Saturday, August 12, 2017

How to Actually Do Anything: Part One

It's a funny thing, but every eight years or so, thus far in my improbably letter-perfect Eriksonian life journey, I have fallen victim to a mania for self-reinvention. And the weirdest part of all is that these episodes, when they come about, are usually not sparked by failure, but by success. My 8th grade belief that I was suddenly, against all the odds, going to become "cool"... my sudden conviction in my third year of college -- really just a very slightly matured version of the first -- that I was going to become after all a "normal adult" (I didn't realize yet that that's not a thing), with a high-salary job and a house and family in the burbs ("I... choose... a mortal life," I would generally repeat to myself in the ethereal voice of Liv Tyler's Arwen when I was spinning out this fantasy -- signifying in the very act, I suppose, its inherent implausibility). Each of these, I say, was preceded by an epoch of relative achievement.

I notice something else too: that these periodic attempts on my part to kick the goad of innate dorkiness have grown progressively more feeble; and that this last, most recent attempt --the one I wish to describe in this series of posts -- has proven perhaps the most short-lived and outwardly indiscernible of all. But the point I want to make here is, again, that these efforts to shed my boring old familiar self, like a snake sloughing off skin, are never made because I have despaired of achieving that self, or of reaching the perfected state of whatever it is, but because of its very fulfillment and consummation.

Example: my sixth-grade self had achieved the apotheosis of nerd-dom, I felt. There was nowhere further to go in that direction. And since I am cursed with the Protestant ethic; since, like Gide's Alissa in Straight is the Gate, I "cannot desire a state without progress" (Bussy trans.); since I have devoted a whole post already to describing how happiness to me is essentially inconceivable as anything other than an infinite chase after unrealizable ideals, I had to spread outward in some new direction. I had to conquer neighboring kingdoms -- or even far distant ones (in this case, the land of the "cool.") Similarly, in my third year of college, I thought I had done enough by then to prove my "intellectual" credentials and could try something else (oh! how far I still had to climb up that peak-less mountain, I now realize, how far!) Most recently... well, we'll come to that.

In each case, you will be relieved to hear, the fates eventually swatted me back down again. They would not brook my attempt to rise in the world, and I eventually was made to see that it was wrong to leave my rightful station.

I had fallen victim in each case, I now see, to a common fallacy of success -- the belief that because you have figured out how to do one thing reasonably well, you must be able to master all others too. You will probably be more familiar with this syndrome from the examples of clever engineers and natural scientists presenting their latest philosophical proof for or against the existence of God, or the libertarian utopias of technocratic wonder-workers and mathematical prodigies. But I'm afraid it can occasionally befall the student of the liberal arts as well. Sometimes, after some private humanistic triumph of which one is particularly proud -- a notoriously opaque work of philosophy that one finally read and actually understood, for example -- experiencing in the process that glorious and incomparable sensation of "Yes! There is actually something to all this after all, it hasn't just been a hoax perpetrated on scholarly humanity!"; or a "difficult" novel finally and fully digested -- one rises from one's labors with a new buoyancy and optimism. If I can get through that, one thinks, then what on Earth's to stop me from doing the same with the works of Heisenberg, or Keynes' Treatise on Probability, or Von Neumann's early articles on computer architecture? These are also just texts, right? They're written -- or at least, available -- in the English language, aren't they? Can't I pick them up and, so long as I go slowly and have pen, ink, and internet open before me, be able to make some sense of them?

Sometimes, this sudden Promethean quest for forbidden knowledge -- knowledge that has wisely been sealed off from the mere humanist by a protective exo-skeleton of equations-- becomes downright greedy. You start to think not only that you will find new success in all the proscribed fields of intellectual endeavor, but that you might just suddenly be good at everything that you were never good at before -- even in the most far-flung regions of human achievement. Maybe you can actually figure out how to master a musical instrument, for the first time in your life (not only that -- maybe you're already a slumbering, unsuspected virtuoso, just waiting to sit down at the bench and let the mighty inner tempest of artistic skill be unleashed). Maybe you can paint. Maybe you can sing.

