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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…

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.

A Wittgensteinian Conundrum

Below is a puzzle that I feel is a product of Wittgenstein’s over-reaching into the analogy of  grammar to explain what for him is a  fundamental distinction between sense and nonsense. Nonsense is that barred by hidden rules of (philosophical) grammar, Sense, that which is enabled by them. When someone speaks nonsense, it is because they have violated the rules of (philosophical) grammar, that is, the way that words should be used.

“If grammar says that you cannot say that a sound is red, it means not that it is false to say so but it is nonsense—i.e. not language at all”  (Wittgenstein’s Lectures, Cambridge 1930-1932, p. 47; Lent Term, 1931).

1. Let us say that I say sentence “x”, a sentence which you do not understand at all. You tell me that x is plainly in violation of hidden grammatical rules which prevent the formation of just such a word sequence.

2. I tell you are wrong, and you ask me several questions which you hope could help you understand what I mean by x. None of my answers help. This confirms for you that there are such a hidden grammatical rules which forbids x.

3. Now you come across some friends of mine who regard x as perfectly sensible. What they have to say when interacting with me over sentence x suggests to you that indeed perhaps x does have some sense (at least these people are behaving as if it did, similing, responding with looks of comprehension…your only evidence). You still claim that there are such hidden grammatical rules which forbid the formation of x, even if we think or act like it makes sense.

4. Now you come to a person who seems to understand x quite well. He gives you several explanations what x means which come to satisfy you. You come to understand that x, rather than being barred from formation, is sensical.

5. My question is, were there ever such a hidden rules which barred x from formation in the first place?… If there were not ever such rules, what use is a reference to them?

If indeed there were such rules, were the conditions for their employ ONLY confined to the circumstances of your incomprehension? If this is the case, what good is reference rules which have  theoretically only one circumstance for their employ…when sentence x is uttered in your presence before time t, that sentence is barred from formation?

6. Now let us say that the new, comprehending, you then utters in the presence of someone else the sentence x, and they do not understand you at all. They claim that there are hidden grammatical rules which forbid you from forming sentence x. All your explanations fail. Are these the same rules you referred to earilier, or different ones? How can we tell? In otherwords, what role do these unspoken rules serve to explain whether something is sense or nonsense?

7. Lastly, now imagine that sentence x is:

“If a lion could talk, we could not understand him”. (Philosophical Investigations, Third Edition, p. 190)

Are there or are there not grammatical rules which forbid this sentence’s formation? How can you tell?

There are of course several answers needed here, only the last as it pertains to Wittgenstein has the irony. On that, an average person would tell you that such a sentence violates Wittgenstein’s notion of the grammar of the words “talk” and “understands” and he may or may not be able to understand an explanation if offered. On the other hand a Davidsonian would tell you, I believe, even after elaborate explanation from a Wittgensteinian that on Wittgensteinian terms the grammar of the words in the sentence is violated: for us to be able to say that something “talks” this entails the necessity that we can “understand” him (by Davidson in his very rejection of scheme/content dualism). Is Wittgenstein talking nonsense to tell us what sense must be?

[Some additional thoughts on the Lion who could speak but not communicate sufficiently enough to be understood: Anselm’s Proof of God, Wittgenstein’s Lion, Davidson’s Belief ] 

Keller’s “Water” and Anarchic Hand Syndrome

The Mystery of Language

Above is the pump at which Helen Keller learned her first word, “water” (signed). The account of which is here:

Helen had until now not yet fully understood the meaning of words. When Anne led her to the water pump on 5 April 1887, all that was about to change.

As Anne pumped the water over Helen’s hand , Anne spelled out the word water in the girl’s free hand. Something about this explained the meaning of words within Helen, and Anne could immediately see in her face that she finally understood.

Helen later recounted the incident:

“We walked down the path to the well-house, attracted by the fragrance of the honey-suckle with which it was covered. Someone was drawing water and my teacher placed my hand under the spout. As the cool stream gushed over one hand she spelled into the other the word water, first slowly, then rapidly. I stood still, my whole attention fixed upon the motions of her fingers. Suddenly I felt a misty consciousness as of something forgotten, a thrill of returning thought, and somehow the mystery of language was revealed to me.”

