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Category Archives: Wittgenstein

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 ] 

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.”

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.

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 Trick of Dogs: Etiologic, Affect and Triangulation Part IV of IV

[Finally posted, the meta-epistemic (is that what we call it?) conclusion of my engagement of Witttgenstein via Davidson and then Spinoza, (and back again). This final part is continued from Part III; and here is part I and part II]


I would like to end with a rather obvious example of a mental predicate attribution which by no means “should” be made, in the proper sense: that made upon a specific painting, (in this case by Medieval theologian Nicholas de Cusa). Taking up Wittgenstein’s thought about how it is that we might even get the idea a stone would have feeling, one might ask: However would we get the idea that a piece of wood, covered with pigmented oils has perceptions, sees things? Indeed, there is no “resembles (behaves like)” (PI §281) which would under Wittgenstein’s description would allow us to feel comfortable in saying that the painting thinks and feels. At the very most, it simply looks like us. But when interpretation is understood to be affective triangulation, the propriety of mental predicate attribution shifts its center. Instead of looking to justify attributions, one only experiences their effect, as they make the world a more sensible place. This is what Nicholas de Cusa writes of an icon of Christ that he encountered in a monastery:

In this [icon's] painted face I see an image of Infinity. For the gaze is not confined to an object or a place, and so it is infinite. For it is turned as much toward one beholder of the face as toward another. And although in itself the gaze of this face is infinite, nevertheless it seems to be limited by any given onlooker. For it looks so fixedly upon whoever looks unto it that it seems to look only upon him and not upon anything else (“The Vision of God”, chapter 15) 

De Cusa is finding in looking at an iconographic image of Christ that his entire sense of the world and himself is changed. The deictic nature of its gaze, and the circumstances of its viewing inform. For instance, he experiences that there is even a changeability in the image, a way that it seems to pass in and out of shadow, something that for him reports back upon his own subjective state:

Your icon’s gaze seems to be changed and that Your countenance seems to be changed because I am changed, You seem to me as if You were a shadow which follows the changing of the one who is walking. But because I am a living shadow and You are the Truth, I judge from the changing of the shadow that the Truth is changed. Therefore, O my God, You are shadow in such way that You are Truth; You are the image of me and of each one in such way that You are Exemplar (ibid)

Here we have encountered a core experience of intersubjectivity and triangulation, the re-consideration of one’s own condition, but broadcast upon an inanimate thing. Surely many would claim that such an imagination on the behalf of a believer is a piece of fanciful dreaming, and has little to do with “reality”. But I suggest that de Cusa is experiencing something more fundamental, and profound. Profound, not in the religious sense, but profound in the epistemic sense. He is triangulating to the world, an objective world, within the parameters of reality itself.

He is seeing the face as it presents itself, in paint, as a kind of testament, and our two questions appear: How must the world be in order to have such a face, such an expression, for one’s own. In this way, de Cusa’s own affective experience of himself is changed into that which such a one with a face would have. He mirrors that face. The fixity of the Christ face attests to a fixity in the world, a surety of God, which for de Cusa becomes objective. And it results in a certain fixity in his own condition, to which his experience of mutability is contrasted. As well, de Cusa experiences the Christ face as looking at him, and reflecting how he, de Cusa, must be. De Cusa, as a thing in the world, becomes also the “truth” to which the pictured face is responding. And lastly one must assume that de Cusa knows that this painting is a real painting in the world, one that was produced by a human painter, and so the questions of triangulation can be replayed: How must the world be so that a painter would be able to paint such a painting? And what must a painter experience, so as to paint such a thing. Again, and again, at every level, the triangulation sews together a truth of existence.


The point here is not to prove a religiosity, for the very same triangulating experience can be undergone in viewing another subject matter, in fact one which would objectify an atheist condition in which there was no God, Edvard Munch’s “The Scream” might do. The point is that the power of triangulation is so pervasive, and so illuminating, so constitutive of both our sense of ourselves and of the world, that mental predicate attribution cannot be restricted to any one level of description. Rather, attributions of belief all rely upon a more principled affective understanding of the world itself, as we are invited to imagine ourselves as others experiencing the world, a fundamental operation of understanding the world as a real and objective thing. It is not similarity of “behavior”, nor even the linguistic capacity to attest to an understanding of belief and mistake, which illumines our knowledge of the states of others, but rather, a pre-condition for any attribution, is the affective imagination of other things to be like us, and we like them. And this comes, as Wittgenstein says, “if not without justification”, with right.

