Do you know, is the crab soup vegetarian?
And of what uses are words if their meanings are bent by their use? And could comic philosophy be our last best hope?
By William Eaton
It could be teasing to begin this way, but . . . The last few months I have been working now and again on an essay about sex and philosophy, and it has seemed to me that the word “pleasure,” if not ἡδονή (hedone, pleasure), needs to be right at the top of such an essay. If such an essay is not fun to write and to read, why bother?
But this then raises any number of other questions, one of them being what pleasure is. (Anxiety reducing? Or does it involve a kind of game—anxiety provoking, anxiety relieving?) And how much of these or any other kinds of pleasure could there be in an essay about sex and philosophy? And isn’t the present essay supposed to be about something different—e.g., about whether crab soup could be vegetarian and, say, about how this question opens a window onto one of the most basic things that Ludwig Wittgenstein was trying to tell us? From §43 of his Philosophical Investigations: “[T]he meaning of a word is its use in the language.” If people begin talking about vegetarian crab soup, well then, from that moment on crab soup can be vegetarian.
To those who may just now be coming to Wittgenstein, I promise that in the course of the present text the meaning of Wittgenstein’s assertion will, slowly but surely, become clearer and may indeed come to seem quite correct. In this opening segment I will note that Wittgenstein was writing at the time of the two world wars and the Great Depression, and in opposition to a Platonic idea: that meanings are connected to fixed essences. From a Platonic perspective, as from many a schoolteacher’s or editor’s, while “pleasure” or the capitalist process of “creative destruction” or “crab soup” may be misused, neither such words nor the phenomena they describe should be thought to mean one thing today and another thing tomorrow, one thing at Goldman Sachs and another in 조선민주주의인민공화국 (Democratic People’s Republic of Korea), one thing to philosophers and another to people who have sex. If they did, our lives in language—like our lives in general—would be chaos, the ground so susceptible to shifting under our feet, as to suggest that “ground” was a misnomer.
Luckily, the wisecrack about sex and philosophers makes it easy to come up with a Wittgensteinian rejoinder: Misuses of language are one of the ways in which language is used, and, as a whole, language—like a railroad over a marsh?—may be thought of as an ingenious or futile attempt to pass over the terms of our existence, in which meaninglessness and change play very large parts, and hardly least in our capitalist age. More simply, it is clear that if one person calls being clamped, plugged and handcuffed to a bedpost pleasureful and another person (like me) uses “pleasure” to describe lying on a couch reading the philosopher Judith Butler’s Gender Trouble—it is not that our language needs to make room for these two meanings of “pleasure”; it already has. (And isn’t “pleasure,” in the sense of divertissement (diversion), the often unadmitted purpose of every intellectual work?)
In a note reproduced in Remarks on the Foundations of Mathematics, Wittgenstein observes, “However queer it sounds, the further expansion of an irrational number is a further expansion of mathematics.” And so, too, we can say, further expansions of the uses of the word “queer” have expanded our ideas of gender, sexuality, and social relations. And further uses of “crab soup” expand our ideas of crabs, vegetarianism, and the instability of language. And if, as Marx put it, under capitalism “alles Ständische und Stehende verdampft” (all that is solid melts into air); if we come to recognize that nothing—or not even “nothing”—is fixed or eternal, then we are compelled to face the real—pleasureful but frightening, or frightening but pleasureful—conditions of our lives. The present essay seeks to work and find pleasures on both sides of this street, and to suggest that given the human predicament and the paradoxes in which our philosophy and life in language entangle us, some kind of not so much absurdist as simply comic philosophy may be long overdue. To invert a famous line from Spinoza (“Non ridere, non lugere, neque detestari, sed intelligere”): in the face of struggles to understand, let us not be ashamed to laugh, nor to lament or curse. (And a welcome, too, to those readers who have already come up with at least one objection: Soupy philosophy is not the same thing as comic philosophy, and it’s not much fun besides.).
So now one of those hazy, wobbly images passes across the screen to tell us that we are going back in time. Not too far back in this case. We arrive at a balmy October Saturday, 2012, yellow leaves lying along the brick sidewalks of Mount Auburn Street in Cambridge, Massachusetts. I am waiting in a line at Darwin’s Ltd (“Purveyors of Sumptuous Comestibles & Caffeinated Provisions”), a store that makes sandwiches that my mother, a Cambridge resident, likes.
It is simply not possible for me to skip over the fact that this business seems to have been named after the great biologist. I must look in my files of quotations to find the one that seems to speak to the present circumstance. I find the following from Henry Adams’s novel Democracy.
“Why do you want to understand Darwinism?” a Senator asks a young woman. “What good will it do you?”
“Perhaps it will teach us to be modest,” the woman answers.
My mother, aging and bedridden, has sent me to Darwin to get her favorite sandwich (“The Hilliard”: turkey breast, dill Havarti cheese and Dijon mustard), and for myself I am thinking of “The Ash”: Boursin and roast beef with tomato and sprouts. But it turns out a lot of Cantabrigians have similar ideas. The line is long and slow, and waiting in lines makes me feel trapped, claustrophobic. More on a practical than psychological level, something about the experience of waiting to get two of Darwin’s sandwiches brought to mind waiting in the check-in and security lines at a crowded airport, and I noted, too, a seemingly essential difference: When I finally got to the end of the line I was still going to be in Cambridge, and not, say, on my way to the Continent or the Caribbean.
It was then that a person a little bit ahead of me—a young woman who seemed rather “normal”—blondish hair, a gray or perhaps blue T-shirt, running shoes in all likelihood, and a reasonably relaxed demeanor—leaned over the counter to ask one of the employees if the crab soup was vegetarian. One might say that, for me, this was better than any trip to Paris.
As often, however, I was travelling alone, and I longed for someone with whom to share the remarkable moment. There was a South Asian young man standing right in front of me, and sotto voce I called his attention to the seeming—I am here to propose that it may be only seeming—absurdity of the question. “It depends what your definition of ‘vegetarian’ is, I guess,” he offered.