 Anarchic Hand Syndrome

There has been some debate over at Methods of Projection which followed after my recent response which I posted here as: What the Right Hand Giveth… . Much of the discussion was been over whether Anarchic Hand Syndrome constitutes a counterfactual example for the absurdity Wittgenstein proposed when imagining whether my right hand can give my left hand money.

This is the Wittgenstein illustration:

Why can’t my right hand give my left hand money? — My right hand can put it into my left hand. My right hand can write a deed of gift and my left hand a receipt — But the further practical consequences would not be those of a gift. When the left had has taken the money from the right, etc., we shall ask: “Well, and what of it? ” And the same could be asked if a person had given himself a private defintion of a word: I mean, if he has said the word to himself and at the same time has directed himself to a sensation

PI section 268

And this is an article detailing some of the aspects of the syndrome, in which a woman is described as combating the rude behavior of her own hand: “The Anarchic Hand” by Sergio Della Sala. The conversation has gone back and forth, and I believe that at minimum we have established conditions under which it is not inconsequential to say that one’s own hand is acting with intentions of its own, and thus that Wittgenstein appeal to absurdity is at least in some sense constrained.

But really, aside from being able to detect the possibility of coherence where Wittgenstein can only see absurdity – that is, the ability to see an answer to “Well, and what of it?” – the closer question is, even if there are circumstances which MAY arise which indeed would support the meaningfulness of my right hand giving my left hand a gift of money, does this rarity have anything to do with Wittgenstein’s larger point, that the apparent absurdity of the former supports the apparent absurdity, or really, inconsequentialness of the latter (a person who gives himself a private definition of a word, and directs himself to a sensation). It amounts to nothing. It is mere gears turning emptily.

The first that is to be done in regards to the larger point is that if indeed there is a logical connection between Wittgenstein’s illustration and his private language argument, then it would seem that even his iron-clad PL argument is condition-dependent. There may indeed arise (or even may have already arisen) occasions where in it could make sense to say that one has given oneself a private definition of a word (directed to a sensation). (If there is no logical connection between the illustration and the argument, then perhaps we can say that his illustration was poorly chosen, or non-substantive, something with rhetorical flair.)

But let us think about it. What would make substantive the attribution of agency to one’s own body part, as in the case of AHS, is a certain kind of differential. The explanatory behavior of one’s current experiences do not map up with those required for a body part. What I am experiencing and doing is not what that hand, MY hand, is doing. Is there such a differential possible with the self-definition of words, in particular how they might refer to sensations? One can imagine that there might be. There can be a valence to conscious description (and one need not be a Malebranchean for it to be so).

If I have a sensation at time T1, and thus name it at T2, is this an entirely circular, empty operation? Are there not two maps, one experienced (the ground) and one reflective (mapping) which are placed in reference to each other? If at time T3 I have a sensation which I deem to be the same as T1, and recall the name of T2, summoning it again at T4, why is this an empty relation (like checking multiple copies of the same edition of a newpaper Wittgenstein wants to say)? Surely it is recursive, but its very recursivity helps define its coherence. That is, my reflective coordination of repetitions of experiences with a causal understanding of the world, helps me, privately, as a organism, to orient myself in the world. One can say that one is “naming” sensations (if one wants to fantasize about languages in a thought experiment), or one can simply say that one is recognizing them. The point would be that there is a fundamental coherence established through the recognition of past states and understanding them to be caused by events in the world. Such internal checking of experienced regularities (patterns) against regularities in the world (patterns) which may cause them, makes up a great deal of our mental life. Of course, whether these differential mental events amount to language, private or otherwise, all depends on how you want to define language (and many would like to restrict the definition of language a great deal so as to make “mental content” something that one can philosophize about).

The “Returning” Thought

Did Helen Keller have a “word” for water before she learned her first word, the word “water”? It seems she experienced that she had the “thought”, as she says that when she learned the word, as water was rushing over her one hand and her teacher signing into her other hand, she had the experience of a RETURNING thought, something she had forgotten:

“Suddenly I felt a misty consciousness as of something forgotten, a thrill of returning thought, and somehow the mystery of language was revealed to me”

Was it returning from where it could not have been? What it a trick of her mind, prepositing the illusion of a past presence. Or did Helen Keller not know that thought is impossible for those without language, according to some rather rigorous philosphers? What is the status of Helen Keller’s returning thought?

