Fiction Is the Mathematics of the Humanities
On Showing " 'A/(A-isn't-A)' is 'A/(A-isn't-A)' (without B)"
If “On ‘A Is A’ ” by O.G. Rose is correct, humanity has erected ontology and logic on a foundation that leaves humanity out and treats unique and subjective experience as if they’re non-essential. And yet subjectivity is through what ontology and logic are possible: it is the condition on which exploration can be undergone. But logic and ontologically would still exist without people, yes? Not really: things that existed wouldn’t “be” so much because there would be nothing relative to which they could “be.” Even if logic and ontology were there (whatever “there” meant), it would be meaningless and indistinguishable from nothing (meaningfully).
A logic, principle of identity, and ontology that divides itself from subjectivity divide itself from its very possibility. There is a very for real sense that when we’ve discussed traditional logic and ontology, devoid of subjectivity, we’ve discussed nothing, and yet that nothing has proven useful, suggesting there is something to it. That doesn’t mean these fields are wrong or useless, but they are incomplete, and the hope of “On ‘A is A’ ” was to outline how Aristotle’s Principle of Identity could be reformed (with a Schrödinger’s Cat-esq twist). Now, I am not going to repeat the arguments of that work here — all I want to suggest here is that literature is the mathematics of subjectivity.
There is a sense that there is something philosophical about literature even though explicitly philosophical literature is often poorly done. A hint for why is perhaps found in Zettel, point 314, where Wittgenstein said that we wrongly ‘expect[ed] an explanation, whereas the solution [was] a description’ (the point of thought is ultimately a perception, we could say).¹ Well, literature describes and shows more than tells, so assuming Wittgenstein is correct and answers are possible, the medium of literature would be through what we expected that answer would come. Don’t dance, music, and painting describe? Yes, but I think literature can “show” a unique ontology that can “give us reason” to direct ourselves into a unique practice and epistemology (of A/B, as described throughout O.G. Rose). This is because I don’t know how in dance, music, painting, glassblowing, etc. that irony, paradox, and contradiction could be depicted and understood as such, and this is central for “seeing” the nature of our ontology against (autonomous) “A is A.”²
What I am about to describe is something that shouldn’t just be described or just known as a description, so forgive me for the shortcoming. If we don’t have experience with literature, we’ll likely doubt my claims, but to “get it,” we’ll need to engage in literature ourselves and even try to write it. “The answer” cannot be explained, only shown, and more importantly, it is something we can only show ourselves. But what I hope to do is explain enough for us to recognize what we could show ourselves or what we’ve perhaps already glimpsed but perhaps haven’t fully understood. Because by definition it can’t be fully understand — that would make “the answer” an explanation versus a description — at best, it can be intuited, but the more we practice, the stronger our intuition will become. Yes, this is unfalsifiable, but I’m afraid “the answer” comes down to something that is beyond “the abstract dichotomy of true and false” seeing as it is true in experience. That doesn’t mean we can’t experience “the answer,” only that we can’t readily pass it on. We can pass on seeds that others can plant, but I cannot pass on plants.
How do we know when a story is good? This question is especially important if we’re trying to write fiction, but it’s also a good question to ask when we’re trying to read it. When we change this or that in our writing, we can feel the story tightening (that the struggles of characters become more meaningful, that the setting is fuller, etc.), but it can be hard to explain why. What is it that makes a story “tighter,” more meaningful, and/or more “moving?” Certainly, there are some obvious answers (justifying the action; increasing the stakes; making the narrative compelling; etc.), but besides these examples, I would submit that the more a work increases irony, paradox, tragedy, and nuance, the better the work becomes (basically because the work becomes more like “real life,” which is more A/B than A/A, as we’ll discuss). Readers may have to take my word for it, but if we’ve engaged in literature or creative writing deeply, I’m sure this is something we may know (we’ve “shown” it to ourselves via description, a reality that can’t “be” an explanation). Writing and reading are both acts of describing something to ourselves; if in the act of writing and reading, we enter into explaining, the “trance” breaks and the act fails (as discussed in “The Trance of Believability” by O.G. Rose). When the act succeeds, we are engaged in self-description and it might become possible for us to experience “the answer.”
Great works of literature often entail paradoxes, conflicts, and irony, and the works feel as if they are on the verge of self-annihilation. Great works transcend speech because they are stuck as experiences: we can only “point” at them. Similarly, great works can only “point” at the nature of reality, and what they point at is not “A is A,” but “A-trying-to-be-A (“a thing failing as something else”). Iago tells us that he is “not who he is,” and St. Paul tells us that “he is who he is” (because of Something beyond this world) — reality is something like Iago/Paul, sinner/saint. And when this “pointing” happens, we glance back to be sure of what we saw, only to find black marks on white paper. What’s going on? Well, to ask, “What’s going on?” is to ask a question that can only answered with a description, a sight. We can only explain what is described, even though the explanation is never the description, as a thought is never a perception (even if always trying).
