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Wilfrid Sellars and Edmund Husserl on Science and Life

I recently presented a brief and rough comparison of philosophers Wilfrid Sellars and Edmund Husserl on the subject of science, its place in the world, and the social crises of modernity. Specifically, I drew a few lines between Husserl’s concept of the “life-world” in The Crisis of the European Sciences (1938, excerpts available at link) and Sellars’ idea of the “manifest image,” as described in Philosophy and the Scientific Image of Man (1962, complete text at link). Both tackle one of the central problems of the modern age: how to square scientific knowledge with the “unscientific” parts of the world, be they social, ethical, mental, or metaphysical.

While the post-war American Sellars and the intrawar German Husserl use vastly different vocabularies and start from vastly different perspectives, there are some notable points of agreement. Their hopes for a nonreductive unification of science and society hold great appeal. It is an abstracted and generalized picture of my personal experiences with truth and muddlement.

I only quote Sellars below, because I found I got whiplash from alternating between Sellars’ and Husserl’s equally tortuous but wholly opposing styles. To orient, some excerpts from Husserl’s Vienna lecture:

I, too, am quite sure that the European crisis has its roots in a mistaken rationalism. That, however, must not be interpreted as meaning that rationality as such is an evil or that in the totality of human existence it is of minor importance. The rationality of which alone we are speaking is rationality in that noble and genuine sense, the original Greek sense, that became an ideal in the classical period of Greek philosophy – though of course it still needed considerable clarification through self-examination. It is its vocation, however, to serve as a guide to mature development.

The philosophy that at any particular time is historically actual is the more or less successful attempt to realize the guiding idea of the infinity, and thereby the totality, of truths. Practical ideals, viewed as external poles from the line of which one cannot stray during the whole of life without regret, without being untrue to oneself and thus unhappy, are in this view by no means yet clear and determined; they are anticipated in an equivocal generality. Determination comes only with concrete pursuit and with at least relatively successful action. Here the constant danger is that of falling into one-sidedness and premature satisfaction, which are punished in subsequent contradictions. Thence the contrast between the grand claims of philosophical systems, that are all the while incompatible with each other. Added to this are the necessity and yet the danger of specialization.

In this way, of course, one-sided rationality can become an evil. It can also be said that it belongs to the very essence of reason that philosophers can at first understand and accomplish their infinite task only on the basis of an absolutely necessary onesidedness. In itself there is no absurdity here, no error. Rather, as has been remarked, the direct and necessary path for reason allows it initially to grasp only one aspect of the task, at first without recognizing that a thorough knowledge of the entire infinite task, the totality of being, involves still other aspects. When inadequacy reveals itself in obscurities and contradiction, then this becomes a motive to engage in a universal reflection. Thus the philosopher must always have as his purpose to master the true and full sense of philosophy, the totality of its infinite horizons. No one line of knowledge, no individual truth must be absolutized. Only in such a supreme consciousness of self, which itself becomes a branch of the infinite task, can philosophy fulfill its function of putting itself, and therewith a genuine humanity, on the right track. To know that this is the case, however, also involves once more entering the field of knowledge proper to philosophy on the highest level of reflection upon itself. Only on the basis of this constant reflectiveness is a philosophy a universal knowledge.

The reason for the downfall of a rational culture does not lie in the essence of rationalism itself but only in its exteriorization, its absorption in ‘naturalism’ and ‘objectivism’.

Edmund Husserl, The Vienna Lecture (tr. David Carr)

Willem deVries’ essay on Sellars at the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy is a superb overview of Sellars’ philosophy. Here are a few of his remarks on Sellars’ concepts of the manifest image and the scientific image:

The manifest image is neither frozen nor unchanging. It can be refined both empirically and categorically…Thus, the manifest image is neither unscientific nor anti-scientific. It is, however, methodologically more promiscuous and often less rigorous than institutionalized science. Traditional philosophy, philosophia perennis, endorses the manifest image as real and attempts to understand its structure.

