“Or some third thing” is a phrase in Plato that I first came across when translating Meno as a freshman in college, or so I thought until this morning. I’m traveling back from giving a Plato lecture in the Maritimes of Canada, and I spent some airport time looking up all the instances of “third” in Plato, trying to track it down. It turns out that Socrates says this in the Philebus (my least favorite dialogue), but more usually the word “third” isn’t present in the Greek; in Meno and Republic, the phrase is “or is it some such other thing?” This is important to me because it’s a way of asking a question that breaks open the debater’s tendency present in the structure of: “the thing I’m asking about, it is this kind of thing, or that kind?", x or y, fish or fowl, where inevitably of course the thing you’re asking about is really neither. Everyone knows that it is neither, but inevitably there is great delight for some in trying argue it’s one of the two options anyway. This is boring, and annoying, and stupid. Anyway, if you ask the question more like Meno or whomever: “is the thing I’m asking about X, Y, or something basically different?” you are propelled just a bit further towards already being able to admit and articulate the specificities of the awkwardly third kind of thing the thing really is.
Looking this up was a pleasure for me, but exactly the kind of off-beat pleasure that you know most likely is not going to go much of anywhere. It won’t be an essay or a paragraph, probably not even a footnote, just the kind of thing I’d write down in a notebook and forget until I remembered to look it up, years later. Or rather, it is exactly the kind of thing that I would ordinarily post on twitter.
I first started putting things on twitter when a college friend in tech pointed out I was using the google status message essentially as a kind of tweet. He was right, and so I started sending the six or seven college friends I knew the occasional stray thought. When I’m intensely and fixedly staring at some detail that doesn’t fit into any structure or even genre, it breaks the tension to write it out, and it breaks the tension even more to write it out where someone can see it and point out that they stared at it for a while, too. I have a theory about this, but I’m going to save it for a paragraph further down.
It makes sense to me to start a new semi-public notebook, in the uncertainty of what on earth will happen to the bird site. I’ve noticed that story-telling has become more interesting to me in the last few years, even though I don’t have less fondness for the genre of absurdist bon mots that for me at least, is twitter genre extraordinaire. When I first started putting things in that text box, I had to really sit there with the 140 characters and spend time whittling the thought down until it fit. This proved to be an invaluable writing exercise, fortunately taking place while it was still mainly college friends populating twitter; my sentences are long, and vive le point-virgule, as the french say. But, it’s the idea of a different genre with a slightly longer form that has me interested for this: reinventing the mood of twitter on mastodon or some other thing seems sisphyean to me, and I can’t make myself do it.
I think a lot about Jonathan Swift writing all those letters in exile from court back to the girl in Ireland he wasn’t really into.It is not without some guilt and a sense of shame that I contemplate having not written my thoughts into letters or even fake letters to friends over against the time of twitter. Certainly a kind of momentum was present for me and still is. But the thing is, I didn’t want to. I wanted to write short absurdist bon mots to friends, and also to the stray stranger who thought they were funny too, instead. It’s pretty obvious to me that this helped. Here’s my theory of language:
So, classically speaking, according to (chez if you will) Aristotle, we are defined (some days) by being the animal with the logos, the animal who can talk. It’s a corruption for me of the sense of this definition to simply say that we are the animal with reason; logos is helpfully more ambiguous than this. We’re on occasional rational and on occasion not, but we do combine the ability for private thought with an absolutely talkative nature; maybe a playful translation of this is, man is the gregarious animal. (Silence is on occasion a satisfying negation of this.)
But, this defining still is not enough to describe our relationship to talking. In college, surrounded by a curriculum based 95% on non-faculty-directed conversation (sheer torture on more than one occasion, I must say), I decided that the desire to talk was always the desire to talk to someone. This as I have learned is analogous to the dative-of-agent in phenomenology, the idea that any thought we have is always a thought of something, by somebody, which seems to me a sensible place to start on the whole. I don’t know if I think that this is really true, that speech is always other-directed; there is less than zero point to presenting this as a finished claim. But it makes sense of a) Swift writing to someone he didn’t even intend to love because he needed to at least pretend to talk to someone, when everyone else seemed boring, and b) me posting google status messages of piquant quotations when I was twenty-five, and c) the people, my dear fellow humans, posting on twitter.
There is simply nothing ridiculous about this basic desire, to at least pretend to talk to someone. I think the desire to talk to someone sits very close to the ground of all other putatively rational aspects of us, that is, of our humanity. (The desire to ridicule the hope of talking to someone online seems on these grounds nihilistic.) And, it is also the basis of some third thing: the hope that, in our messing around with language, together, not just to fight about dichotomies or even definitions, we might break past the debater’s tendency, and start to describe the awkwardness of things to each other.
Ok, so: substack. No grand plans, no deep thoughts, just stray ones, in search of third and sometimes second thoughts. The paintings are from here.
Thanks for reading chez Aristote! Subscribe for free to receive new posts and support my work.
Other pieces of this argument: more about the negation of silence, the wholeness of wordless vision, talking to self as othering the self into an icon, the way the choice to write something down always aims at least the dream of future reading posterity, and whatever is going on with Socrates.
Man is the only animal that laughs and weeps; for he is the only animal that is struck with the difference between what things are, and what they ought to be. - William Hazlitt