As argued in O.G. Rose, the nature of human reality is “ ‘A/(A-isn’t-A)’ is ‘A/(A-isn’t-A)’ (without B),” and story is a “proof” for it (via description). This ontological situation arises because of the divide between thought and perception, which creates the divide between ideas and things (an “A is A”-idea that an “A is A”-thing is not but is known through) (it is also the divide between being and Being, but this paper will avoid that terminology). The paper “On ‘A is A’ ” by O.G. Rose tries to argue that reality is indeed more captured by the formula “ ‘A/(A-isn’t-A)’ is ‘A/(A-isn’t-A)’ (without B)” than “A is A” (while a few other papers help lay the groundwork: “Read(er),” “On a Staircase,” “Transposition,” and “On Is-ness/Meaning”). But even if the paper “On ‘A is A’ ” succeeded, the mere internal consistency of a formula alone isn’t compelling evidence to believe that reality itself reflects that formula and lives and moves accordingly: that is left to be shown. Well, fiction shows it, and discussing math might help explain how.
What makes mathematics amazing is not simply that it’s internally consistent, but that the formula “2 + 2 = 4” is useful for understanding how many apples we own. Math is constructed and yet so useful that it seems discovered, as if part of the universe itself. Einstein once said that ‘[t]he most incomprehensible thing about the universe is that it is comprehensible,’ but I don’t know if the depths of what he was getting at is always appreciated. Math is “unreasonably effective,” to allude to Eugene Wigner, for humans certainly created it (at least in one sense), yet math works as if was discovered and part of the universe itself. In fact, it works so well that there’s strong reason to believe that the universe must be intelligible in a systematic way (it’s hard to believe it could be random). For Theists, if the universe is intelligible systematically, there’s reason to believe in an Entity that made the universe a system; for Nonbelievers, perhaps it could be argued that if the universe wasn’t in fact systematically intelligible, it wouldn’t exist, and we wouldn’t be around to talk about it.
Math is “practically discovered,” meaning it is so reliable that it “might as well be” discovered versus created. In a strange way, the same holds true for fiction: when it “works” well it seems “practically discovered” versus created. As math is strange in its feeling of being discovered even if constructed, the same goes with great fiction. It’s fake yet feels real, there yet not. Great fiction, like mathematics, feels more discovered than made, as if what we construct “happens to be” something that existed all along. It’s like we come up with a creative blueprint for a house, construct it, and the moment we see it, remember we saw the same house fifty years ago, and/or a villager comes along and says the house perfectly resembles a painting hung in their home. It seems entirely coincidental that we created on our own something that we recognize nostalgically and that neighbors also recall, and yet for this coincidence to be a “mere coincidence” is so outlandish that it’s hard to fathom. And yet it’s possible.
In math and great literature, the line between “created” and “discovered” blurs so much that they seem created/discovered (like a Schrödinger’s Cat), and though we know these things are possibly created (unless perhaps God Exists), we can’t help but feel like we are drawing back the curtain of reality itself and seeing the Deepest Nature of Things. In a way, though mathematics is not a direct argument for Deeper Existence, it seems to “show” such a Deeper Existence is out there; similarly, great literature seems to be a philosophical argument for It via “showing.” For me, great literature gives us reason to believe that Deeper Existence (if it’s There) has something to do with irony and paradox, perhaps in our relating to It or perhaps in that irony is somehow essential and part of Deeper Existence. Hard to say.
If “On ‘A is A’ ” succeeds at arguing that Aristotle is incomplete in favor of “ ‘A/(A-isn’t-A)’ is ‘A/(A-isn’t-A)’ (without B),” then I believe literature provides further reason to believe that the construct is “more like” Deeper Existence, precisely because the construct entails irony and (Hegelian) paradox at the heart of (A/B) identity, and great literature that “feels” discovered entails profound irony and paradox (as someone like Harold Bloom might argue). I believe great literature “shows” what O.G. Rose argues regarding A/B, giving us even more reason to believe it, which is the best we can do when dealing with ontology, for a positivistic proof is likely impossible.
But isn’t great literature what displays and shows real life? Indeed, it is, which brings us to our next point: I believe that if we pay attention, we’d notice people’s lives are constantly filled with irony, paradox, misunderstandings, failed intentions, and other phenomena that we would expect if Aristotelian identity was incomplete. If the world was simply “A is A,” we would not expect good intention to so often arise to bad results; for the efforts of people to make their families happy actually cause unhappiness; for people to be so prone to misunderstanding and miscommunication; and so on. If things were primarily what they were, we would expect the world to be a much simpler place. Instead, things seem to primarily be what they are not, and often things are confused with what they aren’t (as is possible because of the distinction between “thinking” and “perceiving,” as elaborated on in “On Thinking and Perceiving” by O.G. Rose).
