The light dove cleaving in free flight the thin air, whose resistance it feels, might imagine that her movements would be far more free and rapid in airless space. Just in the same way did Plato, abandoning the world of sense because of the narrow limits it sets to the understanding, venture upon the wings of ideas beyond it, into the void space of pure intellect. He did not reflect that he made no real progress by all his efforts; for he met with no resistance which might serve him for a support, as it were, whereon to rest, and on which he might apply his powers, in order to let the intellect acquire momentum for its progress. It is, indeed, the common fate of human reason in speculation, to finish the imposing edifice of thought as rapidly as possible, and then for the first time to begin to examine whether the foundation is a solid one or no. Arrived at this point, all sorts of excuses are sought after, in order to console us for its want of stability, or rather, indeed, to enable Us to dispense altogether with so late and dangerous an investigation.
Two more related quote. The first one is from Franz Kafka and is taken from The Zürau Aphorisms of Franz Kafka (translated by Geoffrey Brocks and Michael Hofmann, New York: Schocken Books, §1):
The true path is along a rope, not a rope suspended way up in the air, but rather only just over the ground. It seems more like a tripwire than a tightrope.
The second one is from Ludwig Wittgenstein and is taken from his Philosophical Investigations (tr. by G.E.M. Anscombe, P.M.S. Hacker and Joachim Schulte, revised fourth edition, Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell, 2009, §114):
“The general form of propositions is: This is how things are.” ― That is the kind of propositions one repeats to oneself countless times. One thinks that one is tracing nature over and over again, and one is merely tracing round the frame through which we look at it.
• • •
The knowing subject often complains about various obstacles preventing him from firmly grasping the object of knowledge. He complains about the arduous and tortuous path he’s therefore forced to take in order to reach the destination he once chose for himself (or so he thinks). In doing so, he forgets that this very resistance is precisely what allows him to stand, that the path is as important as the journey (as it has become a cliché to point out) and that the only things he could possibility grasp with some firmness are his own beliefs.
If the object of knowledge is constantly fleeing in front of him, the knowing subject could come to the realization that fleeing is in the nature of this object. Instead of relentlessly trying to capture it once and for all, the conditions which allow it to flee could be studied. There’s always something to explain. If he can’t possess it, he’ll always have the possibility to enjoy its loss. Thus I have come to believe that epistemology has something to do with melancholy.
[UPDATE–January 17, 2013] Where I write of melancholy, Simon Critchley writes of disappointment:
Philosophy does not begin in an experience of wonder, as ancient tradition contends, but rather, I think, with the indeterminate but palpable sense that something desired has not been fulfilled, that a fantastic effort has failed. Philosophy begins in disappointment. Although there might well be precursors, I see this as a specifically modern conception of philosophy. To give a name and a date, one could say that it is a conception of philosophy that follows from Kant’s Copernican turn at the end of the eighteenth century. The great metaphysical dream of the soul moving frictionless towards knowledge of itself, things-in-themselves and God is just that, a dream. Absolute knowledge or a direct ontology of things as they are is decisively beyond the ken of faillible, finite creature like us. Human beings are exceedingly limited creature, a mere vapour or virus can kill us. The Kantian revolution in philosophy is a lesson in limitation. (Infinitely Demanding, New York: Verso, 2007, p. 1)
• • •