What does it mean to be contemplative? In a conversation, the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein addresses the issue through a contrast: professional racing motorists. A successful racing driver has one goal in mind: to break the speed record. It is not wrong to have such a well-specified goal. It is required if you want to be a professional racing motorist. However, the attitude encapsulates the mind. Any questions that do not take you closer to the goal become irrelevant. Imagine the driver discussing improvements to the carburetor with the mechanics. How would the atmosphere in the garage change if an inquisitive Socrates suddenly appeared and quietly wondered about the meaning of the sport? Endless questions without the slightest relevance to the adjustments of the carburetor! A racing motorist who wants to be the world champion cannot stop and contemplate different possibilities for human sports competition. Above all, not the possibility of a world where no one tries to break speed records. Who is this crazy fellow? Socrates must leave the garage.
As I said, there is nothing wrong with the racing motorist’s attitude; it is natural and often unavoidable. It has the dynamics of joy (and that of frustration). However, when it becomes too dominant, it restricts something else: the openness to the unknown, the sense of the unexpected. Big questions without given answers are seen as obscure, irrelevant and perhaps even dangerous, as they lack competitive edge and reduce the speed. The carburetor adjustments must be prioritized. Life as a competition must never vanish from sight. It could jeopardize the team spirit and the competitive advantages. If we discussed too many big and thought-provoking issues together as a society, it could even seduce the youth. The new generation loses the momentum that society needs. Young individuals are distracted from identifying with the specific goals that successful careers require. Socrates must leave society.
To think freely, is it nothing but useless folly? Small and large, useful and useless, are two themes that run through one of the great books of Chinese philosophy, Chuang Tzu. The book begins with a story about a huge fish, which soon turns into a huge bird, both so incredibly big that one would like to say that they exceed all dimensions. The huge bird is contrasted with two smaller creatures, a cicada and a dove, who simply cannot understand the big one. The bird almost merges with heaven itself. Can it even be called a bird, when it never flies from bush to bush? The small creatures cannot grasp the great bird. It lacks boundaries, like Socrates’ endless questioning. A related theme in Chuang Tzu is the usefulness of the useless. The book contains several stories of knotty and smelly trees, which, because of their uselessness for human purposes, are left free to grow big. “Everyone knows the usefulness of the useful,” writes Chuang Tzu, “but no one knows the usefulness of the useless.” Who reads Chuang Tzu in today’s China?
Perhaps we can say that Chuang Tzu develops contemplation and self-examination so far, that the self loses its boundaries and becomes one with heaven, just like the big bird. The wisdom that we can hear in Chuang Tzu is open to the infinite. Its boundlessness cannot be defined by teachings, doctrines or theories. It cannot be encapsulated in a philosophy or a religion. “To use what has a boundary to pursue what is limitless is dangerous,” warns Chuang Tzu. Dogmatism is as ancient as the wisdom that opens us to the unknown. In short, the boundless surpasses any doctrine about “the boundless.” If we dare to live with such wide horizons, we may understand voices like this one, “Plunge into the unknown and the endless and find your place there!” Totally useless words, which therefore can be useful in times that only understand the usefulness of the useful.
When philosophies and religions are defined so narrowly that they virtually function as cultural norms or party programs, they inhibit the freedom that was the point of the infinite, which we sought in its uselessness. When the search instead questions everything that restricts the mind, the contemplative endeavor can free the self from its encapsulation: the inner condition of lack of freedom.
Could this enable a humanity where people do not assert their personal interests against others? Without boundaries around the self, there is no one else to outcompete. Is there even an exploitable environment to pollute? We would let the world (and each other) be. However, such unequalled harmony cannot be defined as a goal without once again limiting freedom and making us encapsulated beings such as the cicada and the dove. “The understanding of the small cannot be compared to the understanding of the great.”
Is this happy news or is it just useless folly?
The Book of Chuang Tzu. (Translated by Martin Palmer.) Penguin Books, 1996
Ludwig Wittgenstein, Rush Rhees, Gabriel Citron, (ed.). 2015. Wittgenstein’s Philosophical Conversations with Rush Rhees (1939–50): From the Notes of Rush Rhees. Mind 124: 1–71.