haiku, humor, philosophy

Games, Beauty, and Overreach

As readers of my previous post may have guessed, obeying the 5-7-5 Rule has become something of a game for me.  To date, I have written 50 haiku, all of them (5-7-5)-compliant.  I hope 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 20-th century philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein proposed a radical answer:


(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 small stuff before trusting grandiose pronouncements about large stuff.

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.

This is Not Apollo 13

Failure is not an
option; it is a given.
But we will still try.

No Pots of Gold

Seek ends of rainbows.
You will not find them? Okay.
The quest is enough.

haiku, humor, music, philosophy

Wordless Wisdom

Can there be such a thing? Tho unable to offer a strong argument, I believe so.  Let’s start with something easier.

There can be wordless knowledge.  The canonical example is how to ride a bicycle.  There is much that can be said about riding a bike, but how to do it cannot be put into words and/or formulas.  Millions of children know how to ride their bikes w/o knowing anything about the underlying physics.  On the other hand, one can have the physics down cold and still not know how to ride.  Many kinds of knowledge can and should be written down, but definitely not all.

Verbal and nonverbal knowledge can work together, which is the main reason that baseball teams have hitting coaches and pitching coaches. To keep this post simple, I will ignore that possibility for wisdom. Sometimes it is better to be simplistic (with an understanding about wiggle room) rather than precise (but ponderous).

The notion of wordless wisdom is not preposterous, despite the conditioning we inherited from Socrates asking people to tell him what virtue is and then being dissatisfied when the only verbiage they can supply is a list of a few virtues, with or w/o “and so on” after the specifics.

I am among the many people whose response to some great pieces of music goes beyond ordinary enjoyment.  The last movement of Beethoven’s last piano sonata seems to hint at something important (as well as beautiful) that resists verbalization.  Maybe it is just subjective; other music lovers have differing lists of transcendent works.  Maybe putting “just” in front of “subjective” is unwise.

If the foregoing sounds addled, let me proclaim my (slightly qualified) devotion to Wittgenstein’s Laws:

  1. What can be said at all can be said clearly.
  2. Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent.

My only reservation about #1 is a request for a footnote remarking that clarity often does not come easily.  With #2, I see a little wiggle room in interpreting “be silent” (or “schweigen” in the original German text).  Does it rule out images?  Instrumental music?  Singing in a language the listener does not understand?  Fortunately for me, I do not understand enough Latin to get distracted by the words in sacred music and thereby risk misunderstanding the nonverbal wisdom it conveys.

Ad honorem: Hildegard of Bingen, 1098-1179

Mystic visions or
migraine headaches? Whatever.
Her music lives on!

Memo to Mystics

Unless you can grab
bubbles, you cannot put your
wisdom into words.