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Reloading Beckett’s philosophical libraries


Ignorance plays a significant role in Beckett’s self-contrast with Joyce: in the James Knowlson biography we hear Beckett saying, “I realized that Joyce had gone as far as one could in the direction of knowing more, in control of one’s material. He was always adding to it; you only have to look at his proofs to see that. I realised that my own way was impoverishment, in lack of knowledge and in taking away, subtracting rather than adding… But I do remember speaking about Joyce’s heroic achievement. I had a great admiration for him. That’s what it was: epic, heroic, what he achieved. I realized that I couldn’t go down that same road.”

The sorites raises blindspots about borderlines. “A million grains is a heap. If so, then so is a million minus one grain. Therefore one grain is a heap.” If we want to deny the induction step, we are committed to saying there is a grain the removal of which turns a heap into a non-heap. Language and thought doesn’t seem capable of such a fine grained distinction but that’s because the border is a blindspot.

The species of the blindspot extends to Ekbom’s prediction paradoxes: “Students know that there will be a surprise exam in the next week. They know it can’t take place on the last day. If they know it can’t be given on day n then they know it can’t be given on day n-1. Therefore they know the test cannot be given.” But the teacher can still give a surprise test and so there is a paradox.

The super-game puzzles involve iterated prisoner’s dilemma puzzles: in a one-off prisoners dilemma competitive behaviour dominates cooperation. It might be supposed that in a sequence of 100 games, for example, this behaviour polarity would reverse. Yet if on the last play they will revert to competitive domination, then if at n the players know they will compete then at n-1 they know they will compete. Therefore they will compete in every game.

Beckett’s trapped characters and tightly orchestrated scenarios track the dilemmas of this species of absurdity. In Sorensen’s classic text on this blindspot phenomenon he writes a wintry Beckettian comment: “Since the best we can count on is an indifferent universe, we are left with the conclusion that some truths may well have been placed out of reach by the rules of representation .”

This approach adds to our understanding of what Belacqua’s ‘dark gulf’ is in Dream Of Fair To Middling Women (p. 120) “… akin to the incoherent continuum explored by the greatest artists, Beethoven, Holderlin, Rembrandt and Rimbaud” (p. 138). It extends the scope of blindspot significance, and identifies the ‘incoherent continuum’ as a token sample of it.

In the lecture notes produced by Grace McKinley in 1931 Beckett discusses Racine in terms of that same incoherent continuum pictured as a terrible walking on the spot. So we have: “Berenive: conclusion of the play is an intensification not modification of the opening. Unbearable clarity. ‘Dark with excessive light.’ Movement without a pietinement sur place [a marching on the spot]. Gradual conquest of character by light of her own character” (Beckett Remembering: Remembering Beckett). Earlier, he comments that Racine’s Andromaque ends “[W]hen the mind has an integral awareness of the facts as opposed to a fragmentary consciousness. To explain:- the dialogue is really a monologue. It is the exp[pression] of a fragmentary consciousness.” Further on McKinley notes: “Pylade etc. are the fragments of the divided minds of Orestes etc. Their function is to express the vision in the minds of their protagonists. It is when these fragments are blended into a whole that the play comes to an end, e.g. when Hermione realises after Pyrrus has been murdered that her love for him is the greatest thing, and not the soothing of her vanity –out she passes – suicide.” The unified thought annihilates what introspection hoped to disinter.


Racine remained important to Beckett. Introducing the McKinley notes, James Knowlson writes: “For if the impact and the influence of Racine on Beckett began when he was a student and can be seen in allusions to …. all … the …plays on which he lectured in his first novel, Dream Of Fair to Middling Women (written just after he quit his lecturship), it extended well into his middle period as a dramatist, when he reread the entire theatre of Racine in the early 1960s, relating them directly to ‘the chances of the theatre today’.

