8.30.2003

[113,114] There is some overlap here that I want to try to draw out. In 113, Wittgenstein appears to say that when the ordinary and the ideal diverge we philosophers are left blaming ourselves. It is as if we fail to perceive ideally because of an internal or personal defect. "I feel as though, if only I could fix my gaze absolutely sharply on this fact, get it in focus, I must grasp the essence of the matter." That is I must achieve that static perfection implied in the claim or assertion, "This is how things are ...."
This thought is pursued in 114 where Wittgenstein seeks to reveal the idealism in realism. (I reflect on the rhetorical strategy of calling yourself a realist. It reduces your opponents to mere idealists.) Open with the realist's phrase, "This is how things are." Wittgenstein is engaged in self-criticism because the logical form of this proposition is generalized, idealized, and reified in his Tractatus. But he manages to sound like Lenin in Materialism and Empirio-Criticism where, in the midst of the Russian Revolution, he engaged in an intellectual attack on the underlying idealism of Ernst Mach's empiricism. Wittgenstein writes, "One thinks that one is tracing the outline of the thing's nature over and over again, and one is merely tracing round the frame through which we look at it." We cannot escape or peer around the edges of our theory of reality.

8.20.2003

[112,113] These remarks need to be taken together. Indeed, it raises a question about how remarks are divided. Why isn't this one remark on the disquieting effect of a simile that disguises differences by creating a sweeping similarity. Think of how upsetting it is for physicists when novelists misuse the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle or superstring theory.
What does Wittgenstein have against similes? He opposes only those that create false appearances of unity. His goal for philosophy is to provide a rich description of the world in all its variety and complexity. Simile is at the heart of enterprises that seek underlying unity.
There is a philosophy of education implied here. Learning is a matter of moving from the familiar to the unfamiliar. It is a painful process because in learning you are moving to a different level of conceptualization. Teaching students requires you to help them make this difficult move; it is not about simplifying what they need to learn to make it more familiar (palatable). Evolution is not like creationism. They are incommensurable orientations to reality. They cannot be synthesized into creation science or some other accomodation.

8.12.2003

[111] Who or what is Wittgenstein criticizing here? Is it Heidegger's conception of language as "the house of Being"? Is it Freudians who came to regard language as a repository of urges and images akin to the unconscious? Language does appear to have the "character of depth . It appears to have a surface of what is aid or written at this moment and a depth of rules, and a deeper level of possible meanings waiting to bubble to the surface.
Wittgenstein's focus in this remark are the feelings that accompany misinterpretation. I say something to a friend meant to be funny or ironic. It is taken literally and the result is an argument or bad feelings, or just that awful sensation of being falsely accused with no path to redemption. Misinterpretations reveal the fragility of understanding.
As we move from our home culture to another, we have an expectation that misunderstandings will occur. This explains the appeal of traveling -- to see the world differently -- and the fear of traveling. When I was in Korea visiting with my wife's family, I was super sharp for the three weeks. I was alert to every cue and to any sign of confusion or discomfort in others. But I also felt like my adulthood had been taken away. My Korean is awful and rudimentary. My wife had to translate everything and this was arduous (as I like to talk). When misinterpretations occurred, there was no sense of cataclysm. Everyone was patient with me. But within my home culture, thanks to the pace of communication and impatience, things can spin out of control very quickly. Misinterpretations, as Wittgenstein observes, are not merely demands for new information. Rather, their effect is shattering. Why is that? Something important about the relation between language and world is being revealed.

