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Monthly Archives: November 2008

Latent, External Causes…

From over at Lumpen Orientalism, a fitting illustration perhaps for Spinoza’s notion of causae latentes externae, from the post below:


Spinoza on Suicide: The Break Between the Imagination and the Body

Some Ruminations on the Metaphysics of Suicide

Below I list three translations of Spinoza’s denial that a person could will their own death (E4p20n):

latent external causes may so disorder [the suicide’s] imagination, and so affect his body, that it may assume a nature contrary to its former one, and whereof the idea cannot exist in the mind. But that a man, from the necessity of his own nature, should endeavour to become non-existent, is as impossible as that something should be made out of nothing, as everyone will see for himself, after a little reflection. (uncited).

because hidden external causes so dispose his imagination, and so affect his Body, that it takes on another nature, contrary to the former, a nature of which there cannot be an idea in the Mind (by 3p10). But that a man should, from the necessity of his own nature, strive not to exist, or to be changed into another form, is as impossible as that something should come from nothing. Anyone who gives this a little thought will see it (Curley).

Or it may come about when unobservable external causes condition a man’s imagination and affect his body in such a way that the latter assumes a different nature contrary to the previously existing one, a nature whereof there can be no idea in the mind (Pr. 10, III). But that man from the necessity of his own nature should endeavor to cease to exist or to be changed into another form, is as impossible as that something should come from nothing, as anyone can see with a little thought (Shirley).

Curley comes the closest I think to capturing Spinoza’s interesting use of “priori” as he argues through an significant construction. I give you the Latin, and my own rather literal translation:

…quod causae latentes externae eius imaginationem ita disponunt et corpus ita afficiunt, ut id aliam naturam priori  contrariam induat et cuius idea in mente dari nequit (per prop. 10. P. 3.). At quod homo ex necessitate suae naturae conetur non existere vel in aliam formam mutari, tam est impossibile, quam quod ex nihilo aliquid fiat, ut unusquisque mediocri meditatione videre potest.

…because causes, hidden and external, thus arrange his imagination and the body thus affect, such that it would assume an alternate nature opposed to the first, an idea of which is not possible to be given in the mind. But that a man out of the necessity of his own nature would strive to not exist, or into an alternate form to be changed, is as impossible as that out of nothing something would be made, as anyone with a bit of contemplation is able to see.

Despite the reading of the first two translations, it is not immediately conceptually clear that in the event of suicide the body is so much changed into a state that is only contrasted to is previous bodily state (though this can be assumed). More seems the case that Spinoza has in mind that the body, through external, unseen causes, is so changed that its link to the imagination itself is broken…it is not just a contrast, but contradition.

(Against this reading, I am assured by one knowledgable reader that if Spinoza meant a contradiction to the imagination as well, he would have used a phrase such as “ad istam”. But I would suggest that Spinoza intends the ambiguity of reference supplied by his constuction and his use of priori. If I were to delineate the form: external causes arrange A and affect B¹, such that B¹ changes into something other than B¹ [B²] which is opposed to what is prior, B¹ [or A], such that A, no matter its status, cannot hold an idea of B. The change is such that no idea, not even an deeply inadequate one, can be held of the Body.)

If the meaning was solely that one state of the body, later in time, would be opposed to an earlier state of the body, one would have to ask what this would mean, since future events do not determine or even affect past ones. Is my body after I have died, opposed to, or hostile to my body as it was when it was living? On the other hand one can readily understand how a present state of the body can be opposed to the state of the imagination (mind) which would parallel it, that is, the body expressed in such a state that the mind no longer is a mind. In a certain sense, a body radically altered is one which opposes, or is contrary to the function of the imagination altogether…remember, the mind tries to imagine those things which increase its power of acting  in Spinoza’s view (E2p12). (See how E4p19-26 cover the same imaginary ground already put forth in E3p10-13).

To read this relationship between the mind and body, one should remember that for Spinoza the object of the mind is a state of the body itself (E2p13). There he contends that we have “only a completely confused knowledge of our Body” (scholia). The moment of suicide for Spinoza is a cataclysmic moment, one in which not even a completely confused idea can be made in the mind. It seems a kind of breaking of the golden cord between soul and body, in the end, one not fundamentally different than any other death. In each case it is the external causes which are contrary to, or opposed to (repugnantibus ) the nature of the man (E4p18s).

