which I have mentioned you recognize no other cause for the coming into being of two other than participation in duality; and that whatever is to become two must participate in this, and that whatever is to become one must participate in unity.
Does this leave you saying "Huh?" and scratching your head? Me too! The passage has a meaning—one thing embodies oneness, two things embody twoness—but it's less readily grasped than "Look, Dick, see Spot run." Page after page of Thomas Aquinas' writing also baffles me:
—as does page after page of David Hume:
…form is not made perfect by matter, but rather is contracted by matter; and hence the infinite, regarded on the part of the form not determined by matter, has the nature of something perfect.
…the repetition of like objects in like relations of succession and contiguity discovers nothing new in any one of them; since we can draw no inference from it, nor make it a subject either of demonstative or probable reasonings as has already been proved.
—and as does page after page of Bertrand Russell:
[Kant] perceived that not only the connection of cause and effect, but all the propositions of arithmetic and geometry are "synthetic," i.e., not analytic: in all these propositions no analysis of the subject will reveal the predicate.
Hey, guys, why all the abstract nouns—form, matter, cause, effect, relations, subject, objects? The word philosophy means love of wisdom, but where in these empty words and bloodless sentences are wisdom and love? Yes, our world and our selves pose eternal riddles, and trying to unravel them will always be accompanied by a degree of befuddlement, but why not use more down-to-earth words? Why not write more as we do when we chat with our next door neighbors? Get a few words like toothpaste and trousers into your treatises, and your readers will know better what you're talking about!
Words like toothpaste and trousers strengthen philosophical writing because such words conjure up reliable facts of daily life, and confronting such facts makes up 99 percent, if not 99.99 percent, of human life. A philosopher may spend a delightful morning writing about the analytic relation of ontological empiricism to synthetic semiotics (I just made that up), but as he does, he scratches his nose, forgets to meet his wife for lunch, hears a snatch of music from a passing car, sees a sparrow land on his windowsill, remembers riding a blue bike when he was a kid, and spills coffee on his tie.
Realistic novelists—Balzac, Austen, Trollope, George Eliot, Dreiser, et al—describe daily life in detail, here a village scene painted by Jane Austen:
When realists do turn to philosophical speculations, their ideas carry weight because they ground their insights on daily life. Here Dreiser's Frank Cowperwood studies the night sky from his prison cell:
...Mr. Perry walking hastily by, Mr. William Cox letting himself in at the office door, Mr. Cole's carriage-horses returning from exercise...a stray letter-boy on an obstinate mule...the butcher with his tray, a tidy old woman traveling homewards from a shop with a full basket, two curs quarreling over a dirty bone…
The nebulous conglomerations of the suns in Pleiades suggested a soundless depth of space, and he thought of the earth floating like a little ball in immeasurable reaches of ether. His own life appeared very trivial in view of these things, and he found himself asking whether it was all really of any significance or importance.
—and his painter Eugene Witla meditates on personal ethics:
…[moral conduct] did not matter at all in the ultimate substance and composition of the universe. Any order of society which hoped to endure must have individuals like Mrs. Blue...but they meant nothing in the shifting subtle forces of nature. They were just accidental harmonies blossoming out of something which meant everything to this order, nothing to the universe at large.
Nineteenth-century readers loved Ralph Waldo Emerson for his plainspoken philosophy, packed with warm images of daily life. Time, he wrote in "Prudence," seems at first to be "vacant, indivisible, and divine," but actual living soon cuts time into "trifles and tatters":
A door is to be painted, a lock to be repaired. I want wood or oil, or meal or salt; the house smokes, or I have a headache…these eat up the hours….Do what we can, summer will have its flies; if we walk in the woods we must feed mosquitos.
Henry David Thoreau matched Emerson, his friend and neighbor, in seeing philosophy in nature and nature in philosophy:
Twentieth-century philosophers were seldom as chatty as Emerson and Thoreau, but to my surprise I recently found a person-to-person connection with a modern philosopher who, by reputation, I thought would be brain-crackingly difficult: Ludwig Wittgenstein.
I have often stood on the banks of the Concord watching [the current], an emblem of all progress, following the same law…with time and all that is made; the weeds at the bottom gently bending down the stream, shaken by the watery wind, still planted where their seeds had sunk, but ere long to die and go down likewise
Born in Austria in 1889, Wittgenstein wrote in German, though he spent decades teaching at Cambridge, England. Before his death in 1951, he published only one book, the seventy-five page Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus. Fortunately he filled notebooks with his ideas, and colleagues and students transcribed his lectures and discussions. Philosophical Investigations, his longest work, came out in 1953 and is now recognized as a modern classic.
Wittgenstein's prose often is braincracking—make what you can of this:
"a" can go proxy for a and "b" can go proxy for b, then a stands in relation "R" to "b": this is what that potential internal relation that we are looking for consists in.
—yet he peppers his writing with personal touches that reveal the modest man behind the bold ideas. He's got a self-deprecating sense of humor:
Here I am still making crude mistakes. No doubt of that!
I am conscious of the complete unclarity of these sentences.
—and doesn't take his work too seriously—"A good philosophical work could be written consisting entirely of jokes"—but it's not a game either: "How does one pay for thoughts? The answer, I think, is: with courage." He learns from music—"Uttering a word is like striking a note on the keyboard of the imagination"—and from sports—"A philosopher who is not taking part in discussions is like a boxer who never goes into the ring." He believes in God—"To believe in God means to see that life has a meaning"—but doesn't preach: "Make sure that your religion is between you and God only."
Wittgenstein tried not to get bogged down in details, but to fly instead "to where there is a free view over the whole single great problem." That place, he suggests in an extraordinary series of notes he wrote when only 27, is human happiness:
The world of the happy is a different world from that of the unhappy. The world of the happy is a happy world.
The happy life seems to be in some sense more harmonious than the unhappy.
It seems one can't say anything more than: Live happily!
We have reason to hope that Wittgenstein succeeded, for on his deathbed he told a close friend, "Tell them I've had a wonderful life."