Wittgenstein, “Philosophical Investigations” 2: Blocks and Slabs

[Note: In my Introduction to Philosophy class, I start with Wittgenstein, precisely because he pushes us to explain what we normally take for granted. In the “Lecture on Ethics,” the question is what we mean when we state moral propositions. I want a few other questions of this sort to work through with the class. For example, what assumptions hide within a given use of language? What do we know, or what are we supposed to act like we know, that enables us to operate in the world?]

Désirée Weber observes that “a striking number of Wittgenstein’s examples throughout the Philosophical Investigations (PI) revolve around teaching and learning.” This complicates and deepens readings of PI: it isn’t enough to name the various philosophical or linguistic theories which may be critiqued in Wittgenstein’s thought-experiments. It is only enough to try to grapple with how they “[shed] light on the basis of normativity, the capacity to judge and the role of criteria in guiding our actions and sharing the forms of life that we inhabit” (Weber 1). For this reader, Weber’s citing Wittgenstein on a particular topic strikes as exceptionally powerful. How do we even know we’re in pain? Page 5 of Weber’s “A Pedagogic Reading of the Philosophical Investigations:” “In the case of pain, Wittgenstein ponders the following circumstance: if the immediate access to one’s own pain is not a suitable foundation for judgment, then can the only explanation be that we learn to exhibit and recognize pain behavior…?” We could conclude “norms” aren’t just things political scientists and wannabe pundits argue about—they may be how we know we’re even in the world; they’re about feeling pain in the first place. Accordingly, Weber holds that for Wittgenstein, “our individual self-conception is interwoven with the web of meaning beyond ourselves and in which we learn to understand ourselves” (6).

Earlier in her paper, Weber touches on Wittgenstein’s “complete” language from PI 2. From PI 2, edited by Lois Shawver:


Let us imagine a language …The language is meant to serve for communication between a builder A and an assistant B.  A is building with building-stones; there are blocks, pillars, slabs and beams.  B has to pass the stones, and that in the order in which A needs them.  For this purpose they use a language consisting of the words ‘block’, ‘pillar’, ‘slab’, ‘beam’.  A calls them out; –B brings the stone which he has learnt to bring at such-and-such a call. — Conceive this as a complete primitive language. 

Wittgenstein seems to assert that this thought-experiment has a very specific purpose. He wants to critique a “philosophical concept of meaning” which “has its place in a primitive idea of the way language functions.” Words have meanings, and meanings are objects. Maybe those meanings offer us access to the objects in the world which we sense: perhaps when I say “chair,” an object for sitting appears in my mind, one that I can recognize in my everyday experience. In the thought-experiment above, there is a language with 4 words—”block,” “pillar,” “slab,” and “beam”—which exists for an express purpose, communication between a builder and an assistant. Quite literally, it seems, words are objects. The only thing the assistant is to do is to bring the relevant stone—a “block,” a “pillar,” and so on—when the word is said.

So that’s it, right? We’ve exhausted “meaning” in this primitive language! The meaning of the word is the object the assistant has to pass to the builder. Here, Weber’s focus on teaching and learning comes into full relief. She wants to know how this language gained “traction,” how the interaction between builder and assistant became “norm-governed in the first place” (3-4). Someone might say she’s missing the point, but that’s not at all true—Wittgenstein himself wrote that the assistant learned to bring the appropriate stone at a certain call. How did that happen? For Weber, the “complete” language is complete: it contains worlds despite how simple it is. Because of that, ironically enough, if you say meaning admits of a simple definition in this scenario, that’s not quite going to work.

What strikes me is that we have not begun to exhaust “meaning” even in this extremely primitive scenario. The builder and assistant, to take an example, have different purposes with the same words within the “complete” language. Again, there are worlds stemming from a mere 4 words. The builder needs stones in a specific order to build a certain object. There may be another language he has access to which explains what he may be building and how. The assistant may also have specialized knowledge, another language of his own. What if the differences between a “block” and “slab” are hard to detect? What if the builder himself would have trouble telling the difference between the two, but the assistant can more easily see it? One approach uniting some of these concerns: If you remember Aristotle’s discussion early in the Ethics of a hierarchy of ends of various arts, you know what I’m driving at. Something done for its own sake, with no other end, is what governs all other arts: we commit to political science, then, for the sake of human happiness. Similarly, there’s a hierarchy hiding in the ends of builder and assistant in one way of imagining this scenario. That hierarchy can’t possibly be irrelevant when considering meaning, not because “hierarchy” has any priority over other interpretations, but because it opens questions of power, imagination, and realization. What, in the end, is being built by the builder and assistant?

