Thursday, May 1, 2014


I have written before about the impassivity and reticence of the World.  If someone tells you that they "hear voices," you are likely to view their claim with skepticism (or, most likely, with concern for their well-being).  Still, I'm perfectly willing to lend an ear to any intimations that the Impassive is willing to whisper to me.

Today, as I sat in the sun, I listened to the wind high up in the pines.  There is a scientific explanation for the sound of the wind in the pines, its ebb and flow.  Of course there is.  Something to do with the velocity of moving air and the resistance of boughs.  But Science merely provides descriptions of the World.  It has nothing to do with intimation.

Ludwig Wittgenstein hits the nail on the head:

"At the basis of the whole modern view of the world lies the illusion that the so-called laws of nature are the explanations of natural phenomena.

So people stop short at natural laws as at something unassailable, as did the ancients at God and Fate.

And they both are right and wrong.  But the ancients were clearer, in so far as they recognized one clear terminus, whereas the modern system makes it appear as though everything were explained."

Ludwig Wittgenstein, Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus (translated by C. K. Ogden), Propositions 6.371 and 6.372 (1921) (italics in original).

Those four sentences explain the central error of the modern age.  And its emptiness.

John Brett, "Caernarvon" (1875)


"A voice!  A voice!"  I cried.  No music stills
     The craving heart that would an answer find;
     No song of birds, no murmuring of the wind,
     No -- not that awful harmony of mind,
The silent stars, above the silent hills.

Mary Coleridge, in Theresa Whistler (editor), The Collected Poems of Mary Coleridge (Rupert Hart-Davis 1954).

I suspect that Coleridge's use of the word "awful" (line 4) is in the older, now lost, sense of "solemnly impressive; sublimely majestic."  OED.

John Brett, "Britannia's Realm" (1880)

Throughout his life, Wallace Stevens argued for the primacy of the Imagination over Reality, believing that the Imagination is what makes us human.  Hence, one would not expect Stevens to be listening for voices from out of the World.  But he had his moments.

     To the Roaring Wind

What syllable are you seeking,
In the distances of sleep?
Speak it.

Wallace Stevens, Harmonium (1923).

These moments occurred more often as Stevens aged.  A bit of doubt began to creep in.  Consider, for example, the three opening stanzas of "The Region November" (my oft-revisited "November poem"):

It is hard to hear the north wind again,
And to watch the treetops, as they sway.

They sway, deeply and loudly, in an effort,
So much less than feeling, so much less than speech,

Saying and saying, the way things say
On the level of that which is not yet knowledge . . .

John Brett, "St Ives Bay" (1878)

             Out There

Do they ever meet out there,
The dolphins I counted,
The otter I wait for?
I should have spent my life
Listening to the waves.

Michael Longley, The Ghost Orchid (Jonathan Cape 1995).

John Brett, "The British Channel Seen From the Dorsetshire Cliffs" (1871)


Chris Matarazzo said...

Wow, Stephen -- that Wittgenstein passage just took its place in the top-five hits of my favorites (maybe right under Donne's "Be thine own palace, or the world's thy jail"). Just perfect...and it means infinitely more today than it did when he wrote it. Thanks so much for sharing it.

Fred said...


The quotation from Wittgenstein confuses me. What's the difference between saying God and Fate are the causes versus a scientific explanation? Both stop there.

Why are the ancients clearer? One clear terminus being God is better than science saying everything is explained? In both cases, everything is explained?

However that is not true, for saying God or Fate caused something ends ALL discussion whereas science is always revising and updating its explanations.

Sam Vega said...

The Coleridge poem is superb. I had never heard of her before. A quick search shows no link with Samuel Taylor, but I'm sure he would have loved the sentiment anyway.

The Longley poem is also excellent; beautifully enigmatic.

As ever, many thanks for brightening my day.

Stephen Pentz said...

Chris: although I can't make head or tail of his writings on logic and language, Wittgenstein's observations on the modern world are invariably right on the money. Such as this one.

In a way, his work is a series of aphorisms, and this is one that I haven't forgotten. I'm pleased you liked it. I agree: although he wrote it nearly 100 years ago -- perhaps while serving in the Austrian army in World War I, or just thereafter - it has only grown more apt.

It is very nice to hear from you again. As always, thank you for your thoughts.

Stephen Pentz said...

Fred: first, I will state at the outset that I am no expert on Wittgenstein. But I'll take a crack at responding to your thoughts.