One kind of categorial change, however, is excluded from the manifest image by stipulation: the addition to the framework of new concepts of basic objects by means of theoretical postulation. This is the move Sellars stipulates to be definitive of the scientific image. Science, by postulating new kinds of basic entities (e.g., subatomic particles, fields, collapsing packets of probability waves), slowly constructs a new framework on this basis that claims to be a complete description and explanation of the world and its processes. The scientific image grows out of and is methodologically posterior to the manifest image, which provides the initial framework in which science is nurtured, but Sellars claims that “the scientific image presents itself as a rival image. From its point of view the manifest image on which it rests is an ‘inadequate’ but pragmatically useful likeness of a reality which first finds its adequate (in principle) likeness in the scientific image” (PSIM, in SPR: 20; in ISR: 388).

Is it possible to reconcile these two images?…The manifest image is, in his view, a phenomenal realm à la Kant, but science, at its Peircean ideal conclusion, reveals things as they are in themselves. However, despite what Sellars calls “the primacy of the scientific image”(PSIM, in SPR: 32, he ultimately argues for a “synoptic vision” in which the descriptive and explanatory resources of the scientific image are united with the “language of community and individual intentions,” which “provide[s] the ambience of principles and standards (above all, those which make meaningful discourse and rationality itself possible) within which we live our own individual lives” (PSIM, in SPR: 40).

Willem deVries, Wilfrid Sellars (in SEP)

And two further remarks (with which not all Sellarsians would agree) on Sellars’ conception of science in a normative social realm:

Science, for Sellars, does not aim to construct an adequate representation of the world given a fixed stock of basic concepts or terms; it aims to change our concepts and terms to enable us to anticipate, explain and plan ever better our interaction with reality. Science is the methodologically rigorous attempt to reform and extend the descriptive resources of language to better equip us in all those tasks that presuppose descriptive language. (148)

Science envisages abandoning the manifest image and its norm-laden objects, but it cannot in fact do so without undercutting itself. The manifest image is transcendentally ideal but empirically and practically real. The world in which we live and have our being is necessarily a world of sensible objects that we constantly evaluate with regard to their aiding or impeding our intentions. We are simply built that way. This manifest world is grounded in, but not identical to, the world science reveals to us. (161)

Willem deVries, Wilfrid Sellars (Acumen)

So thus, on the vision and immense challenges of a truly universal, non-parochial science carried out in a rational and tolerant society–the “infinite task.”

Edmund Husserl and Wilfrid Sellars

(All quotes below are from Philosophy and the Scientific Image of Man unless otherwise stated.)

Marvin Farber led me through my first careful reading of the Critique of Pure Reason and introduced me to Husserl. His combination of utter respect for the structure of Husserl’s thought with the equally firm conviction that this structure could be given a naturalistic interpretation was undoubtedly a key influence on my own subsequent philosophical strategy.
WS, Autobiographical Reflections

One seems forced to choose between the picture of an elephant which rests on a tortoise (What supports the tortoise?) and the picture of a great Hegelian serpent of knowledge with its tail in its mouth (Where does it begin?). Neither will do. For empirical knowledge, like its sophisticated extension, science, is rational, not because it has a foundation but because it is a self-correcting enterprise which can put any claim in jeopardy, though not all at once.
WS, Empiricism and the Philosophy of Mind §38

Sellars and Husserl are both trying to provide a holistic structure for the mind’s universalizing scientific engagement with the world. The difference lies in their methods: where Husserl is transcendental-historical and phenomenological, Sellars is pragmatist and naturalistic. The Lifeworld and the Manifest Image share the same methodological primacy in determining how we look at the world. They are “given” or “pre-given”: we have come to them without being aware of the processes by which they arose—or if we ever were aware of them, we have forgotten them. But for Sellars, the idea of the “image” or model is crucial: the Manifest and Scientific Image both are inexact pictures of reality which undergo repeated refinement.

Let me refer to these two perspectives, respectively, as the manifest and the scientific images of man-in-the-world…By calling them images I do not mean to deny to either or both of them the status of ‘reality’. I am, to use Husserl’s term, ‘bracketing’ them, transforming them from ways of experiencing the world into objects of philosophical reflection and evaluation…While the main outlines of what I shall call the manifest image took shape in the mists of pre-history, the scientific image, promissory notes apart, has taken shape before our very eyes.

