I think


Returning to Descartes after my own (continuing) decade of communing with the ‘great book of the world’ brings some refreshing sentiments (2006 [1637]: 10). Descartes, described as vaguely averse to social interaction, and whose own words betray an intellectual confidence that would commonly be described as arrogance, shines nonetheless as a glowing example in my current scholarly position. For while I am ironically obliged to memorise his key precepts, he, with a weary sigh, sets aside his books, and even abandons the whirlwind of travel, feeling compelled above all else to set to work—to order his own thoughts (Descartes, 2006 [1637]: 11).

Faced with the thought of a few extra bachelor-level exams, I come upon an unexpected internal resistance. This method of learning—which once consumed my time and absorbed my hungry mind—seems dull and soulless; it does not stir the movements of my mind as it used to. I note with some surprise that all those years of rote learning and trustingly following teachers have worked their effects: new and complex ideas are not threatening; entire books are not half so laborious as the scattered chapters I used to wrestle with. The hunger for interesting ideas is coupled with an aptitude for working related ideas into one another, for noticing points of contact and of difference, and for seeing the broader themes and sensing the overall direction of a work in its entirety.

But it remains a formidable step from gathering and organising the ideas of others to casting them aside and asserting one’s own position. Such articulation depends on the kinds of skills accumulated by following in the mental steps of others, probably even on being fluent in the language of their concepts, and certainly familiar with their debates; but it ultimately requires a blank page. A blank page and a few other indulgences: time, space, and courage, often cloaked as misanthropic arrogance.

Inwardly, my convictions begin to bite. I do not read with the same wonderment and open curiosity, trying on the outlooks of others, judiciously weighing the matter from all sides. I clash with these books: I tear at their holes and prod their weak spots, wanting them to help me but finding them inadequate. I am reaching the point where I will have to abandon my books and establish my own framework, my own method. These snarling convictions, peering here and there through the cracks left by others, need a clear ordering, explanation and defense. I must take a good look at them. I must decide—even plan—how to go about this.

Kant cuts a fine example. Forced to support himself, he turned to teaching immediately, privately at first, only managing to secure a teaching position at university after several years. But his pay depended upon the attendance of students, and so he had to take on a huge workload and court a dedicated following of students. This occupied him for decades—decades!—before he secured tenure, at which time he promptly sat down and (I believe the technical term is) busted out the Critique of Pure Reason. What captures my imagination is the thought that Kant did not waste a moment, though his route was a slow one. Teaching is a battlefield; it offers ample opportunity to test one’s ideas. My own experience of teaching drawing makes plain to me that ordering the content is the easy part; the greater burden of teaching falls on defending one’s ideas. Students concoct all manner of contradiction; they embody resistance. The cunning teacher needs a sack of reasons to stay ahead. But if she can stand by what she presents, she can sharpen it from every conceivable angle with the rigorous discourse that the classroom offers. When a quiet desk presents itself, the work is almost done.

Rousseau (1953 [1781] : 328; 374) sought not the solitude of the desk, but the open air and physical movement. The rolling fields of France, kissed by the sun, were his blank page, and as he wandered them without company he turned his thoughts over in his mind, working and reworking them, embellishing them, tasting them aloud and testing them against the breeze—and forgetting them, and whipping them up again, until they finally found their way onto paper in a gush of impassioned certitude. ‘For never having been able to write or think at my ease except in the open air, I was not tempted to alter my methods … The forest of Montmorency, which was almost at my door, would be my study’ (Rousseau, 1953 [1781]: 376). Such leisure yields no precise and referenced scholarly articles—and that is the point. We can all sit down with our notes and produce something technical. But can we commune with our own thoughts until we know them inside out? Until their structure becomes self-evident, emerging organically, as if from nature itself, and not in the forced and reference-laden form that the shackles of the desk impose?

Arendt says, with no fuss, that the writing is easy. ‘Schreiben Sie leicht, formulieren Sie leicht?’ her interviewer inquires (‘Do you write easily, do you draft easily?’). Through plumes of self-assured cigarette smoke she assures him that writing happens with little effort. Because she only starts writing once she knows what she wants to say—a simple but easily overlooked method of working, one that reveals the same attitude as Rousseau and Kant before her.