It is within this affective/causal field that we as living beings thrive and communicate with each other and the world. The causal nature of belief seems best described as the realm of the interpersonal as it is subsumed within the entire fabric of a world’s understanding, the dimension of comment upon that world, such that it and us become inseparable. If anything, this study in contrast between Wittgenstein and Davidson, is meant to show how each thinker shines productive light upon the other, in particular, in fields where neither focused their energies of inquiry. Wittgenstein brings to Davidson’s rationalism of belief, a contextuality of communication that extends beyond that of language itself, his thought containing the possibilities of communications that defy easy reduction. Words like “simulation” or “intension” illuminate the world. And Davidson places Wittgenstein’s powerful rule-following language pictures within a greater conceptual framework, one in which even mental predicates are conceived under the umbrella of causality. Brought together, what presents itself is a consummate thought of informing causation, one in which our ways of talking about ourselves and the world express more primary, physical, and necessary determinations. We become, epistemically and affectively, embodied, interconnected creatures of knowledge.



Appendex: A schema of Triangulation, understood as an aesthetic theory

Works Cited


Augustine of Hippo. The City of God against the Pagans. Trans. R. W. Dyson. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1998.

–. The Confessions of Saint Augustine. Trans. Albert Cook Outler. 3rd Edition Series. Dover Publications, 2002.

Damasio, Antonio. Looking for Spinoza: Joy, Sorrow, and the Feeling Brain. Orlando: Hardcourt Books, 2003.

Davidson Donald. “Three Varieties of Knowledge”. Subjective, Intersubjective, Objective. New York: Oxford University Press, 2001.

Nicholas of Cusa. “The Vision of God”. Trans. Jasper Hopkins. Minneapolis: Arthur J. Banning Press, 1985. Retrieved May 7, 2007, from:

Quine, Willard van Ormand. Word and Object. Cambridge, Massachusetts: M. I. T. Press, 1960.

Spinoza, Baruch. The Collected Works of Spinoza, volume 1. Trans. Edwin Curley. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1985.

Wittgenstein, Ludwig. The Blue and Brown Books. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1958.

 –. Philosophical Investigations. Trans. Elizabeth Anscombe. 3rd Edition, Hardback. Cornwall: Blackwell Publishing Ltd, 2004.



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


A Bit of Email

Spinoza, Anselm and the “I”

Below is my portion of an email exchange I had with a friend who is investigating a priori, indoubitable cogito foundations for presuppositionless thought, a notable endeavour. I thought my answers present a confluence of thoughts that may be interesting to others. They touch on correspondences that may be found betweeen later Wittgenstein, Anselm and Spinoza’s use of the Ontological Arugument, and the notion of the “I”:

Hmmm. I don’t find that Spinoza privileges thought over extension. I have seen that assumed but I have found no convincing arguments for it, so I can’t really answer that part of the question. As to what I think of Spinoza’s ontological argument and its validity, I don’t really favor his presentation of it. I am more in favor of Anselm’s original version, of which I talk about here, as it trades on the nature of the word “understands”:

“Anselm’s Proof of God, Wittgenstein’s Lion, Davidson’s Belief”

If one considers the original Anselm notion of “understands” and applies this within Spinoza’s vectoral conception of power as agentizing action, then I think that the Ontological argument comes clear. I wrote once, a long time ago off the cuff that God is simply the Principle of Coherence and it is silly to try to prove coherence. That is somewhat close to how I understand Anselm’s argument.

