Attention to Particulars

Sometimes I wonder if philosophy is a big waste of time. Or worse than that, an impediment that keeps me from living well.

I don’t mean what people normally mean when they say things like that. I don’t mean that philosophy is a waste of time because it’s unproductive or doesn’t fix the world’s problems. I wrote an essay a few years ago responding to the claim that philosophy is useless in the familiar sense and I stand by what I wrote.

The contrast case I have in mind here—the kind of life that wouldn’t feel like a waste of time—isn’t the life of the engineer or the doctor or the social worker, the kind of person who actually, you know, helps people. The contrast case I have in mind is the painter or some other artist—not exactly the person someone has in mind when they say, “Why don’t you do something useful?”

Bertrand Russell, author of Problems of Philosophy (Wikimedia Commons)

Bertrand Russell sets out a contrast between the philosopher and the painter early in The Problems of Philosophy, although his intent isn’t to denigrate philosophy. He’s talking about the difference between appearance and reality and gives the example of looking at a table. The table is oblong, brown, and shiny. But simply describing it as brown isn’t faithful to what I actually see. “Although I believe that the table is ‘really’ of the same colour all over, the parts that reflect the light look much brighter than the other parts, and some parts look white because of reflected light.” For most of us most of the time, simply describing the table as “brown” is good enough, but not to the painter: “[T]he painter has to unlearn the habit of thinking that things seem to have the colour which common sense says they ‘really’ have, and to learn the habit of seeing things as they appear.”

Russell uses the example to introduce the distinction between appearance and reality. “The painter wants to know what things seem to be, the practical man and the philosopher want to know what they are; but the philosopher’s wish to know this is stronger than the practical man’s, and is more troubled by knowledge as to the difficulties of answering the question.” So we end up with a three-way contrast: the painter concerned with appearance, the philosopher and the “practical man” concerned with reality, and the philosopher more fastidious than this practical man—let’s call him Mr. PM.

The familiar notion of philosophy as a waste of time comes from the position of Mr. PM—I like to imagine him as an engineer. Like the philosopher, Mr. PM is interested in reality, but in this case with a more workmanlike emphasis on the “real world.” An engineer doesn’t have time to fuss about whether or not he might be dreaming. Okay, fine, so maybe it’s a dream—let’s make sure this dream bridge has the right structural support. The philosopher wants to understand reality whereas Mr. PM wants to act on it.

The way Russell presents it, the philosopher and Mr. PM are both on the side of reality, in contrast to the painter, who’s interested in appearance. But there’s another sense in which the philosopher and the painter are on the same side in contrast to Mr. PM. Call it a certain kind of doggedness. They’re trying to capture the essence of something as it really is—even if that something is appearance. That means unlearning (I love that Russell uses that word) habitual ways of making sense of the world. “Good enough for practical purposes” isn’t good enough for a philosopher or a painter.

The engineer at work—in this case, Kitty O'Brien Joyner (Wikimedia Commons)

So here’s one way of putting it, borrowing from Russell. The painter and the philosopher are both interested in getting to the essence of things but the painter is interested in the essence of appearance and the philosopher is interested in the essence of reality. That way of putting it makes the philosophical project sound grander, deeper—and small wonder since it was a philosopher who put it that way.

But here’s another way of putting it that’s maybe a little more neutral. The painter is interested in the concrete and the particular and the philosopher is interested in the abstract and the general. Neither of those claims—neither the one about the painter nor the one about the philosopher—is quite right, and I’ll explain why in a bit. But first let me spell out how we might make sense of that basic contrast.

I’m not a painter but I have felt the wind on my face. I live by the sea where it’s easier to notice that sort of thing. The funny thing about the wind is that you can’t see it, and if you could, you wouldn’t be able to see anything else. I can sense it at the moment it touches my face but that only gives me a very localized sense of its complex movements. A weather app like Windy can show me the direction and speed of the wind at all sorts of different scales from the entire Pacific Ocean to a very fine-grained picture of my immediate neighbourhood (it’s really fun to play around with). But it’s not remotely fine-grained enough to pick up on all the little eddies and gusts that brush across my face. General statements like “Wind northwest 10km/h gusting to 20” are good enough for most practical purposes but they don’t capture just how subtle these movements are. Different parts of my face feel different ripples and flutters of the wind at any given moment, and it’s constantly changing. It takes real attentiveness to feel the constantly shifting texture of the wind.