Was this differential between the past thought and the new thought, coalesed around the living experience of water on her hand, and grafted onto a word, a differential any way related to the differential a woman with anarchic hand syndrome experiences when her hand acts without her intention, only then subsumed in a larger, wider circle, in which her her body is uniquely divided? Is private a fluxuating state or ascrption, something that describes a relative recursivity that is also open to the world, something akin to the autopoietic distinction between organizational closure and operational openness? Can consciousness itself assume an organizational  closure of reflection (mapping) upon events, mental events, to which it is open? Would the woman who experiences anarchic hand syndrome be organizationally and kinesthetically closed as to her experiences of her arm, but in terms of her conscious judments of intentions have a map (judgments) of her body’s actions which does not exactly overlay it? For some intents and purposes, that is my arm and hand. For others it certainly is not. A vector divides the organizational loop.

I suspect that something of this rift also runs through Wittgenstein’s prohibition of a private language (though it is an argument that I take as significant for what it says about justification and public discourse through criteria sharing). Much as his illustration of the privacy of hand shows itself to be quite a bit more context dependent, and historically contingent, than the impression of a logical absurdity he tried to suggest, so too, privacy and self-mapping involve differentials of self and selves which are not simply reducible to grammar.

 

Big Dog: Our Selves

Witness (and I do mean witness…behold) the latest robotic lifeform, Big Dog.

What I am most interested in are my (and others) instictive ethics responses to this display. Watch the quadruped climb with jutting rhythm up the hill, making almost a prance of it, watch it recover elegantly from a sidelong kick, and wince as it stumbles upon the ice. It is large like a mammal we would identify with (it struggles within the same range of physics that we do). It headlessly searches. (Be aware of how the camera also constructs our response, as it rises from the lowground into our now accustomed docu-camera view of the Real.)

I am interested in how our bodily foundations of ethics and rationality come from how we view other things to be as ourselves (a primary Spinozian thesis…the imitations of the affects: E3p27, If we imagine a thing like us, toward which we have had no affect, to be affected with some affect, we are thereby affected with a like affect.). I recall Wittgenstein’s gnomic advisement about the difference between the capacities for pain between that of a fly and that of a stone:

Look at a stone and imagine it having sensations.-One says to oneself: How could one so much as get the idea of ascribing a sensation to a thing?…And now look at a wriggling fly and at once these difficulties vanish and pain seems to get a foothold here…(PI 284)

Now, the composite of behaviors from a thing we are most predisposed to think of as being closer to a stone than a fly suddenly, ephiphanically (and my wince is epiphanic), “get a foothold here”. We can conceptually separate out ourselves from the imitations of our actions, but then we get to an interesting ethical divide. Our predecessors are admonished by history for not being able to perceive how the Black, the Jew, the Muslim, the Indian, the poor, the woman, the animal, the child was “just like us”, bled and winced as we did. Some elements of the soul (aspects of mentality) were denied certain classes. The operated like “us”, but internally their experiences were at variance, only dimly similiar.

I want to ask, what are the ethics of our witness ?

I want to ask, what are the ethics of our dismissal of mechanism as mechanism?

Deleuze and Guattari’s idea of the Abstract Machine in the confluence of this witness I think takes “foothold” as well. When concrete machines sympathize, the abstract machine seems to show through:

We define the abstract machine as the aspect or moment at which nothing but functions and matters remain. A diagram has neither substance nor form, neither content nor expression. Substance is a formed matter, and matter is a substance that is unformed either physically or semiotically. Whereas expression and content have distinct forms, are really distinct from each other, function has only ‘traits’ of content and expression between which it establishes a connection: it is no longer even possible to tell whether it is a particle or a sign. A matter-content having only degrees of intensity, resistance, conductivity, heating, stretching, speed or tardiness; and a function expression having only ‘tensors,’ as in a system of mathematical, or musical, writing. Writing now functions on the same level as the real, and the real materially writes.

a thousand plateaus

[quote courtesy of Fractal Ontology, whose recent post reminded me of the text]

What the Right Hand Giveth…

Anarchic Hand Syndrome and Wittgenstein’s notion of Subject and Privacy

N. N., a thorough going defender of Wittgenstein over at Methods of Projectionbrings up a supposed “refutation” of Wittgenstein offered by Barry Smith, in the example of Alien Hand and Anarchic Hand Syndromes. These medical examples seem to run counter to our main intuitions about the conceptual integrety of our bodies, and thus our identities, and as such produce tension in some of Wittgenstein’s Grammatical arguments which depend on a certain logic of Self.

