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Sunday, August 21, 2005

When the 105th log passed, I ate dinner

Posted by John Holbo on 08/21/05 at 09:46 AM

John Emerson has a short essay up on Wittgenstein. As you may recall, John defended a charmingly indefensible account of analytic philosophy in comments to this post. (There is, by the by, an interesting article in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy on ‘analysis’, with an appendix that tries to make sense of ‘analytic philosophy’.) John starts this new piece by getting out from under that old rock, like so:

My backup position is that Wittgenstein was a much more complex figure than any of the other analytic philosophers, and that he had important concerns which they didn’t share.

The problem with this is that ‘complex’ is not it - not what John really means, I’m reasonably sure. (Think about it.) Also, ‘had important concerns others didn’t share’ isn’t it. (Russell had those. Frege did. I suppose all major philosophers do.) Really Emerson likes Wittgenstein because he sees him as an ethical existentialist. Fair enough. That’s why I like him, too, truthfully. But I do wish John would peel his interest in this aspect of Wittgenstein off his animus toward analytic philosophy. As I’ve said before, I don’t think John has enough familiarity with the length and breadth of analytic philosophy to be generalizing. (This sounds patronizing. I really think John is a very smart guy so I just wish he would stop overextending along this axis.) Example. He seems to think there is a “view from nowhere” position on indexicality characteristic of analytic philosophy. No. There are sides taken in a dauntingly many-sided debate. Some participants take positions more or less like those I think Emerson favors. For example, Thomas ‘view from nowhere’ Nagel himself does so. (The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy has an article on indexicals which, I confess, I have not read. Might be interesting.) As I’ve said before, there is a huge scholarly industry churning out papers on the ethical Wittgenstein, the religious Wittgenstein, the existential Wittgenstein ... the literary Wittgenstein. Some of this writing is good, much of it is very bad. But it has been a long time since anyone could pretend that by taking this sort of position one was bucking the scholarly establishment. (Obviously I approve of these topics, otherwise I wouldn’t be encouraging discussion of them.)

Here’s something interesting. John writes:

I think that this passage from Toulmin gives us the clue: “All that is certain is that, whatever the strict implications of his later position, the absolute dichotomy of facts and values was of great importance to him – of greater importance, indeed, than any particular philosophical argument that might have been put forward to underpin or justify it.”

Clue to what? How Wittgenstein could pass as a positivist, more or less:

Most early analytic philosophers were primarily trying to produce a pure objective philosophy uncorrupted by human desires and prejudices, in the belief that this philosophy would be truer and more scientific ... Wittgenstein, however, had a double motive. He was also trying to protect his ethical, aesthetic, and existential commitments (which in Wittgenstein are all one thing, most often simply called “ethics”) from contamination by simple-minded factual, logical, common-sense, or scientific argumentation.

There’s truth to this (although it oversimplifies. Many analytic philosophers - many members of the Vienna Circle - could and did appreciate the double motive. That old Kantian “make room for faith” move. It also distorts: analytic philosophers aren’t so toweringly hubristic and cold as all that.) I do think, however, that Wittgenstein truly gave up the sharp fact/value distinction in his later work. The point of the early work was that you could, by rigorous analysis, walk right up to the transcendental line. You could machine it down to extensionlessness. In the later philosophy, he no longer believes in all that. But this is something to argue about, frankly. Nothing obvious about it.

John has also compiled a page of tendentiously-selected citations. He includes the indeed very important category of: “Cool Kafkaesque things Wittgenstein said that don’t seem like they could come from a contemporary analytic philosopher.” It’s true. That’s one of the major reasons why there can be a volume on The Literary Wittgenstein. Sounds silly to put it so baldly. But yes. It is so.

Here is one such passage that struck me, reading Marjorie Perloff’s paper in The Lit Witt:

If we look at a river in which numbered logs are floating, we can describe events on land with reference to these, e.g. “when the 105th log passed, I ate dinner.” Suppose the log makes a bang on passing me. We can say these bangs are separated by equal, or unequal, intervals. We could also say one set of bangs was twice as fast as another set. But the equality or inequality of intervals so measured is entirely different that measured by a clock. The phrase “length of interval” has its sense in virtue of the way we determine it, and differs according to the method of measurement. (quoted, p. 44)

In a sense the point this passage subserves is philosophically standard: the notion of a ‘stream of time’ is problematic. (Think about it.) Wittgenstein is also hinting at a possible account of the meaning of expressions like ‘length of interval’ that seeks to stay out of metaphysical trouble by sticking close to home truths about how we use clocks, etc. But there is something so strikingly Unheimlich about the tableau ... Kafkaesque isn’t quite it, although it’s in the neighborhood. We can imagine a figure; perhaps a stiff, retired Austrian military officer, living alone in a house leaning preposterously out over a river (on Dr. Seussian foundations) so that it is constantly banged by logs descending downstream. With each bang, his meticulously groomed moustache twitches. (Or at least the feather on his shako shakes.) Perhaps he is obsessive-compulsive, like the dweller in Kafka’s “The Burrow”. But probably there will be more of Rube Goldberg about the officer’s ritual, less blood on the forehead.