Great literature is about real life, and if great literature “works” when it is ironic, then real life is likely similarly ironic, paradoxical, and “topsy-turvy.” Irony is possible because of the space between “A being itself” and “A (simultaneously) not being itself” (between being and Being); this space causes entities to be unstable and thus prone to error, confusions, mis-intentions, and the like in their efforts to stabilize the instability. All entities exist as a mixture of perception and thinking, which makes them all on the verge of effacing themselves out of being, and yet things exist and don’t “pop out” of being randomly. For me, the fact fiction seems to “work” when it reflects a life that embodies “ ‘A/(A-isn’t-A)’ is ‘A/(A-isn’t-A)’ (without B)” is evidence to me that there is truth to the formula (even if it is ultimately incomplete somehow). We can’t be certain about much, as we learn from Karl Popper, nor can we ultimately verify, but we can gain “reason to believe” this or that based on experience. Sticking with Popper, is it falsifiable that literature provides “shown evidence” for my formula? Probably not, so please don’t take me as saying that “literature is a science,” and yet to those who read and write it what constitutes “good literature” can indeed feel scientific and/or “discovered.”
The deeper we dive into literature, the more we simply “sense” when it succeeds — as the longer we live the more we “sense” what life is like — and that often entails ironic and paradoxical dimensions. In a world where “A is A” was primary and identity similarly simple, we would expect literature and corresponding institutions to “sense” the exact opposite. No, we can’t explore alternative dimensions to prove this, but we still can find reason to believe this would be the case. It almost seems that fiction is the mathematics of higher dimensionality (involving consciousness, perception, interpretation, subjectivity, etc.), while math is the articulation of base reality (devoid of subjectivity). To take it a step further, fiction seems to be a mathematics of more human reality versus reductionistic reality: literature includes subjectivity as opposed to “bracket it out” as do sciences focused on approaching objectivity. Subjectivity annihilates itself in the presence of base reality in order to help us find useful truth, but in art and literature subjectivity focuses on itself in hopes of finding useful truth in itself (that it might partly make up but not entirely, perhaps through a glass darkly). Its another topic which would bring in Hegel, but for me this means art is more in the business of “The Absolute” than “The Truth” — but for more on this, please see my discussion with Dr. Cadell Last on “Absolute Knowledge.”
As “On Thinking and Perceiving” by O.G. Rose discusses, the act of thinking is for humans to “reduce” reality into terms they can conceptualize and live in “meaningfully.” Realities that humans can fully conceptualize cannot be fully real (for human thought is inherently limited), but that doesn’t mean thought must be totally wrong, only incomplete. In a sense, Aristotle’s “A is A” applies to thought, while my (perhaps imperfect) formulation applies to thought and perception combined. We can only conceptualize and understand reality by translating it into terms it is not and that always exists on the verge of an effacing contradiction but never quite contradicting — a paradox. And this is ironic because the only way to approach the actuality of things meaningfully is to keep ourselves from reaching them.
All meaning is thanks to a “stand in” for a thing, and so if we are living our lives meaningfully — if we try to be good friends, good spouses, good people (if we try to be someone who does something that matters) — we will be flirting with ideas and things that aren’t in the world. That doesn’t mean we will err or necessarily mess up, but it does mean “A is A” will not save us from messing up: we are not free from mistakes because “things are what they are” (even though things seem so simple). There are no “guardrails” or “bowling rails” embedded into the nature of reality that will keep us on the lane heading in the right direction: if anything, the nature of reality only adds to our confusion and tendency to confuse a bowling gutter with a bowling lane.
Everything in the world to people is unstable because we are always “toward” a reality that is there but never fully arrives.³ Since everything is “toward” what it is but never there, irony, paradox, and contradiction are possible and likely because the “problem of ever-toward-ness” is integrated into the very being of things. Literature is an effort of humanity to “show” this dilemma, I think, because speaking about it is to translate the problem into words and thoughts which must reduce the problem even further into terms it is not, thus making us even less likely to understand the problem. Literature tries to describe the problem, not explain it, though I have here tried to explain why literature can only describe the problem, and to posture that, when literature is “great” and “works,” it describes and “shows” the reality that we would expect to arise more so out of “ ‘A/(A-isn’t-A)’ is ‘A/(A-isn’t-A)’ (without B)” versus “A is A.”