This was my response to Smith’s examples, and some of the comments that followed. Apart from the points being made at that site, it seems that Anarchic Hand Syndrome (a form of apraxia wherein one’s hand is experienced to have an mind of its own) reflects most directly upon Wittgenstein’s section 268, from the Philosophical Investigations:

Why can’t my right hand give my left hand money? — My right hand can put it into my left hand. My right hand can write a deed of gift and my left hand a receipt — But the further practical consequences would not be those of a gift. When the left had has taken the money from the right, etc., we shall ask: “Well, and what of it? ” And the same could be asked if a person had given himself a private defintion of a word: I mean, if he has said the word to himself and at the same time has directed himself to a sensation

PI section 268

Here Wittgenstein (mysteriously) ties his Private Language argument to a supposedly meaningless exchange between hands (an impossibility that we take to be grammatical, I suppose). In anarchic hand syndrome the full silliness of hand-to-hand exchange becomes less obvious. Indeed there are consequences for such exchanges, which could read as a “gift” (imagine someone with multiple personalities). When the logic of the Private Language argument is foregrounded in the assumed impossibility, the ultimate question of the integrity of the “subject”, even at the grammatical level, is opened up.

What is one do to when Wittgenstein uses an example which prima facie is supposed to be taken as an absurdity (a frequent rhetorical tool of his), and this absurdity is meant to establish or make clear an “argument”; yet upon looking closely one finds that it is not so absurd in all conditions? Is Wittgenstein “refuted”? This would seem to be a odd thing to say, since he does not present direct arguments per se. What it does say is that if you look closely at the substantive, real-world examples that surround his proposed absurdities, his grammatical arguments become thinner and thinner.

“Come on” Wittgensteinians might say, “you have to read him with charity, you know what he means.” Look closely, but not too closely.

If indeed one can have instances where your right hand can MEANINGFULLY give money to your left hand, and if we are to read the above section on its own terms, does this mean that a Private definition of a word is possible, although unlikely? If not, if counter examples to Wittgenstein’s illustrations don’t count against his arguments, what really is the substances of these arguments anyway?

As for “consequences” we certainly can imagine that in a court of law someone could be held “not guilty” of murder, having stabbed someone with their anarchic hand, while it still could be considered their hand in many legal ways (amputation?). A rougue left hand also might also give food to the right hand, or directly to the mouth, with consequences that have strong interpersonal meanings.

 

Upon reflection, I would say that Wittgenstein (or Wittgensteinians) do not fully embrace the radical historical contingency of Wittgenstein’s notions of grammar, in a trade off which allows a certain degree of normative argument and logical force. What grammar does, in the sense that Wittgenstein uses it, is unseat even the most assured intuitions of sense, since our conditions of use ultimately are those which establish our categories, even categories of Privacy and Self.

Wittgenstein’s Silence

It is Wittgenstein’s last sentence of his Tractatus  that is perhaps his most problematic, and therefore engaging: “Whereof one cannot speak, one must remain silent”. The silence though appears not to have stopped here. There seems to be a hidden silence that carries through to Wittgenstein’s much embraced latter work, despite the arguable radical break with what preceded it. The “silence” with which the Tractatus  ends, is the silence imposed when speaking under a picture-sentence view of language, “A sentence is a picture of reality” (TLP 1, 4.021). How much of this need, this must of “silence” remains in Wittgenstein’s new thinking?. It strikes me that at least in the followers of Wittgenstein a great deal more of this silence lingers than is often acknowledged. There is the feeling that Wittgenstein wants to say “Whereof one cannot speak under a Language-game picture of language, one must, or should remain silent”. It is this implicit continuation of a sense of completion, that the adequate framework of sense as been now supplied, and that all that falls outside of it is simply by definition “nonsense”, which is somehow sublated in the Philosophical Investigations and other texts. (One can see this most explicitly in Wittgenstein’s treatment of “nonsense” and metaphysics under a normalized concept of health vs. illness.) To be sure, Wittgenstein’s loose, often playful approach to language through an analogy of rules and games lacks the rigid latticework of the Tractatus, but it seems that the prescription of silence remains.

