[I wrote this in response to a question in an online group generally about meaning and God. It is quite meandering, but I thought I would post it here anyway.]
I’ve been reading Pride & Prejudice and some Wittgenstein recently, and that’s about the best way I can imagine beginning a response to A____’s prompt. It’s probably all downhill from here. That I should start in this way might also indicate that everything following is provisional, and that’s true. A____said something about this conversation being one inevitably made up of day-by-day vision and revision, so I’ll take that as permission and justification. For whatever intentions are worth, I think these comments will incline toward some issues that I’ve been mulling over for the last couple of years and think fairly important. I mention Austen and Wittgenstein only partly because I’m unduly proud of having finally gotten around to reading both of them; primarily, I mention them for a certain overlapping concern they share regarding a mode of thinking/living that strikes me as quite right. I will call this the Augenstein Factor.
The Augenstein Factor, in Pride & Prejudice, is the way the characters live, court, and think by means of descriptions of one another which they bandy about in rumor, attack with in slander, and constantly revise in very specific ways in order to fall in love. The embarrassingly obvious example is the way Lizzy’s prejudiced descriptions (to herself and to others) of Mr. Darcy prevent her from seeing him, knowing him, and loving him properly. It’s notably a moral failing on her part, here, and that will come up again later on. The more entertaining example comes from an absolutely delightful passage near the end of the novel in which Lady Catherine de Bourgh (VIP, and also Darcy’s aunt) tries to convince Lizzy that she cannot marry Darcy, and she makes that argument by giving various skewed descriptions of Darcy, of Darcy’s availability, and of Lizzy herself. The scene is brilliant for what Elizabeth has to do to counter or reject Lady Catherine’s descriptions and find different descriptions, and she comes out in the end seeing herself as quite able to marry Darcy after all.
Now then: Wittgenstein. What follows is probably a bit of a stretch—I am no scholar of Wittgenstein—but in the hope that most of you don’t know Wittgenstein much better than I do, I’m going to risk some probably ill-advised appropriation of his ideas. Wittgenstein’s Philosophical Investigations takes up a very similar notion of description and he sees it as even more central to human activity than does Austen. The mode of Wittgenstein’s investigations is partly justified by his concern not primarily with giving the right or correct description of whatever is his subject (language and how we use it to do all sorts of things, mostly) but with rightly seeing the object of description and understanding the description relative to the whole object. The problem is that human beings often give adequate descriptions while being mistaken or lazy about what they actually describe. By way of an example, this comes out in Austen when Catherine claims that Elizabeth would be shamed if she married Darcy, and Elizabeth’s response isn’t that, no, she wouldn’t be; instead, she responds that that description might very well be true, but it’s only a description of her relative to other snobby high-society folks, not a description of her relative to Darcy, thank you very much. If her relationship with Darcy is good—if he love and respect her—it doesn’t matter what society thinks and so Catherine’s description doesn’t matter. Wittgenstein sums up part of the Augenstein Factor: “And one has to say this in many cases where the question arises ‘Is this an appropriate description or not?’ The answer is: ‘Yes, it is appropriate, but only for this narrowly circumscribed region, not for the whole of what you were claiming to describe.’” My working thesis is that the great stumbling block on the narrow path to meaningfulness is my tendency to take the narrowly circumscribed region that I see for the whole, and to content myself with inadequate descriptions of that thing.
(It occurs to me here that I’ve given pretty much no justification for this tiresome discussion, and none of you really ought to have read even this far. Should that stop me? Probably. Will it? Alas! probably not.)
To clarify why I’ve put you through this and what it has to do with meaning, I’m going to invoke a third author. Despite this addition, I will not modify the name Augenstein Factor, because Augensteindoch just doesn’t have the same ring to it.
Iris Murdoch has a fascinating little book on moral philosophy in which she sets up the idea that fundamental moral good is bound up with the idea of attention, attending to things properly. Human moral activity looks like devoted, diligent, painstaking attention to individuals (among other things) to see them properly: i.e. describe them properly, if I’m not playing my cards too early. Think of the stereotypical husband who, ten years into the marriage, describes as annoying, pestersome, grating, etc. all the things that most endeared his spouse to him on their honeymoon. These aren’t trivial descriptions. He has become the kind of person who sees these things in this way, and he sees his wife as the kind of person who has these bad traits or habits. Failure to attend properly, to describe properly, and to limit those descriptions to their actual subject is really, really important. The last part is important, I think, because you can imagine saying “X is an angry person” as a negative judgment which purports to be a claim about the whole person; but if X were not always an angry person, or were maybe only sometimes an angry person (when, for example, thinking about the current political state and the totally outrageous but apparently unstoppable moral self-destruction of our culture) and otherwise X is a gentle, self-less, etc. etc. kind of person, then while the simpler description may not be entirely wrong, it’s only a partial and dangerously incomplete one. We have to delimit our descriptions to the proper object and found them in faithful, diligent, actually surprisingly difficult attention to anything, whether it be X, or my wife, or my children, or my students, or whatever.
Here it will come out that all this has been a tedious setup to say basically what others already said [in the discussion group] much more nicely about finding meaning in relationships and some of the difficulties which there inhere. I often experienced an effect in poems and novels and songs where they name or manifest something that I recognize but never knew that I knew, something that I never had a name or a concept for. The Augenstein Factor is like that for me. Whenever I get this right—whenever I stave off the hasty, uncharitable, incomplete, misdirected descriptions of the things that matter (e.g. God, my family, myself, good books, art, the world around me, etc.), whenever I manage to attend to those things faithfully and struggle to find the right descriptions of them (a thing very, very hard to do)—I get the closest I can to something like a sense of meaningfulness, a sense of rightness. Austen implies and Wittgenstein and Murdoch make explicit that pretty much everything about ourselves, other people, and this universe generally interferes with us getting those descriptions right and getting them right about the right things. I am selfish and impatient; I can barely see myself with any clarity (and what I see scares and confuses me), much the less can I rightly see anything or anyone else. This is perhaps the moral equivalent of that funny thing our brains often do with our vision when we think we’re seeing our surroundings but it turns out most of it is interpolated, filled in by our brain so that it doesn’t have to work as hard actually to see. And, gosh, it is grueling work attending to a four year old, seeing her mind for the shocking, awe-inspiring, clever, and cruelly snarky thing it is when I’m tired, I’ve been at work all day, every single item in the cupboard has been strewn across the floor, I just stepped on a lego, and all I want to do is drink whisky and doze off. This is such a stereotypical problem because it seems to me to be a pretty universal problem. I can at least aver that it’s my own problem.
So, it’s hard: but when I get it right, it is everything. The Augenstein Factor manifested looks like human relationships, really knowing someone; it looks like understanding art and literature (or at least beginning to; it’s a lot like a relationship, actually); it looks like true religion, neither platitudes about God nor shallow systematics to box him in (again, this is also a lot like a relationship, if that word in this context could ever be redeemed from its use by evangelicals).