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Category Archives: The Buttle Principle

The Buttle Principle

A Beetle in the gears of knowing and the notion of the Press of the Mind

Wittgenstein has a beautiful and striking analogy which he folds into his (No) Private Language argument. He compares any fact checking one would do in using a so called private language, to attempting to check for an error by buying several copies of the same edition of a paper. Such a process is cursed by its reflexivity. This analogy is specific to the example of an imaginary table of terms who’s check is only in the imagination:

If the mental image [recollection] of the time-table [for the departure of trains] could not itself be tested for correctness, how could it confirm the correctness of the first memory? (As if someone were to buy several copies of the morning paper to assure himself that what is said were true) (PI, section 265).

There are a few problems if we attempt to take this analogy as a knockdown argument for why one cannot have a recursive sense of rule-following and justification. Wittgenstein wants us to know that “justification consists in appealing to something independent”. You might have the feeling that you have remembered a train-time table right, but you cannot justify this feeling unless you appeal to some other, independent criteria (in which for him independent does not consist in another moment of recollection or thought process). Put another way, one can believe that one is following a rule, but one doesn’t know if one actually is until one is checked by an independent process. What seems to be missing from this appeal to outside criteria is that our memories, and our use of them, are not at all like a bunch of copies from the very same press (ones in which, if their are errors, they will simply be reproduced endlessly as the same). If there is a “press” of the mind, it is much more like one which is in print all the time, and one can watch the results of taking one “edition” as correct, and make provisional adjustments if a set of beliefs fail. That is, if one follows only one’s memory, and one misses the train, one might question if there were a better way of finding out when the train would be there. But checking by glancing again at the physical time-table may help with one’s accuracy, but not categorically so. For instance, how one read that time-table anew might not jibe with one’s strong recollection. One might make sense of this by reasoning that one saw it wrong this time, or that the time-table must be out of date, or even some rather odd conspiracies of the world, and one might choose to simply trust one’s memory all the same. There is no easy, conceptual way out to what is “independent”.

[One could say that checking the truth of a report by looking at the multiple products of a process, only occurs when the truth is of an nature where doubt is necessarily cast, where it is not readily believable.]

This is related to what can be called The Buttle Principle [I give immense credit to my wife here for pointing out the concept, and naming it]. Terry Gilliam’s movie Brazil  opens with the bureaucratically automated typing out of the name of a man to be arrested. A beetle body lands on the typewriting mechanism and changes the printing process of a name of a terrorist from “Tuttle” to “Buttle”; in totalitarian justice the wrong man, an innocent shoe repairman, is arrested, tortured and executed. It becomes the “accident” which drives plot of the entire wistful and humorous critique of modern society. But now, given the metaphor of a printing press and editions of knowledge text, just where would the change from T to B lie? For instance, if you did as Wittgenstein parodies, after seeing in the small print of a newspaper that you, Buttle, were wanted for murder, it might do very well to check several copies of the newspaper to make sure it is so. Did a beetle simply fall into the mechanism at just that one moment of pressing the very copy one has in one’s hands? Suddenly (as is often the case with many of Wittgenstein’s otherwise convincing analogies) what sounds so ridiculous at first, when examined closely in real-world possibilities, is less so. 

One might ask, would the (mis)typing of the name “Buttle” in the movie Brazil  be part of the same press of an edition of knowledge? More exactly, are the given processes by which the name “Tuttle” had been inscribed in the system (an officer’s report, an original secretary’s typing), and the one where the name “Buttle ” is inscribed, to be understood as distinct or homogeneous? And in coordintion, would recalling again and again a train time-table in your mind really be simply running off more copies of the same edition of a newspaper? Would there be any sense of checking one aspect against another (what if you recall now that the time you thought that the train arrived was actually the date of your anniversary)? How much would all this self-referential conception of knowing be approaching what Wittgenstein called “a wheel that can be turned though nothing else moves with it” (section 271)? And when such a wheel turns, what is turning with it?

What is of interest here may be that the mechanism of inscription from the film is indeed tracking an alphabetized, rule-following procedure when it is “interrupted” by the fallen beetle. The name Buttle appears in a long string of T’s. To quote from the screenplay. :

The TECHNICIAN gets up and balances a chair on top of his
desk. He climbs up onto it attempting to swat the BEETLE
still buzzing about the room just out of reach. Beneath
him an automatic type-writing machine rattles away
compiling a typed list of names under the heading
“Information Retrieval, Subjects For Detention &
Interview”. The machine is being fed from a spool of paper
which is being rhythmically chopped by an automatic
guillotine which neatly leaves each name on a separate
sheet, with the title above each name, each sheet
following its predecessor into a holding basket. In CLOSE-
UP we see the names on the sheets of paper building up in
the holding basket: TONSTED, Simon … TOPPER, Martin F.
… TROLLOPE, Benjamin G. … TURB, William K. … TURNER,
John D. … Every name begins with T.

Do you think that the government is
winning the battle against

On yes. Our morale is much higher
than theirs, we’re fielding all their
strokes, running a lot of them out,
and pretty consistently knocking them
for six. I’d say they’re nearly out
of the game.

