Category Archives: Epistemology

Boredom

Goethe
The young Goethe (Illustration by Boris Pelcer, from The New Yorker)

Am reading John Armstrong’s book Life, Love, Goethe, whose short, swift chapters seem to be organized around themes in Goethe’s life, as well as chronology. Ch. 8, “Boredom,” explores how the great writer, in the company of convivial but conventional people, as at the home of a friend, Fritz Jacobi, was bored by the conversation. It was the usual stuff, full of fine and uplifting sentiments — in short, the usual views of the usual people.

Goethe explains what he did in response to such tedious twaddle:

… I was in the habit of making outrageously paradoxical statements in order to provoke the narrow-minded disagreements that people normally get themselves into, and to force them to extreme conclusions. This was, of course, usually offensive to the company and annoying on more than one count….

How often have I found myself in the same position! That is, to stir things up in company, or on Facebook, I’ve taken extreme positions, paradoxical positions, standing or claiming to stand for both A and Z, in order to shake people up, to shape their opinions away from the more tried and true extremes of reactionary self-interest, on the one hand, or PC rectitude, on the other.

Sigh. Provocation is a tough business. Why don’t I let well enough alone and let people ply their dreary platitudes? Maybe because I think that well enough isn’t good enough? Doesn’t provoke interest or thinking of any kind? Or modify our stable, staid, unchallenged opinions?

Because, finally, there’s a value higher than harmony and concord, going along and getting along, for going along and getting along’s sake?

Concrete vs. abstract

big ball
This ball is big! (What the hell are we going to do with it?)

Have had occasion to think, re politics and culture in general, about how we might divide ourselves not into sheep and goats (baa!) but abstract and concrete people.

I don’t mean precisely what the great philosopher Madonna might have had in mind near the start of her career, as she sang “I am a material girl, / And this is a material world.” I’m not talking material vs. spiritual, really. (Many people who profess spirituality, sometimes hysterically, are oddly very material. They are set in the material world and yet profess to be acting and yearning for heaven.)

I mean when we meet and socialize, we tend to talk in concrete terms. Mostly, we tell stories — what we did today, what so and so said, how our best friend is feeling blue. We pile up evidence for the story — data, you might say; concrete and empirical facts; sensory details. For this is the world we live in (thanks, Madonna) — both concrete and material. And what are we ourselves if not material creatures?

Well, many of us begin and end there. We are concrete, set in concrete detail; our feet are set in concrete, like a mobster’s. We talk about the sensory world. We act and work in it, pouring foundations, fixing machines, tuning automobiles, sweeping the floor.

We may rarely if ever make the jump from these concrete details, or data, to abstract conclusions — the kind of thinking, or reasoning, that leaves the physical world and enters the metaphysical or more-than-physical. This is just too big a leap for most of us, who remain moored to our particular time, place, and circumstances.

A good friend from Minnesota, who visited recently, talked about the Black Lives Matter protests in Minneapolis. He was incensed not with the protests themselves, he said, but with their method, for the protesters blocked traffic on the freeway and prolonged rush hour.

He was fastened to the facts, fascinated by the facts of the case, and they incensed him. He did not, could not, make a leap from the facts, the phenomena, to all the possible causes or consequences of this political act. (He only knew that blocking traffic delayed arrival at work and pissed people off.) He said nothing about the oppression of the black community. The violence of white cops. The terrific fear and hatred of the black man that the mere sight of one must inspire in too many of those who “protect and serve.”

Had my friend ever protested in public? I doubt it. He was part of what used to be called “the great silent majority,” who bitch to each other and complain but don’t make a concerted, organized public effort to change things.

But why change things when you have ’em good? The friend is retired from 3M, has investments and a pension, a very healthy retirement income, no wife or kids to look out for. God’s in his heaven and all’s right with the world, or his world anyway.

But thinking about his world would propel us into abstractions, true? A metaphysical, philosophical world where the air is rare and most of us go about gasping. Help, help, help!