10.29.2002

[77]Decoupling word and thing is difficult precisely because our philosophical habit of privileging nouns and representationalism is so strong. The process view has great appeal ever since I read Whitehead and Teilard de Chardin in college. They present the world as a creative achievement. Wittgenstein belongs in a category with them in this regard, but he remains fairly unclassifiable. When you see the world as a process or from the perspective of a walker, then what you see will have blurred edges. This is the quality of perception in a dynamic world that Wittgenstein addresses in 77.

10.27.2002

If you don't think of the world as being made up of discreet objects so much as processes or currents it is not so difficult to decouple word & thing. (Words would have to be part of the "process reality" too.)

10.25.2002

"A question for you, Joe: Who would you regard as an artist (musician, painter, poet) who successfully presents chaos chaotically? Who captures the wildness with the greatest felicity?" Right, as your question implies, you can't really present chaos chaotically as an artist. If you want "felicity" you have to impose order or some kind. What I like about Dylan is how utterly careless he is, allowing just about anything to happen in his songs while usually managing to hold things together. But carelessness here is a kind of aesthetic principle, which is to say a way of making order. I like Ginsberg for similar reasons & find James Merrill hard to read, even as I recognize his enormous talent. But this is mostly personal taste, I suspect. Subject matter enters into it as well; while Merrill isn't an entirely private or personal poet, his main subjects seem interior to me & I have a pretty strong committment to the external in my own work.

"How fragile this adhesive holding language together really is!" Yes, all held together by human imagination.

A poem is a kind of game, but a game might also be a poem. Wittgenstein's great virtue in PI is that he makes it harder for us to get caught up in our own categories even while allowing as how those categories have a use, a function, in the world. Their use is nothing less than meaning, but of course the whole concept of meaning is altered if the philosopher comes to the poet's conclusion that the ambiguous can be true, or that more than one perspective can be valid.

What category do we put the DC snipers into, for instance? Are they "terrorists" because they terrorized a region? Or do we use the categories of medicine & seem them as mentally disturbed? Was the /meaning/ of their acts political or personal? It matters how we sort the answers to these questions out; it matters, that is, what meaning(s) we assign to the actions of these two men. What I'm suggesting is that we will almost certainly have to settle on a messy set of overlapping meanings. In this sense, simplicity is the enemy of clarity.

Hey, the bass player holds everything together. I'm going to try to make rehersals a bit more regularly now.

10.15.2002

[75,76] In these remarks, Wittgenstein appears to be changing course. At least this was my first impression, but now that I look more closely I see that he continues to consider the effect of viewpoint on how we know/see something. Here the example is games. We understand that the meaning of the word 'game' is an effect of how we use it. Using it, is an indication that one has achieved understanding of the word. That is, to know what a game is is to describe various examples of games. There is no correspondence required here: the various games we may use to show our understanding of games does not partake in some idealized form of game. The similarities between games is more complex than this. There are multiple points of comparison from the specific (games have rules) to the general (games have beginnings and ends). But what do we do with metaphorical uses of games? "Life is a game," for instance.

Wittgenstein picks up this point in 76. One could draw "a sharp boundary" around what she believes count as games. I might be more flexible. My boundaries would be wider and more inclusive. Wittgenstein comes along and offers the possibility that no boundary is required or desirable. How then do we arrive at agreement that each of us understand what 'game' means? For some reason, Wittgenstein does not use "family resemblance" here. He uses "kinship" instead. This is all we have to go by when considering all the possible uses of and examples of games. "The kinship is just as undeniable as the difference." How fragile this adhesive holding language together really is!

10.14.2002

I've appreciated your comments on specific remarks. They have been road markers helping me find my way through my confusion. I haven't written much here recently partly because I got to the point where I had to pause & think about W's whole project for a while. In that process I've been reading a little about where he comes from philosophically. At one level, I "get" Wittgenstein just fine. That's the level (don't like the buried metaphor there in the word level, but I'm on my first cup of coffee this morning) on which he demonstrates that the world does not obey logical formulas but makes sense anyway--or we humans speak sense into the world. William Barrett, whom I've mentioned before, points out the distinction between the highly derived forms of symbolic logic & the lived-logic of everyday practice. It's pretty clear that people were able to think "logically" before the invention of the syllogism & that consequently the project of early 20th century logicism was misguided, though weirdly powerful. The idea that ordinary thought as expressed in language somehow constitutes a Fall from a prelapsarian world of pure logical certainty seems a relic of 18th century Anglican (imperial) Christianity. [Imperialism is much on my mind these days.] After trying in the Tractatus to provide a diagram of Eden, Wittgenstein in PI is arguing with his early self, a self infused with Russell's influence. But I often get bogged down in the details of Wittgenstein's analysis, if that's the right word. (Maybe I'm just like my freshmen, who complain, "How come Job's friends have to repeat themselves so many times? It's so repetitious!) "Well, Children," I tell them, "the author is pretty clearly trying to tell you something with those repetitions: This stuff is important!" And of course most of them miss the fact that we are talking about repetition with variation. Which seems to be what W. is doing in PI.

