Frames /sing

kvond

Category Archives: Wittgenstein

Understanding in a Flash and the Mastery of Technique

 
 
Eternity and Know-how
 
I’ve been reflecting on the concurrences between the excellent passage from Wittgenstein’s Philosophical Investigations below, and the Spinoza point made, which follows. Wittgenstein’s brilliant, economically, though quite gnomically put point has always been “there is no rule for how to follow a rule”. Simply so, when following a rule for action, the rule itself (nor the appeal to any other meta-rule) is not sufficient to justify the application of the rule, at least from any foundational conception of knowledge. In the passage below Wittgenstein picks up the simple mathematical example of rule-following, which he attempts to sculpt down to its most essential aspects. What is most telling is they way in which he rejects any temporal mental action/experience, what he calls a “mental process” as the source for what is called “understanding”. That is, anything that has what Spinoza named “duration” cannot be the origin of our ability to comprehend.
 
I’ve always looked at this passage with amazement, as we hear Wittgenstein’s mind ticking in self-conversation in his usual style, feeling a surgeon’s hands being placed right in the meat of what the much philosophically pursued “understanding” is. Never though had I connected the passage, either in influence or just in terms of content, to the similar analogy used by Spinoza to point out the difference between “rational” knowledge given by the appeal to reasons (the art of reasoning) and the preferred “intuitional” knowledge that comes out of a union with God, Substance, Nature.
 
Here is the respected passage from Wittgenstein. If you are not familiar with his method, keep track of the different Socratic voices:
145. Suppose the pupil now writes the series 0 to 9 to our satisfaction. – And this will only be the case when he is often successful, not if it does it right once in a hundred attempts. Now I continue the series and draw his attention to the recurrence of the first series in the units; and then to its recurrence in the tens. (Which only means that I use particular emphases, underline figures, write them one under another in such-and-such ways, and similar things.) – And now at some point he continues the series independently – or he does not.- But why do you say that? so much is obvious! – Of course; I only wish to say: the effect of any further explanation depends on reaction.
 
Now, however, let us suppose that after some efforts on the teacher’s part he continues the series correctly, that is, as we do it. So now we can say he has mastered the system. – But how far need he continue the series for us to have the right to say that? Clearly you cannot state a limit here.-
 
146. Suppose I now ask: “Has he understood the system when he continues the series to the hundredth place?” Or – if I should not speak of ‘understanding’ in connection with our primitive language-game: Has he got the system, if he continues the correctly so far? – Perhaps you will say here: to have got the system (or, again, to understand it) can’t consist in continuing the series up to this or that number: that is only applying one’s understanding. The understanding itself is a state which is the source of the correct use.
 
What is one really thinking of here? Isn’t one thinking of the derivation of a series from its algebraic formula? Or at least of something analogous? – But this is where we were before. The points is, we may think of more than one/ application of an algebraic formula; and any type of application may in turn be formulated algebraically; but naturally this does not get us any further.- The application is still a criterion of understanding.
 
147. “But how can this be? When I say I understand the rule of a series, I am surely not saying so because I have found out/ that up to now I had applied the algebraic formula in such-and-such a way! In my own case at all events I surely know that I mean such-and-such a series; it doesn’t matter how far I have actually developed it.” -
 
Your idea, then, is that you know the application of the rule of the series quite apart from remembering actual applications to particular numbers.  And you will perhaps say: “Of course! For the series is infinite and the bit of it that I can have developed finite.”
148. But what does this knowledge consist in? Let me ask: When do you know the application? Always? day and night? or only when you are actually thinking of the rule? do you know it, that is, in the same way as you know the alphabet and the multiplication table? Or is what you call “knowledge” a state of consciousness or a process – say a thought of something, or the like?
 
149. If one says that knowing the ABC is a state of the mind, one is thinking of a state of a mental apparatus (perhaps of the brain) by means of which we explain the manifestations/ of that knowledge. Such a state is called a disposition. But there are objections to speaking of a state of the mind here, inasmuch as there ought to be two different criteria for such a state: a knowledge of a the construction of the apparatus, quite apart from what it does. (Nothing would be more confusing here that to use the words “conscious” and “unconscious” for the contrast between states of consciousness and dispositions. For this pair covers up a grammatical difference.)
 
150. The grammar of the word “knows”  is evidently closely related to that of “can”, “is able to”. But also closely related to that of “understands”. (‘Mastery’ of a technique.)
 
Footnote, bottom of page 50: a) “Understanding a word” : a state. But a mental/ state? – Depression, excitement, pain, are called mental states. Carry out a grammatical investigation as follows: we say
 
“He was depressed the whole day.”
“He was in great excitement the whole day.”
“He has been in continuous pain since yesterday”.-
 
We also say “Since yesterday I have understood this word”. “Continuously”, though? – To be sure, one can speak of an interruption of understanding. But in what cases? Compare: “When did your pains get less?” and “When did you stop understanding that word?”
 
b) Suppose it were asked: When do you know how to play chess? All the time? or just while you are making a move? And the whole of chess during each move?- How queer that knowing how to play chess should take such a short time, and a game so much longer!
 
151. But there is also this use of the word “to know”: we say “Now I know!” – and similarly “Now I can do it!” and “Now I understand!”
 
Let us imagine the following example: A writes series of numbers down; B watches him and tries to find a law for the sequences of numbers. If he succeeds he exclaims: “Now I can go on!” – So this capacity, this understanding, is something that makes its appearance in a moment. So let us try and see what it is that makes its appearance here. – A has written down the numbers 1, 5, 11, 19, 29; at this point B says he knows how to go on. What happened here? Various things may have happened; for example, while A was slowly putting one number after another, B was occupied with trying various algebraic formulae on the numbers when had been written down. After A had written the number 19 B tried the formula a (subscript) n = n² + n -1; and the next number confirmed his hypothesis.
 
Or again, B does not think of formulae. He watches A writing his numbers down with a feeling of tension, and all sorts of vague thoughts go through his head. Finally he asks himself: “What is the series of differences?” He finds the series 4, 6, 8, 10 and says: Now I can go on.
 
Or he watches and says “Yes, I know that series” – and continues it, just as he would have done if A had written down the series 1, 3, 5, 7, 9, – Or he says nothing at all and simply continues the series. Perhaps he had what may be called the sensation “that’s easy!” (Such a sensation is, for example, that of a light quick intake of breath, as when one is slightly startled.)
 
152. But are the processes which I describe here understanding? “B understands the principle of the series” surely doesn’t mean simply: the formula “an =…” occurs to B. For it is perfectly imaginable that the formula should occur to him and that he should nevertheless not understand. “He understands” must have more in than: the formula occurs to him. And equally, more than any of those more or less characteristic accompaniments/ or manifestations of understanding.
 
153. We are trying to get a hold of the mental processes of understanding which seems to be hidden behind those coarser and therefore more readily visible accompaniments. But we do not succeed; or, rather, it does not get as far as a real attempt. For even supposing I had found something that happened in all those cases of understanding, – why should it be the understanding? And how can the process of understanding have been hidden, when I said “Now I understand” because I understood?! And if I say it is hidden – then how do I know what I have to look for? I am in a muddle.
 
154. But wait – if “Now I understand the principle” does not mean the same as “The formula…occurs to me” (or “I say the formula”, “I write it down”, etc.) – does it follow from this that I employ the sentence “Now I understand…” or “Now I can go on” as a description of a process occurring behind or side by side with that of saying the formula?
 
155. If there has to be anything ‘behind the utterance of the formula’ it is particular circumstances, which justify me in saying I can go on – when the formula occurs to me.
 
Try not to think of understanding as a ‘mental process’ at all. For that is the expression which confuses you. But ask yourself: in what sort of case, in what kind of circumstances, do we say, “Now I know how to go on,” when, that is, the formula has occurred to me? -
 
In the sense in which there are processes (including mental processes) which are characteristic of understanding, understanding is not a mental process.
 
(A pain growing more or less; the hearing of a tune or a sentence: these are mental processes.)
 
156. Thus what I wanted to say was: when he suddenly knew how to go one, when he understood the principle, then possibly he had a special experience – and if he is asked: What was it? What took place when you suddenly grasped the principle?” perhaps he will describe it much as we described it above – but for us it is the circumstances/ under which he had such an experience that justified him in saying in such a case that he understands, that he knows how to go on.
 
