Sense and Nonsense or a Philosophical Investigation of Louis CK

Warning…the language of Louis C.K. quoted in this piece contains many of George Carlin’s seven words you can’t say on TV. His subject matter is also at times…disturbing.

12/17 update. After recent admissions of impropriety by Louis C.K. there is consternation on my part for keeping this in the blog. I do think that the investigation into his character does reveal the potential for, in this case, to become too enamored with his craft combined with fame that made him invincible, to himself at least, and capable of doing anything as a result. And, as a result this study becomes much more disturbing.

By Andor Nitwitstein; Translated from the Hungarian by Christopher Ketcham

I Andor, having the unfortunate accident of being born into the family Nitwitstein am about to make amends for that moniker through a treatise on that disturbing fellow known as Louis CK. I am most concerned with his language—no, this will not be an expose on the silliness of profanity or the base humor of common guttersnipes (though there is much of this about the man)—but it will be an inquiry into his relationship with his children…a much more interesting but disturbing subject. I assure you that a popular authority spewing ‘alternative facts’ would not be as strange as Mr. C.K.

Of course, in style and in substance I am deeply indebted to my distant third cousin twice removed on my Father’s side, Ludwig Wittgenstein.[1]  There will be some who will say that I have stolen Cousin Wittgenstein’s philosophical thunder as did the serpent Jörmungandr steal Thor’s thunder at the battle of Ragnarök. Well, be informed that as that battle was the twilight of the gods as put to music by Wagner and later satirized by Nietzsche in his Twilight of the Idols, this philosophical investigation will put to end all speculation of a divine CK. [2]

It was Ludwig Wittgenstein’s folly to tackle metaphysics with logic. But, in the end, he did a fair job with it, or so people think. Far be it for me to suggest that I can perform the same brilliant surgery on the equally difficult subject of Louis CK, but I will, of course with your permission, begin the effort. However, I do hope that by the end of this treatise that I will not throw up my arms as Wittgenstein did in his Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus and say, “6.54 He who understands me finally recognizes them [his logic of course!] as senseless, when he has climbed out through them, on them, over them. (He must so to speak throw away the ladder, after he has climbed up on it.)”[3]

Louis CK, or rather his language, begs to be analyzed logically because what he says contains both sense and nonsense at the same time. With Louis CK and his rants one is reminded of G.E. Moore’s Paradox, ‘It is raining but I don’t believe it’[4] or in variation on a theme and with Louis CK in mind, ‘I am watching Clifford the Big Red Dog, but I don’t believe it’ or any other number of things he does with or to his children that seem so disturbing but at the same time an honest reflection of what parents endure. And of course cousin Wittgenstein understood that when one deals with language and learning, there is the inevitable need for the parent to understand what the child does understand…back to Moore’s paradox again. But Wittgenstein said in defense of learning language:

If we look at the example in §i, [a child seeing and using something for the first time] we may perhaps get an inkling how much this general notion of the meaning of a word surrounds the working of language with a haze which makes clear vision impossible. It disperses the fog to study the phenomena of language in primitive kinds of application in which one can command a clear view of the aim and functioning of the words.[5]

So what will it take to lift the fog from Louis CK? Quite a good bit of analysis to be sure. Therefore I will concentrate on the language Louis CK uses with and about his children because, let’s face it, there is little logic in children or in parenting and quite a bit of fog…[6]

1. The World is Everything That Is the Case

1.1 We are informed by logic that if A = B and B = C then A = C. This is always the case. But is this always the case? How can we confirm the accuracy of such a thing when uncertainty is the watchword of fundamental physics? For as Werner Heisenberg was fond of saying, “It is impossible to determine accurately both the position and the direction and speed of a particle at the same instant.”[7] If in one world it is uncertain that A could equal C but in our world it does, then this is a contingent fact, not a necessity. Logic must be clear!

1.2 It all comes down to evidence. Let’s look at the number 2 for a moment. If we add 2 + 2 or multiply 2 x 2 we get four. Armed with this knowledge we can assume that adding and multiplying any two equal numbers will produce the same result. But, of course, this isn’t the case. Nor would we be well informed if we took 1 x 1 and arrived at the assumption that multiplication of a number by itself always produces the number. Wrong again. That these two numbers are unique we can only know this from obtaining further evidence.

1.3 Which leads us to Louis CK. Fundamentally we can assume that it is the case that as a parent he will love and do practically anything for his children. But this is not certain because we have evidence of other children being left in hot cars so that dad can sext, being abandoned on church steps, floated down the Nile on a reed boat, or driven into the river to drown…all by their parents.

1.4 But do we have evidence that Louis CK is the exception to the case that parents love and will do practically anything for his children? We must examine the evidence and that evidence comes from his own words.

