It is entirely possible that we cannot handle the ever rising tide of knowledge. Yes, I am going to presume that it is knowledge — that we are not barking up the wrong axis mundi, that we are not ten days away from the next Einstein who overturns everything, that this time next year we will not look back on today as back when we were mere children. You might ask how I can possibly make this presumption, and you are right to ask. Nevertheless…
We know a helluva lot. It’s really extraordinary if you stop to think about it. Why should the descendants of some savannah primates be able to figure out all this stuff about quarks, penicillin, double-entry bookkeeping, stock derivatives, the rise and fall of psychoanalysis, Bluetooth (well, right, work in progress), and microchip readers? Any ancient alien bookies would have placed the odds heavily against us. But here we are, trying to drink from a veritable firehouse of veritas, swelling our heads most impressively.
Lots of things don’t exist. Bigfoot, a planet between Uranus and Neptune, yummy gravel, plays written by Immanuel Kant, the pile of hiking shoes stacked on your head — so many things, all of them not existing. Maybe there are more things that don’t exist than we have names for. After all, there are more real objects than we have names for. No one has named every individual squid, nor every rock on Mars, nor every dream you’ve ever had. The list of existing things consists mostly of nameless objects, it seems.
So there also must be a lot of nameless things that don’t exist. The collection of two marbles in my coffee mug — call it “Duo”. Duo doesn’t exist. Nor the collection of three marbles (“Trio”), nor the collection of four marbles, etc. Beyond Duo and Trio, there is an infinity of collections of marbles in my coffee cup that don’t exist, and the greatest portion of them, by a long shot, are nameless. Think of all the integers that don’t exist between 15 and 16. None of them have names. The world is full of them, or it would be, if they existed.
My guess is that there are more nameless things that don’t exist than there are nameless things that do exist. I have read that there is a finite number of particles that exist in the universe, and that’s probably going to limit the number of nameless existing things, somehow. But think of all the particles that don’t exist! There are far more of them, right?
We primates of the homo sapiens variety are very clever when it comes to making maps and plotting courses over dodgy terrain, so it comes as no surprise that we are prone to think of possible actions over time as akin to different paths across a landscape. A choice that comes to me in time can be seen easily as the choice between one path or another, even when geography really has nothing to do with it. My decision to emit one string of words rather than another, or to slip into one attitude or another, or to roll my eyes or stare stolidly ahead, can all be described as taking the path on the right instead the path on the left. And because we primates of the homo sapiens variety are notably bad at forecasting the consequences of our decisions, the decision to choose one path and lose access to the other, forever, can be momentous and frightening. It’s often better to stay in bed.
Indeed, because every decision cuts the future in half, the space of possibilities is carved rapidly into strange and unexpected shapes, causing us to gaze at one another imploringly and ask, “How ever did such a state of things come to pass?” And the answer, you see, is that we and our compatriots made one decision, and then another, and then another, and before long we found ourselves in this fresh hot mess. And we truly need not ascribe “evil” intentions to anyone in the decision chain, as much as we would like to, since our own futuromyopia supplies all the explanation that is needed. We stumble along in the forever blurry present, bitching as we go, like an ill-tempered Mr. Magoo.
(Hegelian World Spirit as Mr. Magoo, the philosopher writes in his notebook.)
A man rides an empty suit. The suit tells others what to think of the man, though it would not fit him. The man does not control the suit, but merely takes a ride upon it, come what may.
In his twenties, Franz Kafka composed a long story, “Description of a Struggle”, which remains one of his most enigmatic works. It follows a dream-like logic from a party, to a stroll through Prague, to an encounter with “a monstrously fat man” being borne in a litter by four naked men, to a supplicant once known by the fat man who prayed by bashing his own head against the stone floor of a church, to a final scene on a mountaintop, where a stabbing takes place, though it does not seem to be very consequential. The end.
Max Brod thought it was a work of genius, though John Updike thought it was adolescent posturing. (¿Por qué no los dos?) Like all of Kafka’s works, it shows up on your doorstep like a locked desk that you are sure contains something you need, but the key is locked inside it; and when you finally bash the desk open, you find your own corpse with a toe tag reading “GUILTY OF BREAKING THE DESK”. Maybe some of the strange imagery Kafka himself could neither explain nor control, maybe some of it spoke of his own secrets, maybe all of it is an existential parable.