The truth is that the atmosphere of the passage is ... Wittgensteinian. Passages like this have the obsessiveness of Kafka, but not the Angst. The scene is reduced, like an endgame out of Beckett, but more cerebral and logically controlled. I don’t mean Beckett isn’t as smart, just that there is often an element of almost Vaudevillean humor. Wittgenstein doesn’t do Vaudeville. (So by adding the moustache and shako I really ruin it. Would you say that is fair?) Also, Beckett’s reduced figures are damaged humans, formerly full-fledged in their faculties. Wittgenstein’s are experimental automata - not yet built up enough, but perhaps problematically come to consciousness. (This is related to what Matt says in his post, to which I owe a comment I haven’t managed yet. Perhaps this will do as downpayment. Like John, he goes for ‘Kafkaesque’.)

It’s passages like the one above that inspire absolutely disjunctive differences of opinion, like the following:

P.F. Strawson: only a “very specialised view of the nature of philosophical understanding” would preclude an attempt to recast Wittgenstein’s philosophy, conventionally, as arguments for specific conclusions. [quoted in Cora Diamond’s paper in the Lit Witt, p. 130. Diamond does not give the context and I haven’t checked that she is being fair to Strawson, although I have no reason to doubt it.]

Guy Davenport: “Wittgenstein did not argue: he merely thought himself into subtler and deeper problems.” [The Geography of the Imagination, p. 335]

They’re both completely wrong. (And note that each probably regards the other as hopelessly parochial and narrow.) Tomorrow - or Tuesday - I’ll have more to say about this. Timothy Gould has kindly consented to having his piece from the volume generously excerpted. And I hope to use this an an occasion for thinking about the Strawson-Davenport dichotomy more closely. (But, man, I’m busy this week. I hope I get it done. Every time one of those logs bumps my little office, I feel more freaked out. I headbutt my desk, I even drink coffee. Nothing seems to help.)


Thanks for the response, which I didn’t actually expect.

“Also, ‘had important concerns others didn’t share’ isn’t it. (Russell had those. Frege did. I suppose all major philosophers do.)"

I have not found the existential-ethical awareness characteristic of Wittgenstein in any other analytic philosopher, with the exception of Cavell when he writes specifically about this aspect of Wittgestein. As a group analytic philosophers seem to rather matter-of-fact professionals working within the puzzle-solving paradigm. Wittgenstein did a lot of that, but also more.

Toward the end of his life Wittgenstein seems to have utterly despised Russell. In my opinion this was because of Russell’s ethical confidence and lack of self-questioning. Russell seems fr more typical of the analytics than Wittgenstein was.

Again, I go to a library about once a year and flip through half a dozen philosophy journals looking for something appropriate to my interests, and almost never find anything. Since there is a lot of competition, this means that I don’t read much analytic philosophy and as a result am ill-informed about it. But from my point of view, it’s an ignorance of the “you don’t have to eat the whole egg” type.

I do have an axe to grind. My favorite pro-Wittgenstein books are Gudmunsen’s “Wittgenstein and Buddhism” and Finch’s two books ("The Early Wittgenstein” and “The Later Wittgenstein”, which also tend toward a Buddhist interpretation. I think that Wittgenstein’s silence is an unripe version of Buddhist silence, and that his overall view is a no-substance view like that of Buddhism. (Keiji Nishitani and Freny Mistry make similiar analyses of Nietzsche).

Disclaimer: I am not a practicing Buddhist, not do I have any institutional connetion with Buddhism.

P.S. I have long suspected that “family secrets” might be a better translation than “home truth”, though I’m not completely sure and can’t remember the actual German any more.

By John Emerson on 08/21/05 at 01:57 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Well, my point about the ‘had important concerns others didn’t share’ covers more than existential-ethical awareness. There are all sorts of concerns, after all. Russell had political ones, mostly not shared by his colleagues. Just for example.

I must say that suggesting that being an analytic philosopher goes together with ‘lack of self-questioning’ is thoroughly ... tendentious, John. It’s just that you don’t LIKE the stuff.  As to self-confidence and ethical self-certainty: Russell was forceful and opinionated and would sometimes brush aside views he disapproved. Wittgenstein was the same, probably more so. Most of the time.

Oh, and please tell us what’s in that Hitler/Wittgenstein book you cite. It sounds like the worst ever. Write a review. I’ll link for sure.

The ‘don’t have to eat the whole egg’ thing - what can I say? Nothing you haven’t already heard from me. I say this is just wrong in a perfectly ordinary way. I say this as someone who has been professionally obliged to eat several of them. The taste and texture varies enoromously. Still, as the man says in “Cool Hand Luke”: ‘no one can eat fifty eggs.’ [Isn’t that it?] Since there are at least 50 eggs worth of analytic philosophy in the world, I guess no one really knows what it’s like.