Or what your definition of “crab” is, one friend of mine has since added. (To say nothing of “normal.”) Another friend called my attention to the cartoonist Al Capp’s Shmoo, an asexual yet highly reproductive creature which loved to be eaten and tasted like any food desired. Boil a Shmoo and it came out chicken. Broil it and it came out steak. A third friend found on a Happy Herbivore blog a recipe for “She Crab Soup (Fat-Free, Vegan),” posted in 2009 by one Lindsay S. Nixon, who recorded that the title would be “more accurately, The She-Crab-Lives Soup because no crustaceans were harmed in the making of this soup!” This comment proved quite helpful as otherwise it would have been difficult for me to figure out why the soup’s name bothered to include the word “crab,” the inclusion of 2 cups of oyster mushrooms, ½ tsp kelp and a dash of Old Bay seasoning being the closest the recipe came to anything aquatic. Wikipedia, at least as of October 2012, was insisting that orange crab roe was a chief ingredient in traditional crab soup, and that while “ingredients may be added to the soup or substituted for others, . . . crabmeat is found in all versions.” (N.B.: “All” and “every” will get you in trouble almost every time.) About.com answers one of its own questions—“What is a she-crab?”—in roundabout fashion: “Spring she-crabs carry flavorful roe or crab eggs.” And I also read somewhere—in notes I scribbled on a symphony program?—that Scotch-Irish immigrants in the backwoods of South Carolina used to also eat He-Crab Soup; however, notwithstanding the nutritiousness of the substance, its particular bleachy, salty pastiness was found to be off-putting, and the soup never became popular in Charleston. (Did I mention that I am working on an essay about sex and philosophy?)
“When philosophers use a word . . . and try to grasp the essence of the thing,” Wittgenstein writes in the Investigations, “one must always ask oneself: is the word ever actually used in this way . . . ? What we do is to bring words back from their metaphysical to their everyday use.” Problems can be solved “by looking into the workings of our language . . . in such a way as to make us recognize those workings—despite an urge to misunderstand them.” (Italics in the original.) It is certainly possible to go to a vegetarian restaurant and order a “burger” and have it be clearly understood that one means a “veggie burger,” with no meat in it. And as regards how we are now using “vegetarian,” a few minutes on the Web has revealed to me that, in addition to The Simpsons’ level 5 vegan who doesn’t eat “anything that casts a shadow,” there are: “lacto-ovo-vegetarians” who eat eggs and dairy products; “pescatarians” who eat seafood; and “flexitarians” who eat a mostly vegetarian diet, but occasionally eat meat. This makes room both for a pescatarian vegetarian crab soup, complete with crab meat, and for a lacto-ovo variation that includes roe but no meat. (However, absent the invention of Post-Laying She-Crab Soup, there would need to be a dispensation from the rabbi to allow the overlooking of the killing of mother crabs so that we can put their eggs in our soup.)
Further, my friend Stuart noted that a cow is a vegetarian, and perhaps a crab is too. This led him, after several ruminations, to propose that perhaps the real question is what do we mean by “is.” Which made it impossible for me to skip over the most famous statement ever made by President William Jefferson Clinton. He was testifying to a grand jury, responding to Office of the Independent Counsel prosecutors who had been empowered by Republican Party leaders eager to disempower the President and distract the American public from other, perhaps more essential matters. A lawyer with the Office, investigating Clinton’s relationship with his former White House intern, Monica Lewinsky, asked Clinton whether a statement his own lawyer had made—that there was no sex of any kind in any manner, shape or form with Lewinsky—“was an utterly false statement. Is that correct?” According to the sixteenth edition of Bartlett’s Familiar Quotations, Clinton answered, “It depends on what the meaning of the word ‘is’ is. If the—if he—if “is” means is and never has been, that is not—that is one thing. If it means there is none, that was a completely true statement.” (I.e., if use of the present tense of the verb “to be” makes the question about whether “I” am at present having sex with Ms. Lewinsky, the answer is no. If what is in question is my past behavior, well, that’s another story.)
“When I use a word,” Humpty Dumpty said, in a rather scornful tone, “it means just what I choose it to mean—neither more nor less.”
“The question is,” said Alice, “whether you can make words mean so many different things.”
“The question is,” said Humpty Dumpty, “which is to be master—that’s all.”
We shall get to George Orwell soon enough.
The blondish woman’s exact phrasing, as I have come to remember it, was: “Do you know, is the crab soup vegetarian?” In fact—and does this make the question less or more remarkable?—comments like this particular woman’s are being made daily in food stores and restaurants all across America. In my notes from a year ago I find a similar though hardly as inspiring a question, which was posed in a Manhattan restaurant by a man in his sixties: “Do you have sugar-free syrup?” (We understand why purveyors are eager to be able to sell sugarless products under the name “syrup” and crab-less products as crab, und so weiter. More curious is why a consumer would cling to these names if s/he did not want the most essential quality of the thing named: e.g., the sugar in the food traditionally called maple syrup, and often made of corn.)
