Philosophers have lots of tools and tricks up their sleeves. They, of course, can use formal argumentation, they can employ all sorts of thought experiments to elicit various intuitions, they can lay out examples, dilemmas, dialectics, and do a whole host of other things. But I want to talk about one particular trick that only a select few philosophers have employed. This trick involves wrapping everything up in a philosophical system only to have that system knock itself down by its own internal means, and doing all in order to produce some sort of anti-philosophical result. I’ve come to call this the “looping” trick, and it’s one of the most philosophically curious things that I’ve ever stumbled upon.
The Loop and Wittgenstein’s Ladder
In my first year of college, I started reading Douglass Hofstadter’s book, Gödel, Escher, Bach. In this book, Hofstadter explores the paradoxical notion of a “strange loop” a sort of geometric structure and abstract concept illustrated by the art of M.C. Escher. What is a strange loop? Hofstadter describes it thusly:
The “Strange Loop” phenomenon occurs whenever, by moving upwards (or downwards) through the levels of a hierarchical system, we unexpectedly find ourselves back where we started.
Famously, it can be seen in the ever-ascending staircases drawn by Escher like this one:
Here, my concern is with philosophical strange loops. If you were to find yourself in a strange loop of this variety, it would seem as you are going farther and farther down a particular philosophical path only to end up right where you started. I’ve found that this strange looping structure is a recurring pattern in a certain type of philosopher: the systematically unsystematic philosopher. It is an odd stance to be in, but there’s been few philosophers throughout the philosophical tradition who have taken this stance, and they’re rather interesting.
When one says “unsystematic philosopher,” there is one person that pops into most philosophers’ minds: Ludwig Wittgenstein. Largely regarded as the most important philosopher of the 20th century, Wittgenstein thought there should be no philosophical theories. Such theories, he thought, only arose because of conceptual confusions. Ironically, however (an irony he well realized), Wittgenstein could not express this anti-philosophical thought without doing philosophy, and so his philosophy on his philosophy ended up coming out quite loopy. One of the best explicit explanations of loopy philosophy comes from Wittgenstein. He writes,
If the place I want to get to could only be reached by way of a ladder, I would give up trying to get there. For the place that I have to get to is a place I must already be at now.
Anything that I might reach by climbing a ladder does not interest me.
Now, of course, if the place he is trying to get to is where he already is, then any of the positive steps forward he takes must undo themselves. And thus, one of the concluding remarks of his first great philosophical work, the Tractatus Logico Philosophicus, is the following:
My propositions serve as elucidations in the following way: anyone who understands me eventually recognizes them as nonsensical, when he has used them—as steps—to climb up beyond them. (He must, so to speak, throw away the ladder after he has climbed up it.)
But where has he climbed? Well, just like the people climbing Escher’s self-connecting staircase, he has climbed right to the place where he began! Strangely, that’s exactly what we’d expect from someone who thinks that no philosophical theses should be advanced. Where would we expect to go? In this sense, Wittgenstein’s aim, at least in his early work, we might say is to loop philosophy, fitting it all into his system, then showing why his system is nonsense, thus showing why all of it is nonsense. The aim here, many commentators argue, is to inspire a sort of philosophical quietism. That is, to get us to all stop spewing philosophical nonsense and just shut up already.
Though the Early Wittgenstein is, in a strong sense, philosophically loopy, he is not an existentially loopy philosopher. That is, he doesn’t wrap himself and his personal ambitions up in the loop as well (at least not explicitly). The next three thinkers I’ll talk about, Nagarjuna, Nietzsche, and Rorty, do just that.
Nāgārjuna is arguably the most important Buddhist thinker after the Buddha himself. His philosophy is called the philosophy of the “middle way.” In his central philosophical text, the Mūlamadhyamakakārikā (I’m not going to even pretend like I know how to pronounce that, but it means “The Fundamental Verses of the Middle Way”), he entertains what he takes to be all the possible philosophical views, rejects them all, and then rejects the philosophical view that rejects all philosophical views. This last part is quite important.
First, let’s take a look at this verse:
To think ‘it is,’ is eternalism,
To think ‘it is not,’ is nihilism:
Being and non-being,
The wise cling not to either.
Some people have interpreted Nāgārjuna here as positing some sort of ultimate Truth beyond the bounds of logic and traditional categorization, but this is almost certainly the wrong reading of Nāgārjuna. Rather, he wants to reject philosophical views altogether, putting nothing in their place. Consider this verse:
Everything is real, or not real,
Or real and not real
Or neither real nor not real;
This is the Buddha’s teaching.
