Learn at least one thing, or your money back!
Note: This post was originally called ‘Watching the Tree to Catch a Hare’. Sounded like an enticing hippy title and I almost kept it. Its original theme was ‘change’. Ironically, yet perfectly to the point, after the first three paragraphs that all changed. So now it’s just over 18 hundred words of extra filler on the internet. I hope they have room left…
‘Once there was a boy who was told by his master to catch a hare. He went into the woods and looked around. Lo and behold, he saw a hare running along at full speed. As he watched in astonishment, the hare ran smack into a tree and knocked itself unconscious. All the boy had to do was to pick it up. For the rest of his life, the boy waited behind the same tree in the hope that more hares would do the same thing.’
This old Chinese parable was brought to my attention a few years ago when I came across Adeline Yen Mah’s autobiographical/historical/philosophical namesake, Watching the Tree. I enjoyed the book mostly for Yen Mah’s accessible infusion of Eastern and Western philosophy and its informative historical context, so when I recently finished her first book (I like to do things backwards) Falling Leaves, which essentially read like a misery memoir, in the sparse words of Borat – ‘this one… not so much…’
The term ‘change’, for all it’s interpretative superfluity and general ambiguity, is something which I have always held as an interesting departure point of philosophical exploration. Throughout our lives what exactly changes? Or, perhaps more significantly, what stays the same and what does this tell us about our subjectivity (our understanding of our conscious, thinking ‘self’ and its relationship to an objective world “out there” beyong our consciousness)? I think it’s something like every 12 years or so our bodies are essentially entirely reproduced, even our brains. Over the course of an average lifetime we can expect to have seven or so fresh, new bodies. So then for all this constant cellular renewing, what is it that keeps us ‘Us’? If our physical, visceral body of the corpo-real is always in a state of change by basic rule of biology, then where does the consistency of self-consciousness and memory subsist through which we interpret and express ourselves as a self-conscious being?
In western continental philosophy alone this has become a critical discourse since Descartes claimed ‘cogito ergo sum’ (‘I think therefore I am’). Descartes believed that it was senseless to doubt that ‘I’ exists, because if thinking confirms my existence then the very act of thinking in doubt essentially only confirms what is doubted. So for him, this was somewhat of a ‘be all and end all’ toward the major critical argument concerning objective knowledge i.e. what can be known for certain about the world in which we live from the viewpoint of our conscious experience (i.e. what we can know definitely ‘exists’). Whatever this world contained, cogito ergo sum meant that we could at least know for sure that it contained the thinking being that I am. As result, for Descartes, this became an objective fact about the world as opposed to one subject to the fallible nature of individual perception.
But there is a problem here. Whilst it is all very well to claim that the ‘cogito’ (I think therefore I am) confirms that there is thought happening, it does not substantiate the claim that there is an ‘I’ which thinks it. True, we cannot extend scepticism of what really ‘exists’ toward our own ‘thinking being’ (i.e. our own self-consciousness) because we are always already thinking it. However, just because this is so, it does not immediately equate that the world external to our consciousness (and this includes our material bodies) also ‘exists’, because we can never think outside of our consciousness. And this is where philosophical argument comes in. Whilst many great minds have attempted – and if not near succeeded, at least provided keys for the solution buried within what becomes (without years of study) an arguably necessary cryptic exploration – I don’t think that it would be too bold a statement even for my green intellect to claim that we can only ever theorise what lies ‘outside’ of consciousness. This is all even before we come to the conclusion that anything can exist ‘beyond’ our consciousness at all.
If you’re feeling confused at all, a good way to come to comprehend the argument in hand is via an age-old conundrum that we are all familiar with: ‘if a tree falls in the woods and no one is around, does it make a sound?’ Let us re-frame this question, then, in a more philosophical manner: ‘does the tree and its sound exist if there is no consciousness present to think it?’ Now, so as not to find yourself tied up in the question’s immediate novelty, I want you to understand that the existence of the tree itself is not what is under scrutiny or negation. The crux of the argument is this: how do we know that the tree exists? And I’m not asking for that immediate supposition of scientific ideology which is “give me concrete, factual evidence that it exists”, but rather asking the functional question of how our consciousness comes to establish something as existing.