In reflecting on the crab soup question, I have come to think that the “do you know” lies at the heart of its remarkableness. It makes it an epistemological question, as if the customer had asked—as I believe that, from one perspective she did—“Is it possible to know if the crab soup is vegetarian?” And as if a cousin of mine, waiting beside me, might then have piped up, “And if we cannot know this, can we know anything at all?”I will answer the first of these questions in my own roundabout fashion, approaching a Wittgensteinian answer at the end. First, a factoid, likely from the Science Times: French children apparently “know” a great deal less than American children about the nutritional characteristics of what they are eating, but what French children eat is thought, by experts in both countries, to have a much higher nutritional value than what the ostensibly more knowledgeable American children eat. (Here we would seem pressed to expand further our idea of “knowledge.”) Secondly, the psychoanalyst Alfred Adler, in a work published in English under the title Understanding Human Nature, observed that we human beings are forced to compensate for our weakness by forming alliances and cooperating, and these activities, far from relieving us of our feelings of deprivation and insecurity, embody them. And thus—I am proposing—we should not be surprised that language, which provides us such an extraordinary means of socializing, should be similarly awash in insecurity and alienation, and in a kind of hoping against hope for understanding. Which understanding, the children would seem to suggest, will be at its best unconscious.With this as a backdrop, is it surprising that Wittgenstein, a great student of language, was also a grand dichotomizer and lover of optical illusions? The Investigations includes sketches of a duck/rabbit, a convex/concave step, and of what Wittgenstein, hinting at underlying emotions, calls a “double cross”: a white cross on a black ground that could as easily be a black cross on a white ground. Similarly, in the internal dialogue of the text he accompanies many of his assertions with their inverse.
The [ostensible: pointing] definition of the number two, “That is called ‘two’”—pointing to two nuts—is perfectly exact.—But how can two be defined like that? The person one gives the definition to doesn’t know what one wants to call “two”; he will suppose that “two” is given to this group of nuts!
(Did I mention that my ideas of exploring comic philosophy were still struggling to get off the ground?)
In any case, returning to the question about whether we can know anything at all, our answer, after Wittgenstein (and Clinton), will be no and yes. If the meaning of such a trivial thing as the name of a dish cannot be pinned down, on what basis are we expecting to be able to answer any seemingly more important questions such as whether God exists or if abortion is murder or love is all there is? With an Iranian scientist visiting the United States from her home in the Netherlands, I found myself discussing “commitment”—the commitment that two potential lovers or parents might make to one another. It took us not ten seconds to agree that the word “commitment” has come to mean something quite close to nothing. Cf., Plato’s Lysis: “For our hearers will carry away the report that though we conceive ourselves to be friends with each other . . . we have not as yet been able to discover what we mean by a friend.”
But we might, with Wittgenstein’s encouragement, turn Socrates’s comment around and note that even though we do not know what we mean by “a friend,” we have friends. And we may learn another lesson from Wittgenstein’s remarks regarding pain and the language of pain, or from an old torch-song line: “Something here inside / Cannot be denied.” In spite of the limitations of our life in language, there is something all the same accompanying the use of the words “God,” “love,” or “commitment.” There is something tangible or almost tangible, let’s call it; something that guides us into making judgments of right and wrong, correct and incorrect, so good and so bad. And without this feeling of “tangibility,” of our being able to talk with one another about our experiences and longings, we would not keep trotting out the old locutions, nor keep inventing new ones, such as the “crap soup” with which a 12-year-old of my acquaintance, (mis)hearing from a back seat, renamed the Darwinian product in question.
From this (torch-song) perspective, certainly we can know—we do know—that a given soup is or is not crap and that sugar-free syrup is not really syrup. Many in the Cambridge soup line would have laughed, or at least perked up, if the woman had leaned over the counter to ask, “Do you know, is the orange juice vegetarian?” See Philosophische Untersuchungen / Philosophical Investigations, §464: “Was ich lehren will, ist: von einem nicht offenkundigen Unsinn zu einem offenkundigen übergehen.” In other words: My aim is to teach you to pass from a piece of disguised nonsense to something that is patent nonsense.
And nicely, the brief Wittgensteinian riff of the previous paragraphs could lead to a chorus of Wittgensteinians of one sort or another snorting that I have totally misread the master. My Wittgenstein has as little to do with the “real Wittgenstein” as the Happy Herbivore’s she-crab soup, or the sperm soup of the backwoods “crackers,” has to do with real crap soup. The real Wittgenstein, it has been proposed, opposed scientism and theory construction and argued that philosophy should be “confined to exposing the irrational assumptions on which theory-oriented investigations are based and the irrational conclusions to which they lead.” That from the New York University philosopher Paul Horwich (or from “Horwich’s Wittgenstein,” as his reading has been called). And I pluck this from O.K. Bouwsma’s wonderful 1961 essay, “The Blue Book”:
The object [of Wittgenstein’s investigations] is to assist some individual, always an individual, to help him discover what misleads and has misled him. And what misled him is to be seen only when he is no longer misled. When he says: “Now, I see” and breathes a sigh of relief, even though it may be a bit sheepishly, that is the moment to which the art is directed.
As regards both my own reading and these others I would underscore that from a Wittgensteinian perspective the meaning of a text is its use, and, as with “misuse” and “use,” so too misreading is a kind of reading, and likely the most popular if not the only possible kind. Wittgenstein’s Investigations begin with a misreading of Augustine’s Confessions, and there is little Darwin has been so much as misread. And misread, I will pause to add, not only by his opponents on the Christian right, but also by many of his putative followers among the “Liberal Establishment.” And nicely, too, these misreadings reflect and promote an unwavering commitment to Christian teleology, to there being a purpose to life (“reproductive success”)—which purpose informs, inter alia, the behavior of genes and inspires (can I say?) the corruptions of strings of proteins in the course of reproductive processes.
Those in line for an essay on sex and philosophy essay might also pick up Elisabeth Lloyd’s The Case of the Female Orgasm: Bias in the Science of Evolution, which proposes that female orgasms have developed despite their not serving any adaptive purpose. Rather, Lloyd, who shares my Steven-Jay-Gouldian understanding of evolution, argues that female orgasms are a byproduct of the parallel development of nerve and tissue pathways in male and female embryos in the first eight or nine weeks of life. Subsequently the males develop a penis and the potential to ejaculate (orgasmically), while “females get the nerve pathways for orgasm by initially having the same body plan.” And thus we might say that, for a Homo sapiens sapiens female at least, sexual pleasure can, potentially, have a greater purity than a male Homo sapiens sapiens’ sexual pleasure, since the female’s orgasm could (ideally) serve no purpose but pleasure. And as a reader of the Science Times and Nature I would ask: Has the meaning of the word “pleasure” evolved rather dramatically of late, so that it now means—and perhaps most fundamentally—a certain level of neurochemical activity in the sensory cortex as recorded by electrodes or by an MRI taken at the time of a potentially pleasureful event? Or could a schoolteacher please come forward to remind us that the meaning of “pleasure”—and of “orgasm,” “evolution,” “Wittgenstein”—should not lie only in its abuse? (Btw: I suspect that Wittgenstein was, however unwittingly, working in Marx’s shadow—the bottom line here being that if “theory-oriented investigations” going by the name of empirical research (or serious philosophy) can be sold for more than the cost of the labor required to produce and sell them, then no amount of derogatory comments will avail. And the same dynamic applies to the possibility (or inevitability) of vegetarian crab soup.)
