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I Am

by Zettel 

Posted: 07 January 2018
Word Count: 240

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I Am
I am footprints in the snow
gone with the next onset of rain
Only memory then will know
I was here until it snows again
And then one day no foot will tread
no mark, no sign of presence made
So I must leave no words unsaid
No doubts unstilled, no debts unpaid
I am days of love; and all the years between
Lover, husband, father, friend
drawn to find out how words mean
our form of life to comprehend
This I know; first is deed, not idea
Action, choice, to be; not just pretend
To trust the truth of passion. To say - I am here
Struggle also honours means not just ends
I am as much what I say, as what I do
Thought transcends nerve, and cell, and blood
dare to face, embrace the new
to seek, if not always find, the good
All minds are other: our hearts must reach
To listen, hear, connect; language serves
My heart my restless mind must teach
to accept with grace, what deeds deserve
I am never all that I should be
But as life’s circles move me on
Grandfather now, I begin to see
It is we, not me, that makes all one
Love is letting go, not holding fast
If we cage the wild bird for too long
her love of freedom will not last
Dare to live, dare to doubt, when I am gone

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Comments by other Members

James Graham at 21:10 on 09 January 2018  Report this post
Apologies again for not commenting sooner. You are next in the queue!


Zettel at 07:35 on 10 January 2018  Report this post
No probs James. No rush. 


James Graham at 20:35 on 11 January 2018  Report this post
I find this poem, at least in parts, quite difficult, and I think I need some clarification from you before commenting further. First of all, some strengths which the poem undoubtedly has. I like the way you have merged the personal and the philosophical – quite naturally for you, I suppose, as you are a philosopher. Your footprints in the snow idea works very well: to represent the ‘mark’ we make in our lives, or the impact we have or hope to have on those around us, as footprints in the snow is telling. The footprints are not only transient, their passing is determined by the seasons; and this evokes a preoccupation which we tend to develop as we get older: how many more seasons will I see? And I like the conclusion you reach:
So I must leave no words unsaid
No doubts unstilled, no debts unpaid

Words of reassurance, and words of encouragement – especially to the young – are some of the words we must say. It may not be possible to resolve every doubt, but we must try. Debts in the usual sense, credit cards and mortgages, will probably not be fully paid, but debts of other kinds, to people who have helped or supported us in friendship, can be ‘paid’. I suppose the rest of the poem says some of the things that must be said, though of all its wise precepts the one I like best is in the last line:
Dare to live, dare to doubt, when I am gone

Now, I said I need clarification. In the following lines, I understand the idea that what we do, and the choices we make, are more important than what we think or even talk about; but you lose me in saying we must ‘not just pretend/ To trust the truth of passion’. I wish I could say what it is that doesn’t get through to me, but I’m at a loss. Maybe when you explain it will seem obvious.
This I know; first is deed, not idea
Action, choice, to be; not just pretend
To trust the truth of passion.

In that ‘first is deed, not idea’ I wonder if there is by any chance a reference to Gerard Manley Hopkins, who writes in one of his most famous poems that every mortal being:
Selves - goes itself, myself it speaks and spells,
Crying What I do is me: for that I came."

I understand that this is derived from Duns Scotus, though in what sense exactly I don’t know.

The other lines which puzzle me – and again I can’t say why and will have to depend on you – are these:
                        language serves
My heart my restless mind must teach
to accept with grace, what deeds deserve

I always feel I need to understand a poem as fully as possible before suggesting any revisions. So I look forward to your reply.


Zettel at 02:40 on 21 January 2018  Report this post
Hey James

Thanks for your comments. Sorry about the delay in respnding but I made a start on trying to indicate the philosophical basis of the  stanzas you mention and as has happened in the past, like 'Topsy' is grew and grew. And I promised myslf last time that I would not produc another screed 10 times longer than the poem it was about.

