“There, that’s done!” we think, having driven the nail, tightened the screw, or snugged up the nut. We patch the hole, caulk the pane, smooth out the rough bit. “There! Done!” And maybe it is. For a while.
But things come loose again and fall off. Or having been set to the perfect swing and play, they seize up and won’t turn at all. They wear out and break off. The lubricant dries up. “Metal fatigue,” someone says. Or “Plastic. That’s all it’s good for.” Deep down we know this about things. Nothing stays fixed. “As good as new” conceals an implicit admission: Nothing stays new, either.
And yet, we constantly ignore what we know in favor of an idealized expectation that things won’t go, seemingly spontaneously, awry. Wittgenstein nailed this mindset in its philosophical manifestation. We are prone to think, he wrote (Philosophical Investigations, #193), of a machine as representing an idealized version of itself, in which all the possibilities of movement are fixed and given, forgetting that gears break or melt, and that all sorts of things can go wrong. When we discuss machinery, one of my mentors once noted, we seldom feel the need to specify that it isn’t constructed of butter!
Wittgenstein’s actual point is about logic ─ our tendency to invest in it the idealized fixity and necessity we impute to the image of the machine. Whereas, in fact, in his view the stability of logic rests on the non-ideal but reasonably dependable facts of human agreement about what counts as what, about how measurements come out, and about how we carry on with the shared processes that compose the human world. If people didn’t generally agree on the outcome when one counts and the other watches, how much of our lives would become impossible? Or if our agreements in the meanings of our words weren’t as dependable as they are, however imperfect that is?
What he wrote about our tendency to live in a world of philosophical idealizations, when it comes to logic and language, is equally true of the mundane realm of our interaction with the material world, and of our participation in the human world, where personal interactions are forever failing to accord with their theoretical patterns, and no general account of human behavior ever seems expansive enough to accommodate the myriad ways in which things can go ─ shall we say? ─ differently than expected. Perhaps dreadfully wrong.
There is frustration and disappointment lurking in all this, of course, though also fascination and continual, inexhaustible amusement, as new ways in which things can foul themselves up appear in regular succession. Horace Walpole said, “Life is tragedy for those who feel, but it is a comedy to those who think.” For better or worse, humans do both.
If the machinery of life is imperfect, so must be our power to repair it, and our judgment about what sort of repair, from time to time, may be needed. I have cited Wittgenstein and Walpole. Here’s Lewis Carroll.
At the Mad Tea Party, the Hatter begins fussing with his watch, and on consulting Alice, finds that it is two days wrong in indicating the day of the month. This fact triggers a complaint about botched maintenance. “‘I told you butter wouldn’t suit the works,’ he added, looking angrily at the March Hare. ‘It was the best butter,’ the March Hare meekly replied.” Butter, we have learned, is suited neither for the construction, nor for the lubrication, of watches. However, it is hard to have a decent tea party without butter, and what that shows is how important it is to remember what end you are pursuing. There! Done!