When the Devil plays with us

Jurgis asked:

What do you think of Merab Mamardashvili’s motto, ‘The Devil is playing with us, when we are not thinking precisely’?

Answer by Gideon Smith-Jones

Talk about ‘precision’ is like waving a red flag to a bull when you’re in conversation with an analytic philosopher. The English language is no longer enough — algebraic symbolism is now the norm in articles published in the major journals. The idea goes back to the 18th century philosopher Leibniz and his ‘characteristica universalis’:

“All our reasoning is nothing but the joining and substituting of characters, whether these characters be words or symbols or pictures… if we could find characters or signs appropriate for expressing all our thoughts as definitely and as exactly as arithmetic expresses numbers or geometric analysis expresses lines, we could in all subjects insofar as they are amenable to reasoning, accomplish what is done in Arithmetic and Geometry.”

(For a longer quote, see http://follydiddledah.com/image_and_quote_7.html.)

The ‘scab of symboles’ as Hobbes called it affects some areas of philosophy more than others. Some parts are still relatively free of it. Yet even then one finds points explained with irritating overkill, as if clarity can be achieved only by the philosophic equivalent of legalese, allowing no possible room for misinterpretation.

This kind of stuff bores me senseless — I’m not ashamed to admit, I won’t even make the attempt to read it even there are reasons to think there is something good buried down there. I don’t care. Let it stay buried. Academic philosophers should talk like normal human beings or shut up — because no-one outside their tiny circle is listening.

My view of precision is much more practical. It’s about having your mind on the job, something Robert Pirsig talks about in his Zen and the Art. It’s not a new idea: Aristotle was there first. You have to have the eye, or the ear, or the feel for what you are doing — whether it is making a brush mark on a canvas, tightening a nut on a motorcycle engine, selecting the right word, or choosing one of innumerable ways of casting an argument.

Mamardashvili was a Georgian philosopher, working under the Soviet regime. (See his profile in the ISFP Gallery of Russian Thinkers http://isfp.co.uk/russian_thinkers/merab_mamardashvili.html.) In his book Philosophizer, Geoffrey Klempner states:

“I have a theory that Russian intellectual life is afflicted by chronic bad conscience, which will take many generations to overcome. Under the Communists, ‘intellectuals’ and ‘philosophers’ (so-called) debated apparently weighty problems, all the time aware of the vast weight of censorship bearing down, silencing any genuinely significant idea. They pretended concern for the pursuit of truth while all the time hopelessly mired in lies. Those who refused to bend ended up in the Gulags. A lucky few escaped to the West.” (Chapter 9, ‘A touch of poshlust’)

This is somewhat unkind. Despite the restrictions on freedom of thought, Russian thinkers succeeded in producing a welter of original ideas, that have no counterpart either in the analytic or continental traditions. Yet there is a point to be made here. When a thinker protests, ‘At all costs, I am trying to think precisely,’ there is always a suspicion that the motivation for philosophy — the pursuit of truth at all costs, regardless of the outcome — has taken second place. This applies as much to analytic philosophy as it does to those Russian thinkers (I suspect Mamardashvili was not one of them)  who allowed themselves to be cowed by the the fascist bullies of the Soviet regime.


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