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Computing Encounters Being, an Addendum

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

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Friday, September 16, 2005

Rotating the Axis of Our Investigation - or - the Importance of Being Urn-est

Posted by John Holbo on 09/16/05 at 08:46 AM

Mastering a language, together with all its subtleties and turns of phrase … does not consist in logical rules, but directly in their correct application, just as one musically gifted learns the rules of harmony through merely playing the piano by ear without reading the notes and studying thorough-bass.
– Schopenhauer 

ALGERNON: Did you hear what I was playing, Lane?
LANE: I didn't think it polite to listen, sir.
ALGERNON: I'm sorry for that, for your sake. I don't play accurately - anyone can play accurately - but I play with wonderful expression. As far as the piano is concerned, sentiment is my forte.

- Wilde

I am pleased to present another selection from The Literary Wittgenstein: the final three sections of Richard Eldridge’s paper, “Rotating the Axis of Our Investigation, Wittgenstein’s investigations and Hölderlin’s poetology” (PDF). We forebear to publish the whole out of courtesy to Routledge. I praised Eldridge in my NDPR review.

This post started out as introduction, but has selfishly aggrandized itself into an essay, lightly bookended by links to Eldridge's themes. Pardon the haphazard footnoting in places. (You want references? Email me.) I'm stitching old bits together in new ways, experimentally.

Eldridge begins by noting that Wittgenstein is concerned with the nature of “conceptual consciousness.” What is the nature of rule-following, for example? This might seem less than self-evidently philosophically central, but Wittgenstein is seeking an angle on the age-old problem of Universals, if you like. That is, a type that can be instantiated as indefinitely many tokens? ‘What makes this continuation of the series correct?’ is a question akin to, ‘What makes something a horse?’ Does it partake of the Form of Horseness?

Clearly that is not Wittgenstein's answer. He maintain that 'going on in the same way', obeying a rule, “is a practice … There is a way of grasping a rule which is not an interpretation, but which is exhibited in what we call ‘obeying the rule’ and ‘going against it’ in actual cases” (PI, §201). So much for Stanley Fish, as we have lately noted (unless it turns out Wittgenstein is wrong, of course.) But, as Eldridge says, absent something more than a thoroughly gestural account of ‘practice’ – forms of life, language-games, all that – how far this takes us?

What interests Wittgenstein about this result? There is an intensity to Wittgenstein's approach that belies the vague deflationism of 'it's a practice'. Eldridge remarks (as Matt Greenfield does in his post) that we would like to know, for example, why Wittgenstein sees fit to open Philosophical Investigations with the passage from St. Augustine. Wittgenstein actually told Norman Malcolm it was because the fact that Augustinian 'picture' of language occurred to such a great man proved it was important. But that just pushes back the question: how so?

The confessional character of Augustine’s Confessions is suggestive. Wittgenstein’s own remarks are often about the need to resist temptations, etc. “Working in philosophy ... is really more a working on oneself" (CV 16). But it is possible to see more deflationism here. 'The Augustinian picture of language' is, if you like, a false confession. But not in any spiritually significant sense. Wittgenstein seems to be tidying up incidentals around the spiritual work that Augustine is undertaking. This may be implicit, negative commentary on philosophy. It fusses ingeniously without touching the important things.

This reinforces the sense that we are not getting anywhere decisive. This tidying is still so messy. Eldridge: “No theses seem to be quite established. Arguments appear at best as moves within an ongoing self-interrogation, not as routes to definite results. It seems too ‘optional’ whether anyone responds to the protagonist’s worries and to the drama of the text. Is philosophy here, within this reading, being vaporized into bad literature, as some of my colleagues sometimes ask?” (p. 212)

Which brings us to the consideration that, early and late, Wittgenstein hints at a deep link between logic and ethics, via aesthetics – music, in particular. 

Let me offer a collection of quotes about music, starting with two from Wittgenstein’s early (pre-Tractatus) Notebooks:

"Musical themes are in a certain sense propositions. Knowledge of the nature of logic will for this reason lead to knowledge of the nature of music" (NB, 14.2.15).  A day later:  "A tune is a kind of tautology."