If we were to lay out the tripod of Spinoza’s argument of priority:

1. E3p10s: An idea that would give the mind to not affirm the body is contrary to the mind itself (against the primum et praecipuum of its striving).

2. E4p20: External causes bring it about that the body becomes contrary to itself (?, and the mind), such that the mind cannnot hold an idea of the body, (i.e. the mind cannot hold an idea contrary to itself).

3. E422c: Striving to preserve oneself is the virtue prior to all virtues, and the first and only foundation concievable.

The Breaking of the Ratio

Now, once this body has changed its ratio (that is how Spinoza defines a body…as a ratio of parts in movement), the idea of this ratio still remains in the mind of God, as do the ideas of all ratio of parts in constant recombination. The latter part of Spinoza’s denial though holds additional interest, for Spinoza puts his denial of a will toward death in a rather metaphysical place, in the very fact that any striving (what he calls the conatus) is a expression not of a future event, but of the very physical state of the body at a particular moment in time. One could say that the striving results in, or is expressed as, a certain somethingness. It seems that Spinoza feels that one cannot strive for death because striving itself is already a living expression, as a living body. One can only will what one is, since willing expresses itself as IS, both physically and mentally.

This poses some problems though. It is interesting that Spinoza denies not only the impossibility of willing to not exist, but also the will to be an alternate, or even alien form (aliam formam ). Willing instead is expressed as form, so to speak. One must keep in mind that it seems that Spinoza is likely focusing specifically on the Stoic ideal of suicide as a rational act of autonomy, suicide as a virtue. Yet his arguments are intended I believe to cover all forms of suicide imaginable, gathering them up in a logic of what a mind is and does. Considering this, contrasted to Spinoza’s denial that there can be a will to transformation, psychologist James Hillman in his insightful book Suicide and the Soul  instead offers the idea that suicide can be seen as the hastening of a transformation too long delayed:

Under the pressure of “too late,” knowing that life went wrong and that there is no longer a way out, suicide offers itself. Then suicide is the urge for hasty transformation. This is not premature death, as medicine might say, but the late reaction of a delayed life which did not transform itself as life went along.

This hastening appears to up against Spinoza’s claim that a person could not even will that he or she be an alternate form, something other than it is. Are the two understandings at odds with each other? The way that Spinoza sees it, the desire to commit suicide is a passive reaction to external events, ones which determine the mind in such a way, and give the body such affects that there results a break between the two, the mind and the body. Hillman though would say though that the soul presses towards the “transformation” of itself, its life, because transformation is overdue, even if this idea of transformation is mistaken or confused.

There are the lasting moments after Socrates has already swallowed the hemlock, over which Hillman’s explanation may preside. Here Spinoza’s idea that it is literally impossible that the conatus of the soul could will its non-existence seems to hold little traction. But perhaps Spinoza, who wants the onus of causation to lie entirely with external causes, and not upon the adequacy of one’s own ideas, would want to say that the passing into passivity of Socrates’s Body (and thus his mind), expresses itself in the knowing ingestion of the poison. Latent causes organize us to do all sorts of things, the freedom of the will being for Spinoza an illusion born out of our ignorance of true causes. He wants us to separate out the nature of the choice from its future results, even in cases where one “desires to avoid a greater evil by [submitting to] an lesser one” (an alternate explanation Spinoza offers for suicide, exemplified by Seneca). Each moment is an eternity for Spinoza.

If Spinoza reads suicide as fundamentally a break between the imagination and the body, the body coming into a state which not longer will bear an idea of that state in the mind (dari nequi), this seems something more than becoming what is unimaginable. Even the most monstrous imaginary transformations perpetuate the capacity of the mind, as mental expressiveness — they bring with them the cord of affective capacity and thought (however dim). If one is imagining somehow that one would be more powerful in committing suicide (Hillman and E2p12), fulfilling the conatus of the imagination, Spinoza still says that in the very act it is external causes that have determined your body in such a way that your mind can no longer hold an idea of its body. This breaking of the mind appears a conflation of two moments, first, the inability of the mind to function as a mind, and then the final snapping of the cord between the two, mind and body, at the moment of death.

