Like an Empiricist prescription or an occult warning, depending on how you take it, Wittgenstein wrote as a coda to the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, Wovon man nicht sprechen kann, darüber muß man schweigen. C. K. Ogden translates this as “Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent.”
I have spent the past week trying to learn how to be silent, again. I unplugged myself from the Internet and went to the beach with my family where I spent several days trying to silence the various voices that constitute a perpetual background cacophony in my head. The ocean swell helped me to accomplish this quiescence of the noetical Madding crowd, until finally there was nothing left but stillness in my brain and the inbreath and outbreath of the sea as it filled up the new tide pools of my mind, and a gasp escaped my lips and traveled over the waters as I realized that this really was a vacation, at last, and it wasn’t what I had expected.
This sense of quietude is what I have always taken Heidegger to be referring to when he discusses Lichtung — the clearing — in his writings, for instance in Being and Time where he writes:
“In our analysis of understanding and of the disclosedness of the “there” in general, we have alluded to the lumen naturale, and designated the disclosedness of Being-in as Dasein’s “clearing”, in which it first becomes possible to have something like sight.” — tr. Macquarrie & Robinson
Except that for me, sight is a place holder for my inner monologue, and the clearing is a place to rediscover my inner voice. We are all social animals, after all, and when we are with other people our inner voices become drowned out by the various social pressures that sweep us along, whether this is in politics, or at work, or on the Internet, the biggest stream of voices available. My general strategy in life is to fill my mind with so many voices that they eventually begin to cancel each other out so that my rather weak voice can have some influence within my own head. But this doesn’t always work, and I eventually need to detox in a quiet place.
Heidegger uses a clearing in the woods as his metaphor for this place, but I think the ocean serves the purpose even better. The ocean is a natural source of white noise, and the way white noise affects human beings is peculiar. According to some studies, the appeal of white noise seems to be specific to primates, and to humans in particular. According to the Aquatic Ape theory, human evolution is intimately tied to the coast, and this might explain, in a hand-waving sort of way, our affinity for the ocean and the sounds of the ocean. It is the music that calms the inner beast.
The inner monologue is a peculiar, though pervasive, phenomenon. An interesting observation concerning it occurs in Augustine’s Confessions. Augustine expresses amazement at the fact that his mentor, Ambrose, is able to read without moving his lips. This gives us a strange impression of the Roman world — apparently it has not always been the case that people read silently in an ALA approved manner. This in turn has led various philosophers to wonder if the inner monologue existed for these Romans, or if they simply articulated everything they thought.
For Derrida, this became a motif for his philosophical studies. In an early work, Speech and Phenomena, Derrida tries to find the source of Husserl’s phenomenological insight in The Logical Investigations, and concludes that it is due to a basic confusion between observation and speech. Because in speech we are capable of this inner monologue, Husserl, according to Derrida, made the analogous assumption that we can exist, in some peculiar way, without the world.
“For it is not in the sonorous substance or in the physical voice, in the body of speech in the world, that he [Husserl] will recognize an original affinity with the logos in general, but in the voice phenomenologically taken, speech in its transcendental flesh, in the breath, the intentional animation that transforms the body of the word into flesh, makes of the Körper a Leib, a geistige Leiblichkeit.” — tr. David B. Allision
Just as Derrida saw in the Logical Investigations the germ of the entire Husserlian project, the Husserlian David Carr used to tell us that the germ of Derrida’s project could be found in this brief passage. Taking the problem of authorial intent to a philosophical level, Derrida wants to cast doubt on the meaning of the inner voice, and it’s privileged status as the arbiter of the meaning of its utterances. It is a sort of Neo-Empirical game that resembles the attacks often made by material-reductionists on the folk-psychology of consciousness, which has at its core the notion that for the most part we all know what we are talking about when we talk about something. Instead, the inner voice is a sort of illusion to be dispelled, like witchcraft and theology.
And yet I can’t help but feel that there is something to the inner voice. For instance what was George Bush thinking about when he was first notified about the 911 attacks? What was Bill Clinton thinking and intending in that fateful pause between the phrases “woman” and “Monica Lewinsky” that changed the meaning of this statement (skip to end for the good bit)?
Silence isn’t simply a turning off of the mind. When the lights go out, we may stop seeing things, but when all noise is shut out, we continue to hear ourselves, and it is perhaps the best time to hear ourselves and in the act recollect ourselves.
I leave you with John Cage’s composition 3′ 44”, which is pregnant with the composer’s intent, as well as the performer’s in this unique rendition.