I am open to the charge that I myself am imagining too much. But I respond that there are potentially two different meanings for “block” and “slab” and each of the other words because the builder and assistant see them from two different perspectives. The so-called higher purpose of building may unite these different meanings, but it does not eliminate them. They are still around and lead to other language-games and other languages.

Wittgenstein, I believe, seems to share a similar idea. He concludes this experiment in PI 3 with this remark: It is as if someone were to say: “A game consists in moving objects about on a surface according to certain rules…” –and we replied: You seem to be thinking of board games, but there are others. You can make your definition correct by expressly restricting it to those games. Someone might say “block,” “pillar,” “slab,” “beam,” on their own, can build a house. All one has to do is call them out and arrange them. But let’s say a house is built, somehow, out of these things. It looks like we’ve described one thing, one sort of game, maybe only one way of building a house.

It is the case I began this post by crediting Weber for opening up, for me, the possibility of addressing the topic of self-knowledge in Wittgenstein’s thought. She uses the phrase “individual self-conception,” which one might consider more specific than self-knowledge. I do believe that being able to identify what pain is and means goes a long way to building one’s identity and understanding how society encourages or stands in opposition to it. “Blocks” and “slabs” do not immediately lend themselves to pain and how we know ourselves. But they do speak to expectation–the builder’s expectation for the assistant, written into the words themselves more visibly, and the assistant’s expectation for the builder, which is silently present. It may sound obvious to say that expectations can be an essential part of norms, but nothing could be less obvious in daily life. Every second of every day we expect people to conform to a number of ideas we quietly hold about them. We are unrelenting in our demand for “blocks” and “slabs,” and the question of what we’re building might not ever be raised.

References

Weber, Désirée (2015). “A Pedagogic Reading of the Philosophical Investigations: Criteria Judgment and Normativity.” International Wittgenstein Symposium, Kirchberg von Wechsel, Austria. Accessed via https://www.academia.edu/15257487/A_Pedagogic_Reading_of_the_Philosophical_Investigations_Criteria_Judgment_and_Normativity

Plato, “Apology of Socrates” 19b-c

[Note: Blogging more about lesson plans because “course goals” and “course objectives” do not quite capture the conversation I’m trying to start. I do not like straight lecturing. I try as much as possible to read together as a class, ask questions, get everyone to speak. This means I need a really good grasp of the landscape of ideas I’m covering: I can’t just make a point and argue it, sometimes illustrating it. I need to be able to generate and guide a discussion about themes rarely encountered, much less discussed.]

“What is Philosophy?” will be supplemented with excerpts from Plato and Nietzsche’s The Birth of Tragedy. I need students to have a working definition of “philosophy”—one they’re comfortable using—and some idea of what Socrates’ life, inquiry, and death were like. I also want them to begin to appreciate the larger use of the terms “tragedy” and “comedy,” as well as how that use curiously comes from trying to navigate the space between religion, politics, and entertainment. The assignment for the next few classes is Antigone, which gravely considers the tension between city’s civic and divine foundations. Antigone is meant to be popular—not just accessible to many, but revered by many.

Plato, Apology of Socrates 19a-23b is part of my plan. There, Socrates states the accusation against him, says it comes from a comedy (!) lingering in the public imagination, and then tells the story of how one of his followers asked the Delphic Oracle about Socrates’ wisdom, receiving the answer that no one was wiser than him. Socrates then challenges Apollo’s wisdom, searching for someone wiser than himself, but despite his questioning of everyone in Athens who are all now eager to put him to death, cannot find anyone wiser.

The challenge for the majority of students comes from the text being translated Greek. That I’m using a public domain translation makes it a bit harder, but this still would be a pain even with a contemporary translation. It takes a moment to process what’s being said—the Greek names are also stumbling blocks—and it can be discouraging if someone seems to “get it” before you do, as if reading isn’t your thing.