The key point is that I don't think that Wittgenstein views the ancients as thinking that God and Fate offered a definitive "explanation" for the World or were the "cause" (to use your word) of things, even though they were a "terminus." I believe that he would say that they were a "terminus" to explanation and speaking, but that beyond them lies mystery that cannot be explained or spoken.

This may not be apparent on the face of the passages I quoted. But it is apparent in other parts of the Tractatus, particularly the well-known final proposition (7): "Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent." Or, translated differently: "What we cannot speak about we must pass over in silence."

(Bertrand Russell accused Wittgenstein of being a "mystic." And I think he was right. He said it disparagingly. I see it as a good thing.)

And then there is this: "We feel that even if all possible scientific questions can be answered, the problems of life have still not been touched at all." (Proposition 6.52.) This is what galled Wittgenstein (and galls me) about modern Science: it arrogance and presumptuousness: it takes the position that everything can be explained. But explanation means nothing in the end.

Thus: the ancients were willing to stop at God and Fate, but they knew that there was unspeakable mystery beyond, for which no "explanations" are forthcoming. Science and modern human beings are not so humble: they believe that everything can ultimately be "explained."

Those are my rickety and half-baked thoughts.

Thank you very much for provoking me to think more deeply about these things. I don't feel that I have responded to you adequately, but it's the best I can do. As always, it is good to hear from you.

Stephen Pentz said...

Sam Vega: you are very welcome. And thank you for the kind words.

I'm pleased to have introduced you to Mary Coleridge. She is little known, but she wrote a number of fine poems. By the way, she was in fact related (distantly) to Samuel Taylor: her father (Arthur Duke Coleridge) was his great-nephew.

Yes, I am very fond of Longley's "Out There" as well. "Beautifully enigmatic" is a wonderful way to describe it.

Thank you very much for stopping by again. I always appreciate hearing from you.

Fred said...


I think the problem is one of judging science and religion by two standards: the ideal world and the real world.

In the ideal world, religionists do as you say--they don't mean one must stop with God for an explanation about everything, but in the real world we see and hear religionists do exactly that: their answer to all problems is God did it and that ends the discussion.

The same holds true for scientists: I have heard many scientists say that science tries to answer and is successful in answering the "How" (Big Bang, viruses, etc.) but it can't answer the "Why." That's for people to figure out as best they can.

However, many scientists in the real world do say that science is the only way to answer important questions, etc.

In other words, there are BOTH religionists and scientists who go too far in claiming superiority for their respective fields.

That is what I object to--a double standard--approving of religion on the ideal plane and ignoring some of its follower's behavior in the real world and condemning science for behavior of some in the real world and ignoring its ideals.

I probably haven't answered as clearly as I would like to have done, but thanks anyway for bringing up the issue and allow me to rant on for a bit.

Anonymous said...

In Frost's poem "The Most of It," a man longs for the world to respond to his cries with "counter-love, original response." But "nothing ever came of what he cried."

Dickinson says "The Heavens are stitched."

Perhaps this quotation from Loren Eiseley sheds some light on the human condition, our unspeakable loneliness:

In a universe whose size is beyond human imagining, where our world floats like a dust mote in the void of night, men have grown inconceivably lonely. We scan the time scale and the mechanisms of life itself for portents and signs of the invisible. As the only thinking mammals on the planet - perhaps the only thinking animals in the entire sidereal universe - the burden of consciousness has grown heavy upon us. We watch the stars but the signs are uncertain. We uncover the bones of the past and seek for our origins. There is a path there, but it appears to wander. The vagaries of the road may have a meaning however; it is thus we torture ourselves.

Lights come and go in the night sky. Men, troubled at last by the things they build, may toss in their sleep and dream bad dreams, or lie awake while the meteors whisper greenly overhead. But nowhere in all space or on a thousand worlds will there be men to share our loneliness. There may be wisdom; there may be power; somewhere across space great instruments, handled by strange, manipulative organs, may stare vainly at our floating cloud wrack, their owners yearning as we yearn. Nevertheless, in the nature of life and in the principles of evolution we have had our answer. Of men elsewhere, and beyond, there will be none forever.

Stephen Pentz said...

Fred: thank you for the follow-up comments. A few thoughts:

1. I don't have a dog in this fight, since I am neither a "religionist" nor a "scientist." (A note on nomenclature: doesn't "religionist" sound a bit pejorative? It tempts me to call those who believe in science "scientism-ists"! I'm not picking on you: I've always found the word "religionist" odd.)