If our goal was to write a “non-reductionist philosophy,” we would have to write literature (which is to say that we might have been trained by philosophy, in disregarding literature, to end up in reductionism). Literature generally attempts to “show” instead of “tell,” and the moment we tell people how the world works, we have translated all the overlapping dimensions of life—feelings, experiences, interpretations, intersubjective interaction, etc.—into basically linguistical information. Telling you, “I am sad,” is not the same as you finding me in my bedroom crying, and if I want to better approach “the full scene” of my sadness in words, I will require description and gradually move in the direction of writing literature. I must, and if life in its fullness entails emotions, experiences, subjective interpretations, and the like, then arguably for philosophy to move in the direction of literature is for it to become more real, not less, and if in so doing this philosophy cannot avoid being ironic, paradoxical, and overall A/B, then all the more reason to conclude that A/B is “more real” than A/A.
If “the medium is the message,” as McLuhan put it, and the medium of reality is ironic, then the message must be ironic to “fit.” Thus, if literature, jokes, philosophy, theology, and any thought or action that hopes to “trace out” reality is to be good, it too must be ironic (irony and “true quality” correlate). If “A is A,” irony shouldn’t be possible, but the fact it is means “A is A” is not necessarily false but incomplete. Irony exists because conscious humans exist, and from us irony, paradox, and contradiction can spread across the universe. If God is the source of everything that is, we are the source of everything that isn’t and everything that’s trying to be.
In closing, irony is a ‘rupture of reality [that] disclose[s] or at least [suggests]’ an ontology that makes irony possible, but problematically irony is not a formula but an experience.⁴ Admittedly, this paper fails to provide strong arguments; instead, it appeals to “senses” and “what is shown,” and in that regard it is a weak philosophical work. I cannot prove what it argues, only suggest a possibility, for we are trying to speak about something that can only be “shown” (and yet I may just be saying that to protect myself for speaking nonsense — you decide).
It is possible to prove things formulaically that aren’t ultimately true, which is to say “coherence” and “correspondence” don’t necessarily have to relate. Thus, for my “ ‘A/(A-isn’t-A)’ is ‘A/(A-isn’t-A)’ (without B)” to be more grounded, experience is needed. I believe literature is a catalogue of supporting experiences and “common life” to allude to Hume (which all philosophy must ultimately appeal to in order to avoid becoming “bad philosophy,” as Hume discusses). However, such “shown” arguments will not be convincing to those who observe life differently, and perhaps those who believe they have noticed the nature of life properly are delusional.⁵ At the end of the day, we all must make our choices and take a “leap of faith,” and I personally will leap on the side of “A is A” being incomplete and ending up in Hegel.
¹Allusion to Wittgenstein, as found in The Fragility of Goodness by Martha Nussbaum. New York, NY: Cambridge University Press, 1991: 23.
²Please note though that other forms of knowing will uniquely help show other “ways,” so I don’t mean to suggest a hierarchy; for one, the artforms are critical to describe “Bringing It Forth” — but what I mean by that must be described elsewhere.
³To use Heideggerian language, being is always “toward” Being (because of being’s very self), and then being must feel like it should try to reach Being and overcome itself (similar to how thought can make us feel like we should overcome the reductionistic essence of thought, as thought cannot).
⁴Berger, Peter. A Far Glory. New York, NY: The Free Press, 1992: 131.
⁵A reason we are ironic and paradoxical is because we are beings of becoming who can only understand ourselves in terms of being, because the mind is “low order” and we are “high order” (to allude to “Experiencing Thinking” by O.G. Rose). We must use a tool to understand ourselves that must always be outdated and trying to catchup. We must be failures (and, perhaps, to use Christian language, sinners) and the world comes down with us. But not all failures are equal.
1. With “Deconstructing Common Life” by O.G. Rose in mind, literature seems naturally opposed to “autonomous reasoning,” and this might be why there is a natural aversion to philosophical text or characters who throw out philosophical speeches versus sparingly make philosophical points. This especially holds true for philosophy that removes irony and paradox from the lives of characters, because then this presents us with a world in which “autonomous reasoning” can work without unintended consequences — the text suggests that we can “totalize” the world without losing the actual world in the process. This simply isn’t true to life, and good literature attempts to be true to life, whatever life might be.
That said, I’m still critical of what to me feels like a “knee jerk”-reaction against the presence of ideas and philosophy in literature. Critiques and readers almost seem trained to reject a book the second they detect deep reflection, and I think this can be just as problematic as sacrificing literature for philosophy. We need literature to take the whole “philosophical journey,” not stop midway. We need reflection embedded in a “common life,” not just a common life or just a philosophy, but our tendency seems to be to fall in one ditch or the other.
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