Category Archives: Philosophy

The Art of Possibility

Self-help books have never interested me. Along with architecture hardcovers and inspirational booklets, they constitute a part of the bookstore I very rarely wander in, and only then in passing. So what am I doing, reviewing The Art of Possibility? Amazon.com lists this book under Business & Investing and Health, Mind & Body. In the first sentence, the authors declare, “This is a how-to book of an unusual kind.” And it is. The book invites readers to take a leap into possibility. It teaches us how to approach reality through a different set of frameworks from those that life has hammered into us. It proposes a kind of thinking that allows us to broaden our horizons far beyond what we had first imagined possible.

Knowing me, I would have never considered reading this book. But then Albert suggested it to me, after seeing it on our former philosophy professor’s blog and reading it himself. Anton Sevilla’s required readings in 2006 included The Art of Possibility. So I said, mostly out of respect for him, Fine, let’s give it a try.

The world’s scarcity sets our limits, says the pragmatist. It’s a box we can never get out of. To this the book responds, Draw a bigger shape. Essentially, this is what the two Zanders do in this book: show us different shapes. The human mind is a marvelous thing. With it, we can reconstruct our view of the world and live in a multitude of ways. The Art of Possibility, in particular, espouses a life philosophy of a positive, humanist kind.

At its best, this book inspires. With my allergy to self-help, I was surprised to find myself repeating the book’s catchphrases in times of difficulty. I would say, “It’s All Invented” or remind myself about “Giving an A.” It was a happy experience, actually applying what I had read to my life. Which is why it’s ironic how, at its worst, the book strikes me as too abstract. Sometimes I would find its words passing over my head without me having ingested anything, and feel too lazy to go over the chapter again. Mostly I just plowed through the book, although there were times when I felt like my mind was truly being opened. I appreciate everything I picked up from this book, but my recommendation ends there. It hasn’t convinced me to browse the self-help section anytime soon.

Indeed, all of life comes to us in narrative form; it’s a story we tell.

‘I’m so sorry for you; your lives have been so easy. You can’t play great music unless your heart’s been broken.’

‘Things change when you care enough to grab whatever you love, and give it everything.’

…while our willingness to distinguish good and evil may be one of our most enhancing attributes, it is important to realize that ‘good’ and ‘bad’ are categories we impose on the world—they are not of the world itself.

We don’t have to restrict ourselves, and we don’t have to compromise. With our inventive powers, we can be passionately for each other and for the whole living world around us. We need never name a human being as the enemy.

Plato and a Platypus Walk into a Bar

This is philosophy? Are you kidding me? Well, yes, actually—that’s the whole point. A product of Harvard education and everyday inspiration, Plato and a Platypus Walk into a Bar proposes the unlikely combination of intellectual sobriety and vaudeville humor. Explains authors Thomas Cathcart and Daniel Klein, “…philosophy and jokes proceed from the same impulse: to confound our sense of the way things are, to flip our worlds upside down, and to ferret out hidden, often uncomfortable, truths about life. What the philosopher calls an insight, a gagster calls a zinger.” Ingenious, isn’t it?

Spanning centuries of philosophical history, this little orange book (lent to me by DA) contains ten different schools of thought within its beautifully laid out pages. In tackling each discipline, the authors introduce you to various philosophers’ takes on the issue at hand. So under existentialism, you have Hegel espousing a distant perspective of the world, Kierkegaard arguing for the anxiety of the individual, and Heidegger asserting that for anyone to live authentically, he must first be aware of his own mortality—and the constant possibility of death. For six pages, that’s some heavy stuff. But whether it be about existence, knowledge, or morals, each chapter also comes with an arsenal of jokes to keep you sufficiently non-depressed. In this book, hardly a page goes by without at least one joke. Some miss the mark, but a number are genuinely funny, capable of eliciting a hearty chuckle. (Sometimes though I have to reread a joke several times to understand the philosophy behind it, but maybe that’s just me overthinking.)

Like any good joke book, Plato and a Platypus Walk into a Bar gets better as you keep reading. Problem is, pages fly by so quickly you hardly retain anything afterwards. The concept of reductio ad absurdum, for example, slipped past me completely: fifty pages after the book first mentioned it, I had to look it up again. I don’t count this against the book though, which I think wasn’t really meant to transform its reader into a philosophy whiz in the first place. It works as a light reference text, as introduction; and here it succeeds. It gets you interested enough to look past the jokes and check out real philosophy books—where, naturally, the real fun begins.