2. What is the case, the fact, is the existence of atomic facts.

2.1 Our atomic facts for Louis CK being a devoted father must come from a combination of things he has said, not just one invective or even an aphorism delivered in soliloquy. “My four year old is a fucking asshole,” he says in his stand-up Shameless.[8] At first blush (and I do mean blush) this is not something that one would call one’s child. However, consider the facts of the situation. You are going out and the little creep does not want to put her shoes on. She’s going to make you late and late again—because this is simply not the first time. Of course he wouldn’t call her an asshole in front of her or her mother because, well, it just isn’t done unless you want child protective services to come knocking on your door. But how frustrating is it when the child who is first sensing her own independence to resist does on your time and not hers!

2.2 Atomic fact two: still on the four year old and in the same performance, but a different day than the shoe occurrence. The child says, “Momma I saw a doggie today”. Louis asks, “Really, where did you see a doggie?”, and she replies, “I’m telling mom and not you.” The atomic facts are that the child has her own agenda right now and there is probably a very good existential reason why she is telling her mother and not Louis…because he thinks she’s an asshole, likely he has been less than charitable in other such show and tell events. So what does Louis tell the audience about what he was thinking at that moment…”Well fuck you I’m just asking to be nice anyway.” Oh the slings and arrows of being a parent who has a child who has her own mind and is developing her own sense of being and moral direction. She has not yet developed the politically correct response. We do want to say, “Loosen up Louis.” But we don’t. Instead we laugh.

3. The logical picture of the facts is the thought.

3.1 While we’ve have seen/heard Louis rant about his four year old in his monologue performance, the child does not appear in the performance. So, how could our logical picture be formed from thought? Do we see his four year old child? No, we have never been presented with her likeness. Is it (or when she was the same age) your own four year old daughter you see, or is it a composite of four year old girls; perhaps pigtails or neat rows of braids and the ubiquitous polka dot or animal print dress, with knobby knees, flailing elbow and some such smudge on her left cheek, which after a mother’s wipe turns out to be simple dirt and not finger paints or some other disaster looming in in another room. So how does this picture come about? From thought, you say.

3.2 What is thought? First our mind wanders back to Descartes and his Meditations.[9] Descartes wanted to be sure of something…anything. How does he (or anyone) know whether reality is real or just a miserably cruel illusion from an evil demon? Descartes dismissed the listing of score after score of things he couldn’t be sure of and went straight to the heart of the matter—what is the one thing he could be sure of. He thinks. He is a thinking thing. That’s all he can be sure of. Well Descartes, we ask the same question, what is thought?

3.3 We can imagine it…in this case Louis CK’s four year old daughter. It may not be the same picture that Louis has of the child but we think it represents the genre, four year old child. So, as my third cousin said in his Tractatus, “2.225 There is no picture that is a priori true.” Thought is possibility and if possibility is thinkable then even the impossible is thinkable e.g. Louis calling his child an “asshole” or a “douchebag” to her face. However, at some point in his and her lifetime he will have some explaining to her how he used her in a most deprecating way to make others laugh at her expense. Do we not all cringe at what we have said to others, especially our children, and ruminate about it at much latter holiday dinners where the farce of the event of deprecation or snub or simply bad parenting is revealed and subjected to ridicule and laughter. Or, pathologically it regurgitates in insistent bubble when the now adolescent runs screaming from the room because she has resumed cutting herself after thousands of therapy dollars and hours. I digress. But Louis brings us back to reality in this same performance…“No I didn’t really say that to her. Nobody ever calls her on her bullshit, that’s how she got to be an asshole in the first place.”

3.4 We perceive things through our senses (we don’t physically capture them when we are just looking at them). Our perceptions become our thoughts and we propose the possibility for what it is. We listen to Louis and he tells us he has a four year old child. The proposition is that there is a four year old child, a girl, his, and she’s an asshole. Well, the problem is that asshole has, like other words, multiple meanings. The first is anatomical. And perhaps the child of a certain age where the literal becomes the answer for everything and she would consider herself to be that part of her body which defecates. Perhaps that will or will not be traumatic. On the other hand you or I know that the word refers to a kind of person who is not someone we likely will want to associate with. But how do we get there?

3.5 With the sign, of course. The simplest sign, of course, is the name: book, shoe, four year old girl—Lisa, Laura, Linda, whatever. What is more complex are the signs associated with this particular four year old child: asshole, douchebag, Louis CK as father, living in such and such a place with mother and her older sister. Now it begins to get complicated and as my third cousin said in his Tractatus, “3.324 Thus there easily arise the most fundamental confusions (of which the whole of philosophy is full.)” And, as he said, if the sign (say dress color) is not significant it has no use in our thoughts about who this little girl is. So we do, do we not, tend to develop our thinking about this four year old from what seems to be the least amount of information. Why? Well, we don’t want to be mired in thinking when Louis spits out his next invective about the poor child, do we? We’re there to laugh, not ponder whether we could create her likeness on canvas, or produce a biography of her brief existence to date. Only the essentials—that which matters!