I think you are just used to getting some momentum from a push off from ‘typical analytic philosophers ...’, or ‘analytic philosophers standardly ...’ I just think that your angle is off, so the extra polemical impact goes to waste. I don’t think it’s all that important for the line on Wittgenstein you really want to push.

By John Holbo on 08/21/05 at 02:22 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Let’s face it: Lit. types enjoy the PI (but not the TLP) not because of any Weltanschaaung or insights into logic Witt. might offer but because it appears to offer some support for their views on aesthetics and ethics (whether it actually does is a different matter--there are indications that Witt. held disparaging views towards literature and the arts, and indeed towards mysticism).

Many of the analytics such as Russell objected not only to the ordinary language issues and psychological obscurities of the PI but also to Wittgenstein’s narcissistic methods. Russell was certainly as preoccupied with ethics as was Witt. and rote numerous essays against the nazis, against the Nietzschean type of social darwinism, against stalinism and the mistakes of the bolsheviks; he also penned many articles in favor of woman’s suffrage and education, and opposed the tyranny of the church and of finance capitalism as well. In terms of practical reasoning and poltical engagement Russell certainly triumphs over Wittgenstein, who wrote hardly anything at all on politics or history. Toulmin it might be noted also sided with Popper and Russell in the “poker incident” against Herr Witt. whose behavior at Cambridge often seemed nearly psychotic.

Emerson’s attempts to read Witt. as mystic and existentialist miss a great deal of both the TLP and PI in regards to language, psychological issues, his ideas on “truth”. It seems few men except for Gilbert Ryle (and I think Strawson noted it as well) detect the empirical and behaviorist issues which are not related to, say, Kafka or Sartre or buddhism, but to William James, Chomsky, and semantically oriented figures such as Kripke and Searle.  There are few if any statements/passages in either the TLP or PI (less in the PI really) indicating any mystical views or immaterialism; indeed given his statement that “the human body is the best picture of the human soul” (and related passages) it seems Witt. would more likely have approved of Jamesian (if not Watson/Skinner) types of empirical methodology and ontology than any sort of theological or platonic views. 

The imsinuation that Russell somehow lacks something which Witt. has demonstrates a real misunderstanding of Russell’s career and thought. Like a good Humean, Russell realized justifying any sort of objective ethics beyond his own desires or preferences was difficult if not impossible, but he, far more that Witt., held to classical liberal views and indeed to somewhat Jeffersonian view of rights and entitlement, a position which is I think both more pragmatic and more traditionally ethical than anything Wittgenstein may have “suggested” on political-ethical issues.  Moreover, Russell’s prose is as fine a model of Anglo rhetoric as you will encounter, and surely equal if not clearly superior to Wittgenstein’s bizarre collections of analogies and apothegms and zen-like obscurities which the mystics crave.

By snake on 08/21/05 at 02:39 PM | Permanent link to this comment

{Earlier post eaten by comments}

Snake: I am by no means approving of Wittgenstein’s harshness nor of his apolitical bent, as I think I made clear enough in my sketch. This was one of the outcomes of my recent look at Wittgenstein.

What I think that W. despised about R. was his political certitude and lack of angst—his thoroughly non-existentialist personal identity. Despite being an Austrian and a born Catholic of Jewish descent, Wittgenstein seems to have been infected with a toxic dose of the German Lutheran seriousness.

Regarding Russell, I highly recommend his book “Power: a New Social Analysis”.(Review: http://www.idiocentrism.com/russell.htm ). Oddly, his method in this book is that of a philosophe, especially Gibbon, and unrelated to that of analytic philosophy in any way I am able to percieve. Russell had a very realistic, almost libertarian view of power.

I usually avoid mentioning the Buddhist angle on Wittgenstein because almost no one no one understands Buddhism, or wants to. The no-substance view of Buddhism is not theological, immaterialist or dualist, and is not necessarily idealist. A Jamesian Buddhism would be easy enough to produce, and James himself came passably close to doing so.

I do not claim to have come up with an adequate understanding of W’s thought—in fact, I used the “Two Wittgensteins” dodge. In my more recent reading, a lot of W’s ethical-existential statements seemed more like inarticulate blurts than aphoristic expressions of a viable theory. Finch, however, does claim to be able to join the two halves of Wittgenstein alleged by me.

By on 08/21/05 at 03:18 PM | Permanent link to this comment

{Recovered post}


To begin with, I am always tendentious. Not just with you guys.

My animus against AP is due to events which took place between 1950 and 1970, when a lot of stuff I was interested in (process philosophy and Dewey-type versions of pragmatism) got squeezed out of the biz. Think me as a resentful loser. You guys won, us guys lost, and resentment ensued. I think that a narrower range was the cost of increased precision, and I don’t think it was worth it. One man’s opinion.

