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cover of the book Theory's Empire

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cover of the book The Literary Wittgenstein

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The Valve - Closed For Renovation

Happy Trails to You

What’s an Encyclopedia These Days?

Encyclopedia Britannica to Shut Down Print Operations

Intimate Enemies: What’s Opera, Doc?

Alphonso Lingis talks of various things, cameras and photos among them

Feynmann, John von Neumann, and Mental Models

Support Michael Sporn’s Film about Edgar Allen Poe

Philosophy, Ontics or Toothpaste for the Mind

Nazi Rules for Regulating Funk ‘n Freedom

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?

john balwit on What’s an Object, Metaphysically Speaking?

William Ray on That Shakespeare Thing

Bill Benzon on That Shakespeare Thing

William Ray on That Shakespeare Thing

JoseAngel on That Shakespeare Thing

Bill Benzon on Objects and Graeber's Debt

Bill Benzon on A Dirty Dozen Sneaking up on the Apocalypse

JoseAngel on A Dirty Dozen Sneaking up on the Apocalypse

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Thursday, September 08, 2005

Some Solid Pieces of Stone?

Posted by John Holbo on 09/08/05 at 02:32 PM

The Literary Wittgenstein rears its head again - like so: an essay (PDF) by one of the volume contributors we've had as a guest, Martin Stone. It's entitled "On Reflective Practices and 'Substituting For God'"; I gather is to be published somewhere (so I'll add that Martin retains his full ©.) The piece is a reply to a reply to a reply to a paper Martin wrote about Stanley Fish for another volume - Postmodern Sophistry and the Critical Enterprise ['Enterpise', according to Amazon] - similar in theme to the Stone-on-Fish paper we posted here.

So it's inside baseball, yes. (Go read something else, then, for heaven sake.) I find it interesting. Let me try to say why.

Stone starts with a Fish quote:

Communications of every kind are characterized by exactly the same conditions – the necessity of interpretive work ... and the construction by acts of interpretation.

This sweeping 'interpretivism' invites a deflating Wittgensteinian response (per Stone's Lit Witt paper, for example). A famous bit from Philosophical Investigations (§201):

This was our paradox: no course of action could be determined by a rule, because every course of action can be made out to accord with the rule. The answer was: if everything can be made out to accord with the rule, then it can also be made out to conflict with it. And so there would be neither accord nor conflict here.

It can be seen that there is a misunderstanding here from the mere fact that in the course of our argument we give one interpretation after another; as if each one contented us at least for a moment, until we thought of yet another standing behind it. What this shews is that 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.

Hence there is an inclination to say: every action according to the rule is an interpretation. But we ought to restrict the term "interpretation" to the substitution of one expression of the rule for another.

Stone sees Fish making roughly the same argument as Wittgenstein, but upside down and backwards. Wittgenstein regards the conclusion of a certain line of thought as a clear reductio, whereas Fish affirms the (absurd) conclusion: necessary interpretation all the way down. Stone makes the point that Fish hereby ends up anything but a 'pragmatist': his view is sweeping and speculatively free-floating, out of touch with the 'rough ground' of ordinary language use. (The paper's title, 'substituting for God', refers to the fact that, for Fish, 'interpretation' ends up acquiring a suspiciously broad array of attributes of divinity - notably, deep metaphysical mystery.)

In the new paper, Stone responds to a critic - one Scott Hershovitz - who defends Fish by maintaining, basically, that Fish's account works in certain areas: literature and the law, notably. What distinguishes these spheres, allegedly is that they are "reflective". Stone points out, correctly, that Fish's arguments are emphatically universal (see the above quote, for example.) Whatever arguments may establish Fish's conclusions, but only for certain 'spheres', are not going to be Fish's arguments, or even variants on Fish's arguments. Stone also points out that reflective/non-reflective is not it, as to what 'spheres' these might be.  As Stone says: what Hershovitz is reaching for, plausibly, is the point that "our reasons for interpreting are different in different domains of discourse. Moreover, as people interpret for different reasons, what they are doing varies accordingly."

Stone hereby rehearses points explicit or implicit in his original paper, basically. (Stone's points are similar to those made in my Nabokov/chess dialogue and my two-part Knapp & Michaels discussion, I might add.) The reason why it is actually interesting to go over all this again, even if the first passes were strictly adequate, is because 'our reasons for interpreting differ' and 'when our reasons differ what do differs' are further questions, in addition to being answers to Hershovitz' criticisms. I don't entirely agree with Stone's handling of these matters, I think. I also think that there is more to it than he suggests. (And I think I get this out of Wittgenstein.)

But it would be confusing if I tried to state my own views fully. For one thing, I'm not sure what they are. Let me just make a few points relevant to 'Wittgenstein on law and literature'.