Okay, I'm trying to size up PI the best way I know how. Which is as a work of literature. As you have said, one couldn't do this with Kant or Russell, but with Wittgenstein or Plato it makes sense. I was thinking again over the weekend about that remark of W's that philosophy ought to be written as much like poetry as possible. It is conventional wisdom among rhetoricians that the poetic use of language is expressive. But expressive of what? Since the high water mark of German & British Romanticism, the poetic & thus the expressive have been largely confined to the realm of human feeling & emotion. Though Romanticism advertised itself as liberating the poet from the constraints of period style & conventional morality, this freedom came at a price: one was required to abstain from thinking. (I'm exaggerating a bit here, but you get the picture.) Poets have often since found themselves locked in the velvet box of the emotions. But we now know (turning to one of your neuro-scientists, Anthony Damasio) that emotion & thought are inseparable. Anyway, getting back to my point about the nature of the expressive, the conventional view of a poem, say, is that it seeks to both express an emotion & elicit an emotion from a reader / listener.

10.13.2002

If I must be the bass player, then let me be Charlie Mingus or Slam Stewart -- someone dangerous; the one who gets the girls (speaking figuratively); one who takes the instrument where it has not gone before. Your thought on how even as we may perceive chaos, a sense of disorder that is utterly palatable, we nevertheless express it in narrative (sometimes fragmented and unchronological). This morning I was listening to a speaker on the radio talking about the opera pieces he has produced with Phillip Glass. This speaker said that he was trying to be courageous in the face of current events: modernity, the impending war, personal mortality, etc. Pessimism is the goal of the courage he is seeking. I'm not sure if I agree that pessimism requires courage, but even if this was the case, courage would not be enough to embrace disorder. What Wittgenstein shows, I think, is that even as we perceive disorder, accept it as liberating, as an opportunity for creativity, we are not built to express disorder in a disorderly way. Call it consciousness, an effect of language, or an external expression of synaptic structures: in any event, we cannot help but to respond to disorder, chaos, with shape. This is the limit of description. We cannot "leave the world as I found it." We change it by adding to disorder by our very existence, and adding to the order by our presentations of what we see and feel.

A question for you, Joe: Who would you regard as an artist (musician, painter, poet) who successfully presents chaos chaotically? Who captures the wildness with the greatest felicity? Would we like what we see or hear? Or would we turn away in fear and disgust? My vote goes to Wittgenstein because of what he suggests, because of the consequences of his conventionalism, and as a consequences of his imaginative use of metaphors. Coltrane came to mind, but his work had religious goals. Ornette Coleman too, but I think his limitations as a musician the secret to his success. Among the many names that swim by as I think are Pollack, Celan, and Heraclitus, but their work is framed, enclosed on a page, structured by time (having a beginning, middle, and end, in terms of duration).

Perhaps the most powerful presentation of the pure presence of chaos is offered by Cynthia Ozick in The Messiah of Stockholm. In this work, Ozick's protagonist, a book reviewer, finds the lost work of Bruno Schultz. This manuscript, titled "The Messiah," was reputed to have been complete at the time of Bruno Schultz's death. The moment when the reviewer opens the manuscript is extraordinary. Pure presence requires no duration. The work is revealed instantaneously in an incendiary "moment". Schultz and Wittgenstein make for quite the pair.

10.11.2002

"What a mess!" indeed. The thing that I get, over & over, from Wittgenstein is that there is no "logical platform," as you so nicely put it, to our practice of language. It is, in fact, a practice, in the sense that we have to keep trying to get it right, but also in the sense of spiritual practice. Wittgenstein, with all the precision of a great intellect trained in mathematics & engineering, is also the person who crouched on the trenches of the losing side in WWI, scribbling notes for what would become the Tractatus, which is surely the final document of Western logicism, though many later philosophers are clearly unaware of this fact & go on producing texts in a sort of vague afterlife of the Analytic.