The TECHNICIAN is tottering on one leg on the chair on the
desk as he strains to swat the BEETLE. Swish, swash, oops,
WHAP! Gottcha!!

But the bombing campaign is now in
its thirteenth year …

Beginner’s luck.

The BEETLE’s career comes to a halt … squashed flat on
the brilliantly clean ceiling … or has it? As the
TECHNICIAN clambers down from the rickety heights, the
BEETLE’s carcass comes unstuck from the ceiling and drops
silently into the typewriting machine which hiccoughs,
hesitates and then types the letter “B” and hesitates and
then continues so that the next name is BUTTLE, Archibald.

The TECHNICIAN fails to notice this and the machine
continues smoothly TUTWOOD, Thomas T. … TUZCZLOW,

What I suggest is that there indeed is a component of justification (though justification is not reduced to it) which indeed is like checking several copies of the same edition, a self-editing proof, whereby one could internally look at the inscription stages of “Tuttle” and the context of one copy of “Buttle” and say, there is an error there.  I believe that this is the case because even in intersubjective conditions the appeal to something “independent” only ends up being the causal nature of the world. That is, a group of people sharing criteria still have no “independent” appeal for their means of justification, other than the causal results of following them. (What is the ultimately “independent” criteria which is available to the totalitarian system of justice, concerning Mr. Buttle’s innocence?) As a consequence, part of the mechanism for justification is also the internal sense of cohesion betweencriteria events, the special rational character with which beliefs stick together and support each other. Buttle just should not be in the T’s.

In a certain sense, me checking whether I remembered a train schedule right by turning over my own recollections, is like the totalitarian beareucracy in Brazil checking over whether they arrested the right man. If indeed they did pay attention to the internal discrepancy of texts, the Tuttle to Buttle shift, and be self-critical to it, they might have an additional explanation for the constitutive pleas of innocence by Mr. Buttle. The wheel that so turns is always connected to the world, and it is experienced as having its turnings caused by events in the world. The recursivity of an internal cohesion, though not sufficient for intersubjective justification, plays as a grounding for its possibility. The “independence” is always relative to a dependence, which in the end is causal. And coherent self-reference is always open to self- (and therefore other) critique.

This calls to mind another analogy of the printing press, one used by Spinoza to explain Descartes “proof” of God.

For example, if someone were to ask through what cause a certain determinate body is set in motion, we could answer that it is determined to such motion by another body, and this again by another, and so on to infinity. We could reply in this way, I say, because the question is only about motion, and by continuing to posit another body we assign sufficient and eternal cause to this motion. But if I see a book containing excellent thoughts and beautifully written in the hands of a common man and I ask him whence he has such a book, and he replies that he has copied it from another book belonging to another common man who could also write beautifully, and so on to infinity, he does not satisfy me. For I am asking him not only about the form and the arrangement of the letters, which which alone his answer is concerned, but also about the thoughts and meaning expressed in their arrangement, and this he does not answer by his progression to infinity.

(Letter to Jelles (40), March 25 1667

I hope that you notice the comparison in printing press analogies. We have in Wittgenstein the “absurd” notion that if we only referred to our own sense impressions and our beliefs about them, we would be like someone who is looking again and again at multiple copies of the same edition of a newspaper. And we have in Spinoza the notion that if we simply refer to the recursivity of actions of the proliferation of copies of a book (rule-followings?), we really have gotten nowhere in answering the larger question for an “independent” (conceptually distinct) cause of their production. The causation, either in the case of a self-referential series of experiences which attest to facts of the world, or a proliferation of rule-following expressions taken as shared criteria which produces formal justification, is “the world” experienced as causing both our experiences and our beliefs, and the experiences and beliefs of others. And writing, as an inscription, is understood to be an affective process. That is, both our experiences and our beliefs cause and condition the inscription process itself. Part of having beliefs is understanding that self-regulation and critique takes in account The Buttle Principle. That is, our experiences of a fact may indeed be the result of non-intentional error (the “beetle” in the system). As such, their cause can lie within physical causation, and ignored. All the same, the The Buttle Principle also allows that errors can be re-inscribed back into the intentionality of the system (Buttle must be guilty if the system finds him so, the train must be late since my memory never fails me). In this way cohesion can, as an autonomic sense of “right”, overide any Intersubjective Critique or Reality Principle that might serve as a correction. This is part of the ballast that subjectivity provides to social forms of knowing.

For Spinoza, if one could encapsulate, this causation ultimately resides in an immanentive expression of a totality which is taken to be vastly causal, which from our perspective is bootstrapped largely through affective (Joy rather than Sadness) and imaginary (picturing what makes us more powerful) means. For Wittgenstein it is much more a case of an immanence of organization which bubbles up, games stacked on games, as criteria become shared and communicated, part of this dependent/independent differential which helps create the “public” nature of language. In the middle, I believe, the two meet.

It should also be of a happy note that the beetle of Terry Gilliam’s film conflates the Ungeziefer of Kafka’s Gregor’s subjectivity, and Wittgenstein’s own Beetle in a box. One could say, two isometric reflections of the same phenomena.




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