So I think I need some takeaways from this excerpt. The takeaways need to center on a passage, and I need to paraphrase that passage for the sake of accessibility, providing additional context and information. The idea is that if there are, say, three takeaways from the excerpt, that’s at least three reasons to revisit the text and reinforce what you know is there, if not find something more.

Here is the one passage I hope will stay with the students, which concerns the strange juxtaposition of science, justice, & comedy:

(19b-c): What did those who aroused the prejudice [against me] say to arouse it? I must, as it were, read their sworn statement as if they were plaintiffs: “Socrates is a criminal and a busybody, investigating the things beneath the earth and in the heavens and making the weaker argument stronger and teaching others these same things.” Something of that sort it is. For you yourselves saw these things in Aristophanes’ comedy, a Socrates being carried about there, proclaiming that he was treading on air and uttering a vast deal of other nonsense, about which I know nothing, either much or little.

Socrates says people have “prejudice” against him—I hope that’s clear enough, but if not, imagine everyone, everywhere you go, thinking of you as the worst. I mean, all of us want to feel like we belong, and we can invest too much in wanting to be liked by other people. We can feel crushed if we don’t hear from who we think we want to hear from. This is different, though there are some similar feelings in play. What if everyone and their parents and their family and their friends said “eww, don’t be around him/her, not if you want to continue hanging out with me!” or “Not if you want to continue living in this house!” I’m not saying Socrates was totally dehumanized, but the “prejudice” means he’s become a joke to an entire city and is subject to further dehumanization. Which is one reason he’s on trial: if people are treated as jokes, as clowns, bullies will put that much more pressure on them.

Now look closely at the prejudice, which Socrates frames as the complaint against him. Socrates is a “criminal” and a “busybody;” we get what those words mean. He’s good-for-nothing, worse than useless, not fit to be part of society. Jason Stanley’s “How Fascism Works,” if you’re interested in how certain tropes and propaganda have become more commonplace, makes a powerful case that fascism will paint some groups and individuals as useless, parasitic, living off of “hard-working” citizens. We might say that Athenian democracy is not in the healthiest shape before Socrates’ trial; the blame Socrates gets—for what, exactly?—is disproportional, like being thrown in jail for a parking ticket. Plato, the author of the Apology and other dialogues featuring Socrates, develops a line of thought a number of scholars see this way: Socrates, as philosopher, has a radically different vision of the good life than that of the city. The “city,” or you could say political life, holds that if you obey its laws and embrace the spirit of its laws, you’ll be happy and moral and honored. Because the philosopher does not see this as necessarily true, he’s in fatal tension with the city. If you take this latter approach, where the philosopher and the city inevitably conflict, you get a rich, thoughtful problematic: to what degree do all political things, rightly or wrongly, obscure or hinder the search for knowledge? But the very strength of this approach means you can miss the warning signs of when a society is breaking apart, when people can’t see each other as human beings.

The complaint, as Socrates puts it, charges him with “investigating the things beneath the earth and in the heavens and making the weaker argument stronger and teaching others these same things.” Investigating the things beneath the earth? That’s Hades’ domain, the domain of the dead. The heavens? That also belongs to the gods–Icarus was not meant to fly so high. The charge has a certain poetry, but the intent is unmistakable: don’t ask scientific questions, don’t try to understand what is underneath us or above us. Let us have our traditions, our gods, our laws which stem from both. Two things here are exceptionally hard for us to understand—we, who believe ourselves scientific and enlightened. First, how could a society so bluntly assert that science has no value? It’s not hard for us to imagine public opinion turning against science, but it is hard for us to think of society’s starting point as a real reverence and fear of the law itself. This isn’t to say we don’t hold law to be powerful or even sacred: we certainly do, in our own way. But we don’t see lawfulness as automatically making fun of science, holding science to be useless from the start. Someone like Stephen Hawking, whose interest was the “heavens,” who wondered about the origin of the very universe, is held in great esteem by us.

