Rewriting Wittgenstein’s opening ‘Remarks’

I have returned time and again to Wittgenstein’s opening statements on method from ‘Remarks on Frazer’s Golden Bough‘:

One must start out in error and convert it into truth.

That is, one must reveal the source of error, otherwise hearing the truth won’t do any good. The truth cannot force its way in when something else is occupying its place.

To convince someone of the truth, it is not enough to state it, but rather one must find the path from error to truth.

In a philosophical conversation, I want to revise the claims so that they fit the genre of philosophical inquiry. Thus:

We must start out in bewilderment and convert it into illumination.

That is, we must reveal the source of our puzzlement, sometimes stating the same question time and again, sometimes posing some other question (its cousin, its neighbor), otherwise things will remain mysterious and it will do us not good. For illumination cannot force its way in when something else is occupying its place.

To guide someone to self-understanding, it is not enough to state it, but both of us must find the path from bewilderment to illumination.

This path is one of fullness.

Preparing for the unforeseen (A welcome joke)

Darkness. Philosophy. Not knowing what is coming but coming prepared anyway. How? Laughter. Eagerly anticipating (is that so?) or slightly unsteady. Fearful, maybe a little. Meanwhile, as still as the desert sand, life is. Are we? Not knowing but here and ready. We say. I tell the story about the pupil who wants to learn swordplay. Years of drudgery, complaints to the master, then the master agreeing to take him on, surprising him left and right. Smashing him on the head this time but not the next. Long pause. Not knowing what to make of this story. Therefore, not ready after all. Laughter. Open now to letting new things come in.

Preparation for having a philosophical conversation

The following post is addressed to new conversation partners as well as to philosophical friends. This worksheet (if that is what it is) is the result of a few years of conversing with conversation partners and philosophical friends over Skype. It should be considered a work in progress. That is, it is open to adjustments, reconsiderations, and revisions from time to time.


The Two Aims

There are two aims to preparing yourself for having a philosophical conversation with me. The first is to ‘bracket’ excitatory sights, sounds, smells, and touches. It is through perception that one may begin to remember past events, wonder about insignificant things, imagine certain other things, or anticipate certain desirable or undesirable future states of affairs. ‘Bracketing’ loud noises, bright colors, strong scents should therefore make it less likely that your attention will be drawn away from the inquiry at hand.

The second aim of this form of preparation is to put yourself into a frame of mind in which you are alert yet composed, ready without being overly eager, attentive without being stirred up. You should feel as if you are prepared for something significant to occur without knowing what that is, how it will happen, or when it will take place.


Each of the following sections is meant to direct you to some aspect of your preparation.

The Contemplative Space

Consider the room in which you’ll dwell. Flashy colors aren’t especially good nor are big and bold works of art. The room should be spare, bare, minimal, not filled with too many items. A plant or two could be nice, plus a window looking out onto tranquil nature.

Being dimly lit is good. No harsh lights. Near darkness or soft, beautiful natural light is good.

How far is this room from anyone else? Is it quiet? There may be a couple of windows, which would be fine, but avoid a space that resembles a glass cube. We do not wish to be the “lovers of sights and sounds,” as Plato calls pleasure-seekers in The Republic.

Sitting on the floor is desirable (though not necessary) not just because it puts you into a state of humility (low to the ground rather than high above the world) but also because you are not indulging into slouching, curling, or slumping (e.g., on a plush couch or a comfy chair). You may find it helpful to sit on a meditation cushion as I do, or you may find a chair or stiff cushion that enables you to remain in an energetic, upright position. Some find that, provided that they can stay alert, that lying on their backs works. Feel free to experiment.

Now consider the temperature of the room. Not too hot (because heat can make you drowsy) and not too cold (because you’ll notice too often the feel of your skin and breath). I’ve found that a touch on the cool side is best. You want to be put yourself into a mode of alertness, sensing that you are alive just now.


