Seeing with the eyelid

Wittgenstein says somewhere — probably in the Philosophical Investigations — that the form of a philosophical problem is “ich kenne mich nicht aus”, I don’t know my way around, I have lost my bearings. Philosophy has two warring tendencies, which might write each other off as woolly, and arid. The problem clumsily described in my previous post leaves me, intellectually and in the most personal way, befogged and bemuddled. “Perhaps it is time to embrace that”, I wrote, and remembered that the one thing I think I know, the one thing worth holding on to, is clarity of language, precise expression that sloughs off cliche, like the morning crust around the eyes.

The clumsily described problem is that reason appears to have lost its purchase on our lives. This isn’t just a difficulty “out there” in public discourse, but nor is it merely a private matter; not that the personal is somehow less worthy of attention than the political. Six or seven months ago I came across a book on Hannah Arendt by a follower of the American philosopher Stanley Cavell, which offered the promise of saying something about this “purchase” — a way out of befuddlement. I will not provide chapter and verse (as the internet would so easily allow me to do) because the book just befuddled me even more. Some painters ill at ease with the classical tradition leave their working in, as it were — while painting in realist mode, they don’t erase the lines and marks used to keep the composition together. Again, I could read up on it and put it better, but the whole point is I am seeking a different mode from the prickly one I formerly cultivated here. I am going to show my working. A practising intellectual encounters new stimuli by the serendipity of the stacks, that is, working in the library, something you didn’t know you weren’t looking for turns up on the shelf next to what you are pursuing; Henry James, as it might be, instead of William, though that wouldn’t happen in an academic library. A dilettante such as myself reads the LRB.

Stanley Cavell is in the woolly camp, if you will. Here’s a reviewer in the NYRB, on Cavell on Lear:

… certainty of the kind that Lear, a mouthpiece for skepticism, asks of his daughters, or Othello of his wife, is not available in human affairs, and … demands for certainty lead inevitably to tragedy. As an alternative, Cavell offered what he called acknowledgment, our everyday, trusting substitute for certainty. He later summed up the distinction in an aphorism: “The eye teaches skepticism; the eyelid teaches faith.”

Christopher Benfrey, NYRB LXIX/8

“Skepticism”, for Cavell, is the wrong turning that leads away from human affairs to that arid place. I’m trying to give the lie of the land, but that’s too crude, even an example of the aporia of side-taking I’m trying to find my way out of — here’s Cavell again:

The misunderstanding of my attitude that most concerned me was to take my project as the application of some philosophically independent problematic of skepticism to a fragmentary parade of Shakespearian texts, impressing those texts into the service of illustrating philosophical conclusions known in advance.


I’ve always found the misunderstanding on which the plot of Lear hinges implausible, something to be swallowed as a donne, like the trial of Job. “Misunderstanding” is the wrong word, though; in Portuguese, it would be desencontro, a fateful encounter at cross purposes. It’s the same with Othello and sexual jealousy. Perhaps at the root of every tragedy, there is a moment of blindness in the sheep’s clothing of clairvoyance. These are real human problems, just as Job’s is; maladies of the heart, that express themselves as disorders of reason, but which reason alone cannot mend. There is no argument against grief.

If we consider for example the phenomenon of radical skepticism about government that is tearing the public mind of America apart fibre by fibre — an explosion of irrationality — it is not the case that looking harder would lead to a more reassuring and accurate view. The demand for certainty (the “rabbit hole”) is insatiable, and it is not reasonable to expect the unimpeachable absence of any flaw; if, that is, you look for trouble, you will surely find it, but that picture may still represent a hysterical failure to see the wood for the trees.

Cordelia’s “according to my bond, no more nor less” is wilful and stubborn; but should she respond like her sisters? Which is the better answer to Lear’s petulant enquiry?

I’m not sure if I have got Cavell’s “seeing with the eyelid” right. I’m reminded of Hamann’s much-quoted phrase, seeing “like a painter who steps back”. The painter has an involvement with both canvas and subject, and must move back and forth between brushwork, and looking to see what’s really there. But that does not mean objectivity, it means casting away preconceptions. What use is the subject at all, if it brings only something supposedly already known? “Stepping back” is a moment of judgment, whether the image is true, but that cannot imply objectivity. Representation exists within the relationship between the one seeing and the one being seen. What makes it art is the humility and humanity of that gaze.

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