If though we take Wittgenstein’s two projects in composite, his picture-sentence theory of language, and his language-game theory (understanding “theory” in its Greek sense), we might take away something more than a final resting place which fixedly allows us to parse sense from nonsense, and the coherently spoken from requisite quiet. Perhaps we can see that while a silence halos all our approaches of a descriptive cohesion, our pictures of language can and indeed necessarily do change. A Language-game approach is not a final framework for our divisions of the spoken and unspoken. Other circumscriptions exist, and will exist, prospectively, creatively, usefully. If anything is taught by Wittgenstein’s progression, it would be that silence is always qualified. And the “must”, the imperative of normative discourse about discourse, is itself contingent to the metaphors and analogies we fashion. Wittgenstein’s Language Game itself imposes its unique urge to silence in the implicit assumption of its descriptive powers. The Language Game also is a “picture [that] held us captive” (PI §115).

“Mr. Wittgenstein manages to say a good deal about what could not be said” – Bertrand Russell

 

Some Nonsense Thoughts: Wittgenstein’s Nonsense

For those worn thin by my constant investigation into Spinoza’s lens-grinding, a discussion developed over at Methods of Projectiona Wittgenstein weblog, some of it is perhaps worth repeating. There are more complex ways of talking about this, but these were some of my general thoughts off the top of my head (a few edits here and there). Here is my response to Quirinus Quine from Philosophical Pontifications.

Q.Q: “Something I’ve wondered about for a while is why Wittgenstein doesn’t consider metaphysics, or at least certain parts of it, to be a language game of its of its own on a par with others.”

This is really the key, I believe. The reason I suspect that certain uses of language are denied PROPER language game status [technically, "language games" are much more simple than what we are talking about, but any conceptual construction must rest upon a complex of its games one supposes] is that Wittgenstein has a slightly hidden Puritanism in his approach. He, out from his engineer’s background, wants to take language off holiday, and put it back to work doing what it is supposed to be doing. Buried in this play vs. work conception is that real games are mechanistic and rule-following (that is what gives them traction, connecting them to solid ground and keeping them off the ice).

It just so happens that historically in the fields of philosophy, when you spend time thinking about thinking, this isn’t really how things work. There is something about metaphysical conception (those kind of games) that is between Language being at Work (like the Slab Language), getting things done, and Wittgenstein’s alternate, language being like gears turning emptily without connection to the rest of the mechanism (the world), as if pure unadulterated ritual [rituals have purposes too!]. There simply are not only two positions, that of pure sense and that of pure nonsense, which Wittgenstein would like to propose. Metaphysical conceptions, arguments, debates, even if we grant them the status of complete and utter grammatical nonsense and confusion, end up producing empirical observations about the world and ourselves, for instance how Hegelian nonsense spinnings about the negation and the sublimation lead to all kinds of sociological descriptions which are definitively measurable. The conceptual refinement leads to research and focus. As such, metaphysical debate helps to organize communally shared perceptions, (which is not to say that metaphysical truths have authority over perceptions). To imagine that a game of words has only one kind of use, a use which grammatical confusions supposedly radically undermine, simply turns a huge blind eye to the actual historical processes that have employed metaphysical language games, all the while. In a sense, Wittgenstein’s empirical/grammatical distinctions is as cut off from solid ground (the path of history, concrete analysis of language use and its products), as any metaphysical word game.

In the end it is just that Wittgenstein (really more his followers than he himself, for he remained more playful than most of his adherents), neglected to apply the word game analysis to his own language use, hoping I suspect, to be able to achieve a vantage point where he could judge as good or bad, by category, some games (sense makers) as better than others (nonsense makers). One may of course take such a distinction as informative, even revealing, but it too rests on analogy, metaphor and perspective, all of which can be called into question.

 

Two worthwhile essays on the issue of Wittgenstein Nonsense are: “Wittgenstein’s Exclusion of Metaphysical Nonsense” and “Wittgenstein’s Grammatical-Empirical Distinction” each by Philip P. Hallie

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