Tuesday, May 17, 2005
You Lose, Hermeneut!
Today I would like to talk about a little bit from Kafka, “On Parables.” What follows touches on recent Mark posts, my inaugural surrealism post, and even the great John Emerson v. all of Professional Philosophy Literary Wittgenstein kerfuffle. In keeping with the spirit of Valvism, it also talks about theory and literary criticism. Most of all, it is a lesson against lessons.
“On Parables” has two parts: an expository paragraph and a short dialogue. Both sections distinguish between two realms: “daily life” (also called “reality”) and “parable.” To apply Kafka’s lesson to certain concerns here in the Valve, I would like to re-label the two realms the hermeneutic and the hermetic. The first would be the realm of explanation and common sense. The second would be, what? Gesture, contradiction, paradox? It’s hard to say. Of course.
The expository paragraph speaks of a “sage” who would have us “go over” to the hermetic. In Mark the sage is named Jesus, and the other realm salvation. “On Parables” argues against making the leap:
When the sage says, “Go over,” he does not mean that we should come to some actual place, which we could do anyhow if the labor were worth it; he means some fabulous yonder, something unknown to us, something that we cannot designate more precisely either, and therefore cannot help us here in the very least.
In daily life things must be explained. If you want me to go somewhere, you have to show me where it is. Parables add no hermeneutic value to our discussions: “All these parables really set out to say merely that the incomprehensible is incomprehensible, and we know that already.” At this point in “On Parables,” there are no markers to indicate an ironic reading of this judgment, other than the fact that its author wrote parables and thus must have had some interest in them.
In Mark, Jesus anticipates such concerns, with the parable on new skins for the new wine (2:22). There is much in the Gospels about doing away with “daily life” as it is lived. (For you Gurdjieff fans, Maurice Nicoll has a lot of interesting readings of parables in the NT, for example, in The New Man.)
But for poetry, Kafka’s judgment here is strong. Whatever is inexplicable in poetry weakens it. Though reducing poems to propositional contents obviously leaves something out, distinguishing poetry as some kind of non-propositional thinking, some other realm of thought, disables it. (I am assuming poetry has social significance.)
Kafka follows the expository paragraph with a short dialogue:
Concerning this a man once said: Why such reluctance? If you only followed the parables you yourselves would become parables and with that rid yourself of all your daily cares.
Another said: I bet that is also a parable.
The first said: You have won.
The second said: But unfortunately only in parable.
The first said: No, in reality: in parable you have lost.
The dialogue makes a neat little knot, reversing not only on itself but also on the preceding paragraph. The second man’s explanatory response is good hermenutics (wins in reality), but this time the parable returns the judgment: “you have lost.” This terse, sudden close feels like a curse, as if the parable despises those who would claim to draw any lesson from it. Parables may be useless in daily life, but there they are still, taunting us.
The dialogue also reverses the judgment in terms of Mark and poetry. As has been noted, the parable of the sower is a lame parable. Easily reduced to propositional content, only an inattentive or inept student could possibly miss the significance. Which further dramatizes Jesus’ impatience with his posse. For poetry, what is inexplicable would seem to be both the weakness and strength of the poem. That which is irreducible to some other kind of discourse would be poetry’s special thing, what it brings to the social table.
Two further notes:
(1) Given my distinction between the hermeneutic and the hermetic, Philosophical Investigations would seem to fall in with the parabolic. Consider section 109: “We must do away with all explanation, and description alone must take its place.” Whatever that means. But it’s undeniable that Wittgenstein, in both the Tractatus and the PI was trying to find a new way to do philosophy. Whether or not he succeeded, he wanted to do something other than the usual kind of explanation.
I was in sympathy with the spirit of much of what John Emerson said in the thread, but I would put the matter differently. Sorry to offer yet another barbarously reductive distinction, but there are two kinds of Wittgenstein readers: those who see a radical, mystical, poetic, end-of-philosophy guru, and those who see an influential philosopher who had some good ideas and some bad ones and expressed them oddly. Yes, there’s a lot of talk about Wittgenstein in analytic philosophy, but most of that talk seeks to domesticate him. If there is something poetic in Wittgenstein’s philosophy (to make yet another cross-reference to a previous post), something in it has to stay wild.
(2) What about Adorno, you ask? Well, Amardeep asked about him some time ago, specifically, why hadn’t he come up yet. Perhaps this might get the ball rolling. At the core of Aesthetic Theory is a distinction between the aesthetic object, which is inarticulate but true, and theory, which is articulate but false. Hence their dialectical relationship. Now as with most such reciprocal formulae, this is all a bit pat. That is to say, it doesn’t stand up so well to analytic explaination. But it is a powerful description. & note how it replicates the tension in “On Parables”: both sides win, both sides lose. In the end, that’s what I look for in literary criticism: being a bear of little brain, I need things explained to me (actually, I delight in explanation), but a certain tension should haunt that explanation, an itch, a gnawing sense that something is being left out. In the struggle between book and critic, at the very last the book wins.
