Gotham Diary:
In Relation, cont’d
20 August 2014

If last winter made an old man of me, this summer has not had much of a rejuvenating effect. On my afternoon walks on the beach, of which there have been only two, I made it no further than Atlantique, two communities to the east. I used to walk twice as far, all the way to Lonelyville.

It is not that I am too tired to walk further, just too bored. I used to find the walks relaxing; I felt that they cleared my mind somewhat. Now I just worry about being knocked over by a rogue wave. Yesterday’s waves were about what you’d expect on a moderately stormy day on Lake Michigan. They broke pitifully near the shoreline, but they sent up sheets of water that were now and then forceful enough to make me worry about losing my balance. The walkable, firm part of the beach was very narrow, and I had a hard time keeping to it. I found that the only way to proceed straight ahead, and avoid heading into the ocean, was to bend my steps ever so slightly to the right. Walking on the beach has become a challenge.

Walking into the little town, I’m more able to let my mind wander where it will, especially when there are few passers-by. Presently I arrive at my destination, oblivious.

Thinking is more than ever something that takes place while my fingers scurry over the keyboard — or, rather, when my eyes glance over the trail that they have left behind. Yesterday, I wrote a thinking-out-loud letter to an indulgent friend. I had been piqued by what seemed to me to be an illiterate but increasingly common way of speaking about cultural life. I mulled the usage over at the back of my mind for weeks if not months. Then, last week, I suddenly understood what people using this phrase were trying to say, and what the phrase betrayed about their understanding of culture. Interestingly, this new understanding on my part raised further questions. For a few days (as I mentioned earlier) I had the idea of sketching my thinking on a piece of paper. In the end, however, the thinking-out-loud letter did the job.

When I was through thinking out loud, I went back and rewrote the letter. I replaced the thinking with the thought. I saved both drafts in one Evernote. Polishing up the letter to my friend — it was now a reasonably clear sequence of paragraphs setting forth a relation between the phenomena of novelty, familiarity, and renewal — I was appalled to find that my missive was a tissue of obvious statements already known to anyone who has ever thought about art, literature, or just about anything. I could only hope that the relation of the statements brought something new to the matter.


For years, whenever people would ask me what I wrote about “on my blog,” I would blithely reply that I was still finding that out. Not having a very clear idea of what I was doing or of where I was going was part of the fun of writing here. At some point in the past twelve months, however, that vagueness has become somewhat intolerable. It’s not that I feel obliged to declare a major, as it were. The imperative is internal: I need, not so much to know what I’m doing, as to learn how to talk about it. There are two large difficulties. The first is to develop a way of writing that, while it might sound philosophical to some ears, is clearly not philosophy. The other is to make a case for the humanities that will compel not the admiration but the aspiration of my well-educated readers.

Why have I got such an aversion to philosophy? Because philosophers have always sought to learn about the world by thinking about it. Modern scientists began protesting against this outlook centuries ago. Scientists didn’t just think about the world, they measured it and experimented with it. They put it under the microscope and boiled it over the Bunsen burner. Eventually, the philosophers were left with nothing but moral problems. Here their lack of basic humanity was finally revealed in all its starkness. Just as they had once attempted to grasp the “out there” questions of astronomy and physics by consulting “in here” notions of what ought to be the case in a world presumed to be intelligently designed, so they now continued to project moral wisdom onto an external, objective sphere that could be probed by ratiocination. But morality is the most human of human concerns, and each of us carries everything that there is to know about it. What we need is articulateness, not analysis.

When I try to put the things that people think and then say in relation, I am not trying to erect a system that explains human society. I leave systems to the engineers. When I talk about the world, I am talking about the way we talk about it, with a view to discovering better ways of thinking and talking about it.

I believe that there is only one thing that we can learn about the world (especially the world morally considered) by thinking about it, and that is how human beings talk about the world. What do we say? What do we think we mean? How do our statements stand up together? I am not interested in logic or syntax. I am interested in the findings of cognitive science only to the extent that they show up inadequate speech patterns. I am interested in educated ways of talking. Where do they fall short? What do they consistently miss? How cunningly do they oversimplify?

I’m still stumbling, as you can see, toward an understanding of all of this that can be expressed in one or two clear sentences. When and if I get there, I’ll wonder what took me so long.