Something in the Way

“Wherever you look there’s something in the way.” So runs a Chinese proverb—or at least that’s what Adam Phillips says. It’s one of those odd statements—like “you are what you eat”—that’s literally true, but whose literal truth diverges from its proverbial meaning in an illuminating way.

The proverbial meaning, at least as Adam Phillips interprets it, is that our world is defined by obstacles. What’s more, the obstacles aren’t simply hindrances to getting what we want. Our desires themselves are obstacles. Wanting one thing can obscure other things we might want. Or an immediate desire can keep us from seeing the underlying desire that motivates it.

The literal truth of the proverb is that my line of sight in any direction stops at the first opaque object. There’s a wall in front of me; I can’t see what’s behind it. To my right is a window and I can see through it, but earth, grass, trees, a small hill, fill the view from my window. I also see some blue sky, unobscured by clouds, but even the blue of the sky is a result of the refraction of sunlight as it hits the Earth’s atmosphere. Only on a clear night far from light pollution can I see the blackness of space amidst all the stars.

To look at something—to look at anything—is to not look at something else. And even if I were to clear away all the obstructions in my line of sight, all I’d be left with is an empty void.

What becomes clearer on the literal reading of the proverb is that that “something in the way” is a touch mischievous. What it is to see something is to have that something squat in some part of your visual field. It has to be “in the way” if you want to see it at all.

Deflection: it's not just a way of scoring goals in hockey

Deflection and the Problem of Other Minds

I recently concluded a course I was teaching at Deep Springs with Cora Diamond’s brilliant and somewhat frustrating (does she have to express herself so indirectly?) paper, “The Difficulty of Reality and the Difficulty of Philosophy.” She makes heavy use of the word “deflection,” which she borrows from Stanley Cavell’s “Knowing and Acknowledging.” The idea is that we often find ourselves thinking about one thing as a way of not thinking about something else.

Cavell introduces the idea of deflection in an early treatment of skepticism about other minds, a theme that he later makes central to the fourth part of The Claim of Reason and to his essay on King Lear, as well as other writings about Shakespearean tragedy. The standard philosophical problem of other minds is a problem about knowledge. I have immediate and indubitable access to the contents of my own mind on the standard presentation of this problem (although even within mainstream analytic philosophy, this claim has its challengers) and at best mediated and dubitable access to the minds of others. I know I’m in pain because I can feel it, dammit, but I can only infer that you’re in pain from your behaviour.

Wittgenstein responds to this way of framing the issue like this: “It can’t be said of me at all (except perhaps as a joke) that I know I’m in pain. What is it supposed to mean — except perhaps that I am in pain?” I’m too close to my own pain to talk about it in terms of knowledge. Outside exceptional cases, I don’t find out I’m in pain or learn or prove I’m in pain—the ordinary apparatus of knowledge acquisition just doesn’t make sense in relation to my own pain. And if my relation to my own pain isn’t one of knowing, then my relation to someone else’s pain isn’t some second-best case that can’t claim the status of knowledge.

A common interpretation takes Wittgenstein to be refuting the skeptic. Doubts about the possibility of ever knowing what’s going on with another person are founded on a mistake about the grammar of the word “know.” Once we’ve read Wittgenstein, we see that it’s perfectly acceptable in ordinary situations to say that we can know that another person is in pain.

Cavell takes a different approach. When it comes to the pain of others, since when was knowledge what was at issue? When I tell you I’m in pain, I’m not informing you of something. I’m appealing to you to respond to my suffering. My relation to my own pain is too intimate to be expressed in terms of knowing, and in a different sense the pain of others is also too intimate to be expressed in terms of knowing.

Skepticism can come across us like a mood. For the most part, we go about in the world, interact with others, and so on, without a second thought. But then, all of a sudden, we can be struck by how strange all of this is. How is it even possible that I can know anything about the world, and about the other people in it? And when it comes to other people, this sense of strangeness comes with a painful feeling of separateness. Here I am over here, and there you are over there. How can we bridge this gap between us? Can we ever truly know one another?

This is a tender business—the stuff of tragedy, as Cavell would later argue. The problem of other minds, as it commonly finds expression in philosophy, is a way of deflecting ourselves away from the tender spot and toward something that’s more intellectually tractable. The whole skeptical problematic—both the skeptic’s statement of the problem and the standard Wittgensteinian response (which Cavell says is not shared by Wittgenstein himself)—is a way of turning “a metaphysical finitude into an intellectual lack.” Skepticism presents us with some hard problems to think about. But those hard problems attract us because they’re a way of not thinking about something else.

Heidegger's Deflections

A central theme of Heidegger’s thought is our resistance to thinking. From early to late in his career, Heidegger is fundamentally concerned with what he calls “the question of being” (die Seinsfrage). But if you pore over Heidegger’s writings looking for a clear statement of that question, you’ll come away disappointed. Instead, you might say that the totality of those writings amount to a painstaking effort to get us to hear the question. Most of the history of metaphysics for Heidegger is a series of deflections, ways of not hearing the question by trying to grasp on to something more tractable.