Second, what does the practice of science have to do with “making the weaker argument stronger?” Socrates is accused of being a scientist who wants to meddle with our notions of the divine and a shady lawyer who teaches ways around the truth. The complaint is breathtaking in its arrogance—it accuses Socrates of wanting the truth, searching high and low for it, while accusing him of manipulating the truth and teaching that manipulation to others. But the complaint, if Socrates’ rendering of the prejudice is accurate, is not about “truth.” It’s about Socrates’ injustice. Socrates does injustice to gods and men: he tries to dethrone the gods, he tries to displace truth in favor of liars. The funny thing is that this prejudice does render the nature of justice correctly. Justice is concerned with not exploring the truth in the case of the gods and defending the truth as an exclusive basis for faith among men. Justice’s stance toward the truth itself is incoherent.

This doesn’t mean “nothing matters” or “society’s just a big lie, man.” It indicates that justice is a different kind of claim than that of knowledge. But it also indicates only one sort of person is going to see this problem clearly: a lover of wisdom, a philosopher, who tries to see the truth for what it is. You’ll note that this passage is part of a longer sequence, where Socrates investigates whether he is indeed the wisest of all men in order to disprove Apollo, and finds that he cannot disprove god. That sequence you could call “comic.” It’s meant to be a joke, but not a joke dismissing Socrates and what he stood for, but one showing how crazy our moral intuitions—our “gut instinct,” if you will—can be.

“What is Philosophy?” 8/23/19

[Note: I’m preparing for my classes next week and writing out lecture materials. I googled “What is philosophy?” and appreciated all the answers given. But I thought I should introduce my students to why the question matters at all.]

“What is philosophy?” I ask, and some of you already expect a philosophic answer without being able to say what philosophy is. You feel the answer should be about higher things, things like “purpose” or “science” or a happiness which can never be taken away. And you probably feel that answer should be more inspiring than technical, showing why people talk about “philosophy” and “religion” in the same breath, or, more to the point, why Socrates willingly went to his execution in the name of philosophy.

I need to step back a bit from this way of speaking. I may not know what philosophy is, but I have some idea of what it’s worth. Yet I spent a large part of the last three months playing video games and moping. If philosophy is worth dying for, surely it is worth living for, but I can’t say I’ve lived up to any sort of ideal. Some of you are in high school, and the feeling of having to be at school lingers, boredom merging with your anxiousness over being accepted and earning achievement. You want to know you’re wanted and that you can succeed. These are not trivial desires—people with much more experience, people who have helped save lives want the same. Can philosophy speak to your wants? Can it speak to a sense of freedom, belonging, and purpose?

The word “philosophy” is worth a closer look. It means “love of wisdom” and suggests a number of questions for which we can begin outlining answers. What is “wisdom?” The Greek sophia, which we take to mean wisdom, originally referred to technical expertise. In other words, there were knowledgeable and expert shoemakers, poets, and sculptors. But was wisdom even conceivable? We nowadays assume wisdom exists because we lump—as far as I can tell—two scenarios together. A Mr. Spock or Professor X type of person uses logic or knowledge to set events in motion that are good for many even though bad things will occur, e.g. the starship is destroyed or the mutant academy gets attacked. This first scenario is about using knowledge to get something out of life, even though life can be incredibly harsh, if not thought irredeemable. If you can use knowledge this way, that would seem to be a sort of “wisdom,” no?

The second scenario is simpler: we assume moral concerns and moral questions to be under the domain of “wisdom.” If someone can give a serious answer to “What is justice?”, for example, we consider that person “wise.” Here’s the problem—the two scenarios do not neatly add up. Moral concerns taken seriously require self-sacrifice. You discover courage’s true importance; you act courageously for the sake of your home, family, friends; you die because of that courage. That is not at all the same thing as trying to consider every possibility life throws at you in order to get what’s best for everyone. If you know better in a variety of situations, you probably have more value alive than dead. Yet we consider both scenarios—either wisdom in the service of moral concerns, or wisdom as a way of navigating life’s harshness—as wise ways to live.

To be sure, it may not be possible to escape this tension. If Socrates died for philosophy’s sake, his death may be considered between the space of “what is moral” and “what is simply best.” Of course, Socrates himself leans heavily toward the latter idea. In Xenophon’s Apology, one of his companions starts crying hysterically when the jury condemns Socrates to death. Socrates asks what’s wrong and hears “what I find it hardest to bear is that I see you being put to death unjustly!” In response, Socrates asks whether it is preferable to see him put to death justly.