If you decide that you know the tree exists because you can see, smell, feel, touch, hear (taste?) the tree, then you are inclining toward the school of though known as empiricism (yes, philosophy already has it covered), which basically suggest that things can only be ‘known’ through a process of experience (such as sensory experience/observation) and experiment. Empiricism deduces that we can only truly ‘know’ things through experience, and therefore the existence of an objective world (a world that we perceived as external to us which is not part of our conscious ‘I’) will always be subject to the thought of the individual. From this viewpoint, knowledge is inseparable from the subjective condition of the ‘knower’. If, however, you decide that you know the tree exists because it’s a god damned tree and it’s there in all it’s ‘tree-ness’ and exists independently of me regardless of what I think, then you’re inclining more toward the school of thought known as rationalism. Rationalism proposes that all the fundamental objects of the world constitute substances believed to be self-dependent. Therefore, it really doesn’t matter what we think because a substance can exist without us thinking and we only think in relation to substances. Therefore, if there are no substances then we would therefore lose the ability to think as there would be nothing to think about. If you are at all interested in a couple of moguls in these areas, see Hume (1711 – 1776) and Leibniz (1646 – 1716) respectively. I’ve just started checking them out so don’t take anything I’ve written as reliable. In fact, it’s probably outright wrong and anyone who actually knows this stuff is probably shaking their head at me. But fuck it. It’s still just a blog post.
Just to twist the minds a bit more I’m going to throw out another scenario which opens worms on top of worms. A City. Did you know that nobody really knows how cities work or exactly how they function and survive? Yes, or course, they have city planning, direction of people and traffic, event organisation and regulation etc, but these are all basically guidelines, directions and funnels. The way that all the people, communities, cultures, businesses, corporations and everyone without and within function together to make the city what it is is effectually unknown. The city is not a concrete object, it is almost an organism, a body without organs; an assemblage which can exist (that magical, oh so troublesome word again) and function only by its separate parts working together (harmoniously or otherwise) toward the product of the whole. The only way to stop a city growing is to bomb it.
Now I want you to take all the people out of the equation. A city with no people. Nothing is happening. Nothing is moving. Nothing is alive. So, then, does the city still exist? If it is only a city by definition of its function and yet its integral functionaries (its people) are now absent, does the city still exist?
Just a thought. If you’re feeling really brave, see the dynamic duo (or assemblage) Deleuze and Guittari. If you prefer more passive confusion, this guy is a good shout. His Mexican accent makes for a more dynamic listen as well:
Holy shit and this is what happens when I’m left to ramble. This post started with the proposition of an investigation of ‘change’ and now we’ve wandered into metaphysics and subjective and objective knowledge. Ah screw it. This post started off with a collection of quotes about ‘change’, I’ve used just one and this is what happens. Well, that’s change for you. I do still want to share a few of them, however, as they teach you that whilst change is inevitable, it is something that should be embraced, not feared. I mean, it’s kind of scary when Heraclitus famously states in his archaic theories on the great cosmos:
“The only thing that is constant is change”
“No man ever steps in the same river twice”
My mother used to say, people love watching fire burn! Alright? Okay, that’s one thing I know about life, one thing I know about life is a guarantee, right? Change is inevitable! And listen to me, as much as you like to be in your comfort zone, as much as you like to be stable, as much as you like to control your environment, the reality is: everything changes
But then we return to Eastern philosophical tradition and explore the I Ching and consider how we can manage change as part of a natural order of the universe, always arriving and leaving just as the season turn and organisms return to the ground. Here is one from Hellmut Wilhelm, an old school German authority on Chinese history and literature:
To become aware of what is constant in the flux of nature and life is the first step in abstract thinking […] Change is not something absolute, chaotic, and kaleidoscopic; its manifestation is a relative one, something connected with fixed points and a given order.
“In the end it is important to remember that we cannot become what we need to be by remaining what we are”.
Change is progress as long as we are aware of what we are developing from and to. Just as Confucius said in The Ten Wings,
‘Whoever knows the tao of the changes and transformations, knows the actions of the gods.’”
AND BOOOOOOMMMMM!!!!! I got all the quotes in there ahahahaaaa. And to think I was going to make that another post….
Ps, once again, if anyone made it this far, I salute you.