Here is a passage from Culture and Value I think should be a main text in these sorts of discussions but which I have never seen quoted (by anyone but me):

The effect of making men think in accordance with dogmas, perhaps in the form of certain graphic propositions, will be very peculiar: I am not thinking of these dogmas as determining men's opinions but rather as completely controlling the expression of all opinions. People will live under an absolute, palpable tyranny, though without being able to say they are not free. I think the Catholic Church does something rather like this. For dogma is expressed in the form of an assertion, and is unshakable, but at the same time any practical opinion can be made to harmonize with it; admittedly more easily in some cases than in others. It is not a wall setting limits to what can be believed, but more like a brake which, however, practically serves the same purpose; it's almost as though someone were to attach a weight to your foot to restrict your freedom of movement. This is how dogma becomes irrefutable and beyond the reach of attack. (CV, p. 28)

Maybe you see the immediate application to law. We'll get to that in a moment. What Wittgenstein is really preoccupied with, plausibly, are his own youthful dogmatic excesses: fixation on particular 'graphical propositions', as if the critierion of true grasp of the subject were fixed expressions regarding the subject.

From Philosophical Investigations §114:

(Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, 4.5): "The general form of propositions is: This is how things are." - That is the kind of proposition that one repeats to oneself countless times. One thinks that one is tracing the outline of the thing's nature over and over again, and one is merely tracing round the frame through which we look at it."

The point is: what guarantees that the frame sticks so solidly is not that the subject is ideally crystalline and rigid but precisely the opposite: it is sufficiently muddy that you can be confident, in advance, of your capacity to massage it - and your proposition - into mutual accord. In this review I quote another (rather obscure) remark by Wittgenstein about an attempt by a philosopher (Ewing) to define 'good' as "what it is right to admire":

The definition throws no light. There are three concepts, all of them vague. Imagine three solid pieces of stone. You pick them up, fit then together and you get now a ball. What you've now got tells you something about the three shapes. Now consider you have three balls of or lumps of soft mud or putty - formless. Now you put the three together and mold out of them a ball. Ewing makes a soft ball out of three pieces of mud.

To put it another way, Ewing generates an ersatz A-ha!

To explain the significance of this bait and switch: another passage, from Remarks on the Foundations of Mathematics (I, §50):

A rectangle can be made of two parallelograms and two triangles.  Proof: 

Diag1

A child would find it difficult to hit on the composition of a rectangle with these parts, and would be surprised by the fact that two sides of the parallelograms make a straight line, when the parallelograms are, after all, askew.  It might strike him as if the rectangle came out of these figures by something like magic.  True, he has to admit that they do form a rectangle, but it is by a trick, by a distorted arrangement, in an unnatural way.

I can imagine the child, after having put the two parallelograms together in this way, not believing his eyes when he sees that they fit like that.  'They don't look as if they fitted together like that.' And I could imagine its being said: It's only through some hocus-pocus that it looks to us as if they yielded the rectangle - in reality they have changed their nature, they aren't the parallelograms any more. (RFM I, §50). 

And another, from just before (§42)

There is a puzzle which consists in making a particular figure, e.g. a rectangle, out of given pieces.  The division of the figure is such that we find it difficult to discover the right arrangement of the parts.  Let it for example be this:

Diag2

What do you discover when you succeed in arranging it? - You discover a position - of which you did not think before. - Very well; but can't we also say:  you find out that these triangles can be arranged like this? - But 'these triangles':  are they the actual ones in the rectangle above, or are they triangles which have yet to be arranged like that? 

These are peculiar remarks. Why is Wittgenstein so interested in such cases - specifically, the phenomenology of such cases? Anyone familiar with the later Wittgenstein's philosophy can guess. Wittgenstein thinks philosophy is rather like them: not a matter of producing new material; rather, of seeing and arranging ordinary material otherwise than one is initially inclined to (cf. PI §§122-129. cf. Stone's quote of §122 near the start of his essay.) Also, philosophy is about overcoming resistance to 'perspicuous' views of how things connect, overcoming child-like gravitation to wrong ways of seeing (cf. PI, §§194-5).

But what is the source of Wittgenstein's specific interest in how puzzle-pieces seem to change their shape when arranged so as to produce solutions? Take the second passage. We are going along fine until Wittgenstein poses his final question. What do you mean: are they 'the same' triangles, before and after? It seems there is at most a phenomenological shift. Nothing whatsoever has changed with the puzzle pieces themselves. 

I suspect Wittgenstein is thinking that it could be a Ewing-type case. The satisfying a-ha 'click' might have been quietly rigged by reshaping the bits a bit. (I admit if this is what he is thinking, the passage is totally unclear. Because it isn't natural to assume puzzle-pieces are made of rubber, or whatever. But I can't make sense of the passage otherwise.)

Getting back to "the effect of making men think in accordance with dogmas, perhaps in the form of certain graphic propositions" - here the point is certainly the one made about Ewing. You produce an illusion of perfect strictness by setting up a meter-stick and announcing 'everything shall be measured against this'. But secretly you made it out of rubber.