You’re welcome to meditate with me for 30 minutes in silence before our conversation. I believe it is good not to offer instructions apart from the invitation for you to close your eyes, be silent, and breathe. If you’re not yet ready to meditate, you needn’t feel so obliged.

You may try sitting in lotus or half-lotus pose; you can also try kneeling with a cushion underneath you or you can find a sturdy, wooden chair.

Electronic Devices

Turn all of these off beforehand. Make sure that they’re out of sight and, if possible, in another room.

Using Skype 

Here we need to be perceptive. We want to pare down Skype to its bare minimum. We want only the voice-to-voice, as if one voice were speaking directly into the ear of the other.

Here is how you change your settings. Do so at least a day before our conversation. Open Skype. Go into Preferences > Notifications. Change all notifications so that there are no sounds (except for an incoming call), no visual or auditory notifications, no sounds made during any messages sent or received. We’re looking for Skype to be a hands-free phone and effectively to “forget itself” as a piece of technology.

It would be good to use a headphones so that the noises outside are muffled and so that our voices come through clearly. We want to enter this subtle, otherwise soundless space together.

While we’re meditating, set your availability to Away or Do Not Disturb. I usually go with Away.

Moments before we speak, set your availability to Online so that I know that you are here. I will write you some brief messages (a ritual of a kind) before I call. I’ll tell you that I’m calling so that you’re not startled.

While we’re speaking,

  • Turn off the video feature on Skype.
  • If possible, set your computer off to the side (i.e., on the periphery, outside the center of your gaze).
  • Turn the brightness of the computer screen down to zero so that the screen is dark.
  • Throughout the conversation, you may wish to close your eyes.
  •  Avoid the temptation to have lots of things around you. You probably won’t need a notebook as I’ll be keeping notes in long calligraphic brushstrokes, and I’ll be sending you my notes afterward.
  • A small glass of water or a small mug of tea would be fine but no caffeine. (On the problem of attention in relation to caffeine, see here.)
  • After we begin, do not pay any attention to the clock. Make sure that there isn’t a clock around you except, perhaps, for a small watch or alarm you used in order to ensure that you concluded your meditation before we were set to begin.

The Unfolding of the Conversation

We begin each conversation at the exact starting time. This shows mutual respect as well as mutual reliability. However, we do not know how long the conversation will last or when it will end. The latter require humility, patience, and courage. 

Throughout the conversation, we listen for wherever the inquiry is leading us. Doing so demonstrates openness.

Inclining the ear of the mind

A rare and lovely morning free. A time for reflection…

Addressing the young cenobite, St. Benedict speaks of ‘inclining the ear of the heart.’ Reading this, recalling it, meditating upon it this morning, I am put in mind of philosophical conversation: of the activity which teaches one how to incline the ear of the mind.

In The Concept of Mind, Gilbert Ryle seeks to pay mind to mindedness. The mind is not a ‘ghost in the machine.’ On the contrary, mind is worlding: one is minding–that is, proceeding carefully, attentively, mindfully–when one is paying heed to what and how one is doing. There is but one activity–minding–when one is philosophizing.

Now, a philosophical conversation is an activity of inclining the ear of the mind. The mind follows along the slow and carefully crafted speech of the philosophical friend and, by means of this inclining, listens and responds with the next appropriate question, the next minded line of thought. The listening is a listing: the listing of the ear, the delicate listing of a boat, the listing of musical fingers…

This inclining ear-of-the-mind responds not with stock phrase (since it cannot) but with living discourse of the sort that remains true (think of a wheel’s ‘being true’) to the living discourse of the philosophical friend. We sense: inclining mind-ear to–or rather, with–inclining mind-ear: such is what transpires. Such, dispassionately, absorbedly, is called ‘mutual understanding.’

Mind pays mind, paradoxically, when it follows along with gentle care at the same time that it inclines all minds thitherward. Two inclining minds thus minding the way. Following a course. Inclining toward it, on it. So, coursing.