Waggish

David Auerbach on literature, tech, film, etc.

Tag: david pears

Forces at Work in Wittgenstein

I’ve generally been impressed by David G. Stern‘s careful and extensively-researched work on Wittgenstein. In responding to a comment from T.P. Uschanov, I mentioned Stern’s paper on the debate over the transitions in Wittgenstein’s philosophy, “How Many Wittgensteins?” In addition to making the intriguing case that the Philosophical Investigations have a distinctly more Pyrrhonic flavor than Wittgenstein’s other later writings, Stern also gives this general summation of what really is shared across Wittgenstein’s work, as well as a comment on how the technique of the Philosophical Investigations goes about achieving it.

What is really interesting about both the Tractatus and the Philosophical Investigations is neither a metaphysical system, nor a supposedly definitive answer to system-building, but the unresolved tension between two forces: one aims at a definitive answer to the problems of philosophy, the other aims at doing away with them altogether. While they are not diametrically opposed to one another, there is a great tension between them, and most readers have tried to resolve this tension by arguing, not only that one of them is the clear victor, but also that this is what the author intended. Here I am indebted to the wording of the conclusion of David Pears’ Wittgenstein: “Each of the two forces without the other would have produced results of much less interest. … But together they produced something truly great”.  However Pears, a leading exponent of the “two-Wittgensteins” interpretation, and the author of one of the canonical metaphysical readings of the Tractatus, only attributes this to the later philosophy. In the case of the Tractatus, this tension is clearest in the foreword and conclusion, where the author explicitly addresses the issue; in the Investigations, it is at work throughout the book.

The Investigations is best understood as inviting the reader to engage in a philosophical dialogue, a dialogue that is ultimately about whether philosophy is possible, about the impossibility and necessity of philosophy, rather than as advocating either a Pyrrhonian or a non-Pyrrhonian answer. This result is best understood, I believe, as emerging out of the reader’s involvement in the dialogue of the Philosophical Investigations, our temptation into, attraction toward, philosophical theorizing, and our coming to see that it doesn’t work in particular cases, rather than as the message that any one voice in the dialogue is conveying.

David G. Stern, How Many Wittgensteins?

I am still fairly enamored of the metaphysical reading of the Tractatus, but as a pithy statement of Wittgenstein’s overall philosophical character, I find this pretty compelling.

As a footnote, here is David Pears’ excellent and very different original context for the phrasing Stern uses above, which also goes a way to summing up the distinction between Wittgenstein and the Ordinary Language Philosophers like Austin and Ryle:

But it is only one half of the truth to say that his resistance to science produced his later view of philoso­phy. There was also his linguistic naturalism, which played an equally important role. These two tendencies, one of them anti positivistic and the other in a more subtle way positivistic , are not diametrically opposed to one another. But there is great tension between them, and his later philosophy is an expression of this tension. Each of the two forces without the other would have produced results of much less interest. The linguistic naturalism by itself would have been a dreary kind of philosophy done under a low and leaden sky. The resistance to science by itself might have led to almost any kind of nonsense. But together they produced something truly great.

David Pears, Ludwig Wittgenstein

And not only great, but far more wide-ranging than many of those who have picked up on either of the two elements in isolation.

Ernest Gellner on Words and Things: Wittgenstein and Ordinary Language

(Gellner is the bowling ball. Wittgenstein is the 7-10 split.)

Ernest Gellner’s Words and Things was Gellner’s scathing attack on ordinary language philosophy. It caused a fuss in 1959 and made Gellner’s name after Gilbert Ryle refused to review it and Bertrand Russell angrily defended it. How valid was the critique?

This is not just a historical exegesis, but an object lesson in the hopes that older disputes no longer quite so relevant to us can guide us to principles useful in current debates where we lack the benefit of distance. In short, Gellner is right on sociology and wrong on the philosophy, especially Wittgenstein. But the reasons for that are complicated.

Ordinary language philosophy was the mid-century movement represented nowadays by J.L. Austin and Gilbert Ryle, though it’s telling that Gellner quotes some of the lesser-known lights of that scene to make his most scathing attacks. In addition to Austin and Ryle, he rips on the far more obscure G.J. Warnock and John Wisdom, who do give Gellner some of his juiciest material. I haven’t read either of the latter two, but it seems entirely possible they were strident, less than brilliant exponents of the linguistic turn.

