Thinking Contingently

During my first semester as a grad student I was plagued with thoughts of not doing enough. Not reading enough. Not writing enough. And certainly not knowing enough. Since the doubts, insecurities, and general feelings of “not yet enough” have persisted, I figure it is a worthy experience to address. In fact, it was only recently that I fully embraced the reality that, with respect to philosophy (and perhaps many other things…), the “not yet” will be one of the only constants. As long as I continue to be a subject who undergoes changes, discoveries, transformations, I will never reach an end. As long as I am breathing, there will always be more– more to learn, more to read, and more to know. What I am realizing is that the “enough” often does not have to follow the “not yet.” Freeing myself from this connection has been important for my own sanity as a graduate student because, as far as knowing stuff goes, I have now opened myself up to the likelihood of fallibility and incompleteness. I don’t have to know everything right now. But in terms of philosophy and the nature of thinking, it also just seems to make sense to reconsider what “not yet enough” even means since one cannot really know everything. Ever.

There have been certain scholars who think of truth as an event. To say that truth is an event is to suggest that it is not a given, and it is not absolute, eternal, or unchanging. What counts as truth is subject to various shifting factors such as new insights, inventions, and technological advancements, not to mention cultural, political, social, religious, or personal interests. One may not really “discover” a truth, but rather create or construct one. Truth occurs at the intersection of various forces and influences.

People can argue for ages on the nature of truth, and they have, but here I want to explore what it means for knowledge to be an event. What one knows is more obviously influenced by particular factors such as timing and location. Knowledge cannot be absolute, and so long as one is learning, knowledge is certainly not unchanging. We are accustomed to thinking of one’s knowledge as growing, but knowledge can also fade. You can increase your knowledge of something by studying it extensively, but if you don’t use what you know, you can lose it. Plato noted this much in the Symposium when Diotima explains that “not only does one branch of knowledge come to be in us while another passes away and that we are never the same even in respect of our knowledge, but that each single piece of knowledge has the same fate. For what we call studying exists because knowledge is leaving us, because forgetting is the departure of knowledge, while studying puts back a fresh memory in place of what went away, thereby preserving a piece of knowledge, so that it seems to be the same” (208a-b). Sure our knowledge comes and goes and is subject to change, but from the angsty perspective of a grad student who sometimes succumbs to the feeling of needing to know everything, or at least way more, in order to amount to anything, I am going to need more reasons for my faulty knowledge than just time and old age. Especially since I’m still a long way off from old age.

Let me tell you some of the reasons why I can’t know everything, and I will restrict my comments to the discipline of philosophy. I speak, read, and write in English, which limits what I can read and which thinkers will be able to directly affect me. Thankfully, there are translations of texts, so I can read most of Nietzsche’s work, but there are still untranslated texts of Foucault, for example, who is crucial to my thought. I have worked on learning French and that helps, but I do not have easy access, especially if it is unaided by another’s translation, to the work of my roommate’s favorite Turkish philosopher, or to work done in Chinese, or any African philosophy. In fact, I think many people fail to fully appreciate that people outside of the Western European frame have been doing philosophy for a long time, that people outside of it are currently doing philosophy, and that many of the same questions are being asked, or already have been asked, and there might be other incredible ideas being born. The parameters of the field of philosophy are often thought to be global in scope, but they are often extremely provincial in resources and content. Hence, language and translation are major limits to what one can know.

Time also limits my capacity to know as does the sheer physical impossibility of reading everything. Even if I was literate in all the languages in the world, I simply wouldn’t be able to read all of the thoughts that have been recorded by people. There just wouldn’t be enough time in one’s life to do so. But even if I could read it all while still managing to eat, sleep, and do all the other necessary things to sustain my bookworm lifestyle, I probably wouldn’t retain all of what I read. These are obvious points, but they are important in that they highlight a couple of issues. For one, if all one ever did was read in order to “know” more, this wouldn’t leave any time for writing anything of one’s own. Since writing is a significant piece of philosophy, an arbitrary but necessary line has to be drawn somewhere. There are times when the books have to be put down.

However, this may create some anxiety for those who wish to write and spawn a bit of an existential crisis. Because the other side of this coin shows that there will be some texts that *won’t* be read. They may be historical texts written long ago that no one knows about anymore, or they could be texts written last year that are just bypassed because they are the superfluous layers that one just can’t get in to, for whatever reason. Not because they are bad or not worth reading, but because there are limitations to the volume that we can literally read. If one, like me, wishes to write and contribute to the recorded history of ideas, this points to the possibility that your own work won’t be read. At some point, then, one might be led to cynicism and say, “Why bother reading if I’m just going to forget it, and why bother writing if it’s not going to be read?”

Fortunately, the pitiful image of the potential meaninglessness of reading and writing does not provide the whole story. Even though at times it can seem easier to throw my hands up and exclaim, “It’s not worth it!” I have to first check in and see what I am really trying to accomplish in reading and writing philosophy.

