One of the most fascinating human tendencies is that of categorization. Our vocabulary serves as the mechanism of categorization, allowing us to put the round peg in the round hole with the least amount of mental effort. It works with objects (the Inuits have 50 words for snow), and it works with relationships (the Greeks – 12 words for love).
When, for whatever reason, that vocabulary be inadequate for the degree of categorization we require in society, we’re liable to go off the rails in some fashion, as individuals and as a culture. Off the rails is where philosophy begins, and poetry. It’s then that we have to string our existing words together to create that category. The Germans do this amazingly well; if you’ve ever read a German art history paper, you know what I mean (bandumwundenen Bündelstäbe = fasces).
The best poetry, Ted Kooser says, is that which describes something in a perfect, unforgettable way. His example is a single line by Joseph Hutchison, describing an artichoke: “Oh heart weighed down by so many wings!” Kooser dares us to read that line, and ever have it absent from our mind when presented with an artichoke.
Philosophy attempts to do poetry one better. Where poems describe, philosophy dissects. It breaks a word apart into an examination of every cell of meaning. And yet one can dissect something without pinning it down. Wittgenstein (he of the ineffable gaze!) said, “Whereof one cannot speak, one must be silent.” His friend Frank Ramsey expanded on this when he said, “What we can’t say, we can’t say, and we can’t whistle it, either.”
But we continue to try. Even if Wittgenstein threw in the towel on the utility of practicing philosophy for a decade after he finished the Tractatus with that proclamation, he eventually again took pen to hand.
We armchair philosophers do much the same, knowing it’s a difficult task, a life’s work to create a string of words that does the job of just one vocabulary word we lack. But it’s still better than shoehorning that which we cannot speak upon a word not borne to bear its weight. Part of this obsession comes from the human love of categorizing. It stretches us to write poems, to spend long nights deciphering Kant or Plato, to create elaborate arguments with them in our heads.
Failing that, John Locke has provided us with a fantastic miscellaneous category – “It is what it is.”
This offers a much cheerier labeling method than Wittgenstein. He spoke of Essence: “‘Essence may be taken for the being of any thing, whereby it is what it is.’ . . . ‘That everything has a real constitution, whereby it is what it is, and on which its sensible qualities depend, is past doubt . . .’ . . . ‘What is, is:’ . . . and he knows that ‘it is what it is’ and not another . . .’”—An Essay Concerning Human Understanding (1841)
Acknowledging that even a specialized vocabulary, even getting at the heart of language itself, will still not solve the problem. And it’s not a problem, it’s actually a source of richness, this lack of structure that allows categorization.
Which, of course, leads me to Sherlock Holmes.
An avid Sherlockian, I lost my shit in S4E2 when he repeats “It is what it is” to Watson at a key moment while embracing him. (First of all, hilarious – John Locke, johnlock? I mean, my inner geek went spastic). I am more than sympathetic to the Johnlockers out there – Sherlock and Watson’s relationship reflects my own Platonic ideal of a relationship. I want to understand it in its fulsome darkness. The structure of my brain wants a word for it (gay? bisexual? queerplatonic?) because I would love to clone it. I’d love to slap that word on my dating profile page somewhere and wait for the messages to roll in.
If only. While I have equal parts despair and praise for Mofftiss, I do think they were philosophically, poetically, spot on using John Locke as the final word on johnlock. What Sherlock feels for Watson, there isn’t a word. It is what it is. And vice versa. We aren’t going to get a category, but we are going to benefit from the richness of reveling in a relationship so nuanced. It is not the love that dare not speak it’s name. It is a love that does not have a name, other than, “It is what it is.”
What It Is
by Erich Fried
It is nonsense
It is what it is
It is calamity
It is nothing but pain
It is hopeless
It is what it is
It is ludicrous
It is foolish
It is impossible
It is what it is