Ryle doesn’t offer up such foolish statements, so Gellner’s critique is broader there: Ryle has drawn the focus away from science and toward trivialities by wanting to analyze the concept of mind rather than mind itself. And Austin is simply a knight-errant whose obsession with the most quotidian of conversational gambits is theological angel-counting.

Gellner has generally kind words for logical positivism and A.J. Ayer and Bertrand Russell, who wrote the preface, again putting him dangerously close to the movement he is attacking. And he ignores perhaps the strongest and most wide-ranging mind to be associated with the movement, P.F. Strawson, as well as Americans like Quine. So it is a bit of a chimera that Gellner is attacking, in that he attributes to a collective a dogma that perhaps even its most strident members didn’t fully adhere to.

One could accuse Gellner of cherry-picking, and I think it’s a fair charge, but I think it’s more enlightening to see that Gellner was criticizing a culture, not a philosophy, one that existed at Oxford in the 1950s and that Gellner experienced first hand. Gellner was a social scientist more than he was a classical philosopher, and his rage is less about ideas per se than about the people who hold them and how they hold him. As an avowed disciple of what he termed Enlightenment Fundamentalist Rationalism, he was guided, more than anything else, by the idea of fallibility and the need for constant doubt:

There are no privileged Sources or Affirmations, and all of them can be queried. In inquiry, all facts and all features are separable: it is always proper to inquire whether combinations could not be other than what had previously been supposed. In other words, the world does not arrive as a package-deal—which is the customary manner in which it appears in traditional cultures—but piecemeal. Strictly speaking, though it arrives as a package-deal, it is dismembered by thought.

Cultures are package-deal worlds; scientific inquiry, by contrast, requires atomization of evidence. No linkages escape scrutiny. Empiricist theory of knowledge claimed that information actually arrives in tiny packages (which is false as a descriptive account); but the lesson learnt was that it should be treated as if it was so broken up. Such breaking up of clusters fosters critical revaluation of world-pictures.

This reexamination of all associations destabilizes all cognitive anciens règimes. Moreover, the laws to which this world is subject are symmetrical. This levels out the world, and thereby ‘disenchants’ it, in the famous Weberian expression. This is the vision. Note again, it desacralizes, disestablishes, disenchants everything substantive: no privileged facts, occasions, individuals, institutions or associations. In other words, no miracles, no divine interventions and conjuring performances and press conferences, no saviours, no sacred churches or sacramental communities. All hypotheses are subject to scrutiny, all facts open to novel interpretations, and all facts subject to symmetrical laws which preclude the miraculous, the sacred occasion, the intrusion of the Other into the Mundane.

But what is perhaps absolutized and made exempt is the method itself. And the method leaves its shadow on the world: it engenders an orderly, symmetrical Nature. The orderliness of inquiry leaves its shadow, and appears as an orderly, unique nature. This is the proper sense which is to be attributed to the Kantian doctrine that we ‘make’ our world: an orderly, systematic, law-bound Nature is really the shadow of our cognitive procedure.

Ernest Gellner, Postmodernism, Reason, and Religion: I Choose You, Bachelorette #2

[Okay, I made up the subtitle.]

What Gellner could not stand were closed systems of thought that were not vulnerable to evidentiary invalidation: religion, Marxism, and psychoanalysis being three popular forms. Behind Gellner’s sociological description of the maneuvers employed by his nemeses lies his true frustration:

There is an undeniable element of truth in Polymorphism, both logically and empirically. As a matter of simple fact it is true that languages are complicated and consist of a variety of activities. It is also, perhaps, a necessary truth that any language that does anything worth while has to contain elements or tools of radically different types, and so cannot be internally entirely homogeneous and simple. Nevertheless, the exaggerated use of Polymorphism * by Linguistic Philosophy is disastrous and unjustifiable. Its weaknesses are similar to those of the three fallacies outlined previously with which it is closely associated. It is an attempt to undermine and paralyse one of the most important kinds of thinking, and one of the main agents of progress, namely intellectual advance through consistency and unification, through the attainment of coherence, the elimination of exceptions, arbitrarinesses, and unnecessary idiosyncracies. It in effect tends to underwrite all current concepts, however useless, anachronistic, inconsistent. For linguistic philosophers conceive their philosophical thought to be the undermining of general models and of models as such, as models-only the actual ungeneral description of an usage is philosophically “aseptic”, and commendable.

