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Thursday, August 25, 2005

Restlessness and the Achievement of Peace

Posted by Timothy Gould, Guest Author, on 08/25/05 at 02:30 AM

Below is an excerpt from Timothy Gould's essay, "Restlessness and the Achievement of Peace: Writing and Method in Wittgenstein’s Philosophical Investigations". I'm working up a post discussing it. But first I'll just say: it's a good essay. I've praised it in my NDPR review of The Literary Wittgenstein:

The core of Gould's essay is a close reading of PI par. 112-138, elucidating an oft-quoted bit: "A picture held us captive. And we could not get outside it, for it lay in our language and language seemed to repeat it to us inexorably" (par. 115) ... To get the details, read Gould. But the complex irony he is exploring can be appreciated in the abstract ...

But you don't need to bother with my incessant, bee-like buzzings at abstract appreciations of complex ironies. What it comes to is: it's often a mistake to read Wittgenstein as an aphorist, even when he writes what look like aphorisms. With the kind permission of the author I present ... the details (well, a substantial portion of them).

- the Management

... Wittgenstein’s aphorisms gesture beyond themselves to other less spectacular forms of writing. These aphorisms tend to be “embedded” - which here means more than means than just located within a specific context. The aphorism emerges from a specific moment, and it returns to that moment in various ways.  In the case I have in mind, the aphorism emerges as a moment in an all but unnoticed narrative. It is a striking moment to be sure, but a moment that requires the narrative for its full force, and in turn grants to the narrative a kind of climax.  We naturally tend to take the sense of climax as voicing the philosophical upshot or denouement of the passage.  But there are other reasons for providing the specific sense of climax that goes with such an aphorism.

For Wittgenstein the denouement comes later, as if it is only in getting past the wish for the climax, whether as the conclusion of an argument, or as the aphoristic breaking off of conversation or narration, that we arrive at the peace which passes by such forms of breaking off, and achieves the peace of examples, the peace of the exemplary.

Reading the Investigations demands a respect for the unobtrusive power of the continuities of Wittgenstein’s thought and writing. This does not undercut the power of Wittgenstein’s discontinuities, for instance, the ways in which he can abruptly bring the reader to a dead stop or point him in another direction:

“Yes, but there is something there all the same accompanying my cry of pain.  And it is on account of that that I utter it. And this something is what is important—and frightful.” – Only whom are you informing of this? And on what occasion? (PI §296)

Here the change of direction or perspective contained in the question “Only whom are you informing of this?” is likely to be found irrelevant by someone in the grip of the skeptical problem. But this feat of Wittgenstein’s writing is also likely to be overlooked by someone who “agrees with” what she takes to be the general tenor of his anti-skeptical conclusion. The two sentences following the quotation marks are not aphorisms, and they are not, by themselves, insights into the “problem” of other minds.

It is only if you have allowed yourself to be gripped by the problem of the other, as a problem, that you can allow yourself to be instructed by the sheer change of the mind’s direction, or his ability to get the mind to track its motions from a different angle. In this case, it is less like a “breaking off” of a series of examples and more like a breaking in of a new kind of self-questioning: What has brought me to this impasse, where I seem to need to assert as news or at least as information something that cannot possibly be information - for it cannot possibly inform someone of something he or she does not already know?

What I am calling the abrupt change of direction or perspective in such a passage is not by itself going to achieve the peace that Wittgenstein is aiming for. But quite apart from the fact that it presents us with its own particular form of brilliance, the passage can help us bear in mind that Wittgenstein’s writing has more than one way of bringing us to a halt or moving us along. This may in turn help us to remember that not everything that sounds like an aphorism or a magisterial summary of Wittgenstein’s position is in fact intended to work in those ways.