Is the Wittgenstein of the Philosophical Investigations one of these posthumous philosophers? The tension in this text--which I find both seductive & dismaying--between logic & poetry seems impossible of resolution, threatening to sink the whole enterprise. But of course it is just such intellectual (in the broadest sense) high-wire acts that fascinate & illuminate: the later poetry of James Wright, the novels of Thomas Mann, the late sonatas & quartets of Beethoven, most of Thelonious Monk, the remarks in PI . . .

We're all boxed in
no place to escape . . .
All my powers of expression
I thought so sublime
could never do you justice
In reason & rhyme.
Only one thing I did wrong--
stayed in Mississippi a day too long.
[Bob Dylan, "Mississippi." From Love & Theft]

Where the hell am I going with this? How's this? Wittgenstein teaches us that there are no platforms, no foundations for our thought, just amazingly articulate games of language, while all the while longing desperately for certainty & encoding that longing into the very structure of the remarks.

I got a cravin' love for blazing speed
Got a hopped up Mustang Ford
Jump into the wagon, love, throw your panties overboard
I can write you poems, make a strong man lose his mind
I'm no pig without a wig
I hope you treat me kind
Things are breakin' up out there
High water everywhere
[Bob Dylan, "High Water." From Love & Theft]

Things are breakin up out there. And yet we put the chaos into songs, into works of philosophy, into lectures & books of poems & conversations in the hallway. So all this attention to patches of color & brooms in the corner it's poetry. That's what W. means in Culture & Value when he says that philosophy should be written like poetry--not "pretty," not decorative, not superficial adornment, but the actual welter & shambles of getting through the day. It is, of course, an impossible prescription. But when did that ever stop us.

Been workin' on the mainline - workin' like the devil
The game is the same - it's just up on a different level
Poor boy - dressed in black
Police at your back
[Dylan. ibid]

I think Dylan is about to lead me to a discussion of Husserl, but that will be tomorrow. As if I knew anything about Husserl. You keep talking about Wittgenstein. You're the bass player in this combo--I'm the addled guy on tenor sax.

10.10.2002

[73,74] With some philosophers it is possible to put your head down and just plow through the material. This is my experience in reading Hume and Kant. I do enjoy them, in a certain sense, but reading them is a matter of learning their technical vocabulary and seeing the way their arguments develop. You move from beginning to end; rarely do you turn back to find how you lost your way. Indeed, you do not lose your way. This sort of linearity culminating in an anticipatable conclusion is not in evidence in thinkers like Plato, Hegel, Nietzsche, and Adorno. Sometimes, however, Wittgenstein makes this latter group look like a children's primer. Why? I think it is because Wittgenstein was fighting battles on three fronts: in opposition to mentalism, to empiricism's reductionism, and to personal laziness. These opponents are never labeled clearly. Mentalism and atomism are usually distinguished from remark to remark, but the ethical stance is pervasive. To call Wittgenstein a dialectical thinker is to impose too much structure on his writing.

Remark 73 is a response to mentalism. We are shown a table of color samples or a leaf. Some explain our ability to see the green-ness of various shades of green or leaf-ness from various leaf samples as a proof for the existence of mental categories for these qualities. We look to the mind rather than "the way samples are used." Why do we do this? Wittgenstein does not answer it here, but we have seen various remarks that accuse philosophers of seeking occult sources certitude that lead to dualisms. Dualism keeps us from the hard work of describing what it is that we do when we, as an example, define something (a color or shape) ostensively.

The way we respond to an ostensive definition, Wittgenstein continues in remark 74, depends on the way we see it. The way you see it will be revealed in the way you use ostensive defining to teach someone else. Because of the variety of perceptual vantages we can take on an act of ostensive defining, the certitude philosophers seek in reductionism or mentalism proves elusive. Perfect clarity, pure presence, ideal speech acts where what I request is comprehended completely by the person I am speaking to, are defied by our capacity to see "in this way or that..."