Knowlson suggests that from Racine Beckett took his “focus on inner worlds,” “the monologue,” “‘the psychological oppositions and their physical manifestations in the stage lighting that he saw in Phedre,” and “his fascination with the tradition of spotlight painting in art.” But Knowlson remarks that “… above all… he was impressed … Racine could depict over-all mental as well as physical stasis.” He cites Beckett from McKinley’s notes: “The precipitation of the mind towards a point where there is no longer more than one consideration, a precipitation towards a stasis. In this act the minds of all the characters make a leap toward this stasis” (Knowlson et al 2006, p. 306).

The terrible “walking on the spot”, “I can’t go on, I’ll go on” etc, etc is the Beckettian routine. A sublime anti-Racinean Racinean, his novels and plays present introspected fragments of consciousness. In seeking unity the texts are similar to assertions like ‘I know that perpetual motion machines are impossible but I shall strive to build one nevertheless.’ As when told the immovable meets the irresistible, we should deny the possibility. Yet Beckett’s texts drill past the injunction. The sorites gives Beckett further artillery to batter at impossibility, even though he smuggled it in under his own nose, disguised as something else, like a Trojan’s Horse. Or like the peculiar impossibility of the instruction: “Don’t think about Godot.” The instruction triggers its own defeat.

Beckett’s anxiety can be framed by this conversion of Racinean theatre into vague sorites. His increasingly pressurised, miniaturised fragmentary texts witness to blindspotted blindspots. Beckett’s texts are diagrammatical and work like maps of disintegration. They are presented as patterned and choreographed, obsessed with time periods and shapes. Beckett was maniacally concerned to produce synchronised voice, movement, silence, light and dark. His texts are like prototypes of experiments in consciousness, anti-holistic, atomised and differentiated. How is unity possible? The philosopher Jesse Prinz argues that attention creates unity. Unity is explained in terms of synchronised neural states. Different sensory areas are phase locked and patterns are correlated so that unified consciousness is presented. There is good evidence that oscillation patterns have a systematic relationship like this.

Beckett’s interest is the introspective inner consciousness. Prinz’s theory of consciousness explains why Beckett is presenting an area of our conscious experience that is unavailable to introspective investigation. The guiding metaphor Prinz uses to help us understand this is the refrigerator light model of unity. The light in the fridge goes on only when the door is opened. Fragmented conscious is never directly introspectable because introspection unifies. It’s like a child wanting to see what’s there when she’s not looking. Beckett is presenting us with known unknowability.

Beckett’s predicament appeals because the futilitarian humility in his work senses irremediable human vulnerability and powerlessness. Science endorses his view that intuitions of stability and permanence are not trustworthy. It sympathises with the epistemic hostility of the universe and human fallibility. Eyes are small. The universe is enormous. Electro-magnetic disturbances are of all different sizes, wavelengths, and most are beyond our limits. We can’t see physical reality’s deep fundamental structures. If we were built so that we could see the very small and the very fast we would confront fluctuations in the gluon fields that hold quarks and nuclei together. Reality would look like the inside of a larva lamp. Philosophising to middle-sized objects like people would be massively problematic from that perspective. Sight is the master sense. The limits of our eyes program our philosophical intuitions. Other senses are equally limited. Hearing limitations are geometrical. Touch is a combination of limited senses, a reading of temperature and air pressure subject to extreme geometric limits. Hearing misses high frequencies. Smell and taste are complex like touch. They have limited spatial range. They sample only a tiny part of the universe.

The eye samples three colour patterns. Taste samples twenty-nine tastes. The nose samples over nine hundred stinks. There are taste receptors on our lungs identical to those on our tongues. They are sensitive to bitterness and warn against toxins. Senses sense different shaped molecules that fit different receptors. Because light molecules are very similar in shape to smell and taste molecules, vision can taste and smell. Since Aristotle’s count of five senses, two new ones have been discovered. Balance/kinesthesia allows us to sense movement through the ether and gives us a sense of acceleration. We also sense time and circadian rhythms. But our senses are very limited, very selective and miss both distant events in space and time and the deep structure of the world.