As for trying to attribute the “cogito” to Spinoza you are going to have the trouble with the “I” of “I think…”. It is not even Lacan’s alienating “It thinks”, but simply “thinking” as a totalizing action or expression. This ontological center of the “I”, as a center, really does not exist for Spinoza whose definitions of a body are fluctuating ratios of movement and rest, and whose notion of reflective thought is merely that of ideas of ideas, all expressions of the body being in various states. The “I” just has no real footing in Spinoza:

Every particular corporeal thing [lichaamelijk ding] is nothing other than a certain ratio [zeekere proportie] of motion and rest.

- A Short Treatise of God, Man and His Well Being

As for immediate transparency or intuition, I think things get muddled when issues of justification (which refer to criteria which are shared and historically contingent) are projected back onto experiences that are taken to be sure. As Wittgenstein helped point out, questions of doubtability are only germane to contexts of criteria use. In a certain sense, talking about the doubtablility of whether I am in pain is a nonstarter, using one kind of language game where it isn’t meant to be used, creating a confusion as one seeks to crawl up under the rug of language. I don’t think though that this is the end of the discussion, because questioning whether one is actually in pain, or just in discomfort for instance, can be a informative self-criticism, and is not the case simply of using the wrong word; criteria is used, and reflexively so, but to locate the surety of a perception within an incorrigibility and to attach that incorrigibility categorically to a subject is an unwarranted leap, at least in my opinion.

What a failure of subjective incorrigibility does for Spinoza’s argument for the direct experience of our immortality (E5p23s) is that once we let go of the necessity of a “subject”, direct experiences become more expressive facts of power and affect. If nothing is the authority of the claim, then the intuition becomes what it was in the first place, the coherence of power and affect itself, without need for an ultimate recourse to criteria. Criteria become what they are for someone like Vico, the historical circumstances and means of assembled power.


Spinoza’s Ethics, A Polished Lens

Polishing Lenses and Propositions

I want to set out some basic thoughts on a guiding intuition of my research on Spinoza’s optical experiences and products. This is the notion that perhaps Spinoza conceived of his Ethics, and the entire network of cross-referenced, mutually inferring propositions, demonstrations and scholia, to be something like a lens, polished to the improvement of our mind; and by virtue of his metaphysical parallelism, to the improvement of our body, giving those who use it, greater capacity to act. The analogy that is at work here is a hopefully satisfying and sophisticated elaboration of “he polishes lenses, he polishes propositions”, a thought given birth in Borges’ poem on the philosopher.

If we are to embrace this analogy in a literal sense so as to gain access to the ways Spinoza’s lens-grinding may have affected his approach to his metaphysics, drawing a conceptual connection between the attentive, precise, manual craftsmanship he engaged in during the day, and that studious argumentation he produced at night: the idea of the “eyes of the mind” is one that we should be take careful note of. 

I shall not treat the more philosophically suggestive of his uses from the second part of the Ethics here, where he warns against what he seemed to find as a Cartesian temptation, to “fall into pictures”:

We must investigate, I say, whether there is any other affirmation or negation in the Mind except that which the idea involves, insofar as it is an idea…so that our thought does not fall into pictures. For by ideas I understand, not the images that are formed at the back of the eye (and if you like, at the middle of the brain), but concepts of Thought [or the objective Being of a thing, insofar as it exists only in Thought]

Ethics, 2p48s.

This is a passage that is important, and deserves a separate treatment, though I have approached it elsewhere, (not sufficiently) :A Diversity of Sight: Descartes vs. Spinoza , Spinoza: The Body of Ideas as Lens . Here though I want to instead look at Spinoza’s use of the phrase in the Fifth Part, where he addresses the problematic claim that through the mind we know that we are eternal. I do not want to focus at all the subject of the eternity of mind, but rather his use of the phrase, and his way of illuminating what he means by it. I quote the passage below, with two of its most successful translations, along with my own:

At nihilominus sentimus experimurque, nos aeternos esse. Nam mens non minus res illas sentit, quas intelligendo concipit, quam quas in memoria habet. Mentis enim oculi, quibus res videt observatque, sunt ipsae demonstrationes…

Ethics V P23s

Still, we sense and experience ourselves to be eternal. For the mind no less senses those things that through thinking it grasps, than those it has through memory. For the mind’s eyes, by which it sees and observes things, are demonstrations themselves…(Mine)