And from Culture and Value, mostly from quite late in Wittgenstein’s life:

If you ask me:  How did I experience the theme? - Perhaps I shall answer "As a question" or something of the sort, or I shall whistle it with expression, etc. (CV, 51)

Only in a quite particular musical context is there such a thing as three-part counterpoint. (CV, 82) [Cf.  How there are 'family resemblances' between the different things we are willing to call 'tunes'. (CV, 47)

"The repeat is necessary"  In what respect is it necessary?  . . . There is no paradigm apart from the theme itself.  And yet again there is  a paradigm apart from the theme:  namely, the rythm of our language, of our thinking and feeling.  And the theme, moreover, is a new part of our language; it becomes incorporated into it; we learn a new gesture.  The theme interacts with language. (CV, 52) 

"The 'necessity' with which the second idea succeeds the first.  (The overture to 'Figaro').  Nothing could be more idiotic than to say that it is 'agreeable to hear the one after the other. -- All the same, the paradigm according to which everything is right is obscure.  'It is the natural development.'  We gesture with our hands and are inclined to say:  'Of course!' -- Or we might compare the transition to a transition like the introduction of a new character in a story for instance, or a poem.  This is how the piece fits into the world of our thoughts and feelings. (CV, 57)

And from Zettel:

Soulful expression in music - this cannot be recognized by rules. Why can't we imagine that it might be, by other beings? (Z, 157) 

If a theme, a phrase, suddenly means something to you, you don't have to be able to explain it. Just this gesture has been made accessible to you. But you do speak of understanding music.  You understand it, surely, while you hear it! Ought we to say this is an experience which accompanies the hearing? The way music speaks. Do not forget that a poem, even though it is composed in the language of information, is not used in the language-game of giving information. (Z, 158-60 and following, up to 165).

From Philosophical Investigations:

Reading the written sentence loud or soft is indeed comparable with singing from a musical score, but ‘meaning’ (thinking) the sentence that is read is not. (PI 22)

I should like to say “What the picture tells me is itself.” That is, its telling me something consists in its own structure, in its own lines and colours. (What would it mean to say “What this musical theme tells me is itself”?) (PI 523)

What happens when we learn to feel the ending of a church mode as an ending? (PI 535)

The reinterpretation of a facial expression can be compared to the reinterpretation of a chord in music, when we hear it as a modulation first into this, then into that key (PI, 536)

Finally, quite a quite long passage from Part II of Philosophical Investigations.

Suppose we found a man who, speaking of how words felt to him, told us that “if” and “but” felt the same. – Should we have the right to disbelieve him? We might think it strange … If he used the words “if” and “but” as we do, shouldn’t we think he understood them as we do …

The if-feeling is not a feeling which accompanies the word “if”.

The if-feeling would have to be compared with the special ‘feeling which a musical phrase give us. (One sometimes describes such a feeling by saying “Here it is as if a conclusion were being drawn”, or “I should like to say ‘hence …..’” or “Here I should always like to make a gesture – “and then one makes it.)

But can this feeling be separated from the phrase? And yet it is not the phrase itself, for that can be heard without the feeling.

Is it in this respect like the ‘expression’ with which the phrase is played.

We say this passage gives us a quite special feeling. We sing it to ourselves, and make a certain movement, and also perhaps have some special sensation. But in a different context we should not recognize these accompaniments – the movement, the sensation  - at all. They are quite empty except just when we are singing this passage.

“I sing it with a quite particular expression.” This expression is not something that can be separated from the passage. It is a different concept. (A different game.)

The experience is this passage played like this (that is, as I am doing it, for instance, a description could only hint at it).

Thus the atmosphere that is inseparable from its object – is not an atmosphere.

Closely associated things, things which we have associated, seem to fit one another. But what is this seeming to fit? (PI, pp. 182-3)

The above selection should suffice to convince that Wittgenstein does indeed seem to see connections between the nature of music and standard (analytic philosophy-sounding) topics: the nature of propositions, tautologies, logical necessity, logical connectives, rule-following, meaning and understanding. That Wittgenstein is ferociously refined, fin de siecle Viennese might be sufficient explanation an unusual proccupation with music, up to and including metaphysical reflections on music. But there seems to be even more going on.

For example, there is at least a loose analogy between the rule-following considerations - how to use the word 'if' - and the sense of 'expression' music. And the hint is there that music is not just another example but crucially the key.

A bit I've quoted before.

[C. D.] Broad was quite right when he said of the Tractatus that it was highly syncopated. Every sentence in the Tractatus should be seen as the heading of a chapter, needing further exposition. My present style is quite different; I am trying to avoid that error. I thought when I gave up my professorship that I had at last got rid of my vanity. Now I find I am vain about the style in which I am able to write my present book. It is impossible for me to say in my book one word about all that music has meant in my life. How then can I hope to be understood? (Drury, p. 159-60)

So one can locate the musicality of Wittgenstein’s philosophic prose somewhere between the following poles.

Plato: ‘reasonable discourse, tempered with music, is the sole preserver of virtue.’

Pierre de Beaumarchais: ‘things too silly to be spoken can always be sung.’

The preoccupation with music is either a deeply interesting philosophical feature, or a compulsive stylistic tic.

Let’s go back nearer the beginning. In a pair of letters to Ludwig von Ficker, in late 1919, Wittgenstein describes the Tractatus as an aesthetically crystallized ethical act.