Maybe you are even, now -- and having given no prior warnings to the effect in all your twenty-seven years of living -- a great athlete! You just have to get the right book into your hands. A sport, too, after all, is an intellectual exercise, is it not? It requires an infinitude of tiny calculations of muscle and balance and coordination. If you can make it through the World as Will and Representation, why can't you emerge victorious from the Player's Guide to Dart-Throwing as well? "It's all thinking. Really. It is, Dad!" says the young Coleman Silk in Philip Roth's The Human Stain, trying to defend the sport of boxing before his skeptical, intellectual-minded father. Well! I thought, upon reading this. If that's the case, that changes everything. I can think, can't I? So I'm probably good at boxing too!

Oh, Icarean flights, from which one is sure to get scorched! On the night of celebrating the successful completion of my ministerial internship in June, we all went to a bowling alley afterward for a game of ten-pins, and I confess I carried a certain uncharacteristic swagger with me into the room. Of course I was going to throw one perfect strike after another, I thought, just as I felt I had done with my last few sermons.

I soon proved another casualty of the fallacy of success. It turns out that a good ministerial intern does not -- by any necessary logic -- a brilliant bowler make. At various moments, from the vantage point in my lane, I would look over at the scores of the members of our party in the lane next to us and comfort myself that I wasn't absolutely dead last in the group -- there were one or two others who were still trailing behind me. But that was before we reached the end of our lane's game, and I suddenly realized that everyone else in the other party still had about ten rounds to complete. I threw a few more gutter balls and called it a night.

This overweening pride is a rare occurrence in me -- as I say, it only happens about once every eight years -- and is always short-lived. Ordinarily, my inclination is quite the opposite -- my psyche is full of private rules and odd prohibitions based on what I excessively regard as my faults and limitations. This is probably because my efforts at reinvention -- to do something out of character -- when they do periodically occur, always so quickly and ignominiously end in defeat (whether it is an attempt to join a round of pick-up basketball -- this happened during my aforementioned Third Year of College phase -- or the bowling above).

The paradox of it is that not only are these defeats spawned more often than not by previous moments of success (this is a familiar-enough lesson of hubris spurned), but that the obverse also holds: I am generally most contented and at-ease with myself -- least inclined, that is, to manic self-reinvention -- in the years that follow a really convincing failure. I suppose this makes sense. These are the times that give me an excuse to really double down on what I'm good at. They give me permission to go back to plugging away at the handful of skills I seem to actually possess, and leave the math and athletics to more capable hands. Phew! It's always nice to know, at least, who you really are.

For much of the past year, however -- as I say -- I was somehow jogged out of this saintly self-complacency. I think the problem came, this time, from my attempts over the past year to learn Spanish through private lessons. The fatal element was, once again, that I turned out to actually be good at it. Or at least, I managed to learn more than I would have expected in a relatively short time -- and this after years of telling myself that it was already too late for me to acquire a new skill -- still less a new language. Somewhere along the way I had picked up the absurdly self-limiting conviction that one loses this ability irretrievably at age twenty-five . Like most such beliefs, it is an exaggeration of a partial truth. I certainly know less now of Spanish than I would if I had started  when I was still in short pants, but far more than I did before I started the lessons, and more than I would have thought possible.

But human beings, as we know, are seldom content to escape from one exaggeration, lie, or half-truth without next seeing how far they can stumble into its opposite delusion. The pendulum swung, in other words. And what made the Spanish-lesson temptation especially perilous in this instance was that it was accompanied by a series of other positive developments in my life that happened around the same time. A new car. A new full-time job. Doing well at my internship. Success was plainly beckoning its bony finger. I was in danger once again of being ensnared, just as I had been at age 13 and age 21, before. (27 was jumping the gun, I'm now realizing, according to my chronology, so maybe even worse is in store for me once I hit 29).

Perhaps, if I could learn Spanish and get an actual job, I thought, I could do anything -- and especially all of those other things that I had always told myself were out-of-bounds.