There is a clear connection between reading philosophical works that have been written by others (despite the limitations on what actually can be read) and writing one’s own philosophical material. Of course, one can read and only read without touching a keyboard, or one can write down isolated ruminations without reading anything else. But for me, I have to read in order to write well. I have to know what has been said by others in order to spur my own thoughts. The two are related to one another. Remember, the question that leads to spells of anxiety asks, “How can I ever writing anything meaningful or worth reading if I don’t know enough about anything yet?!”

Here’s the good news: I don’t want to know everything. Not only is it impossible, but as I have been saying, I don’t need to know everything. It is probably better off to think something before you write, but you don’t need to know everything in order to think. And instead of aiming to know anything for sure, I am seeing more and more that there is real value in dedicating oneself to the practice of thinking itself.

Descartes asserted his existence in light of his thinking (“I think, therefore, I am!”), but something that we don’t often acknowledge is who, or what, is the “I” that thinks. I am a changing, temporal subject. I have a past filled with experiences, books, lectures, memories, and singular events. I have a present that is filled with much of the same, which in turn, will become part of my past. And I have an open future that will present me with more experiences, books, lectures, conversations, relationships, etc. As I change and grow so, too, do the influences on my thinking.

With that said, there is another crucial point to make: Reading books is not the only way to acquire knowledge. It would be a sad day for me if rich philosophical material boiled down to what has been written in books. What about life? What about relationships? What about all the little things that make up our existence? Aren’t those rich resources for philosophical thought, too?

Our thinking is influenced by our experiences and what we are exposed to–books and otherwise. I recently read a very good article by Rosalyn Diprose called, “What is (Feminist) Philosophy?” where she argues that thinking, rather than being an individual’s exercise of autonomous reason is actually, and primarily, grounded in an affective response to an other. Something–an idea, a statement, a person–gives us reason to pause. They effect us, and our affect of disturbance, inspiration, disgust, outrage, or concordance is a response to what the other provides.

In one way, this is as simple as saying that different things will catch my attention at different times. Or put another way, my own state of being or state of mind will affect what I think about. To shamelessly use myself as an example, it was during one particularly lonely semester when I was reading Nietzsche and saw that Nietzsche’s work can be read as a call for friendship. As I read, it was one of the only ways for me to approach the text so I wrote my semester paper on how he and I were friends…or, lovers… But you get my point. Now when I read Nietzsche, I am especially attuned to what he says about physiology, bodies, and health. Perhaps it is because I have been sick for 13 weeks now, but the idea is that what I think about changes because I as a subject am changing, and that is partially because what occurs around me is changing.

This means that what we think is a purely contingent matter. Nothing is necessary in the sense that there is a logical, purely rational, or required development of one’s thought that one has to undergo. One does not need to read Plato, then Descartes, then Kant, then Hegel, then Derrida. One certainly does not need to read them with a particular interpretation of the text either. How one reads a text can change from day to day, year to year. And that is wonderful, because new ideas can be generated by contact with the same source.

If one does follow a particular pattern, for instance, a historical canon of certain thinkers, this will often affect the way that one thinks. At one point, appreciating this provided me with a bit of relief. If I said, “I want to be the next Judith Butler!” I would be setting myself up for failure. I can’t be the next Judy B. because, obviously, if anything I am saying is insightful at all, I would not have the same experiences that she has had that would cause her to read Levinas in the way that she did. Furthermore, she was trained as a Hegelian and I am so far from a Hegel scholar that some might wonder how I could even consider myself a philosopher . But, instead of running for a copy of Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit, I have to remember that I don’t need to be Judy B. to be a philosopher. I can be ME, a unique subject, particular in her experiences and influences, who can think something original out of this uniqueness.

So what about contingency?

What one thinks, or as others more often say, what one knows is a completely contingent thing. It is contingent on what one has read, what has been said by others, what one picks up, what one wants to respond to, what one finds important or interesting, what one wishes to accomplish. To think, to know, is to be affected by the intersection, interplay, and influence of various different factors. Some influential factors are personal–psychological, individual, relational–some are philosophical–I have read way more feminist philosophy than German idealism–and some are historical, geographical, and social–I am not arguing for God’s existence, but instead addressing the political stakes of gender identification.

The reason why the event of my thinking is contingent, then, is because it could have gone in so many other ways. But all of the factors that came together at this moment, or this month, or in little ol‘ me in this lifetime, are those that resulted in the cognitive, affective, creative response that that is thinking.

In short, I don’t need to know everything in order to be a worthy grad-student-wanna-be-pro-philosopher. I might even be able to give up on the idea that my philosophical knowledge is “not yet enough” because there might not be the requirement that one has to “know” anything at all. The important thing, at least it seems to me, is to be able to think. And if I can think, then I can write. And even if what I write isn’t read by all people for all time, that is just fine, so long as what I write can encourage myself and others to think again.

If there is one thing that I can agree on with Descartes, it is that I am a thinking thing. And as it stands now, that is enough for me.

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