Von Ficker was the publisher of Der Brenner, a (Karl Kraus-influenced) literary journal. In 1914 Wittgenstein had made an donation of 10,000 Austrian crowns, to be distributed at von Ficker’s discretion, "among Austrian artists who are without means."  Then in 1919 – having voluntarily divested himself of his fortune – Wittgenstein turned to von Ficker, not asking return on the favor, but casting himself in the role of Austrian artist without means.

Wittgenstein asks if the Tractatus (at this point Logisch-Philosophische Abhandlung) could be considered for publication. He emphasizes its appropriateness for Der Brenner: “The work is strictly philosophical and at the same time literary, but there is no babbling in it.” Von Ficker is encouraging, but concerned that "strictly scientific works are not really our field." Wittgenstein forwards a copy for editorial consideration. The cover letter reiterates, more emphatically, the appropriateness of the Tractatus for Der Brenner:

I am pinning my hopes on you. For you won't - I really believe - get too much out of reading it. Because you won't understand it; the content will be strange to you. In reality it isn't strange to you, for the point of the the book is ethical. I once wanted to give a few words in the foreword which now actually are not in it, which, however, I'll write to you now because they might be a key for you: I wanted to write that my work consists of two parts: of the one which is here, and of everything which I have not written. And precisely this second part is the important one. For the Ethical is delimited from within, as it were, by my book; and I'm convinced that, strictly speaking, it can ONLY be delimited in this way. In brief, I think: All of that which many are babbling today, I have defined in my book by remaining silent about it. Therefore the book will, unless I am quite wrong, have much to say which you want to say yourself, but perhaps you won't notice that it is said in it. For the time being, I'd recommend that you read the foreword and the conclusion since these express the point most directly.

From the Preface to the Tractatus:

Thus the aim of the book is to draw a limit to thought, or rather - not to thought, but to the expression of thoughts: for in order to be able to draw a limit to thought, we should have to find both sides of the limit thinkable (i.e. we should have to be able to think what cannot be thought). (p. 3)

The notion of 'the Limit' is, I suspect, derived from Schopenhauer. It refers to the line between the World as Will and the World as Representation. Let me say a bit about Schopenhauer's early influence on Wittgenstein, by way of getting on to some fresh points.

In The Duty of Genius, Ray Monk relates that as early as 1906 Wittgenstein, "found himself gripped, almost against his will, by philosophical questions. Inspired by the diaries of Gottfried Keller, he began to write down his philosophical reflections in the form of dated notebook entries."

G.E.M. Anscombe relates, on the basis of conversations, that,

As a boy of sixteen Wittgenstein had read Schopenhauer and had been greatly impressed by Schopenhauer's theory of the 'world as idea' (though not of the 'world as will'); Schopenhauer then struck him as fundamentally right, if only a few adjustments and clarifications were made.

P.T. Geach [married to Anscombe, so we may be recycling a data point]:

Wittgenstein himself stated in conversation that when he was young he believed Schopenhauer to have been fundamentally right (though, not surprisingly, he could make nothing of the 'objectification of the Will'.) 

Finally, G. H. von Wright:

Wittgenstein told me that he had read Schopenhauer's Die Welt als Wille und Vorstellung in his youth and that his first philosophy was a Schopenhauerian epistemological idealism.

'His first philosophy' implies a degree of creative authorship that suggests, in turn, actual writing. It seems reasonable to hypothesize that the early, lost Keller-inspired notebooks were devoted, in part, to exposition of a broadly Schopenhauerian, idealist philosophy.

Later Wittgenstein becomes interested in the philosophy of science, and all the figures he studies are (like Schopenhauer) Kantians - Hertz and Boltzmann. He admires Otto Weininger and Karl Kraus' satiric literary journal, Die Fackel. Weininger and Kraus - with his philosophy of 'the origin' - are broadly Schopenhauerian. So we see the stream of philosophic interest divide: science and epistemology; ethics and aesthetics; yet underlying unity of post-Kantian idealism. Ray Monk describes Wittgenstein's probable attitude toward Ludwig Boltzmann's Populäre Schriften:

The lectures present a … Kantian view of science, in which our models of reality are taken to our experience of the world, and not (as the empiricist tradition would have it) derived from it. So ingrained in Wittgenstein's philosophical thinking was this view that he found the empiricist view difficult even to conceive.   

In a similar vein, Schopenhauer: "true philosophy must at all costs be idealistic; indeed, it must be so merely to be honest."

The stage is set for a conversion experience. In 1908, as an engineering student working on a design for a jet propulsion engine, Wittgenstein finds himself in need of solutions to specific mathematical problems, which leads him, to Russell's Principles of Mathematics. In chapter 1 Russell writes with confidence concerning how "the strength of the Kantian view, which asserted that mathematical reasoning is not strictly formal, but always uses intuitions, i.e. the a priori knowledge of space and time" lay chiefly in the unwieldiness of the Aristotelian syllogism. But no longer: "thanks to the progress of Symbolic Logic ... this part of the Kantian philosophy is now capable of a irrevocable refutation." That a trenchantly anti-idealistic hybrid of empiricism and Platonic realism should not merely exist but in fact carry the attack at precisely the point where the essence of Kantianism would seem supremely defensible - mathematics - must have seemed like the opening up of a trap-door out of nowhere.