When I’m confronted with a problem, I look for anything which might help me build a strategy. It’s gaming, of all things, which showed me how to talk about strategy building. You don’t posit a strategy because it’s right and going to immediately work. You create one as a means of learning, a way to knowledge. If the strategy doesn’t work at all, you know not to try it, maybe not even try anything like it. If it works with some effectiveness, then you have a clearer picture of what’s relevant in the problem you’re confronting. And if it completely works, you don’t have a problem anymore. The funny thing is where learning best occurs: not in the ideal scenario, where problems disappear entirely, but more than likely in the middle scenario, where you come to a deeper understanding of a problem even while the problem fails to be resolved.

With this in mind, here’s our rough problem: we’d like to know what “wisdom” means so we can better say what “philosophy” means. The challenge we’re facing is that “wisdom” has to do with the whole of life. Life is an incredibly large topic. How do we isolate what wisdom means in terms of life? We came close when we spoke of trying to get what is good out of tough circumstances in contrast to being immersed in moral concerns. Wiser people than me have used the phrase “the tragedy and comedy of life,” which one could say refers to whether we have to deal with the cruelty of it all by simply standing for some higher idea, or whether we can ultimately find happiness when all is said and done.

But as some of you have guessed, there’s probably more to wisdom than the whole of our individual lives or even personal meaning for each of us. What if you discover a formula for the entire universe? What if you have some insight into what a higher being or truth must be like? Whatever you find will in a way relate to you personally—while that may be a small thing in some cases, it may be the most necessary starting point. It’s pretty pointless to speak of knowledge with no idea of why it was wanted, needed, or used.

When building a strategy, I remember, it is best to start small. Start with something where you can begin to account for each word, each meaning, each intent. Something where one has to interpret, and then ask oneself what the act of interpretation itself entails. “Small” need not indicate a lack of profundity. On my mind is this couplet from Ilya Kaminsky, ending a poem about the oppression of a city, the complicity of its citizens, and murder:

At the trial of God, we will ask: why did you allow this?

And the answer will be an echo: why did you allow this?

In the times we live in, you more than likely sense these words as having impact. The question they illustrate concerns responsibility and the awful weight it carries. When are “we” responsible? When are “we” a we, a unity as opposed to individuals? How do we mark others as “Other,” condemning them to their deaths? The question of moral necessity, put directly in confrontation with what is recognized as divine, makes philosophy itself a moral imperative. In order to know who “we” are and why we’re horrified at our own treatment of each other, we have to admit we’re merely human, that the flesh and blood of our species seems to somehow lean toward a concern for the flesh and blood of all other people and species. I’m not saying there is some natural law within us which inclines toward morality. I am saying we can be in shock by what we’ve done, that awareness of who we really are is a powerful and terrible thing. And I am saying that horror means we may take facts of all sorts—material, psychic, literary, conventional realities—and try to grasp where we have control, where we don’t. “Why did you allow this,” an introduction to a tragic whole, one way of seeing oneself in the service of wonder.

Zephaniah; Paul Hoover, “God’s Promises”

Zephaniah does not hesitate to grab your attention. In the beginning: “I will sweep away everything from the face of the earth,” declares the Lord (Zephaniah 1:1). Why will the Lord destroy everything? Idolatry, the worship of things not Him. “I will sweep away… the idols that cause the wicked to stumble” (1:3); “I will destroy every remnant of Baal worship in this place, the very names of the idolatrous priests” (1:4); in the fire of his jealousy the whole earth will be consumed (1:18).

Idolatry entails neglecting the true God. Abandonment has been on my mind recently, and I can safely say it leads to anger. It’s very difficult to process being ignored, being made to feel like you should not even try to meet others or communicate. That anger seems to be present in Zephaniah’s rhetoric: “I will bring such distress on all people that they will grope about like those who are blind” (1:17). As you, who are ignored, act blindly—not sure who you should talk to or where you should go— the Lord has been blinded by those unfaithful. He’s not sure whom He should approach. Justice, then, would be blindness for the sinful.

