CURIOSITY: The desire to enlarge oneself is the desire to embrace
more and more possibilities, to be constantly learning,
to give oneself entirely over to curiosity.


16 July 2004

My good friend Joe Hanak was harassing me the other night.

He said he was rereading a book, and to save time he decided to focus only the passages he had highlighted. He said that put him in a better position than me because, "If you reread a book, you have to reread the passages you highlighted one night, the passages you underlined in blue the next night, the passages you underlined in red the next night, the notes you wrote in the margins the next night ..." and therefore, might just as well reread the whole damn book.

I was reminded of this today as I was rereading an essay by Richard Rorty called, "Heidegger, Contingency and Pragmatism" in his book "Essays on Heidegger and Others: Philosophical Papers, Volume 2."

In this essay Rorty makes the point that Western philosophy has long been obsessed with "getting things right" in foundational and essential ways, the idea that, "Plato and Aristotle built the quest for certainty into our sense of what thinking is for."

He says that 2,000 years of philosophizing have shown us that this is an impossible position to put ourselves in, that "after many fits and starts, it has turned out that the only thing we can be certain about is what we want. The only things that are really evident to us are our own desires." And, of course, psychology would not even grant us that; the whole field is built on the idea that sometimes our deepest desires are definitely not evident or obvious. But that's another e-mail.

But let me get to the point and applaud Joe's apt statement about my reading habits.

Rorty also says Heidegger believes important thinking begins when people have the ability to question not this or that single truth but the whole basis for all their truths, the worldview that informs their vision of existence; important thinking begins when people have the ability to ask, "Are we doing the right things? Are our social practices the right ones to engage in?"

"Thought, in Heidegger's honorific sense of the term, begins with a willing suspension of verificationism. It begins when somebody starts asking questions such that nobody, including himself or herself, can verify the answers for correctness. ... Only when we escape from the verificationist impulse to ask, 'How can we tell a right answer when we hear one?' are we asking questions Heidegger thinks worth asking."

In reaction to these statements I previously had written (in red, Joe), "Thought begins as a question about a worldview." But that idea didn't seem quite right, not broad enough, so I tried to scribble another note under it, (this one in blue, Joe), that would have said something like, "Thought begins as a question about the formation and validity of worldviews in general," but not having much room to write I hesitated, and in that moment of indecision a new idea came up, and I wrote: "Absolutism itself is conditional."

The moral of the story?

1. As Joe knows, the colorful art of rereading is important.

2. Until we realize and appreciate the supreme irony — that "absolutism itself is conditional" — we will never progress very far in our thinking or in our understanding of the world and our place in it.

Third reading of "The Hours" required a stack of Post-it notes.

It's about time to replace Rorty's "Contingency, Irony and Solidarity."


UNCERTAINTY: Living with no supernatural justifications,
no complete explanations, no promise of permanent
stability,with guides of merely probable validity.