So as briefly as I can: 'who' we are I guess is some kind of conflation, weave, balance between what we think and what we feel. Each 'force' informs the other and life is I suppose a constant resonance between them: perhaps like the notes, chords and keys of the music and the sounds, the harmonies and disharmonies they produce. Parallel: the words we use and the meaning they express. I am what I say and what I say expresses my response to the world and the people in it. Traditional philosophy saw thought as language-dependent and in turn saw language arising from reason; from the mind and this was something inner, private, resting upon representations of the outside world that we then compared with what we say and feel and when we made that connection correctly we got truth and when wrong, falsity. Thus our consciousness was seen as essentially reason driven and language itself was rooted in reason and a rational, logical connection between mental ideas and thoughts. This raised all kinds of philosophical perplexity: not least an idea like Chomsky's that this worked because 'language' was hard-wired into our brains and because we are esentially wirde the same, we can share a common language. Reason, thought drives language.

Wittgenstein tipped this on its head and said to undertsand language, how words mean, we must look at how it arises and develops; and having first thought, like Chomsky, that lanaguage was founded on some fundemental deep structure, he eventually concluded that to inderstand how words come to men what they mean we must look first at how they are used. Understanding how they are used requires us to look at how they function in our lives; in our daily customs and practices: and in turn understanding what those customs and practices in turn 'mean' requires us to look at the culture, the social groups within which those practices have a role. Hence his dictum about langusage that 'meaning is use'. To understand how the same words can have very different meanings in different situations we must first examine and understand the contexts, situations, in order to see the different roles the words play in them.

I don't know if this is making any sense but both for the inner thinking experience account and for the social interaction account the fundmental question is how does this process (of language acquisition) start?  How do we make the 'connection' between the word 'in here' and the world 'out there'?. Simplistically how do you point at 'blue' so you can name it? Even if you could do that then how do you point at 'colour' rather than 'blue'? And all kinds of very boring pointless argument in Philosophy derive from this way of thinking: not least how do we know this or that thing, concept exists? How do I know that what I experience when I talk of a pain that I am having the same kind of experience as you when you talk of pain and if I can't how can I 'mean' the same thing by it?. And if they have to be the 'same' experience how do we know that without comparing the experiences - and how could we do that? Wittgenstein said we cannot explain anything in the world unless there just are things that are 'given': that cannot in themselves be explained because they are the common foundation of experience upon which any explanation has to rest. Thus: we can develop language about colour and colours, only because as a 'given' a contingent matter of fact,  most human beings do respond to what we now describe as different 'light wavelengths' in the 'same' way. In turn we can only identify some people as 'colour-blind' because they are the exception to this general given fact about human visual perception. The same foundational considerations ar necessary for the practices of measuring weight, distance, temperature. Thus we can acquire, learn and share language meaninfully only because when we do things act in and on the world our responses and judgements contingently do agree.

Thus we don't first understand the world by using the same words, concepts to describe it: we learn the possibilities of what words can mean by having same or similar instinctive responses to a world that simply displays certain consistencies that if they were significantly different could make a common description  of them impossible. Thus we don't fundamentally learn to understand the world by acquiring a shared language with which we describe it: rather how we first experience the world, act upon, respond to it is how we can develop a shared language with which then to develop and enrich our understanding and exploration of it. ('In the beginning was the deed' - Goethe).

Many will see the square root of bugger-all difference in these two conceptions but when you extend them into neuroscience, psychology and therapy, sociology etc etc you find that they lead in very different directions in terms of where you look and what counts as an 'explanation'. One fundamental consequence is that 'self', identity', 'consciousness' even 'individuality' begin from our experience as 'social animals'.

There i've done it again. Apologies. If this makes any kind of sense then the constant interaction between thought and feeling, mind and body, freedom and necessity are both what we are and most imporantly what we can choose to be. If it's not too fanciful: we may make a guitar, learn musical notation, chords and keys, respond in differnt ways to the sounds that we can make it emit but the melody has to be created, it is down you and me. And sometimes we are better at it than others and sometimes others are better at it than we are.

I trust I make myself obscure? Sorry: but this may be the best I can do. But thanks for the question anyway. As you can see I find it sort of interesting.