I want to offer a close reading of sections §113 through roughly §138, intended among other things to undermine more conclusively a standard view of Wittgenstein’s use of the idea of a picture:

A picture held us captive. And we could not get outside it, for it lay in our language and language seemed to repeat it to us inexorably. (PI §115)

This is often cited, I believe, as if it summarized an entire region of Wittgenstein’s thought:  a) language contains pictures b) we are unable to avoid these pictures because, presumably, we are unable to avoid (using) language and c) we become entangled in our forms of speech at least in part because we are held captive by, entranced by, these pictures.  Step c) is not explicitly stated but it seems to many philosophers that Wittgenstein clearly implies it.  And it seems reasonable to present these pictures as one source of our inability to survey our use of words, hence of our lack of a perspicuous representation of our grammar.  At the very least, the idea of being “held captive” suggests a kind of immobility—one that would prevent the movement that is required to command the view of language that we need to bring our disquietudes to an end. To get to where we want, we must be able to “arrange” what we have always known. [Cf. §109]  The activity of such “arranging” is incompatible with being immobilized by a picture.  Moreover, there is a strong hint that such pictures are, generally speaking, false pictures, blocking a clear view of what we need to know.  Such pictures may not be the only source of our “bewitchment” by language, but they must surely figure largely in any account of that bewitchment.

I am not suggesting that there is no evidence for such views of the role of  “pictures” in the Investigations.   But I am suggesting that to read these passages in this light is to miss a major aspect of Wittgenstein’s writing, and moreover one that casts light on other regions of the Investigations.

Let us ask how Wittgenstein accounts for the presence of these pictures in our language, and how they come to exert a hold on us. Wittgenstein does talk a great deal about pictures throughout the Investigations, but only very rarely does he talk about them as “lying in our language.”  Does this really make sense as something Wittgenstein might have held as a general thesis about the “location” of pictures?1 As far as I know, he never provides an account of the presence of pictures “in” our language or of how in general, they are supposed to function or misfunction.

Let us back up a bit:  If we attend to Wittgenstein’s remark about pictures sheerly as an aphorism, one might also take it to be a kind of general pronouncement, on a par with remarks like “The human body is the best picture of the human soul” or  “A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds”.  Why take it so?   No doubt a sense of a pronouncement  is in the air.  But that is also true of the pamphlet that begins “A specter is haunting Europe” or the one that asserts “We hold these truths to be self-evident.” Neither Marx nor Jefferson nor Wittgenstein seem incapable of turning from a characterization of an apparently general condition to a quite detailed story about the origins of that condition.

Let us place this “isolationist” reading of “A picture held us captive” against the evidence of the surrounding passages.  I propose a reading that makes more sense of the aphorism in question.  This reading will present in detail Wittgenstein’s way of linking an aphorism to the context of perplexity and criteria from which it actually emerges.

The passage occurs in a definite context, beginning at least as far back as section §112.   The fact is that what is there translated as “simile” [Gleichnis] might, in this context, be better translated as “likeness”.  In that case,  the word would explicitly show its affinity for “Bild”, which is after all normally considered a kind of likeness. Then we would be better prepared to see that §112 has everything to do with what Wittgenstein is up to in  §115: The standard translation reads:

A simile [Gleichnisse] that has been absorbed into our language, produces a false appearance that disquiets us.

This doesn’t tell us how this Gleichnis became absorbed into the language. But it also doesn’t suggest that language (all language?) just happens to contain these misleading “similes”. Wittgenstein tells us, to all appearances quite straightforwardly, that something has happened to get the Gleichnis absorbed into the language.

Wittgenstein does not declare explicitly that he is about to tell us the story of how that “likeness” got absorbed into our language.  But that is the most obvious reading of what he goes on to do.  For surely the most striking fact about the sections leading from §112 to §115 is that they form a little narrative. And the most natural way to read this narrative is, precisely, that it tells us how that “likeness” got absorbed into our language in the form of a picture. This fact about these paragraphs has never really been commented on:  yet the marks of narration and other forms of continuity are all in place, requiring only that we be able to read them. We need to know what prevents us from reading what is in front of our eyes.   

§112 begins with the declaration of a certain event: A Gleichnis got absorbed into our language and produces a false appearance that disquiets us. This is already a report on a kind of event. The succeeding passages continue this report:

“But this isn’t how it is”—we say. “Yet this is how it has to be.” (PI §112)

It hasn’t gone unnoticed that §113 continues §112, by repeating the key phrase “This is how it is----____"  But isn’t it equally clear that the disquietude mentioned in #112 as produced by the Gleichnis is actually enacted in #113?  And isn’t it precisely a form of philosophical unrest that leads to this sort of behavior: And isn’t this a sort of restlessness? I say [“This is how it is_____”] to myself over and over again. I feel as though, if only I could fix my gaze absolutely sharply (ganz scharf) on this fact, get it in focus, I must grasp the essence of this matter. (PI, #113)

