Monday, September 08, 2014

Epistemic Virtues (3): Boredom

"Knowledge, or the process of seeking knowledge, is a form of play; it is certainly so with all scientists and inventors who are worth anything and who truly accomplish worth-while results." (Lin Yutang, The Importance of Living, pp. 76-7)

"One might ... give the name 'philosophy' to what is possible before all new discoveries and inventions." (Ludwig Wittgenstein, Philosophical Investigations, §126)

"Perhaps after all philosophy began with a sense of boredom." (Lin Yutang, ibid., p. 79)

In yesterday's post I complained of melancholy. I could have said apathy instead. My aim in these somewhat strange posts (even to me) is not confession, however, but an analysis of the difference between an "epistemic" and an "epistemological" project, each striving towards a different goal, each beholden to a different standard of virtue.

In his lectures The Basic Problems of Phenomenology, Heidegger suggested to his students that they did "not in fact apprehend [the] walls [of the lecture hall]—not unless [they were] getting bored" (p. 161). Philosophy, it would seem, begins by going into, or through, one's boredom, rather than allowing oneself to be entertained or, of course, following one's natural curiosity and making a discovery or inventing something. We can apprehend the wall, but soon we wonder what's on the other side of it, or who built it, or where that crack came from. Or we can, as it were, remain bored, and dwell upon the "being" of the wall and, therefore, the being that sits there apprehending it, i.e., our own existence.

I'm suggesting that philosophy is the act of checking our curiosity, of abstaining from the immediate pleasure of discovery and invention, for the sake ... well, yes, for the sake of what? As Wittgenstein puts it, perhaps philosophy is precisely the investigation of what is possible before we satisfy our curiosity. In a profound sense, perhaps, philosophy is an investigation of our curiosity itself. We're trying figure out what it is we really want or need to know, and we're trying to determine, in advance of an actual scientific (or "epistemic") inquiry, what it would mean to overcome our ignorance, what it would mean to know. That is what epistemology is about.

To put a positive spin on it, the philosopher is trying to refine our curiosity. In tackling our boredom, the philosopher is looking for something similar to what T. S. Eliot called a "superior amusement", i.e., something like poetry. (Wittgenstein famously said that philosophy should be composed like poetry.) It is not just that philosophers lack curiosity (about microbes or stars) but that they are skeptical about our attempts to satisfy it. It's not just that they are bored, either; it's that they are critical. Before learning what is actually going on, they want to be clear about what might possibly be going on. They want to know how the actual is possible.

In a famous poem, John Berryman quotes his mother's words: "Ever to confess you’re bored means you have no Inner Resources." There is a similar social censure of the incurious. In fact, we often think of those who lack curiosity as boring. If curiosity and playfulness are widely regarded as virtues, however, we must grant that they are normally associated with youth. So maybe I'm just getting old. What I experience as a lack of curiosity is perhaps just a feeling of having learned quite enough about life. What I experience as boredom is just ordinary contentment. It's not that I lack resources, but that I have too many of them. Instead of thinking of my melancholy as a lack of something, then, a lack of interest in life and learning, for example, perhaps I could think of it as a distinct passion in itself. Maybe it is finally time for me to think.


Jim Collier said...

I refer you to David Foster Wallace's unfinished novel The Pale King.

Thomas said...

Indeed, I cited that book earlier this year, in what turned out to be a related series of reflections on my nihilism: "If you begin to get the idea that other people can actually live by the clear, simple principles of good advice, it can make you feel even worse about your own inabilities. It can cause self-pity, which I think my father recognized as the great enemy of life and contributor to nihilism."

I wonder if my current posts constitute progress.

Thomas said...

How time flies! Those posts were not from earlier this year at all. They're over a year old. If this is progress, how slowly the mind moves at these depths!

Anonymous said...

CS Peirce had some interesting comments about needing to be confused to be creative and that confusion could not be faked. Doubt gives rise to inquiry and cessation of doubt ends it (and you can't doubt what you don't doubt).

Maybe one cannot be curious if they are not in some sense confused. No need to worry, confusion is always just around the corner.