One must note that the word “virtue”, virtus, fundamentally means strength, vigor. If the body will be transformed into a new ratio which will not bear an idea of that ratio in the mind, for Spinoza this can solely occur due to external causes. In a sense, a suicide can never been seen as an action.

Spinoza and the Death Drive?

This appears to preclude of course modes of analysis as suggestive as Freud’s Death Drive, the drive for circulations which simply turn upon themselves, mindlessly, the trieb “to restore an earlier state of things”, for the animate to return to the inanimate. One can perhaps find the orgin of the denial of the Death Drive in Spinoza’s reading that all things are already an expression of an earlier state of things, in the sense that all things already express their immanent cause (God, Nature, Substance), that which is prior. They are already circulating emptily (God neither hates or loves). The drive of repetition is already so subsumed at the Infinite level, there is no room left for any one modal expression of God to be defined by this circulation, without already having this expression being contextualized by the whole. If someone compulses to repeat an earlier state, moving toward the inanimate, this very state is, ipso facto, a life drive taken to its limit, Substance expressing itself. Part of this can perhaps be seen to be reflected in the way that Spinoza views the “negative” or supposedly anti-social emotions, fear, hate, anger, which the death-drive is supposed to help explain through its dichotomization to pleasure. These anti-social emotions are for Spinoza are primordially social ones, based on a logic of the imitation of affects, seeing others like ourselves.

The fixations of repeated actions, seen from Spinoza’s point of view, are attempts at body consonance, integrity actions, under a variety of efficacious ideas or dispositions. The worst of these, suicide, falls out of the very metaphysical category of action altogether.  There is a reason why Lethe is the river of forgetting. For Spinoza such forgetting marks out boundary of the ontological status of action, where as for Freud forgetting provides aporia upon which the ontological is established.


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.

The Half-Tune of Political Speech: Palin’s Song

Found over at Infinite Thought, who asks under the title aaargh! dissonance! modernity! politics!,“What would Adorno make of this?” Adorno tells us, in his Kantian flavor, “Insofar as a social function can be predicated for artworks, it is their functionlessness”. So what are we to make of this Palin Aesthetic Object. Let is bring to bear Adorno’s description of the utopian urge, the image of a child sitting at a piano:

“searching for a chord never previously heard. This chord, however, was always there; the possible combinations are limited and actually everything that can be played on it is implicitly given in the keyboard. The new is the longing for the new, not the new itself”

Is this not how Palin’s piano searching sounds? We want to be unkind to her (her apparent horrific incompetence, clearly she is glancing down at notes), and equally unkind to those that are so charmed by her (so simple minded they must be, or so blindly forgiving we want to say), but one really has to engage the richness of the phenomena, in order to grasp its full power and potentiality. Leaving aside Adorno’s direct objectives, what if we aesthetically take her admittedly nervous leaps between cliches as a utopian search for the new, the sense that amid the fractured half-tunes of ideological buttressing, buried beside the “dissonance” of trite, chord to chord hops is the fumbling for the new, the chord that has not been played.

I ask this not because I wish to be kind to Palin, but to address the “music” that this piece brings out, to exact its moral force. As much as one might cringe repeatedly over this interview, it was also a kind of music to some. As she fumbled, or strained, others felt the same, an affinity.

One can take an interpretive tact at the level of content. One can say that Palin here was rummaging through bankrupt ideas, dealing only with the broken shells of eggs and no yolks. If she only she had IDEAS, a comprehension of what she was saying and not just slogans she would be saying something meaningful. But I contend, given that she is not saying something “meaningful” this does not mean that her tuneful act itself was not meaningful. It forms an aesthetic object. There is no doubt, I feel, that Palin’s candidacy, in mirror to Obama’s, was utopian, and in some sense sub-ideological. Tina Fey’s portrayal did much to break the ideological spell, but in so doing obscured something of the power of the aesthetic form of the Palin performance, the way that it enacted the dissonance that comes as we strain for new sense within the old keyboard.

I suggest a non-oppositional reading of her “song”.

