Quotes & Commentary #54: Goethe

Quotes & Commentary #54: Goethe

I have, alas, studied philosophy, / Jurisprudence and medicine too, / And, worst of all, theology / With keen endeavor, through and through— / And here I am, for all my lore, / The wretched fool I was before.

—Goethe, Faust

For many years now I have been an avid autodidact. I have, alas, studied philosophy, ancient and modern, analytic and continental. I have read tomes of history and slogged my way through old poems and enormous novels. I have slammed my intellect against textbooks—physics, chemistry, psychology, economics—often to no avail. Theology, biography, books in foreign tongues, collections of essays and classics of science—I have read them all.

And yet, despite all this, a feeling of ignorance, utter and hopeless ignorance, often plagues me. And this feeling is not entirely illusory. After all, there are still huge swaths of knowledge of which I have not the faintest idea. How does a computer work? What about the history of China, Russia, India, Latin America? How do you grow corn or build a house? How do lithium batteries or Wi-Fi work? The world around me is still, in large part, mysterious. And even if I spend my whole life investigating, there simply isn’t enough time to learn it all.

This bothers me. Partially it is a feeling of being inauthentic. How can I be a citizen of a world I don’t understand? How can I act intelligently and make wise choices if so much is beyond my grasp? One need not be omniscient to live authentically, of course; and partial knowledge, being the best we mortals can ever achieve, is what we must work with. Still, it does seem that the more complex the world becomes, as the global economy weaves more and more lives into a tighter knot, the more we must learn in order to achieve even a basic understanding of the ramifications of our lives.

Thoreau felt this, I think, which is what drove him into the woods. At least there, living simply and in relative isolation, he could hope to come to grips with his world. In our post-industrial society, this is simply impossible. Take, for example, the desk that my computer is sitting on. The top is made of wood. Where was the tree cut down, where was the wood cut up, and who did this? What chemical process was used to dye the wood? And the metal legs: What kind of metal is it, where does it come from, how was it put together? Hundreds of people must have had a hand in this simple table, from its beginning as a tree, to the factory, to the truck that transported it, and the shop that finally sold it.

And this is just a table. Multiplied by all the objects in your life, you can get some idea of how enmeshed you are in relationships and technologies that you do not, and cannot, completely understand. I think this feeling of being ignorant of the sources of your own possessions, the fabric of your daily life, is part of what drives me to read.

The table example only touches on the social world. What about questions about the natural world? How does my body work, and why does it have the shape it has? Where did the universe come from and what are its properties? What is the fundamental truth of things? What is the order of reality? Human science has done an astoundingly successful job in tackling these questions. Indeed, it is by far the most successful example of human intellectual efforts. Even so, the world we have discovered is so amazingly complex that no one mind could understand it all. You have to specialize, and study for years, to hope to deeply understand even one part of it. As for the rest, we must settle for simplified versions, popular accounts, sketchy outlines. And even with this recourse, we must still learn continuously if we hope to survey everything.

The vastness of available knowledge, then, is another reason why I read. But there is still a deeper reason. This has to do with what might be called ‘existential’ questions, questions about the meaning and purpose of life. What does it mean to be good? What does it mean for a society to be just? Why are we here, what should we be doing? Questions like these driver seekers into the arms of poets, philosophers, and preachers. These are the questions that have been asked most persistently by our benighted species. We have been hoping to find our place in the universe since the very beginning. And yet, it is these questions that most trenchantly resist final answers.

Seen in this way, the quest for knowledge may seem hopeless. We may end up feeling like Faust, bitter and disappointed, after a lifetime of effort for negligible results. The utter hopelessness of this search is what, I think drives some into religions, where God serves as a universal explanation and justification, for everything and anything. It drove Faust in the opposite direction. Nevertheless, the impossibility of total knowledge or final answers does not mean that we cannot achieve adequate knowledge and workable answers. Our history, our philosophy, literature, and science, has clearly proven otherwise. So instead of being bitter like Faust and selling our soul to some deity or devil, we should embrace the endlessness of the quest. After all, the world would be terribly boring if we could know everything about it.

Quotes & Commentary #45: Montaigne

Quotes & Commentary #45: Montaigne

No pleasure has any savor for me without communication. Not even a merry thought comes to my mind without my being vexed at having produced it alone without anyone to offer it to.

—Michel de Montaigne, Essays

A few months ago I started an Instagram account, and since then something funny has happened.

Whenever I go out—whether its on a walk, a trip to a new city, or sometimes even when I’m alone in my room—a part of my brain keeps on the lookout for a good photo. The shimmering reflections in a pond, the crisscrossing angles and vanishing perspective of a cityscape, or any chance concatenation of color and light: I notice these, and do my best to photograph them when they appear.