The scientist strives to defeat the fallibility. She enhances senses using instruments and minds. Minds translate distant things into meanings we can understand. The physicist believes the world is comprehensible. The important move is to resist natural intuitions about the world. The physicist Frank Wilczek argues that substituting sharp testable propositions for the imprecise folk ones was the great scientific revolution. Science eliminates ontological vagueness. Beckett drills through to its epistemic core.

Galileo replaced Aristotelian rationalism with precise tests. Removing vagueness so that tests could be falsifiable was a key to this scientific method. Karl Popper demanded falsifiability to ensure propositions were sharp. Wilszeck modifies this. Some beautiful and compelling propositions should be proved true on aesthetic grounds. The mystic strangeness of Paul Dirac supports this approach as Farmelo’s biography about him suggests. Some doubt there is a single scientific method, like the philosopher Craig Callender does.

Wilczek identifies three eras of this single scientific revolution: the ancient Greeks who developed sharp assertions about measuring and geometry; Newton’s seventeenth century discovery of laws of motion and finally the twentieth century period where biology and physics is developing a project of reductionism which moves from tracking how matter behaves to investigating what matter is. Scientists ask why there are chemical elements using a process of analysis and synthesis. Small objects seem to obey simple laws better than big ones. The physicist builds a theory of everything from these. Where reductionism stops there is emergence. The scientist wonders why this process works. It relies on facts about the physical world. It relies on uniform laws in space and time. But laws can be analysed locally and in isolation from all others. Strangely, these laws may be contingent, so worlds might have been different.

The scientist works to translate between five different languages. Experience is the brain translating senses using a deeper neural code inaccessible through introspection. Ordinary language conveys the world experienced like this. Ordinary mathematics describes this world. Computer language in turn translates this. The shorter the description given to the computer to describe our world, the better. Ernst Mach discussed the economy of science and the minimum description length for a computation, and Einstein cautioned that theories should be as minimal as possible but no more so. The basic laws of science are precise mathematical equations about the very lower tier of existence. As equations improve we expand our understanding of the world accordingly.

But despite all this, we can never know a blindspot. The ignorance of vagueness is a symmetrical blindspot, and as such it is absolutely unknowable. Contrast it with an assymetrical blindspot, such as G.E. Moore’s discovery of the peculiar form of sentence that cannot be asserted: ‘I went to the cinema on Tuesday but I don’t think I did.’ It is an assymetrical blindspot because it can’t be asserted in the first person but in a third person version of it can, as in, for example, ‘Moore went to the cinema on Tuesday but he doesn’t think he did.’ Roy Sorensen contrasts this approach with that of Williamson, who argues that the ignorance is relative to the medical limits of human discriminability. Sorensen proposes and defends reasons for thinking that species parochialism is not a relevant factor. So even when physics is complete, we cannot know everything knowable.

Sorensen has the recipe for this kind of epistemic blindspots, which he calls “mendacious mathematical inductions.” They are built out of generalisations with four properties: Firstly, the generalisation must be counter-example resistant. A sorites generalisation is absolutely counter-example resistant because the blindspot is symmetrical. Other generalisations may be relatively counter-example resistant because the blindspot is asymmetrical such as the Moorean sentence I gave an example of above or an adjective such as ‘modest’ (no one can know they are modest, even though others can know this of someone else) or ‘Everyone knows Godot won’t appear, except Pozzo’. The resistance to counter-example requires force; the resistance must be strong enough to invite the acceptance of this counter example resistance. The generalization must present a serious obstacle for counter examples.

Secondly, the generalisation must appear non-vacuous. Base steps must appear true and substantial even if they are not. So, for example, prediction paradoxes have false base steps that appear true. In these paradoxes a teacher announces to her class that they will have a surprise test by the end of the week. The students think about this and begin by reasoning that if by the last day there has been no test then the test would have to be on the last day. However, they would know that and so there would be no surprise. Having reasoned so, they rule out the possibility of having the test on the last day. But then the same reasoning applies to the penultimate day. And by such reasoning they conclude that on no day can there be a surprise test. It is the granted opening concession in the prediction paradox that the surprise test cannot take place on the last day that leads to the induction step being taken seriously when actually it is merely a vacuous truth.

