Collecting my thoughts

Bill-newby L. G. William Chapman, B.A., LL.B.

‘Bertrand Russell: One of the advantages of living in Great Court, Trinity, I seem to recall, was the fact that one could pop across at any time of the day or night and trap the then young G.E. Moore into a logical falsehood by means of a cunning semantic subterfuge. I recall one occasion with particular vividness. I had popped across and had knocked upon his door. “Come in”, he said. I decided to wait awhile in order to test the validity of his proposition. “Come in”, he said once again. “Very well”, I replied, “if that is in fact truly what you wish”.

I opened the door accordingly and went in, and there was Moore seated by the fire with a basket upon his knees. “Moore”, I said, “do you have any apples in that basket?” “No”, he replied, and smiled seraphically, as was his wont. I decided to try a different logical tack. “Moore”, I said, “do you then have some apples in that basket?” “No”, he replied, leaving me in a logical cleft stick from which I had but one way out. “Moore”, I said, “do you then have apples in that basket?” “Yes”, he replied. And from that day forth, we remained the very closest of friends.’

From Jonathan Miller [St John’s], ‘Portrait from Memory’, on the LP Beyond the Fringe (1962)

At almost any time of the day or night, whether sitting in front of my computer or driving my car or lying awake in bed, I recapitulate.  The strategy of summarizing the main points of something is as you know normally reserved for the presentation of an argument; that is, there is customarily an objective goal.  What distinguishes my particular game plan is that I recapitulate not for the benefit of any other person or cause but rather for myself.  I am recapitulating my life.  I constantly need to be reminded whence I’ve come, wither I’m going and where I am.

The reiteration is designed to  assess my development and growth.  This sounds to be a fairly defensible project aligned as it is with the creditable platitudes and warnings about the unexamined life. Yet the policy is materially flawed because while it imitates time lapse photography (a repetitive snapshot) it occurs so regularly as to provide almost indiscernible progress except over the longest periods by which time I will have forgotten where I started. It ends up that my effort produces little more than an inventory of events and things which have lately caught my attention but without much profitable analysis or assessment. The cultivated habit of recapitulation quickly degenerates into little more than tiresome repetition or regurgitation. The obsession also speaks to my need to calculate the productivity of virtually every undertaking, the genetic imperfection of Protestantism generally.

It is meaningless for me to consider the alternatives to recapitulation or even the frequency of it.  One may as well tell me to stop breathing so regularly.  It is for whatever reason in my nature to recapitulate.  If my memory is at all reliable I believe that collecting my thoughts most often takes place when I have had a particularly busy time.  Given my penchant for immediate attention to each and every issue which pops up, it doesn’t take long for me to become horribly dizzy from all the activity.  In the result I need to stop and take account of things.  Admittedly part of the pleasure of doing so is to indulge myself in the satisfaction of what has transpired.  On the whole I remain unconvinced of the propriety of what I do except when I am personally in accord; no amount of third party approbation will otherwise alter my view. Hence introspective thought is required.

I would be flattering myself to suggest that collecting my thoughts is designed to afford myself time to comprehend or reconsider what I have done.  On the contrary the habit is strictly historical and not at all prospective (even though I may pretend that it is).  In a tiny empire such as my own it is easy to become distracted by the succession of details for which I am personally responsible.  At times I think that if it were not for recapitulation I would entirely lose sight of myself.  There is also something to be said for pausing long enough to reconnoitre, that delightful combination of exploration and scrutiny.

Collecting one’s thoughts is really the privilege of the lucky few.  It hardly qualifies as compensable employment. There was a reason those brainy birds like Descartes and Hume expounded clever arguments about existence and tabula rasa.  They had nothing better to do! I mean, who in their right mind would doubt their very existence!  Under normal circumstances such a person would be certifiably insane.  It is for this reason that recapitulation in this context is well beyond the scope of reality.  Consider for example the plight of animals.  They haven’t the inclination for idle thought; they are occupied enough with response to one need or threat or another.  And when you think of it, it hardly matters what has transpired in one’s life and it is equally fictional to imagine what will transpire in one’s life.  All we can do is live in the moment.  Reminiscences of any description are either superfluous or redundant.