Frames /sing


Things Grammar Lets Us Say – Wittgenstein’s Burden

The quote first seen over at Methods of Projection. Much of the restriction Wittgenstein places on Sense (in his ultimate determination Sense vs. Nonsense) falls upon his notion of Grammar. As he explains, in a quote from his “middle period”:

Can we give a description which will justify the rules of grammar? Can we say why we must use these rules? Our justification could only take the form of saying “As reality is so and so, the rules must be such and such”. But this presupposes that I could say “If reality were otherwise, then the rules of grammar would be otherwise”. But in order to describe a reality in which grammar was otherwise I would have to use the very combinations which grammar forbids. The rules of grammar distinguish sense and nonsense and if I use forbidden combinations I talk nonsense.

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)

It is an interesting example, since in the usual Wittgenstein process of argument it is designed to strike one as absolutely obvious. But the example works to undermine itself, as soon as one looks at real world examples of when and where we might say such a thing. Kandinsky, the master modernist painter who tells us that Yellow is the color of middle C on the piano, is widely thought to be a synesthete, one who not only heard musical notes, but also saw them as colors or figures. As often is mentioned here, what happens when iron-clad examples of Wittgenstein break down upon examination?

When the lead singer of the band The Red PaintingsTrash McSweeney , says that he started seeing color produced when he heard sounds after a near-fatal seizure, is he condemned to only speaking nonsense? Or, is he only speaking metaphorically, barred from literal truth? When painter Steve Glass, a reported chromaesthete, paints a “red sound” and then uses sentences to tell us what he is doing, is he operating outside of Sense?

If anything, Wittgenstein attempt at obvious violation of rules, when seen in the use of words in the real world, allows us to see just how transitory and fragmentary the notion of Grammar is. One could say that in this historical milieu, in these kinds of conditions, it is often the case that one cannot say “this sound is red” with literal meaning, but such a determination certainly does not allow us a categorical determination. In fact, Grammar bends to use. We might be mystified for a moment, given our unfamiliarity, by what Kandinsky and any number of the world’s synesthetic artists mean when they say that a sound is a particular color, but given “the rest of the mechanism” as Wittgenstein would like to say, such non-grammatical sentences suddenly open up and become grammatical.

The prohibitions of grammar are momentary unto use and not categorical apart from history. 

(Not above) What Kandinsky “saw” the first time he experienced his synesthesia, attending the Wagner opera Lohengrin:

“The violins, the deep tones of the basses, and especially the wind instruments at that time embodied for me all the power of that pre-nocturnal hour. I saw all my colors in my mind; they stood before my eyes. Wild, almost crazy lines were sketched in front of me.”

3 responses to “Things Grammar Lets Us Say – Wittgenstein’s Burden

  1. ktismatics December 18, 2008 at 4:29 pm

    My wife once painted a copy of the Kandinsky painting you’ve pasted into your post, Kvond. I incorporated this act of mimetic rendering into a fiction I wrote, which I’m now going to paste into this comment box. I’ll leave it to you to decide if it’s relevant to your post.

    I looked at the table under the window: on her sketchpad Lynne had watercolored a variety of abstract shapes, overlaid with precisely engineered black lines, probably executed in ink. “I’ve been trying to make a copy of this Kandinsky,” she said, pointing to a postcard-sized reproduction taped to the wall. “Working on technique.” I inspected both versions carefully, point by point. Lynne’s variant, much larger, deviated only slightly from the postcard. I wasn’t sure which one I liked better.

    “I saw Catherine Frederickson after school today,” Lynne said as she began applying a dark purple smudge of paint to her version of the Kandinsky. “She said you two had a nice conversation at your office.”

    “True. Listen, suppose I have a client who believes things that are sort of nutty. Surely I don’t need to go along with everything the client believes?”

    Concentrating, she extended the purple shape out and down. “You mean Catherine and her Biblical worldview. Can you give her your opinion without sounding like you think she’s a little off center? Or are you talking about the young guy with hemophilia?”

    “Either one. I guess not. Still, it seems dishonest, or at least disingenuous.”

    Lynne put her brush down. “See this painting? Kandinsky had synaesthesia. When he saw colors he heard music. Literally. He painted like he was playing a keyboard, like he was playing his audience. Each brushstroke would set off sympathetic harmonies in people’s souls. Kind of bizarre. Before Kandinsky there was another Russian, a composer, Scriabin. Scriabin believed that if he played a certain chord at the exact same moment that a certain pattern of colors was displayed, at that moment the world would come to an end.”

    Maybe Scriabin was right: maybe some day somebody will hit the right combination. Maybe he already did it, and since then we’ve been living in some other world. “So,” I asked my wife, “would you have told Scriabin and Kandinsky you thought they were nuts?”

    “I’d have told them I admire their work very much. Besides, only Scriabin was really nutty. Kandinsky was just eccentric.”

    I looked again at the Kandinsky postcard. A work of exuberant precision, the picture looked to me like a mapmaker’s rendition of a dreamscape. The fragments of geometry incorporated into the work: were they engineered segments of an intricate scaffolding being erected around the fantasy in order to contain it? Or was something uncontrollable smashing through the gridwork, breaking it to bits? “One more thing,” I said. “If you’d had the chance, would you have encouraged Kandinsky to pursue his eccentricity to the limit, even if it took him all the way into madness? All for the sake of genius, for the sake of art, for the end of the world?”

    “I wouldn’t have needed to,” Lynne replied as she picked up her brush. “Kandinsky had Scriabin. I’m not sure who Scriabin had – maybe Rasputin.”

  2. kvond December 18, 2008 at 4:31 pm

    Creative additions or takes seem always welcome. Thank you.

  3. Frank D December 28, 2008 at 1:39 pm

    The languages spoken in the body are electrical and chemical. Their grammar may or may not be the same as the grammar spoken between words on paper, or the grammar governing the interpretation of sounds and visible gestures. Wittgenstein spoke of words, sounds, and gestures, and apparently refused to see those languages as translations of their causes, which in the grammars of words, sounds, and gestures are incomprehensible. The problem disappears when the electrical and chamical causes and their external effects are viewed as aspects of the One, their relationship not yet explained.

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