The Manifest and Scientific Images both are idealized concepts established communally. Truth and falsity exist in each of them through communal norms of rationality and discourse. While images may be refined or discarded, normative standards of correctness nonetheless exist with regard to any image.

Pragmatism: The point I wish to make now is that since this image has a being which transcends the individual thinker, there is truth and error with respect to it, even though the image itself might have to be rejected, in the last analysis, as false.

From “I” to “We”: Yet the essentially social character of conceptual thinking comes clearly to mind when we recognize that there is no thinking apart from common standards of correctness and relevance, which relate what I do think to what anyone ought to think. The contrast between ‘I’ and ‘anyone’ is essential to rational thought.

Their own methodologies, however, are opposite. Husserl tends toward transcendental idealism; Sellars towards a nominalistic physicalism. For Husserl, the ego is transcendental; for Sellars, it is a theoretical construct that, in its “givenness,” we have come to take for granted. For Sellars, the “given” (in at least one of its forms) is that knowledge which we gain exclusively through pure, raw experience or being-in-the-world. Sellars is very clear: no such knowledge exists. Any such seeming knowledge is acquired against the holistic background of a theoretical structure, even if we are not conscious of that structure. Scientific investigation can reveal that structure. The Manifest Image cannot, because it is unable to get around its own theoretical presuppositions and reliance on subjectivity:

A Point of Difference: The manifest image must, therefore, be construed as containing a conception of itself as a group phenomenon, the group mediating between the individual and the intelligible order. But any attempt to explain this mediation within the framework of the manifest image was bound to fail, for the manifest image contains the resources for such an attempt only in the sense that it provides the foundation on which scientific theory can build an explanatory framework; and while conceptual structures of this framework are built on the manifest image, they are not definable within it. Thus, the Hegelian, like the Platonist of whom he is the heir, was limited to the attempt to understand the relation between intelligible order and individual minds in analogical terms.

I see this possibly as the fundamental difference between Husserl and Sellars: for Sellars, phenomenological investigation alone cannot get around the theoretical structure necessary for it. Any transcendental phenomenology remains a contingent construct. For Sellars, bracketing (the epocheshould include subjectivity and experience itself—they cannot explain themselves.

Nonetheless, for both of them, science is unique in its potential universality, the Manifest Image being too tied to cultural norms and historical caprice and false first principles to withstand substantive debate over its contents, unlike the “self-correcting enterprise” of science.

Science as a Rival Image: Yet, when we turn our attention to ‘the’ scientific image which emerges from the several images proper to the several sciences, we note that although the image is methodologically dependent on the world of sophisticated common sense, and in this sense does not stand on its own feet, yet it purports to be a complete image, i.e. to define a framework which could be the whole truth about that which belongs to the image. Thus although methodologically a development within the manifest image, the scientific image presents itself as a rival image. From its point of view the manifest image on which it rests is an ‘inadequate’ but pragmatically useful likeness of a reality which first finds its adequate (in principle) likeness in the scientific image. I say, ‘in principle’, because the scientific image is still in the process of coming into being.

Yet for both Sellars and Husserl, science has also fallen prey to a certain kind of “givenness,” though their attacks differ. Husserl critiques the sciences as having forgotten the historical circumstances in which they arose, having become “sedimentized” with naturalistic assumptions. Sellars, on the other hand, critiques the sciences’ foundationalism. That is, Sellars also accuses science of having established a false, ahistorical, positivist and empiricist ground on which they build a world image distinct from that of the Manifest Image or Husserl’s Lifeworld. For Sellars it is not so much that science’s foundation has become “sedimentized” as much as that the foundation never existed to begin with. History helps to expose the cracks in the foundation by exploring how it was that this foundation was established, but it is not the case that we have obscured a previous way of being, only that we are taking aspects of our current way of thinking for granted. We have misunderstood the nature of what science is. It does not and cannot provide a new foundation that wipes out the manifest image in one blow.

Holism : For each scientific theory is, from the standpoint of methodology, a structure which is built at a different ‘place’ and by different procedures within the intersubjectively accessible world of perceptible things. Thus ‘the’ scientific image is a construct from a number of images, each of which is supported by the manifest world.