The Wittgensteinian parable that comes back to me most often is:
“Of course, if water boils in a pot, steam comes out of the pot and also pictured steam comes out of the pictured pot. But what if one insisted on saying that there must also be something boiling in the picture of the pot?”
However, it does remind me of the SNL “Get a life” Trekky episode, which sort of ruins the profundity effect.
“The Good Shepherd” is more a metaphor than a parable, IIRC, but it has unfortunate ramifications if you think about it even a little bit. It’s like the religion of sacrifice is still latently there, but we’re not going to talk about it.
Riens ne m’est seur que la chose incertaine,
Obsucur fors ce qui est tout evident,
Doubte ne fais fors en chose certaine,
Scïence tiens a soudain accident,
Je gaigne tout et demeure perdent ...
But it’s undeniable that Wittgenstein, in both the Tractatus and the PI was trying to find a new way to do philosophy.
Or at least, that W. aims to indicate what’s left--whether it is recognizable as philosophy or not--once the confused projects have been abandoned. Which, of course, makes W. a very familiar sort of radical (Kant, Nietzsche, Russell).
Whether or not he succeeded, he wanted to do something other than the usual kind of explanation.
Perhaps. Though the following, properly developed, is still a viable alternative: W. wants to show that the usual kinds of explanation--i.e., the kinds of explanation we use in everday life--do not stand in need of philosophical explication and justification. I.e., philosophy has been more parabolic than philosophers have realized, and W. champions ordinary talk by merely “describing” it, so that a lightbulb might go off above the heads of the deeply confused.
That’s sort of a standard reading. Why does it “domesticate” W? If I were Descartes or Reid or Schelling, I don’t think I’d enjoy running into W. in a dark alley.
I am not as well read in all this as Holbo, but I am thinking of stuff like David Stern’s Wittgenstein on Mind and Language, which takes great pains to show how W was much more of a standard philosophical theorist than one might think. Also there’s the effort to locate arguments w/in the PI.
The first generation of Wittgensteinians / Austinians, called “ordinary language philosophers”, did talk about “the kinds of explanation we use in ordinary life”, and their work did develop with people like Herbert Fingarette, Rom Harre, John Shotter, or the authors of “Moralities of Everyday Life”. But this tendency seems to have been submerged within analytic philosophy, and most of the people doing that kind of thing are outside philosophy now, I think. Ontology, formalization, and a kind of positivism seem dominant.
But this tendency seems to have been submerged within analytic philosophy
Actually, John, that’s not true. W’s influence in contmporary analytic moral theory has given rise to a new interest in ordinary moral reasons (Anscombe, Foot, Gert, Scanlon, etc.) and in a growing consensus that the idea that morality stands in need of some sort of philosophical justification is confused (Raz).
Anscombe is new? Born 1919.
“The idea that morality stands in need of some sort of philosophical justification is confused”.
This still sounds like metaethics. Most of what I see in analytic philosophy proper looks like metaethics. The people I named get down to cases.
At some point I think that ethics has to join practical philosophy or rhetoric in getting down to cases. Some analytic philosophers may do this, but most that I have seen seem more interested in endless metaethical discussions of timeless theoretical metaethical principles.
Thanks for the post, Lawrence. I’m working up a big Wittgenstein essay that is more or less on this area. Chapter 3 of my dissertation is more or less about the poetic vs. domesticated Wittgenstein, too. (I’ve been writing so much about Wittgenstein that I only just got around to pausing and commenting to your post about Wittgenstein.)
One thing that I’m interested in is the way Wittgenstein’s rhetoric risks being highly misleading to his readers. He comes up with these ringing aphorisms at exactly the point that, ostensibly, he is supposed to be sending readers ‘back to the rough ground’. But the effect of the aphorisms is, often, to carry readers away even from the ‘rough ground’ of his remarks, let alone ordinary language. “A picture held us captive, and we could not get outside it, for it was in our language and our language seemed to repeat it to us” (or however PI §115 reads). But instead of reading the context to get what the point might be, it is easy to wander off holding this handsome thing ‘a picture held us captive’. So, you might say: “A Wittgensteinian picture of pictures holding us captive held us captive, and we could not get outside it, for it was in Wittgenstein’s language and his language seemed to repeat it to us.” Complex irony generating by the fact that Wittgnestein is dramatizing oscillation between temptations.