So there I stood on the threshold of a suddenly unfolding cosmos, ripe with new possibilities -- a young Joshua Baker Eddy. A new-born Norman Vincent Leach. I might have focused on the ways in which my ability to acquire a modest amount of Spanish related to interests and skills that I had already long-since demonstrated -- my obsession with words and language, say. An innate and totally untrained passion for phonology; a need to repeat interesting sounds to myself and etch them into the record grooves of my mind; an ability to recite the original Star Wars trilogy by heart.

Instead, I zeroed in on something else about Spanish -- a different quality the language possessed -- that seemed to place it in a category wholly separate from anything I had ever learned about or known how to do before: namely, the fact that it was actually useful. It is, to borrow the insufferable phrase, a "marketable skill."

You have to understand that prior to my glorious coup with the Spanish language, I had started to develop an acute and troubling awareness that -- despite decades of schooling and a variety of periodic assurances from my self and others that I was, in some sense, "smart"-- I did not in fact know how to do anything. Nothing at all! I couldn't repair cars or computers. I couldn't play an instrument. I couldn't code. I had, preposterously, chosen to take French in high school. I couldn't play sports or hold down a conversation about them. I didn't even know any magic tricks. And yet, at various times in my life, I have been surrounded by people who could do five or six of these things quite well. People whom I might even outperform on certain established markers of "academic success," yet who possessed all these intellectual gifts that were utterly inaccessible to me. Even the unlettered Jordan Catalano, of My So-Called Life, could play the guitar! Sure, he's fictional, but I know you've met his kind.

This is all, of course, a common enough complaint among liberal arts majors, but I swear to you, I have this gentleman-amateur syndrome worse even than most. I became a history major in large part because it was one of the few humanistic fields I could think of that had no technical corpus or methodology to master, of any kind. Or at least, it was possible to slink through the major in ways that avoided any contact with paleography or philology or anything else that threatened to taint the purity of abstraction by necessitating that one acquire an actual skill. History seemed to me to be a little bit of everything, and not too much of anything. It was the very liberal-est of the liberal arts. And it was, therefore, a perfect training ground in which to hone my chosen intellectual craft -- that of the expert generalist.

I don't exactly know what this is. I've never seen it named or defined anywhere. But it appears to be the thing that I do on this blog. It evidently involves a lot of quotation from various sources; and yet, to say what kind of "knowledge" it has to impart would be very hard to do. What does a "discovery" in the field of expert-generalism look like, exactly?  How would we recognize a new find? It is a discipline, this expert-generalism, that makes claims about the human mind and the human personality; yet it is not -- gladly -- psychology, for it would not wish to submit any of its most interesting hypotheses to an actual test. It is not sociology or political science, though it wishes to pronounce on both.

It is something like philosophy, I suppose, in that it picks up wherever other things that are more obviously "knowledge" leave off. Let us therefore spin that possibility out a bit farther, and see where it takes us.

For large parts of college and even into divinity school, I did in fact think that I might after all be a philosopher. Did I not, as an expert generalist, only seem to become really interested in something once I could ask: "but what is it really about? What is beneath all that?" Was I not unsatisfied with any argument until I could somehow wedge it into the form: "Even if X appears to be Y, in the very act of appearing to be Y, it reveals that it is actually X"? (viz. the examples of recent entries on this blog: 'In the very act of telling self-deprecating stories about their Jewishness, This American Life contributors in fact display their confidence and security in their Jewish identity'; or, 'in their very manner of condemning liberalism, anti-liberals betray their debt to liberalism!').

As my friend Seanan periodically accuses me, I try to make everything into a "transcendental argument." It's the only philosophical chess-move I ever learned, and so I use it at every opening. I would turn a dispute over K-Pop into Kant's Copernican Revolution. (Indeed, I notice two "in the very act of"s in the first two paragraphs of this post -- we're starting off here at a rate of one transcendental per para).