Moreover, the particular form of disquietude that is here being voiced combines a kind of gaze, with a kind of repetition of a particular form of words. The theme of repetition is picked up in the following section, this time referring us to the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus: “The general form of the proposition is: This is how things are.”____. Perhaps the introduction of the source-text of his own obsession has tended to make readers oblivious to the continuity of the story that Wittgenstein is telling. For he has introduced this earlier work in order, precisely, to continue (and no doubt deepen) the narrative:

That is the kind of proposition (Satz) that one repeats to oneself countless times. One thinks that one is tracing [nachzufahren] the outline of the thing’s nature over and over again, and one is merely tracing round the frame [Form] through which we look at it. (PI, §114)

However we characterize these bits of a story, the connections are clear enough and the issue of repetition could not be more blatant, Wittgenstein even goes so far as to use the same words in both sections precisely in his characterization of  the act of repetition: “over and over again” in English; and even more strongly in German: “wieder und wieder.” What is repeated is a proposition—a sentence—about how propositions have to be. (Moreover, what are repeated are precisely words that signify repetition.)  And the outcome is given in §115: A picture now holds us captive.

There are other indications of the continuity of this little narrative, if they are needed:  The emphasis on the word “this” in sections §112, §113 and §114 suggests that the “likeness” is a kind of image or picture of how the situation has to be, even though the situation is evidently not like that. What is this “likeness”? In fact, about a great many pictures that Wittgenstein speaks of do not indicate that he oscillates between saying this is how it has to be (even though the facts are evidently otherwise.)  Think of  the picture of “blindness as darkness in the soul.” If I see it this way, I will not in general feel that it “must” be like this, and then find myself oscillating between “this way” and how it really is. This picture of blindness is not likely to alternate with something else, anymore than it is likely to make me feel that I am held captive by it, or that it has been imposed on me. If I become alive to other ways of understanding the blind, these ways are likely to loosen the grip of the “picture” of darkness in the soul, not produce a disquieting oscillation. Similarly, if I harbor a picture of Australians as hanging upside down on the other side of the earth, it is not something I am inclined to oscillate about. Nor do I, in most circumstances, oscillate between pictures of myself as grasping the meaning of a word in an instant and the other more painstaking accounts of the “grammar” of grasping the meaning of a word.

The pictures that are the subject of these other stories show themselves precisely in the way that we are inclined to take the application of certain words and a certain picture of the use of these words as obvious. It requires work to get the opposing understanding—for instance, that the use of a word is spread out over space ands time, and is not even a candidate for what could be “grasped in an instant.” And when I have done that work I am not then inclined to oscillate back and forth between, for instance, “it looks like the use isn’t grasped an instant”, and then on the other hand “but it must be grasped in an instant.” My perplexity does not present itself as the kind of oscillation we are discussing. (If you are in the grip of a similar perplexity, you might take this as an invitation to examine the form it takes.) The two sides of my puzzlement do not possess the kind of equal weight or force that produces the kind of oscillation that Wittgenstein is here depicting.

For the moment, I am merely claiming, without further evidence than my reading as a whole can supply, that the obvious reading of this passage is this:  the Gleichnis, “this is how things must be” and the sentence “A picture held us captive” are meant to apply first of all to the circumstances narrated in the little story that these sentences are embedded in and secondarily to those circumstances that turn out to be analogous. (I say “obvious”, fully aware that it will not seem so to everyone. That is another story, one that is also contained in the Investigations.)

To recapitulate the story: We begin with a sense of disquiet, an unrest which takes the form of an oscillation. Unable to get away from this oscillation, we repeat the sentence that we feel we need to insist on, as if repetition will fix our gaze, make our focus sharper. And what happens is: after sufficient repetition, language repeats the sentence back to us. It is as if the likeness - which began as a form of words about words had now become transformed into a picture. This picture, which now seems inescapably part of the language we are examining, repeats back to us the very words we had been repeating, the very words (which constituted a proposition about how propositions had to be) that we had been fascinated by. The outline of the proposition that we had tried to find immovably fixed in the scheme of things has now fixated us ...

... We resume our reading at §134, where the preoccupation with “the general form of the proposition” is taken up again.  Of course, others have noticed that §134 discusses the “same topic” as §§112-115.  I am suggesting that “the proposition” is not merely being addressed again, but that Wittgenstein’s self-interruption was intentional—part of the way the passages in question were composed. 

