Wednesday, May 9, 2012

How can we know the dancer from the dance?

I've been thinking (and hope to do a series of posts about) what we're doing when we think actively. I don't mean how does a thought develop according to its internal logic or potentialities. I mean to try to think about some consequences of the fact that what makes thinking thinking (what makes it discursive and not intuitive) is that it's hard. Its difficulty has something to do with its content, with where it arrives, with what it learns. (I am not much alluding here to the distinction that Daniel Kahneman makes in his great book Thinking Fast and Slow, though it's not irrelevant. More relevant still might be George Ainslie's Breakdown of Will, but I'm not going to say much explicitly about either, except to note that both are interested in the Housmanian fact that thought is irksome, and three minutes a long time.)

By the relation of difficulty to content, I don't mean less that some content is hard than that hardness is something that thinking thinks about. Difficulty of thought leads to thinking about difficulty and what difficulty means about the thinking you're doing. This feedback loop (we avoid the word "dialectic" in this blog: too easy a landing place)-- this feedback loop obviously has something to do with poetic thinking, which is what I want to get to in a later post.

Here I just want to try to note what I mean by making an observation about the rhetoric of rhetorical questions. Why are there such things? Why are the rhetorically effective? There are obvious answers having to do with some aspects of irony and quotation, of ironic quotation, so to speak. "Shall the blessed sun of heaven prove a milcher and eat blackberries? A question not to be asked." (1 Henry IV)

So it's only asked in retroactive quotation marks that the question makes its appearance. Who would ask such a question? The targets of our irony, of the irony nous autres share with respect to the person who doesn't realize that it's irony.

But what I'm interested in is the role that a rhetorical question plays in genuine discursive thinking. It raises a real issue or some consequence of a real issue that has to be thought through (even in the most demagogic situations: without real issues there's no occasion for rhetoric of any sort). And it asks for help in thinking it through. A rhetorical question assumes a listener, and that listener is a sort of check or hedge for thought. To ask a question is to see that thinking is partly social, that the fact that it occurs discursively, in language, is important. Thinking is about judging, and proper judging is or should be always a vicarious, because a disinterested, activity.

When we ask a question with a foreordained answer, it matters that we get the foreordained answer. That ratifies our judgment, vicariously as I say. It ratifies the fact that it is a judgment, that we can ask others and expect them to concur. The retroactive feature of rhetorical questions that I've just noted is a sort of check-bit when the thought is done, making sure that the judgment now seems unassailable, no?

I don't mean that rhetorical questions always constitute genuine thought. But I expect they do whenever they're first formulated. At any rate, they stand for the larger class of ways of guiding thought. "The experience of being guided" (Wittgenstein) is what thought thinks about (it had better), whatever else it thinks about, whenever it thinks. (This is one clear commonality between the Tractatus and Philosophical Investigations.)

This has everything to do with what it means to be a writer, in the Blanchotian sense that I so revere.


  1. I wonder if it is related to the reputed power of prosopopeia. I think of rhetorical questions as a mini-prosopopeia that affects discursive terms similarly, as you say here.

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