Alternatively, when I look for interesting, valuable things to read, analytic philosophy seldom makes the cut. This is again a cost of the professionalization and scientization of philosopy. But even in the area of science, I find non-philosophers like Stephen Jay Gould, Ilya Prigogine, Francisco Varela, Antonio Damasio, Ernst Mayr, and Jeremy Hayward more interesting and useful than any of the analytics.

For example, Davidson’s idea that events are particulars is relevant to one of my process-philosophy interests (also discussed by Popper)—historicity, irreversible time, and the coming-to-be of novelty. But the discussion of that question I recently looked at pretty much entirely avoided placing the idea in any larger context, and it also seemed happy enough to mumble Davidson’s idea around inconclusively for decades.

Perhaps now we’re in the proliferation phase of the decimation-and-proliferation cycle, when the victorious analytics begin to fill the niches left vacant after their extinction of their adversaries. And (while I still find an unreflective, anti-existentialist scientism in most of what AP I look at) perhaps my broad generalizations are unfair.  I still regret the extinction.

By John Emerson on 08/21/05 at 03:44 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Regarding James and Buddhism, James was raised as a Swedenborgian (in the wackiest of all Christian sects), and this may partly account for his opennes to mysticism. D.T. Suzuki, the Zen missionary to America, lived in New England and was married to an American, and he made an intensive study of Swedenborg, about whom he wrote his first book. This seems like a pretty slender thread, I suppose, but Suzuki and James did have a common intellectual culture (with Suzuki an heir not only of Swedenborg but of James himself), and the idea that Wittgenstein may have been sort of Jamesian is not an argument against his having been sort of Buddhist.

By John Emerson on 08/21/05 at 03:52 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Another issue which those citizens of LitLand infatuated with Wittgenstein’s enigmas routinely overlook is the possibilities for relativism, of both epistemological and metaphysical varieties, which the language game and related concepts present (i.e., family resemblance). If naming--denoting-- is freed from the restrictions that Witt. had specified in the TLP, and now may denote regardless of the existence of the thing being denoted the language takes on a much stranger and equivocal turn. One might provide an account of indexicals and demonstratives based on the PI, but if the language game has no definite boundaries, thr functioning of the demonstratives--"this" “that” (which will hopefully point to things or states of affairs in proper PI fashion) could themselves have no necessary function. And any type of rule formulated about a certain syntactical or logical function would seem, according to “meaning as use” be without any definition: + could mean - tomorrow if some group defined it as such. And it’s not just about ostention ("this" could become “siht,” perhaps, as “brid” became “bird” in English); the “open texture” of the language game seems to offer the possibility that not only the sign/noun/verb is ostensive, but that any rule is merely nominal and provisional. THere’s more to be said, yes, but that the law of contradiction will be modified tomorrow by some group of aborigines does not mean that that modication must be considered; an economist issues a forecast for interest rates, and so does Madam Cleo in her monthly horoscope, but the soothsayer’s predictions are not at all on the same level as the economist’s predictions. THat may seem obvious but the “open” nature of family resemblance and “meaning as use” do present challenges to anyone who values rules, scientific laws, or logical criteria.

By snake on 08/21/05 at 06:37 PM | Permanent link to this comment

In “On Certainty,” W makes clear that the foundation of every system is not systematic and not certain. Why does it not fall on analytics then to explain what does justify a practice outside of the analytic OR admit that their practice is so much deductive masturbation?

By on 08/21/05 at 06:38 PM | Permanent link to this comment

so, Dan, according to those who hold that there are no necessary rules to family resemblance and that “meaning as use” is always correct, astrology is therefore as legitimate as economics or statistics, and the midwife’s book of herbal remedies is equal to the MD’s collection of texts on pathology and etiology? Not hardly, except in touchy-feely lit. classrooms where mentioning verification might get you expelled. It is the sentimental, postmodernist types with little understanding of how scientific or logical advances are brought about ( analytical phil. helped build your OS for one) who are the masturbators.

By snake on 08/21/05 at 07:02 PM | Permanent link to this comment

snake, I’m not sure why you think the inhabitants of Litland are such mooncalves. The things you say they routinely overlook I would say they routinely consider. (Not very well, perhaps. But no need to pretend things are even worse than they are, for rhetorical effect.) Also, the TLP is often the source of inspiration to Wittgenstein’s poetic appreciators, for better or worse.

You write:

Emerson’s attempts to read Witt. as mystic and existentialist miss a great deal of both the TLP and PI in regards to language, psychological issues, his ideas on “truth”. It seems few men except for Gilbert Ryle (and I think Strawson noted it as well) detect the empirical and behaviorist issues which are not related to, say, Kafka or Sartre or buddhism, but to William James, Chomsky, and semantically oriented figures such as Kripke and Searle.  There are few if any statements/passages in either the TLP or PI (less in the PI really) indicating any mystical views or immaterialism; indeed given his statement that “the human body is the best picture of the human soul” (and related passages) it seems Witt. would more likely have approved of Jamesian (if not Watson/Skinner) types of empirical methodology and ontology than any sort of theological or platonic views.

