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Writers Talk About Writing

Writing and Philosophy

My difficulty is only an — enormous — difficulty of expression.
Ludwig Wittgenstein

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.
Phaedo

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:

…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.

—as does page after page of David Hume:

…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:

...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…

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:

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.
The Financier

—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.
—The "Genius"

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:

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

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.

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."


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Michael Lydon, who has written about popular music since the 1960s, is the author of Writing and Life, published by University Press of New England. He has also published a dozen other essays on literature through his own Franklin Street Press. Lydon teaches "The Music of Writing" at St. John's University and leads seminars for teenage writers through the Connecticut Young Writers program. Click here to read more articles by Michael Lydon.

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Comments from our users:

Thursday April 9th 2015, 7:56 AM
Comment by: David C. (Marietta, GA)
A beautiful essay. Thanks.
Thursday April 9th 2015, 8:34 AM
Comment by: Lesley G. (Lowestoft United Kingdom)
Just lovely! Brilliant essay to read at the beginning of a day. Thanks.
Thursday April 9th 2015, 8:41 AM
Comment by: Orin Hargraves (CO)Visual Thesaurus Contributor
Thanks! This is great encouragement for all. I recommend some Charles Sanders Peirce for your diet--clear (usually) and profound (always)! He went a little mad in the end . . .
Thursday April 9th 2015, 12:38 PM
Comment by: Roberta M. (Redmond, WA)
Oh, so fine . . .
Friday April 10th 2015, 2:58 AM
Comment by: Tom C. (Haarlem Netherlands)
Nice essay, though I would say that most if not all the philosophers you quote also wrote passages of vivid and lucid beauty. Plato in his dialogues was also essentially a great dramatist, Hume a great and witty historian, and how about this passage from Russell on the uniformity of nature:

"... if we are asked why we believe it the sun will rise to-morrow, we shall naturally answer, 'Because it always has risen every day'. If we are challenged as to why we believe that it will continue to rise as heretofore, we may appeal to the laws of motion: the earth, we shall say, is a freely rotating body, and such bodies do not cease to rotate unless something interferes from outside, and there is nothing outside to interfere with the earth between now and to-morrow....But the real question is: Do any number of cases of a law being fulfilled in the past afford evidence that it will be fulfilled in the future? If not, it becomes plain that we have no ground whatever for expecting the sun to rise to-morrow, or for expecting the bread we shall eat at our next meal not to poison us, or for any of the other scarcely conscious expectations that control our daily lives. It is to be observed that all such expectations are only probable...Experience has shown us that, hitherto, the frequent repetition of some uniform succession or coexistence has been a cause of our expecting the same succession or coexistence on the next occasion. Food that has a certain appearance generally has a certain taste, and it is a severe shock to our expectations when the familiar appearance is found to be associated with an unusual taste.... one of the horrors of a ghost (in many ghost-stories) is that it fails to give us any sensations of touch. Uneducated people who go abroad for the first time are so surprised as to be incredulous when they find their native language not understood... And this kind of association is not confined to men; in animals also it is very strong... Domestic animals expect food when they see the person who feeds them. We know {such}... crude expectations of uniformity are liable to be misleading. The man who has fed the chicken every day throughout its life at last wrings its neck instead, showing that more refined views as to the uniformity of nature would have been useful to the chicken."

Crystal clear and peppered with vivid images. And that wonderfully dry last sentence was one of the first hooks that persuaded me as a young lad to study Philosophy.
Friday April 10th 2015, 10:05 AM
Comment by: James M. (Brownsburg, IN)
Deep as an ocean, simple as a truth. Supurb and supreme. Jim Mutter, a sentimental realist.
Sunday April 12th 2015, 8:02 PM
Comment by: Craig J.
"By all means marry: if fortunate you'll make a good match; if not, you can always pursue philosophy." Doesn't get much more direct and useful than that.
Sunday April 12th 2015, 11:45 PM
Comment by: begum F.Top 10 Commenter
Yes, this is a thoughtful essay.
All philosophers are wise, but their writings are difficult to understand for common people like me. I remember, I picked Kant's book many times to read, but failed to progress on (barely one page )that specific (Kant's) book. Bertrand Russell, however because of his mathematical presentation was more accessible to me. Because, I once programmed to learn mathematics dearly.
So many philosophers name and their writings Mr. Lyndon collected to present for us in this essay, that's why this presentation is pricy.
I desire to have some of these philosopher's writings to go through entirely.
Thanks for Mr. Lyndon.
Wednesday April 29th 2015, 7:07 PM
Comment by: Michael Lydon (New York, NY)Visual Thesaurus Contributor
Thanks for the comments, VTers!! I am particularly tickled by the long comment from Tom C with the quotation from Bertrand Russell--now that's philosophy I can read and enjoy! I love the image of the poor chicken who gets fed every day until the fatal day when the farmer wrings its neck. Having grown up on a small farm with the dual responsibility of feeding and killing our chickens, I know just what Russell means.

The picture also illustrates a cornerstone of my philosophy: that nobody knows that's going to happen next! That universal ignorance--that's what makes all us humans equal.

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