Philosophical Investigations

There are several aspects of comparison between Wittgenstein and Spinoza, but most signficantly are Wittgenstein’s “nothing is hidden” assertion, as well as the notion that the learning of a rule is very much like the “mastery of a technique”. Evocatively he places “know” to be very close to the use of “can” or “is able to”, moving us very close Spinoza’s metaphysical point that knowing isn’t a representational state, but is an action.

Here are the related example from Spinoza’s Short Treatise, followed by the same example from two other works, concerning the ability to follow a rule:

Part II, Chapter I

Someone has merely heard someone else say that if, in the rule of three, you multiply the second and third numbers, and divide the product by the first, you then find the fourth number, which has the same proportion to the third as the second has to the first. And in spite of the fact that the one who told him this could be lying, he still governed his actions according to this rule, without having had any more knowledge of the rule of three than a blind man has of color. So whatever he may have been able to say about it, he repeated it, as a parrot repeats what it has been taught.
 
A second person, of quicker perception [more active intelligence, Shirley], is not content in this way with report, but tests it with some particular calculations, and finding that these agree with it, give his belief to it. But we have rightly said that this one too is subject to error. For how can he be sure that the experience of some particular [cases] can be a rule for him for all.
 
A third, being satisfied with neither with report, because it can deceive, nor with the experience of some particular [cases], because it cannot be a rule, consults true reason, which has never, when properly used, been deceptive. Reason tells him that because of the property of proportionality in these numbers, this is so, and coud not have been, or happened otherwise.
 
But a fourth, who has the clearest knowledge of all, has no need either of report, or of experience, or of the art of reasoning, because through his penetration he immediately sees the proportionality in all the calculations….
 
Chapter II
 
We call the first opinion because it is subject to error, and has no place in anything of which we are certain, but only where guessing and speculating are spoken of.
 
We call the second belief (opinion), because the things we grasp only through reason, we do not see, but know only through a conviction in the intellect that it must be so and not otherwise.
 
But we call that clear knowledge that comes not from being convinced by reasons, but from being aware of and enjoying the thing itself. This goes far beyond the others…
 
 the Short Treatise
 
…Suppose there are three numbers. Someone is seeking a fourth, which is to the third as the second is to the first. Here merchants will usually say that they know what to do to find the fourth number, because they have not yet forgotten that procedure which they heard from their teachers, without any demonstration.
 
Others will construct a universal axiom from an experience with simple numbers, where the fourth number is evident through itself – as in the numbers 2, 4, 3, and 6. Here they find by trial that if the second is multiplied by the third, and the product is divided by the first, the result is 6. Since they see that this produces the same number which they knew to be the proportional number withou this procedure, they infer that the procedure is always a good way to find the fourth number in the proportion.
 
But mathematicians know, by the force of the demonstration of Proposition 19 in Book VII of Euclid, which numbers are proportional to one another, from the nature of proportion, and its property, viz. that the product of the second and the third. Nevertheless, they do not see the adequate proportionality of the given numbers. And if they do, they see it not by the force of the Proposition, but intuitively, or without going through any procedure.
 
Emendation of the Intellect (23)
 
…Given the numbers 1, 2 and 3, no one fails to see that the fourth proportional number is 6 – and we see this much more clearly because we infer the fourth number from the ratio which, in one glance, we see the first number to have the second.
 
Ethics, IIp40s2iv
Tool Use and Eternity
After all this quotation I want to create the picture that for both Spinoza and Wittgenstein the rules of reason were to be seen as tools (and not knowledge in their own right), techniques of action. What both thinkers shared was a engineer’s sensitivity towards the way that parts fit together. Spinoza of course was a master lens-craftsman and Wittgenstein an amateur architect and mechanical engineer (I believe he designed his own aircraft engine, if I recall correctly). What is most germane, as both thinkers reflect back upon each other, is I think the way in which Wittgenstein’s “circumstances” which act as the criteria for our justification of the rule-following of others, opens out the historical immanence for Spinoza’s view towards eternity. This is to say, or argumentation about the truths of actions find their criteria in the real, historical milieu to which they are immanent. I think that this is very much in keeping with Spinoza’s articulation (as long as we remain under the question of “justification”). In this sense, reason has a historically contingent, natura naturata manifestation and horizon. But as well, Spinoza’s window unto eternity, aside from the question of justification, makes more clear Wittgenstein’s own attachment to a denial of durative processes as the source of understanding. Instead, while historically contingent criteria, all immanent to their circumstances, may lead us to the intuitive grasp of wholes, these are mere tools in a certain, transpiercing of history through intuitive grasp (in which the issue of justification falls away). Ultimately these are human and abiotic bindings, constitutive of their mutuality, in the end causal relations of perception. In all perceptions, including those of animals and inanimate objects, nothing is hidden, nothing lies beyond.
I think that this goes onto explain Spinoza’s own reticence towards the technological innovations of Christiaan Huygens in the area of lens grinding. Huygens and his brother were brilliant experimenters with the art of lens grinding, an area of craft which Spinoza specialized in. What is of note is that Spinoza did not find the Huygens’ shiny devices of much interest, just the sorts of machines that were arriving on the scene which seemed to manifest cleanly the powers of mathematical knowledge itself. Mechanical instruments seemed to express abstract truths without the stain of human hand. But Spinoza found this the least bit interesting:

The said Huygens has been a totally occupied man, and so he is, with polishing glass dioptrics; to that end a workshop he has outfitted, and in it he is able to “turn” pans – as is said, it’s certainly polished – what tho’ thusly he will have accomplished I don’t know, nor, to admit a truth, strongly do I desire to know. For me, as is said, experience has taught that with spherical pans, being polished by a free hand is safer and better than any machine. 

Spinoza in his letter to Oldenburg refers actually to the supposedly lowest level of knowledge in his trinity, experience, as the reproof of the importance of the semi-automated machine that he saw. I don’t believe that this is a small dispositional point. Rather, just as Wittgenstein refuses any grounding of “understanding” in rules (which are tools), and as Spinoza puts “intuitional knowledge” above the truths found in the Art of Reasoning, I believe that Spinoza found the appeal of instruments themselves as abstract devices and powers (be they rules, theorems, machines) to be utterly secondary to the intuitional revelation of God and Nature itself, through those tools. His preference for the “free hand” over the automated gear turn, expressed above, is not simply a pragmatic issue (most of Huygens devices did not seem to produce usable lenses), but also a question of just what the human/technological interface involved, and the powers of its action. Instrumentality, like that would mark much of scientific pursuit, was a fetish. Maths and Science were tools used for the transformational intuition of truth, a strong de-centering of the subject, and were not truths about the world themselves.

A Book that Explodes All Books in the World – Ethica

…if a man could write a book on Ethics…

In my recent post, Wittgenstein’s Mysticism: One World or Two?, I wrote on Russell Nieli’s review of James Atkinson’s The Mystical in Wittgenstein’s Early Writings. There Nieli makes the determinative point that Wittgenstein’s so called “Lecture on Ethics” is central to understanding early Wittgenstein’s commitment to a two-world mystical view. The lecture is available here or can be downloaded as a Word.doc here: Lecture on Ethics). This is certainly an interesting claim, and it lead me to read the lecture which I had not considered before. While I am unsure of how much of the ethical position remains in the latter-day Wittgensteinian language game depictions, I presume a great deal of it is intact, since the very same Humean dichotomy between “the relation of ideas” and the “relation of facts” presents itself in Wittgenstein’s Grammatical and Empirical categorization. I write on the problems of such a “fork” and the related is/ought distinction here: A Spoonful of Ought.

The Explosive Book

But what really drew my focus was the way in which Wittgenstein seemed be addressing Spinoza’s Ethics directly in his essay. In fact he appears to bring the full force of Hume’s dichotomy directly down upon Spinoza’s text, but, as Wittgenstein is so able to do, in such a way that it has only oblique effect. Look at how he characterizes the possibilities of writing a book that would make a science of Ethics, that is, a book which would make of Ethical truths an objective study and explication.

And now I must say that if I contemplate what Ethics really would have to be if there were such a science, this result seems to me quite obvious. It seems to me obvious that nothing we could ever think or say should be the thing. That we cannot write a scientific book, the subject matter of which could be intrinsically sublime and above all other subject matters. I can only describe my feeling by the metaphor, that, if a man could write a book on Ethics which really was a book on Ethics, this book would, with an explosion, destroy all the other books in the world. Our words used as we use them in science, are vessels capable only of containing and conveying meaning and sense, natural meaning and sense. Ethics, if it is anything, is supernatural and our words will only express facts; as a teacup will only hold a teacup full of water and if I were to pour out a gallon over it.