As to the behaviorism stuff: I think this one has been taken on board. Everyone acknowledges - what is quite obvious - that Wittgenstein says many things that sound behavioristic. Lots of papers have been written on the whole ‘is Wittgenstein a behaviorist?’ question. (This was really a blooming, buzzing cottage industry in the 60’s. The consensus is: no, he’s not a behaviorist, because behaviorism is reductive in a way that Wittgenstein’s behavioristic moves concerning ‘use’ are not. So the debate has died out. I think that’s probably a good thing.) And who can miss the fact that Searle has been influenced by Wittgenstein?

Little sayings like ‘the human body is the best picture of the human soul’ might be pleasing to a materialist, of course, but they might also please any number of mystics or literary types.

Also, there is substantial textual evidence, especially from outside TLP and PI, that Wittgenstein was interested in just what John Emerson says. The fact that there is a great deal in TLP and PI that isn’t about this stuff seems irrelevant. (Why should one have to blabber about mysticism 24-7 to count as interested in mysticism? It’s more seemly to keep these cards close to your chest) The James connection is plausible. Wittgenstein often held up “The Varieties of Religious Experience” as a model of how to think about religion. But it is a notable feature of that book that James is not exactly working to reduce religion to material factors, or explain its force in a way that undermines its validity. It’s about the most studiously (excruciatingly, some would say) painstakingexercise in agnostic line-toing one can imagine. I suspect it was James’ respect for mysticism that won Wittgenstein’s admiration.

You write:

Let’s face it: Lit. types enjoy the PI (but not the TLP) not because of any Weltanschaaung or insights into logic Witt. might offer but because it appears to offer some support for their views on aesthetics and ethics (whether it actually does is a different matter--there are indications that Witt. held disparaging views towards literature and the arts, and indeed towards mysticism).

The first bit is just you making up stuff about lit types. The second bit is just you making up stuff about Wittgenstein. Your account of what Wittgenstein’s writings contain simply won’t survive acquaintance with the relevant texts. There isn’t any question that he venerated literature and the arts, and that he admired and respected religious mysticism.

Read “Culture and Value”, just for starters.

Now there is a problem, in my opinion, with the degree of influence works like “Culture and Value”, various conversations, scraps, recollections by friends, have lately exerted over discussions of Wittgenstein. (I talk about this in my Lit Witt review a bit. You shouldn’t let the C&V tail wag the PI dog.) But there isn’t any question that Wittgenstein did write and say these things. There isn’t any suggestion they are all forgeries, or that the reports by his acquaintances have all been falsified. So there is little point trying to maintain the position you take, it seems to me. The only question is: HOW to coordinate them with texts like TLP and PI. (One possible answer is: you really shouldn’t try to bring them in. All this Lit Witt stuff is barking up the wrong tree. But that line needs a defense different that the one you are making.)

By John Holbo on 08/21/05 at 11:55 PM | Permanent link to this comment

It’s strange.  I have always loved Wittgenstein.  At this moment, however, I find myself turning against those who describe and defend Wittgenstein’s aesthetic and literary prowess – and, in the process, against the philosopher himself.

I think that John has diagnosed part of my current discomfort with Wittgenstein’s aesthetics.  His so-called scenarios just don’t seem like life, modern or romantic.  His humans just don’t feel human. 

Now stick with me.  I do not mean that his thought experiments are improbable ("Aw, c’mon, who would really do that") or aren’t true to life or enough like short stories.  Nonetheless, Wittgenstein does not seem at all invested in these stories as either aesthetic or “human” objects – even, and especially, compared to the illustrative stories told by other philosophers.  (At this point I was going to list my own favorites, but I’ll leave that for others, if they wish.)

Let me try to be clearer about what Wittgenstein’s “art” lacks.  His mystical tableaux seem ingenious, but ultimately tossed off, designed for two things – quick description and quicker disposal.  As John points out, it seems wrong even to imagine them too vividly.  Like the man with his logs, we are supposed to record our immediate impressions and then move on.  Unlike many philosophical fictions, Wittgenstein’s stories have no room or patience for detail or intentions, for feeling or narrative appeal.  (I agree, once again, with John that there is none of the angst of Kafka or pathos of Beckett.  But is there even the shudder – the skewed feeling – of recognition that we associate with the uncanny.  Are we supposed to pause long enough to “feel” or “see” anything at all?)

Perhaps we can even see a Wittgensteinian distrust of aesthetics – of the elaborations of form, the feelings of the real world – in his blanket dismissal of Augustine’s story of language learning?  As I (and I’m sure others) have noted, he does this by banishing all the details, intricacies, and emotions from Augustine’s tale.  He reduces the story to only it most basic, mechanical motions.  He kicks out everything that Augustine tried to capture as “human.” Isn’t this odd for someone who wished to cleave to the near, the low, the common?  In this regard, even Wittgenstein’s preaching does not practice what it preaches.

