Running Beyond the Limits of Language
When we look at everything that we know and can say about the world as resting on personal experience, then what we know seems to lose a good deal of its value, reliability, and solidity. We are then inclined to say that it is all "subjective"; and "subjective" is used derogatorily, as when we say that an opinion is merely subjective, as a matter of taste. Now, that this aspect should seem to shake the authority of experience and knowledge points to the fact that here our language is tempting us to draw some misleading analogy. This should remind us of the case when the popular scientist appeared to have shown us that the floor which we stand on is not really solid because it is made up of electrons.It seems we are always up against this trouble--the trouble of language. Language bewitches us, creating mysteries through its metaphors, mixing indiscriminately resonances, meanings, and connotations. Wittgenstein's view of philosophy was that most of the problems that it dealt with were a consequence of pernicious habits of expression rather than deep metaphysical mystery. He taught philosophers not to think quite so deeply and mystically--to look for the answers to their great and enduring questions in habits of expression that were imbedded in speech acts that had no clear consequences. Thus, the way to address many of the lasting philosophical problems was not to penetrate to the mystical core of reality with the mind, but instead to wonder practically and specifically about why we were worrying about these things in the first place. What habits of speaking generated these questions? What forms of life propagated and sustained them?
We are up against trouble caused by our way of expression.
You might say, then, that Wittgenstein was a sort of anti-philosopher. He painted a picture of philosophers as isolated and largely befuddled men (and they were all men) who wasted their thoughts on questions that hardly made any sense, challenging them (and still us today) to reflect upon the habits and contexts that sustain philosophical reflection and inquire into the actual value of those habits for life.
Of course, almost every great philosopher in history was an anti-philosopher in the sense that philosophy makes progress by waking reflection up to reality, shaking it from its daydreams or its enslavement to corrupting influences and liberating it to the service of the enrichment of life. So, in this sense Wittgenstein's Philosophical Investigations are both a critical investigation into whether philosophy makes any sense at all and a deeply affirmative philosophical investigation into the relevance of our intellectual achievements.
Yes, language bewitches. Our forms of expression, philosophical and otherwise, betray us. Language points, gestures, slips, errs, confuses. But it also is, as Dewey wrote, the "tool of tools," lying at the very heart of human intelligence. The same duality lies at the heart of thinking. Our capacity for reflection can be brought to bear on solving real and pressing problems, or it can be used just as easily to distract ourselves from problems.
The difficulty, of course, is that it is not always easy to distinguish productive thought from distractive thought. Perhaps art demonstrates this tension best: beauty, art, and the artist seem something impractical and perhaps less than necessary while simultaneously coming off as the highest form of human activity. Art doesn't solve any problems--more often it poses them--but on the other hand a world without art, without beauty for its own sake, seems like a world without purpose. Art seems, strangely, both a distraction for life and central to it.
Politics is another example. We are in the middle now of intense political conflict over what to do about the economy. It seems like all of this reflection and debate ought to be productive, right? We have the best minds (all minds, really) focussed on the question of what to do. We are thinking hard and focused directly on the problem. At the same time, many economists argue that the economy is suffering precisely because because of the political debate--the economy is struggling because we take it to be a political problem! What to do about this? Reflect more on the economy? Debate more? Argue more? Will this really help? Here, reflection on a problem seems not only of dubious value, but possible of negative value.
As you can see, we are always "up against trouble caused by our way of expression."
Technology, the web, the knowledge economy have created a world that feels increasingly virtual and representational. The world itself confuses and bewitches like language. The dream-screens into which we peer bring us thoughts from who knows where. A run is an escape into a different sort of world, one which feels less full of instruments, tools, and signs. The sensations come scrubbed of their representations, and for this reason they are simultaneously more vague and more vivid.
In his recent post, Zach wrote well of running as a practice of positive freedom, a way to grow into one's self. But running has also always been a form of escape, perhaps the first form of escape, before we learned to dream away our lives. As escape, it is a practice of negative freedom, a practice of liberation from the clang and confusion of representation, the persistent demand that life, our actions, and our values make sense.
In this way, perhaps, running is like Wittgenstein's philosophy. It does not offer a coherent plan or life strategy; it doesn't pretend to completeness or offer the secrets to a well-lived life. What it gives us is a way out of the plans and meanings and senses that have begun to seem virtual and hollow. A run gives life no meaning. It simply reminds us that beyond the sense that life makes, there is so much more life.