One thing is for sure: the story shatters in every way. We might expect a story with a beginning, middle, and end: nope. We might expect some clarity about just whose story it is: nope. We might expect facts to stay fixed, or people to inhabit their own bodies: nope. We might expect some thread of consistency, conversations that make even minimal sense, words of wisdom that do not culminate in irrelevant banalities. Nope, nope, nope. That the work is offered as a story, and even as a description, is an exaggeration. It’s something, all right, and we may try to read it as a story, but the damned thing will not cooperate. It keeps falling apart the more we try to hold it together, like a human life, come to think of it.
Over years of teaching philosophy, I have observed that people fall into two groups with regard to the Biggest Question. The Biggest Question is one that is so big it is hard to fit into words, but here goes: When everything that can be explained has been explained, when we know the truths of physics and brains and psychology and social interactions and so on and so forth, will there still be anything worth wondering about? I am assuming the “wonder” here is a philosophical wonder, not the sort of wonder over whatever happened to my old pocket knife or whatever. It’s the sort of wonder that has a “why-is-there-something-rather-than-nothing” flavor to it. It’s the sort of wonder that doesn’t go away no matter how much is explained.
Some people think that on that sunny day when everything that can be explained has been explained, well then, that will be that. We will understand why things have happened, and how we came to exist, and what we should do if we want to be healthy and happy, and why works of art move us as they do. It’s not that such people are in any way shallow or unimaginative or tone deaf. They are open to the most wonderful experiences of life, along with the most heart-wrenching and most tragic. It’s just that they think these experiences can be explained and understood in all their glory through that explanation. If there is anything “left over” — some stubborn bit of incredulous wonder we just can’t shake — then that too will be explained through some feature of human psychology, like the way those patterns still seem to swirl in a static optical illusion even when you know the trickery behind it. The feeling that there is a Mystery can itself be explained as an illusory sort of feeling, an accidental by-product of the cognitive engine we happen to think with.
“Social media have gutted institutions: journalism, education, and increasingly the halls of government too. When Marjorie Taylor Greene displays some dumb-as-hell anti-communist Scooby-Doo meme before congress, blown up on poster-board and held by some hapless staffer, and declares “This meme is very real”, she is channeling words far, far wiser than the mind that produced them. We’re all just sharing memes now, and those of us who hope to succeed out there in “reality”, in congress and classrooms and so on, momentarily removed from our screens and feeds, must learn how to keep the memes going even then. “Real-world” events, in other words, are staged by the victors in our society principally with an eye to the potential virality of their online uptake. And when virality is the desired outcome, clicks effected in support or in disgust are all the same.”
[…] Somehow, through our language, culture, and shared projects of both construction and destruction, we manage to invent a spirit-world of fictions and concepts that paper over whatever-it-is-that-really-is-there, and we think and act in that spirit-world. It is nearly impossible — or maybe it is necessarily impossible — to tear off the layers of interpretation and take a sneak peak at the In Itself. Instead, we form new spirit-worlds through which we can reference the previous ones, and through a kind of “semantic ascent” we find ourselves with being able to name everything many times over, connecting every alleged thing to every other alleged thing. When the layers upon layers of these spirit-worlds become sufficiently entangled, we come to believe we can speak intelligibly about all things, and we lose sight of the basic fact that it is all a bunch of very sophisticated nonsense we have ourselves summoned into intelligibility. Reification is the birth of (nearly) everything. […]
Philosophers are prone to define knowledge as having reasoned one’s way to some true beliefs. The obvious kicker in any such definition is truth; for how am I supposed to determine whether a belief is true? If I already know what is true, why should I bother with some philosopher’s definition of knowledge? What’s the use of this stupid definition anyway? “Hey, I’m just doing my job,” replies the philosopher. “You wanted to know what knowledge is, and I told you. If you want to know how to get it, that’s another story — and for that you’ll have to pay extra!”
If we think of true beliefs as getting things right — really right, like if you asked God about it they would say, “Yep, that’s what I figure too” — then it is indeed difficult to see how we could ever know the truth, and not just because friendly chats with God are so exceedingly rare, but also because we don’t really know what we mean when we say “really right” instead of just saying “right”. The “really” is supposed to add some special oomph to the knowledge, an oomph we by definition can never experience or access: it is the knowledge of what is going on in the world when no one is knowing it, which is like trying to see what your face looks like when no one is looking at you. “Really”, in this context, just means: at a level that is impossible to attain. Trying to get something really right means never knowing for sure whether you in fact have it right.