Notice that §134 immediately follows the section from which I have drawn my title, a section that forms another climactic summation, this time of what Wittgenstein characterizes as his “methods”. ["The real discovery is the one that makes me capable of stopping doing philosophy when I want to. - The one that gives philosophy peace, so that it is no longer tormented by questions which bring itself in question. - Instead we now demonstate a method, by examples; and the series of examples can be broken off. - Problems are solved (difficulties eliminated), not a single problem."] I have been suggesting that what he calls “peace” could equally be characterized as bringing rest to this particular kind of philosophical writing. But the irruption of this and other descriptions of method are not themselves the workings of the method. My suggestion is that the bursts of methodological reflection are significant—not just as clues to the kind of therapy he is proposing but as an expression of the wish for health or for peace. These interruptions are at least as significant as the theoretical outbursts of the patient who “interrupts” the analysis to describe the cure that he or she desires. The wish for the cure is not the cure, as the expression of a sense of personhood is not the achievement of personhood. But it is a step.

My last suggestion about these passages is this: What follows, for all the change of tone, is precisely the working out of a therapeutic moment in the Investigations. I conclude my reading of §§112-115) with the suggestion that we take Wittgenstein as timing his return to the subject of the form of propositions to achieve a specific effect.  He substitutes for his initial narrative of perplexity a presentation in a much lower key of how that perplexity gets dissolved. Unfortunately, this dissolution will seem either flat or tendentious if the reader has not been able to connect the therapy to the initial narrative of the specific fascination and experience the grip of that picture’s fascination.

1 I see no evidence that Wittgenstein held the kind of view of language that might make sense of this residue of pictures: originally, some have argued, words were closer to the natural aspects of the world.  As language progresses, it becomes more abstract,  moving away from the physical images, but unable to eradicate their presence and their influence. Cf. Timothy Gould, “Natural Notions, Uncommon Speech”, dissertation. Harvard University, 1978.


I may put up a longer post chez moi, but here let me just cut to the chase.  I agree completely (with JH) that even those things that look like aphorisms in PI must be read in context – not only the textual context of their surrounding sections, but the philosophical context of the problems Wittgenstein is addressing there – and I agree (with TG) that §115 is a section that may well be misunderstood if we are not careful in this way.  The “picture” in §115 is clearly that of §§112-4, which indeed makes unlikely any purported role for that section as a “summary” of “an entire region of Wittgenstein’s thought,” as outlined in Gould’s (a) – (c).  But the larger context is just as important as the proximate one.  Wittgenstein has been discussing tempting but possibly spurious “requirements,” as manifested in our “forms of expression,” for some time, reaching back to §89, which sets the topic to be discussed: “In what sense is logic something sublime?” This and the immediately following sections enact the first few moves in the dialectic, and show Wittgenstein trying to get clear on the ambivalent relation (continuing vs. criticizing) his present inquiry has toward that of the Tractatus.  The “illusion” he wants us ultimately to give up is that of §91: “we eliminate misunderstandings by making our expressions more exact; but now it may look as if we were moving toward a particular state, a state of complete exactness; and as if this were the real goal of our investigation.” But that illusion, as he is already saying by §94, is held in place by our very “forms of expression.” The later talk of “pictures” is meant to refer to this.

Similarly, while I appreciate the reasons for jumping from §115 to §134 (proximity to the “climactic summary” of the famous §133, and the direct connection to the issue of §114, that of
“the general form of a proposition"), I hate to skip over what I see as the payoff of the whole discussion: §122 (or, better, §§121-3), where Wittgenstein allows that for methodological purposes “the concept of a perspicuous representation [übersichtliche Darstellung] is of fundamental significance for us.” In particular (on my reading, which I won’t go into here), it will allow us to take advantage of the particular shape of the problem, as carefully teased out in §§89-92ff: we addressed a problem; our original solution had something right about it that we want to retain; but it also falls into a version of the very illusion it was combating; our task is not simply to discard the first solution and try again, but instead to play its success off against its failure by “turning our whole examination round.” (I have to say, though, that if you don’t already have an idea of what he’s after, his explanation that “the axis of reference of our examination must be rotated, but about the fixed point of our real need” (§108) won’t be much help.)

By Dave Maier on 08/27/05 at 02:31 PM | Permanent link to this comment

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