10.08.2002

[71,72] Wittgenstein's relation to Frege continues in this remark. Here the relation is critical, however. What Wittgenstein proposes is "that the concept of 'game' is a concept with blurred edges.' Frege contended, in what sounds like a version of the law of the excluded middle, is that such a concept would be senseless. Wittgenstein's retort is to show that blurring does not detract from usefulness. It is another of those remarks we might use to build a case for Wittgenstein as a pragmatist. Clearly, what this remark reveals is the distance Wittgenstein traveled away from the logical excesses of his Tractatus. What I mean by "logical excesses" is captured in Stephen Toulmin's description of formal logic's relation to logic-in-use (the logic underlying argument in such non-philosophical contexts as law and medicine). What logicians of the Russel, Frege, and early Wittgenstein stripe missed was that formal syllogistic or symbolic logic is an extrapolation of ordinary logic-in-use. Whether you use mathematical symbols or a lexicon of nouns, you still do not escape the prejudices or blurriness of ordinary language. Formal logic is not the "pure" essence of language; rather, it is construct that, in effect, detracts from the way logic is used in arguments in order to make a persuasive case. What Wittgenstein is arguing for, then, is something like a return to sophism or rhetoric by philosophers. He would never be that historical about what his return to ordinary language means, but it could be described as a resurrection of a tradition trounced by Socrates and Plato.

72 appears to be a departure from this idea of 'blurred concept' and a return to color. But there is blurriness at the heart of what Wittgenstein asserts, "Seeing what is common" when we look at paint samples, for example. We look at various shades of blue, and we can discern commonality in order to say "they are all blue." We are not saying, in this instance, that all the shades partake in a perfect blueness. Rather, we accept the blurriness of the category and still manage to communicate the idea of blue, pace Frege.

This is liberating stuff, in a way. The precision demanded by philosophers of the analytic tradition do nothing to aid communication. They may expose truth conditions within ordinary expression (and here I am thinking of the work of Donald Davidson). They may reveal the difficulties and infelicities of translation. But they cannot tell us anything about how we manage to communicate ideas despite the uncontrollable polysemy of our words.

What is the difference between a concept and a word?

10.05.2002

[69,70] Family resemblances function not only to characterize similarities between things -- numbers, games, etc. They also work in teaching. In 69, Wittgenstein wonders how we go about teaching someone what a game is. One way is to show a person a variety of games. We can draw boundaries -- temporary, incomplete, indeterminate -- in order to fulfill a special purpose. Here the boundaries around family resemblances are drawn in order to teach.

In 70, the interlocutor responds that this image of teaching is not definitive enough. If the concept of a game is unbounded, then you do not really know what a game is and so you cannot teach it to someone else. To know what a game is, you must know the essence of games. Wittgenstein responds: Is my statement "The ground was quite covered with plants" meaningless until I give a definition (the essence of) plant?

What I like most about this exchange is that I do indeed understand the interlocutor's impulse to go deeper that surface similarities to offer a definition of games. There must be something more that unites all those activities that we call games. In trying to go deeper, however, we create a duality that distracts the eye from celebrating the beauty of the surface. Wittgenstein is back to his ethical best at this point: seeking the essence of games is not only a false epistemological procedure, but it is unethical since the search for universality entails a denigration of the rich diversity of appearances.

10.03.2002

[67,68] There have been a number of comparisons between Wittgenstein and Immanuel Kant. Structurally, the Tractatus conforms to the noumenal/phenomenal duality posed by Kant in his first critique. But I have argued that the differences between Kant and Wittgenstein are far more significant than the similarities. Still they lived lives that were neat and orderly. The stories about Kant's keeping to a daily schedule are legendary. Wittgenstein's rooms at Whewell Court were remembered by students for their spare furnishings and cleanliness. Orderly lives apparently left room for disorderly, revolutionary thinking.

After a series of remarks on the irreducibility, contingency, and conventionality of language that add up to a disorderly view of how language-games hang together, Wittgenstein offers an organizational concept: family resemblances. As Wittgenstein puts it "'games' form a family." Language-games cluster around these resemblances. But we ought not fix on these resemblances; such focus leads to generalizations that require the rhetoric of an underlying foundation of common logic for support. Wittgenstein merely grants that there are family resemblances evoked by points of overlap and criss-crossing between language-games.