*The “57 Varieties” way of doing philosophy, as it has been wittily described by Professor S. Kömer.

Ernest Gellner, Words and Things

He no doubt saw ordinary language philosophy as another, as it “dissolved” one problem after another as linguistic rather than real. This for Gellner is cowardice. Making G.E. Moore into a Chance the Gardener figure, he compares him to Wittgenstein’s ideal:

Some philosophers have considered the deliberate suspension of belief, of the natural attitude, to be of the essence of philosophy. Husserl called it the epoche, a kind of putting-of-the-world-in-brackets and suspending judgment so that one could have a better look.

The essence of Moore is a kind of inverted epoché. He refused to put the world in any brackets.

Moore’s inverted epoché, his conviction or principle that things in general were substantially as they seemed, reappears in Wittgenstein and in Linguistic Philosophy proper with a rationale –namely, that assertions to the effect that things are radically other than they seem are always misuses of language. In brief, Moore displayed many of the characteristics of Linguistic Philosophers, without being led to them by the ways and reasoning of Wittgensteinianism. He did by nature that for which Wittgenstein’s Revelation found reasons.

One might say that G.E. Moore is the one and only known example of Wittgensteinian man: unpuzzled by the world or science, puzzled only by the oddity of the sayings of philosophers, and sensibly reacting to that alleged oddity by very carefully, painstakingly and interminably examining their use of words. . . .The philosophical job is to persuade us of the adequacy of ordinary conceptualisations. It is the story of Plato over again–only this time it is the philosopher’s job to lead us back into the cave.

Ernest Gellner, Words and Things

For Gellner, this “adequacy” is synonymous with complacency and cultural conservatism. I.e., it is the attempt of the Oxford don to keep the world as the comfortable place that it is.

I am a bit sympathetic to this critique, as I suspect the ordinary language orthodoxy of the 1950s genuinely was overbearing and vexing to those upstarts who wished to pursue a less linguistic direction. Yet of course anything can serve as a closed system, if its believers are sufficiently recalcitrant, and any orthodoxy can be and often is overbearing and vexing to upstarts. You don’t need Duhem, Quine, and Kuhn in order to believe that people generally are hesitant to lose faith in the systems to which they have pledged themselves. People are apt to overextend their systems as well. (See C.D. Darlington and, time and again, David Hume and xkcd.)

Nevertheless, Marxism and psychoanalysis, among others, have attracted somewhat more cult-like followings than other systems. It’s probably a good thing Gellner didn’t spend too much time around Heideggerians, otherwise we would have gotten a book on them. Gellner limits himself to a single dismissive remark:

On the side of Continental philosophy, a greater and greater cult of paradox and obscurity, an appetite which feeds on what it consumes and, as with a galloping illness, hardly allows the imagination to conceive its end: who can outdo Heidegger?

Ernest Gellner, Words and Things

The issue is to what extent this cult-like environment is entailed by the system at hand. The criterion that Gellner uses to judge the level of closure of philosophical systems, which I think is a good one, is that of mysticism. At one end is the scientific method by which everything is (supposedly) falsifiable; at the other end is wholly unjustified religion. These two quotes, both of which invoke the phrase “curiously reminiscent,” should give some idea of where ordinary language philosophy stands for Gellner on that spectrum:

The doctrine that philosophy must wither away as we become acquainted with the patterns of our use of words is curiously reminiscent of the Marxist view that the State will wither away.

This main fallacy of Wittgenstein’s which remained with him throughout his life can indeed be expressed more dramatically as the notion that there is such a thing as “seeing the world rightly”. Thus Linguistic Philosophy, the doctrine that philosophy is an activity, is a spiritual exercise that confirms the faith which calls for the exercise to begin with. It is in this respect, as in others, curiously reminiscent of psychoanalysis.