Yet maybe this reliance on the transcendental argument doesn't just reflect my limitations, but those of philosophy itself. Perhaps such arguments about think-ability and conceivability are the only ones that can be made in a field that proposes to assert knowledge claims about that which undergirds all possible knowledge -- and which is therefore outside the realm of knowledge by definition. Perhaps, then, all philosophical questions are either non-sensical, or never needed to be asked, or both. This would certainly help explain why there is so often that feeling, after decades or a lifetime of philosophizing, of having gotten only as far as where one started. It accounts for the tail-chasing Ouroboros quality of the whole discipline, the fly buzzing around in its fly-bottle, to borrow the famous image from Wittgenstein. To cite a passage from the little-known Benjamin Paul Blood that is memorably quoted in James' Varieties of Religious Experience: "Ordinary philosophy is like a hound hunting his own trail. The more he hunts the farther he has to go, and his nose never catches up with his heels, because it is forever ahead of them."

As Dr. Johnson writes: "It is difficult to prove the [foundational] principles of science; because notions cannot always be found more intelligible than those which are questioned." You can't use the most fundamental axioms of knowledge to explain themselves. I suppose that means these axioms are true, or that their truth is unknowable, or perhaps that it is self-contradictory to question the truth of that which is a necessary basis for the concept of truth, and for all human truth-gathering, in the first place. But in any of these cases, we are not likely to have any version of philosophy that manages to take us any distance further than its point of departure. We will cycle through endless words without uncovering anything resembling a knowledge claim that wasn't already obvious from the outset. Or perhaps we discover the impossibility and futility of all attempts to seek knowledge that rests on absolute foundations. "When the errors have been used up/ As our last companion, facing us/ Sits nothingness," was Brecht's despairing analysis of the situation (Hamburger trans.) Or, as Samuel Butler somewhat more optimistically and delightfully describes it:
"[Ernest] was continually studying scientific and metaphysical writers, in the hope of either finding or making for himself a philosopher’s stone in the shape of a system which should go on all fours under all circumstances, instead of being liable to be upset at every touch and turn, as every system yet promulgated has turned out to be.
He kept to the pursuit of this will-o’-the-wisp so long that I gave up hope, and set him down as another fly that had been caught, as it were, by a piece of paper daubed over with some sticky stuff that had not even the merit of being sweet, but to my surprise he at last declared that he was satisfied, and had found what he wanted.
I supposed that he had only hit upon some new 'Lo, here!' when to my relief, he told me that he had concluded that no system which should go perfectly upon all fours was possible, inasmuch as no one could get behind Bishop Berkeley, and therefore no absolutely incontrovertible first premise could ever be laid.  [...] Having found out that no system based on absolute certainty was possible he was contented.
I had only a very vague idea who Bishop Berkeley was, but was thankful to him for having defended us from an incontrovertible first premise.  I am afraid I said a few words implying that after a great deal of trouble he had arrived at the conclusion which sensible people reach without bothering their brains so much."
I too labored in the vineyard of philosophy in my undergraduate years, in my humble way, and into my early twenties, but could get no further than Ernest did. I'm not sure anyone ever has. And when I complain about all of this to a friend who knows a great deal more about philosophy than I do, he usually tells me that I'm conflating some of the foundational subfields of the discipline -- metaphysics, meta-ethics, and the like -- with philosophy proper, and that while it may perhaps be true that one cannot get very far past Ernest and Bishop Berkeley in the realm of the most fundamental precepts of knowledge -- unless it is to show that their skepticism is itself an attempt to think the unthinkable or something to that effect -- this should not lead us to neglect the glorious conceptual cathedrals that can be erected on the basis of these unquestioned and unquestionable presuppositions.

Maybe that's so. But, just as I could never really manage to be interested in science or mathematics unless I could find a way to be philosophical about them -- to ask how scientific and mathematical knowledge is possible in the first place, say, or some other pseudo-profundity -- I also can't really find it in me to be interested in philosophy when it is concerned with anything other than its own foundations.