Ray Monk relates how, in the summer of 1911, "in a constant, indescribable, almost pathological state of agitation,' he drew up a plan for a proposed book on philosophy." Wittgenstein writes to Russell, who is kind enough to reply and send him to professor Frege, at Jena, to discuss the foundations of mathematics. The young Schopenhauerian makes this pilgrimage, evidently still determined to do battle. As Wittgenstein later recalls, Frege 'mopped the floor' with him. Throughout his career Wittgenstein is very hard on himself, as a philosopher. But he always presents himself as defeated by the very limits of philosophy. He finds it hard to admit the validity of philosophical thoughts not his own. This early meeting with Frege is, I believe, the only time he admits not just defeat by an adversary, but complete, unqualified defeat. (It is not hard to imagine how this would have gone. I will not speculate about details, but anyone who has read Frege's Foundations of Arithmetic and also Schopenhauer's World as Will and Representation will not have trouble seeing that the former is almost a handbook for assaulting the latter.) Wittgenstein appears to have undergone a conversion to Frege/Russell-style realism, duly matriculating as Russell's student at Cambridge. In 1912 he publishes a negative book review of Coffey's Science of Logic. It contains a list of features of the book that disqualify it from being taken seriously, including the following: "he believes that reality is changed by becoming an object of our thoughts." Wittgenstein has reversed himself regarding that most basic of Schopenhauerian dicta: 'philosophy must be idealistic to be honest'.

But the conversion proves temporary. The story of the next several years is, I think, one of regrowth from the roots after this Fregean mowing down of every blade, sprout or sprig of idealistic philosophy that dares raise its head. Essentially, the view becomes: idealism cannot safely appear above ground. Yet it remains sound at the roots. What Frege demolishes is only an unfortunate scaffolding, erected inadvisably as a result of the attempt to think both sides of the limit of thought. Furthermore, Frege and Russell have their own version of such an unfortunate scaffolding, equally in need of demolition.

How so? Schopenhauer's problem is writing an entire book about the Will, while maintaining it cannot be represented. There are subtler formulations of the objection, but they return us to the bald concern that talking about what cannot be talked about must be 'babbling'. To offer a somewhat fuller sketch of the problem in the other direction, Wittgenstein thinks Frege and Russell are insufficiently exercised by a peculiar feature of their work. Unlike natural scientists, they do not directly investigate some set of objects - some domain of phenomena: stars, or plants, or minerals. What do they do? They manipulate symbols on paper. Yet they compare themselves to natural scientists. To Wittgenstein this seems highly suspicious. Frege concludes his account of the nature of number, in Foundations of Arithmetic, with some remarks on the charms of analysis, hereby indicating what he takes the character of the data to be.

We might say, indeed, almost in the well-known words: that reason's proper study is itself. In arithmetic we are not concerned with objects which we come to know as something alien from without through the medium of the senses, but with objects given directly to our reason and, as its nearest kin, utterly transparent to it.                

Wittgenstein will not let such a response pass, especially coming from an enemy of idealism. Is reason's proper study itself - i.e. Mind - or is its proper study some independent class of objects?  Wittgenstein's recollection of his last meeting with Frege is also telling in this regard:

The last time I saw Frege, as we were waiting at the station for my train, I said to him "Don't you ever find any difficulty in your theory that numbers are objects?"  He replied "Sometimes I seem to see a difficulty - but then again I don't see it."

Russell and Frege focus on reducing mathematical necessity to logical necessity. This is the classical analytic project. Wittgenstein's project, provoked by too-easy Platonic reifications, is the nature of necessity itself. A classically Kantian strategy for establishing idealism. An exchange of letters with Frege takes place in 1920, evidently concerned with the latter's essay, "The Thought", which articulates a very strong Platonism. We have only Frege's response.

Of course I don't take exception to your frankness. But I would like to know what deep grounds for idealism you think I have not grasped. I take it that you yourself do not hold the idealist theory of knowledge to be true. So, I think, you recognize that there can, after all, be no deep grounds for this idealism. The grounds for it can then only be apparent grounds, not logical ones.

The answer is that he is an idealist without having an idealistic theory of knowledge.

Frege indeed taught Wittgenstein that "theory of knowledge is the philosophy of psychology" (TLP, 4.1121). What sort of idealism is not epistemological?  First of all, it must be rigorously transcendental, with no illicit admixtures of psychology. Second, idealism will identify the transcendental subject not as a knowing subject, but as a willing subject.