The convenience of mathematical induction needs a sequential arrangement of generalisations to be exploitable, as in the surprise test, as in the sorites. If we have all three of these properties then we have ‘slippery generalisations’.

Sorensen calls them that, claiming that ‘the name is appropriate because sequential counter-example resistant generalisations that appear to be non-vacuous suffice for the construction of categorical slippery slope arguments.’ But we also need to distinguish good mathematical inductions from bad. If we have a generalization that is supported and non-vacuously true then we require that generalisation cloaks counter-examples.

There are different types of cloaking devices. Holistic blindspots cloak blindspots that are not co-accessible even though each one is separately accessible as in Moorean sentences. There the generalization is ‘someone believes that p then someone believes that someone believes that p.’ The counter-example is ‘someone believes that p but no one believes that someone believes that p’, so that each conjunct is believable but the conjunction isn’t.

Super blindspot resistance comes in two forms. One is where the antecedent is always a sub-blindspot. For example, ‘If everyone shares n permanent beliefs, then everyone shares n+1 permanent beliefs.’ To refute the generalisations we must find antecedents that are true and a consequence that is false. Where the antecedents are all blindspots counter-examples are impossible to find.

So cloaked but true generalisations have only potential counter-examples because a true generalisation has only false counter examples. The true counter examples are cloaked, as in the sorites. A cloaked generalization can’t rule out the possibility that the counter-example resistance is falsidical.

Slippery slope fallacies use a mendacious induction step. A mendacious induction step has three properties typically: it is apparently non-vacuous, it is sequential and it is either false or a cloaking generalisation.

It can therefore be sound argument. Sorensen gives examples, such as
1. Some object has endured for a year
2. If some object has endured for n years then some object will have endured for n+1 years.
3. Therefore no object is oldest.

The second step is a cloaking generalisation. Its negation is a blindspot. We can only know that the consequent is false if we know how long any object has got and we are limited in our knowledge of the universe to know such things. The generalisation may be false, so it is weak.

Strong puzzles are when the generalisation couldn’t be false. Semantic anti-realists can’t allow these to exist for they disbelieve in unknowable truths. The sorites is a strong puzzle. This raises difficulties for those critics who want to interpret Beckett in terms of a theory of semantic anti-realism, such as Derrida.


Given that Beckett’s fictions are spectacular science fiction and slightly cluttered thought experiments this argument against parochialism is appealing. It smashes the hubristic assertion of the extreme naturalist who proposes that only things known scientifically are real. Beckett’s artistic assault violates the naturalist’s self-confidence.

In the PreSocratic Eubilides and Chryssipus we find a direct line from their puzzle of the heap to a silence that devours knowledge even of its own ignorance, and answers the specific question Beckett puts to Kaun in the famous letter cited earlier: “Is there any reason why that terrifyingly arbitrary materiality of the word surface should not be dissolved, as for example the sound surface of Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony is devoured by huge black pauses, so that for pages on end we cannot perceive it as other than a dizzying path of sounds connecting unfathomable chasms of silence?” This reads as a vivid and dramatic intuition of the sorites puzzle, and is more remarkably apt when we remember that Beckett didn’t know what the sorites actually implied. He just got lucky with this error.

It is a delicate and hard business to explain Beckett’s strange texts without explaining away their strangeness. The epistemic theory of vagueness is a perfect foil to Beckett’s strain of weird because it presents a simple, logical proof for the existence of necessarily unbelievable things. That these are linguistic things makes the business even more apposite for a writer who understood his calling as something like ‘word-storming in the name of beauty’.

In the course of working on the meta-sorites problem of incredulity Sorensen contrasts the ease we have in acquiring language with developing an understanding of how we do it. The ease with which we acquire language makes us over-opinionated about how it is done. Theories of language contradict the logical proof of the existence of sharp boundaries for vague terms. Theories positing a radical indeterminacy of language are directly challenged by conclusions drawn from analysis of the sorites. Theories embedding voluntarism, the theory that meaning is chosen, that beliefs can be a matter of will, are also severely tested by this approach. Various ideas of conventionalism find the sorites solution fatal to their approach. Phenomenological readings ditto.