Ernest Gellner, Words and Things

The ultimate bounty of Words and Things is Wittgenstein, whom Gellner would go after in other books as well. There is no question that Wittgenstein is an arch-enemy for Gellner just as much as Russell is a comrade-in-arms. I think Gellner saw Wittgenstein’s abandonment of the semi-reasonable (yet still too mystical) logical atomism of the Tractatus as a betrayal of the human obligations of doubt and secular progress, in effect a turn to religion.

Wittgenstein and his ordinary language followers represent, to Gellner:

  1. The abandonment of serious, relevant issues for conjured, spurious ones.
  2. The unquestioning faith of a mystic and the corresponding influence on blind followers.

These are two different charges, which I’ll call Charge (1) and Charge (2). Gellner co-mingles them but especially with Wittgenstein they need to be separated. My own view is that the first charge is ungrounded but that the second one is at least somewhat legitimate.

As to Charge (1) of spuriousness, Gellner overlooks the internal developments within logical positivism, and the difficulties that Carnap’s Aufbau and other attempts to regiment the world had faced. In fact, he does attack logical atomism as an early example of Wittgenstein’s faith-based reasoning, with Wittgenstein assuming that there are logical simples out there but not needing to go to the trouble of finding any. But Gellner doesn’t seem to want to acknowledge the implications of the failure of logical positivism and verificationism.

In addition, Gellner gets Wittgenstein wrong on a number of points, a problem that persists when he treats Wittgenstein’s later work. This is probably the most damning aspect of the book and the one that still causes people to dismiss it. I can’t defend Gellner here: he felt the need to go after the substance as well as the context, and he couldn’t be bothered to give it a fair shot. To be fair, Wittgenstein is seriously difficult and many of his adherents got him wrong too, and many still aren’t sure if they’re even right; but in general, the closer Gellner gets to Wittgenstein’s philosophy, the less convincing he is.

But in separating language philosophy from all other philosophical problems, Gellner also ignores the more general continuum that was being set up. Language, reality, and logic were not coalescing in the way that was promised, and it was not producing an “orderly, unique nature.” Godel’s blow to systems of logic showing them to be necessarily incomplete was perhaps the most crushing inner defeat, but language itself was refusing to conform as well. In this way Gellner was very similar to Russell, who saw the problems Wittgenstein raised with his Theory of Knowledge, but could not bring himself to reject the general empiricist basis behind them. (See David Pears’ The False Prison for more on this.)

Because syntactic or indeed semantic theories of language haven’t really worked out, and pragmatics have become more and more important, you can call Austin et al. naive, dogmatic, boring, or just plain sloppy, but you can’t quite call them wrong, at least not in the way one would call logical positivism wrong.

The problem is that Gellner’s Enlightenment Fundamentalist Rationalism sets up very strict criteria by which one can make sweeping statements about things like the worthlessness of a school of philosophy, and human languge is such a mess that Gellner’s attempt to hold the fort on reasonably simple, naive theories of meaning cannot clear the bar that his own principles have set for him.

That leaves Gellner other avenue of attack for Charge (1), his objection to Pyrrhonistic and therapeutic attitudes of ordinary language philosophy. I do not see this attack as sufficiently grounded either, as science has offered similar prescriptions. The healing of our “folk psychological” ideas is just one of the more prominent recent examples of “seeing the world rightly.” Hence why Dennett’s Consciousness Explained was dubbed Consciousness Explained Away, Consciousness Ignored, etc. These attitudes may be better grounded scientifically, but the attitudes remain similar.

And Pyrrhonic and therapeutic attitudes are hardly new: Epicurus, Nagarjuna, Sextus Empiricus, Lucretius, and many others have always offered the claim that truth would set us free from at least some of our worries and obsessions. These attitudes, when deployed pathologically, are an offense to knowledge and curiosity, but Gellner simply slams the attitudes in toto without allowing for their inevitable presence in all domains. They can never be stamped out. I’m sure Gellner knew this, but his enthusiasm got the better of him.

Onto Charge (2), of the mythification of Wittgenstein. Everything I have read suggests a strong degree of truth to the veneration and almost deification of Wittgenstein. He had an aura of remote brilliance about him and people speak of attending his classes as they would of attending the speeches of a prophet. I think Gellner is very psychologically keen about Wittgenstein.