Condemnation of idolatry in Zephaniah means condemnation of foreign influence and other nations. “I will punish… all those clad in foreign clothes” (1.8); Gaza will be abandoned and Ashkelon left in ruins (2:4); “Moab will become like Sodom, the Ammonites like Gommorah” (2:9); Nineveh [will be] utterly desolate and dry as the desert (2:13). Jerusalem and Judea are called to repent, to be different, but they are not above criticism. Jerusalem is called the city of oppressors, rebellious and defiled (3.1). I cannot argue with a prophet, but I can express discomfort at his rhetoric and articulate moral reasons for the discomfort. We do not live in ordinary times, where allegory can be trusted to remain a literary device. Many states are asserting the moral purity of one part of their people over against other parts of their people. They decry “corruption” as a condition that can never be washed away; the foreign always remains the foreign. They are willing to attack other nations and their own neighbors over the most trivial of differences. To Zephaniah’s credit, only God takes up the mantle of “warrior” (1:14; 3:17). Those who are called to repent are to be “meek and humble,” to “eat and lie down” and not be afraid (3:12-13). It does not seem those who choose the Lord should take up arms. Still, it does seem a space has been created for a figure to raise himself by means of violence and be accepted by those who think themselves pure.

What to make, then, of the instrument of the Lord’s justice? Idolatry, like abandonment, is a form of violence if not explicit violence itself. Idolaters “fill the temple of their gods with violence and deceit” (1:9); they are evening wolves who profane the sanctuary and do violence to the law (3:3-4). God Himself, truth and justice, has been made to feel like He does not deserve to exist. The reply, the prophecy, takes the form of violence in at least one aspect, as God promises a day of wrath (1:15).

I feel like I am articulating a very contemporary concern. I’m not saying Zephaniah cannot provide an answer, or has not provided one already. But we need an answer that has a certain immediacy, that speaks the world we live in, not the world where Nineveh is the seat of empire. Enter Paul Hoover’s “God’s Promises:”

God's Promises (from poetryfoundation.org)
Paul Hoover

I, the Lord, will make barren
your fields and your fairways.
Your refrigerators will be empty,
no steaks and no leg bones,
no butter and no cornbread.
And I will remove your screen doors,
force the mosquitoes indoors
where you lie on the bed undead.
For my house you have not readied,
no flat screen and no broadband.
My habitation is a wasteland
of furniture from motel rooms.
I will send the ostrich and badger
in herds through your wrecked rooms;
your beds will be entered by turnstile;
the floor will seethe with bees.
For my house is but a prefab;
its roof lets in my rain.
Woe is the Lord of Heaven
who has no mansion on earth.
Cries are heard from my fish traps,
crows flap on my hat rack,
pandemonium at the threshold
as the owls and bats flit in.
Silence reigns in the last place
and the first place has no sway.
For my knife-edge is impatient,
my ledge crumbles like cake.
I have warned you to beware.
You await a handsome savior,
but the plain man draws near...

(Zephaniah)

Hoover, in contrast to Zephaniah, begins gently: I, the Lord, will make barren your fields and your fairways. Your refrigerators will be empty, no steaks and no leg bones, no butter and no cornbread. Not brother taking arms against brother, but a loss of luxury. Already, especially for those of us accustomed to a certain style of preaching, I can hear the screeching: “This isn’t Biblical.” What warrant do any of us have to take a God who speaks in violent terms and replace that with no “fields and… fairways?”

I can say this. If the purpose of thinking through these sorts of things is to discover something about yourself, something you could be doing better, Hoover’s on the right track. The question concerns the nature of violence. For Judea, being overrun by some gigantic empire is a real problem; the desire to be like other nations is not simply blasphemy, but an understandable reaction to who actually has power and why. There’s a part of this rhetoric that cannot translate to the United States of America, not in the slightest. I know one of the people who told me racism doesn’t exist worked with some of the poorest people in this area. When you have everything, it’s possible to be so blinded by privilege you can’t even see that other people are in need.

The nature of the violence we confront nowadays is like global warming. You won’t see it until it takes away a comfort that’s immediate. No fields, no fairways, no meat, no butter, no cornbread. The earth has suddenly stopped giving, and only then we realize we paid no attention to it. We did our best to keep it out, and now it is angry and will not accept that: I will remove your screen doors, force the mosquitoes indoors where you lie on the bed undead.