In La structure du comportement, the phenomenologist Maurice Merleau-Ponty wrote that the relations of a given individual and his milieu are dialectical, and dialectic leads to new relationships. This has the virtue of making the social nature of language and its plasticity, both in general and under capitalism, seem quite simple and understandable. And I take the Investigations’ corrective to this Merleau-Pontyian perspective to be findable somewhere between §167 (“Think of the uneasiness we feel when the spelling of a word is changed”) and §384 (“You learned the concept ‘pain’ when you learned language”). This is not just a matter of intellectual observations; we are talking—or trying to talk—about our lives here, our feelings. And I would underscore that this is hardly an easy subject to talk about, and in at least two senses of the word “easy” (easy intellectually, easy emotionally). For example (a father notes), a child coming into a new world, with its new technologies and social relations, is prepared to accept and even embrace this world as normal. But how will the child feel as he ages, and tries to solidify, and the technology and social relations keep changing and he begins to realize, subconsciously at first, that the norms are themselves so plastic as to have no normative value? (We are like corks on the ocean? Corks which, as our pathologists know well, are themselves 75 percent water.)
Nor is it easy to accept that from one perspective, which for me is a Wittgensteinian perspective, we never learn to express ourselves, if such expressing would be that of an autonomous individual. From an extremely early age we are colonized by language—by our “mother tongue,” our national languages, the languages of facial expressions, of body posture, of fashion and sex, u.s.w. In a sense we get to our most private pains (and joys!) first by being taken outside of ourselves, into the circle of language, from whence we return to something we have learned to call our self and imagine that we are having quite personal experiences and trying to communicate them to others who may or may not be able to imagine what we are talking about. “But surely another person can’t have THIS pain!” (Investigations, §253).
As I proposed at the outset, however, this essay is working both sides of the street. And thus I will now note that in the Investigations Wittgenstein also urges, again and again, “Don’t think, but look!” To avoid “die Verhexung unsres Verstandes durch die Mittel unserer Sprache” (the bewitchment of our intelligence by means of our language), we should pay close attention to how words are used in everyday conversations and in specific situations. And thus we can (temporarily) set our worries aside and appreciate how easy it was to know, one balmy October Saturday way back in 2012, whether or not Darwin’s crab soup was vegetarian. This was made clear by the fact that the woman behind Darwin’s counter, of whom the question was asked, answered—albeit after a slight pause to get her mind around the question and the fact that it was being asked by a normal-looking person and with, as we say, a “straight face”— In my somewhat vague memory of this part of the experience the answer to the question was, “No, it’s not.”
I would also here take some time to look carefully at what the word “vegetarian” meant to the person using it in a question in that particular place and time. My sense is that it meant two things, both of them good. One was related to “being healthy.” In Cambridge in 2012 to eat vegetarian food was considered an excellent way of promoting one’s physical health, not getting cancer or heart disease, and living a long time, or at least behaving in ways that seemed likely to promote physical health or longevity. Secondly, vegetarianism was thought to eliminate or reduce the harm that a non-vegetarian diet inflicts on certain animals (beings somewhat similar to us).
One of my editors has recalled for me a remark from Snooki, late of the Jersey Shore reality TV show: “I don’t eat lobsters because they’re alive when you kill them!” But neither my editor nor I would make light, or only make light, of the ethical issue being touched on here. Trolling the Web, I was quickly ensnared by a Wikipedia article on “pain in crustaceans,” which, inter alia, informed me that the idea that animals do not feel pain is traced back to Descartes, who argued that animals do not experience pain because they lack consciousness. (We might classify this as a particular logical fallacy: “denying the antecedent.” If p then q, and not p, does not imply not q. The fact that consciousness is or can be painful does not imply that a being lacking consciousness—or, say, nociceptors—feels no pain.)
To save space and reduce confusion, I have severely amputated, compressed and otherwise edited other segments of the Wikipedia article:
Nociceptors, the neurons required for the sensation of pain, have been found in nematodes, annelids, mollusks and in the arthropod Drosophila, despite earlier claims that nociceptors were absent in insects. In 2005, a review of the literature by the Norwegian Scientific Committee for Food Safety tentatively concluded that “it is unlikely that [lobsters] can feel pain.” The report assumes that the violent reaction of lobsters to boiling water is a reflex to noxious stimuli.
Please see Philosophical Investigations, Part II, xi, one of the places in the book where the inner warmth of Ludwig Wittgenstein may be felt even in the coolness of his philosophical shadow: “If I see someone writhing in pain with evident cause I do not think: all the same, his feelings are hidden from me.”
And I quote again from Wikipedia:
A 2007 study at Queen’s University, Belfast, suggested that crustaceans do feel pain. In the experiment, when the antennae of prawns were rubbed with sodium hydroxide or acetic acid, the animals showed increased grooming of the afflicted area and rubbed it more against the side of the tank [and also began talking in shrimpese about the sadism of Homo sapiens]. In a subsequent 2009 study, Elwood and Mirjam Appel showed that as hermit crabs are shocked more intensely, they become increasingly willing to leave their current shells for new shells, and they spend less time deciding whether to enter those new shells.