4. The thought is the significant proposition.

4.1 We have run the course with the four year old as an asshole. My third cousin said in his Tractatus, “4.001, The totality of propositions is language.”

4.2 What is language? We can surmise from Louis CK’s standup that he has a limited vocabulary and in which words like fuck, and asshole are held in high honor if only for the fact they are repeated in rapid fire and in great quantities. Perhaps, you are thinking, that he peppers these terms because they produce the desired effect—laughter. And we may think from that that he might not have always used these words so many times but like Pavlov’s dog with Tourette syndrome, the positive feedback of laughter has conditioned his way of speaking. But that isn’t why we’re here.

4.3 I must ask again, what is language? Louis CK confounds us in his HBO special One Night Stand when he explains that one can name one’s children just about anything.[10] He offers gibberish without any vowels, the name Ffffffffffffffffffffffffffffffffffffffffff, and Ladies and Gentlemen. But what meaning do these names have? Well, at least with Ladies and Gentlemen it is used to focus attention—“Ladies and Gentlemen, please”—“Johnny, please”—both work just as well. But is Ffffffffffffffffffffffffffffffffffffffffff language or just malarkey? In the same way, how do we get from a written musical score to Bach’s Brandenburg Concerto Number One? First, as my third cousin suggested: it is a proposition, whether Bach or Ffffffffffffffffffffffffffffffffffffffffff. He explained in his Tractatus, “4.021 The proposition is a picture of reality, for I know the state of affairs presented by it, if I understand the proposition. And I understand the proposition, without its sense having been explained to me.” If I cannot read music then a musical score is meaningless for what it proposes to be but has meaning to someone who does. Should I see Ffffffffffffffffffffffffffffffffffffffffff or hear it, I likely will be confounded or surmise that the speaker or writer has a profound stutter.  Ffffffffffffffffffffffffffffffffffffffffff once explained to me by Louis as being a proper name can from then on be a proposition because he made it clear to me that this series of F’s is a proper name and it is the name he has given to his stand-up son. And, for me and others who know Louis and his son, this becomes part of our shared language experience…that is until Aaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaa comes along. But since we have Ffffffffffffffffffffffffffffffffffffffffff, then it will be an easier leap to understand that Aaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaa is a proper name, but for a girl.

5. Propositions are truth-functions of elementary propositions. (An elementary proposition is a truth function of itself.)

5.1 What is truth? Like my third cousin we could utilize a truth table to determine whether a proposition p is in fact p and q is in fact q—or that both, one, or neither is true. And certainly when we have found that p is in fact p, we can test propositions derived from p until we reach the last proposition that is true. We likely will have a crooked ladder structure of even infinite length if our original proposition contains a rather big thought.

5.2 With Louis CK truth tables are complex. Take his statement in Live at the Beacon Theatre, “I hate Clifford the Big Red Dog.”[11] Certainly he gives us reason after reason why he finds this children’s book series interminable and most dull and boring. But at the same time, rather than run away, he endures the watching with his children. So, we are left with a conundrum in the case of Louis CK, does enduring the thirty books with his children invalidate the statement, “I hate Clifford the Big Red Dog,” if , for purposes of love, he condemns himself to reading them with his children? Let’s consider revising the proposition to, “While I hate Clifford the Big Red Dog, I endure it deference to my child’s enjoyment.” That certainly has a better chance of surviving a truth table, doesn’t it? So, why doesn’t he just come out and say that?

5.3 It is the nature of comedy. As my third cousin said in his Tractatus, “5.1362 The freedom of the will consists in the fact that future actions cannot be known now. We could only know them if causality were an inner necessity, likely that of a logical deduction—The connection of knowledge and what is known is that of logical necessity.” Humor, in fact, is humorous simply because we do not know what the future actions are. We have no cause and effect relationship with Louis saying “I hate Clifford the Big Red Dog.” Certainly we get a giggle from it because we have all suffered through children’s books and they no longer hold us with fascination like they did when we were children. It isn’t until Louis takes us further down his intended path that we begin to see how that converts into the truth statement, “While I hate Clifford the Big Red Dog, I endure it deference to my child’s enjoyment.” But if he had started out with this truth statement then it becomes the future of his routine which by necessity means that we need to hear no more. The argument is done and by continuing we are not supporting humor just more about the developing state of mind of Louis CK and that likely is more tragic than comic. To make, “I hate Clifford the Big Red Dog” a true statement we must hear the entire routine so that we can refashion it into something we can accept as being true. But there’s no fun in that. The fun was in the process of getting there, not subjecting the statement to a truth table.