Taking these points in order (from a 1916 notebook entry):

This is the way I have travelled: Idealism singles men out from the world as unique, solipsism singles me alone out, and at last I see that I too belong with the rest of the world, and so on the one side nothing is left over, and on the other side, as unique, the world. In this way idealism leads to realism if it is strictly thought out. (NB 15.10.16)

We end up with 'The world is all that is the case' plus logic. Logic is an activity of the transcendental willing subject. This is a purification of Schopenhauer, who sees philosophy as consisting of two thoughts, straddling the limit of thought: the World is My Will. The World is My Representation. The problem being: this cannot be said.

Can it be sung? How does the interest in music insinuate itself into this scene? For Schopenhauer, the philosophy of music is central and important. But let me take a different tack. Terry Eagleton (from the Derek Jarman teleplay volume I discussed in this post):

The library of artistic works on Ludwig Wittgenstein continues to accumulate. What it is about this man, whose philosophy can be taxing and technical enough, which so fascinates the artistic imagination? ... The Tractatus, one might claim, is the first great work of philosophical modernism - not a theoretical reflection on that avant-garde cultural experiment, but an example of it in its own right, the point where the modernist impulse migrates out of film and poetry and sculpture and comes to occupy philosophy itself from the inside. Its true coordinates are not Frege and Russell or logical positivism but Joyce, Schoenberg, Picasso ... Only if we use these impossible propositions, like ladders, kicked away as soon as mounted, will we see the world aright; and in this sense the Tractatus cancels itself out in a gesture of modernist irony.

The trouble is: Eagleton misses the irony.

Some remarks from Schönberg's essay,"The Relationship to the Text":

There are relatively few people who are capable of understanding, purely in terms of music, what music has to say. The assumption that a piece of music must summon up images of one sort or another, and that if these are absent the piece of music has not been understood or is worthless, is as widespread as only the false and banal can be. 


The capacity for pure perception is extremely rare and only to be met with in men of high calibre. This explains why professional arbiters become embarrassed by certain difficulties. That our scores become harder and harder to read, that the relatively few performances pass by so quickly, that often even the most sensitive purest man can receive only fleeting impressions - all this makes it impossible for the critic, who must report and judge, but who is usually incapable of imagining alive a musical score, to do his duty even with that degree of honesty upon which he might perhaps decide if it would do him no harm. Absolutely helpless he stands in the face of purely musical effect, and therefore he prefers to write about music which is somehow connected with a text: about program music, songs, opera, etc.    

This is modernism - musical modernism: difficult for the expert, inaccessible to the uninitiated dilettante; highly technical, and wholly self-absorbed - i.e. about nothing but the internal logic of itself, what Schönberg calls the musical 'idea'.

The logic with which Schönberg is concerned is that of music. To understand it one must understand, among other things, its antecedents: classicism and romanticism; the manner in which Brahms and Wagner divide the second half of the nineteenth century between them. Suppose we do as Eagleton suggests and coordinate Wittgenstein with this picture. We will want to interrogate Wittgenstein's logic by seeing how it is a response to the perceived exhaustion of all the aesthetic possibilities available to previous generations. We will not - like the helpless reviewer - regard it as an occasion for reveries about Joyce and Picasso, as if it were program music. In this way, right on schedule, Wittgenstein's modernist gesture cancels itself out in ironic fashion, for we suddenly find ourselves doing the last thing Eagleton would consider: analytic philosophy.

But can this be right? The problem with advocating a return to Frege and Russell is that there seems to be nothing aesthetic about it. But perhaps is not how Wittgenstein sees it. "The queer resemblance between a philosophical investigation (perhaps especially in mathematics) and an aesthetic one. (E.g. what is bad about this garment, how it should be, etc.)" (CV, p. 25).

How are Russell and Frege concerned with haute couture?

Let us step back. Wittgenstein sees Russell and Frege at work. What are they doing? Among other things, trying to reduce mathematics to logic, scientifically. But this is only what they say. What are they really doing? Not performing experiments, collecting data, doing all the things one ordinarily associates with natural science. They are attending to a notation, stripping back ornamention, letting form follow function.

Russell, in the preface to the second edition of Principia Mathematica:

The most definite improvement resulting from work in mathematical logic during the past fourteen years is the substitution, in Part I, Section A, of the one indefinable "p and q are incompatible" (or, alternately, "p and q are both false") for the two indefinables "not-p" and "p or q."  This is due to Dr. H. M. Sheffer.    

