Foulkstown, Ballinure, Thurles, Co. Tipperary
13 September 94
Dear Tom & Jehane,
First, Tom: - Fair enough, I’m sure there are differences enough between our conceptions and styles to need some working out. Though I should perhaps say that I wasn’t looking for a ‘seal of approval’ so much as an indication that I hadn’t got hold of the wrong end of the stick, - so that the piece wouldn’t be taken to be a purely idiosyncratic view of your enterprise.
As for my own enterprise - you’ve had your role in it and cannot now be prized loose. It is really only to clarify things in my own mind in the hope that that process and whatever success it may have may have some benefit to others. I’m not trying to found a philosophic party, or recruit you to one - that would go completely against my conception of the point and nature of philosophising. Perhaps I gave the wrong impression by talking about ‘Wittgenstinians’ and ‘Aristotelians’. Those expressions had only the role of broad indication of a style and conception of philosophising - of its tasks, its methods and the resources it can call on. There was not lurking behind them, a set of shibboleths, passwords and articles to be subscribed to.
And that is where I come to your remarks, Jehane. I think you must have had some private information that the piece I have just started out working on is called ‘Understanding Nonsense’ and is in a way addressing itself, or will address itself to your question. Perhaps my question could be put oppositely - ‘Can one embrace what isn’t there?’ People do seem to embrace nonsense, often with great passion and with great resistance to recognizing it as such - like people in the middle of a lush, amorous dream resisting waking. What is going on in that embrace is something that is not easy to understand. Still it happens. I guess my role and task is the thankless one of trying to convince them that there is nothing there, that their arms are in fact empty. Perhaps I could rephrase my original remark that gave you trouble and say that people ‘can’t put from them what isn’t there.’
Much of my philosophic work has been of that thankless, negative sort, concerned to show that something that people have embraced passionately or rejected with as much passion was a thing of air and no substance. Artificial intelligence, for example, or ‘the actual infinite’. What I have tried to do in dealing with them was to show that the would-be notions that were being argued about were in fact made up of parts that could not be combined. That if, for example, the proponents or opponents of artificial intelligence really examined the notion of machine or of artifact they would find implicit in both notions a prior connection with the intelligence of a user or maker that precluded the sort of combination that was being argued for or against.
So maybe I was asking them not so much to ‘abandon what isn’t there’ as simply to recognize that it isn’t there. I’m not sure. I’m not sure I want to go to the wall over that phrase, but maybe you can see a little better what was behind it.
Bee and I will be in the States for a month and a half in the latter part of November till after Christmas - Bee maybe longer if she goes to a low-residence writing course at Bennington in January - so maybe we can manage to meet and argue some of these things out. Bee and I will be mostly in Virginia where Bee wants to try to assemble her scattered children & grandchildren, see her brothers who live there and do some background research for of her writing, which is firmly set in that neighborhood. I have a son in NY and two daughters and three grandchildren in Britain - so we don’t assemble so easily.