I imagine painters are even more attentive to the subtle details of light and colour. I try to pay attention to the light sometimes, as I do with the wind. What I admire and envy about painters is that I suspect they learn to see better by trying to do something with what they see. I feel a similar admiration and envy for soaring birds like seagulls and eagles, who seem to have exquisite sensitivity to the movement of the wind. Learning to sail taught me to pay better attention to the wind, but a sailboat is a crude instrument compared to a seagull’s wings.

Seagulls have a keen sensitivity to the wind (Wikimedia Commons)

Philosophical attention tends to move in the opposite direction. Instead of noticing just how particular each moment is, philosophy tends to try to discern what they all have in common. Hume says that all objects of inquiry are either relations of ideas or matters of fact. Kant says that “I think” must be able to accompany all my representations. Frege says that the meaning (Bedeutung) of all propositions is either the true or the false.

I don’t think these are foolish things to say. In fact, each of them is quite profound, even if I’m not sure I’d wholly endorse any of them. To get to these claims takes its own kind of doggedness, a kind I confess is not my forte as a philosopher: the doggedness to really stick with a problem to the point that you manage to burn off all the extraneous details and see only the essence of the matter. Where the painter sees the light dancing on the water and the gradually shifting hues as the sun crosses the sky, the philosopher asks what all instances of seeing have in common such that we can talk about this phenomenon, seeing, at all.

The trouble, though—and the sense in which I worry that philosophy can maybe point me in the wrong direction—is that this kind of philosophical attention requires directing attention away from the particularity of the moment. After all, the philosopher isn’t interested in this moment, but in what all moments have in common. And that makes this moment irrelevant, even a potential distraction, if I allow its particularities to distract me from the general truth I’m after.

And yet it’s in those particular moments that life happens. I might think in abstract and general terms from time to time but my life is—stubbornly, ineluctably—lived out in the realm of concrete particulars. If I’m not paying attention to those, I’m not really living. That’s my worry about philosophy.

Immanuel Kant: "The 'I think' must be able to accompany all my representations." (Wikimedia Commons)

So far I’ve drawn a contrast between painters and philosophers that makes painters out to be interested in the concrete and particular and makes philosophers out to be interested in the abstract and general. And I’ve expressed some uneasiness that I’ve thrown my lot in with the philosophers. Now I’m going to complicate things a bit.

First, I want to say a bit about Wittgenstein. Part of what so attracts me to his late work, notably Philosophical Investigations, is that it represents a stark break from this generalizing tendency of philosophy that I remarked on. The overall strategy of the Investigations—if I can dare make a generalization about it—is to trace the seeds of that generalizing tendency in philosophy and to prevent them from taking root. (Actually, already that feels wrong. In the Blue Book, very early in Wittgenstein’s “late” phase, he talks about a “craving for generality.” By the time he composes the Investigations the emphasis is elsewhere: less talk about generality and more about purity, an ideal, sublimity, captivating pictures, etc. But I’m writing a blog post not a contribution to the secondary literature on Wittgenstein.) Reading the Investigations can feel like following a very complex and subtle game of philosophical Whac-A-Mole—the Whac-A-Mole equivalent of three-dimensional chess, if you will. Wherever a tendency arises to spot some feature common to all language, all thought, all experience, Wittgenstein disrupts the flow of that thinking. He throws in pebbles of complication that ripple wherever we’re inclined to see a smooth surface.

The Investigations can feel meandering and it doesn’t so much end as just peter out. This seems a natural consequence of the kind of book it is, as Wittgenstein acknowledges in his preface. After several unsuccessful attempts to create a more uniform and organized book, Wittgenstein writes, he realized he would never succeed. The investigation “compels us to travel criss-cross in every direction across a wide field of thought.” His remarks are “sketches of landscapes which were made in the course of these long and meandering journeys.” If Wittgenstein is trying to disrupt a tendency to generalize in philosophy, he can hardly do so by formulating a general theory for why philosophers go wrong in generalizing.

Importantly, a lot of Wittgenstein’s work consists in directing the reader’s attention. His preferred method for disrupting the race toward generality is to draw attention to something that generality overlooks—usually not an exception to a rule but to an overlooked context of use. Imagine trying to say this under these circumstances, or imagine if the world were like this, he says—do you still feel inclined to make that general claim? He’s not offering a refutation of an argument but showing how our attention has been captivated by a certain way of looking at things. And if we can just attend to things a little differently, we’ll no longer feel compelled to speak about things in the way that we previously were.