Indeed, to be still more ungenerous, Wittgenstein’s offhand enigmas seem contrived to inhibit thought as much as to provoke it.  He throws a paradoxical image or an oddly truncated narrative at you (beetles, logs), then juxtaposes that contrivance with a sweeping claim or rhetorical question (clearly, obviously).  Often, however, that newfound stability hardly seems earned – except in relation to the instability of the original story itself.

Take the story of the logs in the river.  Instead of enticing your imagination, Wittgenstein assaults you with five shifting suppositions and conditionals ("if," “we can,” “e.g.,” “suppose,” “we can,” “we could also").  And then, before you can settle on a single vision of this new world, he shifts to the declarative, philosophical pronouncement: “But the equality or inequality of intervals so measured is entirely different from that measured by a clock.” Was the story supposed to establish the obviousness of this assertion?  Could that be done without more information, more narrative or descriptive detail, more to look at? 

How, for instance, are these two types of measurement (logs and clocks) “entirely different”?  Or still more, how does the story show us that the “equality of intervals” was (or would be) entirely different?  Are the logs passing us at regular intervals?  He doesn’t say (until another hypothetical change later on the notes).  Is he saying that one person marking time with logs and another marking time with ticks could not compare notes, could not establish equivalences?  Are their records untranslatable?  He doesn’t say.  Can we not compare “logs” and “ticks” in the same way we compare seconds, minutes, seasons, and even vague categories like “generations”? 

In the very next sentence, Wittgenstein offers a clue, but does so by shifting the story yet again: “We cannot say that two bangs two seconds apart differ only in degree from those an hour apart, for we have no feeling of rhythm if the interval is an hour long.” Now even seconds and hours are “entirely different,” because we can “feel” the rhythm and regularity of seconds in a way that we can’t feel the passing of hours.  In turns out, apparently, that the hypothetical story wasn’t about logs and clocks and measurement at all.  The entire opening image was beside the point.  The “real” story was about the incomparable feeling of flow – la durée, or something like it.  (And if you don’t like that, just wait a section.  Wittgenstein – like the weather – will change.)

Wittgenstein always talks about how philosophy creates the problems it sets out to resolve, and that many of these problems are “caused by not using language practically.” But Wittgenstein, in his koan-wannabe stories, seems just as enraptured by his own ability to pump out the fog he promises to dispel.  What’s more, he seems just a distrustful of our “everyday” and “practical” uses of words and ideas.  His insistently destabilizing stories serve all these purposes. 

This seems to be style as a substitute for argument.  It is aesthetics as misdirection – art that doesn’t encourage you to look closely, but wishes to misdirect you, while it palms your card and trips the philosophical escape hatch in the narrative floor.  Not to grab “snake“‘s tail too tightly, but I have also slithered hesitantly towards the conclusion that Wittgenstein does, indeed, have a powerful aesthetic sense.  Unfortunately, it’s that of the bullshit artist.

By on 08/22/05 at 12:08 AM | Permanent link to this comment

So in effect you’re sort of saying “the philosophical issues have been done to death, and it doesn’t matter if there are positivist (in the TLP) and/or materialist overtones/passages (the PI), we are looking for ideas/themes that might provide some fuel to literary fires.” That seems about like saying “marxist economics is boring and trite, so we’ll look for some stuff on Marx’s views regarding drama.” Whether or not cottage industries were spawned regarding Wittgenstein as behaviorist or not, or to what degree, it seems that some sort of consensus has to be reached about both Witt. I and Witt. II--not an easy task and indeed one of the problems that people such as Popper had with Witt.--and then the interpretations/aesthetics begins. Yeah, some lit. people do that--not many--; but on the whole it seems LitWitt generally addresses the somewhat nebulous issues which Mr. Emerson raises and is not concerned with the analytical or psychological issues.  The zen or Heraclitus-like aspects of Wittgenstein are intriguing and maybe poetic (but i think samurai jack is poetic), but the enigamtic passages may also distract others from “getting” the core message or themes.

Another issue which many lit. types are ignoring is that Witt did offer claims--the private language argument, family resemblance, meaning as use, naming without a “bearer” of the name,etc-- and those might be refuted. The PI is not some religious text or dogma (tho some take it as such). Cognitivism might demonstrate that subjective sensations could be mapped or notated by some type of cartesian “ego” . There is much that is up for grabs. If cognitivism at some point does map to some degree the old empirical associations--from visual perception, to sense data/image, to the brain reflecting on/conceptualizing the sense data, to naming it or remembering it, etc.--it would seem much of the PI (and history of philosophy) might be altered if not refuted. Or perhaps some whacked-out Chalmers-like dualism holds: that too would seem to refute large portions of the PI. Witt.’s ideas are also part of a historical process and should be viewed as falsifiable, should they not--and if not falsifiable, then what are they?

