Not what you do professionally
but what can entertain you defines who you are.

was originally published on Meandering home


Meditation on humor

Breathe in. Think of the ridiculousness of life, the absurdity of existence, mortal or otherwise, the laughable preoccupations of breathing animals, the inane schemes devised by homo sapiens to cope with all that, and finally the splendid endeavour to derive from it the source of mere funnyness. We are asking if humor is our best chance of making sense of the world.

Is humor indispensible? Let us first observe humor depends on context. A mere pun or an isolated witty remark is not yet humor. It gets funny against the background of the context, which is alwags a power relation involving an implicit or explicit prohibition of the joke. Humor is a way to free oneself for a moment from a stronger power, because our laughing is beyond its control – and the more they try to impose their control, the funnier it gets.

Famous jokes about communism (coffee without cream rather than without milk because we ran out of milk) expose the system by demonstrating it is susceptible to jokes. It is no longer impenetrable and the ironic jomes about the system are ‘more ultimate’ than the system itself. No Red Book can compete with a good round of jokes.

Smile. I wanted to write a metaphysical account of humor and how the ironic distance allows us to share something universal because it makes visible the inadequacy of the internal rules of what we observe. I decided against it, because I haven’t thought it true. And perhaps is humor the very thing we don’t need a theory of.

Meditation on humor was originally published on Meandering home

Meditation on purpose

We sit still with our eyes closed. In the distance, across the fields, are green hills. Alright, this is my concrete situation perhaps not yours. Never mind. The why-question or more precisely the what are we here for question is personally daunting. So much so, that we assume we can hardly help each other finding an answer.

Of course, there are no answers, only provisionary directions. Ideas we can adhere to. I leave religion out of this meditation for I am no priest. In humanism these guiding ideas might be something like contributing to society as good as you can, or searching for scientific truth.

I like to categorize these ambitions as love. Love for truth, love for other people, art, music, words, food. May our purpose come from love, not from fear. What do you fear? Death, shame, loss, the elements, financial insecurity, disease, dementia? Close your eyes. Next to you there is a poisonous snake. It doesn’t move. Are you afraid? Now on the other side there is a snake as well. You were in the right place to survive all along. Oftentimes, fear can misinform us.

So we should ask: How does this fear relate to our love? Can if make our love grow or is it an obstacle? Maybe we should realize that in the light of our mortality, the life-affirming sentiment of love is our most sensible wager. What we create out of love can be remembered independently of the morals of the day, to paraphrase Nietzsche.

Breathe deeply. Ask yourself what is making you tick, and what is it you want to make you tick? It the first based on fear and the second based on love?

Meditation on purpose was originally published on Meandering home

Conversation and Correspondence

It has been said – I heard the physicist Freeman Dyson relating it – that the human urge to converse is akin to the termite’s instinct to build castles. Perhaps the truth of this becomes most clear in the edge case of the hermit who converses or corresponds with an imaginary interlocutor. Henry David Thoreau wrote Walden for an audience; Nietzsche’s deep loneliness is ultimately a yearning for company. Perhaps this yearning, the more intensely it is experienced, invokes the fear that the desired union gets tainted, leading to a gesture of postponing, the bittersweet thought that ‘true’ friendship is always a thing of the future. Nietzsche had his own disappointments with Richard Wagner or his ménage à trois with Lou Salomé and Paul Rée. His Übermensch is above all else capable of friendship, i.e. noble, witty, deep conversation.

We could learn a great deal from intellectual history, and I relish in Peter Watson’s books about it, but I want a working answer for myself. Can the notion of good Conversation (with good wine of earthly, not aquatic, origin) deliver on the promise to give us enough meaning to live fulfilling lives? And can it do this without the backlash of fanaticism, a cult, say, that enforces certain rules of conversation and punishes those who fail or refuse to follow them? Can our idea of conversation become something sacred without the symbolic scaffolding of explicit rules?

I think this is an okay question. Wittgenstein pointed out we always follow public language rules, consciously or not; Habermas attempted a Theory of communicative action as a new foundation of philosophy herself. If we officially elevate conversation to the status of ‘ultimate’ source of meaning, does that destroy the very vitality we had imagined would quench our thirst?

Conversation is the practice of relentless critical interest in each other’s mind that must in my view defy any definite rules, including of course the rule that there are no rules. Provisionary, pragmatic rules are thus indispensible but they are more like patterns than like laws. As soon as we enshrine them (I choose that term deliberately), conversation can find a way around it. It can always find a way to mock or subvert these rules. In more technical words, conversation will never be Turing decidible.

This elegant openness is wonderful and it would be all too human to assert some sort of élan vital at work underneath our endearing attempts to join each other in conversation. Some sort of metaphysical redeeming Truth that appears but through human minds who are ultimately rewarded with the Platonic Union when the lights go out.

In other words: Let us just talk with each other. And believe one thing if you must: After you leave the scene, you will have gotten away with it.

Conversation and Correspondence was originally published on Meandering home

Meditation on Beauty

Begin with breathing, as usual. Today we think about beauty. Let us be aware of all the preconceptions and just look at them in our mind. Symmetrical patterns. Some sort of similarity with things we expect to give us pleasure. An evolutionary side effect like a peacock feathers that for the female peacock are not beautiful but merely a trigger for reproductive behavior. Breathe again.

Let’s apply an operation we like when we feel we are stuck in static thinking. We understand our concept as a verb. We say not: something is beautiful, but: something beauties us. We want the aspect of time, of development. What we are saying is that beauty is structured like a narrative, a story. That is a wild speculation so let’s have a glass of water before we continue.

A story must engage us to invoke any emotion. We are going to make vague arguments that would require an entire book, but we don’t have time for the book. Yet, we are not rushing either. A story is told by another mind, we intuitively know this mind has the same expressive capability as we do. It is in the same way limited as we are: we cannot think its limitation. We breathe. This would be a complicated argument that we will leave for another time. Beauty is also a story that must be told in a language that we experience as universal.

Let’s think of traditional art forms like a symphony, a classicist painting or a sonnet. We find beauty in them as long as the story engages us. When we become aware of the limitations of their language, we might start to find it trivial and incapable of an aesthetic predicate. Once we talk about the limitations of tonal music, realist painting or formal poetry, we oblige ourselves to extend the domain of beauty. A theorist who is fully aware of these things might find beauty in Schönberg, Warhol or Ginsberg. This doesn’t invalidate the beauty of Beethoven, Rembrandt and Shakespeare, it just adds new ideas for situations where the limits of the old aesthetics become visible, much like Einstein’s theory of relativity didn’t invalidate Newton’s laws in their limited domain.

Breathe. We can read a book about the history of philosophical aesthetics and to which ‘school’ we belong. What is it we are saying? That aesthetic relativism is a serious challenge (a scandal even) that we must continually address. We can’t eliminate the notion of aesthetic relativism because things change and new limits become visible. Relativism can never be total either, because there are certain characteristics of ‘beautying’ (or ‘uglying’) that we can derive from its structure as a story.

Artwork by Ian Bourgeot

Meditation on Beauty was originally published on Meandering home