Notes on Wittgenstein’s Notions of Illness and Therapy

Sick of the Truth, and the Truth of Sickness, Which Games Played are Pathological?

I have had an interesting exchange over at the pro-Wittgenstein website Methods of Projection, something worth posting over here. It has long been a concern of my to locate just were the normative and prescriptive authorities of Wittgenstein get their traction amid a generalized Language Game approach. The below encounters what I sometimes view as the dogmatic reading of Wittgenstein, especially by his particularly charmed followers. My discussion flowed from comments given by the site’s author, N.N. I find N.N., as far as Wittgensteinians go, a rather open-minded, self-critical thinker. [The following contains certain corrections for sense]:

N.N. : If we “chance” to speak the same language as Wittgenstein (e.g., German or English) or another language that employs similar concepts, then we (to the extent that we philosophize) are likely to become sick. We no more accept to play most of the langauage-games we do than we accept to speak our native tongue. Wittgenstein was himself sick, but his sickness was our sickness, and therefore, his cure is our cure.

Myself: as n.n. wrote: “Wittgenstein was himself sick, but his sickness was our sickness, and therefore, his cure is our cure.”

My goodness, I can certainly embrace one man seeing another man’s sickness as his own, and thus the cure the same, but when he wants start talking PROFOUNDLY of “us” and “we” and “our”, he has entered into the realm of DOGMA.

N.N.: Really? Any claim of community (in this case, linguistic community) is dogmatic?

Myself: In the context of Wittgenstein, any claim to prescriptive rhetoric in the name of “we” which determines against the consciousness of others THEIR illness I would say is dogmatic. Remember illness is a metaphor here, and is being used for rhetorical and normative effect. When you want to stop looking at individual cases (the good part of Wittgenstein, the side of him that wants to watch closely), and start talking about the abstract illness of others, you have waded into dogmatic waters.Just as is the case in most dogma, you are seeking to normatively define a communmity in terms of behavior and health. When you stop talking about your personal illness, and you start talking about “our” illness, this kind of rhetoric is straight out of Augustine and so many others.But it seems that you possess the knowledge that can save the entire linguistic community. Why should I stop you? Carry on…but this is dogma.

p.s. Its very simple. One is not just “claiming” community. One is normatively prescribing the behavior of a community, under the auspices of a so called “health”.Change “illness” to “sin” and you have the whole dogmatic ball of wax


