November 2009

The human mind has a love affair with the rational.  It constantly seeks to find order, pattern, measure, or whatever intelligibility it can in whatever it beholds.  Think, for example, of well-known perceptual illusions, such as the duck-rabbit diagram or the spinning ballerina circulating on the internet these days.  The mind strains to make sense of visual cues when there is little or nothing to make sense of.  Sometimes when no order, pattern, or measure is to be found, the mind will overreach and attempt to find what is not there.  However, the effort to find rationality when there is not any to be found can itself be irrational.  The better response to the reality of irrationality is simply to accept that some things are just unintelligible and then cope with that fact as best as one can.

Because irrationality is a kind of nothingness, it often can, like other nothingnesses, surprise.  The first time I experienced the sensation of trying to breathe underwater when my scuba air supply was cut off, I was surprised.  In some nebulous and unthinking way, I had presumed that I would still breathe but in a non-oxygenating way.  Instead, of course, I discovered that in spite of all my volitional and mental screams for my lungs to breathe, they just sat by inert, motionless like a body buried under a pile of tacklers in football.  Similarly, the first time I picked the brain of a congenitally blind friend to find out what he thought I meant when I said “I can see objects at a distance” and “I see contrasts of bright and dark,” I was surprised.  I guess I expected that he would have confused or twisted or inchoate ideas of what I meant by these expressions.  Instead, he simply had none.  Rows and columns in his spreadsheet of ideas were empty cells.

One of the first meetings with irrationality face-to-face is in mathematics.  The diagonal of a square is incommensurable with the square’s sides.  Translated into plain English this means that the diagonal and the sides are incomprehensible together.  There is no grasping with precision how the length of the diagonal compares with the length of the side.  To get your mind around the length of the diagonal is to disable your capacity also to get your mind around the length of the side, and vice versa.  The irrationality of the diagonal of a square is astounding.  How can something so simple –the comparison of straight lines which are merely pure length—be beyond our mental powers?  It just is.  In fact, mathematics is full of irrationality.  For example, every curve (if it is truly curved rather than jointed) is irrational with every straight line, no matter how slightly deflected from the straight the curve is.  Thus, even mathematical objects –the most innocent-looking of objects—are bizarre and blemished with the stain of unintelligibility.

A second location of irrationality is in values, particularly moral values.  The fact is that many things are good in ways that are irreducible both one to other and all to one.  They are just different like apples and oranges.  Human life, knowledge, beauty, friendship, craftsmanship, and sport are different kinds of goods, and no measuring stick exists that can compare the amount of goodness in each.  But the mind balks at the prospect that moral values are unintelligible when compared side by side.  And so, a whole theory of morality has been constructed and widely accepted that claims it can measure the immeasurable and grasp the ungraspable.  The theory is, of course, utilitarianism.

A third (and especially distressing) place that irrationality is found is in people.  Besides the irrationalities of insanity and imbecility, there is a kind of deep irrationality that even very smart and sane people can possess.  One of my first encounters with profound irrationality in people was when I was eleven.  My Little League coach had invited me to vacation with him and his family at a Southern Californian beach for a few days.  The first evening into the camping trip, Coach Bob got drunk and enraged.  He then pulled out a shotgun, pointed it at his wife, two kids, and me, and demanded that all of us return to the camper and go to sleep.  For the rest of the night as he lay with the gun beside him and we lay quiet in the camper bunks, I remember thinking: “Why is Coach doing this?  How is this going to end?  Should I have seen this coming?”  A few years later another exposure to profound irrationality rocked my comfy, cozy world.  One morning the front-page story of the Riverside, California newspaper that I delivered reported the story of Mary Vincent.  She was a 14-year old girl that had run away from home and was found wandering naked on the side of a California highway.  She had been raped.  She also had both of her arms chopped off below the elbows.  I wondered then and still wonder now: “Why would anyone do that to another human being?”  I cannot fathom what rational appeal is there in hacking off another person’s arms.  The raping, stripping, and abandoning make a little (very little) sense.  But the mutilating makes none.  Still ten plus years later I found myself in the bizarre situation of being locked in an apartment in Southern Germany for about four hours.  I was locked in with three other young children, a middle-aged woman (their mother), and an American buddy.  My buddy and I had left Cologne and travelled four hours south to earn some money by helping to pack up the estate of the woman’s recently deceased mother.  Not long into the trip, however, the woman announced that she had changed the plans, and instead of packing up the estate we would be visiting the quaint city of Strasbourg, France for the weekend.  When my buddy and I informed her that we weren’t going any further with her and her kids, she locked us all within her apartment.  What was this woman thinking?  Ordering two adult American males around?  Locking us in like little children?  We could have done anything we wanted to her apartment, her stuff, and her.  We were bigger, stronger, and outnumbered her.  Still another ten years later I was the target of a girl’s obsessive infatuation.  My rebuffs were interpreted as convoluted “yes’s.”  Random events in the person’s life were interpreted as orchestrated efforts by me to convey meaning.  My minutest movements were interpreted as encrypted messages to her.  In a strange and sick way, I was the warp and woof in the world of a person whom I hardly knew and who definitely did not know me.  What was this person thinking?