Deleuze, as we have remarked, uncovers concepts in unlikely places, such as in the observations of the painter Francis Bacon, demonstrating a remarkable fidelity to Bacon’s statements and at the same time an impressive inventiveness in kneading them into Concepts. For the philosopher, as he and Guattari (1996: 2) emphasise, creates concepts—actively creates from the fodder of the world, unlike science, which tries to categorise and explain it. He seeks connections across the vast and fluctuating plane of philosophical thought, and finds delightfully original ones (Deleuze and Guattari, 1996: 90). But that, of course, is the philosopher’s job (1996: 51):

‘In the end, does not every great philosopher lay out a new plane of immanence, introduce a new substance of being and draw up a new image of thought, so that there could not be two great philosophers on the same plane? It is true that we cannot imagine a great philosopher of whom it could not be said that he has changed what it means to think. …

Those who do not renew the image of thought are not philosophers but functionaries who, enjoying a ready-made thought, are not even conscious of the problem and are unaware even of the efforts of those they claim as their models.’

To return to our original model, Descartes, who captivated us from day one of our bachelor’s degree with ‘I think,’ those fateful words that knocked us spiralling into years of doubting, probing and stipulating, we must likewise, upon casting aside our books, establish for ourselves a method. It might look look like limited but exacting principles derived from logic, geometry and algebra, it might look like rural France (since people ‘are all they can be only in temperate climates’—(Rousseau, 1991 [1762]: 52)). Descartes (2006 [1637]: 15) would never thrust his own principles on anyone else, but we might regard his example and set about deciding upon how we are going to reach this intellectual clarity, and let our own ideas flourish. For ‘it is not enough to possess a good mind; the most important thing is to apply it correctly’ (Descartes, 2006 [1637]: 5).

Deleuze, Gilles, and Félix Guattari. 1996. What Is Philosophy? Translated by Hugh Tomlinson and Graham Burchell. New York: Columbia University.

Descartes, René. 2006 [1637]. A Discourse on the Method of Correctly Conducting One’s Reason and Seeking Truth in the Sciences. Translated by Ian Maclean. Oxford: Oxford University.

Rousseau, Jean-Jacques. 1953 [1781]. The Confessions of Jean-Jacques Rousseau. Translated by J.M. Cohen. Melbourne: Penguin.

———. 1991 [1762]. Emile, or, On Education. Translated by Allan Bloom. London: Penguin Books.




Philosophy demands a certain arrogance. Clear and deep thinking requires a solid grounding in and familiarity with the thought of our forebears, as intelligent painting requires an intimate communion with painting of the past. But the type of philosophy that hovers over the past, circling like ravenous vultures, and only cautiously picking at things that have already been thought, tentatively offering patches for small tears in the fabric, or perhaps safely offering an historical overview of thinkers long deceased, is desperately timid.


This acceptable sort of philosophy, while courteous and respectful, seems to discard the real purpose of philosophy, the true inquisitive nature of it. Philosophy is a razor-sharp tool that can be turned upon the world to make incisive insights, to fundamentally change our view of it. Wittgenstein (1953: 47) says decisively and dramatically, ‘Die Philosophie ist ein Kampf gegen die Verhexung unsres Verstandes durch die Mittel unserer Sprache.’ (‘Philosophy is a battle against the bewitchment of our intelligence by means of language.’)


It’s difficult to imagine Wittgenstein diligently attending seminars on how to narrow the scope of his research questions, how to situate his small contribution among the multitudinous academic literature, how to structure his dissertation—beginning with the immovable words of some philosophical heavyweight, detailing the near impenetrable ideas and only at the end offering some humble amendments. Did Wittgenstein’s potential supervisors chide him, ‘Herr Wittgenstein, don’t be a hero’? Imagine the number of scholars who would be put out of work had Wittgenstein been deterred by advice that philosophy should not be visionary!