This main fallacy of Wittgenstein’s which remained with him throughout his life can indeed be expressed more dramatically as the notion that there is such a thing as “seeing the world rightly.”

Wittgenstein was indeed driven by a need for certainty, for clarity, for indisputable assertions. There is no doubt this was a pathological need, and it informs the less attractive aspects of his philosophy: a general arrogance and an unwillingness to accept, even momentarily, provisional or partial measures in explanations and analyses. Both of these are present in his demand to see the world rightly.

Wittgenstein’s brilliance and integrity prevented him from taking easy solutions, however, and Gellner does not seem to have realized this, presumably because he did not take Wittgenstein’s project seriously. Wittgenstein’s stubbornness and general refusal to accept criticism except from within does not make it any easier, but the fact remains that Wittgenstein could not allow himself to do what he continually said he wanted to do, which is give up philosophy. He wouldn’t stop until he knew he saw the world rightly, and I’m pretty sure he never would have believed he did. Gellner has made an accurate diagnosis but has misstated the symptoms.

Yet Wittgenstein’s personality did engender a more rigid orthodoxy, which was not helped by the stridency of Ryle. Again, however, Gellner goes too far in conflating philosophy and culture. The orthodoxy of computational linguistics was just as strong for many years, yet it did not arise from any particular mysticism of beliefs, just from a remarkably charismatic and brilliant founder.

Wittgenstein was an exceptional case, however, and the combination of his gnomic discourse and his yearning, spiritual frustration was captivating to some and toxic to people like Gellner. (I don’t believe Gellner ever met Wittgenstein, but that he formed an idea of him based on interacting with his acolytes, an idea perhaps even more mythic and titanic than the reality.) It is right to be wary of any such elevation, and it is here that Gellner gets closest to explaining the cultural etiology of the more mediocre language philosophy he is attacking, and the blind faith that does play a part in it.

It’s a curious error to conflate ideas (Charge (1)) and culture (Charge (2)), and particularly curious when a keen social scientist like Gellner makes it. It’s not the only time he did it: The Psychoanalytic Movement: The Cunning of Unreason  indicts Freud and his followers on similar grounds, though with far more success. Freud, like Wittgenstein, was a near-demagogic bringer of truth who also suffered from acute self-doubt and revised his own theories repeatedly, while bridling at the slightest criticism from others. In both cases, Gellner ties the figures and their followers too rigidly to the ideas in play, as though there was an exact parallel correspondence between the sociological power dynamics at work and the underlying theories themselves.

It produces a peculiar sort of alienation: people are expressing and asserting themselves through ideological systems and forms of argument rather than through emotional dynamics. My own belief has generall been that this gets it the wrong way round: ideological reconstructions are post hoc justifications for personal and emotional conflicts that owe little (but not nothing) to the intellectual matters at hand. The ideas coyuld have easily been different; the emotions and games of power are so often the same.

RIP David Pears

I only just recently found out that Wittgenstein scholar David Pears has died. I was lucky enough to have Pears as my professor for my first class on Wittgenstein, and I don’t think I could have had a better introduction. (I also enjoyed his stories about going to school with the Beyond the Fringe crowd.) He demythologized Wittgenstein and treated him in an methodical and non-mystical way, something that’s been lost among many contemporary Wittgenstein scholars.

Pears wasn’t at all pompous or polemical and he even admitted that he believed his analysis of Wittgenstein’s later work in the second part of The False Prison was somewhat off the mark. I still think the first part of The False Prison is one of the best surveys of the Tractatus available (which he also translated), covering the book thematically rather than as some sort of weird prose poem to be deciphered line by line. His treatment of logical atomism in particular is excellent.

I like the second part as well, off-base or not, because Pears is a lot less polemical than even his contemporaries. (I respect P.M.S. Hacker’s work, but there’s no question he is less likely to consider competing views than Pears was. I thought that Pears’s rebuttal to Kripke’s interpretation of Wittgenstein was far more polite and considerate than it needed to be.) Pears’s analyses of the private language argument and rule-following get terribly intricate, but even if his conclusions are uncertain, he is great at bringing forth the complexity that many people (including professors) miss in later Wittgenstein: e.g., the precise nature of criteria for rule-following. When I am trying to explain to someone that no, Wittgenstein is Not That Simple, I point to Pears’s work as a good explanation of why.