When you come across profound irrationality in people, my recommendation is this.  First, recognize it for what it is.  It is something that does not make sense.  Second, stop trying to make sense of it.  It is something that does not make sense.  Third, resign yourself to the fact that profound irrationality in people is yet another unintelligible datum in a universe which in many ways lies beyond our capacity to understand.  Next, keep profoundly irrational people at arm’s length.  If you can keep a city between you and them, that is even better.  Finally, for your own part, live in a reflective and reasonable way which gives witness to who you really are: a rational being.

I just returned from spending three days in New York on a museum trip with students from the Humanities elective, Paris and New York in the Twenties and Thirties.  Perhaps what I have to offer in this entry is not traditional philosophy, but it might be fun anyway.  We spent some time looking at works by Kandinsky – colorful abstract pieces, intersected by seemingly random lines sometimes forming curved shapes.  These are not at all the rigid tile-floor spaces of color by Mondrian.  Caught among the throngs and jostling for a good view, some caught my interest, others were inscrutable.  I overheard many comments of impatience and the sighs of those who could now say they had witnessed the show, found it silly, but satisfied the obligations to whoever had dragged them there.  I thought about Gertrude Stein, who took upon herself the task of interpreting Picasso’s cubism to any who would listen.  She of “A rose is a rose is a rose.”

In her essay, Composition as Explanation, Stein says, “Those who are creating…authentically are naturally only of importance when they are dead…that is the reason why the creator of the new…is an outlaw until he is a classic.”   But she warns us that a first rate work of art becomes a classic precisely because it becomes “accepted.”  And once it is accepted it is possible for people to see its beauty.  But that very process can lead to indolence and dull our perceptions.  Instead, she celebrates irritation.  “Of course it is wonderfully beautiful, only when it is still a thing irritating annoying stimulating then all quality of beauty is denied to it.”   (Note how her bending of grammar and repetition can be irritating.)  We need to pay attention to the way artistic expression and to philosophical ideas irritate us, especially in our time when we are so bombarded with stimulation that it is hard to focus on any one target of significance.  We listen to a song that flooded our ears in high school and now we just need a few bars and we “have it.”  It is a classic, and further attention is not necessary.

When we entered the Museum of Modern Art there was a natural rush to see Van Gogh’s Starry Night.  What could be better than that?  But it is too bad that during his life-time this opinion was not shared.  Look quickly and move on, there are lots of other “classics” to check off of our list.    Stein was motivated by defending Picasso.  Not everyone who is irritating is actually worthy of renown.  But perhaps we need to be more patient with what irritates us.  And perhaps we need to look again at what has become accepted and classic.  Stein cautions, “Of course it is extremely difficult nothing more so than to remember back to its not being beautiful once it has become beautiful.”

Which philosophers of the tradition have become the “classic” ones?  I am still learning to look at Kandinsky.  Which philosophers are worth overcoming the annoying suspicion that they are making things unnecessarily difficult?  Which are worth a new look?  Foucault, Wittgenstein? Aquinas?  Who are your classic classics?

Interview with Prof. Drew Dalton, Department of Philosophy, Saint Anselm College on his new book:

Longing for the Other: Levinas and Metaphysical Desire

2009. Duquesne University Press

Interview: Longing For the Other

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