Its hard for me to deny that Wittgenstein is considering Spinoza at his purest. For while Wittgenstein by virtue of his Hume Doctrine of ideas vs. facts claims that ethical matters can only be approached metaphorically, an echo of his famous tractarian proposition “Where (or of what) one cannot speak, one must pass over in silence”, Spinoza’s book Ethica distinctly avoids almost ALL metaphors and similes, and attempts to speak of Ethics entirely of literal terms. If there was such a book (and there certainly is an attempt by Spinoza to have written one), Wittgenstein tells us that it would “destroy all books”.

Amazing.

The Cold Wind Between Is and Ought

Wittgenstein positions Spinoza’s Ethics as either one great confusion (treating things that can only be approached metaphorically, literally, objectively), or as a book that can and has detonated all other books ever written. What is remarkable about this that that in this metaphor Wittgenstein seems to capture something of the excitment that Spinoza enthusiasts feel for the book the Ethics. There is a certain sense in which the Ethics achieves just this, like some logically labyrinthian Borges library, the recursive, interlaced networks of propositions, proofs and scholia works as a time bomb to all other texts. This is the “cold wind” that Deleuze tells us blows through the book, unweaving everything that is woven, so that it can be woven again.

Wittgenstein stakes the impossibility of such a book as the Ethics upon the well-known, but by him uncited Humean Is/Ought distinction. Questions of “is” (what Wittgenstein calls questions of fact, or questions of “relative value”) can never bring you to questions of “ought” (what Wittgenstein calls “absolute value”). The “good” or “right” in relative terms is always specifiable:

The essence of this difference seems to be obviously this: Every judgment of relative value is a mere statement of facts and can therefore be put in such a form that it loses all the appearance of a judgment of value: Instead of saying “This is the right way to Granchester,” I could equally well have said, “This is the right way you have to go if you want to get to Granchester in the shortest time”; “This man is a good runner” simply means that he runs a certain number of miles in a certain number of minutes, etc.

Now what I wish to contend is that, although all judgments of relative value can be shown to be mere statement of facts, no statement of fact can ever be, or imply, a judgment of absolute value.

What Wittgenstein has in mind is that there can always be a reference to criteria, and that if we get outselves to criteria we can agree upon, we can then get down to the goodness or rightness of a thing or situation, (or at least the very nature of our disagreement). As I have argued in the above referenced article, there is no pure Is/Ought distinction, and there is always an “ought” that underwrites any descriptive claim. But it is more than this which give Spinoza’s thinking a life over and above the quiet distinctions Wittgenstein is trying to put forth, or rather, the very nexus of the Is and the Ought gives clue to the way that criteria are organized and distributed, the ways in which we come to agree upon criteria in the first place.

The first point is that Spinoza wholly grants the relative value of things to purposes. In fact any sense of good and bad has to be brought down to the goodness or badness of things to “us” or “me”. In this way anything that is ethically good is pursued entirely out of selfishness itself, the impetus to preserve oneself and increase one’s power and joy. If a kind of action or a kind of thinking is not “good” it means that it is destructive to or weakening to me. And Wittgenstein’s entire matrix of the facts of benefit or harm, and their criteria come into play here. But, there is both an imaginary and a rational dimension upon which the interpretation and communication of these facts rests. And this is: 1). In order to objectively read the world as sense-making we regularly have to take others to be like ourselves, and that because of this there is an imaginary affective bed of mutualities which promote a criteria-less (or at least non-criteria referencing) understanding of “good” and “bad” such that a good thing to another is understood to be a good thing to me based on a primary assumption of sameness. In this way, “This is a good road” may indeed be qualified by reference to all sorts of criteria, but the experience and effect of which is not reducible to such criteria referencing (which does not make it metaphorically good, but only affectively performed and imaginarily understood). And 2). There is a ratio-pramatic consequence of human beings sharing a similar nature and interdepency such that the liberation of another human being possesses an absolute value (non-criteria referencing) of benefit such that liberation is a “good” without qualification (Balibar outlines this expertly, here). Because “man is a god to man” as Spinoza puts it, our selfishness leads us rationally to the realization that when I am helping other person or thing, or environment, I am helping myself – myself under a radical defition. In this way, both on the imaginary level and on the rational level, Wittgenstein’s exclusionary Is/Ought is effectively collapsed at least as an absolute categorial distinction.

In fact the scientific or at least objective way in which Spinoza presents his edifice of the Ethica contains in terms of content nothing of the book that Wittgenstein imagines (a book wherein is written every single fact in the world), but it does refer to a kind of ontological dimension of such a book. Spinoza’s Substance, God, Nature is very much like the ominscience that Wittgenstein conjures up (without the reflexive anthropomophism):

Let me explain this: Suppose one of you were an omniscient person and therefore knew all the movements of all the bodies in the world dead or alive and that he also knew all the states of mind of all human beings that ever lived, and suppose this man wrote all he knew in a big book, then this book would contain the whole description of the world; and what I want to say is, that this book would contain nothing that we would call an ethical judgment or anything that would logically imply such a judgment. It would of course contain all relative judgments of value and all true scientific propositions and in fact all true propositions that can be made. But all the facts described would, as it were, stand on the same level and in the same way all propositions stand on the same level. There are no propositions which, in any absolute sense, are sublime, important, or trivial.

But instead of propositions that have been written down, there are only expressive states, along the extensional and ideational attributes. This totality of Substance in a sense “knows” all things because all things are an expression of it. But the question is, do any of the absolute value propositions contained in the Ethica stand in relation to, or “on the same level” as, all the statements of fact in the world? To answer this one would have to assess whether any of the propositions of the Ethica qualify as absolutely adequate ideas? There is some evidence to suggest that strictly so, even though the propositions of the Ethica are certainly more adequate than others, marked by their very inter-dependent, logical relations, none of them are wholly adequate ideas due to their finite, linguistic expression. But this does not make them metaphorical either. Instead they participate in and are an expression of the very power of rational, material and imaginary combination that makes up both our factual and ethical world, meant as devices of provoked Intuitional knowledge, the knowledge by which all of us know things. The criteria of their goodness is the very capacity for power, joy and coherence in the first place. Which is to say that they are properly metaphysical. Because the Humean severance between idea and fact is refused at the ontological level, so is the ultimate barring of the Is and the Ought. As such Spinoza’s Ethica indeed could be seen as working to explode all other books ever written, or better yet, all other thoughts ever thought. But because of the limited nature of human knowledge, and the necessarily finite expression of our knowledge (even Spinoza’s knowledge), it acts as an incendiary device with a time-delay fuse.

As an amusement, one wonders of course whether Wittgenstein’s criteria for a book that would be explode all books in the world itself would be written in the book of omniscience that contains all propositions of fact.

Wittgenstein’s Mysticism: One World or Two?

I often have resisted the mystical interpretations of Wittgenstein, mostly put off by a college professor who attempted to teach a Buddhist perspective through the backdoor of Wittgenstein’s Philosophical Investigations, all the while refusing to admit the project. Wittgenstein always seemed more plain that than. Or more plain than the need for some to stretch him out in a way that seemed unbecoming for the engineer-like love for the obvious and the working that Wittgenstein so exhibited. So I was surprised when I ran into this review of James R. Atkinson’s The Mystical in Wittgenstein’s Early Writings (found via Methods of Projection)

While clearly the reviewer Russell Nieli has a stake in the mystical reading of Wittgenstein, in particular an enforcement of the idea that Wittgenstein may have had genuine mystical experiences of some kind, we benefit from his acute awareness of this type of influence and a familiarity with the evidence. And I have to admit that an early preoccupation with the mystical perceptions makes the stripped-down philosophical form of the Tractatus all the more understandable for me. The review leads with this wonderful bit from historical record, a letter written by Bertrand Russell following his visit to the supposedly full-blown mystic, young Wittgenstein. While we have to keep in mind that Russell is a pronounced atheist, and what a “complete mystic” would be in Russell’s mind at the time we cannot know, the letter is revealing.

[letter from Bertrand Russell to Lady Ottoline Morell that was written in the winter of 1919 after Russell had met with Wittgenstein in Holland to discuss his Tractatus manuscript.]