This is an example I’m writing about now, because one of the contributors to “The Literary Wittgenstein” makes this point about §115. And it’s a point I make in my dissertation.
To put the point in terms of your post: at the very moment when Wittgenstein is trying to bring us back to the ordinary - the hermeneutic - he tends to induce a hermetic mood. This isn’t just a mistake on his part, I don’t think, but an exhibition of the fact that, like you, he feels he really has to have both. He can’t give either up.
John Emerson, I really think it would be better if you stopped using phrases like ‘most philosophers’. By your own admission, you have not undertaken - and are not really interested in undertaking - a survey. I find your ‘most’ judgments to be highly implausible, based on my inhabitation of philosophy departments. I know I’m starting to repeat myself, but I think what you are doing is championing a particular view, which is fine. But rather than just arguing that Fingarette is great, or that your Wittgenstein is better, or whatever, you are trying to bootstrap up your sensibility through a narrative of sociological persecution. I find the narrative implausible and, even if it weren’t, you still wouldn’t have established that the persecuted view - yours - is superior.
Take Fingarette: I think his applications of J.L. Austin to Confucius and ritual and so forth is just terribly confused. You think he’s great, apparently. Well, lots of folks do. He’s well known. But we can’t make any progress here with dueling sociological generalizations.
I’ll go down to the library again and flip through a different dozen academic journals. (My initial survey was 12). My sense of the field so far is what I said. Much of my opinion is based on the vibes I got from philosophy teachers and grad students ca. 1980-90, plus things I’ve picked up from the recent blogosphere, plus my aforesaid semi-systematic journal-flipping. So it’s not entirely empty.
And so far, people really haven’t tried to convince me that I’m wrong because there’s lots of stuff out there that I would just love. It’s occasionally been said that I should love certain guys, or that my strictures, as stated by me, don’t precisely apply to certain people even though I probably wouldn’t like them if I’d read them, but no one so far has said, “John, I feel the same way about philosophy that you do, but you’re wrong, there’s lots of great stuff.”
The source of my animus comes from the fact that a lot of stuff I like seems to have been squeezed out of philosophy in recent decades. Even if I had found some survivors doing stuff I liked in 1985 or 1992, probably I would have been unemployable when I graduated anyway. This sounds like the politics of envy or an irredentist vendetta, I suppose, but as the last of the Mohicans I have to keep kicking.
From now on perhaps I should preface every post with: Warning: the author of this post is prone to hyperbole. I will try reasonably hard to restrain myself, but it also makes sense for my readers to learn to discount my statements as needed.
OK, I’ll try what I think may be a more productive line on why we are going round and round without getting anywhere. It seems to me what bothers you is, as it were, analytic philosophy gone bad. It goes bad when what we might call ‘syntactic rigorism’ takes problems that aren’t properly shaped and sized to be handled in a way that vaguely resembles Russell’s ‘theory of descriptions’. Yet that shape and size is insisted on, to dull and damaged effect. Yep. Happens a lot. Alotalot. Makes for some dull, dull, pointless journal articles. The problem with indicting analytic philosophy on the basis of how it goes bad is that every kind of philosophy goes bad. Your favored flavor of generalism goes bad any number of ways, as you are surely aware. (It turns into a sort of inconsequential dilettantism if it is not careful, and sometimes even if it is.) The fact that a certain potential for dreadful awfulness is inherent in the approach is not really a very good objection to the approach. Because it would be an objection to every approach. Analytic philosophers are well aware of the deformations you object to, but - weak mortals - they fall into them anyway. You write as though analytic philosophers have simply never thought that their approach might fall into these bad paths. That is not charitable enough to their self-reflexivity about method.
Does this help?
Sure. But my objection to analytic philosophy is, among other things, that it has achieved a near-monopoly and has used up all the oxygen. (Opportunity cost). The best analytic philosophy, in terms of what it does, is good; but in terms of what it doesn’t do, not good.
I am not in a position to purge analytic philosophy, nor do I propose that. I do percieve that analytic philosophy has, to a considerable degree, squeezed out, or prevented from developing, non-analytic philosophy. And in what they say, many analytic philosophers often seem unaware that there are, or possibly could be, superior or equal non-analytic competitors to what they do.
My opinion on all this has been expressed in about 100 comments and blog posts. The first one to gain any attention was just a snarky off-hand comment at Yglesias which I defended at length against David Velleman and 5-10 others.
And so, if I seem to be changing the subject a lot, well, that’s dialogue. Everything is off the top of my head, though I’ve been thinking about it for years.
I personally don’t expect to get anywhere, vis-a-vis reaching a consensus. My goal is to state my opinion as effectively as possible. Ultimately most in the biz will disagree, for good reasons or bad.