Streams of life: Another metaphor I like is that of play. Mechanical devices require a certain amount of "play" between their parts in order to function. It's a metaphor that Wittgenstein, trained as an engineer, would appreciate, I think. Machinists also speak of "tolerances" for the amount of allowable variation in the size of a component. Those words--play & tolerance--resonate with me. I think there is a relationship here, too, to my transformations of W's color table the other day. W's original table is meant to demonstrate correspondences, but he goes on, as you note, to demonstrate that correspondences in a particular language game do not inevitably lead to a theory of correspondences, however comforting such a theory might be. My two variations on the table are meant to illustrate what is a perhaps obvious truth: We can change the conventions in a language game & adapt to calling green red & red green--you just have to be introduced to the conventions. But a totally randomized table leads to a break from the collaborative / imaginative reality of the language game--it leads to psychosis, I'd argue. Personal or political psychosis. This little exercise of the color tables also helps us deal with the issues we dealt with earlier about cross-cultural understanding. For me, Vietnam was like the second table, in which green had been switched with red; I had to learn a large number of such transformations, but the practice of organizing reality with language games remained intact.

Since Wittgenstein has by the time of the Philosophical Investigations clearly cast himself as a "therapeutic" philosopher, it is worth noting that this attack on the metaphysics of correspondence between word & world is part of a state of mind that rejects what we would now call essentialism. Essentialism is very attractive in some respects, especially in aesthetic theory & poetics. We'll have to return to this. (The history of philosophy & politics, of course, has been the story of one attempt after another to create all-encompassing, ultimately true, final "language games." But of course such totalizing systems are anathema to Wittgenstein. (Afterthought: correspondence theories & essentialism are so attractive in aesthetics & poetics precisely because that is where they have least application.)


This is why the "stream of life" metaphor is helpful (at least to me). We need to think of stability and change as entwined both in our descriptions of language and in our descriptions of seeing. Language-games are stable relative to the swirl of motion around and beneath them. There is erosion and simultaneous growth. There is bedrock where our shovels come to a stop, but we understand that even this sturdy foundation is subject to wear and cracking. In seeing something, it is always in the context of a larger landscape of continuous seeing (a technical term in Wittgenstein). We may notice changes of aspect when perceiving the nude form in a Freud drawing -- a relation between baring and truth, for instance -- but that moment of focus, too, is transformed by the act of stepping back for a more panoramic perspective.

Thanks for the exercise: It helped me get hold of the twin actions of 47, 48, and 49. We see ostensive defining and its limits. 2+2=4 Now imagine a culture or game where 2+2=5. We will be encountering a lot of these sorts of thought experiments. In 50, Wittgenstein extends this point by observing that what we have in language is a "means of representation" as in the case of the colored squares. This representation occurs within the colored square language game. "It is a paradigm in our language game ..." In naming we bestow being. It is the divine activity granted to humans by God in the creation accounts. But human acts of naming are limited (as the very idea of a language-game implies). As Wittgenstein shows in 51, there are particular acts of naming, particular correspondences between the name and the thing being named, but this does not lead to a correspondence theory. "[W]e must focus on the details of what goes on; must look at them from close to."

There are political acts, but this does not lead to a political theory. There goes my field.


Take a look at this exercise in visualization, then let's talk about the series 47, 48, 49. It appears obvious that language games require a certain amount of stability, but how much; clearly, complete stability is the death of a language game--no more game. Then comes the word / world problem, which seems to be at the heart of W's philosophy & which pervades all of Modernist thinking.


Lucien Freud & Francis Bacon are obsessions of mine, too. Let's let them stand for Nominalism & Realism respectively. I spent a lot of time looking at the actual paintings in London & Paris when I was in my thirties. When I first brought up nominalism here, I was using it as an acid to dissolve what I considered dangerous clumps of idealist political pronouncements. [Note: the terminology, as you know, is confusing. What the scholastics called Realism when they opposed it to Nominalism looks to us a lot like Idealism.] So, yeah, nominalism tends to dissolve things into individual hairs & pores & flecks of pigment in a subject's eye; at the same time, it stands against false unities.

Not that that's what Bacon presents us with, but his Realism / Idealism is what leads to the blurring effects. Or maybe it's more complex: maybe he begins as a nominalist, can't see his way to idealism & resorts to the blurred hands & smeared features as a way of gesturing toward something greater than the individual data points that Freud assembles into what at first appears to be Realism in the modern sense of photo-realist, but certainly isn't.