I have much to tell you that is of interest. I leave here today [December 20, 1919, from the The Hague] after a fortnight’s stay, during a week of which Wittgenstein was here, and we discussed his book [the Tractatus] everyday. I came to think even better of it than I had done; I feel sure it is really a great book, though I do not feel sure it is right. . . . I had felt in his book a flavour of mysticism, but was astonished when I found that he has become a complete mystic. He reads people like Kierkegaard and Angelus Silesius, and he seriously contemplates becoming a monk. It all started from William James’s Varieties of Religious Experience, and grew (not unnaturally) during the winter he spent alone in Norway before the war, when he was nearly mad. Then during the war a curious thing happened. He went on duty to the town of Tarnov in Galicia, and happened to come upon a bookshop, which, however, seemed to contain nothing but picture postcards. However, he went inside and found that it contained just one book: Tolstoy on the Gospels. He brought it merely because there was no other. He read it and re-read it, and thenceforth had it always with him, under fire and at all times. But on the whole he likes Tolstoy less than Dostoyevsky (especially Karamazov). He has penetrated deep into mystical ways of thought and feeling, but I think (though he wouldn’t agree) that what he likes best in mysticism is its power to make him stop thinking. I don’t much think he will really become a monk — it is an idea, not an intention. His intention is to be a teacher. He gave all his money to his brothers and sisters, because he found earthly possessions a burden. I wish you had seen him.

I have to say that what comes to mind for me is the inherent comparision I always felt between the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus and Spinoza’s Ethics. It has been pointed out that the very title may have been taken in some reference to Spinoza’s Tractatus Theologio-Politicus, though orthodox Wittgensteinians are sometimes quick to rush in and deny any strong conceptual connection, making of it something of a homage or even lark offered by Moore. No one seems to consider much that both tractatus were written as rational, and in some way historically transcedent treatises in response to, or in context of, horrible political crisis: for Spinoza the threats of a religio-political self-destruction of the young Dutch Republic, and the English, French, Spanish encroachment; for Wittgenstein, the epiphanic brutalities of World War I. That Russell is visiting Wittgenstein in the Spinozian Hague, Wittgenstein just recently released from Prisoner of War status, and having given away of his enormous personal inheritance, carries little weight of comparison between the two for orthodox Wittgensteinians.

Mystical Wittgenstein

Young Mystical Wittgenstein

Aside from these thoughts, there seem to me several conceptual connections between Wittgenstein’s atomism and Spinoza’s epistemology, little of which I can go into here. Perhaps it is best to say that while logical structure connects picture-statements to the world in early Wittgenstein, it is the “order and connection” of ideas and things that connects our ideas about the world with the world in Spinoza, with logical relationships playing a determinative role in each. But key to interpreting early Wittgenstein, as Russell Nieli finds it, is seeing how the mystical ecstatic experience beyond language gives rise to a necessarily “two world” perspective that is woven into the immanence of Wittgenstein’s position:

Nevertheless Atkinson fails to see — and it is the central failing of his book — that the creation-mystical and mystically immanent is interwoven in Wittgenstein’s Tractatus with a transcendentally mystical or mystic-ecstatic thematic that corresponds with what Wittgenstein considered throughout his life to be the quintessentially religious experience, namely, the ecstatic or rapturous experience of feeling “absolutely safe” beyond the changing world in the hands of a transcendent God. Atkinson acknowledges that there are important passages in the Tractatus that could be interpreted — and have often been interpreted — in the ecstatic sense to suggest that Wittgenstein believed in a two-realm or two-world theory, with language descriptive of events in the one, while the other exists beyond or outside of language and for this reason is ineffable. Such passages, he recognizes, include the following:

The sense of the world must lie outside the world. In the world everything is as it is, and everything happens as it does happen: in it no value exists — and if it did exist, it would have no value. If there is any value that does have value, it must lie outside the whole sphere of what happens and is the case. . . . It must lie outside the world. (Tr. 6:41)

The solution of the riddle of life in space and time lies outside space and time. (It is certainly not the solution of any problems of natural science that is required). (Tr. 6.4313)

How things are in the world is a matter of complete indifference for what is higher. God does not reveal himself in the world. (Tr. 6.432)

Atkinson rejects the two-world or two-realm view of Wittgenstein’s early philosophy — or what he calls the “metaphysical interpretation” — for reasons that are poorly stated but generally boil down to the conviction that only the immanental variety of mysticism is present in the Tractatus and Notebooks, and that what might seem like a belief in a transcendental-ecstatic “outside” of the world is really just Wittgenstein’s way of stating in another manner the truth of his claim that it is not how the world is, but that it is, that is mystical. Atkinson’s defense of this view is quirky and will convince no one who both reads the relevant text of the Tractatus and Notebooks together with Wittgenstein’s direct account of his own personal religious experiences in the “Lecture on Ethics.”

This is an interesting distinction to make for those reading Spinoza, for Spinoza too walked carefully between an embrace of a concrete “here” and yet always the necessary appeal to what lies outside of it “there”. And while it is typical to read early and later Wittgenstein as radical break, this sense of “lying outside”, perhaps ecstatically so, can be read as a continuation of a kind. And while Rationalist interpreations of Spinoza are plentiful, it has come under consideration recently that he actually places the linguistic and the mathematical largely in the realm of the imagination; when one studies him one sees him constantly pointing outward to the border of cognition. Perhaps it could be said that what distinguished early Wittgenstein from later was the way in which he collapsed the two worlds into the one world, making “nothing hidden”, an operation that Spinoza seemed to carry out in the writing of the Ethics, broken as it was in half by the interruption of the Tractatus Theologio-Politicus. This point of a Spinoza reversal was made forcefully in Negri’s own prison work, The Savage Anomaly. It is the immanentist commitment that the sense we make comes out of our participation in the world itself and not our abstraction from it, something that can be found in both Wittgenstein and Spinoza, early and late. And if there is an estatic element to each, it is that one’s gaze always must pass beyond the immediate border of perception-cognition, to the nexus of the statement, the thought, the feeling, if one is to uncover the powers of sense itself, an ecstacy that one is already participating in, whether conscious of it or not. It is not that there is another world, but only that our view of this world is only necessarily partial and inclusionary.

Writing Philosophy: The Unclear Clarity

The Book “I Want to Write”

Levi at Larval Subject mourns that a student had bought his book on Deleuze, knowing that without training in the obscurities of vocabulary and concept the book is pretty much useless (except one might suggest, as a small tome of incantations, not a measure to be undervalued in the genre of the philosophical). He yearns, genuinely yearns, to write a different kind of book…

I would like to write a book that anyone could pick up, regardless of whether or not they have a philosophical background. When I fantasize about writing such a book I am not fantasizing about writing a book that is “easy” or “clear”. Rather I am fantasizing about a book that could function as an element of other assemblages or networks without the reader already having to be linked in to a pre-existent and extensive network characterized by the history of philosophy. The adventure of such a book would be premised not on maintaining its identity or the sameness of a message throughout all of the possible relations it enters into among readers, but would rather function as an element, like lavender in the region of wine grapes, contributing to the production of new productions. Here the history of philosophy wouldn’t be absent or ignored, but would be, as it were, virtual or in the background. Philosophy wouldn’t proceed through the activity of commentary as is practiced in Continental thought today, but rather there would be direct ownership of one’s writing and appropriation of the history of philosophy. Just as the peppers in my garden are borne of the soil, the water, and air out of which they grow without displaying these elements in any recognizable sense, such a writing would be willing to take direct responsibility for how it has “prehended” or integrated that history without thematically making that history the issue or question of the writing. Is it possible, today, to write in the fashion of a Descartes, Spinoza, or Hume?

The book that comes to my mind is Wittgenstein’s Philosophical Investigations. I have taken a critical stand against some of the thought-positions that seem to underlie its eliptical arguments (and the apostlary devotion of some to its text), but if one leaves behind one’s already assumed position upon the supposed notion of “language game” or ordinary language philosophy or Private Language, and simply engage the book, as a book, it is remarkably and precisely the kind of thing that Levi yearns to write. And while Levi is concerned with the leadened, commentary entrenched Continental traditions, and Ludwig’s freedom was composed against a very different style of thinking, there is something to be learned here. What makes the Philosophical Investigations so free?