8.10.2003

[110] These remarks are simply arresting. Where I was struggling to work through 80 to 100, now I find I cannot turn off the thoughts provoked by Wittgenstein. Everything I write seems inadequate. I look over the last entries and I feel this rising shame that I cannot meet the challenge.
Why do we produce and succumb to grammatical illusions like the uniqueness of language and thought? Wittgenstein contends that these illusions are not mistakes, but superstitions -- stories we tell in order to make sense of occurrences that cannot be confronted directly. We want to say, "Of course thinking is special!" I have a conversation going on in my head. It is private; it is between me and myself; and keeps me from falling into a deep chasm of solitude. This is a divinity within. It creates and it comforts. I regard it as a halo, a source of illumination and warmth, as a sign of unvarnished truth as apprehensible. Moreover, it remains something private. All attempts to commit this pure thinking to the page fails. The brightness is gone as soon as it is made visible. Words appear inadequate to the task of conveying thinking.
Wittgenstein wants us to get rid of all of this, beginning with the inner/outer duality that houses the illusory uniqueness of thinking. But before I begin this, I feel like I must see an alternative. I can intuit that Wittgenstein is correct, but now the creative impulse must fill the vacuum created by devastating critique. To me, at this juncture, I feel I must call upon the uniqueness of thought -- its utopian dimension -- and in doing so I fall back into the duality I was seeking to escape.

8.09.2003

[109] I keep thinking about the assertion, "And we may not advance any kind of theory." The kind of theory Wittgenstein appears to be criticizing here is instrumental in nature -- theory as a net that catches empirical claims, theory as a covering law, theory as a guess that then must be instantiated, and so on. But this is not theory in its etymological sense. Theoria, is rooted in the act of seeing. A theory is a substantive claim about the nature and organization of reality. In this sense, we cannot help but to advance a theory. Wittgenstein certainly does. Reality is linguistic or conventional. It is organized in the form of language-games. What Wittgenstein is doing in the Philosophical Investigations is offering a travelogue of language-games he has visited.

8.08.2003

[109] "Philosophy is a battle against the bewitchment of our intelligence by means of language." Moreover, the tool against this bewitchment is language. The remark opens with warnings against scientific and metaphysical pretense. The enterprise of philosophy is not to be committed to seeking deep justifications for thinking or abstract theories for why there is something rather than nothing. Epistemology and ontology are to be surrendered and replaced by the more human activity of description. These descriptions are not passive either. They offer up no representations of the way things really are. Rather, descriptions dissolve ethical dilemmas and those pains that gave rise to metaphysical systems that promised certitude and eliminated bad luck by "arranging what we have always known."

There is a blog I like titled "Sugarmama." It is a set of descriptions of one woman's life. I admire her writing immensely precisely because it is devoted to description. Sugarmama will speak of problems she confronts -- relationships, buying a house, enduring demands from her mother -- descriptively. But the descriptions have therapeutic effect for both the author and the reader. For the author, the therapy is seeing the dilemma before her in black and white. For the reader there is a dose of humor that brings the description to life. This is not an example of Wittgensteinian philosophy, to be sure. What would Wittgenstein know about buying a house or taking care of a dog. But I think what "Sugarmama" achieves is what would follow after philosophy has been absolved of its metaphysical and pseudo-scientific sins. It would accomplish something beautiful and useful. Of course "Reading and Writing" and "One Pot Meal" are further examples, but their authors lead lives that are fairly akin to my own. Significantly, I think, when I did a spell check on this entry, the suggested correction for "Sugarmama" was "sacrament." The sublime in the pedestrian indeed.

8.01.2003

[108] "The preconceived idea of crystalline purity can only be removed by turning our whole examination around." This is Wittgenstein at his most Nietzschean. I was reminded of the power of perspectivism the other night while watching a program that celebrated the life and work of Gore Vidal. For some reason, I've managed to go through life without reading a word of Vidal. A false impression I gained at an early age that Vidal was a prissy, light-weight, rich boy, became an obstacle to a set of polemics I would have both enjoyed and found edifying. What I like about Vidal's approach to the American Empire is the way he forces the reader to scrutinize values long considered inscrutable. Thus he has us look at the founders through the eyes of Burr revealing them to be pompous, anti-democratic, and corrupt. His thesis on Lincoln is well known. Iconoclasm, when done well, leads to transvaluation of values or at least a re-consideration of the cornerstones of our education. Wittgenstein is making a similar demand here. We are going to engage in philosophy from a new location, a different perceptual vantage point. "We are talking about the spatial and temporal phenomenon of language, not about some non-spatial, non-temporal phantasm."