Your invocation of Wittgenstein's notion of the "steam of life" is salutary: Lucian Freud engages in one sort of Abstraction (I use Wm. Blake's capital letter), Bacon in another. What offends me in current political debate (to turn a rather sharp corner) is the use of soft abstractions like patriotism, defense, rights, nation, war, terror, etc. without a hair-by-hair examination of what these entities consist of. I find the current discourse surrounding the word war particularly troubling & "murky" what with the new War on Terror & the Older War on Drugs. Actually, both of these remind me a great deal of the War in Vietnam in terms of murkiness. Race is exactly the sort of term I have tried to use nominalism against. And in the current discourse, many peoble believe they know what they are talking about when they use terms like race or even Muslim. (In the second case, it is not that there is no such thing as Muslims, but there are so many kinds that the Realist term is, effectively, either a delusion or a lie!)

The question then becomes how to resolve the murk, whether Sartre's nausea or the blur of media-speak we are bathed in daily. How do we manage to, first, see, & second, speak? I think Wittgenstein, by offering a critique of the overly simple Augustan word-world duality while at the same time rejecting philosophical Idealism, manages to construct the best map I have yet found: the texture of daily life & language become the norm against which we judge both the world & language. The problem with W's method--if we can use a term he would probably reject--is that it is difficult. It requires the kind of constant attention that even artists find difficult to negotiate. Negotiate this, as they might say in the Bronx.

The old categories of Idealism / Materialism & Realism / Nominalism (not of course exact parallels) are no longer fully functional, but we don't seem to have a post-philosophical language in which to examine the questions that remain, well, philosophical.


Let me reflect on a couple of examples that I may incorporate into the chapter I am writing. For years now I have made the argument that race is a term so misused we would do best to drop it. Phrases like "race relations" "race consciousness," "racial stereotyping," even when used to fight racism, still present us with an image that there is a plurality of races composing humanity. But this is a category error, is it not? There is but one race among humans. The distinctions we draw between people are really ethnicities. The lines are cultural, not biological. My thought has been that if we can hammer away at this point, then the idea of biological difference underlying racism would disappear.

Now I wonder if this is an academic argument too far divorced from the language-game of racial politics. People have fought long and hard to assert their difference -- expressed in racial terms -- as a matter of pride and independence. Do I turn my back on this real struggle in order to make an ethical claim?

You write, "A while back I invoked the doctrine of nominalism in an attempt to shoot down what I saw as a series of overly-broad political assertions." I answered that Wittgenstein was not a nominalist. There are two different language-games in question here, one political and the other meta-philosophical. We can see some commensurability in the use of nominalism as examination and celebration of particularity, but the consequences of that similar use in the different language-games are distinctive.

Now the problem: Even as I work at illuminating the points of contrast between the language-games in question, I straddle those boundaries. It does not even require a gymnast's flexibility. Look now at remark 71 in the Philosophical Investigations (mainly a note to myself).

I was just reading a piece on Lucian Freud (a personal favorite of mine) that illustrates a problem with nominalism that Wittgenstein avoids. Freud's paintings are described as "an art of classical finesse -- which studies visual evidence so intently that you can count the separate strands of Francis Bacon's hair in a 1952 portrait -- derives from a quandary about its own vision. If you look this closely, doesn't the world collapse into atoms, or subside into the viscous, nauseous murk described by Sartre?" Lucien Freud's subject -- a consistency throughout his astonishing career -- is incipient death revealed through decay. Death can be revealed in a bruise on a piece of fruit, liver spots on his mother's face and hands, or in the changes revealed by a series of self-portraits. What happens in Freud's nominalism is that the subject is isolated or abstracted from what Wittgenstein would call "the stream of life" and examined solely in terms of impending death. Death can be examined as an integral part of life's stream -- Wittgenstein thought reflection on death makes us more human (we are prone to forget mortality) -- but this is not the case in Freud's work.

I have piles of notes on Lucien Freud. In the back of my mind there is a book on Freud and Bacon in the works.

What shall we call Wittgenstein? Was he a realist or an idealist? Did he believe there is no reality apart from our thoughts of reality? Did he hold that there is a duality between reality and our ideas? The force of the Investigations is directed against dualism. Is idealism the only position left to describe our relation to or embeddedness in reality? This looks like a clue.