In a sense, the importance Russell attaches to this innovation is perfectly understandable. The result of incorporating Sheffer's discovery into Principia is to reduce (at a stroke) five primitive propositions to one - a gain in axiomatic economy. But, in another sense, this is nothing but a prodigy of aestheticism. No question of truth is at issue. It is a matter of how simply and elegantly truths can be displayed. Consider a parable, due to that scourge of ornament, Adolph Loos:

My shoes are covered over and over with decoration, the kind made up of pinking and perforations ... I go to the shoemaker and say: You want thirty kronen for a pair of shoes. I'll pay you forty' ... He is happy ...Here is a man who understands him and appreciates his work and does not doubt his honesty ... And the shoes will boast perforations and scallops, as many as can possibly be fitted on an elegant shoe. And then I add: 'But there's one condition. The shoe must be quite plain.'  With that I've toppled him from the heights of contentment into Tartarus. He has less work, but I have robbed him of his pleasure.

I am preaching to the aristocrats. I tolerate ornaments on my own body if they afford my fellow-men pleasure. Then they are a pleasure to me, too ... We have art, which has replaced ornament. We go to Beethoven or Tristan after the cares of the day. My shoemaker can't. I must not take away his joy as I have nothing to replace it with. But whoever goes to the Ninth Symphony and then sits down to design a wallpaper pattern is either a rogue or a degenerate.

It is a moral duty for the aesthetic aristocrat to abjure ornament: "Beethoven's symphonies would never have been written by a man who was obliged to go about in silk, velvet, and lace. Those who run around in velvet nowadays are not artists but buffoons or house painters."

Adolf Loos is willing to pay 10 extra crowns to have shoes without scallops. Bertrand Russell is willing to wait 14 years to eliminate a single scallop - to trade '¬' and 'v' for '|'. He deems it a bargain at the price. Who is the stricter modernist?

Similarly, in "Logic and Mathematics", Frege articulates the modernist principle of 'expressed structure' - no false fronts! - made famous years later by Gropius:   

When we look around us at the writings of mathematicians, we come across many things which look like definitions, and are even called such, without really being definitions. Such definitions are to be compared with those stucco-embellishments on buildings which look as though they supported something whereas in reality they could be removed without the slightest detriment to the building. We can recognize such definitions by the fact that no use is made of them, that no proof ever draws upon them ... So long as proofs are drawn up in conformity with the practice which is everywhere current at the present time, we cannot be certain what is really used in the proof, what it rests on. And so we cannot tell whether a definition is a mere stucco-definition which serves only as an ornament, and is only included because it is in fact usual to do so, or whether it has a deeper justificiation.

But 'form follows function' is an aesthetic stricture. What Russell and Frege do shows they are aesthetes.

Wittgenstein sends Frege a copy of the Tractatus in 1919; soon after, he requests assistance in securing a publisher. Frege finds the book incomprehensible. His requests for clarifications of terms and propositions strongly suggest he never penetrates the first few pages. And, predictably, what puzzles him most is the strangely aestheticized aspect of the whole. Frege suggests, in effect, that these labored artistic conceits be simply dropped:

You write in your preface that the truth of the thoughts communicated seems to you unassailable and definitive. Now could not one of these thoughts, in which the solution to a philosophical problem is contained, itself provide the subject for an article and thus the whole book be divided into as many parts as the number of philosophical problems with which it deals? 

No doubt Frege feels himself to be exhibiting tact and restraint, since nothing he writes suggests he himself sees in the Tractatus anything worthy of extraction. But tact is unavailing; Wittgenstein is horrified. It is this letter from Frege that sends him flying to von Ficker, to whom he decries Frege's insensitive suggestion that he take his own book, "mutilate it from beginning to end and, in a word, make another work out of it."

In a sense, the problem is that Wittgenstein regards himself as responding aesthetically to a previous generation of artists - in the medium of logic - that lacks an explicitly aesthetic self-conception.

This is a recipe for misunderstanding. It is also an unusual state of affairs, since it is unusual for so stringent an aesthetic as Frege's and Russell's to receive so little conscious attention from its practitioners.

But, in another sense, Wittgenstein's relation to his teachers is not so far out of the ordinary. Take the case of Schönberg and his mentor, Richard Strauss. In response to a request for some assistance in finding an audience, Strauss writes to his protegé in 1909 (only one year after Schönberg leaves his tutelage): "Your pieces are such bold experiments, with regard both to their contents and to their sonorities, that for the moment I dare not present them to a more conservative Berlin public."  Like Frege, Strauss tries hard to be encouraging. Nevertheless, in private, after recommending Schönberg for a grant: "one never knows what posterity will think about it."  But: "I believe he would be better off shovelling snow than scribbling on manuscript paper."

Frege's negative, uncomprehending reaction has been cited as clear evidence that the Tractatus is really intended for a 'better sort of reader' - more poetic. In this post I quote praise of Marjorie Perloff's poetic take. Herman Rapaport: "In liberating Wittgenstein from the confines of sterile analytic debates among ‘language philosophers’ Perloff has managed a kind of ‘debut’ in which Wittgenstein, for the first time, can be seen and appreciated as a creative thinker whose writings straddle the divide of literary and philosophical composition." This is to confuse the nature of the case, in Algernonish fashion.