Ludwig Wittgenstein (Wikimedia Commons)

Because Wittgenstein draws attention to particular contexts of use, he’s sometimes misread as a kind of pragmatist. He can come across as a sophisticated version of Russell’s Mr. PM, answering the philosopher’s grand theorizing with a stubborn insistence that we keep both feet on the ground. Russell himself remarked, early in his acquaintance with Wittgenstein, how refreshing it was to be working with someone who’d trained as an engineer. Unlike all these posh English students with their grounding in the classics, his young protégé could cut through the bullshit and see the cogs and gears that made the arguments work.

The trouble with this portrait of Wittgenstein—and notwithstanding the use of mechanical metaphors throughout his work—is that Wittgenstein never saw himself as an engineer and only studied it to satisfy his overbearing father. Russell was closer to the mark when he complained about Wittgenstein’s “artistic conscience,” and how it kept him from writing up his results the way everyone else did, according to academic norms and before every last detail was worked out.

In short, if Wittgenstein isn’t your standard philosopher, it’s not because he’s more like Russell’s Mr. PM but because he’s more like Russell’s painter. He thinks that the philosopher’s generalities mislead us and that the antidote is to pay closer attention to particulars. He isn’t brushing aside the finicky details, he’s drafting sketches of landscapes.

Portrait of the philosopher as a young engineer: Wittgenstein with William Eccles working on aeronautical designs in Manchester

But it would also be a mistake to say that Wittgenstein just wants to apprehend particulars in their particularity. Wittgenstein doesn’t disavow the philosophical aspiration “to understand the foundations, or essence, of everything empirical” (Philosophical Investigations §89). He wants to transfigure our idea of what it means to understand the essence—a series of metaphors suggests a shift from vertical penetration to horizontal surveying—but that philosophical aspiration to get to the essence of things remains.

That’s true of artists as well. A painter doesn’t just take any old thing he or she happens to see and then tries to commit it to canvas. The greatness of great art isn’t just a matter of technical proficiency but of a kind of vision. The artist sees something in a deep way—sees to the essence of it, you might say. Holbein’s portrait of Thomas Cromwell is a painting of a very particular person, captured in all his particularity. But what makes it such a stunning portrait is the way that it seems to capture the essence of what makes Cromwell Cromwell. This isn’t a snapshot but the man himself.

For Holbein, it isn’t a matter of attending to the particular to the exclusion of the essential. It’s a matter of seeing the essential in the particular. This seems a feature of a great deal of art, and not just visual art.

What’s more, philosophers aren’t exactly ignoring the real world. Consider Husserl. On one hand, he epitomizes the philosopher’s mania for abstraction. He seems allergic to the idea of vouchsafing a concrete example that might help elucidate what on earth he’s talking about. But on the other hand, what he’s talking about are the fine-grained details of experience. He had to pay very close attention to his experience of time to notice, for instance, that the present seems to have a duration. You won’t notice the essential features if you aren’t paying close attention to the particulars.

And the concrete/abstract distinction won’t do at all to distinguish painters from philosophers. If painters were by definition interested in concrete particulars in contrast to the abstractions of philosophers, “abstract painting” would be an oxymoron and not one of the predominant trends in twentieth-century art.

Hans Holbein the Younger's Portrait of Thomas Cromwell (Wikimedia Commons)

So have I set the contrast up all wrong? The issue, I think, is about the quality of attention. Philosophical attention can be heady and abstract. The world is changing all about me and I’m trying to keep my attention focused on what doesn’t change. The philosopher would like to make the world stand still, if only he could. Instead, he has to settle for the second-best alternative of trying as best he can to make his own mind stand still and to grasp what the world might look like in its fixity.

What you find in Wittgenstein’s later method is a tendency toward movement. He deploys “objects of comparison” (a good name for a blog, come to think of it) that prompt a shift in our way of looking at a matter. He’s not the only philosopher to prioritize movement over fixity—Nietzsche comes immediately to mind, and there are more distant comparisons to people like Zhuangzi or Nāgārjuna—but he’s a rare case. And he does it more artfully than any other philosopher I’ve read.

The prevailing tendency in philosophy is to attain a fixed vision of the world. But the prevailing feature of my experience of the world is of movement and change. I can’t help but suspect that artists are better equipped to attend to the world’s changing aspects. There might be some grass-is-greener thinking afoot here. At a minimum, philosophical training is a training of the attention. It cultivates patience, precision, circumspection. It’s a training I’m glad I’ve had. But I’m also glad to feel the wind on my face.

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