In his later writings, one of the great deflectors is technology. For Heidegger, technology isn’t simply the gadgets that make the modern world hum. It’s the overall orientation to the world that takes it to be raw material that we can turn to our own purposes. It’s an egocentric orientation that makes sense of the whole world in terms of how it’s relevant to us (“relatability,” I think the kids call it these days). This way of grasping at the world doesn’t allow for the openness or reverence with which we might encounter being without simply seeing our own reflection.

In the years after the Second World War, Heidegger would comment on the physical devastation wrought on Germany and suggest that people’s obsession with the concrete and the political was deflecting them away from the underlying spiritual devastation wrought on European thinking—a concern with physical homelessness instead of with the underlying spiritual homelessness. Not that this physical devastation didn’t present urgent problems—Heidegger didn’t deny that—but he thought we mustn’t miss the occasion it provided for thinking more deeply about the cultural path we were travelling. The destructive tendencies of technology that had wrought these horrors hadn’t been stamped out with the defeat of the Nazis but was charging headlong into the creation of new horrors like nuclear weapons.

These reflections, especially coming from Heidegger and especially in the aftermath of a war provoked by Germany, strike me as a perverse deflection of its own. Yes, yes, if we want to be small-mindedly precise, there had been a destructive war in which Germany had played a central part, Heidegger seemed to be saying, but that’s to miss the bigger picture of the spiritual destruction of a technological civilization most formidably manifest in the United States. The problem here isn’t that Heidegger is wrong so much as that his high-minded reflections are a way of not reckoning with his own personal culpability as a German, and most perniciously as an erstwhile enthusiast for the Nazi regime.

In other words, deflection is a slippery business. For Heidegger, it’s a one-way street. There’s the openness to being, which we perpetually deflect, defer, or fail to measure up to. But attending to the delicate work of thinking that this encounter demands can itself be a deflection from the mundane question of whether you’re a Nazi and a jerk.

Heidegger’s is a much rarer form of deflection. Far more common is the tendency to insist on the immediate and the political as a way of not attending to subtler and more spiritual concerns. The dirty secret about political outrage is that it’s delicious. People love that feeling of righteousness that expels all self-doubt. We call it hate-reading but we only do it because we find it so enjoyable. Politics is complicated and thinking is hard. How generous of Donald Trump to have made the question of where we all stand so much simpler.

The Difficulty of Reality

Diamond calls a “difficulty of reality” something in reality that’s resistant to our thinking. She opens her paper with two examples. The first is a poem by Ted Hughes that describes a photograph of six vigorous young men, posing cheerfully for the camera, who would all of them, less than a year later, be killed in the First World War. The second is the character of Elizabeth Costello in J. M. Coetzee’s novella The Lives of Animals, who is haunted by the industrial slaughter of animals and how that passes for normal. In both cases, there’s nothing paradoxical going on: people die in war, factory farming exists. But apprehended from a certain angle it resists comprehension. How are these things so much as possible? These two examples inspire horror but Diamond insists that beauty and human goodness can also strike us as so baffling as to resist comprehension.

Diamond thinks these moments of difficulty are productive. They leave something open and unresolved. Our failure to wrap our heads around these difficulties can be painful—sometimes (as is the case with Costello) maddeningly so. Deflection is a way of avoiding the difficulty. Not being deflected, then, doesn’t follow an easy formula. It’s precisely the experience of being unsettled that makes for the difficulty and the impulse to settle things is what leads us to be deflected.

Self-Awareness and Self-Knowledge

There’s a common thread between Heidegger’s deflection away from the political and the more common deflection toward the political. Both manifest a failure to listen attentively to oneself. Heidegger doesn’t seem to have been an especially self-aware person. The entanglement with the Nazis was part of a broader pattern of personal ambition that seems at odds with writings that signalled the dangers of seeing in the world only one’s own self-image. Likewise, I think people (myself included) tend to be willfully blind to the pleasures hidden in their sense of pique or outrage.

I could apply a similar diagnosis—that deflection is deflection away from a careful attention to oneself—to Cavell’s treatment of the problem of other minds. Our finitude, our separateness from others, is a cause of deep disquiet. Rather than attend to that disquiet, the philosophically-inclined can set their minds to an epistemological tangle.

But I don’t think that’s the whole story. For one thing, careful attention to oneself is a form of deflection par excellence. Sometimes you need to pull your head out of your own ass and do something. But more important is that attending to oneself is no straightforward task. The attention I give to my own motives can be no more free of self-deception, willful self-blindness, and anxious ego primping, than I am myself free of these flaws. The project of self-knowledge demands a kind of bootstrapping. The tools you have to work with are the very things you’re trying to hone.

But it would also be a mistake to think that the aspiration to see things straight and undeflected is a linear progression toward a goal. Return to that Chinese proverb I began with. Deflection is a way of attending to one thing as a way of not attending to something else. But whatever we attend to, it’s in the way of something else we’re not attending to. There’s not a right answer to the question of what we should be attending to. There are just different modes of attention.

The partial truth to my provisional diagnosis that deflection is deflection away from oneself is that attention is an essentially directed activity. That this seems worthy of my attention reveals something about me and my concerns. It’s easy to see the things that concern me. It’s harder to see what about me is revealed in those concerns.

Thinking well about the things that concern me requires intelligence. Understanding these concerns and what motivates them requires wisdom. Philosophy, to the extent that it is rightly called the love of wisdom, is essentially concerned with self-knowledge.

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