N.N.: Of course ‘illness’ is a metaphor here. It’s a metaphor for conceptual confusion. If members of a linguistic community are prone to making certain concptually confused claims because different language games they play are deceptively similar in appearance, then the members of that community are all likely to fall into the same confusion (e.g., speaking of the mind as a kind of thing).And while the ‘cure’ is normative insofar as standards of meaningfulness are normative, there is nothing ethical involved. So talk of sin and (religious) dogmatism is misplaced.
Myself: One has to ask oneself, just why is is necessary to change “confusion” to “illness” or “sickness”. What is accomplished by this? And more interestingly, why is this question not asked by Wittgensteinians?There is a world of differnce between saying “Bertrand Russell was confused” and “Bertrand Russell was sick”; and let it be said, a world of difference between “Wittgenstein was himself sick, but his sickness was our sickness” and the same under the word “confusion”. Why “confuse” the issue by changing the word?
That is if we grant you that one is being metaphorical with the word “illness”. We know well that Wittgenstein was influenced by Freud, and Freud certainly was not being metaphorical when described mental illness. Unlike Wittgenstein though, Freud developed an entire nosology, a classification of symptoms and causes that individuated each “illness” and its purported cure. Freud thought of himself as a doctor, and a scientist.I have no doubt that Wittgenstein WAS ill, at least in the mentally disturbed sense. He was depressed to some degree, had difficulties with his sexuality perhaps, and that he to to degree did “cure” himself with his break from philosophy. But I find it highly unlikely that his “illness” was entirely due to making grammatical mistakes (though he found it to be symbolized as such), and also unlikely that “we” (all of us) should also cure ourselves in this way.
N.N. as I wrote, “We know very well that Wittgenstein was influenced by Freud.”
Far from knowing this very well, we know that there is scant mention of Freud in Wittgenstein’s writings, and that he explicitly and vehemently denied any such influence. The notion that Wittgenstein was, in some significant sense, a kind of Freudian therapist is a myth perpetuated by those (e.g., Gordon Baker) who want Wittgenstein to be something he is not. The myth is forcibly refuted by Peter Hacker in his article criticizing Baker’s interpretation of Wittgenstein (in Wittgenstein and His Interpreters). Here are some of the points that Hacker makes.
In a radio interview in the late 40s, A. J. Ayer remarked that Wittgenstein’s later writings (as practiced by one of Wittgenstein’s students, John Wisdom) made philosophy out to be a “department of psychoanalysis.” According to Ayer, Wittgenstein was “extremely vexed [by] my suggestion that John Wisdom’s view of philosophy could be taken as a pointer to his own. In particular, he did not admit any kinship between the practice of psychoanalysis and his own method of dealing with philosophical confusions.”
Of course, Wittgenstein had (on a few occasions; Hacker counts five in the entire Nachlass) compared his method to psychoanalysis, but the comparison is very limited, and therefore, easily misunderstood (i.e., taken too far).
Summarizing one of those occasions Hacker writes, “It is a main task of philosophy to warn against false comparisons, false similes that underlie our modes of expression without our being
conscious of them. ‘I believe’, Wittgenstein continues, ‘that our method is similar here to that of psychoanalysis that also makes the unconscious conscious and renders it thereby harmless, and I think that the similarity is not merely external’ (MS 109, 174).” So, we are unaware of certain conceptual confusions that underlie some uses of expressions, and Wittgenstein wants to make us aware of them. That’s it! That’s the comparison with psychoanalysis.
Similarly, Wittgenstein remarks in the Big Typescript, “One of the most important tasks is to express all false trains of thought so characteristically that the reader says, ‘Yes, that’s exactly the way I meant it.’ To trace the physiognomy of every error. Indeed we can only convict someone else of a mistake if he acknowledges that this really is the expression of his feeling. // . . . if he (really) acknowledges this expression as the correct expression of his feeling.// For only if he acknowledges it as such is it the correct expression. (Psychoanalysis.) What the other person acknowledges is the analogy I am proposing to him as the source of his thought.” Again, the point is an awareness that we are making the mistake in question.
Myself: as n.n. wrote: Of course, Wittgenstein had (on a few occasions; Hacker counts five in the entire Nachlass) compared his method to psychoanalysis, but the comparison is very limited, and therefore, easily misunderstood (i.e., taken too far).
Hmmm. He compared his “therapy” to psychoanalysis, but it has been “refuted” that he had been influenced by Freud. Interesting. The point is, while Freud actually had a thorough-going analysis of the illnesses that he proposed, to call Wittgenstein’s “cure” a cure of an illness is a serious dogmatic move. Either this is just a metaphor, and as such simply overstates and confuses the issue, i.e. where the word “illness” is, the word “confusion” should be used. Or, it is a literal illness, as such it requires us to say things like “Bertrand Russell was sick” and other nonsense, lacking any nosology or full declaration of symptoms.

The trouble is Wittgenstein was sick, I suggest, and others too might take an aptititude towards philosophy like he did, and might “cure” themselves of their obsessional mania (who in this world really would obsessively lower the ceiling of a room they had designed to be built, by one centimeter?). But Wittgenstein’s compulsions are not necessarily the compulsions of Philosophy, nor are they the products of the “grammatical confusions” he engaged in before his radical turn. That is, it is a vast over-statement to say “Wittgenstein’s illness is our illness”. The man was clearly both deeply disturbed and deeply brilliant, and it may the case that others who are similarly disturbed may find solace in his “cure”. But the “we” of such pathological disturbance is not the “we” of the linguistic community. That is, unless one has a passion to speak and prescribe dogmatically about a universal condition in such a way that is it nearly invariable from the way that the notion of “sin” has been dealt with.Now if you personally feel “cured” by his process, I wholly embrace this, and cheer you on. It it is only when you want so many others to be categorically ill, and imagine yourself to be in possession of the “cure”, this is where I draw the line. I do not believe that Wittgenstein’s teacher, Bertrand Russell was ill, either in the metaphorical sense, or in the literal sense, nor do I believe that Descartes or Bishop Berkeley was ill either.

