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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.”


Why Spinoza? A Historical, Sociological Argument

Why Study Spinoza? …

The question may arise when considering the work of a philosopher, why should we study him, particularly for those outside of the discipline of philosophy. In the case of Spinoza there are some who have suggested that his importance has lain in his proximity to Descartes both in time and in concept. Under this idea, at least philosophically, we have been living in a largely Cartesian age, one that descends from Descartes’ fundamental dichotomy of Substances – Mind and Body – and has been attempting to heal the respective gap between subject and object ever since. This has been reflected in two main offspring-lines passing through the intermediary bridge of Frege/Brentano, those that wrestled with the problems of reference in the Analytic School, and those that articulated philosophies of Presence in the Continental School. These differences are seen to reflect, or express, large-scale sociological facts, the manner in which we in the West conceptualized and utilized objects of industry, and conditioned ourselves in our bodies in a detached and extra-mental way. In this lineage of thought and action Spinoza can be seen to stand, conceptually, as the path not taken. If we were to allow an analogy from biology, Spinoza’s thinking, born in the generation just after Descartes, represents a species of thought which for a variety of reasons did not come to proliferate here. Spinoza’s is a continent of life unto itself whose capacities for coherence and analysis express powers that Descartes’ and his descendants do not.

Related to this conceptual importance of Spinoza is the quality of the time in which he lived. Spinoza lived at the cusp of modernity. In Amsterdam, as an ostracized member of a marginalized group of Jewish merchants and religious believers, Spinoza witnessed and debated some of the most remarkable human leaps in social growth in the history of the West. During the decades of Spinoza’s life the fledgling Dutch Republic posed experiments in early capitalism, democracy and social tolerance (attended by the shadows and dangers of each), such that the core of his thinking can be regarded as something of a stem-cell of modern capitalist and democratic logic, one that, when examined, may provide us with a grammar of analysis for our own times insofar as they have been long delayed in the development of what remarkably was given birth in mid-17th century Holland. Within this notion of Spinoza as a divergent line of conceptual branching are the hopes and possibilities for what is possible to think, and in thinking, do. While Descartes’ division between Mind and Body may have served the human West well for several centuries, Spinoza’s unification of the two, formulated radically as a correction to Descartes, may provide an even more significant capacity, given our place and time. In short, we may be ready for Spinoza.

human stem cell

human stem cell

Wittgenstein, The Structuring of the Ego, and Autopoiesis

[the below was written to an anonymous professor of Wittgenstein, who recommended the reading of A. H. Almaas, a self-styled spiritual teacher, on the nature of the Ego and its relationship to Autopoietic theory (which I hold interest in). What develops is a brief address of Almaas’ appropriation of Autpoiesis to examine the nature of the Ego, when contrasted with the soul, and a critique of Wittgenstein, in view of these same egoic expectations (this professor took a particularly sprirtualized approach to Wittgensteinian “truths”). Where I use the word “soul,” read “the full affective capacities of a person”.] 


Almaas says of the Ego,

We see that the egoic life basically does not respect the autopoietic nature of the soul; it tends to make the open, living system that is the soul in a closed and isolated one, more like a machine. The difference between the egoic and the essential life is not absolute, for the soul cannot become completely a machine. She is inherently an open and dynamic system, and hence rigid ego structuring only limits this openness and constrains her dynamism; it cannot completely eliminate them (559)

This is a little off from the biological Autopoietic theory, but it is very useful. Autopoiesis is not only “open” but it is also “closed”. The theory speaks of autopoietic systems as being “organizationally closed”, but “structurally open”. As long as the changes do not (radically) change the organization of the system it remains autopoietic and in that way “closed”. What Almaas is describing is the structural closure of the system, in a way, that which could starve it. The calcifications of the ego would close off it’s dynamic of exchange. It would begin to suffer entropy at a rapid rate.

Now the structural openness of autopoietic systems, it seems to me, occurs in three ways.

1). It is able to take in energy/forms from the outside, for instance the way that food is able to permeate the cell membrane of amoeba. The organizational closure is preserved, but the structure is open.

2). A system can be called “open” from the perspective of an observer, who sees that the recursivity of the system is “linked” or “coupled” to regularities of another system. In this way, one cell and another cell can fall into a co-dependent pattern. They can form a composite whole even. Matuana and Varela call this “structural coupling”.

3). Here, a system can be open to the structural replacement of one of its parts. The example they use is that in “toilet system”, a wooden float in the tank can be replaced by a plastic one, and the system would remain organizationally closed, that is the same.