Now it has even gotten to the point that, whenever I am taking a photo, I mentally plan how I will digitally edit it, compensating for its defects and accentuating its merits— sharpening some lines and blurring others, turning up the contrast and saturation.

I am not mentioning all this to call attention to my photography skills—which are purely amateurish in any case—but to a pervasive aspect of modern life: the public invasion of privacy.

I have learned to see the world with an imaginary audience by my side, a crowd of silent spectators that follows me around. When I see something beautiful, I do not only savor its beauty, but think to myself: “Wow, there are lots of other people who would find this beautiful, too! I better record it.”

This requires a significant cognitive shift. It means that, aside from my own tastes, I have internalized the tastes of others; or at least I have learned where my tastes and that of others tends to overlap. The consequences of this shift are equally significant. A beautiful dawn, the way a certain window catches the sun’s rays, the flowers in bloom on my walk to work—these are no longer silent joys, but public events.

(Incidentally, as I learn to see the world with the eyes of others, something else is taking place: I am learning to see the world through technology. By now I know when something is too far away to capture, or when the lighting will spoil the photo; and I know which defects I can edit and which ones I can’t. This means I have internalized, not only public tastes, but also technological limitations. My seeing is becoming ever-more mediated.)

It is customary to bemoan this development. I have done so myself, many times. Just today, as I walked through Retiro Park, I found myself thinking evil thoughts about all the people taking selfies. “Just stop posing and enjoy the beautiful day!” I thought, and began ruminating on the decline of modern culture.

And indeed, I do think it’s unhealthy, or at the very least in poor taste, to spend all your time on vacation taking photos of yourself and your friends, photos to be uploaded immediately for the benefit of all your other friends. Like anything, taking photos can be taken too far.

Nevertheless, I think it is a mistake to see this phenomenon—the public invasion of privacy—as fundamentally new. As Montaigne exemplifies, in a time long before Facebook, nearly everybody has the urge to share their pleasures with others. Social media is just a continuation of this. Before the internet, all of us publicized our private joys the old fashioned way: telling our friends and family. Adding pictures to Instagram and Snapchat is just an extension of the ancient art of telling anecdotes.

When I was on my trip to Rome, traveling alone, I visited St. Peter’s in the Vatican. It was such an impressive building that I wanted to go “Ooh” and “Aah,” to gush, to blubber in admiration, but I had no one to do this with. Alone, I had to keep my pleasures to myself; and far from being a neutral fact, I think this actually diminished my enjoyment of the experience. Unshared pleasures aren’t quite as sweet.

Why is this? A cynic would say that we share our pleasures as a form of bragging. “Look at the cool thing I’m doing! Bet your life isn’t as good as mine!”—this is what your vacation selfies say to your friends (and rivals) online. I do not deny that the cynic is partially right; bragging is an unavoidable part of social life. Who doesn’t like being envied?

This is the uglier side of the issue; and I think the bragging motivation—never openly said, but operative—is what drives people to take sharing too far. When people see themselves purely in the light of other people, in a giant popularity contest, then they fall prey to a cycle of envy and bragging. Naturally, everybody does their best to be envied; and since only public joys can be envied, somebody in the thrall of this mentality will neglect all purely private forms of pleasure.

Yet I do not think the cynic is totally right. We humans are a social species. Even the most introverted among us likes to spend time with others. And an extension of our urge to socialize is an urge to share our private selves.

Partially, we do this for validation: to have our judgments and perspective confirmed, to feel more ‘normal’ and less ‘strange’. If I think something is funny, it is a relief to know that others find it funny, too. Maybe this is a sign of weakness, a lack of self-confidence; but I think even the most confident among us feels a relief and joy when somebody confirms their own judgment.

Apart from validation, however, I think there is a simple joy in sharing. It feels good to make someone else smile or laugh; it even feels good to share a negative emotion. The feeling of being alone is one of the most painful feelings we experience, and yet loneliness so often creeps up on us. The feeling of connection—breaking through your own perspective and reaching another’s—is a natural joy, as inherently enjoyable as ice cream. Montaigne thought so; and this is also why, despite some misgivings, I enjoy using Instagram.

This is also why I write a blog rather than keep my scribbling to myself. Indeed, I find that, whenever I try to write something purely for myself, I can hardly write at all. The sentences come out mangled, the thoughts are confused, and the entire thing is mess. To do my best writing, I’ve found that I need a public (or at least a theoretical one). The knowledge that someone else might read my writing keeps me focused; it also makes writing far more fun.

Without a reader, writing feels entirely without consequence to me, and is consequently joyless. Montaigne apparently felt the same way, which is why, despite leading a fairly reclusive life in his castle tower, he published several editions of his essays.

It is vanity to seek fame. But is it vanity to wish to share joys and to connect with others, and to be understood by as many people as possible?


