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Spring 2013

Table Talk

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Bert Keizer

When you love a text, there’s no greater pleasure than reading it to someone you love or whose love, or at least appreciation, you would like to win. I’ve done quite a bit of reading to my girlfriends and not exclusively in the course of an introductory move which was meant to lead to other things. No, quite often I read without any ulterior motive. The choice of author is crucial. Burroughs, Beckett, Byron (the letters), and Blake (Proverbs of Hell) nearly always worked. Wodehouse and Wilde too, especially Wilde, of course. Joyce obviously no good. Stay away from Kafka, he is too piercingly serious. Poetry is trickier; reading it is much more risky. You might easily land face downward in a puddle. I rarely risked it.

The most disastrous mistake I made in this region was with philosophy. I was so thrilled by Wittgenstein’s Philosophical Investigations that I decided that my friend Richard should be told the wonderful news. I was going to read the Investigations to him. Philosophically he was entirely innocent. Never touched the stuff. He was an anthropologist. I explained to him that Wittgenstein too was precisely that, an anthropologist, but one visiting his own tribe. I read the text very slowly, with much emphasis, and clearly enunciating the words, all in the hope of penetrating his inner darkness. The emphatic way in which I delivered my text reminded me of the English lady I had once seen on a bus in Barcelona. She was looking for a bakery, but didn’t know the Spanish word and shouted louder and louder, “Baker! Baker!” at the frightened bus driver, as if volume were going to be of any help. My idiotic emphasis achieved the same with Richard, i.e. nothing.

Wittgenstein’s philosophy is redemptive, but only to those who are imprisoned in a certain type of confusion. My friend was not confused—well, not in the relevant sense, anyway. However much I tried, I couldn’t get him confused, either. We gave it up. Wittgenstein had predicted this type of response when he said: “What I say is not difficult to understand. But the reason why I say it is much more complicated.”

Last month I had an experience resembling this fruitless effort to read Wittgenstein to a listener, when Alva Noë, a brilliant philosopher from Berkeley, visited Amsterdam. It was on the occasion of the appearance of the Dutch translation of his wonderful book Why You Are Not Your Brain and Other Lessons from the Biology of Consciousness. He spoke to a very friendly audience about “presence” and “representation.” Noë is fighting against the notion that there is such a thing as an inaccessible inner world where our mental life takes place. In the old theory of perception, the world emits impressions which enter our minds by way of our senses. Once inside, they are processed into perceptions. So when you see a car (a presence), impressions of the car are being fabricated into a representation which you can digest mentally. Noë wants to rid us of this inscrutable inner process by stating that seeing a car is not a matter of inwardly fumbling with impressions. Seeing a car, to him, is experiencing, and maybe acting on, the possibility of driving away with it, kicking it, walking around it, etc. Seeing is not an inner process; it’s a way of moving around in the world or discovering all sorts of possible ways in which you can move around.

While he was speaking, I glanced around the audience and saw the puzzled expression on the face of one of my friends. What I feared did indeed turn out to be the case. Noë was only comprehensible to people who already knew which confusion he was trying to solve, and my friend was not confused. In fact she was surprised to hear that Noë had come all the way from the United States to deliver this message, and said: “I never think in representations. I know perfectly well that I see you right here in front of me as a presence and that I am not, deeply in the recesses of my mind, studying a representation of you. Why ever did people get such an idea, anyway?”

I tried, as an example, to suggest that her impression of the chair was quite a different impression than mine and so one might think that deep down underneath all these various impressions there is the hidden chair itself, leading its own life. But she would have none of that and brusquely waved the whole subject out of the way: “I think it’s stupid to think that next to the chair there are impressions of the chair. What is the matter with you people?”

After which Locke, Berkeley, Hume, and Kant stealthily made their way to the exit. I didn’t try to stop them.

Bert Keizer studied philosophy in England and medicine in Amsterdam, where he now works as a doctor. He writes a column in the Dutch newspaper Trouw and is the author of Dancing with Mister D, among other works.

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