To date no nociceptor or similar mechanism has been found in plants and fungi, and so there are those who believe it worse to kill animals than plants or oyster mushrooms, and this especially if the killing is unnecessary, if we can survive instead on food from plants and fungi or, say, on milk. (Or on what The-She-Crab-Lives recipe refers to as “plant-based milk.”) And thus a vegetarian may be a “good person,” and a non-vegetarian may be a bad one, or at least bad when s/he eats.
A bit as with a Russian doll, we have been finding nested inside the woman’s soup question quite a few other ones, and we are now seeing that, from the poser’s perspective, the most relevant questions seemed to concern ethics in the broadest sense of this term: What should I do? How should I live? Soon enough I will propose that this ethical focus was or is an illusion (or one half of an illusion?). But certainly we can see that two sets of ethical questions were being posed over that sandwich counter, one set concerning being good to others and the other, being good to oneself. Thus (in our doll opening) we might come to a question such as, “Do you know, would I be doing good (or can I consider myself a good person) if today for lunch I eat your crab soup?” And we might come to another one such as, “Is your crab soup healthy?”
Both of these questions lead to the same core question, and I suspect that this is how most contemporary Cantabrigians would translate the crab-soup-vegetarian question: “Did you use any real crab meat or crab eggs in making your crab soup?” If, as with some of the “crab” served in Japanese restaurants (or some of the “democracy” served up in many countries of the world), there was no “real” crab in Darwin’s soup that day, both the store and the questioner would be off the hook and might sell and eat “crab soup” with a clean conscience and other enjoyable affective states. (Denied, for example, to the purchaser of the “ash sandwich.”)
From this perspective, the answer—“No, it’s not”—may have briefly frustrated the customer and put Darwin’s own behavior in an ethically unflattering light. But, again, I think there is another way of seeing the woman’s real question or concern. Fresh from her run, certainly she wanted to feel that the food she was about to put in her hungry body would be both good for her and not harmful to some other beings. But it was equally the case that, from where she stood, a Saturday afternoon was hardly the time for confronting the molten complexities, unknowabilities, or psychological needs underlying her or anyone else’s desires. She just wanted a “good” lunch for God’s sake. Her studies at Harvard or MIT may have been breathtakingly complex, but this was all the more reason she did not want a store employee—such as I or, say, Socrates would have been—to ask what she meant by “good” or “healthy” or whether beings without nociceptors could also be harmed. At that moment, and likely in many other moments, not just on Saturday afternoons, she wanted to be able to ask (seemingly) simple questions and get (seemingly) simple, yes or no answers. And, I am proposing, there is a sense in which she was demanding such simplicity along with information of a more ethical or culinary nature. And I am ready to say further that this is a major aspect of a lot of the information we ask for, generate and disseminate (e.g., as advice, policy recommendations, empirical data, and conclusions): to assure ourselves, or maintain our assurance, that the world and life are not so complicated after all.
From this perspective we can see that the response of the woman on the other side of the counter, for all it was superficially negative, was also quite satisfying. Underlying her just saying no was a very big Yes. Yes, you and I can know if a given soup is both healthy and has not caused harm, or undue harm, in its making. (I am reminded of the color-coded “sustainability ratings” Whole Foods puts in front of its fish. It may not do much for the fish, but what a comfort for we shoppers—to be able to so clearly distinguish right—and even shades of right!—from wrong.)
My editors have urged me not to further shag an already shaggy dog of an essay with a lengthy discussion of Plato’s encounters with the unknowability of right and wrong, or of the good—i.e., with the unknowability of what we should do or, say, of what I should write or not write right here and now. But, as touched on in the introduction, Wittgenstein’s Investigations is in vigorous dialogue with a certain set of readings or misreadings of Plato. (Cf., Alfred North Whitehead’s comment in Process and Reality regarding “the systematic scheme of thought which scholars have doubtfully extracted from . . . the wealth of general ideas scattered through” Plato’s writings.) Thus I will here recall a few relevant moments from these writings. In The Republic Socrates speaks of the importance of being able, as we say, to separate the wheat from the chaff (the gluten from the gluten-free?), and of knowing how “always and everywhere” to make the best choice “to the extent possible.” One might respond that this “to the extent possible” reduces Socrates’s teaching to nonsense; most anyone and everyone can say, and many do, that they always and everywhere make the best choice to the extent possible. And, indeed, in one of the most influential (and quite variously translated) passages in all of Plato’s work (Stephanus page 505 of The Republic) Socrates says, or admits: “[W]e have no proper knowledge of the form of the good. And if we don’t know it, though we should have the fullest possible knowledge of all else, . . . that would be of no use to us”. In other dialogues, Plato explores various possibilities, with the good—or what we have come to call “the good life”—appearing to be or to stem from a “mixed life,” a combination of hedone (pleasure) and phronesis (wisdom), or with the good not being this or any particular mix, but rather mixity itself: the true mean, compared to which actions, works of art, and so forth may come up short or go too far. The latter approach might seem to vastly simplify the problem by making knowledge of the right thing to do a simple matter of good cooking or mathematical calculation. Alternatively, it might seem to simply offload The Republic’s problem of our ignorance of the good onto The Statesman’s problem of our ignorance of the mean, without knowledge of which we cannot know the true value of things, actions, ideas, soup.
Nonetheless, it can be said that Plato’s dialogues reinforce the idea that, even if we can never know what the good is, as we can never know the mind of God, still it or S/He exists in some sense, at least in many of our minds. And so, too, from certain Platonic texts, most notably from the “Seventh Letter,” which we cannot be sure that Plato wrote, we have gotten the idea that behind all our words—to include “crab” and “vegetarian,” but also “the good,” first and foremost—there are eternal essences (eide: ideas, forms). The names we give to things spring not from how we happen to use words, but from these essences, and thus we can ask, as Plato’s Socrates does repeatedly, compulsively, in many dialogues, what [the Greek words we translate as] “courage” or “virtue” or “love” really mean.