Here’s a characteristic passage on the private language argument from one summary he wrote of Wittgenstein:

Suppose that a word for a sensation-type had no links with anything in the physical world and, therefore, no criteria that would allow me to teach anyone else its meaning. Even so, I might think that, when ‘I applied it to one of my own sensations, I would know that I was using it correctly But, according to Wittgenstein, that would be an illusion, because in such an isolated situation I would have no way of distinguishing between knowing that my use of the word was correct and merely thinking that I knew that it was correct., Notice that he did not say that my claim would be wrong: his point is more radical – there would be no right or wrong in this case. (Wittgenstein, 1953, § 258).

The common objection to this criticism is that it simply fails to allow for the ability to recognise recurring types of things. This, it is said, is a purely intellectual ability on which we all rely in the physical world. So what is there to stop a single person relying on it in the inner world of his mind? Perhaps Carnap was right when he chose ‘remembered similarity’ as the foundation of his Logical Structure of the World (1967).

Here Wittgenstein’s second move is needed. If the ability to recognise types really were purely intellectual, it might be used in the way in which Carnap and others have used it, and it might be possible to dismiss Wittgenstein’s objection by saying, ‘We have to stop somewhere and we have to treat something as fundamental – so why not our ability to recognise sensation types?’ But against this Wittgenstein argues that what looks like a purely intellectual ability is really based on natural sequences of predicament, behaviour and achievement in the physical world. Pain may seem to be a “clear example of a sensation-type which is independently recognisable, but the word is really only a substitute for the cry which is a natural expression of the sensation” (1953, ~~ 244-6). Or, to take another example, our ability to recognise locations in our visual fields is connected with the success of our movements in physical space. Our discriminations in the inner world of the mind are, and must be, answerable to the exigencies of the physical world.

The first volume of The False Prison also happens to have my pick for the most apt cover of a philosophy book ever:

I wish there were more professors like him.

The Books on the (Finnegans) Wake

I was asked today about contemporary reaction to Finnegans Wake when it was published, and I had to say that I didn’t think that there was much of one. Borges dismissed it as incomprehensible while asking for a guidebook for it, much as Stuart Gilbert had published one for Ulysses. Others genuflected and tried to forget about it as soon as they could. In the absence of any sort of key with which to decode the novel, most understandably could not be bothered. Edmund Wilson supposedly put the most effort in, though I have not read his review. Anyone have a copy?

It’s a sign of Joyce’s naivete, I suppose, that he didn’t foresee this. He was disappointed by the reception, but I can’t imagine what else he could have expected upon publishing a book that would take decades of effort by hundreds of people to begin to decode. Some have speculated that Joyce intended to make much supporting explanatory material available, as he did with Ulysses when he passed out chapter schemae to Gilbert et al., but that Joyce died before he could do so, two years after publication. I wonder, especially since a lot of Joyce’s explanations tended to be after the fact, as though he were interpreting, non-definitively and not without humor, his own work.

The essays by many famous and less famous names included in Our Exagmination Round His Factification for Incamination of Work in Progress (Work in Progress being the then-title of the Wake) are more interesting as a sort of Rorschach test for the authors involved than for the light they shed on the book. With the possible exception of Beckett, who probably knew a lot more about the book than the others, the efforts by William Carlos Williams, Eugene Jolas, and others attempt to describe Finnegans Wake based on selected fragments, and it’s as though they were looking at a one-inch square of Guernica.

Joseph Campbell and Henry Morton Robinson were the first to have a real go at it in A Skeleton Key to Finnegans Wake, which features a great close reading of the opening sections, followed by a dubious but good-hearted attempt to extrapolate the rest of the book. I didn’t get much out of it, but Robinson and Campbell set the style for the two main types of criticism to follow, attempted summarization and word-by-word glossing. To quote David Pears: “Some fly, while others struggle to crawl.”

