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.

Becoming ‘hungry for surprises’: The cultivation of lightness (Part 2)

In Part 1, I discuss the importance of being surprised, arguing that philosophical inquiring presents us with two kinds of surprises: perplexities and illuminations. Today, I discuss the cultivation of lightness in the presence of surprise.

2. The Cultivation of Lightness

One important benefit of learning the art of inquiry is that we become prepared to face up to the ordinary surprises that life reveals to us. Let’s suppose, as I believe we have reason to do, that everyday life is comprised of ordinary surprises, plenty of events occurring in ways or at times that we hadn’t expected, anticipated, or foreseen. We may be disposed to ‘face up’ to these ordinary surprises in any number of unfruitful or problematic ways. In the eyes of the untrained and unvigilant, most attitudinal and emotional responses seem almost like reflex actions, simply–and incorrectly–a deep part of ‘our nature.’

On the one hand, we may respond to an ordinary surprise by raising the intensity of its significance too far up the positive scale. We may simply be astonished, amazed, or nonplussed. Should we accord the event an even greater importance to our lives or our projects, we may experience unwarranted jubilee, ebullience, elation, or ecstasy. A trifle of a surprise gift shouldn’t make us overjoyed to the point of ‘losing ourselves,’ as though our flourishing depended too much on good fortune, the latest news, or good reputation.

On the other hand, we may be disposed to be startled or shocked by surprises, the implication being that this event is creeping up to the status of a threat. In some cases, we may be disappointed or dismayed, and in others frightened, horrified, or paralyzed.

Continue reading “Becoming ‘hungry for surprises’: The cultivation of lightness (Part 2)”

On the importance of being surprised (Part 1)

In the following series of posts, I’d like to say some things about the kind of genre philosophical inquiry is and about the kind of character the practice of inquiry can cultivate. First, I’ll say some things about the nature of surprises in general and about the kinds of surprises–perplexities and illuminations–that emerge during philosophical inquiring. Then, I’d like to offer the thought that inquiring prepares a conversation partner to be on the look-out for ordinary surprises and, when these occur, to suspend judgment and to be courageous and light. I’ll conclude with some thoughts about how inquiring can train us to see surprises as occasions for moving from perplexity to illumination. This inquiring cast of mind, I’d venture, can be discerned as much in inquisitive children as in joke-tellers, in mathematicians as in Nietzsche’s playful gods.

1. On the Importance of Being Surprised

We’re surprised, naturally, when we don’t see it coming. Some event occurs unexpectedly or contrary to our expectations and, during the occurrence, the event shows itself, going unnamed. The pronoun without an antecedent is apropos in this instance, and the name has to ‘grow some legs’ so that it can ‘hurry’ to ‘catch up.’

Continue reading “On the importance of being surprised (Part 1)”

Unstucking ‘stuckness’ (2)


Yesterday I argued that “stuckness” is the best single word description of the ‘place’ in which many people find themselves. Specifically, I said that being stuck involves

1. being unable to go forward toward a future state of being;

2. being unable to go backward, to return to a prior state of being;

3. having the desire to move one way or another;

4. wanting to will something to happen but recognizing, if only dimly, that one’s will is inconsequential;

5. hence, repeating the same gestures or remaining paralyzed while becoming half or fully aware of this repetition or this state of paralysis.

Today I want to provide a sketch of how philosophical inquiry can “unstuck” us.

Definition of Inquiry

In The Art of InquiryI define the latter as “an unrehearsed genre whose principal aims are, first, to reveal to us what we don’t know but thought we did and, second, to bring us a greater sense of clarity than we could have possibly imagined.”

Three Conditions

In late August, I put on a two-day workshop on the art of inquiry at Kaos Pilots, a school based in Aarhus, Denmark. On the second day, I put two cushions on the floor and asked someone, who was prepared to inquire about her life, who was willing to answer in direct speech, and who agreed to say “I don’t know” when she really didn’t know the answer, to sit down in front of me. The rest of the class was seated above us, only a few feet away. The conversation was slow moving and was punctuated by many long and important silences. In this way, we got somewhere together.

In sum, the three conditions for philosophical inquiry are (1) readiness to inquire about one’s life, (2) willingness to speak plainly (without jargon, subterfuge, avoidance, or circumlocution), and (3) a willingness to say “I don’t know” when one really doesn’t know.

The ‘Place’ of Inquiry

Inquiry begins where the claim to knowing ends. Yet it does not amount to ignorance. It resides, instead, in the ‘place’ between ignorance and wisdom. Hence it requires one to take risks without the guarantee that the risks will bear fruit.

‘Stuckness’ Revisited

We inquirers agree with premise 2 (above) that there is no going back and with premise 3 that there is a desire to make progress. However, we reject premises 1, 4, and 5: pace 1, we postulate that another way of life exists; pace 4, we believe that inquiry is concerned with self-understanding, not with volition. Therefore, we do not conclude that paralysis or repetition are the only ‘possible motions.’ We want, as it were, to put thinking in motion.

Unstucking ‘stuckness’: An Example for Future Inquiry

With one conversation partner who has been ‘stuck’ in the legal profession for about a decade, we know that working in law is simply untenable. It would seem, however, that no other form of work would meet his material needs as well as the needs of his children. It would seem as if he cannot–but must–stay put, cannot go back, and yet cannot go forward. What then, except despair?

We undertake one inquiry with the goal of setting the right specifications for another, future inquiry. These specifications would tell us how any line of work would have to look in order to count as being a good form of work period. The answer to our next inquiry would be a line of work that may exist or may not exist (entrepreneurship) but would, in any case, be one with which we are, at present, unfamiliar. We will have to make it up, so to speak, as we go.

The specifications would go as follows. In order to count as a good form of work, it would have to

a) Be a part of stable organization(s)

b) Have stable work hours

c) Have a good mission

d) Offer reasonable or good-enough pay

e) Be reconciliatory rather than adversarial model/atmosphere

f) Be creative–specifically in terms of the craft of writing.

Inquiry, accordingly, is not about ‘keeping searching’ or about ‘casting a wide net’ or even about applying for jobs. It is about thinking seriously in order to reach a greater sense of clarity than we could have possibly imagined.