Finding the sorites in Beckett, seeing the puzzle as an inadvertent but happily apposite explosion of irresolvable ignorance at the heart of all knowing subjects, even a God, and doing so through a method of genetic scholarship, gives critics new resources for thinking about Beckett’s use of time, silence, subtraction, everything. The sorites asks that these be considered in terms of a puzzle about their borderlines not infinity. Always in Beckett the question of when life begins and when it ends looms. Ditto meaning to meaningless. Presence to absence. Noise to abate. The sorites raises questions about their borderlines.

We can now see that Beckett’s texts offer ruminations on slippery slopes. Slippery slopes prototypically end with bad bottoms. “For want of a nail the kingdom was lost” is an example. Evaluating the badness of the bottom can be where iconoclasts make their mischief. De Quincy‘s playfully example in 1863 of such a slope seems to perversely invert values: “For, if once a man indulges himself in murder, very soon he comes to think little of robbing, and from robbing he comes next to drinking and Sabbath-breaking, and from that to incivility and procrastination. Once begin upon this downward path, and you never know where you are to stop. Many a man dated his ruin from some murder or other that perhaps he thought little of at the time.” De Quincy’s is a strange case where we start at a bad bottom (murder) and end with something not as bad (procrastination). De Quincy can be read as deliberately asking questions about received wisdoms in the spirit of Swiftean satire. Or again, perhaps it is just play.

Beckett’s slippery slopes are peculiar in a different way. If De Quincy’s slippery slope strikes us as a satirical inversion of values where the peak becomes the pit, Beckett’s seems involved with his minimalism, understood as a process of subtraction. Is Beckett presenting us with worlds crossing from non-zero to zero or else instead presenting a world of infinite process, a world of the ‘unnullable least’ where we are always approaching the zero limit but never reaching it. So we might ask of Beckett’s texts: is there always something rather than nothing? The sorites suggests that Beckett didn’t deny zero, he just denied knowing when it begins.

Beckett’s universe is even stranger than we thought, tougher, more fierce, more utterly disturbing. The clear evidence that the sorites is included in it should make critics draw inferences even Beckett missed. It suggests new avenues for critical investigation and imaginative response. But to return to the point at the start of this essay, the scholarship that disinters the sorites is likely to be found in the library Beckett scholars don’t access enough. And to miss this stuff does Beckett studies – and literary studies generally – a disservice. So we would do well to stop thinking in those terms. We’ve got one vast library with many rooms, levels, anti-chambers and corridors. In a letter written on the 14th November 1936 in Hamburg Beckett described it: “Through the walls come female Danish voices, two Jutland tarts in colloquy. Pure chirping. They should be on a funeral urn, in the Genesiacal period. Now I know how Ophelia should speak the flower speech. And that Hamlet was mad. He is buried in no fewer than 54 Jutlandish localities. All the lavatory men say Heil Hitler. The best pictures are in the cellar.”

In December that same year, in Wolfenbuttel, Beckett couldn’t fully understand why a certain reserve led the Cartesian mind of Lessing to “so thoroughly misunderstood the mind of Descartes.” We contemporary Beckettians are similarly in danger of misunderstanding Beckett, being too reserved to find the uncanny epistemologists of vagueness, perhaps because they don’t look up from their zeal, seriousness and fury, who no doubt overestimate the nook in which they sit and spin with their hunched backs and scholarly books that mirror souls that have become crooked – because every craft makes the soul crooked and on this earth, as Nietzsche says, one pays dearly for every kind of mastery. But we are too reserved, and so we don’t go into these strange rooms. Who knows what else we might find if we did?


Richard Marshall (pictured with John Minihan) is still biding his time.

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First published in 3:AM Magazine: Friday, January 6th, 2012.