What’s the Fly Bottle?

It’s a phrase from the Viennese philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein. What he meant, so far as I understand him, was that any thinking person sees the world like a fly looking out of his bottle. That’s to say that we see the world clearly, but we’re limited by confines beyond our control: in the fly’s case, the bottle. In the human’s case, our singular experience.

The idea — that our human understanding of the world isn’t wrong, it’s just incomplete — stuck with me after reading a book that took Wittgenstein’s phrase, “The Fly and the Fly-Bottle,” as its title. The book, by Ved Mehta, is out of print (it was first published in the late-60s, I believe) but is still moderately well-known among 20th c. intellectual historians.

So how did I hear about the book? I studied history at Princeton, where I got my undergraduate degree, and took a small seminar with a widely admired intellectual historian, [X]. Unfortunately, by the time I took his class I was already a senior and well into my thesis on Cuban Jewish history. Too late to jump ship.

So, in my spare time, I followed the footnotes of a few intellectual history books and found one that was written for a lay audience, Mehta’s “Fly and the Fly Bottle.” It’s a great read — really just a compilation of profiles Mehta wrote for The New Yorker about famed British historians and philosophers. Mehta studied at Cambridge, and, as part of his ongoing fascination with his professors, set out to write about them. One day, I’ll take a shot at it myself.

And as for the title “A Parallax View,” I just think it sounds good. There’s a lot of intellectual theory behind it — none of which I’ve read, nor truthfully care to — but it’s basically a fancy way of saying “this is my point of view.”


One response to “What’s the Fly Bottle?

  1. For your first comment… I think I will share the image of the fly bottle with my middle school students as a thought of the day. As for Barkley, he speaks bluntly which not enough of us do. And he’s pretty funny. And why doesn’t Bill Richardson get any love? Peace

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