…still, we feel and know by experience we are eternal. For the Mind feels those things that it conceives in understanding no less than those it has in memory. For the eyes of the mind, which sees and observes things, are the demonstrations themselves…(Curley)

Nevertheless, we feel and experience that we are eternal. For the mind senses those things that it conceives by its understanding just as much as those which it has in its memory. Logical proofs are the eyes of the mind, whereby it sees and observes things…(Shirley)

We can see what appears to be an analogy, the mind’s eyes are demonstrations, or as some translate, logical proofs. I think it is important to understand that because of Spinoza’s parallelism (again, the principle that anything that occurs mentally, in the exact same order and connection occurs in extension), we have to consider anything, including thoughts and arguments, along with their material counterparts. Understanding that the demonstrations and proofs of the Ethics are not just ideas, but also, as text are also material expressions of Substance, our relationship to them is not just that of a mind to an idea, but also our body to the body, a material assemblage. If we are to think consistently along with Spinoza, the mind’s eyes literally become the demonstrations of the Ethics, such that our minds and body come into material and ideational combination with their reality. In this understanding, we literally “see through” the text of the Ethics. It is not just prosthetic, but cybernetic to our capacity to act, giving us greater freedom, as a body.

Spinoza via Wittgenstein?

This passage from Spinoza was highlighted by Wim Klever in his essay “Anti-Falsificationism: Spinoza’s Theory of Experience and Experiments” found in Spinoza: Issues and Directions : the Proceedings of the Chicago Spinoza Conference(1986). There he puts it into relation to two Wittgenstein citations, which help make clear the way in which we can “see through” proofs or demonstrations:

“Because of the proof our view will be changed… Our view will be remodeled… The proof guides our experiences, so to speak, in distinct canals [ in bestimmte Kanäle ].” – Remarks on the Foundations of Mathematics III (30-31).

“In another mind-space – one might say – the Thing [ das Ding ] appears differently.” Remarks on the Philosophy of Psychology (98).

There is an experiential sensing with the mind, an actual perception, in the process of thinking, and argumental proofs not only are means by which the mind senses, their material existence are the organs of the mind, as we combine with them. And if we follow Wittgenstein’s lead, through our thinking [Spinoza's  intelligendo ] we sense res, things and situations. The proofs and propositions of the Ethics can be considered as material combinations which enhance our powers of action, through their conditioning of our experiences.

As I have pointed out elsewhere, Deciphering Spinoza’s Optical Letters , Descartes, in his Dioptrics, conceived of the telescope as a literal extension of the physical extension of the eye. His hyperbolic model of the ideal lens was meant to accomplish the same refractions that normally occur at the surface of the eye, just further out, so that “…there will be no more refraction at the entrance of that eye” (120) (as he says of his prototype, water-filled model of a telescope). And, as I have pointed out in the same article, because Spinoza wants to understand seeing as a “mind’s eye” event, Spinoza’s ideal lens was a more panoptical design, one that focused rays equally, comprehensively, coming from all directions: based on the powers of the sphere.

I suggest that Spinoza’s Ethics, in its symmetrically of internal reference, was thought by Spinoza to be something of a physical-mental extension of the mind, a rationally polished refraction of all the kinds of causal relations a human being could undergo, meant to bring those events into rough focus so that in that clarity, we may have a greater power to act. Just as Descartes’ imagined his hyperbolic telescope to be attuned to the narrow focus of a frontally discerning Will, extending the eye out into space, so Spinoza, more grandly, pictured the Ethics literally to be the eyes of the mind, propositions and demonstrations being panoptical perfections, to the degree that humanly we, or he, could make them. These “eyes” were vectors of power.

Spinozas letter 39 diagram, with Descartes hyperbola projected upon it, to show the contrast in ideal visions

Spinoza's letter 39 diagram, with Descartes' hyperbola projected upon it, to show the contrast in ideal visions

This has been a rough outline of the general idea I am putting forth, founded on the essential Spinozist assurance that whatever occurs mentally, occurs physically, and Spinoza’s pan-directional ambitions in his thinking of optics.


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