“None of this – being imprecise, not quite understanding the import of what one is saying, not being as secure in one’s knowledge as one wishes or thinks – comes close to being anything like the condition of radical intellectual defect or depletion signalled by stupidity. I will resist the impulse to suggest that this all-or-nothing denunciation of any intellectual debility as stupidity might itself be evidence of stupidity. But it may be evidence of the strange, hypnotic force that the idea of stupidity has, even as one might just as well say that wherever stupidity, as the putatively absolute absence of knowing, is assumed to be, it can never in fact be. Rather, it is something like the imaginary wall against which knowing discourse endlessly bumps up and from which it bounces painlessly back to itself. Stupidity is as much a work of fantasy as knowledge is, acting as it does as the indispensable, imaginary outside to knowledge’s gleaming dream of itself” (Steven Connor, The Madness of Knowledge)
[By the way, this is my 50th 3QD essay, by my count. I have encountered many interesting ideas and intelligent and gracious people through the site. It’s been a wonderful partnership.]
Luxuriating in human ignorance was once a classy fad. Overeducated literary types would read Schopenhauer and Kierkegaard and Dostoevsky and Nietzsche, and soak themselves in the quite intelligent conclusion that ultimate reality cannot be known by Terran primates, no matter how many words they use. They would dwell on the suspicion that anything these primates conceive will be skewed by social, sexual, economic, and religious preconceptions and biases; that the very idea that there is an ultimate reality, with a definable character, may very well be a superstition forced upon us by so humble a force as grammar; that in an absurd life bounded on all sides by illusion, the very best a Terran primate might do is to at least be honest with itself, and compassionate toward its colleagues, so that we might all get through this thing together.
But classy fads fade. Indeed, one seemingly inviolable law of philosophical thinking is that any forthright declaration of human ignorance will be followed by a systematic explanation of that ignorance, decorated with special terms and diagrams. We just can’t let it go. Aristotle began his Metaphysics with the claim that all men by nature desire to know, and we would be right to quibble a bit: maybe some men do and some men don’t, and maybe some women also desire to know, and some don’t, and perhaps the most sensible thing to say is that many people like to pretend to know — which would have made for a much more promising beginning to his treatise, come to think of it. But we weren’t there, and Aristotle chugged on ahead as a man who desired to know everything except his own limits.
Of course, it pays to be cautious when you read philosophers writing about what exists. They are slippery, weaving in and out between “in one sense” and “in another” like clever eels wearing togas. The fact that we can talk about what doesn’t exist has long been a problem for philosophers: for what are we talking about? Surely what doesn’t exist must exist in some sense!
So, of course, in one sense just about anything we can talk about exists: it exists even just as a concept, or a figment, or a thin abstraction, or some ghostly possible being. But, in another sense, when we really get down to it, and wrestle to the ground the protean stuff that really does exist — the stuff that even God would be forced to recognize as existing (that is, if God really did exist) — well, there’s not as much of it. We can talk about more than there is.
[WARNING: This post reads suspiciously like an old man’s grumping.]
I think that among many of today’s “content generators” there is a supposition that there is a big conversation going on, among many intellectual people, across the globe, about a handful of topics. The model that is assumed is the model of a small community, perhaps like a remote village or a college campus, or even ancient Athens, in which some thoughtful segment of the population gathers together regularly to discuss Important Matters of the Day. Assume that something like this happens in little towns or college campuses (I have never witnessed such a thing, at any place, at any time, on any scale; but maybe I just haven’t been invited). Now scale that conversation up and spread it over the internet, and what you have is the fiction of a culture: that is to say, some virtual community that shares insights, complaints, theories, satires, jokes, and memes about central issues.
I am supposing myself to be contributing to such a big conversation right now. It won’t be the headline of anyone’s newsfeed, but it will count as a contribution to internet culture, one measly tidbit thrown into the grand bubbling cauldron of public opinion.
But I am deceiving myself, just as all such content providers are deceiving themselves. There is no meaningful culture bringing everyone together into a single conversation. There are many, many small conversations happening at any time, and each one (perhaps) is of some high significance to someone, but no single conversation enfolds us all. There are some conversations among Important People about Important Matters of the Day, and these conversations are sometimes judged by some people (and especially the Important People themselves) as being The Crucial Conversations Animating Global Culture — but all of that is mostly horseshit. The fact is that some people think too highly of themselves, and other people become their groupies in the hope of getting themselves noticed as Affiliates to the Important, and pretty soon there are high mandarins of “our” culture which are mainly just overpaid poopy heads with sniveling sycophants at their feet (or, rather, at their feeds).