It is important to recognize that as regards vegetarianism or, say, the morals we teach our children, this is hardly a trivial point. If words trace the evolution from what we have previously wanted them to mean to what we would like them to mean now, then the ground is constantly shifting under our feet—or we are constantly shifting the ground under our own feet—and, as for Humpty Dumpty, the only question is who is the master. Who on the playground gets to decide what the rules are and how they will be interpreted. Who in the universe of particle physics gets to decide what qualifies as an object and what does not. (See also, Carl Schmitt, the great Nazi philosopher, “Sovereign is he who decides on the exception.” There is, for example, the person or institution that decides that, while an individual who has sold a little coke on the street or robbed a convenience store should be sent to jail, the bank staff and executives who have been involved in laundering hundreds of millions of dollars for narcotics traffickers and “terrorist” organizations should not even be prosecuted.)
In the Platonic idea of essences, ethics and ontology merge, and we may find our belief—our hope!—that there are some things that are true under all circumstances and independent of those circumstances (of how much money or power a person or corporation may have, of our historical moment, culture, gender, genes, etc.). Thus we tell our children (in our words, though less often by means of our deeds) that lying, cheating, and hitting or killing others (without provocation) is always bad, and that love, charity and forgiveness are always good, and this notwithstanding that “love” and “lying,” for example, might prove harder words to define than “crab” and “vegetarian.”
“Man könnte sagen: Die Betrachtung muß gedreht werden, aber um unser eigentliches Bedürfnis als Angelpunkt.” One might say: the axis of our examination must be rotated, but about the fixed point of our real need. (Investigations, §108) And from the Remarks on the Foundations of Mathematics:
If you talk about essence, you are merely noting a convention. But here one would like to report: there’s no greater difference than that between a proposition about the depth of the essence and one about a mere convention. But what if I reply: to the depth that we see in the essence there corresponds the deep need for a convention.
In the opening pages of La pensée sauvage Lévi-Strauss, reviewing others’ anthropological field work, calls attention to the extraordinary taxonomic capacities of a range of technologically unadvanced societies and insists that all of Homo sapiens’ seemingly primitive or seemingly sophisticated pursuits of knowledge are motivated by a common psychological need: to impose some order on the chaos of our perceptions, of the world outside our sciences. This yes, that no; this healthy, that unhealthy; this philosophy, not that philosophy. This need to classify and organize to an absurd, or almost absurd, degree comes before (Lévi-Strauss argues) any other practical uses to which the knowledge (or systematization) might be put. E.g., it comes before using botanical classifications as a way of finding more food or medicines, or before using Galilean and Bohrish models of physical processes to increase projectiles’ destructive success.
For my part, I have imagined a not-quite-kaleidoscope that is, in fact, an ever-changing and hardly circumscribed motley of colored shapes, no two colors or shapes quite the same, no seeming boundary lasting more than an instant. A death-fearing, love-seeking eye, constantly confronted by this confusion, would almost immediately begin to find patterns and consistencies, and a mind, or a collection of minds, of people all colonized by and contributing to the same spoken language, would come to have words for the patterns and consistencies. Instead of ephemera, there would be more or less stable objects. And consistencies in the pronunciation and spelling of the names given to these not-quite-existent objects would solidify the observers’ sense that they were indeed seeing more or less stable objects. And the observers might even reach a point where their categories, for all they were rooted in anxiety as much as in anything else, began to themselves shape the shapes, as the idea that dreams have meanings give meanings to dreams. And this would be comforting, these assurances of consistency and of meaning!
Philosophers might on the sidelines debate the possible existence of two distinct if connected realms (e.g., the noumenal and phenomenal; some “real world” and the world of our perceptions.) Social scientists might write of the pace, creative destruction and alienation of modern life and how stressful all this is. Meanwhile the comfort of having classification systems, science, philosophy, psychology, sociology would—magically, as it were—further confirm the existence and stability of the objects and of the patterns that would now be becoming as (temporarily) clear as they were welcome.
Observing all this from afar—with an objectivity to which we are not entitled—would we wish to say that these kaleidopic people were yet further confused by their desire or need for stability and for relief from anxiety? We are mistaking our liquid world and selves for solids, or, say, seeing a universe of objects notwithstanding the fact that our scientists have been insisting for some time now that it is a universe of relations or of vibrating invisible string? Or would we say that what is not confusing in all this—the greater truth, if you will, the unvacillating object—is this need for stability and comfort, for release from meaninglessness, and for something that begins to approach “love,” commitment, touching and holding, the desire to understand and communicate with other human beings?
Marx noted that religion is both a response to alienation and a source of it. Similarly we might say that a normal person’s insistence that a given soup be vegetarian or not, and that meanings of words are not or cannot be in flux: this is both a response to anxiety and a source of it. It places demands on language and on life—for permanence and meaning and psychological relief—that language and life are not able to meet, and which are therefore all the more pressing. Indeed, could this insatiable anxiety explain why, at this late stage in our evolution, we are becoming increasingly allergic if not quite to life itself, then to what we used to call the “staff of life”—to wheat, milk, nuts and the (mis)named peanuts?
And so we have come back to an aspect of the discussion that interests me, and indeed all of us, greatly—and which must also bear some responsibility for the intellectualizing that I, and others, engage in. This is the emotional aspect, the anxiety—how close to nonsense, or madness, glimpses of the nature of our life in language can make us feel. Or is it, rather, how close to nonsense or madness we in fact are, with our elaborate classifications, our fiercely held but evanescent certainties, our syrupless syrup, nuclear weapons, our rapid draining of the Great Plains’ Ogallala Aquifer, on which we depend for much of our food . . . 8,667-word essays on vegetarian crab soup. At times—don’t think or look but feel?—it’s like a chill draft coming from we’re not sure where. Julian Jaynes and others have proposed that our distant ancestors, the Homeric-era Greeks included, lived in a world of hallucinations. “It is one god who makes Achilles promise not to go into battle, another who urges him to go, and another who then clothes him in a golden fire reaching up to heaven and screams through his throat across the bloodied trench at the Trojans,” Jaynes wrote in The Origin of Consciousness, and I wish to ask what this felt like for Achilles, to be so porous and malleable, as perhaps all of us humans and demigods still are?