For a long time, I even took a sneaking delight in this fact. Gosh, I must really be a deep thinker, I blushed, if I am straining ever after the ineffable, attempting always to puncture the enveloping walls of the human conceptual apparatus, and get at what's beyond, to touch the very face of the Thing-in-Itself. And of course, I found justification for this course in the works of certain philosophers who entertained similar fixations. One such vindicating passage I found in The World as Will and Representation -- which I never entirely finished, truth be told, but I made it pretty damn far into volume one, thank you very much! It is the one in which Schopenhauer declares that no true geniuses are ever interested in mathematics, per se, since the latter is concerned purely with the abstract forms of the human conceptual apparatus -- time, quantity, etc.-- rather than with whatever is behind all of that, what underlies the apparatus itself, which is what the genius is truly after.

I find this to be a very satisfying and self-exonerating statement, for those of us who remain relentlessly mathematically illiterate in a society that prizes mathematical skill above all others -- a society in which, Schopenhauer be damned, "genius" has practically come to be defined as having a talent for mathematics.

One breathes a similar sigh of relief upon finding the following quotation from Wittgenstein in Ray Monk's biography: "[S]cientific questions [...] never really grip me. Only conceptual and aesthetic questions do that. At bottom I am indifferent to the solution of scientific problems[.]"

Yes, just so! But why is this?

Well, it's because scientific, mathematic, and technical knowledge so often seems like just "one damn thing after another," to borrow one of the cherished phrases of Prof. Jonathan Z. Smith. These are disciplines full of lists, full of phenomena, full of form, full of facts, but what does it all mean, what's it all leading up to, what does it point us toward that's really fundamental? What's underneath all these facts? What is a fact in the first place? How is a fact possible? And what a fine thing it must be to be the sort of person who asks these questions! -- to be a person who is laboring at the very foundations on which all these other people's much-vaunted disciplines rest!

The scientists, mathematicians, and technologists, however, have two excellent potential rejoinders at this point. The first is that this may all have been well and good for Wittgenstein, but you, sir, are no Ludwig Wittgenstein, no more than Dan Quayle was Jack Kennedy.

The second, less ad hominem of the pair, would be to tell me that -- for the reasons I've already articulated --there is in fact nothing at all to really be done at the foundations of human knowledge. Either these foundations are there or they aren't, but nobody is going to be able to shed much light on the fact one way or the other, since the fundamental precepts of knowledge cannot be examined without the aid of those precepts, and so one is up a creek.

And meanwhile, all this time that I've been sitting at the base of the pyramid and butting my head against the limits of the thinkable, those above me have been busy acquiring actual knowledge and actual skills.

So, perhaps, as an "expert generalist," I have been trying to out-philosophy philosophy. If the latter picks up where other forms of knowledge end, then expert generalism picks up where philosophical knowledge ends. But in that case, it is dangerously close to being nothing at all!

And so it is that I managed to reach my twenty-sixth year possessing only this most nebulous and ill-defined sort of literary knowledge -- nothing that could be described as concrete -- and which might in fact -- perish the thought -- not actually exist. Even philosophy, that notorious web of abstractions, had proven too practical and technical to hold my interest. I could only really manage to be interested in the unknowable, which is a very uncomfortable position to be in, since one is not likely to make much progress or have much of a future in that field. And much as I had started to resent it, I assumed it was my irrevocable fate.

You can see, then, why the sudden appearance of a moderate facility with the Spanish language would come as such a shock to my system, and threaten to set me off on one of my manias. If I could after all learn useful things -- if I could make up for time I had lost digging at the foundations of the house of wisdom by starting to acquire some technical expertise in something -- if it was not in fact too late for me -- then who knew what else might not be possible?

But to know the thrilling resolution of that tale will require waiting for Part II of this series. See! our hero grapple with the formals arts of prosody and rhetoric. Hear! our crashing fingers mash the keyboards of pianos and computers alike, in the effort to learn either music or HTML. Watch! the slight spraining of the neck achieved by executing imperfect Aikido rolls on his living room floor. All coming up next time on: How to Actually Do Anything: Part Two.

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