While Sellars replace positivism with a broader, more holistic, pragmatic, and fallibilist methodology, he also attempts to expose the “givenness” of the Manifest Image. In the Manifest Image, people participate in discourse that establishes a linguistic idealism through the existence of shared concepts expressed through language. These concepts are internalized by us, often becoming second nature.

Our first-person thoughts are his prime example of an implicit theoretical construct.  Elsewhere, in Empiricism and the Philosophy of Mind, Sellars attempts to show that the very existence of “thoughts” depends on a rational discursive linguistic community, what Sellars terms the “space of reasons.” What we take to be “given” in our minds actually depends on a learned communal conceptual structure. And this anti-foundationalism attacks both the givenness of the Manifest Image itself and the positivistic empirical basis of science. In both cases, there is an implicit, complex, historically-established theoretical structure that undergirds even the simplest of thoughts and perceptions.

This attack does not invalidate the Manifest Image, as we still inhabit it and the concepts of personhood and the discursive community are essential to establishing the norms by which we live. But because the Manifest Image is incomplete and insufficient—our “given” ideas not able to form a coherent explanation of reality—the Scientific Image appears as a potentially more satisfactory picture of reality to understanding ourselves and the world—as long as we do not see it as wholly substitutive. We should not be looking to evolutionary psychology to explain the nature of morality.

My primary concern in this essay is with the question, ‘in what sense, and to what extent, does the manifest image of man-in-the-world survive the attempt to unite this image in one field of intellectual vision with man as conceived in terms of the postulated objects of scientific theory?’ The bite to this question lies, we have seen, in the fact that man is that being which conceives of itself in terms of the manifest image. To the extent that the manifest does not survive in the synoptic view, to that extent man himself would not survive.

As with Husserl, we will find ourselves in crisis if we take our contemporary Scientific Image to be real rather than an approximate image or model. The Scientific Image should ideally converge on the real in a way that the Manifest Image has failed to, but it does not and cannot stand independently of the Manifest Image in which we exist. Hence Sellars’ emphasis on the need for a Synoptic Image in which the discursive normativity of the Manifest Image and the fallibilist, revisionary Scientific Image allow us to achieve a satisfactory methodology of philosophical-scientific investigation.

The Merging of the Images: Thus the conceptual framework of persons is the framework in which we think of one another as sharing the community intentions which provide the ambience of principles and standards (above all, those which make meaningful discourse and rationality itself possible) within which we live our own individual lives. A person can almost be defined as a being that has intentions. Thus the conceptual framework of persons is not something that needs to be reconciled with the scientific image, but rather something to be joined to it. Thus, to complete the scientific image we need to enrich it not with more ways of saying what is the case, but with the language of community and individual intentions, so that by construing the actions we intend to do and the circumstances in which we intend to do them in scientific terms, we directly relate the world as conceived by scientific theory to our purposes, and make it our world and no longer an alien appendage to the world in which we do our living.

Appendix: Husserl’s Response

I am closer to Sellars’ stance than Husserl, lacking his transcendental sympathies. But Richard M. Bernstein gave an account of what he thought Husserl’s response to Sellars could be, which I excerpt here:

It is clear even from Husserl’s preliminary characterizations of the Lebenswelt, and what he takes to be its general structures, that he would criticize Sellars’ own account of the manifest image — especially in regard to what Sellars calls empirical and categorial refinement — as being infected by categories rooted in objective science. He would accuse Sellars of not being “philosophically radical” enough in bracketing the manifest image and providing an analysis of its structure.

But how are we to perform such an investigation? What is the ground for such a “new” science? Here we touch upon the most fundamental theme in Husserl, one which he took to be a radical turn — though he also claims it has been the telos of philosophical reflection itself: the transcendental epoché that makes possible a transcendental reduction. When we bracket the ontological claims of the Lebenswelt and perform the epoché, “we are not left with a meaningless, habitual abstention, rather, it is through this abstention that the gaze of the philosopher in truth first becomes fully free: above all, free of the strongest and most universal, and at the same time most hidden, internal bond, namely, of the pregivenness of the world” (p. 151 ). When we have freed ourselves by means of this transcendental epoché, is it possible to recognize the Lebenswelt and mankind itself as “a self-objectification of transcendental subjectivity.”