‘Hey, the other day Plato and a platypus walked into a bar. The bartender gave the philosopher a quizzical look, and Plato said, “What can I say? She looked better in the cave.”’

A Lover’s Discourse: Fragments

I have a love/hate relationship with this book (borrowed from Maki). I did not begin it with any particular enthusiasm, but it did not take me long to realize that it would provide me no ordinary reading experience. I fell in love within the first hundred pages. Frequently I had to pause in the middle of a page, close the book, and—as a curse passed between my lips—put it down like I needed time to recover. I had mind explosions. (The only other time I ever felt like this was with Nikolai Berdyaev’s The Destiny of Man.) I marveled at the author’s perception and use of rhetoric, the thick fluidity of his language. I drowned in it; I wanted to quote everything. Each break from reading was like surfacing from underwater to breathe.

It took me a long time to finish A Lover’s Discourse because I found it too heavy—and too beautiful to waste on a few readings. I could not take it in all at once; I wanted it to last longer. The latter half of the book sobered me up. My awe lessened. I saw the lover as a pathetic creature. Werther (from Goethe’s The Sorrows of Young Werther) expresses the exact sentiments of the lover that Barthes describes. He is forever anxious, a slave to his “Image-repertoire,” and he knows it. Yet he remains “Intractable.” Yet we sympathize. (The novel initiated numerous copycat suicides across 18th century Europe.) Do Goethe and Barthes present an exaggerated idea of the lover? Yes. But isn’t it precisely this exaggeration that characterizes love?

Objections may be raised. The more cynical may argue disbelief in the existence of the “Image-repertoire.” To this Barthes answers, somewhat defiantly, confidently: Does it matter that the perfect being does not exist in reality? He exists in your mind, you know as well as I do. I hated this book because it was right. No matter how much I try to deny it, there was (is) something in me that identified with what Barthes describes, and if that is love then perhaps there really is within all of us this “emptiness,” this “looking” for someone to love. “I never fall in love unless I have wanted to”—if anything, this is the problem.

When I said I had a love/hate relationship with this book I was lying. I absolutely loved it.

The love story…is the tribute the lover must pay to the world in order to be reconciled with it.

I encounter millions of bodies in my life; of these millions, I may desire some hundreds; but of these hundreds, I love only one.

This stubbornness is love’s protest: for all the wealth of ‘good reasons’ for loving differently, loving better, loving without being in love, etc., a stubborn voice is raised which lasts a little longer: the voice of the Intractable lover.

Someone tells me: this kind of love is not viable. But how can you evaluate viability? Why is the viable a Good Thing? Why is it better to last than to burn?

A mandarin fell in love with a courtesan. ‘I shall be yours,’ she told him, ‘when you have spent a hundred nights waiting for me, sitting on a stool, in my garden, beneath my window.’ But on the ninety-ninth night, the mandarin stood up, put his stool under his arm, and went away.

You wait for me where I do not want to go: you love me where I do not exist.

To try to write love is to confront the muck of language: that region of hysteria where language is both too much and too little

To know that one does not write for the other, to know that these things I am going to write will never cause me to be loved by the one I love (the other), to know that writing compensates for nothing, sublimates nothing, that it is precisely there where you are not—this is the beginning of writing.

The true act of mourning is not to suffer from the loss of the loved object; it is to discern one day, on the skin of the relationship, a certain tiny stain, appearing there as the symptom of a certain death…

The one who does not say I-love-you (between whose lips I-love-you is reluctant to pass) is condemned to emit the many uncertain, doubting, greedy signs of love, its indices, its ‘proofs’: gestures, looks, sighs, allusions, ellipsis: he must let himself be interpreted…

In languor, I merely wait: ‘I knew no end to desiring you.’

‘…for when I glance at you even an instant, I can no longer utter a word: my tongue thickens to a lump, and beneath my skin breaks out a subtle fire: my eyes are blind, my ears filled with humming, and sweat streams down my body, I am seized by a sudden shuddering; I turn greener than grass, and in a moment more, I feel I shall die.’

What does ‘thinking of you’ mean? It means: forgetting ‘you’…and frequently waking out of that forgetfulness.

Out of love, the delirious assumption of Dependence (I have an absolute need of the other), is generated, quite cruelly, the adverse position: no one has any real need of me.

So desire still irrigates the Non-will-to-possess by this perilous movement: I love you is in my head, but I imprison it behind my lips. I do not divulge. I say silently to who is no longer or is not yet the other: I keep myself from loving you.