As you quote Hacker: “Hacker writes, “It is a main task of philosophy to warn against false comparisons, false similes that underlie our modes of expression without our being conscious of them.”
I will tell you that calling “false comparisons” (actually comparisons are never true or false, but only more or less helpful), an “illness” is a very misleading comparison. One is tempted to say, it is a “false comparison”. It does not help us along the way, but rather inspires dogmatic views. If we are to veer away from what Hacker likes to call “false comparisons”, then we should also stop calling “grammatical confusions” “illnesses”.
Grammatical confusions, or let us say, certain kinds of comparisons like those that arose in the Cartesian view of the mind, arose for a reason. They serve purposes, they help explain things in certain situations, they help us organize ourselves in the world. These “comparisons”, like “there is a picture in my mind” for instance are not in themselves pathological. All one has to do is realize that there are boundary conditions for their usefulness, as is the case for ANY comparison.
I suggest that the comparison of certain kinds of confusions, or attempts to render rational explanations of affinities between things that resist them, to an illness is a deeply misleading one. So much of the language game of “illness” does not map onto the language game of “grammatical confusion”. Instead, to fill in the blanks in the dys-analogy, is a host of dogmatic insistence (much of which is anti-thetical to Wittgenstein’s own requirement of specific clarity), giving us to say things like “we, the linguistic community, are sick”. Instead, we, the linguistic community, can become confused, we can over extend our analogies.
Now when Wittgenstein tells us: “”…it is possible for the sickness [Krankheit] of philosophical problems to get cured only through a changed mode of thought and life – Remarks on the Foundations of Mathematics.”, I am unsure if I want to be told that the answer to the philosophical questions I am attempting to answer is that I must change my “mode of thought and life”. Perhaps, but the pursuit of philosophical answers, even metaphysical philosophical answers has not been LARGELY a pathological endeavor in the West. I do not find Spinoza pathological, nor Hegel, nor Hume or Kant, nor Husserl (maybe Nietzsche, but in a good way). In fact if these endeavors are all pathologies I suggest a great deal of good and sense have come from them. Philosophers are like painters I think. Yes, there have been some pathological painters, and some of these pathological ones very good. But painting itself is not pathological. The very act of sense-making, of thinking about thinking is both served and retarded by analogy and metaphor. Analogy and metaphor both illumine and obscure. If anything, Wittgenstein simply taught us to pay attention to our ps and qs, to notice when we are analogizing. I think this is a good thing. But there is also the creative advance that occurs when we mistakenly analogize, when we allow a metaphor to take us over, when the world suddenly appears differently under a new metaphor, and often when this is the case, a picture has bewitched us, not altogether a bad thing.
Wittgensteinians I suggest are bewitched by both the picture of language as a game played, and bewitched by the notion of confusion being like an illness. Further, they are bewitched by the figure of Wittgenstein, the disturbed, ill-fitting, brilliant oracle of truths. There is a certain advance that occurs when one takes a disciple-like relationship to the teachings of a philosopher (I find it so hilarious that editions of PI are in both German and English, as if Wittgenstein used language is such a subtle way that each and every word has to be measured precisely, as if the Dead Sea Scroll is being studied…as far as philosophers go, Wittgenstein is one of the most translatable, jargon free philosophers their is; such devotion to the letter of the word only reveals the RELATIONSHIP of Wittgenstein students to Wittgenstein’s “truths”. As I said, I will certainly grant that this bewitchment has its advantages. It is necessary to propagate the ideas of a thinker, to inseminate the essential picture-form of the thought across a variety of circumstances, but there comes a time when Wittgenstein’s advisements should be used against, in self-critique, against Wittgenstein himself, and more thoroughly, upon his disciples themselves, who can come to be even more bewitched than he was. 
Beware the “false comparisons” in Wittgenstein.