The transcendental epoché — the philosophical act of pure reflection -which involves a personal and intellectual transformation of the philosopher, is not to be understood as a “turning away” from “natural human life-interests.”

According to Sellars, once we clarify the differences and relationships between the types of scientific activity appropriate to the manifest image and to the scientific image proper, then we grasp the essential unity of science. This unity not only reconciles the two types of scientific endeavor appropriate to the two images, but also indicates the essential unity between the natural and the social sciences. Extrapolating what Sellars says about behavioristics, we can extend his principle to the distinctively social sciences such as economics, political science, and sociology, and claim that these disciplines also involve the techniques of correlational induction appropriate to the manifest image.

But it is precisely here that we find the deepest and the most consequential clash between Sellars and Husserl. Husserl too takes psychology itself as a “decisive field” (p. 203 ). And his judgment about the science of psychology — both behavioristic and nonbehavioristic — is that it has been a failure. And while Husserl also focuses on psychology, it is clear that he is pressing an indictment against all forms of naturalism and objectivism in the sciences of human life. In the attempt to apply the methods of the natural sciences to an understanding of human subjectivity and intersubjectivity, these disciplines have not only failed, but distorted the phenomena studied. This failure is not one that can be overcome by more sophisticated development of the methods and techniques of the natural sciences. “It has already become clear to us that an ‘exact’ psychology, as an analogue to physics…is an absurdity. Accordingly, there can no longer be a descriptive psychology which is the analogue of a descriptive natural science. In no way, not even in the scheme of description vs. explanation, can a science of souls be modeled on natural science or seek methodical counsel from it. It can only model itself on its own subject matter, as soon as it has achieved clarity on this subject matter’s own essence” (p. 223). If it is objected that a “genuine” psychology is not a “science of souls,” but a science of observable behavior, this does not weaken Husserl’s charge, for psychology conceived in this manner will never be able to illuminate the structures of human subjectivity and intersubjectivity.

Richard M. Bernstein, The Restructuring of Social and Political Theory

My gut reaction is that Sellars and Husserl are most at odds over the very distant “end of inquiry,” which is such a distant and hypothesized and never-to-be-reached point that arguments over it are not just irresolvable, but close to meaningless. I think that Sellars’ “synoptic view” could ultimately allow for scientific accounts of what Husserl wants (who’s to say it couldn’t?), while Husserl seems like he might be amenable to an expanded definition of naturalism and objectivism–his problem is with those terms in their current form. So I’m not sure the disagreement Bernstein lays out would necessarily amount to more than a terminological dispute however many thousands of years into the future it would take before science nearly gets reality right.

Husserl and Sellars’ prescriptions for science today, however, still seem rather close. Both admit the broad failings of scientific theory and method, and both want to use the fundamental methodological conceptions of science to reform it. They both ask us all to own up to the failures and idiocies and prejudices that mar scientific practice, and try not to be so arrogant and half-assed in the future.

American Imperfectionism: Siobhan Phillips’ Poetics of the Everyday

Siobhan Phillips’ Poetics of the Everyday is one of the best works of poetry criticism I’ve read in some time. Phillips spins a philosophical construction around the work of four 20th century American poets–Robert Frost, Wallace Stevens, Elizabeth Bishop, and James Merrill–and draws out some significant unifying threads in their treatment of time. Though her method is one of close reading supplemented by biographical detail, there is a much heavier conceptual infrastructure than one finds in most contemporary poetry criticism, which tends to focus on linguistic assemblage above all else. This is much to the book’s credit. It’s a book I can engage with on the level of life.

The concern here is time, and specifically differing human conceptions of time. As concerns go, it is about as fundamental and structural as one can get: Erich Auerbach, Georges Poulet, and Paul Ricoeur all have written on how conceptions of time can act as generative and differentiating forces in literature and human life, and how they affect time’s subjective twin, memory.