It comes I believe from Wittgenstein’s notion that there are pictures of language (and therefore of the world, ourselves, and everything in it) that largely govern the way we see and think about things. For him these are very elementary things, simple compositional, almost building-block analogies that bring everything into view, making our explanations about explanations work. And so he presents another one. A different one. And he attempts to do so at the simplest level, without jargon, in self-conversation.

It is interesting that Levi wants to not necessarily write something that is “clear” because his writing seems at times overburdened with a kind of Herculean effort to make things that he takes to be very complicated, clear. In fact, his powers of explication of Lacan or Deleuze are quite admirable, leaving behind the firm trace of the the explicable. But for the unclear clear that Wittgenstein attempted, a different sort of tact is needed, a grasp and re-grasp of the “picture”. Perhaps to write philosophy in the genuine sense that Levi means one has to be a child about it. Just as Levi is moved by the anticipated incomprehensibility of his Deleuze book for one of his students, Wittgenstein was stirred to his philosophical awakening by his teaching of small children, noticing how children see and learn things.

The Unclear Clear

In this way, if we are to write philosophy of the unclear clear we have to paint the picture of it, and not just talk about the concepts. We have to compose the moving parts and turn the shaft to rotate the gears so that others can see it. It might be a complicated machine, but its parts must be made to touch, to be felt.

It challenges me to think of the same. I’ve spent a long while holding certain concepts in my mind, turning them about as a infant turns a building block and even sticks it in his mouth so as to feel its shape. What would it mean to write like this without lapsing into poetry so as to escape the shape/picture? I am thinking lately on a critique of Hoffmeyer’s Code Duality, and how I can just feel that it works out. I can almost synesthetically put my mouth around the two concepts “digital code” and “analogical code”. What would it mean to express them as a picture, a child-picture that makes the whole thing turn?

A (digital) code is a rhythm of discrete parts, joined by a syntactical governance.

The truth of it is not found in either the rules for their joining, nor the elements that are joined, but in their mutuality.

An analogical code is an oxymoron, a contradiction in terms.

An “analogical code” is a continuous stream of material recording, the scratching of one thing upon another, (so that there is revelation and memory).

Every digital code necessarily performs analogical powers of impress. DNA has a body.

 

Something like that…

How Normative Is the Greek Chorus? Spinoza, Rorty, Davidson and Sophocles

Geometry of Know

A passing comment recalled to me a certain conceptual break through. I was studying Davidson’s “Three Varieties of Knowledge”which presents his theory of Triangulation while at the same time studying narratology, and looking into Bakhtin. For some reason discussion of mimetic and deitic elements suddenly struck me as revealing of the elemental Greek Tragedy structure (Hero, Chorus, Audience), and I realized that Greek Tragedy exemplified Davidson key epistemological point, that we attain objective knowledge due to our largely coherent, belief-veridical, intersubjective knowledge of others (with Wittgenstein’s Private Language argument playing an integral part). The Tragic Chorus formalized an essential epistemo-ontological ground, a necessarily reflective element within the field of the real which indicated to us something of what the real was, as if it were us. And just as quickly it seems, I realized that Davidson’s Triangulation was the same sort of argument  Spinoza put forth which grounded the “social” within the imaginary powers of an imitation of affects – E3p27 (we feel what others we take to be like us are feeling). That is, there is a bio-kinesthetic linking of affective capacities with perception ordering itself which allows affects to ripple through and across bodies in  a reportive, if imaginary way. The broadcastive behavioral forms of other things condition our own experiences, determining them along a causal vector, in a sense normatively and charitably making rational, affective wholes without which the world could not coherently exist.

The Normativity of Truth

Thought comes to mind about Rorty’s wonderful reversal of a decade of dispute with his ally Donald Davidson, wherein he realized that indeed there is a place for a Theory of Truth in Philosophy. His realization was that without a community of users, there is no language game, and a community requires normativity (presumably of use, behavior and experience). As he put it, Prescription precedes Description. It was here, in prescription, in normativity, that the powers of our descriptions lie. So to complete full circuit, if indeed Greek Chorus performs the middle (intersubjective) leg of Donald Davidson’s Triangulation of three knowledges, just how normative is the Greek Chorus?

10 Greatest Philosophers (sigh): Desert Island Question

Tool Kit

Jon Cogburn’s list in the comments section over at Perverse Egalitarianism  it seems has forced/spurred me onto my own list, as absurd as it may be, (but processes of organization are creative). It is a conflation of “greatest influence,”  upon me, but also as I read it, “greatest influence” upon the best solution for the pressing questions of our historical moment, a solution which must resonate down to the root/earth of the Western Philosophical tree. In a sense the list represents the authors from whom — if I was on a desert island and had to compose a philosophical theoretical perspective for our Age, and could be given the entire oeuvre of each — I would compose my island library; where there are two, I get two for the price of one. I include a small note on what seems the most germane contribution, though effects are radial.

1. Spinoza (parallel postulate under a register of power)

2. Plato (formulating the Orphic)

3. Augustine (Immanent Semiotics of truth)

4. Plotinus (Degree of Being transformation of Plato)

5. Davidson (Triangulation and Objectivity)

6. Guattari and Deleuze (Ontology of Affects)

7. Wittgenstein (Language Game)

8. Nietzsche (Ascent of Metaphor)

9. Sophocles (The Surpass of Tragedy)

10. Maturana and Varela (Operational Closure)

A large measure of this ranking can be seen as an after-image of an entire branch of thinking stemming from Descartes’ Central Clarity Consciousness  conception, which had its reverberations and mal-interpretations running through both the Continental and Analytic sides, a branch that is best left behind for now.

The actual numbers are only as they came to me without very much juggling. Tons of beautiful philosophers left off, some of my most favorite ones with whom I agree much more, and more inspire me, than some on the list…but that is the beauty of lists they force a composition, a constellation. Of course I would love to hear any of your own lists under something of the same criteria (or whatever).

(On another para-frivolous note, I would love to do a NCAA like bracket “playoff” of the 64 greatest philosophers, a competition/comparison which could have serious conceptual implications about truth and correction.)

Here a BBC Greatest Philosopher List

Human Centric Semiosis in the Name of Umwelten

The Apprehension of World

Through the pleasures of the Internet the author of one of the books I cited in my working development of a Spinozist theory of Exowelt responded to some of my thoughts. Paul Bains, whose excellent, articulate The Primacy of Semiosis I resourced, questioned any need at all for such an Exowelt thought, as he feels that Deely is already sufficiently non-Phenomenological and non-human-centric, two motivations for my working toward an Exowelt conception.

The exchange we had in the comments section seemed a bit scatter-shot between the both of us, but some interesting questions were raised. I repost my last thoughts here (changing the “person” of address), citing from a pivotal passage in Paul’s book which at least for him, conceptually sets the agenda at hand. Perhaps others will find the issues compelling, just as I do:

Here is the relevant passage from your book  that for me points directly to the human-centric framing of the issue for you (and Deely):

“I will seek to elaborate the critical distinction between the animal and human Umwelten – or species-specific objective worlds as Deely presents it. This distinction is timely, because although it has similarities with Heidegger’s treatment of exactly the same question, I will claim that Deely provides a more articulate and nuanced analysis. Those who are shocked by and criticize Heidegger’s “abyss” between man and animal might find this approach of value, even if only to distinguish themselves from it. The ultimate issue is this: To what extent it can be said that a non-languaging, non-human animal apprehends its Umwelt or milileu/envirioning world as a world at all: Deely’s distinction between zoosemiosis and anthroposemiosis intersects with Wittgenstein’s approach to forms of life and expressive capacities that can only exist in language: “We say a dog is afraid his master will beat him, but not, he is afraid his master will beat him tomorrow, Why not?”…The concept of objective being introduced in the preceding chapter (i.e., as something existing only insofar as it exists within awareness) will be seen as providing the relational network for the fabrication of species-specific objective worlds or Umwelten. Deely writes…” (page 60).

Beetles and Things: Why Experience Creates No Sphere

If I could take it piece by piece.

1. I don’t find the distinction between human and animal Umwelten “critical” as Paul does. That is, there is no substantivedifference here, no hierarchy. Or, as Spinoza insists, humans do not form a kingdom within a kingdom.

2. While Deely might be more nuanced than Heidegger in regards to the “abyss” he certainly maintains it, and does so in ways that are quite human-centric.

3. Paul’s “ultimate” question is also quite human-centric (not to mention quite rather Kantian flavored with the choice of “apprehension” as the “ultimate” value). I do not accept that apprehending one’s Umwelten “as world” is of critical, ontological distinction at all. This reflective notion is highly Idealist, and Paul is right to bring Heidegger up, a thinker who retains strong idealist, phenomenological roots.

