Greetings from the Far Side of the Moon

It has been over two months since I have seen any massage clients. I have barely left the house: picking up a pizza once a week, taking walks in the nearby arroyo, practicing Tai Chi Chuan. Many are in the same boat. Others are forced to continue working at essential jobs, bravely bearing the risk that entails. There is no way for me to practice my profession of eleven years remotely. I do teach chess lessons online, which adds a little structure to my days. I talk to my adult children on the phone, keep up a little with some long-term clients. Living with my girlfriend, her daughter and our dogs means I am not too lonely. Life during the pandemic has been mostly relaxing and physically healing. Earlier this year I was complaining that my vigorous massage practice was taking a toll on my body and mental energy. I am actually grateful for the downtime. Somewhat.

Over the past few days I struggled with the decision of whether to resume my practice or wait another month. As of yesterday my state is allowing massage therapists to see clients as long as we conform to a set of COVID-safe procedures. In April the models were predicting that the first wave would have passed by now, but while the trends of the past few weeks have been good, the virus is still almost as prevalent in the community as it was at the peak. The models now predict that the tapering of cases we were supposed to see by May 18 will not occur until early July. With reopening taking place now (early June) combined with mass protests and social unrest, it seems quite possible we will see a resurgence within a few weeks. So I made the painful and costly decision to delay. I had to cancel about forty appointments yesterday, with personal emails sent to each client to explain my decision. They took it well, and most have already booked appointments for July and August.

So now begins what I hope will be the final thirty days of a three-and-a-half month hiatus. It has been excruciating. For a quarter of a century beginning in the 1980s I either worked in offices or as a professional accompanist. I loved my work, but I often found the culture of touch deprivation left me feeling like a vaporous spirit. Was the world real or only virtually real? I didn’t realize the degree to which I am tactile. I need physical touch to know that I really exist. Going to massage school and becoming a professional massage therapist gave me a “license to touch.” The structure of the profession and the ethical training I received has made it so that my daily immersion in a world of healing touch is safe and healthy. I have helped a lot of people. I enjoy the one-on-one conversations. Over the past eleven years I have gotten to know some clients very well: I’ve heard their life stories. I have accompanied them through births, deaths, illnesses, career changes, marriages and divorces. Most of all I know how their life experiences and challenges affect their bodies. It is an honor and a privilege to be an important part of their lives. Imagine what it has been like for me to be sequestered in a virtual house arrest for two-and-a-half months!

Presupposed Values

In previous posts I emphasized that language games are necessarily finite, so they must make unquestioned use of certain background facts — among which are ‘values’, the inherent worth of certain things — in order to focus on the issues in play. Not to do so would lead to an endless cascade of preliminary meta-discussions interrogating every presupposition, running the risk of never getting to the topic at hand. (Plato’s dialogues offer many examples of language games falling backwards ad infinitum.) Here I offer a few more examples of language games and the presupposed values that are implicit in them.

  • A buyer and seller haggling over price at a farmer’s market.
    Presupposed values: the worth of money, the saleability of the produce, voluntary transactions, property rights, free market.
    In play: the factors affecting the value of produce, pros and cons of this particular produce, other opportunities available to both buyer and seller.
  • An internal auditor presenting findings and discussing recommended resolutions in a bank audit.
    Presupposed values: the rule of law, shareholder value, public reputation, performance evaluations (and the desirability of continued employment), effectiveness of internal controls.
    In play: the validity of specific findings, the effectiveness of particular remedies, the relative importance of various findings, the cost and practicality of specific remedies, fault-finding and blame.
  • Chapter in a chess manual about the Ruy Lopez opening.
    Presupposed values: playing chess itself worthwhile, being good at playing the opening in chess, durability into the middle- and end-game of opening advantages, validity of examples from games of masters.
    In play: soundness of specific lines, validity of this particular analysis, current assessments of key positions (opinions of top players), practical playability of specific lines.
  • Job interview.
    Presupposed values: good to have a job, looking good to the other party, compensated work, learning about each other, freedom to say “no,” looking for good fit.
    In play: honesty of both parties, appropriateness of fit, relevance and quality of specific items on resume, anticipated job duties of this position, personal qualifications and character.
  • Working out at the gym with a personal trainer.
    Presupposed values: fitness and health, avoiding injury, benefits of exercise, looking good, voluntary participation, professionalism, collaboration.
    In play: appropriateness of specific exercise for this client at this time, effort level, strategic goals and plan, etc.