Quotes & Commentary #39: Emerson

Quotes & Commentary #39: Emerson


Each soul is a soul or an individual by virtue of its having or I may say being a power to translate the universe into some particular language of its own.

—Ralph Waldo Emerson

What does it mean for something to be subjective? This means that it depends upon a perspective to exist.

Pleasure and pain are subjective, for example, since they cannot exist independently of an observer; they must be felt to be real. Mt. Everest, on the other hand, exists objectively—or at least we think it does—since that hunk of rock and snow would persist even if there were no humans left to climb it and plant flags on its summit.

Humans, of course, can never get out of their own perspectives and know, for good and certain, that anything exists objectively. Thus “objective” facts are really inter-subjective; that is, they can be verified by other observers.

Contrary to common belief, facts cannot be verified purely through experience, since experience is always personal and therefore private. This is why we are justified in disbelieving mystic visions and reports of miracles.

Two things must happen for raw experience to be turned into objective knowledge.

First the experience must be communicated to another observer through language. Language is a bridge between observers, allowing them to compare, in symbolic form, the reality they perceive. Language is a highly imperfect bridge, to be sure, and much information is lost by turning our raw experience into symbols; nevertheless it is the best we have.

Second, another observer must try to have an experience that matches the experience of the first one. This verification is, again, constrained by the vagueness of language.

Somebody points and says “Look, a helicopter!” Their friend looks up into the sky and says “I see it too!” This correspondence of experience, communicated through words, is the basis for our notion of the objective world.

(There is, of course, the thorny Cartesian question: How can we know for certain that both the helicopter and our friend aren’t hallucinations? We can’t.)

Subjective and objective knowledge share this quality. Our knowledge of the external world—whether a fleeting sensation of a chilly breeze, or a scientific doctrine repeatedly checked—is always symbolic.

A symbol is an arbitrary representation. All words are symbols. The relationship between the word “tree” and actual trees is arbitrary; we could also say arbol or Baum and accomplish the same end. By saying that knowledge is symbolic, I mean that the relationship between the objective facts and our representation of those facts is arbitrary. 

First, the relationship between the external stimulus and our private sensation is an arbitrary one.

Light in itself is electromagnetic radiation. In other words, light in itself doesn’t look like anything; it only has an appearance when photosensitive eyes evolve. Our visual cortex represents the photons that strike our eyes as colors. There is only a symbolic connection between the objective radiation and the internal sensation. The red I experience is only a symbol of a certain wavelength of light that my eyes pick up.

As Santayana said, the senses are poets and only portray the external world as a singer communicates his love: in metaphors. This is the basis for the common observation that there is no way of knowing whether the red I experience is the same as the red you experience. Since the connection between the objective stimulus and the subjective representation is arbitrary, and since it is only me who can observe the result, we can never know for certain how colors look to other individuals.

When we communicate our experiences to others, we translate our direct experience, which is already a symbolic representation of the world, into still more general symbols. As I said above, much information is lost during this second translation. We can, for example, say that we’re seeing the color red, but we cannot say exactly what it looks like.

Modern science, not content with the vagueness of daily speech, uses a stricter language: mathematics. And it also uses a stricter method of confirmation: controlled experiments through which rival hypotheses are tested. Nevertheless, while stricter, scientific knowledge isn’t any less symbolic. To the contrary, modern physics is distinguished for being abstract in the extreme.

To call knowledge symbolic is not to discredit it; it is merely to acknowledge the arbitrariness of our representations of the natural world. Nature can be understood, but first we must translate her into our language. The truth can be spoken, but always with an accent.

Quotes & Commentary #1: Montaigne

Quotes & Commentary #1: Montaigne

“I only quote others to better quote myself.”

—Michel de Montaigne

For many years now, it’s been my habit to write down my favorite quotes from the books I read. These can be passages that are particularly pungent, sentences with a memorable turn of phrase, or an insight that, for whatever reason, resonated with me. This collection of quotes has gradually grown into a sprawling mass, hundreds of pages long.

At present my hoard resembles an attic of precious jewelry, old antique furniture, forgotten knick-knacks, and fading photographs, collecting dust from age and neglect. It is time I put this attic into good order. To do this, I will select a quote I find especially appealing and write a short commentary on it, briefly explaining why I like it, what I think it means, and why I think it’s valuable.

This quote, by Montaigne, is the perfect place to start. On a verbal level, it is arresting because of his phrase “quote myself,” which is intentionally paradoxical. In my experience, this paradox is so true: We learn to express ourselves by imitating others. This is how we learn to speak, sing, paint, and write.

Montaigne did a great deal of quoting in his Essays, most often from ancient authors like Plutarch, Seneca, and Lucretius. Although the effect is sometimes pedantic, by the end you see how Montaigne’s style, tone, and perspective gradually emerges from these influences. He teaches himself how to write by selecting and digesting the writings of others. And this is what I hope to do, too.