6. The general form of truth-function is [p, ξ, N(ξ)]. This is the general form of proposition.

6.1 We will not be translating these hieroglyphics into their logical components. Rather we must only need to understand is that a logical proposition has a certain form if it is to be logical.  This, of course, does not mean that even a logical proposition is true. We could say that if p then q. That certainly is a logical proposition as is if p = q and q = r then p = r. But we are not yet certain that in writing that if p then q is entirely true. How do we know that this is fact without subjecting the statement to further scrutiny? While some may take as a true statement, “if God then the Devil,” others may vehemently disagree, suggesting that only God is true, and still others will object to even the mention of God in any statement related to truth.

6.2 As we consider this idea of logical propositions associated with Louis CK and children, one thing is revealed. Louis does have his finger on the pulse of what it means to be a parent and what children are, or better yet, how their own logical propositions evolve over time.

6.3 In Live at the Beacon Theater one minute Louis CK fantasizes about masturbating at the playground and the next he defends his daughter against the playground bully Zinjanthropus. And even as he confronts Zinjanthropus with vitriolic threats he realizes he has just done wrong. Then he goes off down paths of revenge against Zinjanthropus’ parents that can only be understood as disturbing. What is Louis’s logical proposition? It is that there is no logical proposition about the act of parenting. It is frightening, confusing, and we are not immune from imagining taking out our most perverse fantasies and applying it to any parental act, but most of us refrain from such indulgences—but we may do so just a little bit by threatening Zinjanthropus only slightly more than decorum or…the law…will permit.

6.4 So how do we develop this ability to form logical propositions and not act like drunken revelers reeling down the road careening into parked cars and people with abandon? It’s all about cognitive development. My third cousin explained this in his Tractatus, “6.52 We feel that even if all possible scientific questions be answered, the problems of life have still not be touched at all. Of course there is then no question left, and this is the answer.” That there are always questions because we cannot ever know all there is about all there is because we have yet to have and will likely never be all we can possibly be.

6.5 With children it is no different. One minute they are stupid, and the next minute they are wondering how they could have been so stupid back then. It now makes no sense to the child why her younger sister is stupid—unless the child has become in loco parentis: in simpler terms the older sister who makes it clear to Louis that she too is dealing with a younger sister who at times just doesn’t get it. She is, in a word, impatient. And he makes his own case for being impatient especially with the pace of young children in board games or as he says in Live at the Beacon Theater, “I’m bored more than I love you”.

6.6 Louis tells us in Live at the Beacon Theater that he and his kids play Monopoly and not only does the youngest, who is now six year old, lose, she is devastated that she has to give up everything she has won when things don’t go her way. At the same time Louis lets us know that his plan is to use all of the gain he has harvested from younger sister to bankrupt older sister who is now nine. Once again the passions of which Aristotle warned us should be experienced in moderation—Louis lets us know our innermost desires, inappropriate as they are, directed at his two children in the very dark and debilitating game called Monopoly. But therein lies the logic—why would anyone play the game of Monopoly to lose? It is all about winning and taking and consuming and taking the other for all they are worth. I had better stop this for I am beginning to sound like Louis CK.

7. Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent.

7.1 Need I say any more?

[1] Ludwig Wittgenstein (1889-1951).

[2] In the Latin, in fairness to Nitwitstein’s third cousin, the title of this chapter is, Tractatus Logio-Louisckus

[3] Ludwig Wittgenstein, Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus trans. C.K. Ogden (London: Kegan Paul, Trench, Trubner, and Co. Ltd., 1922).

[4] G. E. (George Edward) Moore (1873-1958), Krista Lawlor and John Perry, “Moore’s Paradox,” Australasian Journal of Philosophy 86, no. 3 (2008).

[5] Ludwig Wittgenstein, Philosophical Investigations, trans. G.E.M. Anscombe (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1958). Sections 1 & 5

[6] Subtitles in this chapter are from the seven propositions of Wittgenstein’s Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, as translated by CK Ogden. Of course there are those who prefer the later D. F. Pears and B. F. McGuinness translation but that is for those who obsess over things like the proper placement of silverware at a state dinner or the number of rivets in a model train engine.

[7] Werner Heisenberg (1901-1976) Werner Heisenberg, Nuclear Physics (New York: Philosophical Library, 1953), 30 emphasis in original

[8] (Louis CK, 2007, Shameless, HBO)

[9] Rene Descartes (1596-1650) Ren’e Descartes, Meditations and Selections from the Principles, trans. John Veitch (La Salle, IL: The Open Court Publishing Company, 1962). Second Meditation

[10] (Louis CK, 2005, One Night Stand, HBO)

[11] (Louis CK, 2011, Live at the Beacon Theater, Pig Newton)