A while back I invoked the doctrine of nominalism in an attempt to shoot down what I saw as a series of overly-broad political assertions. You noted that Wittgenstein is not a nominalist because he employs the analytical & descriptive tool of "family resemblences" among particulars. I agree that this is not classival nominalism, but it surely is nominalist in spirit, since family resemblences can evolve & change over time & have different configurations in different places. I'm not overly concerned with terminology, but it seems worthwhile to get this right.

What shall we call Wittgenstein? Again, I'm not sure the particular term is so important, though a term might serve us as a useful shorthand. In William Barrett's readinbg of W's "conventionalism" comes to the conclusion--at the end of Part 1 of The Illusion of Technique--that whatever linguistic reality we are able to parse, nature remains implacable.

. . . Therefore am I still
A lover of the meadows and the woods,
And mountains; and of all that we behold
From this green earth; of all the mighty world
Of eye and ear, both what they half-create,
And what perceive; well pleased to recognize
In nature and the language of the sense,
The anchor of my purest thoughts . . .
[Wordsworth, Tintern Abbey]

The poet, drawing on Edward Young's Night Thoughts, understand that the human world is not the world itself & yet the world itself lies at least partly outside human understanding--human being.

I'm intrigued by the notion of object-reality as opposed to--what?--linguistic reality? But I'm a little uncomfortable with the division. It occurred to me yesterday, thinking about the word this, that the pair this / that operate to define (create?) space. (I noticed this first in learning the equivalent words in Vietnamese.) When I say this, I indicate some object within the range of my grasp; when I say that, I indicate something beyond the range of my grasp: the combination brings distance into existence(?) or perhaps consciousness. (G. Spencer Brown's calculus comes to mind just now.)


It seems to be working so let me try this again. First, admittedly, my treatment of this was light and thin, but I have never read remark 44 with any sensitivity to the complexity of this. Let's start with the self-referential sentence: "This sentence is the path to hell." How shall we read it. First we could say that this use of this breaks from the word to object relation that we associate with ostensive defining. This sentence is an internal relation. But we might also say that the word to object relation is retained; the sentence is now part of object reality. The question arises: Does this disclose something of the linguistic character of reality?

Well I lost another entry to cyberspace. I wanted to reflect further on this. I thought I raised a good question to start with, but now it is gone.


I have to beg pardon--many small duties have kept me from replying to your commentary. I particularly want to pick up with the problems surrounding nominalism as a philosophical position & will do so tomorrow. And I want to contest, perhaps, the sweeping aside of this. Anon.


[43,44,45,46] These remarks continue Wittgenstein's inquiry into the sources of meaning. 43 sets out the claim that in the largest class of cases, "the meaning of a word is its use in the language." We would no doubt rewrite this to say "uses in language." But meaning can arise differently. "And the meaning of a name is sometimes explained by pointing to its bearer." Ostensive defining is way for a word -- a name -- to gain meaning. In 44, this act of ostensive defining is carried into a language-game where a name is "used in the absence of its bearer." Here the example "Excalibur has a sharp blade" is used as illustration. A word to object relation is not necessary for an act of ostensive defining to be successful. At the same time, we could imagine, as do Logical Positivists/Empiricists, a language-game where names are used only in the presence of the bearer/object. We would make a mistake if we would contend that this is all there is to language and meaning, however. Along this line, Wittgenstein looks at the unique instance of the demonstrative "this." I wonder if Wittgenstein raises this example to show just how limited the Positivist view of language and reality really is. Here is the one instance -- when this one word is used -- where their theory of meaning is correct.

Just when you begin to think that Wittgenstein could never sound like an academic philosopher, he comes along with remark 46. The effect, however, is profound. Philosophers in the tradition of Socrates, Russell, and the early Wittgenstein, sought to demystify language, reality, and the relation between language and reality, by reductionism. Language is reduced to nouns; reality is reduced to irreducible simples; and their relation is naming. Wittgenstein asks, "What lies behind the idea that names really signify simples?" A desire by philosophy to disenchant? Philosophy's self-image as the embodiment of true science? A general, human hope to achieve certitude by eliminating (conceptually) contingency? Can we really compare Socrates with the ambitions of professional twentieth century philosophers? Do "primary elements" really exist? Do we need to redefine atoms since we have the technological ability to split them?