I might add a bit, just for fun: Or neither neither real nor not real nor real and not real . . . or neither neither neither real nor not real nor real and not real nor neither real nor not real and real and not real. And we could do this on and on, ad infinitum, but I think you get the point. In short, there is absolutely no philosophical claim about how things actually are being put forward here, since there is always an equally legitimate meta-claim, the negation of that claim, that could be put forward as well. And thus, Nāgārjuna arrives at the view of “emptiness,” the view that one can’t hold as a view. If you hold it as a view, you miss the whole point. Nāgārjuna writes,
The victorious ones have said
That emptiness is the relinquishing of all views.
For whomever emptiness is a view,
That one has accomplished nothing.
To this, you want to say, “But you just said a whole bunch of stuff about how emptiness is the right view!” And then it hits you: if emptiness is the right view, it can’t be the right view. It’s one giant paradox! Of course, this would be a problem for any view that was proposing itself as the truth of the matter, but Nāgārjuna isn’t proposing his philosophy as a system which captures the “truth of the matter,” even though it might seem that way. His philosophical position isn’t really a position at all. Rather, it’s a sort of philosophical act aimed at catapulting the reader into liberation.
What’s most interesting in reading Nāgārjuna isn’t really the particular philosophical views that he goes about rejecting, but the general strategy of having an all-encompassing philosophical view that rejects all philosophical views and then rejects itself. What Nāgārjuna is trying to do here is to loop the reader into enlightenment. In the Wittgenstein passage I mentioned earlier, he attempts to loop the reader into philosophical quietism. Nāgārjuna’s goal is a bit loftier, but, like Wittgenstein, Nāgārjuna does not provide the reader with any new philosophical theory. He rejects all views, but, without putting any opposing view in place, he leaves the reader right where they started.
This notion ended up becoming a common feature of much of Buddhist thought. We can see it arising again in the Zen Master Ch’ing-Yuan’s famous aphorism,
Before I had studied Zen for thirty years, I saw mountains as mountains, and waters as waters. When I arrived at a more intimate knowledge, I came to the point where I saw that mountains are not mountains, and waters are not waters. But now that I have got its very substance I am at rest. For it’s just that I see mountains once again as mountains, and waters once again as waters.
Philosophically, we’ve gone in a circle. Everything was undone, just for that undoing to be undone itself. The point all of it isn’t to see some new deep truth, but to change one’s perspective on what one already sees.
Now let’s fast forward a millennium and a half, and move one continent westward. Our next thinker, Nietzsche, is a bit more of an unsettled soul than Nāgārjuna. Looking at Nietzsche will allow us to get some serious existential context for the loopiness just described.
One of Friedrich Nietzsche’s famous philosophical metaphors which comes from his first major work, The Birth of Tragedy, is that of the Greek Gods Apollo and Dionysius and their distinct forms of life. In Greek Mythology, Apollo is the Sun god, the god of light and reason. Above all, Apollo makes things clear and gives things form. On the other hand, we have Dionysius, the god of wine and ritual madness. For Dionysius, the world is a drunken blur, a primordial dance-party of sorts. The Apollonian and Dionysian each embody a tightly connected personal and metaphysical outlook on things, and we can see these distinct outlooks come out in some seemingly at-odds passages in Nietzsche’s work.
Consider first, Nietzsche’s notion of Giving Style, a sort of self-art that is “practiced by those who survey everything in their nature offers in the way of strengths and weakness, and then fit them all into an artistic plan.” Giving style is something that Apollo would do. It’s a way of making sense, artistic sense, of oneself. But here, we have a problem. In making oneself into a work of art, there is a sense in which one has created himself, but there is also a sense in which one has lost himself. One is always outside of their present self—an artistic projection. The downfall of the Apollonian is the realization that his whole world is an illusion, a mere dream.
Now consider the opposing notion of Amor Fati, the Latin phrase for “love of fate.” Endorsing this state, Nietzsche says, “I do not want to wage any war against what is ugly. I do not want to accuse; I do not even want to accuse the accusers.” In this state, one has lost himself in a different sense. There is nothing to distinguish oneself from others. One has merged into the formless “Primordial Oneness” of reality. Now, this isn’t a problem for someone if they are perfectly content to blend into the primordial oneness, but the artistically inclined will be discontent here. There is no form, just flow, and, in that flow, anything distinctive about who one is completely disappears.
We might understand Amor Fati, as “dancing with the music” and Giving Style as a way of fighting against being overcome by the music in an attempt to make something of oneself. Ultimately, for Nietzsche, the flow of this music is all that there is to reality. It’s what Nietzsche called “becoming.” However, it’s in our very nature to fight against this flow, this eternal Dionysian becoming. We are the sort of beings that try to get a grip on things, including ourselves.