4.While I accept that there are distinctions between zoo and anthropo semiosis, anthropo semiosis is irrevocably joined to zoo. It is zoo. And to this I would add that I do not stop there at the biotic world when I am speaking of semoitic processes. For me semiosis goes ALL the way down. Because Antropo semiosis is zoo, and relies upon zoo, there is no ostensive boundary of “world”.

5.Wittgenstein’s treatment of animals I find most problematic due to the highly eliptical and aphrostic style of his “arguments”. In particular here, the oscillation between “languaging” and “forms of life”. I offer my thoughts on the failings of Wittgenstein’s reading of animals here, if interested: The Trick of Dogs: Etiologic, Affection and Triangulation  [here].

6. I distinctly reject the notion that there are species-specific Umwelten, pretty much along the same line of reasoning that there are (individual human) mind-specific languages. Wittgenstein’s private language argument’s theme ends up disentangling every boundary.

It is specifically in terms of “experience”, what Deely calls a “sphere of experience”:

{Deely writing]”Elements of the physical environment are networked objectively, i.e., so as to establish the sphere of experience as something superordinante to and strictly transcending, all the while containing partially and resting upon aspects of, the physical environment in its ‘natural’ or ‘mind-independent’ being. Umwelten are thus species specific: No two types of organism live in the same objective worlds, even though they share the same physical environment.”

Just as there is no Beetle in the Box (it gets crossed out) there is no sphere of experience that necessarily is objectively distinct by species. It is only a phenomenological skew of what we think of determinative that ultimately thinks that communication between species is a communication between “worlds”

Or, to put it another way, taking up my notion of Exowelten, because there are real differences in the world that make up the terminus and perceptual limits of our bodies, and the bodies of other biotic and non-biotic forms, any strict species-specific distinction of realms or “spheres” has no ultimate footing. Our “Forms of Life” are already Semiotically Conjoined, and no delineation of experience can unjoin them.

 

“The Bit That Never Really Worked”: Davidson’s Concept Dualism

All Language Games are The Same?

 Tim Thorton has found the discussion we were having over his (over a beer) interesting thoughts on Davidson’s Conceptual Dualism. Is it true that Davidson held there to be only two conceptual frameworks, two kinds of causal explanations, the physical and the mental? In his recent post “Davidson, McDowell and Conceptual Dualism”  he quotes Rorty against any notional reduction of the realm of reasons to a sui generis, “forms of intelligibility” or even a “space”. Or course Rorty’s game is that he wants to deprive philosophers of any authoritative position in relation to other discourses. Philosophers have no privileged access to something which is affirmatively “meta” to all else. Therefore for Rorty,

“All language games are sui generis. That is, they are irreducible to one another… But this sense of ‘sui generis’… is philosophically sterile.
If we are trying to give philosophy Wittgensteinian peace, we should do what Dewey did: try to make all the philosophical ‘dichotomies’ look like over dramatizations of the banal fact that different tools serve different purposes.”

Wittgenstein of course  is rather fast and loose with the concept of “language game,” which seems to serve as too much mortor with very little brick, so much so Rorty’s claim that all language games are sui generis amounts to little more than any sub-set of human communications is its own kind, certainly not a very helpful claim.

The question is not whether they are all irreducible to each other, but in what specific way this is so for the concepts of the natural and the reasoned (or the physical and the mental). Tim Thornton questions whether Davidson should be called into this debate, mostly it seems because that in Tim’s view, though there is a homology between Davidson’s Anomalous Monism and McDowell’s position, Davidson’s Conceptual Dualism never really worked:

But there is an important distinction between the McDowellian distinction Rorty criticises and the Davidsonian one that Floris and I used to think about. The Davidson of anomalous monism seems to focus on the mental versus the physical whilst McDowell thinks that reason versus nature is the uber distinction what makes mind versus the natural world seem so problematic. So there’s already a sense that the McDowellian distinction is supposed to be more general than the one in play in Davidson’s (perhaps misleading of his own thoughts) writing about the metaphysics of mind.

It’s supposed to capture something general in the way that reasons connect together, distinct from nomological or statistical subsumption: something that might be common to political discussion and appreciation (if that’s what we’re about) of soccer and carpentry. This general logical difference (a difference in the kind of explanation they support) might form the basis of a reply to Rorty’s challenge. Whether one would want to recruit Davidson to this response seems to me to depend on whether one is focusing on his (it’s the same but different) account of the mind (the bit that first prompts a comparison with Spinoza), or whether one thinks that that bit never really worked but that his account of the role of rationality in content ascription was first rate and floats free. (I took this line in my book on Wittgenstein.)

Rationality Without Triangulation?

I am a bit unclear about this idea that the Conceptual Dualism part of Davidson didn’t ever work. Work to do what? I am even more perplexed that Tim seems to ask that we do away with this deadend “bit” of Davidson (only a bit?), the part that puts him in affinity with Spinoza, and to take hold of his theory of rational ascription. The problem is, I cannot imagine how his theory of rational content ascription gets off the ground without his conceptual dualism firmly in place, since for Davidson our ascriptions of mental content stem directly from our triangulation of Knowledges (“Three Varieties of Knowledge”). The Conceptual Dualism is built right into the structure/fabric of our ability to causally interpret events in the world via an interconnection with events read as behaviors (caused by beliefs). And in subversion of a non-Naturalized approach to these questions, Davidson traces this capacity, perhaps somewhat problematically, below the threshold of the linguistic, something that animals regularly do.

I have not read Tim Thornton’s book (too academically expensive), so I cannot comment in depth upon the line of thinking that he follows there, Wittgenstein on Language and Thought : The Philosophy of Content, but I have to say that given Davidson’s commitment to a Triangulation of Knowledges, its principles of coherence and charity, and a categorical intersubjective leg, I cannot see how the rationality of content ascription “floats free” from the entire view. In fact it is precisely in the ascription of mental content that Wittgenstein and Davidson most greatly diverge, in the famed reasons vs. cause dispute; and it is in ascription itself that I find Wittgenstein inconsistently categorical and rhetorical, as I discuss in “The Trick of Dogs: Etiologic, Affection and Triangulation”. I have my Spinozist stripes, so perhaps Tim’s dismissal of the Davidson/Spinoza comparision out of hand is something I cannot easily abide, but it seems to me that it is not awayfrom Spinoza, but towards him, if we are to make the most out of the groundwork of Davidson’s Triangulation. That is, human beings do not only triangulate knowledge of mental content in terms of propositional sentence ascription, but clearly such ascriptions depend upon a very rich triangulation of affects, the way in which we feel the world as sensical through the assumption that others are the same as us, and the value of events in the world is based upon how others must be experiencing them. And more than this, it is within Spinoza’s “imitation of the affects” that we best understand what Wittgenstein had to say about knowing and pain.

The “moral” Attribute

As Van der Burg points out, Davidson’s difficulty comes from an apparent reduction of the metaphysics of Substance to the phsyical, understanding that scientific materialism itself is a metaphysical position. And as SOH-Dan pointed out in the citation of Davidson in interview, he did not mean to restrict possible Concepts of causation to merely Two. Tim Thornton’s excellent, having-a-beer-inspired suggestion that there may even be a “moral” conceptual causal chain actually points us toward the possibility that Spinoza suppressed the traditional Augustine trinity of ontological attributes, condensing “love” into the conatus and a theory of the affects. What is important about this is that far from the general collapse of all “language games” into family resemblance sui generis  pockets of discussion wherein there is no substantive difference between “talk about soccer or carpentry” and “talk about agreement” is that while talk about the former indeed may exhibit local rules of engagement, talking about the latter actually directs our attention to how agreements between local “language games” can be found, in our experiences and presumptions that others are like us. This does not give philosophers a privileged place above other discourses, but rather gives them a role in the imagination of our solutions, providing architectures that may or may not be built, just as poets write poems that may or may not be sung.

Augustine’s Own (Anti-)Private Language Argument

An Origin of Wittgenstein’s Private Language Argument?

I stumbled upon this proto-Private Language argument, even shorter than Wittgenstein’s. The more that I read Augustine’s De doctrina christiana, the more I get the feeling that Wittgenstein indeed had read this text fairly closely (I see many parallels in thought, including the tantamount notion that words are things defined by their use). These traces of familiarity make his vast misreading of Augustine at the beginning of PI all the more consternating:

Finally, the thousands of fables and fictions, in whose lies men take delight, are human devices, and nothing is to be considered more peculiarly man’s own and derived from himself than anything that is false and lying.