For a variety of reasons, I stayed within the Joycean tradition of criticism while reading the Wake, avoiding all theory-based and non-specialist approaches. Joyce scholars can be a somewhat hermetic and monomaniacal lot: many of the people below study Joyce exclusively and exhaustively. I can think of no better example than that of Adaline Glasheen, a New England teacher who put together The Census of Finnegans Wake, which attempts to list every personage named or alluded to in the Wake, alphabetically. She remarked:

I hold to my old opinion. Finnegans Wake is a model of a mysterious universe made mysterious by Joyce for the purpose of striking with polished irony at the hot vanity of divine and human wishes…Joyce himself told Arthur Power: what is clear and concise can’t deal with reality, for to be real is to be surrounded by mystery.

The unpretentious Glasheen liberally peppers the text with remarks such as, “I don’t know who this is.” From her husband’s biographical note:

Adaline was born in Evansville, Indiana, attended the public schools there. Adaline and her mother borrowed armloads of books weekly from the public library. They were both able to recall every detail of their reading. Good books, trash they read ’em all. This proved to be a great help in her Joyce work. After a year of two at the University of Indiana, she transferred to the University of Mississippi. Adaline was hired to coach football players in English lest they flunk out and thus do harm to the football team. She continued the reading habits of her childhood. Later she felt that Joyce, too, was a great reader of trash; hence her ability to spot references and allusions in Joyce. She received her B.A. at Ole Miss. She took her M.A. at George Washington University. While I was in the army she taught at Wheaton College in Massachusetts.

Upon the birth of our daughter in 1946, Adaline was eager for a task which she could do in the few minutes between the incessant trivia of rearing a child. The ‘Joyce game’ enabled her to survive.

The advantage of the approach of such people that they tend to be rather open to heterodoxy and iconoclasm; the disadvantage can be a certain literalism and lack of generalization. Here then are the books that I found and my reactions to them. The James Joyce Scholars’ Collection is a great resource, as it contains some of the key works of Wake criticism in this tradition.

The Books at the Wake, William Atherton. Ultimately, I think this may be the best place to start. The Wake is inarguably loaded with tons of references to certain writers in particular: not just Vico, but Swift, Lewis Carroll, Blake, etc. Atherton goes author by author, which conveniently gives an overview of the continuities of the book (one of the more difficult things to grasp on encountering it) while not being beholden to one particular interpretation of it.

The Sigla of Finnegans Wake, Roland McHugh. McHugh is one of the most intense Wake scholars, and in The Finnegans Wake Experience he describes moving to Ireland to better understand the book. This slim volume describes, with much reference to Joyce’s notebooks, how the many personages of the book combine into sigla, a dozen or so symbols around which Joyce constructed the book. (For example, HCE in all his various forms is a wicket-shaped “M”, and ALP in hers is a triangle.) Joyce’s sigla changed as he wrote the book, and there’s room for interpretation, but McHugh, like no other analyst, gives the impression of truly grasping the whole damn thing, even as it streams between his fingers. Only my inexpert opinion, but McHugh seemed to be most in tune with Finnegans Wake.

Annotations to Finnegans Wake, Roland McHugh. Absolutely indispensible for writing a paper, but insanely frustrating to a newcomer. For those who haven’t seen it, this is an extensive gloss that maps page-by-page on to the original text with concise, sometimes cryptic notes. (You really have to see it to get the effect.) On first glance the Annotations are just as obscure as the Wake itself, but once I started catching recurrences of certain allusions, it becomes how impressively they match up with particular subjects and characters in the Wake. (For example, apparent Jonathan Swift and Lewis Carroll references occur absurdly often in any section associated with the daughter Issy.)

Structure and Motif in Finnegans Wake, Clive Hart. As the title suggests, Hart’s book contrasts with McHugh’s in tracing linguistic, spatial, temporal, and referential structure through the book rather than focusing on character or narrative. As such, Hart attempts to describe the macro-structure of the Wake with a minimum of interpretation–which invariably turns out to be quite a lot. Hart is in a lot of contentious territory, but his knowledge is solid and his pace careful. I think of Hart’s book as consciously open-ended: even where I find his interpretations uncertain, they are always provocative and spur even more future questions.

More books on the Wake next time…

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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