In fact, I’m not sure “culture” really means anything. Maybe it did once. The word comes from a farming metaphor, and it is surely true that important developments came along in human history once people moved on from farming crops and raising cattle to farming people, harvesting people’s labor and managing people’s lives in ways that produced strength and profit for a few. Results included big politics, big religion, and culture. Perhaps for some time, each individual could say who they served and to whom they belonged, and that meant something. But nowadays people-farming has become so sophisticated that each of us is being farmed by many entities at once — we serve an indeterminate host of masters — and so it’s nearly impossible to find anyone who can be viewed accurately as belonging to a single “culture”. If you want to know what your “culture” is, list the various ways in which other entities are harvesting your labor (or, equivalently, receiving your credit card payments), and that will tell you everything you need to know about that.
But of course we pretend otherwise. We pretend that we are Beings of Ideas, existing in a flux of concepts which somehow weave together to form an intellectual community, or a culture. By describing that flux we tell ourselves who we are, and as we fight over those ideas we fight over our identities, and perhaps carve out spaces for ourselves in which we may freely develop into autonomous, self-actualized, enlightened beings. But as nice as that sounds, is it really any more meaningful than claiming that by floricating those pampums, we circulate our flimflams, and victuate for our noodles a dicky in which we can clap our sinkums? It seems more meaningful, surely. But see if you can translate the nice phrases into real things you actually do, as opposed to words you tell yourself, or words other people write down for you to read. I’ll wait.
In fact what I see are uncountably many conversations happening all at once, with no significant thing common running through them all. People post memes and photos and insights about Carl Nassib, Billie Eilish, or Pixar’s Luca; they share questions about rules for enemy movement in Gloomhaven, or pictures of their model battleships; they write about clashes in Israel, and artificial intelligence, and melting glaciers; they write about the best refrigerators or glue or electric lawn mowers money can buy; they write fan fictions of their favorite fantasy characters, or opine about the ethics of hairstyles, or judge other people’s tattoos; they write about canceling David Hume, or James Joyce, or the 1619 Project; and on and on and on and on, of course, light years beyond anyone’s imagination. To single out just a few of these — say, Carl Nassib, Israel, and the 1619 Project — and identify them as the hot topics of “our” current cultural conversation is completely arbitrary and without reason, though that is of course what every media channel must do as they attempt to present surfers with a finite list of things they should attend to if they wish to consider themselves “informed”.
But this is a curious notion of being “informed”. It simply means: learning some superficial facts about some random collection of unrelated items someone else is pawning off as significant. Following the latest misadventures of Congress, or the status of Britney Spears’ legal fight over resources, or the appearance of sinkholes in Oklahoma, has the same significance as reading about a model railroad convention in Denver, or the history of the martini, or the meaning behind John Dee’s monadic emblem: it is all just random crap that may or may not grab your attention. The idea that some of it should interest you more than others is a symptom of belief in a reigning culture that in fact does not exist.
So — in case anyone needs to hear such advice — follow what you want to follow, explore whatever engages your own curiosity, and to hell with “culture”.
Suppose you are Father God, or Mother Nature, or Mother God, or Father Nature — doesn’t matter — and you want to raise up a crop of mammals who can reason well about what’s true. At first you think, “No problem! I’ll just ex nihilo some up in a jiffy!” but then you remember that you have resolved to build everything through the painstaking process of evolution by natural selection, which requires small random shifts over time, with every step toward your target resulting in some sort of reproductive advantage for the mammal in question. Okay; this is going to be hard.
Given what you know about reasoning and truth, the mammal is going to have to have access to some way of abstractly representing the world to itself, or language. That in turn will require a community of language users; and that will require a community of beings who fare better through cooperation. This immediately raises the problem of how to evolve beings who are both selfish and social. Selfishness requires cheating whenever you can get away with it, but sociability requires trustworthiness. Striking a workable balance between selfishness and sociability is tricky, but not impossible, as anyone who has worked in corporate knows.
[Reflections on reading Robert B. Brandom, “Some Pragmatist Themes in Hegel’s Idealism”, in his book Tales of the Mighty Dead (Harvard UP, 2002).]