Of the latter two questions, Wittgenstein responds in 47 by asserting, "'Simple means: not composite." This is a rich remark. Let me try to pull it apart, and then I'll wait for your reading. Wittgenstein opens 47 with a phenomenological question: "[W]hat are the simple constituent parts of which reality is composed?" Can we get to these simple things themselves?, as Kant might have asked. Can we talk of simples apart from composites? That is, can we talk about the elements composing a chair without talking about the chair?

Wittgenstein makes two main points in response to this question of whether we can see simples apart from composites. The first point is that we need to be aware of where we stand when we ask the question and look to distinguish simples from composites. These relations are going to be different from language-game to language-game. In one language-game, a chessboard is absolutely composite. In another language-game, we might at least wish to question is a chessboard is essentially composite. Wittgenstein notes, "Asking "Is this object composite?" outside a particular language-game is like what a boy once did, who had to say whether the verbs in certain sentences were in the active or passive voice, and who racked his brains over the question whether the verb "to sleep" meant something active or passive." This is a neat example.

The second point is a rejection of the philosophical essentialism that is expressed in "What is...?" questions, when these questions are asked in the language-game of philosophy? Now we see the real point to the question asked in 46: "What lies behind the idea that names really signify simples?" The answer is a desire by philosophers to reduce the world to the philosophical language-game.


Wittgenstein is not a nominalist. He avoids this position that holds that every situation, event, or context is unique and incomparable, by arguing for family resemblances between commensurable activities. Moreover, we become the loci of comparison and commensurability. That is, our individuality is a product of the language-games we have traveled. Not only am I a product of a unique combination of language-games, but I put those experiences to use when I confront new situations. When I speak of past experiences, I think there are two types: the existential and the imaginative. The existential refer to concrete social situations, pains I have suffered, pains I caused others, and so on. The imaginative are the running scenarios I adduce, usually in response to something I have read or music I have heard. These scenarios function like defensive driving techniques. There are "What if?" situations where, in my imagination, I respond as a hero (usually). Language-games and imaginative scenarios, then, are two sources of practical ethics.

Of course there is accuracy in the nominalist's incomparability thesis. Whenever a relationship went south and I had my heart broken (I hate to admit how often this occurred), there was solace in the thought that I would learn something from this breakup and some future partner would benefit from my enlightenment. It was never the case. Each relationship was different, as was their demise. The lessons of the past could not be applied. My four years in seminary were something of a relief.

Blake's visions are certainly valued. Both his etchings and his poetry are recognized as possessing some sort of religious validity. Here, validity refers to personal resonance. When I read "The Everlasting Gospel," I experience the faith I knew as a child and lost as an adult. It resonates within as a form of longing.

As a security guard, I worked nights. I was always sleep deprived, headachy, and in a fog. I would drift between consciousness and light, disturbed sleep. Hallucinations were very much part of this life. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw a large rat walking by. The long leathery tail was close enough to touch. What value is there in this hallucination? It acts like a thought experiment and it reminds me that my relation to reality is colorful (can there be a colorless vision?) and therefore phantasmagoric.


Why does it seem so natural for human beings to fall into the error of linking words to things in a more or less one-to-one relationship? Seems almost universal. I've also been thinking about hallucinations & visions. We mean different things by these two words, but I'm having a hard time sorting out the differences. Blake had visions; the guy in the psychiatric ward has hallucinations. Are visions just culturally valued hallucinations. (I know this is running far afield, but it's what's been on my mind.) I've also been pursuing practical ethics over on my other weblog.


[41,42, 43] The slight of hand image is a good one. Wittgenstein wants to have an effect on the reader: If the world still looks the same after reading remarks from this book, then he has failed (or the reader has missed something because of "aspect blindness"). What we want to believe is that truth -- defined in terms of a completely disenchanted world (scientific philosophy) or something that has been buried and re-found (Heidegger's notion of altheia -- is available to use if we look in the right place, or engage the correct methodology, or follow those whose call or vocation is genuine. Wittgenstein considers these hopes not only only to be false, but explicitly anti-human. To be human is to accept, even embrace, the dynamic character of life. For Hegel in the preface to his Phenomenology of Spirit, the mark of a good party was the inevitable collapse. Indeed, the collapse is the reveller's telos. We find various renditions of this throughout modern thought. The truth of collapse is tied integrally to some notion of progress toward happy self-consciousness, or communism, or world peace, or a super-humanity, or annihilation. In Wittgenstein, we find none of this because he removes the tensions within various dualisms that animate stories of progress toward truth. What we have instead is a most human process of creativity and re-invention that can be freed from the regulatory effect of accounts of truth by philosophy, in Wittgenstein's therapeutic view.