Poets who can grasp, wrangle, and mangle our sense of time out of any familiar state–such as Euripides, Lucretius, Persius, Lucan, Dante, Shakespeare, Milton, Goethe, Coleridge, David Jones, Laura Riding, Ingeborg Bachmann–are exceedingly rare. More common are those who implicitly adopt the position of Wyndham Lewis, who saw time as a drag on creativity and creation and sought an absolutist spatial view of the cosmos, which usually results in sterilized art. Opposed to this was James Joyce, who saw space and time in as interrelated a way as Einstein, and about whom more later, for he is pivotal.

The book is densely argued and I will not attempt to discuss all the nuances here. Rather, I want to try to draw some of her threads together with some that come from my rather more gloomy post-European viewpoint.

Phillips focuses on a particular and idiosyncratic view of time that she draws out of the four poets, one of “creative repetition,” embracing variation in repeated habitual patterns in life, in place of existentialist finality or chasing the rainbows of epiphany. She is excellent on Frost and how this vision of time makes it such that the tragedy in his life can seem muted in his poetry, even in the circumspection of “Home Burial.” She discusses “A Servant to Servants”:

Here, though, Frost also suggests the deathly power of blame; the servant’s bitter afterthought to “through,” in which she vaguely foresees that “they’ll be convinced” when she is gone, reinforces a connection between assignment of guilt and acceptance of mortality. Fault-finding traps one in the submissive regimen of “A Servant to Servants,” lamenting what one will not change and “doing / Things over and over that just won’t stay done.” These “rounds” show what could easily become of the “over and over” in “In the Home Stretch”: without the deliberate decision to rend each day’s bread or recite each evening’s not-new song, without the self-aware agreement to refuse ends and intentions, everyday repetitions can seem no more than the senseless anticipation of complete insentience.

Though not mentioned explicitly, Phillips does seem to be addressing the ancient Greek contrast between chronos and kairos. Chronos is time in the regular order of things, measured and constant, while kairos is time more in the sense of a time, a particular special moment that in some way defies the march of time. Kairos is the root of revelation, epiphany, peak experiences, crisitunity, and Badiou’s event.

Phillips uses Kierkegaard’s affirmation of repetition as a way for a person to “become what he is,” and links this to C.S. Peirce‘s “tendency to take habit” and similar pragmatist strains in William James and Dewey. The pragmatist links stress how particularly American such analysis of habit is. Although Hume among others spoke of habituated behavior and thought, it was Peirce and those he influenced who elevated habit to the level of a benevolent organizing force. (Hume is too much a curmudgeon to endorse it so wholeheartedly.) Closely related to this is the resistance to any finalized abstraction, abstraction being mitigated by the variation in the everyday particulars. (Dena Shottenkirk aptly links this to nominalism.)

To the extent that Phillips is tracing an American poetic evolution that originates from Emerson, Whitman and Dickinson, she explores a territory that is closest to the philosopher Stanley Cavell, who has focused on American transcendentalism and what he terms “Emersonian moral perfectionism,” a sort of endless striving toward the “unattained but attainable self,” in Emerson’s words.

Phillips’ central conceit of creative repetition may be a quasi-rebuttal to Cavell, an Emersonian imperfectionism. Yet her project, if I read her right, is fundamentally affirmative, to seek in a series of repetitions with variations a kind of unending creativity that allows for a sanctification of daily life. A method in which the routine becomes a sustaining creative ritual without a fixed telos.

I admit I do not feel much of a connection to Frost or Merrill’s poetry. While Stevens and Bishop are not among my favorite 20th century American poets (I prefer Laura Riding, Weldon Kees, Lorine Niedecker, and William Bronk), I do find much more in their work that is close to me. Phillips’ brief treatments of Robert Hass, John Ashbery, and Frank Bidart in the conclusion are so incisive I wish she had written more about them. The subject at hand is large enough to be inexhaustible in its poetic and cultural linkages.

I think Phillips succeeds best in evoking everyday kairos with Stevens, though this may be due to my own poetic preferences. But both Stevens’ life and his poetry seem especially suited to the task of bringing inspiration out of routine.