Milla denique fictarum fabularum et falsitatum, quarum mendaciis homines delectantur, humana instituta sunt. Et nulla magis hominum propria, quae a seipsis habent, existmanda sunt, quam quaeque falsa atque mendacia.

§39, Book II, De doctrina

One might not immediately recognized Wittgenstein’s Private Language argument here, but I provide the Latin because it may help. Augustine is speaking about the nature of signs and their necessary classification. He begins the paragraph with pictures and statues which he describes as superfluous to the truth of God (having in mind the arts of pagan Rome and Greece one supposes), and then in the cited passage he seems to have then turned to the myths and stories that go around these figures, narratives and tales. The passage ends with a nod to the useful significations of the sexes in dresss, and then the human systems of weights and measures, stampings and coins.

But what is not to be lost is the exact nature of the disqualification of the substance of human ficta et fabulae. Looking closely, there is nothing to a greater degree the propria of men. That is to say, particular to, peculiar of, but more importantly, the property of, or even especially the private property of men, than these narrative deceptions. And the reason for this is that men have them “a seipsis”, though themselves, to themselves. They are spun from, or as the translation above says, derived from, men themselves. They are, for Augustine, something like man’s Private Language, something that has its origin within the sphere of the human and a circulation solely among the human. But this is the kicker, this recursive privacy is due to their very mark of falsity and deception, their untruth. Augustine sets up an extreme, which at the limit posits a falsity working at the vector origin. That which men have in and through themselves as the sole cause is through the very nature of its privacy, or deprivation, false. (He elsewhere defines evil as a privation.)

Wittgenstein though has in mind not the story of how Zeus chained Prometheus, but the inner dialogue that is often assumed to be privately going on in someone’s head, not in English or German, but in some untranslatable form, utterly and categorically, private. Taken on as well are the private “objects” of such an imagined or subtly assumed language, whether they be private sense data of the world, or inner experiences such as a pain or a pleasure. Right here I want to concentrate upon the Beetle in the Box aspect of the Private Lanaguage argument. To repeat Wittgenstein’s own reductio ad absurdum:

Now someone tells me that he knows what pain is only from his own case!-Suppose everyone had a box with something in it: we call it a “beetle”. No one can look into anyone else’s box, and everyone says that he knows what a beetle is only by looking at his beetle.-Here it would be quite possible for everyone to have something different in his box. One might even imagine such a thing constantly changing.-But suppose the word “beetle” had a use in these people’s language?-If so it would not be used as the name of a thing. The thing in the box has no place in the language-game at all; not even as a something: for the box might even be empty.-No, one can ‘divide through’ by the thing in the box; it cancels out, whatever it is.

§293, Philosophical Investigations

Falsity and the Inner Beetle

Perhaps now we can see the parallel in argumentation. Because Augustine marks the falsity of human fabula through the very privacy of their origin, the same can be done to the supposed Private Language which Wittgenstein argues against. To draw the parallel explicitly, the beetle in the box is merely an insubstantial fabula in terms of reference. That is, because the word “beetle” has a function within the discourse of these imagined people the f actuality of the state of the beetle inside our heads (whether it be a sense datum of some kind of representation of the world or a pain, there is no fact of the matter of its state), ultimately plays no role in the justifiable functionality of the word, its public life. Thus the privacy of the imagined beetle is as Wittgenstein argues, “crossed out”, as a function of the truth of the discourse. The intersubjective (public) nature of discourse provides that any inner language that a person has a se ipso, in and through himself alone, will be marked by the very limit of falsity: when ceasing to make sense to others or oneself, one’s private objects simply dissipate as objects. As long as the person is using the language correctly, and can tell the difference between “getting it right” and not (which requires external criteria), this truth function of the language makes it not a proprium  of the man alone. Our thoughts can be translated, knowingly.

Further, as a point of interest, Augustine’s vector of falsity falls right across the register of our modern praise of originality. Something that has its origin solely  in the genius of a person, authored only there, made up, is only so by virtue of its falsity. The way that we conceive of the human subject as “cut off” in various positive ways often characterized by their independence and creativity (not to mention “taste” or commercial desires) is linked to this notion of the self as the origin of precious determinations. Our esteem of the Picasso, the Mozart is founded upon a sense of private invention, what we call “originality”. But what would be an originality so complete so as to be utterly private and unsharable? The very sharability of products of genius belie a certain communicability and therefore sharing of origin. Perhaps the ultimate falsifier, the schizophrenic, in the sense that mental events become unreadable, is taken to be utterly private. But we know that this is not so (for we have Schreber’s incredible account, and Artaud, and Holderlin and so very many others). So what is the ontological status of something that is only, as Augustine’s says, a “proprium hominis”? Perhaps we want to say,  just that feeling of hesitation that Joyce might have between a word and then another, that uncrossable ford, that ephemera of pace — but wait, we have shared it now, something of it, a bit (the absolute category collapses). In the end, something of the ontological status of a thing results from its lack of its privacy, until ontology itself fades as privacy increases.

Spinoza also takes up this notion that the privacy of the mind – insofar as it is seen to be cut off from the world that it is an expression of – exhibits imaginary knowledge which is fragmentary and confused…pictures on pictures. These false ideas he says are false only in the sense of a privation (something ultimately traceable back to Plotinus through Augustine’s appropriation of Neo-Platonism). Their partiality becomes an expression of their impotence to act. The utterly unique idea (private) is the utterly impotent one. And the strength of an idea is founded upon its public, that is, communicable nature. So it follows for Spinoza that even the most confused idea or imaginary relationship, insofar as it has something positive about it – the reality it has – has such not due to its falsity but rather its proportion of adequacy.

There is nothing positive in ideas on account of which they are called false. E2p33

Falsity consists in the privation of knowledge which inadequate, or mutilated and confused, ideas involve. E2p35

A Braid of Genetic Privacy

I am not so sure how comfortable I am with the categorical foreclosure in this line of reasoning, which is to say, there is some sense in which I do feel that there is Private Language (one wants to say private distinction, or distinctions which are recursively organized). But this is nothing more than the historical substantiality of genetic progression, which in Spinoza would be simply the reality of the modes, and in Augustine perhaps the reality of the fall. There is a sense in which when we are translating others indeed there is a horizon of rational holism which follows the truth/ontology argument that all three philosophers present. If you are thinking something, or even feeling something,  it is our mutual engagement with the world and with each other which makes the origin of this “something” not a private thing solely of the person. Its very status as something depends upon this mutuality of coherence, cause and origin, conferring complete ontology to it (and supporting all three arguments). But there is a different sense in which each person is a genetic unfolding of experiences and distinctions in time, one and then the other. This configuration through its very difference from my own (or the general consensus of others) is what presents its ultimate value (and perhaps danger). Here, the “origin” is not truly only in and through the person, but a braiding of a particular line of historical developments and the mutuality of world, onto which a distinct line of expression is fed back. These distinctions, their tempo’d unfolding of differences which constitutes an difference in itself, are the portion of the originality of expression which is valued, no aspect of it in principle untranslatable and knowable, the totality of it lost to time (and not subject).

Example: A man tells a story about a young girl caught in a parallel universe with white rabbits or Red Queens, and the ontology of it shines through. The originality serves as origin somehow through the sharing of origin. Should it have been the contingent or creative change of a Red King and not a Red Queen (a difference we might want to attribute solely to the privacy/decision of the author), this factuality is a ‘nothing’ without the relation to the rest of the piece, and the rest of the words and images in use. It becomes an insubstantiality, a difference without difference, an evaporating falsity, until there is a communication of differences. The origin of the difference becomes parsed between the history of the genetic author who “decided” it, and the great wealth of internal and external determinations, the subsuming author but a piece, a difference among differences.

Wittgenstein’s Abuse of Augustine’s “making/doing the truth”

Wittgenstein famously begins his Philosophical Investigations  with a quote from Augustine’s Confessions, in Latin no less, which is supposed to reveal a hidden “picture” of language that was damagingly influential across the centuries of Western philosophy, an influence that goes unabated until Wittgenstein theraputically provides us with a new picture, more than 1,500 years later. A seductive story if their ever was one. The problem is that it is quite likely that Augustine did not hold such a “picture” of language, and that Wittgenstein’s snap-shot method of interpretation does not capture at all the fullness, or even sense, of Augustine’s conception of language. Wittgensgtein wants to say that Augustine sees language as fundamentally a naming process, as essentially designative, something of an over-simplification, and in so doing fails to see the consitutive role of truth, the theoretical role of God, creation and incarnation in an expressive vision of language.

