Vanity of Vanities

January 28, 2019   •   By John Kaag

Philosophy, Writing, and the Character of Thought

John T. Lysaker

WHEN I WAS YOUNG, maybe 13, my mother and I went to the Philadelphia Museum of Art. She wanted to show me everything. I only remember one painting: N. L. Peschier’s Vanitas (1661). Today, vanitas — literally, “emptiness” or “futility” — refers broadly to a genre of 17th-century Dutch still life that contains symbols of vulnerability and death as a reminder of the inevitability of both.

In this specific case, Peschier painted a skull, set on a table, next to a ream of crumbled folios. My mother thought I was bothered by the skull, but it was the paper, all those words on all that fragile paper, that gripped me to the brink of horror. I’d been taught that books, and the facts and truths therein, were sanctified, or at least relatively durable. The vanitas gave me another picture. It wasn’t long until I discovered Jan Davidsz. de Heem’s 1628 Books and Pamphlets, a still life consisting exclusively of moldering books. The image would haunt my consciousness as I grew into a bookish adult who spent a good deal of his time writing. I hadn’t thought about the painting for many years, until I discovered it on the cover of John T. Lysaker’s Philosophy, Writing, and the Character of Thought — a smart, ironic reminder of what we are trying to do, and what we inevitably fail to do, when we put our thoughts to paper.

Lysaker is attempting something very difficult, maybe impossible, in philosophy: a revitalization of the discipline by returning to its most vibrant (but also most confusing) expressions — fragments, aphorisms, quotations, confessions, essays, ironies, rhetorical questions. His book is, unapologetically, a stylistic mash-up. A reader accustomed to, if not delighted by, straightforward argumentation will find it to be a maddening journey of switchbacks and dead ends. Yet someone bored by contemporary philosophy’s hidebound method of analysis will find it a joyful intellectual jaunt.

Lysaker defends an old, nearly forgotten, and therefore apparently new, idea: that philosophy is an essential, creative human practice. Philosophy doesn’t reside in books, like a corpse in a coffin, but, at best, emanates from them as an invigorating force. Lysaker takes his cues from philosophers who’ve gone against the grain of modern rationalism, thinkers such as Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, Friedrich Nietzsche, Martin Heidegger, Walter Benjamin, and Stanley Cavell. Indeed, critics of this book may argue that to get the most out of this slim tome a reader must be intimately acquainted with all of these figures, not to mention the imposing scholarly apparatus of Continental philosophy. I think, however, that this depends on what one regards as “the most.” Does a scholar “get the most” from Emerson and Nietzsche by being able to scrutinize every allusion, every obscure reference, in order to achieve a single definitive reading? If so, perhaps it is best to call in a small cadre of philosophical experts, but I suspect Lysaker would advise against this approach.

“Philosophy sits uneasily when left to experts,” Lysaker writes. Philosophy suffers when its written arguments and demonstrations are detached from the lived experience that triggered them. It suffers when it is cordoned off in the dry libraries of the vanitas, when it “appears to be hoarding what should be broadly shared.” When philosophy is left to the experts, “[t]he profession not only appears unfairly self-involved but often insincere.” A discipline once committed to love and wisdom appears only committed to itself.

Philosophy doesn’t have to end this way. Lysaker argues that its preservation turns on a rethinking of the relationship between philosophy and the act of writing. It is necessary to remember that

[w]riting is in part discovery, more an extension of the process of thinking than a mere record of thoughts fashioned beforehand. And while these discoveries are often only implicit in the published version of a text, one should not forget that, most of the time, writing involves a series of visions and revisions and the willingness to erase.

This is decidedly not how most of today’s philosophical monographs are read and understood. The circuitous missteps and fortuitous stumbles — the ways in which philosophy actually makes its way as a living practice — are typically glossed and masked; things are leveled out, tidied up for publication, and put into deliverable form.

Lysaker suggests philosophy might have lost something in straightening everything out. Twentieth-century analytic philosophy was largely the history of shoring up arguments, of pursuing (and sometimes feigning) objectivity regarding an increasingly narrow set of disciplinary concerns. Habermasian critical theory errs in a similar way, insisting that discourse — philosophical or otherwise — must be tightly circumscribed by “communicative rationality” and the “public sphere.” In the face of these trends, Lysaker jabs in one of his shortest elliptical aphorisms: “Straight talk always belies an angle.” Perhaps this is too clever by half. But he explains that

[p]hilosophy is not just a rationalized and professionalized language game. It is in part, or rather, it has become so, and this is an empirical claim, it also addresses questions of general and fundamental concern, questions many currently address through the dogmas and rituals of organized religion.

