This article was written on 25 Nov 2004, and is filed under Miscellania.

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Bruno Schulz and Wittgenstein

Mark Kaplan thinks about Hegel after reading a phrase of Bruno Schulz:

It is though what the mind grasps, in a cursory and impatient way, is simply the idea of these things – without colour, volume, height, or any tangible qualities at all.

This sent me scurrying back to Wittgenstein’s Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus for a rejoinder. I didn’t find one, but here is a (rather Kantian) comment from Philosophical Remarks:

That it doesn’t strike us at all when we look around us, move about in space, feel our own bodies, etc. etc., shows how natural these things are to us. We do not notice that we see space perspectivally or that our visual field is in some sense blurred towards the edges. It doesn’t strike us and never can strike us because it is the way we perceive. We never give it a thought and it’s impossible we should, since there is nothing that contrasts with the form of our world.

What I wanted to say is it’s strange that those who ascribe reality only to things and not to our ideas move about so unquestioningly in the world as idea and never long to escape from it.

The word points to a series of cognitive structures that give form to the world, as though, in the absence of physical details about an object itself, the formal constraints on the word bound what it means in our mind.

Some of Schulz’s own comments on the matter (please read the whole thing at the link, it’s wonderful):

Poetry is the short-circuiting of meaning between words, the impetuous regeneration of primordial myth.

When we employ commonplace words, we forget that they are fragments of ancient and eternal stories, that, like barbarians, we are building our homes out of fragments of sculptures and the statues of the gods.

Speech is the metaphysical organ of man. And yet over time the word grows rigid, becomes immobilized, ceases to be the conductor of new meanings. The poet restores conductivity to words through new short-circuits, which arise out of their fusions.

At present we consider the word to be merely a shadow of reality, its reflection. But the reverse would be more accurate: reality is but a shadow of the word. Philosophy is really philology, the creative exploration of the word.

Also check out some of Schulz’s drawings, some reminiscent of Tenniel.

Later thoughts: first, that attempting to mention Hegel, Schulz, Wittgenstein, and Kant in a single concept was a bit of a stretch. The Kant-Wittgenstein connection deserves more comment, though.

Wittgenstein in the quote above describes the boundaries of perception that are a given to us, both physically (in the form of our vision) and conceptually (in how our sense data, shaped by those boundaries, are reflected in mental and verbal concepts).

This is a variation on one of Kant’s core ideas, the transcendental deduction:

For the empirical consciousness, which accompanies different representations, is in itself diverse and without relation to the identity of the subject…The analytic unity of apperception is possible only under the presupposition of a certain synthetic unity.

(Since this is one of the most famous passages in Kant, I fear that I’m going to bore philosophy majors here and mystify everyone else, but I will try to take it in a different direction.)

Approximately, Kant makes a case for a priori synthetic knowledge by concluding that the mind cannot simply be a blank slate on which sense impressions are made, since there must be a set of preexisting organizing principles. He then proceeds to lay out at great length what those principles are.

Wittgenstein views these principles as a prison: they confine the ideas that proscribe our world. And thus they confine our use of language as well. In the absence of alternative principles, our words must reflect a blinkered perception that generates ideas about the world along strict, narrow lines.

Wittgenstein focuses on one of those principles at much greater length than all others, which is the placement of the self in relation to other objects. For Wittgenstein, it is the way that we pick ourselves out amongst all the objects in the world that is one of the key aspects of how our minds give shape to raw sense data.

Now, this is a jump, but can you see what Schulz is saying, the writer’s act upon words that — that it is not experiential sense data that can operate upon the mind to change it, but words in the absence of sensory referents that can stretch the boundaries of the organizing principles? And that, in the absence of sense data in which one can pick one’s self out of one’s surroundings, writing can offer a less blinkered view in which ideas may be more unfettered. This is all mysticism, of course, but at least it’s interesting mysticism.

Finally, a quote in summary from Gilbert Ryle, with regard to Mark Kaplan’s original thoughts:
Sometimes, when someone mentions a blacksmith’s forge, I find myself instantaneously back in my childhood, visiting a local smithy. I can vividly “see” the glowing red horseshoe on the anvil, fairly vividly “hear” the hammer ringing on the shoe and less vividly “smell” the singed hoof. How should we describe this “smelling in the mind’s nose?”

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