I had been discussing this over at Methods of Projection, in response to the site’s  inspired attempt  to reconsile Wittgenstein’s interpretation with Augustine’s actual position on language, via Hacker. Below are some thoughts on the overall conceptual mistakes that Wittgenstein makes in a failure to read Augustine with com-prehension, perhaps in a pursuit to ground his own Tractatus  endeavours across the centuries. These thoughts flow from Wittgenstein’s admitted attempt to separate out the purely ritualistic (and expressive) from actual theory, between which the analytical idea of “picture” seems to float.

A first quotation comes from Wittgenstein’s Remarks on Frazer. In his attempt to separate out mere symbolic expression found in magical ritual and “false pictures” in a pure categorical fashion, he refers to Augustine’s calls to God:

“Was Augustine mistaken, then, when he called on God on every page of the Confessions?
Well – one might say – if he was not mistaken, then the Buddhist holy-man, or some other, whose religion expresses quite different notions, surely was. But none of them was making a mistake except where he was putting forward a theory.”
(“Remarks on Frazer’s Golden Bough” )

This may explain why Wittgenstein failed to take into account Augustine’s reasoned positioning of God unto the very powers of speech and the use of signs, both in the immediate context of the passage he cited, but also in the breadth of reference to language throughout the Confessions. For instance, when Augustine questions the very capacity for sign-use to explain what is going on in the expression of will, calling to God, “Is anyone to be his own artifex?” (1.6.10),  just a few paragraphs after the cited passage, are we to read this not as a “mistake” in Augystine’s reasoning, but rather part of a simply ritualistic, symbolic God-calling expression which simply does not put forward a “theory”?  It seems that the position of God in Augustine’s conception is not for Wittgenstein “theoretical”, it is not part of the all important “picture” of language.

(Concordantly, one wonders if Wittgenstein had taken to interpreting Anselm’s so called Ontological Proof in the Proslogium, if he would have been able to parse out the many appeals to God from the very content of those appeals, or the substance of the proof itself. Somehow this parsing appears to be how he conceived the Confessions.)

Now this is an odd way of reading Augustine, if indeed Wittgenstein is thinking in this way, for the very purpose of the Confessions  is to confess the errors of his ways. Quite apart from the idea that the Hindu holy-man whose religion has different “notions” than Catholic Christianity is not a man in error, it is specifically the case that Augustine’s appeals to God (and the attendant notions), are part of his Confession of the mistakes, the errors of his Manichaeism. What is the Confessions if not a description and philosophy that works toward this very idea of moving from error to truth? Wittgenstein is right the confessional attitude is expressive and symbolic, but he does not see that just this expressiveness plays for Augustine a constitutive role in the nature of truth and communication, at the theoretical level.

James O’ Donnell makes the point quite well in his introdution to a much respected commentary on the Confessions:

“He who makes the truth comes to the light.” [cited at Bk 10.1] The truth that Augustine made in the Confessions had eluded him for years. It appeared before us as a trophy torn from the grip of the unsayable after a prolonged struggle on the frontier between speech and silence. What was at stake was more than words. The “truth” of which Augustine spoke was not merely the quality of a verbal formula, but veracity itself, a quality of a living human person. Augustine “made the truth” — in this sense he made himself truthful–when he found a pattern of words to say the true thing”

See how far such a comprehensive and linguistic interpretation of Augustine’s Confessions  is from Wittgenstein’s attempt to isolate out a “picture” of language amid confession itself. This process of picture isolation is part of a conception which distinguishes the sheerly expressive/symbolic, from the theoretical, finding in confession itself solely an irreducible gesture,

“The religious actions or the religious life of the priest-king are not different in kind from any genuinely religious action today, say a confession of sins. This also can be “explained” (made clear) and cannot be explained.” (“Remarks on Frazer’s Golden Bough”).

Clearly here Wittgenstein has in mind pure ritual (if there is such a thing, imagined to be empty of ideas or conceptions), like perhaps the actual act of going to a confession booth, yet given the proximity of the quote above to an initial reference to the Confessions,  it actually shows the instability of the category Wittgenstein is attempting, parsing sheer expression from all theory and idea. Counter to this segregation of empty, symbolic rite from theoretical meaning, we must say that Augustine’s Confessions  is indeed a “religious action” (at least as he conceives of it), but definitionally not one that can be separated out from the entire theoretical and linguistic expression of the self which Augustine carries out. The entire work is an expression. The searching for words, the searching for true words, creates a horizon of authentic expression for Augustine from within language, positioning what language itself, the use of signs, is; and it is only from within this horizon and personal arc that Augustine’s story of early thought and language can be understood.

Far from indicating a Slab language, where words merely correspond to objects, or even more a “system of commuication” which explains the whole of language (Philosophical Investigations, section 3), the aim of language is to “make/do the truth” and thus to “come to the light” (John). Augustine makes this plain at the beginning of Book 10, which O’Donnell had cited above:

1. Let me know thee, O my Knower; let me know thee even as I am known. [Cf. 1 Cor.13:12]. O Strength of my soul, enter it and prepare it for thyself that thou mayest have and hold it, without “spot or blemish.” [Eph. 5:27]. This is my hope, therefore have I spoken; and in this hope I rejoice whenever I rejoice aright. But as for the other things of this life, they deserve our lamentations less, the more we lament them; and some should be lamented all the more, the less men care for them. For see, “Thou desirest truth”[Ps. 51:6]. and “he who does the truth [ho de poiõn tên alêtheian] comes to the light.”[John 3:21]. This is what I wish to do through confession in my heart before thee, and in my writings before many witnesses. (Confessions)

Somehow Wittgenstein in his mind had turned Augustine’s call to God, “Let me know thee, O my Knower; let me know thee even as I am known,” into part of a call to God “on every page,” a substanceless reading, not seeing how “knowing” and being “known” are part of a reasoned constitutive of “making/doing” the truth through words. This is the wish of both the confession  in Augustine’s heart, an in the religio-linguistic action of the writings themselves. 

(Or would not such a call to God fall into Wittgenstein’s wide-sweeping category of Augustine’s calling to God? We cannot ever know, for Wittgenstein’s PI analysis is incredibly devoid of any additional textual reference, or even the clue that he has read into the context of the work or ouevre at all.)

Part of Wittgenstein’s deep misreading of Augustine’s early language (1.6.8) may also fall upon his perferred method of historical analysis. Aside from the general manner in which one examines historical texts through an understanding of the likely ideas or beliefs held by authors or actors and the social influences that may have lead to them, in a narrative of development, he favors a kind of “picture” theory of history, where one can simply look back in time and just compare these pictures discovered in texts and accounts:

“The historical explanation, the explanation is an hypothesis of development, it is only one way of assembling data…It is just as possible to see the data in their relation to another and to embrace them in a general picture without putting it in the form of an hypothesis about temporal distance.” (PO, p 131)

This precisely seems to be what Wittgenstein has done in his reading of Augustine’s infant learning of language, only to uncover a “picture”. He imagines that Augustine is putting forth a “picture” of language that is the same “picture” that he himself had when writing the Tractatus. Now, this is an interesting way to do philosophy, or to conduct a history of philosophy, or even study history itself. Wittgenstein feels that one can simply take snapshots of a text, and snapshots of another text (no matter how distant in time) and just see how they are the same. Now this is perhaps a helpful way to start  an interpretation of an ancient text, to notice similarities, but really the next  step is to see if these similarities bear out in context. Simply laying one passage upon another, like transparency photographs of faces, and seeing the resemblance, without looking at context is simply not the end of an analysis. The Kodak method of historical interpretation really is not a method at all, and seems that it is just this method that lead Wittgenstein to take a short passage of Augustine’s Confessions and expand it into a vast “system of communication” meant to explain all of language, leaving Augustine’s actual ideas about the self, language, incarnation and truth far behind. We might say, turning Wittgenstein’s analytical category upon itself,  Wittgenstein’s “picture theory” of historical text is a false, or at least deeply misleading, picture of history.

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 57 other followers