James Graham at 21:42 on 23 January 2018  Report this post
Hello Zettel – Far from making yourself obscure, you make yourself very clear. The test of that is I think I can understand it - I usually struggle with Philosophy, only a little less so than with Maths. Those parts of the brain don’t function very well.

As an undergraduate in English Language and Literature I was taught Chomsky’s theory of language as if it were Holy Writ. Now, the simple dictum ‘Language is use’ rings much more true. I don’t know if this is in line with what you’re saying, or what Wittgenstein thought, but I go back to the earliest humans, who developed language because they found they could. They discovered that the tongue, lips, palate etc could be used to make a huge variety of sounds. Maybe to that extent it was something innate, but beyond that it was a matter of use. Encountering several wild creatures such as deer, ox, wild dog, they found it was useful – vital, even – to use different sounds, i.e. different words, to indicate which they meant. Similarly with wild plants, in which case an even greater variety of words would be needed, including (based on bitter experience) a word for ‘poison’. They used language in ways that are not dissimilar to the way they used stone axes or spears. It was an essential tool.

Sorry, this is all I’ve time for tonight. I've had a busy few days. More time tomorrow, and more to be said.


James Graham at 21:15 on 24 January 2018  Report this post
On some of the other points you make: I’m glad to read that you dismiss certain ideas as ‘very boring pointless argument’. For instance, the question ‘How do we know that anything exists?’ If we’re talking about colours, or pain, or rocks, grass, water, the Moon etc etc, they just simply exist. They are there. If I see or feel the water flowing in a river, it’s the same thing that you see or feel. Blue is blue – you see the same colour that I see. Even when it comes to pain, I can’t feel your pain and you can’t feel mine, but that doesn’t puzzle me at all. I believe – I take it for granted – that someone else’s pain is very like my own. It’s unnecessary to ask how we know such things exist. Is it possible that some philosophers ask certain questions playfully? ‘Let’s put this question and see where it takes us.’

I haven’t read much philosophy, but having always been interested in politics I’ve read (or attempted to read) political theory, e.g. Adorno, Benjamin, Sartre. Most of it seems to me to exist on a different dimension to the real world, having no point of contact with real people’s concerns or the practical business of organising society. If I were to write a book on politics it would come to a simple conclusion: the first priority of all political activity must be the wellbeing of all citizens. And if some citizens are having to go to food banks every week while Jeff Bezos, founder of Amazon, becomes the first individual in history whose personal fortune exceeds $100 billion, the first priority of politics must be to find ways of getting hold of at least 90% of that money and putting it into patient care, education and support for the unemployed. But political theory sails on, across an ocean of abstraction, never making landfall in the real world. Now, I’m not qualified to say that philosophy is like that – from what you say about Wittgenstein it seems he for one is grounded in the world and not floating somewhere in the stratosphere.

Well, I too can go on a bit when I get started! Anyway, these were my thoughts on reading your last comment. They take us a long way from your poem, and I’m afraid I don’t feel qualified to suggest revisions to the philosophical stanzas, though I understand them better than I did at first. All I can say is that you can practise self-criticism by asking yourself whether there are any lines or passages which might puzzle an intelligent reader, and then try to clarify them if necessary. This is easier said than done, but it might prove a worthwhile exercise. If you produce an alternative version of a stanza which doesn’t satisfy you, then the original is of course still there.

You end your last comment by saying ‘I find it sort of interesting’. Well, I find it sort of interesting too. Sorry I can’t help in a more practical way with the poem.