Both Kant and Hegel were writing in a time of thorough-going Enlightenment. For the most part they had moved beyond many of the basic philosophical tasks that kept the early modern philosophers busy, such as staking out what we can be certain of, distinguishing reality from appearance, working out a system of substances, accidents, and causal powers, charting how far human freedom extends, explaining moral obligation, and setting the foundations of political stability. In the span of time separating Descartes and Kant, a Newtonian and Lockean framework had come to dominate the European intellectual scene, which meant that the foundational questions of science, religion, and politics had largely been settled, at least in general outline. The urgent questions for Kant and Hegel were more institutional in nature: how can our social and political institutions be rational? How is the rationality of institutions connected to the rationality of individuals? Or, to put the big question in burdensome Kantian style, what is necessary for the possibility of Enlightened citizens in Enlightened institutions?
In the context of these concerns, what was important about individual human beings for Kant was their capacity to engage in conversations about what is true. Enlightened citizens do not merely squawk in response to environmental pokes and prods; they make assertions for which they assume responsibility. In asserting a claim, they signify that they accept the consequences of that claim, and are willing to provide justification for the claim. Enlightened citizens, in short, think of themselves as grown ups who can engage in a discourse of reasons, and can responsibly navigate their way through dialogues with other similarly Enlightened citizens, giving reasons to one another and responding to them with further reasons.
But at the same time, of course, Kant knew that humans are animals in the natural world, and so this raises a problem. How can animals in the natural world operate as Enlightened citizens? Or, to return to Kantian jargon again, what is necessary for the possibility of animals operating in such a way? The answer to this question was Kant’s set of Critiques. The overall picture Kant offered in answer to this question was that human animals must be able to plug themselves into a system of concepts and judgments that define the structure of rationality. The situation is analogous to learning a language. French has its own grammar and vocabulary, and when I learn French, I learn how to speak according to its structure. Similarly, according to Kant, human animals somehow become able to think and speak in the language of reason, which has its own grammar and vocabulary. But unlike any particular natural language, the language of reason is precisely what enables us to make objective claims about reality, morality, and justice. The language of reason is necessary for the possibility of our efforts in science, morality, and politics — in any language whatsoever.
Kant offers very little insight about the origins or ontology of this language of reason. His concern is to lay out its structure and justify its use, not explain how it came to be. Perhaps he had good reason to claim that no such explanation is possible for us, since it is itself the language in which all explanation takes place, and so it cannot reach outside itself and tell its own origin story. But this is the task Hegel set for himself, and when we experience the vertigo inherent in his attempt — to account for the origins of the framework by which we provide all possible accounts — we might forgive him for writing such maddeningly torturous prose. His answer has something to do with a grand Idea unfolding its own character over time through human history. In any case, what results from his account is the view that Enlightenment is not the expression of a fixed and unchanging system, but one that evolves as we evolve, discovering for ourselves what counts as good reason.
And so it is with Hegel that we find the highest optimistic hope in Enlightenment: not that we fully know how to be Enlightened citizens, but that we can get better at it by working at it, in constant dialogue with one another. For Hegel, there is no way we can fail in the grand project, because every local failure shows us what we should have known, or should have been paying attention to. The deepest challenge to such high-flying optimism is that there is in fact no way to structure an advanced society that does not oppress and marginalize people, or require slavery, or flatten out individuality and suppress creativity and authenticity. Those challenges, in short, are the criticisms of Marx, Foucault, Kierkegaard, and Nietzsche.
Those criticisms must be seriously considered. But there is a cloud of implausibility hanging over them, I think. If the critics of Enlightenment are right, then it is somehow impossible for us to make better and more just societies through rational discourse. Perhaps we can do so by some other means (like trusting to humanity’s innate sociability, or becoming who we are, or something), or perhaps there is really no such thing as a “more just” society, but in any case, the critics charge that rational discourse of the kind that Kant and Hegel sought to establish and explain is of no help at all. And that seems to me very implausible. Civic life has become more humane and just over recorded history, and I think the sort of rational discourse championed by the Enlightenment has had something to do with that improvement. The suggestion that if we all just stopped trying to engage one another with reasoned arguments, then life would get better, or even get no worse, seems absurd to me.
Still, the critics of Enlightenment rightly point out the various ways humans have screwed up, and can do better. They tell us that we must not allow our concerns for efficient and flexible markets and systems to force us treat human beings as mere means; we must encourage the arts and pursuits of authenticity; we need “outsider critiques” of what our institutions are forcing us to do to one another and to ourselves. In short, the critics can be regarded as critics of the imperfect manifestations of Enlightenment — but not of Enlightenment itself. Any rational discourse must be critical if it is to also be constructive.