It is at this moment that I am ready to propose that our real text here may not be a verse from Homer’s Iliad or Wittgenstein’s Philosophische Untersuchungen, nor a handful of sentences from Augustine’s Confessions or Simone de Beauvoir’s Le deuxième sexe, lurking in the Afterword just ahead, nor even quite a seemingly innocent question posed on a sandwich line. Perhaps the text is from Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four: “Most of the material that you were dealing with had no connexion with anything in the real world, not even the kind of connexion that is contained in a direct lie.”
Of course no more than the essence of crab soup can we know what our real text might be, who is reading the right Bible or has indeed heard from God and interpreted His or Her words correctly. And if anything is clear at the present moment it is that we are prey to more texts, more words than we can possibly fend off successfully. And it is here again that Orwell comes to a kind of rescue, proposing we make thought crimes impossible by reducing every concept that can ever be needed to exactly one word (“anxiety”? “death”? “love”?) We might each use Twitter to lobby to have “my” favorite word chosen as The One. And when we get to this point, we will (thank God?) have lost not only the capacity to ask, but also any interest in asking whether our crap soup is or is not vegetarian. In one of his notes published posthumously in Culture and Value, Wittgenstein wondered if “science and industry, having caused infinite misery in the process, will [one day] unite the world—I mean condense it into a single unit”.
But where is the fun here? In the very opening paragraph I proposed that this essay should be, must be fun to read, but when we get into a subject like the deformations of language for nefarious political or commercial purposes . . . the fun kinda goes out of the balloon. So that the members of the family living in Vienna would not be sent to the “camps” and their “showers,” the Wittgensteins “gave” the Nazis, inter alia, 1.7 tonnes of gold. In return they were given a word, a name. Instead of “Jewish” they became officially Mischlinge (mixed race), a name which could be used unofficially to describe most every human being on the planet, and particularly since race is a social construct, a classification with more economic and political than taxonomic significance, a word whose raison d’être is not some linguistic, philosophical or biological essence, but a deep human need: to divide and conquer.
I am one of those kinds of people who when insulted or mistreated have a tendency to react at first by laughing or seeing something fascinating about the situation, the next day realizing how I have been treated and by whom, and getting in touch with a whole ’nother set of feelings about the event. And so am I now—nearing the end of this kitchen sink of an essay—suddenly realizing—I really meant what I was writing about anxiety—the young woman’s hardly abnormal question may have been less amusing, absurd, or not-absurd than it was disturbing. Are we (and am I?) in the throes of doublespeak, and to include even when we try to buy a little lunch somewhere near the dense center of American higher education, Cambridge, Massachusetts? (Or is my hometown not that at all, and hardly such a black hole, but rather, and particularly on a balmy October day, like the pleasant gardens of a sanatorium?) Did Orwell, overly affected by the example of the Soviet Union, present as a possible dystopia or as a situation to be avoided what has been in fact the day-to-day, and inescapable, reality of Homo sapiens under capitalism or perhaps since time immemorial: We simply cannot know, except in the most ephemeral, absurd sense, whether crab soup is vegetarian; or whether our leaders are telling us the truth or, say, whether she loves me or I her? As the Harvard philosopher Willard Van Orman Quine wrote, “The totality of our so-called knowledge or beliefs, from the most casual matters of geography and history to the profoundest laws of atomic physics or even of pure mathematics and logic, is a man-made fabric which impinges on experience only along the edges.”
In Nineteen Eighty-Four, we might say that the fabric is the overalls of the protagonist Winston Smith’s girlfriend. In the sex scene, Winston pulls the fabric aside and studies “the real” (we’ll call it): Julia’s “smooth white flank.”
In the old days, he thought [ignorantly? sexistly?], a man looked at a girl’s body and saw that it was desirable, and that was the end of the story. But you could not have pure love or pure lust nowadays. No emotion was pure, because everything was mixed up with fear and hatred [and “gender”]. Their embrace had been a battle, the climax a victory. It was a blow struck against the Party. It was a political act.
So much for the purity of female, or male, sexual pleasure? And is what we call pleasure (ἡδονή, hedone) above all a reaction to rage (to include at our cosmic impotence, and the instability of names and of things) and to confusion? Orwell and all the rest of us have fought chaos and fear with language, and so—surprise, surprise—our language, if it expresses anything, expresses this fear and speaks of the chaos—e.g., a world in which everything has a name but none, or almost none, of the names mean what they say or say what they mean. From a cosmic perspective we seem to be next to nothing, and so it would be rather surprising if our names were more than next to nothing. When Wittgenstein’s first book, the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, was being published, Wittgenstein apparently told the editor that the book had two parts: the written part and the unwritten part, “And it is precisely this second part that is the important one.” And the written part includes the following proposition: “[O]nly in the nexus of a proposition [or, say, in a particular sandwich counter question] does a name have meaning.”
For the umpteenth time I recall what seems to have been one of the most formative experiences of my Cambridge childhood. I was playing in a sandbox off Upland Road (a bit north of Mount Auburn), and I and the other kids there (8 years old and younger) got into one of the spiraling arguments we used to specialize in, larger and larger numbers being invoked—one child claiming to be a thousand times smarter or stronger or righter, the next a million, a billion, a googol, a googolplex. In the middle of all this—and, I assume, feeling as frustrated as I used to feel—failing to get my point across, forced to talk with such juvenile ignoramuses—a next-door neighbor boy, who, on another occasion, less inspired, smashed my sister’s lip with a shovel, now rose up, as it were, from the earth, and shouted: “For all you know you could be a chocolate cake!”
