29. If you want to undo a knot it doesn’t help to pull on the ends of the rope. This only makes the knot more intractable. It seems to me that something like this happens in philosophy when conducted in terms of the clash of steel upon steel: realism versus idealism, cartesianism versus materialism, etc, etc. Doesn’t it occur to either party to examine the knot itself? But they just keep pulling on their own end. The result is a diminishing of the philosophical problem, which becomes increasingly difficult to survey under the steely pressure exerted on it at either end. The knot actually becomes smaller and tighter. In some cases, the knotted rope is strained to its breaking point.

Once both parties agree to relinquish their end of the rope it seems natural to meet in the middle to attend to the knot. At this stage, they understand the problem cannot be solved by straightening out the knot. What remains therefore is to attend to the problem by unravelling the knot. This is none too easy, and is not a foregone conclusion. For a knot always weakens the rope it is made in. The crushing, bending, and chaffing forces which hold a knot in place also unevenly stress the rope fibres and diminish its strength. Suppose that the knot is undone, what of it? – the cordage is so battered and over-stretched that it is almost quite unusable; certainly, it was transformed in the process, and not well tied to begin with, but at least now there is awareness on the part of the handlers of the configurations of the knot, its curves, tucks, parallel and non-parallel strands, and so on, and of how they interact.

The rope is supposed to be discarded with once the knot is undone. In philosophy, one is in effect learning to develop one’s own image of thought and thinking and make it available as a conscious critical resource, so that one comes to feel one’s thought as visible.

Alexander Cuts the Gordian Knot (Jean-Simon Berthelemy, 1743-1811)

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