What are we to do once we realize this? Here’s the answer Nietzsche provides: “You shall become who you are.” When you think about it for a moment, you realize the peculiarity of this sentence. The idea of becoming implies a change, a going somewhere. And yet, the destination is right where one started because one always is what one is. Here, once again, we have stumbled into loopiness. Like Escher’s staircase on which one can walk endlessly upward and go nowhere, there is a strange circle of action in which one is both moving and staying put. This, it seems, might be the true state of becoming ourselves. It is a mesh between making something of oneself and flowing with the music. We see that struggling to make something of oneself is precisely the way in which one flows, and vice versa.
So that’s what we are? Not so fast. Here’s where the true loopiness of Nietzsche’s philosophy unveils itself: Let’s suppose that we try to identify ourselves as part of this Dionysian becoming, since that’s what Nietzsche says is really real. To do this would be to try to get a grip on ourselves, and this action is precisely the Apollonian form that we are rejecting by identifying ourselves in this flowing Dionysian sense. We’ve run into a paradox. The nature of reality is such that, in even trying to say what this nature is, we’ve already made a mistake. And so, even this statement, which is ultimately still a statement about the nature of reality, is a mistake as well.
Though the language is somewhat different, I tend to think that this is the same paradox that Nāgārjuna encounters. If we’re feeling particularly deep, we might call it the fundamental paradox of reality, or something really epic like that. This is not to say that reality is essentially paradoxical, as that would be to naively fall right into it. Rather, it is to say that the way in which we are forced to understand ultimate reality, if we do in fact try to understand it, ultimately leaves us with paradox.
However, even though they encounter the same paradox, Nāgārjuna and Nietzsche end up in radically different places. Nāgārjuna, after all, is a religious philosopher, a Buddhist, and Nietzsche is pretty deeply opposed to religious thought altogether. So why the difference? Well, it boils down to a difference in aims. Nāgārjuna’s whole point of theorizing in the first place, following the goal of the Buddha, is to alleviate suffering. Nietzsche, on the other hand, wholeheartedly embraces this suffering! He regards himself as a “tragic philosopher,” and tragedy, in Nietzsche’s view, is the greatest form of art. As such, Nietzsche’s philosophy is a thoroughly worldly philosophy.
But how do we resolve their metaphysical differences? The answer is that we don’t. This is because, like it or not, there isn’t really anything to resolve. Neither one of them is actually interested in taking some stand on the ultimate nature of reality. Sure, they seem to be taking a metaphysical stands of this sort, but we have to interpret this act instrumentally. Whether it is Nāgārjuna’s view of “emptiness” or Nietzsche’s view of “becoming,” the overarching metaphysical view that appears to be put forward by these two thinkers is not an end in itself, but part of an act. And what is this act? Well, it’s the greatest thing that can be done at that moment, whatever that is. For Nāgārjuna, in line with his Buddhist orientation, this is the act liberation from suffering. For Nietzsche, it is dramatic tragedy. Both Nietzsche and Nāgārjuna perform a strange looping trick in which everything comes together in its falling apart making way for the light of the unconceptualizable thing beyond.
To give a context for understanding all of this, let’s now fast-forward another century and move over another continent to our final thinker, the American Pragmatist Richard Rorty.
Rorty was a bit of a maverick among the world of contemporary philosophy. He was trained in analytic philosophy, but, according to Rorty, much of this tradition rested on a mistake: the thought that to have knowledge is to “mirror” the world with one’s mind. On Rorty’s view, the beliefs worth holding onto are not the ones that mirror the world (this notion, Rorty thought, wasn’t even coherent), but the ones that allow us to cope with it. Accordingly, since we face different struggles than those who came before us, and those who come after us will face different struggles, we cannot cling to any understanding of the world we may have in the hopes we might have finally gotten it right. For Rorty, there is no “final vocabulary;” what we regard as truth is simply what allows us to cope at the current moment. Since the situations with which we have to cope are contingent, they could have been otherwise, what we regard as truth must be contingent as well.
The consequence of accepting Rorty’s views of contingency, when it comes to understanding oneself, is quite radical. Realizing contingency leads one to a position regarding oneself that Rorty calls “ironism.” An ironist, Rorty writes, is “never quite able to take themselves seriously because always aware that the terms in which they describe themselves are subject to change, always aware of the contingency and fragility of their final vocabularies and thus of their selves.” The ironist realizes that the truths he is holding, even the ones most central to his intellectual and personal outlook, reflect no final reality and are the product of his history, culture and language, and so he must only hold them ironically.