William Eaton is the Editor of Zeteo; his further explorations of the here and now appear on montaigbaktinian.com.
In a less culinary mode, I note that neither would this essay have been written, nor, in a certain sense, would a woman have asked an employee of Darwin’s if the crab soup was vegetarian, had I not been at the time editing a book review of my friend Stuart Johnson’s, a review of University of Chicago historian Alison Winter’s intellectual history of the idea of memory in the twentieth century. Briefly, what Johnson and Winter present is a case study of how one seemingly quite basic word, “memory”—a word that we often imagine referring to something rather concrete within our brains—is in fact rather more fluid, “a social and intellectual construct,” as Stuart puts it. Thus, for example, in the late twentieth century ideas of memory were transformed by the appearance of “recovered memories” of adult survivors of sexual or otherwise violent abuse. And Johnson, after Winter, also writes about a man who in a courtroom in 1906 retracted a murder confession on the grounds that, as Stuart puts it, “the police questioners had so pressured him that they had implanted the memory of committing the murder in his mind.” In 1977, with the help of Kodak, we can say, two psychologists from Harvard proposed the concept of “flashbulb memories.” E.g.: Where were you when you got the news that Kennedy was shot or that the World Trade Center had imploded? “The importance of photography to record ordinary family life,” Stuart writes, “highlighted, or even created, a sense of the importance of the captured ‘moment,’ and it reinforced, with the power of relentless corporate advertising, the sense that memories were moments to be captured and stored.” (And that memory involved capturing and storing.)
Reading and responding to Stuart’s drafts, I was reminded both of Wittgensteinian ideas and also of Augustine’s idea of memory, which, interestingly, for all it differs from our current “scientific” definitions of the word, yet seems to retain some common sense (and might help deepen our understanding of recovered memories). Interestingly, too, for all Philosophical Investigations are grounded in a (mis)reading of three sentences from an early chapter of The Confessions, three sentences in which Augustine is relating a memory of his childhood . . . Nonetheless, Wittgenstein seems not to have read or given much thought to Augustine’s various and well-known discussions of the phenomenon of “memory” further on in The Confessions and in On the Trinity. Herewith a little bit from The Confessions, as translated by R.S. Pine-Coffin and with my underscoring:
In my memory, too, are all the events that I remember, whether they are things that have happened to me or things that I have heard from others. From the same source I can picture to myself all kinds of different images based either upon my own experience or upon what I find credible because it tallies with my own experience.
Could we, anachronistically, describe this as memory more in the sense of a PC than an Instamatic? That is, as it is possible for me to have on my hard drive pictures that I did not take and of people I never met (e.g., of Augustine? of a woman with her overalls pulled aside?), so from an Augustinian perspective we may remember events that either never occurred to us or that we did not record and retain at the time of their occurrence. Thus, for example, in The Confessions Augustine states that at least some of what he “remembers” from his childhood comes from having in adulthood observed other children. This strikes me as perfectly normal, as a realistic view of one aspect of human memory.
It may be asked, however, what this has to do with crab soup, besides the fact, which is not insignificant, that I would not have been so struck by the customer’s question had I not at the time been ruminating in a Wittgensteinian way about how the meanings of words (e.g., “memory”) lies in their use. And it so happens that at this time, as part of my Platonic exploration of relationships between sex and philosophy, I had also begun re-reading Simone de Beauvoir’s Le deuxième sexe, which begins by touching on what defines a given human being as a woman and whether, as a result of the advance of feminism, women (as a what? a sex? a gender? a race?) might die out. For example, de Beauvoir offers a stereotypical observation of people she refers to as “connaisseurs,” but who we might call “womanizers.” Those are not women, such people say of certain others (aggressive businesswomen? Olympic sprinters or weightlifters? lesbians in short hair and overalls?). Those are not women, even though they have a uterus. De Beauvoir goes on to ask, “Is womanhood secreted by the ovaries? Or fixed in a Platonic heaven [i.e., in the realm of eide or essences], and brought down to Earth with the simple rustle of a petticoat?”
Could this be the place to mention that the English word “kaleidoscope” was formed from the Ancient Greek καλός (kalos, beautiful, beauty), εἶδος (eidos, idea, form), and σκοπέω (skopeo, to look to, to examine)? Albeit without reference to these words—nor to Darwin, Hegel or, say, Frederick Douglass—de Beauvoir goes on to propose that the biological and social sciences no longer believe in the eternal woman, or Jew or Negro: entities once thought to be fixed once and forever and to have an immutable set of characteristics (e.g., frailty, miserliness, laziness).
Hardly had I read two pages before I was e-mailing Stuart:
One would like to think that some nouns did in fact name essences—e.g., “memory,” or better yet “woman,” an adult female of the human species. De Beauvoir is reminding me that these names, too, are in flux. Then today, and with a rather more laughable result, I was standing in a line to get a sandwich at a sort of Leftish, Cambridge, Mass., food place, and one of the “women” ahead of me asked an employee behind the counter, “Do you know if your crab soup is vegetarian?” (There’s a whole little essay of mine right there. Nine words. No need to say anything more. Do you know if your crab soup is vegetarian? End of essay.)
Al Capp, The Short Life and Happy Times of the Shmoo. (The Overlook Press, 2002). First copyright dates to 1948.
Darwin’s Ltd., Purveyors of Sumptuous Comestibles & Caffeinated Provisions, 148 Mount Auburn Street and 1629 Cambridge Street, Cambridge, MA.
Elisabeth Lloyd, The Case of the Female Orgasm: Bias in the Science of Evolution. (Harvard University Press, 2000).
George Orwell, Nineteen Eighty-Four. (Plume, 1983).
Gerald A. Press, Plato: A Guide for the Perplexed. (Continuum, 2007).
Ludwig Wittgenstein, Philosophical Investigations: The German Text, with a Revised English Translation. (Blackwell, 2001).