2. As for "real" versus "ideal" (and I suspect we will disagree on this point): I believe that Science in its ideal form does believe that it can provide an explanation for everything, which is why Wittgenstein says: "the modern system makes it appear as though EVERYTHING were explained." (Yes, there may be an odd scientist here and there who believes, as you say, that the "Why" is a mystery. But he our she is an exception to the ideal.) This is what the so-called "Enlightenment" (the root of most modern evil, in my book) was all about.

3. In the modern world Science has become the most prevalent religion. Although it professes to simply involve facts and explanations of facts, it is -- and has been, since the Enlightenment -- the governing religion in the western world (and, increasingly, the rest of the world as well). Thus, to go full circle: those who believe in Science (although they may not think of themselves as believers, since "belief" is a quaint and outmoded word to them) are, in fact, "religionists" as well.

These are just musings, and please be assured that they are not in any way directed at you personally. Again, I greatly appreciate your provoking me to devote more thought to this.

James Pentz said...

As an engineer, or to stay in context a scientist, this post was eye opening. I must admit I have fallen into the trap of believing that science provides the answers to nature. It is easy to get carried away when you are learning such powerful concepts. However, these poems, particularly Wittgenstein's thoughts, have broadened my imagination and I am thankful for that. Thank you for posting.

Stephen Pentz said...

Anonymous: thank you very much for the reference to "The Most of It," which is wonderfully apt -- it is also one of my favorite Frost poems. (Perhaps because I once had a similar experience in northern Idaho, when I watched a moose swim across a small lake towards me, then clamber out of the water and walk off into the woods -- unconcerned about and uninterested in my presence. I have written about it here previously.) This is exactly what I was trying to get at when I spoke of intimations from the World -- but of course Frost says it a million times better than I ever could. I greatly appreciate your bringing it in.

And thank you as well for the passage from Eiseley. Coincidentally, Fred (who I have been carrying on a discussion with in this post) recently recommended Eiseley to me. I suspect he will be pleased to see Eiseley appear here at this point. I really do need to read him.

Thank you again.

Stephen Pentz said...

Mr. Pentz: you are welcome. And thank you for sharing your thoughts again.

But, please take my rants about Science with a grain of salt. This just happens to have been a bee in my bonnet for a long time. It may even go back as far as never liking science and math classes when I was in elementary school!

I fully realize the benefits that Science brings to us in terms of material things. After all -- to cite one tiny instance -- you and I would not be interacting right this moment if it were not for Science. But I am skeptical of its role in how we look at the World: it leaves a great deal out. And the claims made for it are often grandiose and misguided. Or so I think, at least.

Thank you for stopping by again.

Chris Matarazzo said...

Stephen -- Please feel free not to "approve" and post this (it's really quite long), but I wanted to share it with you. Don't know if you noticed, but I linked to your post over at my blog. Someone asked a cool question having to do with the question of "intimation" and I thought both is and my response might be of interest to you:

I can't say whether I agree or disagree until I know what you think the writer means by "science has nothing to do with intimation" and what Wittgenstein means by "people stop short at natural laws as at something unassailable." Both of these statements could either display a great misunderstanding of science or a great level of abstract thought unconcerned with the empirical, where the latter is fine because it is context specific. Could you clarify?

Hello -- and thanks for commenting. For me, intimation is a revealing of truth in an indirect and (often) poetic way -- a way in which only poetry or other art forms can reveal truth. Science might tell us that the red glow of a sunset sky is the result of light filtering through vapor but poetry tells us that this light is a manifestation of the profound and complex patterns of nature. Certainly, science is right -- and it sort of says the same thing in terms or revealing the truth of the head, but poetry reveals the truth of the --what? -- heart? -- spirit? -- soul? It says things without saying them literally. We get, sometimes, an inexplicable sense of this-it-itness from poetry that we know is deep truth that will never be able to be put into prosaic terms. Science just shows us the nuts and bolts, as it were. Poetry gives us a sense of the whole machine.

I think that what Wittgenstein means manifests itself in some current findings in science, especially in areas like quantum physics. Wittgenstein is saying that where we once refused to question the absolute (and possibly fundamentalistic) veracity of religion -- or dogma, if you will -- we now do the same with science. But quantum physics shows us that science is not absolute. Sometimes scientists find themselves scratching their heads: "Light is simply not supposed to do that..." -- or things of that nature.

Of course, this is just my take on it. For me, both Stephen's and Wittgenstein's comments hit home. There is certainly tons of room for disagreement -- which I think just might solidify the very position of both writers.

Stephen Pentz said...

Chris: thank you very much linking to my post, and for sharing the comment, and your response, to your post on Hats and Rabbits.

Your description of "intimation" far surpasses anything I have come up with -- thank you for sharing it.