If we reflect on it for a moment, ironism can be quite a scary prospect. The idea of never being able to take yourself seriously doesn’t seem, at least on the surface, to be something that would help us “cope” with the world. But there’s a deeper problem. Holding a view of contingency must itself be contingent, and so, if one is an ironist, they must hold that ironically as well! Ironism cannot be the ultimately correct view, nor should we hope it to be. So what’s the point? Rorty is a pragmatist after all, so we should expect there to be a point, right?
To answer this question, we need to look at what Rorty thinks the aims of philosophy should actually be. He makes a distinction between “constructive” and “therapeutic” philosophy. While constructive philosophy aims to put forward a theory which says how the world really is, therapeutic philosophy is “designed to make the reader question his own motives for philosophizing rather than supply him with a new philosophical program.” Any “theory” put forward by therapeutic philosophy must only be put for its therapeutic aims, and it so it must treat itself ironically. Nodding to Wittgenstein’s metaphor that I mentioned earlier, Rorty says, “Ironist theory is thus a ladder which is to be thrown away as soon as one has figured out what it was that drove one’s predecessors to theorize.”
We must view Rorty’s entire philosophical system as one philosophical act. This way of looking at things is quite similar to the way we looked at Nāgārjuna’s philosophical “system” as one philosophical act aimed at getting its reader to achieve liberation, or Nietzsche’s as an act aimed at dramatic tragedy, but now thinking of Rorty we can put a new interesting spin on it. For a pragmatist like Rorty, when we say a sentence, what we’re doing in the most primary sense is performing an action, an action that has a particular significance in the social context in which we do it. This is a lesson Rorty learned from Wittgenstein. Not Wittgenstein’s early writing where talked about the ladder but his later writing where he seems to have left the ladder far behind.
When Wittgenstein published the Tractatus he thought he had solved all of the problems in philosophy. Accordingly, he quit. Been there, done that. Sometimes I think, half-jokingly, that he “beat the game.” But of course, there is no game, and if we do think of this whole thing as being a game, it’s not one you can beat. And that’s what Wittgenstein realized. Sixteen years later, he returned to philosophy to write Philosophical Investigations, which is now considered his most important work and to a large extent the most important philosophical work of the twentieth century.
The shift from Wittgenstein’s early work to his later work marked a shift from viewing language as a static way of representing the world, to an active doing, a practice that we are constantly engaged in. Meaning on this view is just a result of grammar, the way language is used. Ultimately, what we mean, the very way we are able to make sense of the world, is just a result of what we do, how we act. And thus, the ultimate meaning of things ends up just being a matter of what, ultimately, we want to do with ourselves.
But what do we want to do with ourselves? From Rorty’s point of view, we’ll never have a final answer to that question. The thing we should do with ourselves is “continue the conversation,” and that means never taking a final stand on what we ought to do with ourselves in the absolute sense. “Final stands” must only be done ironically, with the hope of undoing the final stands that take themselves seriously. Remember the Nāgārjuna quote about the wise clinging neither to being nor non-being? Well, thinking of that, now let’s look at a quote from Wittgenstein’s Investigations:
It’s not a Something, but not a Nothing either! The conclusion was only that a Nothing would render the same service as a Something about which nothing could be said. We’ve only rejected the grammar which tends to force itself on us here.
Now, this quote isn’t about the Loop. Rather, it is part of Wittgenstein’s famous “private language argument” where he argues against the idea of having private first-personal access to our sensations. But the resulting lesson can be carried over here. When forced into a paradox, change the grammar. And so with the “ultimate paradox,” rather than thinking that the ultimate thing lies beyond it and that we’ve come to the end of thought, our final vocabulary, we reject the grammar, and keep the conversation going.
When a student asked Rorty what the meaning of life was, he responded that it was quite simply “To envisage new modes of being.” In a way, this must be the overarching anti-view of any loopy philosopher. Being loopy is a way of seeing things as they are, but not clinging to them, of and giving form and style to oneself when need be, but always ironically, always with the possibility of revision in light of some new obstacle the world might throw at us. In other words, it’s a way to be serious about taking things lightly.
(This is a modified excerpt from the epilogue of my book, Talking in Circles: Serious Dialogues on the Silliness of Everything, a book which is itself intended to be one big looping trick. It also just won the 2nd place prize for the 3 Quarks Daily Philosophy prize. Thanks to everyone who voted to get it into the finals, and thanks to Huw Price for judging.)