Hoover navigates the coming crisis as a blend of environmental catastrophe and our neglect of the poor. In truth, the issues are one: when a coal magnate is governor of, say, West Virginia, worth 1.6 billion and grifting through the very government meant for the people, you can see the link immediately. Some people are ripping the earth to shreds for dollars while everyone else, with nothing, has to wander through whatever is left. My house you have not readied, no flat screen and no broadband. My habitation is a wasteland of furniture from motel rooms.

When the crisis hits, rich and poor will be on a level field. Ostrich and badger [will be sent] in herds through your wrecked rooms; your beds will be entered by turnstile; the floor will seethe with bees. That leveling is the sign of justice, but not justice or redemption itself. It is woe, woe shared by oppressors who thought themselves above others and the oppressed who the Lord said He was. Woe is the Lord of Heaven who has no mansion on earth.

Where is true justice, then? Hoover brings us to a very contemporary idiom, our fascination with survivalists: Cries are heard from my fish traps, crows flap on my hat rack, pandemonium at the threshold as the owls and bats flit in. Silence reigns in the last place and the first place has no sway. You can hear in those lines someone trying to get food and deal with too many creatures during an apocalypse. You can hear the loneliness: there’s all this noise, but silence reigns. Maybe idolatry really is abandonment. A cult of self-sufficiency has made some monsters who would devour the world and proclaim themselves great, others loners who would push others away at the slightest provocation. But what happens if you actually need to survive, alone? The very possibility of justice is lost, it seems. To do justice to each other is a blessing.

Emily Dickinson, “Doom is the House without the Door” (475)

Because you think something, you’re trapped; because I think, I’m trapped. One traps oneself in the same way light enters a house without a door: Doom is the House without the Door — ‘Tis entered from the Sun. Light, “from the Sun,” has the ability to enter an enclosed space in an almost immaterial way. This seems grand, but is it possible to find a way out? The poem tells us we are “doomed,” fatefully stuck.

How can one “doom” oneself from a mere thought? Perhaps far more than one thought is operative, but the safe assumption is that whatever dooms us is near imperceptible. Still, the poem as a whole plays with the idea that whatever space we’ve entered, we imagine the rest of reality from:

Doom is the House without the Door (475)
Emily Dickinson 

Doom is the House without the Door —
'Tis entered from the Sun —
And then the Ladder's thrown away,
Because Escape — is done —
 
'Tis varied by the Dream
Of what they do outside —
Where Squirrels play — and Berries die —
And Hemlocks — bow — to God — 

How does one doom oneself from a mere thought? I myself might be doing this all the time—I get “hung up” on how I feel, think I have found some great insight, then start trying to apply it to everything around me. I guess I had better admit the Ladder’s thrown away, / Because Escape — is done.

The Biblical overtones of “Ladder,” though, hint at a grander delusion or more fundamental problem. Not just any supposed insight is at stake, as this concerns wrestling with God. If you think you have an insight that could serve as revelation, surely you are doomed. Doomed if you’re wrong, for obvious reasons. But also doomed if you’re right, because you’ve chosen the only fate possible.

Sometimes, when we feel downcast, we play the part of prophet a bit too much. This poem hits hardest when one realizes one could be right and the insight wouldn’t be helpful. Instead of going outside, I’d simply Dream / of what they do outside. “They” is purposely vague, as if I’ve ceased to communicate with people who actually exist. I’ve unfortunately known quite a few people who were more wed to their thoughts of what others were like because they could not deal with real people.

Outside is Where Squirrels play — and Berries die — / And Hemlocks — bow — to God. I wonder. I can see myself both jealous and charmed at the idea animals can simply play. It’s a delusion, of course. We’ve all seen how much pain animals endure, physical and emotional. I can also see myself muttering about how everything will cease to be. Some species of berries do not come back. “Hemlocks” is the trickier item. It implies Socrates, who famously did not bow. The problem is this: if one’s insight dooms one, causing one to be bitter, should we consider it wise?

“Hemlocks — bow — to God” suggests Dickinson thinks this doom the death of reason. I’m inclined to agree, but there’s a problem still outstanding. How do we know when a thought is acting like a revelation? How do we know when we’ve silently decided we’re some kind of Cassandra? The only sure answer is when we look back at how we’ve acted and thought, summing up years of our lives in some cases with a mere “Oh.”