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cover of the book What's Liberal About the Liberal Arts?

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cover of the book The Novel of Purpose

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Encyclopedia Britannica to Shut Down Print Operations

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Support Michael Sporn’s Film about Edgar Allen Poe

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The Early History of Modern Computing: A Brief Chronology

Computing Encounters Being, an Addendum

On the Origin of Objects (towards a philosophy of computation)

Symposium on Graeber’s Debt

The Nightmare of Digital Film Preservation

Richard Petti on Occupy Wall Street: America HAS a Ruling Class

Bill Benzon on Whatwhatwhatwhatwhatwhatwhat?

Nick J. on The Valve - Closed For Renovation

Bill Benzon on Encyclopedia Britannica to Shut Down Print Operations

Norma on Encyclopedia Britannica to Shut Down Print Operations

Bill Benzon on What’s an Object, Metaphysically Speaking?

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William Ray on That Shakespeare Thing

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Bill Benzon on A Dirty Dozen Sneaking up on the Apocalypse

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Tuesday, June 05, 2007

Looking Up/Looking Down, Wittgenstein-style

Posted by John Holbo on 06/05/07 at 02:32 AM

It is like saying: "I classify works of Art in this way: at some I look up and at some I look down." This way of classifying might be interesting. We might discover all sorts of connections between looking up or down at works of Art and looking up or down at other things. If we found, perhaps, that eating vanilla ice made us look up, we might not attach great importance to looking up. There may be a realm, a small realm of experiences which may make me look up or down where I can infer a lot from the fact that I looked up or down; another realm of experiences where nothing can be inferred from my looking up or down. Cf. wearing blue or green trousers may in a certain society mean a lot, but in another society it may not mean anything. (p. 12)

From Ludwig Wittgenstein, Lectures and Conversations on Aesthetics, Psychology and Religious Belief [amazon - with search inside, if you care to]

I generally feel I get the point when Wittgenstein talks about these sorts of cases - cases of what he sometimes calls ‘secondary sense’ (see Part II of Philosophical Investigations). It has to do with synaesthesia - which I suspect Wittgenstein knew about from personal experience - and is philosophically important for more or less the same reasons ‘private languages’ are interesting. But this looks up/looks down thing has always seemed to be going nowhere interesting.

What comes before doesn’t really help. Wittgenstein imagines meeting someone who has just lost his best friend and expresses himself very beautifully about his loss. What similarity does appreciating his eloquence have to appreciating vanilla ice? ‘It seems disgusting to compare them’, but you can ‘connect them by intermediate cases’. Which leads into ‘looking up/looking down’. You look up to the person who has lost his friend, but if vanilla ice made you look up ... [no ‘Ice Ice Baby’ jokes, please]

Now I am amused to discover a related passage in Theodore Redpath‘s Ludwig Wittgenstein, A Student’s Memoir.

Redpath was indeed one of his students and is, in fact, memorably memorialized in the aforementioned Lectures and Conversations volume:

Cf. "If we boil Redpath at 200 degrees C all that is left when the water vapor is gone is some ash, etc. This is all Redpath really is." Saying this might have a certain charm, but would be misleading to say the least. (p. 24)

Here is Redpath, from his memoir:

A few days after telling me how much he enjoyed and admired Tristram Shandy, a rather droll result ensued. Wittgenstein may have been rereading the novel. At all events he said to me that he had been struck with a passage in it which seemed to be a quotation from Aristotle which said that a man looks up when he is thinking of the future and down when he is thinking of the past. Crediting me with more learning than I possessed, but knowning that I had been reading quite a bit of Aristotle recently, he asked me if I could say which work of Aristotlte it came from. I had no recollection whatever of any such passage. He said that the passage was quoted in Tristram Shandy, as from ‘Aristotle’s Masterpiece’. I said I was sorry, but I didn’t know the answer. Then, a few days later, he told me not to bother to look any further in Aristotle as he had now heard that Aristotle’s Masterpiece was a baudy eighteenth-century book. This was quite near the mark, but only quite.

Aristotle’s Master-Piece was actually a compendium including an eighteenth-century version of a manual of sex, a midwife’s guide, a book of homely remedies and a miscellany of rustic science ... However, the passage about looking down and looking up, which had struck Wittgenstein, was not from Aristotle’s Master-Piece but from another work frequently bound up with it, Aristotle’s Book of Problems ... probably originally a Peripatetic work ... possibly containing some questions raised by Aristotle himself ... The oldest manuscrupt is tenth-century ... In the 1755 edition of the book there are two questions posed which are relevant to the Tristram Shandy passage: Why doth a Man lift up his head towards the Heavens when he doth imagine? ... (2) Why doth a Man when he museth, or thinketh on things past, look down towards the earth? (pp. 50-1)

It turns out that the answer has to do with fluid dynamics of the brain - the answers are 1) because the Imagination is in the Fore part of the head, needing lifting up so the Creeks or Cells of the Imagination may be opened ... and 2) because the aft Cell or Creek is the Creek of Chamber of Memory, and therefore looketh towards Heaven when the head is bowed ...

The Tristram Shandy passage (vol. 2 ch. 7): "It is said in Aristotle’s Master-Piece, "That when a man doth think of any thing which is past, - he looketh down upon the ground; - but that when he thinketh of something which is to come, he looketh up towards the heavens".’ And then, bit further on: "My uncle Toby, I suppose, thought of neither, for he looked horizontally’.

UPDATE: Aristotle’s Master-Piece - thanks, Anatoly!


Comments

Aristotle’s Master-Piece

The Book of Problems starts on page 211, and this quotation is on p. 215.

By Anatoly on 06/05/07 at 05:32 AM | Permanent link to this comment

W seems to be getting at the point later made by structural anthropologists: systems of classification and codes have meaning only as social systems.  The same gesture or sign could be meaningful in one system, meaningless in another; or it might be important for one group and not important for another.  (As opposed to the Jungians, who saw a sign as having a relatively stable meaning across cultures.)

So in one system or for one culture, the looking up/looking down classification of Art might work—a culture, say, that hung all religious art from ceilings and installed all secular art flatly on the groud.

By on 06/05/07 at 09:27 AM | Permanent link to this comment

I took the comment as LB does and am not seeing the connection to secondary senses particularly straight off—TOO BAD that I packed up all my W. in a big ol’ box, I GUESS.

By ben wolfson on 06/05/07 at 07:42 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Ben, it seems to me that the trouble with this bit is that Wittgenstein is crossing discussion of ‘secondary sense’-type issues (is Wednesday more yellow than Tuesday and all that?) with stuff that clearly has some social/anthropological explanations (dominance displays, looking up at your parents, so people you look up to are your superiors), cultural arbitrariness. It’s just that he’s not teasing out these various threads of possibility, so he isn’t isolating anything interesting. It feels like he threw too much in the pot with this one.

In short, it’s not that W. is wrong, it’s that he’s vaguely right about three (fairly obvious) things at once. At least in this case.

By John Holbo on 06/05/07 at 09:20 PM | Permanent link to this comment

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