What does all I have said have to do with the question with which I opened: what do we make of such nebulous conclusions as Wittgenstein seems to arrive at? Rule-following must be understood as 'a practice'. It is often felt that the excitement with this must be due to the fact that we are witnessing the birth of a powerfully 'socially constructivist' philosophy. 'Practice' is construed as the basis for a style of philosophical explanation. I think the problem with this reading precisely parallels the problems Stone brings out - here and here - with Fish-style 'interpretivism'. What attracts Wittgenstein to the notion of practice is not that it suggests a style of explanation but that it suggests why no philosophical explanation is possible. Patently, practice does not underpin interpretation, but sits side side by side with it. (This point needs fuller development.)

So where does the excitement come from if we are not explaining anything? For Wittgenstein, I think, it stems from ethico-aesthetic anxieties as to whether his philosophy is a chamberpot or an urn, in Krausian-Loosian terms. Kraus:

Adolf Loos and I - he literally and I grammatically - have done nothing more than show that there is a distinction between an urn and a chamber pot and that it is this distinction above all that provides culture with elbow room. The others, those who fail to make this distinction, are divided into those who use the urn as a chamber pot and those who use the chamber pot as urn.

So what about Wittgenstein? Is he rigorously scouring off unsightly ornamentation from a humbly respectable, thoroughly utilitarian technical contrivance. Or is he making art? (Or somewhere in between.

Is he plumbing the depths of metaphysics, or a humble plumber?

Wittgenstein oscillates, and all his confessions and obsessions - his dramatic intensities - revolve around the axis of his need to resolve this question about his own nature - genius (artist) or mere talent (technician).

Getting back to Eldridge, finally: he draws parallels between Hölderlin's response to Kant and Wittgenstein philosophical method. Basically, Hölderlin sees that there is a problem with Kant's account of the human subject's powers of judgment and action. The challenge becomes that of making a rigorously immanent approach to the transcendental character of will. So there is a technical problem, to which Hölderlin proposes a largely aesthetic solution. I think the comparative point is basically sound in its suggestiveness.

Eldridge concludes §3 of his paper with a quote from a letter written by J.S. Beck to Kant: the goal of a suitably purified Kantianism would be to "try to get the reader right into this [subject] activity itself, as it discloses itself originally in ... representation." Eldridge glosses: "tracing the 'rules' for subject activity from "within" it, without grounding in the operations of any substance, may be the path of prudence and insight in philosophy" (p. 217)

Hence the first sentence of §4 of Eldridge's paper, which opens our selection: "But what is it to be 'right in the activity' of a subject?" What I have done in this post is basically walk through what I think is a proper, early Wittgensteinian path to the conclusion that this is, indeed, the question.

In conclusion, another helpful link to Eldridge's paper (PDF).


Great post, John. Your synopsis made several important points clearer to me. Thank you.

Perloff et al. take the lesson of Wittgenstein to be a set of propositions, a handful of supposed facts about language ("As Wittgenstein demonstrates..."). Perhaps a better lesson would be one of decorum, or, more literally, style. An ethical style. An extremist version might go: don’t say anything that isn’t true. But at the very least, Wittgenstein could admonish literary critics to examine more rigorously where their own conventions (writing and teaching) distort their investigation.

By Lawrence LaRiviere White on 09/16/05 at 12:35 PM | Permanent link to this comment

For example, I would take your largely disenchanting readings of Wittgenstein to be an example of such an examination. You show how his idiosyncratic conventions shape his investigation, e.g. how his own personal dramas shape his seemingly impersonal studies.

By Lawrence LaRiviere White on 09/16/05 at 12:46 PM | Permanent link to this comment

"What I have done in this post is basically walk through what I think is a proper, early Wittgensteinian path to the conclusion that this is, indeed, the question.”
I’m not quite sure if you are saying is that you manifested how Witt concluded thus, or how after considering Witt as you did, we should conclude thus.

Either way, I seem to be losing your thread towards the end. Is the movement from concluding that Witt is essentially of aesthetic concerns to the conclusion that the path leads to the question “But what is it to be ‘right in the activity’ of a subject?” meant to imply that this is a question is essentially aesthetic?
Or is it that the view of “...it is a practice” shows how this line is a progression towards answring “But what is it to be ‘right in the activity’ of a subject”?
Though obviously neither of these are very good hypotheses on my part.

Every fragment of this post makes wonderful sense, but when I try and understand the progression things just don’t seem to click. Though probably it’s not you, it’s me, would you perhaps be willing to bare its structural conceit?

