Thinking in Latvia

25 April 2006
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The question "Why do you go to Latvia so often?" triggers American philosopher Jason Potter to reflect upon his motives. His answer: "I come to Latvia to think." But what is it about Latvia that makes it so congenial to thinking? Could it be the holiday atmosphere? The good friends, long conversations, and vodka? Or is it the endless, Latvian winter? All of these come together, says Potter, "jolting me inward at that thing I call myself and outward to others in a state less tinged by the careless creep of familiarity. I take you seriously. You respond in kind. What better reason to go anywhere?"

In the predawn hours of New Year’s Day, cosy, jet-lagged, hungover from an excess of good company, food, and duty-free Irish whiskey, I was nagged awake by a question, a question a stranger asked just before I boarded the plane for Riga. “Why do you go to Latvia so often?” It is not a question anyone asks when you say you are going to Paris, or London, or Helsinki, or Beijing. Apparently, there are places people naturally go, destinations that raise no perplexity in the common mind. And then there are those other destinations for which you must have some personal, professional, or metaphysical reason to visit. I am always slightly insulted when people talk this way. It is very like the way they respond when I tell them I work in philosophy, an activity whose point is in as much need of explanation as one’s desire to visit a small country on the edge of what-seems-proper. It is a reaction that virtually announces how small the world can be, and how poorly I fit in. But perhaps my own world is tinier than I want to admit, and this time I was not really insulted so much as made curious. Indeed, why do I visit Latvia whenever I can? Moments before, bleary and half-awake, I had been trying to decide whether you could grasp the Pythagorean Theorem simply by observing various squares you could construct on paper from the sides of a single triangle, or would need something not apparent in the shapes to grasp it, and then the simple answer to the stranger’s question shot up: I come to Latvia to think.

As if that cleared things up! If my question about the Pythagorean Theorem was hard, this was so much worse. I can, without risk of exaggeration, assert that no one knows what thinking is, and this for two reasons. First, no one knows (uncontroversially) what it is to know something, and therefore, second, while there are many theories of what thinking is, no one yet knows which of these, if any, is true. Now, let me concede that I hate this kind of argument, one that proceeds by exploiting the difficulties afflicting the serious efforts of others to get at the truth of something. But right now I am not arguing. To the contrary, I am merely admitting my own failure. If someone does know what it is to know anything (and I am familiar with many, if not all contenders), I myself have failed to see that they are right. Maybe I have yet to meet them(!) But if I come to Latvia to think, it would be useful for me to have at least some idea what that is.

Unfortunately, most of our talk about thinking has been by way of analogy, and as I insist whenever criticized for the quality of my own, all analogies are bad. In the Theatetus, Plato considers that thinking is perception plus a function like taking impressions in wax, then later in the same dialogue, he proposes that rather this function is like catching birds in an aviary. Charles Sherrington said it was like an enchanted loom where “millions of flashing shuttles weave a dissolving pattern, always a meaningful pattern, though never an abiding one”. Surely thinking is what thinking beings do that nonthinking beings do not. Thus thinking might be as Aristotle thought, the behaviour of an animal whose actions are guided by a “rational principle”, or maybe it is just the behavior of a brain, as Sherrington said. Since early modern philosophy began (with Descartes) there have been “internalists” for whom thinking has been treated as a relation between two private objects, one of which is active (the “mind”) and directed at the other (“mental content”). But there are also externalists like Wittgenstein, for whom thinking is the external behaviour of something whose inner-workings are unknown to us (his famous “beetle in a box”).

Unfortunately, none of these views about thinking, or about the activities of mind, seems to offer any clues about why my thinking is stimulated when I am in Latvia. Presumably, aviaries, enchanted looms, boxed beetles, and all the rest will do whatever they are doing regardless of the setting in which they find themselves. I think we will have to resolve to accept my situation: that while I do not know what thinking is, I do know when I am thinking and so can observe how that activity interacts with things going on around it. Luckily, this means I can go ahead and think about why I find it easier to think in Latvia without really knowing what the hell I mean by “thinking” in the ontological or metaphysical sense. From now on, we are talking about thinking in the ordinary sense… in the sense you use when you say to anyone, “I’m sorry, but I don’t think that is so” or “I was thinking about what you said and it really pisses me off.” In this enterprise, you will just have to trust my observational skills (or stop reading… of course, I recommend the latter).

Now I know perfectly well that one way I am able to think is to be situated where practical demands on me are few. So, I can do more thinking when I am a) not teaching, b) not publishing, c) not writing, d) not working on a computer 10 hours a day, or e) offering material assistance to friends, lovers, acquaintances, and family. In other words, I can do more thinking when I am on vacation, and whenever I am in Latvia, I am mostly on vacation. But if this were the only reason for coming to Latvia, it would be an equally good reason to go to Belize, or China, or for that matter, to rent a cabin without a telephone in the mountains above my home in Boulder, Colorado.

Could it be that I do more thinking in Latvia because I have so many friends here? In particular, if philosophers are right to connect thinking to language and specifically to conversation, then it would make sense that I come to Latvia because I know so many mad dog philosophers here, people who would rather talk for 10 hours than sleep or eat (and although drinking seems to have a certain equivalency to talk, I cannot compare talk and booze because whenever I am talking here I am usually also drinking). Leaving aside the possibility that I come to Latvia to drink (I can also go to Ireland for that), there is no question that my several thoughtful Latvian friends are one reason I come here with thinking in mind. You cannot think alone (and anyone who says otherwise is a liar).

While this is close to answering my original question, there is something missing. After all, I have friends at home who do this sort of thing, and would be very glad if I took a vacation in place and just spent more time talking with them. What else makes Latvia so salient in my own thinking about thinking? It surely has to do with the fact that so often I visit here in winter. Winter is good for thinking, much better than summer. And the Latvian winter, with its endless heavy twilight and cold, drives one inward to places familiar to thinking, to drinking, to all those productive solitary states of mind from which so many interesting ideas and conversations spring. That, and the unavoidable disorientation of being where I do not quite belong, create a sort of Latvian “koan effect”, jolting me inward at that thing I call myself and outward to others in a state less tinged by the careless creep of familiarity. I take you seriously. You respond in kind. What better reason to go anywhere?

That’s what I think this afternoon, anyway. With my friend next door, vodka in the freezer, and the light dimming outside, the prospects are good.

Published 25 April 2006

Original in English
First published in Rigas Laiks 3/2006 (Latvian version)

Contributed by Rigas Laiks
© Jason Potter/Rigas Laiks Eurozine

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