As readers of my previous post may have guessed, obeying the 5-7-5 Rule has become something of a game for me. When I began writing this post, I had written about 50 haiku, all of them (5-7-5)-compliant. I hoped to extend my streak to at least 56 because Joe DiMaggio’s epic hitting streak lasted for 56 consecutive baseball games in 1941.
Wait a minute. My (5-7-5)-compliance is a game; DiMaggio’s profession was the game of baseball. The list of games is long and diverse (peekaboo; scrabble; solitaire; …). What do all those “games” have in common? In defiance of centuries of tradition dating back to Plato and Aristotle, the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein proposed a radical answer in the 20-th century:
(We can leave some wiggle room for something bland and inconsequential about amusing activities, often but not necessarily competitive.) Looking long and hard at the word “game” in all its sprawling diversity, Wittgenstein observed that there are many is-a-lot-like relationships among games, such as
Hockey is a lot like soccer.
To a nonfan like me, hockey and lacrosse and soccer are all essentially the same game, with obvious minor differences. Remove the goalie and U get basketball. Football is somewhat like such games and also somewhat like baseball. Card games are like each other in various ways. One may well be able to get from one game to another by several is-a-lot-like steps, but is-a-lot-like relationships are not transitive. After more than a few of such steps, it is no surprise if nothing worth fussing about is shared.
Wittgenstein did not stop with games. Philosophers have often sought to find and formulate what is common to all the activities or things that may rightly be called “good” or “beautiful” (or whatever uplifting adjective U want), with the presumption that something nontrivial and enlightening might be said. Tho Wittgenstein did not actually prove that quest to be hopeless, he did show that the burden of proof is heavier on somebody who thinks
What is beauty?
makes sense than on somebody who just says
I can’t define it, but I know it when I see it.
Images of beautiful people and places abound. Sculptors create beautiful objects; composers write beautiful music. In math, a beautiful proof of the Pythagorean Theorem was created by replacing the usual picture (of 3 squares glued to the sides of 1 triangle) with a picture of 4 copies of the same triangle, arranged to form 2 squares:
4 · ( ½ · a · b) + c²
Intellectually, I agree with Wittgenstein. Pachelbel’s canon and the 2-squares proof are both beautiful, we already knew that, and philosophy has nothing to add. I just want to remark that the urge to understand the world in terms of general principles works rather well when science encourages sobriety, by testing predictions about little things before trusting grandiose pronouncements about big things.
Emotionally, I sense something more likable than mere hubris in those who overreach, something akin to the spirit of people in New Orleans who tough out hurricanes or return after them.
Is failure an option?
No, it is a given.
But we will still try.
Seek ends of rainbows.
You will not find them? Okay.
The quest is enough.