By snake on 08/22/05 at 12:56 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Quick reply to snake. (Peter, I’ll get back to you later.)

snake writes: “So in effect you’re sort of saying “the philosophical issues have been done to death, and it doesn’t matter if there are positivist (in the TLP) and/or materialist overtones/passages (the PI), we are looking for ideas/themes that might provide some fuel to literary fires.”

No. I’m simply pushing back against your excessively strong hint that, because there are positivist/materialist whatever elements, therefore there can’t be literary ones as well. You are, I take it, inclined to deduce ignorance of philosophical substance from interest in literary form. I deny this is a valid inference.

I do admit that some writing on the ‘poetry’ of Wittgenstein’s philosophy is atrociously uninformed about the actual philosophy. The fact that it is possible to enjoy the literary atmospherics of Wittgenstein’s texts without really understanding what he’s talking about is a serious moral hazard, intellectually speaking. You think you have ‘gotten it’ because you are enjoying it. You treat epigrammatic, vatic fragments as occasions to bounce your own thoughts around and have them come back to you pseudo-certified as Wittgensteinian wisdom. I really don’t like it when that happens, and it does. But the fact that a topic - the strange literary form of Wittgenstein’s writings - can be handled badly is not a very compelling argument to the conclusion that it cannot be handled well.

Those who are most justified in ignoring the literary qualities of Wittgenstein’s work are those who are really looking for arguments and ideas to carry away, regardless of authorial provenance. If your project isn’t to reconstruct Wittgenstein’s own views and outlook - if you are happy for what you do with bits of him to be at odds with his own uses - then, fine. Ignore the literary stuff. But it seems to me, snake, that you are more inclined to hint that because you’ve got hold of the positivist and materialist bits that somehow you are more clued into the REAL Wittgenstein than the lit folk. I think that is not going to work.

By John Holbo on 08/22/05 at 02:27 AM | Permanent link to this comment

OK, quick response to Peter as well. (Maybe longer one later. Busybusy.) Peter writes:

“His mystical tableaux seem ingenious, but ultimately tossed off, designed for two things – quick description and quicker disposal.  As John points out, it seems wrong even to imagine them too vividly.  Like the man with his logs, we are supposed to record our immediate impressions and then move on.”

I think this is too harsh. I think his tableaux are always very serious thought-experiments. (When they are failures they are at least serious attempts.) They are not tossed off and are not intended for quick disposal. They are endgame-like - the number of pieces reduced, the scene simplified - for valid conceptual reasons. Wittgenstein is solving for variables and attempting to construct proofs. The danger is that perhaps it is ill-advised to try to write a little fable or parable, conjure an uncanny tableau, that has a dual function as a rigorous thought-experiment. You have some little logical space, for experimental purposes, but you can’t resist rounding off the exercise with a pietistic Tolstoyan gesture of ‘how much logical space does a man need?’ or however you want to characterize it. The atmosophere ends up being ... ornamental; relative to the intellectual content, which is solid (potentially). So the result is: you have a conceptual/argumentative point, perhaps about the ‘stream of time’, rendered more portentous than it deserves to be. If this suspicion is correct, then the danger is not “style as a substitute for argument”; rather, style as a supernumerary supplement to argument, attempting to upstage argument in ill-advised fashion.

In this way I think Wittgenstein positively invites many of the frivolous readings he has inspired. The beauty of his writing may step on the toes of its intellectual functionality. (That’s what I feel when I am pessimistic about it.)

By John Holbo on 08/22/05 at 03:06 AM | Permanent link to this comment

One of the reasons I talk about mysticism in Wittgenstein, snake, is that Wittgenstein himself used the word.  My ultimate, quite tentative conclusion has been that the body of his thought may well be much as you say it is, but that there are these other things persistently showing up in his writing and conversation which are hard to square with the rest of his though.

In my eclectic-generalist way I have posited “two Wittgensteins”, but Finch has concluded that there is a consistency between the two parts (and I have just been informed that “The World and Life as One” by Stokhof has too.) But the stuff we’re talking about is not imaginary. It seems to me that you’re proposing exactly the kind of censored interpretation of Wittgenstein that I’ve been complaining about froim the beginning.

Against John H., I think that on the one hand the angst is there in Wittgenstein (though not in the PI), and also that Kafka’s angst has been overemphasized. The passages I’m thinking about in both authors are eerie and enigmatic rather than angsty, and Kafka seems to have thought of much of his writing as humorous.

Kafka, Wittgenstein, and a number of other Austrians seem to have developed the German seriousness in an especially hopeless, apolitical way approaching nihilism in many respects.

By John Emerson on 08/22/05 at 07:37 AM | Permanent link to this comment


Thanks for realizing that my own note was written in pessimism — trying to account for some of my own negative reactions to Wittgenstein by magnifying their intensity and scope.  In the process, my terms do get supersized. 