My philosopher friend Kim Solin (2013: 57) notes in his own dissertation that ‘there is sometimes an assertive tone in Wittgenstein’s writings, since the descriptions and objects of comparison need to be taken seriously, so that they will change the way we view things.’ Wittgenstein’s arrogance stems not exactly from disrepect or disregard for the past, but from a firm belief in how philosophy operates, and why. Unlike in science, Wittgenstein (1953: 47) is at pains to make clear, we are not proposing and testing some hypothesis with the goal of piecing together a theory. We do not need an army of lab-rats filling in gaps and completing Kant’s or Descartes’ or Hume’s ‘theories.’ Philosophy, rather, turns a light on the problems we encounter in life, be they moral problems or aesthetic problems, mathematical problems or political problems. It allows us, at a distance from the practical domain, to inspect the nature of those problems, to deepen our understanding and to help us find a new way forward:

‘We must do away with all explanation and description alone must take its place. And this description gets its power of illumination—i.e. its purpose—from the philosophical problems. … The problems are solved not by giving new information, but by arranging what we have always known.’

This healthy disrespect for restrictive academic processes is a sort of intellectual self-preservation: Solin (2013: 61) writes that it is not exactly that we lack respect, rather that ‘one should try to protect oneself from being taken into possession by [in his case] mathematics. … Showing some disrespect might just well be what is needed for that.’ The structures within academia attempt to preserve rigorous standards of thought. They prevent crackpots from publishing incoherent madness; they extend a tradition rather than permitting ruptures; they encourage common languages among scholars, rather than letting them rave unintelligibly past each other. I have nothing against this. But these firm structures should not paralyse us with fear—they should not possess us. We have something to say, and it might not only be a counter-claim. We are observing the world, too, and probing into the nature of problems. Our backgrounds—some practical, some theoretical—afford us different insights. Facing the wall of opponents we are expected to politely challenge, we feel nothing but an indescribable fatigue. Perhaps we can leave such work for others—perhaps we have some new and optimistic description to offer.

Copy after Rubens

Copy after Rubens

Of course, this does not mean the world is unbounded. We stand firmly upon the work that has gone before, we read and read, we learn to think by thinking through the thoughts of others. We set meaningful and useful parameters for our own work, we attempt to define limits. We strive after clarity and humbly keep quiet and listen when we meet an idea worth attention. Our attitude reflects Wittgenstein’s, as elucidated at the outset of his Tractatus (1963 [1921]: 7):

‘Was sich überhaupt sagen läßt, läßt sich klar sagen; und wovon man nicht reden kann, darüber muß man schweigen. Das Buch will also dem Denken eine Grenze ziehen, oder vielmehr—nicht dem Denken, sondern dem Ausdruck der Gedanken: Denn um dem Denken eine Grenze zu ziehen, müßten wir beide Seiten dieser Grenze denken können.’

(‘Anything that can be said at all, can be said clearly; and what one cannot speak about, one must keep quiet about. This book wants to draw a limit for thought, or rather—not for thought, but for the expression of thoughts: for in order to find the limits of thought we must be able to think on both sides of that border.’)

Copy after Maler

Copy after Maler

We do not deny the significance of what came before us, neither in art nor in philosophy. We do not seek to upend and discard everything and begin afresh. We only hope for enough room to advance our own ideas. We fear that, like Nelson (2010: 161), we might be forced to ‘come laden with contemporaneous references which plug up my case with footnotes, as though art were a leaky vessel, the flow of whose life-humours only art-historical paranoia can staunch.’ For we agree with Nelson (2010: 161) that ‘no number of footnotes carries as much intellectual authority as a poetic insight.’ And we do not forget that it was Wittgenstein (1963 [1921]: 7-8) himself, that revered pillar of philosophy, who brazenly commenced his work with a shamelessly visionary attitude:

‘darum gebe ich auch keine Quelle an, weil es mir gleichgültig ist, ob das was ich gedacht habe, vor mir schon ein anderer gedacht hat.’

(‘Hence I am also not providing any sources, because I am indifferent as to whether what I thought was already thought by another before me.’





Nelson, Robert. 2010. The visual language of painting: An aesthetic analysis of representational technique. Australian Scholarly Publishing: Melbourne.

Solin, Kim. 2013. The mathematician as mathematics: Theories of computation in light of Wittgenstein’s thought. Uppsala: Filosofika institutionen.

Wittgenstein. Ludwig. 1953. Philosophische Untersuchungen / Philosophical Investigations. Trans. G. E. M. Anscombe. Basil Blackwell: Oxford.

Wittgenstein, Ludwig. 1963 [1921]. Tractatus logico-philosophicus Logisch-philosophische Abhandlung. Suhrkamp.