Lysaker would like philosophers not to cede ground on these vital issues, and to realize that what is required of them may have very little to do with making more rigorous arguments or fitting one’s philosophy to a conventional (and largely conservative) worldview.

Instead of fitting in, philosophical writing should, at pivotal moments, stand out, in terms of substance but also form. Following Emerson and Nietzsche, Lysaker’s writing aims at philosophical provocation. And it is largely successful. He occasionally gets mired in overly technical asides — is Heidegger’s distinction between rhetoriké and téchne really helpful in framing philosophical praxis? — and sometimes indulges in the disciplinary infighting he claims to be at pains to avoid. But he makes a very real attempt at something different: a book the intent of which is neither preservation nor presentation, but rather use. “What is the right use?” Emerson once asked of all books, “What is the one end which all means go to effect? [Books] are for nothing but to inspire.” Inspiration — that, at least, is a central hope.

Still, one thing bothers me — not so much about the content of Lysaker’s book, but about its place in today’s philosophical landscape. Who is able or permitted to be inspiring, to be inspired, to write or appreciate the bold aphorism? Lysaker’s book is littered with them. They are the book’s abiding strength. “I find treatises ill formed to my moment,” he asserts. He’s probably right, but who gets to make such a claim? Who gets away with it? Usually the tenured, full professor — probably white and male — at a respectable institution of higher learning. The same question could be asked, should be asked, of many forms of autobiography. Who gets to speak in the first person and with what authority? Eddie Glaude, professor of Religion and African American Studies at Princeton University, has said that Lysaker’s is a “courageous book.” If the book really is “courageous” — if it takes decisive action in the face of great risk — what does this say about the state of philosophy? How many authors of different races, genders, and lived experiences has disciplinary philosophy (or the gatekeepers of its publishing) already silenced? In Lysaker’s words, some “inner audiences conspire against those who would transformatively inherit what fate has given them to be.” Perhaps philosophy is further gone than anyone, even Lysaker, thinks.

But maybe not. One of the most trenchant moments of the book is a three-paragraph section entitled “Like You Mean It.” Here, Lysaker, cribbing Cavell, engages Thoreau’s deep disaffection with the state of philosophy in his own time:

“There are nowadays professors of philosophy, but not philosophers,” Thoreau asserts. “Yet it is admirable to profess because it was once admirable to live.” […] But the sentences, cocksure, suggest if might again prove possible. As they compile, Thoreau’s lines occasionally dispel the gloom even as they name it — their mourning occasions morning.

The voicing of philosophy’s inadequacy is — has always been — a step in its continuance. That is simply where we find ourselves.

At the bottom of Jan Davidsz. de Heem’s Books and Pamphlets there is an unbound copy of G. A. Bredero’s Treur-spel van Roddrick ende Alphonsus (The Tragedy of Roderick and Alphonsus), performed in 1611. The play is, literally, a disaster, but, of course, only the audience sees it coming. The characters make a series of ill-formed judgments while being buffeted, and ultimately destroyed, by fate. De Heem chose his subject carefully: a story of vanity, embedded in an image of vanity. All of those destructible stories on all of that destructible paper — vanity of vanities! The painting serves as an unequivocal warning or, more likely, a prophecy: every attempt to account for ourselves, especially on paper, will prove woefully inadequate.

There is, however, something strange about de Heem’s painting, which struck me when I was young and may be worth saying now. The vanitas of the 17th century were painted by patiently applying layer upon layer of thin pigment to a well-conditioned canvas. As paintings go, they are basically indestructible: an image of fragility held permanently on the brink of total annihilation. Perhaps there is no more accurate picture of human life or, for that matter, philosophy.


John Kaag is the 2019 Miller Scholar at the Santa Fe Institute and is professor and chair of Philosophy at the University of Massachusetts Lowell and author of Hiking with Nietzsche: On Becoming Who You Are (2018).