Tuesday, August 17, 2010

The ‘Sin’ of Omission, History, and Philosophy

I picked up this afternoon, as a summer present to myself, a giant collection of fiction by Jorge Borges, who in the past year has become one of my favourite authors, especially in how I approach my shorter pieces of fiction. Thousands of ideas traversing all disciplines of knowledge animate his work, and his work inspires just as many ideas in his readers. Meditating on his work today has distilled in me the reasons for one of the only concrete, unequivocal stands I take in philosophy and art.

I have occasionally come across a philosopher who believes that the discipline’s goal is to discover ultimate universal truths through argument, and that these truths will be simple, clear, and comprehensive. I’ll omit names of those I’ve met personally, and mention one illustrative example that I’ve only read, Scott Shapiro. It’s an admirable goal, the admission and expectation that one day, philosophy will have completed its task, and in so doing, will be the greatest of all possible sciences. It will have explained all of existence in a short series of simple phrases.

It’s a beautiful dream, but an arrogant, hubristic, and ignorant dream. Consider the nature of expression, not in terms of what is meant or what is said or what is understood, but in terms of what is not said. I say a single word, for example, ‘symbol.’ Most of the time, we concentrate on that spoken word itself, and what it could mean, how we can understand it.

But when I say one word, I choose that one over all the thousands of words that I know in the languages I understand. So much of what is possible is omitted when I act. All the words that I could have said are thrown away and forgotten when I choose that one word. This enormous omission of what could have been, of possibility, of capacity, happens with each utterance of every person.

When I am silent, that is actually when I am closest to articulating those dreamy phrases that encompass all the universe, because I omit the least. In not acting, I certainly don’t omit, but I don’t say anything either. Perhaps that’s what Wittgenstein meant when he ended the Tractatus with “That of which we cannot speak, we must be silent.” There are some possibilities, some capacities, that we should not ignore and discard because of the occasional practical need to say stuff. This, I think Wittgenstein tried to say.

I don’t have Wittgenstein’s mystical leanings, but I think this is important for philosophers to consider when trying to articulate their mission statement. Every word said, every idea developed, requires the omission of all the ideas and words within our capacities apart from that one chosen. Articulating what is requires the omission of what could have been. If philosophy is to take capacity seriously, which I believe it must, then we must consider the radical finitude of all sensible statements. What is said cuts away all that could have been said. Can we really consider all that is said to be a complete picture of reality when so much is invariably omitted?