Take my too-harsh description of Wittgenstein’s thought-experiments as being designed “for quick disposal.” I didn’t mean that they weren’t “serious” or in the service of serious philosophical points.  But (at times) they serve these ends by being immediately (and merely?) provocative — catching you off-guard, showing you five pieces of an intricate puzzle.  And his elaborations do not (always) stabilize the scene, but further shift the picture, so you’re not sure where you’re supposed to focus.  Then, while you’re reeling, the “conclusion” hits you.

(I’m thinking, at the moment, about Wittgenstein’s famous story of the wood-sellers in Remarks on the Foundations of Mathematics.  It comes to mind for its tantalizing image of people who pile “timber in heaps of arbitrary, varying height and [sell] it at a price proportionate to the area covered by the pile,” saying, “Of course, if you buy more timber, you must pay more”:

How could I show them that—as I should say—you don’t really buy more wood if you buy a pile covering a bigger area? – I should, for instance, take a pile which was small by their ideas and, by laying the logs around, change it into a ‘big’ one. This might convince them – but perhaps they would say: “Yes, now it’s a lot of wood and costs more”—and that would be the end of the matter.—We should presumably say in this case: they simply do not mean the same by “a lot of wood” and “a little wood” as we do; and they have a quite different system of payment from us. (RFM I §149-150)

But it’s that conclusion – that unexpected and admonitory “and that would be the end of the matter” – that currently gets me.)

This can make reading Wittgenstein an open and suggestive experience.  It can also make reading him an invigorating experience — as if you’re being hit my many small shots of adrenaline in very quick sequence.  The mystical/literary side wants to slow down and explore the source of these feelings.  But I suggest that much of Wittgenstein’s power — not necessarily for the worse — comes from allowing them to rush, rush, rush by.  (Busybusy.)

And when I am at my most pessimistic, it explains why reading Wittgenstein and his provocations can feel a lot like being intimidated, bullied, sucker-punched.  My too-harsh analysis was, in part, an attempt make others feel this impact.

By on 08/22/05 at 09:04 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Herr Holbo, not to appear like the philistinish analytical-wannabe barking about necessary truths and so forth, YET the means by which Wittgensteinian themes (or the literary Witt. for that matter) are situated in the analytical/synthetic divide has not, as far I can tell, been indicated, here or in any other similiar discussions.  (That issue always creeps into philosophy and aesthetics, really) I think the TLP is mostly analytic, and assumes that deductive propositional forms (modus ponens, truth tables etc.) are valid, but non-deductive methods--statements about causes and aesthetic statements, say---are not affirmed (assuming, contra-Quine, that analytical truths of some form still do hold).

An inductive approach to PI, however, is I do not think implausible. Do Witt. methods in the PI provide descriptions--say “family resemblance"-- which are somehow independent of fact? It really is primarily synthetic/inductive--the “forms of life”, not mind/ or mental processes--thus subject to proof/confirmation; as one psych/cognitive person I am acquainted with remarked after a few weeks with the PI, “Ludwig went native on us.” And I assert nearly the entire PI may be read as such--and those lit people trying to read texts according to Witt. types of standards or themes thus also proceed inductively, and the problems of induction and confirmation, relativism, specifying “meaning as use” etc. appear again. If that is not the case, and there are axioms or analytical truths (can a description be analytical?), identities to be extracted few have managed to specify them.  Some such defining process would need to occur, either personally or critically, before the lit. work commences.

By snake on 08/22/05 at 02:04 PM | Permanent link to this comment

As it so happens, the one piece of unambiguous literary critical methodology Wittgenstein propounded supports your skepticism, snake. When meeting F.R. Leavis, Wittgenstein commanded: “Give up literary criticism!” But I do not follow the master on this one.

I’m trying to work up a post that’s sort of in the area you are asking about, snake. Don’t know whether it will get done. A very short answer would be: a literary critical approach to Wittgenstein - less fancily, a consideration of the odd form in which he composed his philosophy - need not be Wittgensteinian. I need not decide to use Wittgensteinian tools to analyze Wittgenstein. Now, obviously, I will want to be sensitive to what he himself thought, and thought he was up to, so forth. On that score: I think he would have disapproved of philosophical approaches to his writings that treated it ‘as literature’. But I think this is not a point on which we should not follow him. He’s got issues, frankly. He thinks philosophy can’t be art, but then he is compelled to write it artfully - the thing he has forbidden himself creeps in the back door of his style. I think Wittgenstein is personally being pulled in very different directions, and it shows in the style. And if you want to understand the man and his philosophy, the style turns out to be a good place to start. Not that you want to stick with style and ignore substance, but style is an important clue which hasn’t been handled well to date. There are lots of good books and articles on the substance of Wittgenstein’s thought, I find. Lots of bad ones, too. But lots of good. I am still waiting to read something that really satisfies me about the ‘poetics’ of Wittgenstein’s prose as a clue to his philosophical personality.

With luck and a little talent, I may write it myself.

By John Holbo on 08/22/05 at 10:46 PM | Permanent link to this comment

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