It seems to me that a better example than the Catholic Church (though I see what he is getting at) is something like the Bill of Rights. Everyone agrees the following is true: there shall be no "abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press"; there is a right "to keep and bear arms", etc. What is disputed is what these fixed 'graphical propositions' mean. These squiggles express truths. But almost any opinion can be made to square with the squiggle, with sufficient ingenuity. And the effect of forcing people to go to the trouble of squaring their beliefs with the form of the squiggles ... slows them down a bit. Conflict is not avoided but damped down. "It is not a wall setting limits to what can be believed, but more like a brake which, however, practically serves the same purpose." That's a pretty good characterizable of why the Bill of Rights can bend enough to avoid breaking, even through all the fights its been dragged through, without bending so much as to do no work in settling the fights. The fact that people who disagree violently are obliged to talk as if they agree completely is perhaps inevitably confusing - generative of an illusion of fundamental agreement. That sounds a bit cynical, and obviously there's more to it. The Bill of Rights is part of an institution of procedures for deciding cases. We don't want to lose track of that crucial bit of obviousness; but Wittgenstein's point seems to me basically sound, as an explanation of 'the genius of the Constitution'.

[Compare: insisting that everyone say 'the good is what it is right to admire'. That is, you insist everyone accept this definition and explain all ethical beliefs about 'good' and 'right' in terms of it. This would not force anyone to change any views, but some people would have to jump through more hoops to hold their views intact, and so might alter their views rather than haul the extra weight around, as it were.]

This is all very interesting, I find. And it would be interesting to forge ahead into literary interpretation. I think Fish would quite like the Culture and Value passage, though (inevitably) for somewhat backwards reasons (so it seems to me). But I'm rambling a bit, and thereby leading away from Stone rather than towards his interesting paper. To summarize: what is interesting to me about it is that it leads up to the puzzles posed the Wittgenstein passages I have quoted. (So if you find the passages interesting, read the paper.) As I said, Stone seems to imply what makes one thing muddy and another thing sharp-edged is that "our reasons for interpreting are different in different domains of discourse. Moreover, as people interpret for different reasons, what they are doing varies accordingly." Certainly this is partially right. What I just said about the Bill of Rights is, I hope, a case in point. Nevertheless, I don't think that Wittgenstein would be willing to commit to the view that what makes arguments about the validity of mathematical proofs different in character than, say, arguments about the validity of Constitutional interpretations, is a function of us - i.e. of our reasons and uses - rather than (also) a function of something distinctive about them - i.e. these distinctive subject-matters.

But perhaps I don't understand Martin's position yet. So I'll leave it at that, and reread the paper.

 



Comments

Snarking at Amazon typos when you’ve just “it’s“‘d?

By Jonathan on 09/08/05 at 04:20 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Yr frd, Hlb, tryng t prp p yr prl ltrry hstl wth sm hlf-ndrstd flff frm Wttgnstn; sggst y strt vr wth sm rl phlsphy --sy Hm 101--r bttr, jst stck wth th ltrry dyks nd thr wll-trnd nchs

By Crcktt on 09/08/05 at 07:03 PM | Permanent link to this comment

"I don’t think that Wittgenstein would be willing to commit to the view that what makes arguments about the validity of mathematical proofs different in character than, say, arguments about the validity of Constitutional interpretations, is a function of us - i.e. of our reasons and uses - rather than (also) a function of something distinctive about them - i.e. these distinctive subject-matters.”

I might be way off here, as my understanding of the later Witt is amateurish at best, but isn’t the whole point that ‘these distinctive subject-matters’= ‘our reasons and uses’ ?

By on 09/08/05 at 07:36 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Disemvowelling never fails to crack me up.

By gzombie on 09/08/05 at 07:56 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Touché, Jonathan. (Corrected now.)

Peli, I think lots of Wittgenstein interpreters would agree with you. But I take a different view, which I will have a go at explaining soon (if I find the time).

By John Holbo on 09/08/05 at 10:59 PM | Permanent link to this comment

I suspect Wittgenstein is thinking that it could be a Ewing-type case. The satisfying a-ha ‘click’ might have been quietly rigged by reshaping the bits a bit. (I admit if this is what he is thinking, the passage is totally unclear. . . ).

I’ll say.  It would also mean--wouldn’t it?--that the two possibilities--a position of which you didn’t think before vs. new triangles--wouldn’t just be two options but mutually contradictory alternatives.  If so, doesn’t that make the use of these anecdotes in support of the larger argument questionable?  If the child’s view is to explained as a childish one, don’t the shapes have to be crystalline and rigid?

By on 09/09/05 at 06:35 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Sean, I see your point. Have to think about that. (Yes, you’ve sort of spun it around on me.)

By John Holbo on 09/11/05 at 12:11 PM | Permanent link to this comment

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