The Precident President

Section 6 of the Tao-te-ching, comparing translations

I finally got the Ames and Hall translation which was highly recommended to me as a “Philosophical translation” (as opposed to I suppose, a “metaphysical” or even a poetic one). I have to say that as I have jumped around through it, it strikes me as one of the beter ones that I have seen (given that I do not read Chinese). Many translations strain toward the saccrine it seems, attempting to capture some Eastern aura unavailable to the West. I prefer a perhaps more banal, image-centered translation. Although I was pleased with my intitial encounters, when I checked section 6, a favorite test case, I was a little disappointed when comparing it to the one that I have for a while preferred, the Richard John Lynn translation, with Wang Bi’s commentary (2005). Section 6 makes an interesting test case for it is essentially untranslatable, and also tempts all kinds of (spiritualizing) extrapolations.This is the Ames and Hall version:

The life-force of the valley never dies –
This is called the dark female.
The gateway of the dark female –
This is called the root of the world.
Wispy and delicate, it only seems to be there,
Yet its productivity is bottomless.

And this is the Richard John Lynn translation:

The Valley Spirit never dies, and we call it the “Mysterious Female.” The gate of the Mysterious Female is referred to as the “root of Heaven and Earth.” On and on, with only apparent existence, it functions inexhaustably.

Lynn has a foot note on the phrase “on and on”, which Ames and Hall had translated as “Wispy and Delicate”: “On and on” translates mianmian, which seems equivalent to the “on and on” (shengsheng) of Wang’s commentary to section 14, first passage. Both expressions describe unbroken continuity.  

There are several interesting decisions here. Lynn decides to capitalize the “Mysterious Female” (not to menion translating Xuan of Xuanpin as “mysterious” rather than “dark”. It can mean anything from “dark” to “obscure” to “mysterious”. It is the literally unseen, as I understand it. But really the “on and on” phrase is I think key to understanding the entire image being made.

The Ames and Hall translation presents commentary that reduces the image to a vaginal metaphor:

“In this chapter and pervasive in the text, the image of the dark, moist, and accomodating interior of the vagina is used as an analogy for this fertility”.

Certainly one can read the vagina in this image, but to completely reduce it to such is for me a wide mistake. The image is also that of an actual Valley, a valley whose emptiness provides the base for a running river which is implied. Such a river becomes the communal center of life, not just for human civilization, but also all animal life. This is really what is captured I think in the phrase “on and on” (mianmian). There is no “wispy and delicate” here, as far as I can tell. Mian is silk, one can see something of the continuity of silk being spun.

By the lights of my intuition, the word-image evoked in mianmian, (if, silk-silk), is of an incredibly thin, drawn out, but also incredibly STRONG strand of silk (as that which comes out of the silkworm’s abdomen when it is spun). There is a delicacy, but also a tensiled unbroken integrity. This is the river-line that pours through the river valley. “Wispy and delicate” really loses the combined, seemingly contradictory effect in reference to a continuous line of silk. A near invisible, strong as steel productive line.

The Gushen, is not just a vaginal force, but is quite literally the Spirit of the Valley, and one suspects nearly an animistic force, one that is experienced when actually standing in a valley. I think if you stand in a Valley, you get the full force of both the image of continity, fertility and even Dark Force (for light hits the ridges). All of this content is really lost in the Ames and Hall translation.

The ancient Wang Bi commentary that accompanies Lynn’s transation really brings this additional meaning out, “The Valley Spirit [Gushen] is the nothingness in the center of the valley. It has neither form or appearance and is utterly free from contrariness or disobedience.. Lying low and unmoving, it maintains its quiescence and never weakens.. Even though all things are completed by it, we do not see its form, for this is the most perfect thing.”

Now the Ames and Hall translation DOES bring out the sexuality of the image, something that is latent in the Lynn translation. “Pin” in the Xuanpin (Mysterious Female), is the female when referring to the sex of an animal (I have read). This force is an animal force. Its darkness and obscurity is here of an animal nature. The emphasis on the female sex organ thus can bring out a bit of this, but it should not be at the cost of losing the image of the Valley itself.

This is by no means a verdict on the Ames and Hall translation. Only an anecdotal connection to a favorite verse. The Ames and Hall translation has lots of notes and tries hard to steer from any romanticization of the text. The Lynn translation though has the distinct advantage of Wang Bi’s 3rd century commentary, and a rich index of terms at the back.