Waggish

Brett Bourbon: Finding a Replacement for the Soul, cont.

(Please see Part 1.)

A third disanalogy between Wittgensteinian and everyday criteria indicates that, and why, although Wittgenstein’s immediate audience was the empiricist tradition of philosophy, his views are going, or ought, to offend an empiricist sensibility at every point — which is only to say that this conflict is an intimate one. Go back to the first element of my lay-out, the one I label “Source of Authority”. There one finds “American officials”, “I”, “Africans”, “Anna Freud”, “Shanley”…Wittgenstein’s source of authority never varies in this way. It is, for him, always we who “establish” the criteria under investigation. The criteria Wittgenstein appeals to–those which are, for him, the data of philosophy–are always “ours”, the “group” which forms his “authority” is always, apparently, the human group as such, the human being generally. When I voice them, I do so, or take myself to do so, as a member of that group, a representative human.

Stanley Cavell, The Claim of Reason (18)

This quote illuminates some of the problems that Bourbon faces in separating the human from the non-human (e.g., machines). When Wittgenstein uses “we” to generalize over a metaphysically strict notion of people using language (which seems to me a more precise term than “human”), the criteria used are de facto implied by the usage of the words themselves. A word means by virtue of its use, and authority stems from use rather than, for example, a particular set of sense data.

Bourbon does not quite have that avenue open to him, since he is interested in a criteria of being human. What for Wittgenstein was an effect of usage is here inverted, as language takes on a role in elucidating what it is to be human. If the book is to answer this question, he has to engage in debates such as, “Women, narratives, poems, and the like can be understood (1) as expressive of human beings or (2) as analogically like human beings” (170). To do so he cannot rely on language use alone, but on language’s interaction with certain types of ontology (say, “what it is to be human”). This, I think, is the most radical move made in the book. Not coincidentally, there is a tension between the “we” and the “I” in the book–both are used liberally–that implies a more voluntary notion of humanity than the version that Wittgenstein mandated. But for all that, it sometimes is straightforardly ontological:

Human beings could cease to be human only if the world were not our world. (204)

The challenge is set here: to find a version of humanness that has in its very ontology a relation that is illuminated by our relationship to the non-propositional language in fiction.

To this end, the book alternates between passages in high analytic philosophy style (especially Davidson) and much more freewheeling reveries that owe a little to Heidegger and Levinas, but not that much. Sellars is one philosopher who I’m pretty weak on, but from what I can gather, Bourbon draws on his response to Quine in some of the more technical passages. There could be a little John McDowell in there as well, but I’m really not qualified to tell. While Bourbon is concerned with literature, philosophy and more importantly, philosophical forms of argument, take precedence over literary theory and its forms. Apart from a short passage criticizing Helen Vendler and John Ashbery of “philosophical infelicities” (for taking a facile view of meaning in literature), there is little attempt to engage with literary analysis.

The early part of the book attempts to clear some territory, using analytic-styled arguments to push literature out of the realm of philosophy by claiming that fictional sentences are non-propositional. I.e., they do not contain truth values, and therefore do not actually reflect any correspondence to reality. As such, they are nonsense. Here he dispenses with much literary analysis, saying that poems are “provided with content by conceptual means: unjustified conceptual means” (10). Further:

If it [a poem] is going to be valuable as a means of reflecting upon ourselves, then it cannot be because it offers us theories, or places to test our theories. What kind of test would that be since our interpretations can rig the results? (11)

In other words, since whatever correspondence is mandated by an act of interpretation, the meaning of a fictional text is imposed on it, rather than contained in it. Rather (and the significance of this will be clear later), “their value will come out of nonsense.”

He then dispatches the versions of humanity offered by Keats and Henry Adams. Keats in his view sees humanity as an unnatural (or non-natural) phenomenon, capable of motivation in contrast to the non-intentionality of nature. This, he says, is insufficient; it is a definition by contrast and negation. The gloomier Adams offers an inversion of Keats’s bright view, portraying humanity as a meaningless “dynamo” of fireworks and little else in this wonderful passage from “Vis Nova”, near the end of The Education:

Every man with self-respect enough to become effective, if only as a machine, has had to account to himself for himself somehow, and to invent a formula of his own for his universe, if the standard formulas failed. There, whether finished or not, education stopped. The formula, once made, could be but verified.

The effort must begin at once, for time pressed. The old formulas had failed, and a new one had to be made, but, after all, the object was not extravagant or eccentric. One sought no absolute truth. One sought only a spool on which to wind the thread of history without breaking it. Among indefinite possible orbits, one sought the orbit which would best satisfy the observed movement of the runaway star Groombridge, 1838, commonly called Henry Adams.

(Also see Ray Davis’s quotation of Adams for similarly grim times.)

Bourbon rejects this too as ultimately nihilistic and begging the question of the initial axiom, which I will quote a third time:

Human beings could cease to be human only if the world were not our world. (204)

Ergo, humanity is not merely a dynamo. Poised between the pre-modern conception of the soul and the existing deterministic, mechanistic view, Bourbon proceeds to nonsense, as embodied by the non-propositional sentences of fiction. His primary exemplar is Finnegans Wake.

Now, to claim Finnegans Wake as a representative of literature is disingenuous, since it is one of the most marginal and extreme works of fiction ever. But I don’t believe Bourbon is doing that; rather, he identifies FW as portraying the aspects he’s interested in in their rawest form, devoid of the facile interpretations that can be placed on the “plots” and “characters” of most books. Without these misleading interpretive constructs, we can get down to business.

For example, the “characters” in FW are not characters at all, but arrangements of assorted things and people that are designated by sigla and/or initials like HCE and ALP. HCE, standing for “here comes everybody”, “Humphrey Chimpden Earwicker,” etc. Such a thing resists one particular sense; “We have to learn to recognize HCE, but we also have to learn what it is we are identifying” (175). But from the argument that fictional sentences lack sense and are non-propositional, this seems an impossible feat. Thus:

FW would seem to exemplify all these ways of falling into confusion,
all of the ways words, sentences, and persons slip into obscurity. (175)

It is here, I think, that Bourbon sees the commonality with Wittgenstein, who in his later work explicated “language games” as holistic systems of linguistic practice; i.e., that words themselves lack a definite representative meaning, but rather gain what sense they have through their use between people. But what sort of language game is being played in fiction, where the use is explicitly nonsensical (so Bourbon says), and the activity is taking place not between two people but between a set text and a reader? Wittgenstein (in the view of David Pears, at least) mandated that a language be used between two people before it can properly be called a language; a language invented and used by one person who had never met anyone else would not properly be a language at all. That is not what the Wake deals in, but neither is it quite normal communication either. It is in this space between Wittgenstein’s idea of a language game and a solipsistic non-language that Bourbon fills in his idea of the human.

To be continued…

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