By on 09/16/05 at 08:30 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Yes, Peli, the ending is not so clear. Basically I had a lot of good little details to lay out - glad you like them - but they led me away from Eldridge in the end, and certainly in the direction of issues I wasn’t in a position to resolve in a post. (5,000 words on, even I start eyeing the exits.) But instead of doing the honest thing and concluding the post with a ‘hey, I think we’re lost kids!’ I sort of tried to pull it together. Wittgenstein: “A crack is showing in the unity of the work of art, and you stuff it with straw. But, to quieten your conscience, you use only the best straw.” There ought to be a word for the rhetorical vice of concealing your argument’s weak spots (not because you are really trying to deceive, but because you feel sorry for the limits of your own exposition.) Maybe: straw urn argument. 

Here is my best shot at an outline of structure:

1) It’s key to understand that Wittgenstein, early but also late, is offering an immanent philosophy of the will, Kantian style.

2) It is important to work out how and why this philosophy ends up being preoccupied with aesthetics. (There are sound internal reasons for a Kantian philosophy to go this way, but also strictly extrinsic reasons having to do with Wittgenstein’s peculiar personality.)

3) It is important to work out how 1 & 2 relate to rule-following puzzles in the later Wittgenstein. Rule following is a thing you DO - a practice. It is a matter of will, nor representation (to strain an analogy).

I didn’t really finish with 1-3, to put it mildly. But I am glad you enjoyed the ride anyway. I like the Eldridge because Hölderlin has versions of 1-3 that apply to him, and I very much approve of settling Wittgenstein comfortably into the German Romantic tradition. If only we keep in mind that he is, all the same, a post-romantic; a modernist. That is, an aesthete who thinks romanticism is strictly exhausted in a certain sense. (You may feel obliged to have a philosophy that is, in essence, Schopenhauerian. But that doesn’t mean you can babble for hundreds of pages about The Will.)

By John Holbo on 09/17/05 at 10:24 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Thanks, much clearer now, and it really is a good ride regardless. But I can’t help feeling 3) takes a little too much creative thinking - I can only see the connection working if we conclude that Witt proclaims, Tractatus style, that rule following cannot be explained as it is transcendental, thus making it the new Will\Transcendental Subject\Limits Of Thought.
I’m not sure if that’s what you are implying by connecting rule following with immanent exploration of the transcendental will\subject, though. So correct me if I’m wrong.

There isn’t really anything clearly wrong with such a view either, I suppose, it’s just that personally Cora Diamond is about as “left wing” as I can take my Wittgenstein without feeling like I’m cheating to make myself feel better- probably a side effect of early readings being colored too much by ULP and behaviorism.

And somewhat relatedly, thinking about my personal lukewarm reactino to Eltridge’s essay - I constently feel someone should take about 15, 20 major Witt influenced philosophers of all kinds: Putnam, Mcdowell, Rorty, Cavell, Hacker, Kripke, Diamond and so on, give each a copy of PI and a magic marker, and ask them to circle the propositions they think are ironic, ad absurdum, or playing devils advocate. I think their copies wouldn’t look much alike at all.

By on 09/17/05 at 03:59 PM | Permanent link to this comment

As usual Holbo is all over the map. H. begins with the problem of universals: which I would agree Witt. was concerned with.  It is then left unresolved; and Witt’s various insights on this issue are not presented, but then the grand leaps begin--rules to logic, to logic is ethics and music is logic. Wow. Logic itself is really not the issue, for however hard the later W. (or his acolyte Holbo) tries to view it as such, a melody, even Mozartian, is not a proposition. It might be viewed as such, but I defy anyone to translate a melody into a proposition.

But to return to universals.  I would say the early W did hold to universals--certainly he felt the forms of classical logic were objective and True. As far as “redness” or “horseness” I would assert Witt. holds those adjectivals are mental categories derived from the facts of the world, not from any quasi-platonic essences, or if any such essence exist, they are still part of the world--biologically realized in the mind.

By the time of the BLue Book that view is modifed if not replaced. I don’t believe the later W. holds to universals, either of the logical/mathematical type of the adjectival sort:  establishing that people do have the same interpretation--for say “red"-- must proceeed by public criteria....

(and what the F does that freak Wilde have to do with anything?)

By Lane on 09/17/05 at 06:07 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Lane: If I correctly understand, the quote was an analogy to the common fallacy where Witt as an Aesthetic is seen as an excuse to create a ‘soft-core’ Witt who should be considered in terms of emotion, dynamics and style as a brother to poets and painters (of course, it requires a similar fallacy regarding poets and painters for that first fallacy to take effect) , while John attempts to demonstrate an Aesthetic Witt working within a strictly defined philosophical realm, seen in aesthetic terms.

That is, the fallacy that Aesthete Witt = Witt not of accuracy, rigour and specificity , but of “wonderful expression”.

By on 09/17/05 at 07:21 PM | Permanent link to this comment

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