Zettel at 01:29 on 25 January 2018  Report this post
Thanks as ever James for your your thoughtful and supportive comments. You are very much in line with the direction of Wittgenstein's thinking. He rejected utterly the historic philosophical view that it was the philosophers role to explain the way things are, the way the world is: that perspective was represented over centuries by what came to be known as metaphysics. His view was that Philosphy's task was solely to describe, with utmost rigour, not to explain. Those who are dissatisfied with this, which includes many philosophers fail to appreciate how illuminating increasingly rigorous description can be. Equally many philophers felt that 'ordinary' language, the language we actually use to conduct and share our lives, was imperfect, because say it lacked precision, or contained ambiguities, open-ended, undefined allusions and resonances. Whenever language did not emulate the defined precision of scientific lanaguage it was held to be imperfect, lacking, unsatisfactory in some way. Well all these qualities of ordinary language so denigrated pretty much form the essence of poetry, of dramatic art, of the novel. Of course for objective precision, rigorous standards of what it is to know  something, science is an exemplar.  But as human beings, in daily relationship to one another: ambiguity, nuance, uncertainty, doubt, allusion, resonance, etc etc are the among the most precious qualities of human interaction of which Art in all its forms is perhaps the most precious.

From his final philosophical perspective, and he went through the whole process of being entranced by the idea of certainty and precision, Wittgenstein cherished and celebrated certainly more than any other philosopher, the miracle of language within which yes obfuscation, deceit, manipulaton stand side by side with a passion for the truth, a love of beau a respect not just for what mankind is, but its aspiration for what it might become. Often wrongly accused of being an enemy of science, his only real opposition was to the gandiose, inflated claims of scientists and their tendency to a blind reductionism of everything to a physical, causal necessity. That he was right in this in clear when one considers that just like the philosopher, in the end the scientist is driven to metaphor to express the seemingly inexpressible. I have heard the 'BIg Bang' described thus:"An explosion not in time, but of time; of space but not in space." Whatever this sentence means, it is pretty clear that it is different in kind, not mere degree, from say a statement of Boyles or Ohm's law in Physics. It is poetic and metaphorical, and all the better for that; but it is not strictly 'scientific' in the sense of the critical standards of measurable clarity and precision considered essential to the norms of scientific language.

Enriching his precept that the meaning of words and lanaguage is to be found in their use. Wittgenstein created the idea of a 'language game' where the intentions and purposes of the speaker(s) affected how their use of lanaguage was to be understood; and  in turn, the kinds of shared customs and practices within which people utilised such language, themselves could only be understood by the 'forms of life', cultural contexts if you will, within which the purpose of these uses of language could be intelligible and make sense. This conception for example transformed Anthropology and ended the absurdity of chair-bound thinkers like Frazer (In the Golden Bough) who reduced the customs and practices of cultures they did not understand to naive, ignorant examples of 'bad science'.

If we should all perhaps be silenced in wonder and awe at the world around us: nothing induces these feelings more in Philosophers who are persuaded by Wittgesnein's passionate perspective, than the 'miracle' of language.

Thanks as ever for the comments and the discussion. I wish the poem that provoked them deserved them more.



James Graham at 21:22 on 26 January 2018  Report this post
The more you tell me about Wittgenstein the more interested I become. So with a view to reading some of his work, I’ll begin with Grayling’s Very Short Introduction. I’ve read very little philospophy, not much besides a selection of the writings of Seneca, which appeals to me because I think if I have any inkling of a philosophy of my own it would be Stoicism. But you make Wittgenstein very inviting.

Zettel at 01:03 on 27 January 2018  Report this post
Hope you find him interesting. To get a sense of the way he writes which is unlike any other philosopher; a very intersting book to dip into is Culture and Value -not sustained philosophical argument but snippets of ideas. He only actually published one book in his lifetime - Tractatus, Logico philosophicus in 1920 thisis a very techncal book in many ways for that when he was persuadded of the fundmental structure, quasi-atomic reductionsit view oflanagugae which he was later to reject. But if you are in a library or bookshop dip into the last (6.0 onwards) section of the Tractatus, or Culture and Value (edited by my Professor Peter Winch) you may find the compelling way he uses lanaguage engaging.

Wittgenstein wrote many of his ideas down on pieces of papers, scraps; and after his death his executors gathnjerd these all together and carefully assembled them in some kind of coherent order of related ideas and published them under the title 'Zettel' (which is German for scrap fo paper). I likes the idea of snippets of ideas and hence .....



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