So when one imagines that the egoic identity, a major component of intersubjective, conceptual discourse, is a tendency to becomes structurally closed, this means that, a). it might cut itself off from energy input, and starve itself (such as a hurricane would die out if it could not include new material), that, b). that it would loose the ability to structurally couple with other living systems, and become isolated, and, c). it would loose the ability to change out structural components that would alter its capacity to grow (because structural differences in components that fulfill the same function, let us say the shift from a wooden to plastic floatation device in a toilet, are central to the capacity of the organization itself to grow, adapt in history). The calcifications of the ego, cut of an organization from its possibilities and its growth.

So one has to ask, when considering the normative language of Wittgenstein’s descriptions (sense vs. nonsense), how much of this conceptual normativity is part of the ego-complex that makes up social discourse, that is intersubjectivity. Now certainly being able to correspond to grammatical forms of “the way we speak” is a necessary part of the structural coupling between individuals, just as egoic structures aid in such coupling. The way we speak is a part of our composite relations, and only in the extreme of egoic structures, let us say those that through a paranoid fear of the loss of organizational integrity, does truly structural closure set in. (That is to the degree that structural coupling cannot be performed). Examples of psychosis, psychotic language, (perhaps, though interestingly, autism), are of this variety. So we can see how egoic structures might aid structural openness.

One can also make the same judgment about the first aspect of openness, as paranoia and fears might create a recurisivity that does not allow the openness that allows the entrance of other energies, creating a rigidity that starves itself by atrophy and entropy. (Such radical loops of course might also perform leaps to other kinds of openness, jumping the local system: the played out (in)efficacy of Schreber’s “nerve-language” with God.)

But when considering the third kind of structural openness, the replacement of parts, this is where Wittgenstein’s normative language becomes problematic, and a bit too conceptual (egoic). When approaching “the way of doing things” in language, called “grammatical”, one is approaching a structure that contains in its interpretation a logic of sense, imposing a kind of direction upon actions: this is sense, that is nonsense. But because this grammatical form is simply a series of paths already taken by others, entrenched into constraints, it is part of the ego-form of societal intersubjectivity. That one cannot regularly say “she is in pain, but is showing it”, only reflects the series of uses that has compiled that form, and these are historically contingent. But one, as a soul, is certainly capable of using that phrase, in a new way, in a way that recontextualizes it to sense and use.

The soul, in use, is not bound by grammar, as though grammar is an ahistorical arbiter of use. Instead, the soul, uses grammar (in Wittgenstein’s sense of it), or does not. It can invent connections, by context, that transcend the accretions of grammar. That one cannot say “God spoke to me and you over heard it”, grammatically, does not mean that such a sentence cannot be used, and be used powerfully to communicate a truth. What the violation of grammatical forms is, such as those made in metaphysical investigations, is the structural openness of the third kind, the possible replacement of part(s) by another part(s), such that a function is maintained, but a new capacity is enacted. This is exactly what poets do, (and what metaphors do…and there are no strict rules for how to make a metaphor). Wittgenstein said that nothing new is discovered in philosophy, and imagined that he was putting those philosophers who thought they were “discovering something” in their place. Well, I would ask, is anything new ever “discovered” in poetry? Yes. All the time.

The confusion of sense that Wittgenstein marks out, when he tries to let us know that there is no “object” (mental or physical) which corresponds to “understanding”, does not mean that the pursuit of such an object does not have “use”. Indeed it has, for it lead to all kinds of science, seeking out the “process” of understanding, a process referent that Wittgenstein suggests is something of a conceptual error. Rather, such non-grammatical object searching is exactly that which is the openness of the autopoiesis of the soul, in common intersubjective historical circumstances. Not only do the sciences benefit from the conceptual mistake, as they search for process referents, but also does man’s self-conception benefit, as she/he projects her/his center, her/his soul, in relations of increasing complexity to the world.

The soul, as part of the matrix of relations, many of them confined by grammatical groupings of “the way we do things”, insofar as it violates those constraints, allows for the swapping out of parts, the parts of which compose its structure, opening it to growth. It is exactly the clarity of Wittgenstein’s conceptual parsing of the grammatical that is the most egoic, since it takes “sense” to be a product of “what has been” (grammar), and not a product of the creative actions of use alone. The “rough ground” is generally the ground the ego knows. Language “not on holiday” can be seen as the language-work of the ego. These are the things which confirm the structures that the ego, as an intersubjective isolation, has built.