Reinvention is discussed in remark 41. Here we return, again, to the language-game of remark 8. Now the tools are given proper names (letters), and the tool called "N" is broken. Does the command for "N" still make sense? There is a change within this language-game because "N" can no longer perform its designated task. Now we can imagine the invention of a new "convention whereby B has to shake his head in reply if A gives him the sign belonging to a tool that is broken." This would be a new kind of interchange between worker B and worker A. We can also imagine the command for "N" fading into obscurity within the history of the language-game. Perhaps a new tool would arise. How long before before asking for "N" ceases to make sense? "N" will always have sense in this language-game, even if recollection of its existence has faded and only a picture exists next to an archaic definition in a dictionary.

"N" had a physical reality. Wittgenstein tells us in 42 that the proper name "N" does not have to rely on physical existence to make sense. Names can be invented for objects that never existed. Unicorns leap to mind in response to this idea. Wittgenstein imagines a running joke between A and B.

43 captures the lesson of tool "N" for the question: What is the source of meaning? "The meaning of a word is its use in the language." This is not to be taken as an exceptionless rule, but it can be applied to "a large class of cases. Onomatopoetic terms might stand outside this class of cases. But in 43, we understand that a speaker can actually misuse a word by using it in a way that contravenes dictionary definitions and, in the process, give it a new meaning. Words do not carry meanings. They are not the basic unit of analysis necessarily. Rather, combinations of words in specific contexts produce meaning. Where does "truth" fit into this idea? Where does truth get its meaning? Now we get a sense of the radical nature of Wittgenstein's philosophical enterprise.


Wittgenstein has the deadpan delivery of a really good magician: I keep getting lulled into believing him when what he's really doing is setting me up. Then he snaps the tablecloth out from under the crystal & everything is the same, except different.

[39,40] These remarks, like the earlier sequence pertaining to the relation of language to thought, attack correspondence as the source of meaning. What philosophers try to do, Wittgenstein says, is find solace in the putative stability of word to object relations. To avoid the seduction of this kind of reduction and the certitude it appears to afford, we have to keep in mind that meaning is an achievement emanating from use. Names, we are asked to acknowledge, make sense even when their referent is a piece of fantasy, a person from the past, or, we can image, a person from the future (as in couples on a first date discussing the names they like for children).

Who is Wittgenstein addressing in these remarks? Carnap, the Vienna Circle, Russell, Moore, and all those philosophers who sought to provide science with firm philosophical footing in its relation to physical reality. At the time Wittgenstein was producing these remarks -- versions can be found as early as the 1933 "Big Typescript" --it would be hard to imagine a more radical pronouncement from one touted by Russell, for one, as "the future of philosophy." The Tractatus was taken to be a foundational text by various philosophers and philosophers of science. What Wittgenstein knew, but they did not see, was that he saw himself standing outside of the philosophical language-game. He was a critic coming from an engineering background who wanted philosophy to get things done. (I could just have easily said, "he was a critic coming from an idiosyncratic religious background who wanted philosophy to face its own limitations".)


[40] Okay, just read this remark & now I get it. I think. As usual, W has been leading me down the garden path so he can put the double-whammy on me.

[39] Excalibur: Interesting choice, this word. The sword to which this name belongs is imaginary, or at least legendary; therefore, I would think, its existence is assured. It cannot be broken down into its parts, except by an act of imagination, let's say a literary act. Its name can never be "nonsense," unless perhaps all references to it fade from the cultural tradition. So what is going on in 39? I admit to being confused. If names must refer to "simples," then what is simple? Can't every object be reduced? The only names, in this case, would be the elements of the Periodic Table.

This: Many years ago I wrote a love poem, "The Second Person as Muse," that contains these lines:

Even after they got the thing
shut off, I didn't want to sleep. I wanted to ride
with the cops, get a look at better accidents than this
paltry one . . .

In the poem, I was describing being awakened by a burglar alarm going off in a florist shop on the ground floor of my apartment building. Standard free verse practice is to place important words at the ends of lines. I still like these lines because I used the alterative pair thing / this to good effect. This may not be a name, as W says, but it is a crucial marker of an indicative act that is closely related to ostensive naming.

Well, I worked in the yard a lot today. That's enough hard thinking for this evening. To quote an old Monty Python skit, "My brain HURTS!" (I think Ludwig would have loved Monty Python. A pity they didn't overlap.)