The reader could have easily come up with these, and can no doubt come up with countless additional examples on their own. However, I hope these examples make it clear what I mean by “presupposed values”: they are not under discussion in the particular language game being played at the moment. To discuss them means stepping into a “meta” language game outside and prior to the current one.

I don’t believe it is possible to play a language game without the existence of presupposed values. For example, imagine the following statement in the blog of a person committed to “science and reason”: “Since this is a discussion based on science and reason, every effort will be made to keep statements ‘values-neutral’ and objective.” The irony is that the writer has just stated a value: specifically the value of “‘values-neutral’ and objective statements in a discussion committed to science and reason.” Nothing at all wrong here, except to point out that there is no “values-free.”

Examples of Language Games

It is important to understand that “language games” are not just linguistic constructs: they involve human players interacting in a real world. The meanings of words and sentences are inextricably tied to intentions, actions, and formal rituals. Some simple examples.

  • In an operating room the surgeon holds out his hand and says “clamp.” An assistant places a clamp into his hand.
  • In a traffic stop I roll down my window when the officer indicates for me to do so. She asks, “Do you know why I stopped you today?”
  • Two people stand before an ordained minister in a room full of people. The minister begins, “We are gathered here today to witness the coming together of these two people…”
  • A new client comes to my office and fills out an intake form. I ask if they need anything (implying restroom, water) before we go back to the treatment room. We sit and discuss the information they provided on the form and discuss treatment options before starting the massage session. (Much more on this in later posts.)
  • A chess player moves Qh8+ and says, “Draw?” The other player nods in agreement, and they shake hands.

These are snippets of larger language games. General-use words from our language will take on very specific meanings within the game being played. In the examples above we see the words ‘clamp’, ‘stop’, ‘witness’, ‘form’, and ‘draw’, all of which might indicate something else entirely in another situation. There is no confusion in the context, because everyone knows which language game is being played at the moment.

But when participants in a language game happen to disagree on which language game is operative at a given moment the results can range from merely comical to utterly tragic.

The Language Game

Much can be said — and has been said — about the so-called “linguistic turn” in philosophy. For me it just signifies an overt recognition that all philosophic inquiry is constrained by the limits of language. The Buddha made the distinction between the moon we can each see, and a finger pointing at the moon. Language is the “finger” which essentially says “hey, look at the moon.” Once you see the moon, I can lower my hand, as it is no longer necessary. Philosophical discourse has as its aim the goal of seeing the moon together. The body of literature known as “Philosophy” is just an audit trail of the effort to come to see “what is” in a way that is satisfactory to both of us, at which point we can leave off until another day.

Did you notice what I did in the previous paragraph? I used language to talk about philosophy in general terms. I painted a word-picture of the process of doing philosophy and invited you to see it with me. If you bought into it, great. It was a linguistic exercise which required the imagination of both the writer and the reader to flesh out the intended meaning. It was “meta-philosophy” — philosophizing about philosophy itself. It was a “language game.”

Ludwig_WittgensteinThe idea of philosophy as a language game comes from Ludwig Wittgenstein. Language games, for Wittgenstein, are more than just linguistic constructs: they also include players, moves, rituals, physical reality, etc. The scientific method carried out in a chemistry lab, for example, is a language game. The scientists, apparati, chemicals, procedures, data — even the scientific theories — are all part of the game. The “scientific method” structures the playing of the game, which has as its goal the pursuit of scientific knowledge. Even the notion of “scientific knowledge” is a linguistic construct that helps structure the game. The overall process of what goes on in a chemistry lab is a perfect example of a language game. Many parts of the game are not linguistic in nature (people, chemicals, beakers), but they are every bit as essential to the “game” as the linguistic elements.

To say that Philosophy is comprised of language games (and nothing more) is to “make the linguistic turn.” At the end of the day there are people, chess boards, moons, and beakers — these things exist. But when it comes to answering the question “what is Philosophy,” we are left with what we can say about what we can say about such things.