Remark 68 moves us again away from notions of uniformity and parameters in and between games. Wittgenstein investigates how we use the word "game." Our perspective is one of players within a game. The view from this playing field does not include boundaries. Boundaries can be drawn, but the perspective that leads to the drawing of boundaries is different from that of the player. Umpires or referees worry about boundaries; players play. But even this distinction in perspectives within the playing field does not hold generally. Everywhere in the game are "unregulated" or unboundable areas. The game of tennis, for example, "is not everywhere circumscribed by rules; but no more are there any rules for how high one throws the ball in tennis, or how hard; yet tennis is a game for all that and has rules too."

I think about the skill of the player in terms of playing with the rules. In ice hockey there are rules against elbowing, spearing, slashing, high sticking, and so on. However, great hockey players have always known that these rules apply only to those stupid enough to get caught. There is an art to breaking the rules that is very much part of the game.

10.01.2002

Giving the philosophy of mind over to cognitive science is not really corrosive to philosophy (unless you are a philosopher of mind). Rather, it frees philosophy to describe the world without recourse to occult sources of justification. Your description of color, weather, and the way one makes a living affects one perception of the world stands as a tribute to this freedom. I just wish many of the philosophers I have to read in order to keep up with the field were as gifted as you in the art of written expression.

I have been busy on two other projects that prevented me from devoting time to this blog site. One is in the can now. the other should be finished as soon as I can block off more time. This is the way I have been working on Wittgenstein for years. I think this gives us some insight into the remark form. Wittgenstein, of course, was a philosopher obsessed with his brand of philosophizing. He was looking for a form of philosophical life that would occasionally give him a break from philosophy. Apparently, he never found it. I like this description offered by William James Earle: "All large-scale cultures include people, by definition relatively few people, whose personal systems of interest and aversion are statistically unusual or in mismatch with their neighbors. Wittgenstein, compared at least to standardly trained academic philosophers, is one such. This is description, not praise or blame. Wittgenstein is intensely interested in, actually obsessed by, a very small set of philosophical topoi and disgusted by (Wittgenstein's version of being indifferent to) all the rest."

Wittgenstein gives me opportunities to rest between philosophical problems, but there is no turning away from philosophy as a way of life. I follow a certain path within the text. The strand comes to an end. It resonates. But in the space between strands there is room to move. Indeed, there is room to move away. When you can see the text from this kind of interior perspective, then you partake in Wittgenstein's stylistic and substantive success: He has altered the way you look at the text in order to read. The reader does not hover above, but resides within. To find rest, the reader does not merely close the book; instead, the reader has to climb out. The experience of the climb remains and helps restore the reader to the interior at the next encounter.

We do not read Wittgenstein; we walk through his writings. The reader experiences the lived-life of the philosopher.

In 63, Wittgenstein looks again at the indeterminacy of orders and, by implication, ostensive definitions. Our tendency, Wittgenstein says, is to search for an underlying logical form that unites all orders. This is a case (to paraphrase Richard Hofstadter) of too much unum and not enough pluribus. Of course I am giving in to what Wittgenstein wants me to resist when I say something general like "language is a constellation of differences." What he wants us to see in 63 is that even in an analyzed, philosophical form (even in the analytic philosopher's language-game) a command involves some ambiguity. Breaking the command down into its parts does not provide a higher degree of assurance about what is expected of us when we are issued a command or order.

Reduction is not a matter of infinite regress, Wittgenstein continues in 64. He returns to the language-game of remark 48. We take two squares at time and think of cases where we give names to combinations of color. One such example is the "special character" of the French tricolor. What do we get when we break the flag down to its component colors? Does bringing the flag into the language-game of philosophical analysis, or scientific method, amount to replacing the ambiguous language-game of looking at the French tricolor as a flag with something more precise? What we must see is that remarking on the significance of the flag is "just another language-game; even though it is related to (48) [the analysis of color game]." There is no underlying feature uniting language-games; there is no one behind the many.

In 65, Wittgenstein imagines the response to the irreducible uniqueness of language-games. He is accused of nominalism by an imagined interlocutor. "You talk about all sorts of language-games, but have nowhere said what the essence of a language-game and hence of language, is...." Wittgenstein responds very directly to this charge. His response is that language hangs together because language-games are or can be related to one another. They do not rest together atop some platform of logical form.
The character of the relations between language-games is presented in 66. These relations are contingent and open to re-organization in a way that "language" cannot be defined or representable. "And the result of this examination is: we see a complicated network of similarities overlapping and criss-crossing: sometimes overall similarities, sometimes similarities of detail." What a mess!