In his daily poetry, Stevens confronts and ultimately refuses the choice between two terms: he describes how the diurnal interdependence of human and natural time can manifest a recurrent interplay of creativity and empiricism. Everyday repetition can be a “Song of Fixed Accord,” to use the title of a lovely and neglected late poem that could well evince the lessons of a lifetime’s routines. In this work, a dove on a roof at dawn finds the “ordinariness” of “the sun of five, the sun of six” to be “a fixed heaven” (Collected, 441), and this paradisiacal consistency allows her expectant “hail-bow” to the coming light, a reverent lyric “pip[ing]” that equates acknowledgment of external event with affirmation of internal conception. Her music could assuage the misery of another Stevensian bird, therefore, “The Dove in Spring” whose “bubbling before the sun” keeps “seeking out his identity // In that which is and is established” (Collected, 461). If Stevens perceives the discontent in this seeking, his dawn “Song” shows that he also perceives a solution. The accord of Stevens’s dailiness lets an “established” world return one’s own self-definition.

Phillips finds biographical evidence for just this sort of outlook–a sort of constantly reconditioned optimism–in Stevens’ correspondence:

When he writes in a 1940 letter, for example, that socialist aims are possible “within the present framework,” this opinion may not just show the conservatism of a middle-class executive but also bespeak a precise trust in what Stevens takes the framework to be (Letters, 351). His faith can nonetheless appear hollow, certainly, and the choice to “play” reality as one’s own dream can seem like a willed self-delusion—the pretense that Stevens recommends in a late letter when he admits that while things “never go well . . . you have to pretend that they do” (Letters, 866). Yet he adds in this letter that “good fortune can be worth it,” a statement suggesting the rewards as well as the rigor of the process. If one can see the solar “fortuner” of Crispin’s quotidian as one’s own imagined “good fortune,” one can achieve a happiness more resilient than any promised by politics. One can find a “peace, a security, a sense of good fortune and of things that change only slowly,” as Stevens writes in another correspondence, “so much more certain than a whole era of Communism could ever give” (Letters, 609– 10). Stevens ultimately has “no sympathy with communism, instead of expectation,” as he writes in a letter, because communism forbids the best sort of expectation (Letters, 350). In place of the unreliable teleology of political systems, as well as the illusory teleology of religious creeds, he offers his generation the certain futurity that is available in common life.

Phillips bring out the fundamentally stoic and Epicurean mentality that sustains Stevens’ conception. The contrast with British and Irish writers of the period is quite drastic: where Yeats and Woolf tend to speak of a conflict with time that ends in slow defeat (in Yeats) or a futile but noble struggle (in Woolf’s The Waves), the confluence of kairos and chronos in the American poets refracts this dilemma into a near-denial of the finality and fixity of death. In Frost and especially Stevens, Phillips forcefully foregrounds this sensibility–and its attendant problems. Her discussion of “The Auroras” is one of the strongest passages in the book, discussing the wear and tear on one’s identity wrought by the tension between legacy and reinvention. I have to quote it at length:

One may consider the gravity of a human condition, that is, to be neither the “clipped” relation of the “Comedian” nor the tragic doom of the “Anglais”; rather, one’s life may be simply a part of the world’s ordinary pattern. Stevens shows the mental effort of such commonplace “reflection” in “The Auroras of Autumn,” canto 9, when the speaker follows the barrenness of bare trees and evening wind with the belief that what ever is imminent, however disastrous, “may come tomorrow in the simplest word, / Almost as part of innocence, almost / Almost as the tenderest and the truest part” (Collected, 362). Here, the round of mornings and evenings includes the morning and evening of an entire life. Here, the round of mornings and evenings includes the morning and evening of an entire life. This crucial “tomorrow” enlarges Stevens’s everyday mode beyond the limits of individual existence to deny that individual death is a meaningful termination.

This “tomorrow,” though, must enlarge Stevens’s everyday habits as well— and to potentially fearful proportions. In order to submerge personal life in the larger rounds of an impersonal earth, one’s desire for tomorrow and willing of what is to come must accord with what “An Ordinary Evening” calls the “will of necessity, the will of wills”: one must expect and accept one’s own elimination (Collected, 410). Freud provides a version of this very yearning in the death wish, and Stevens describes something similar at several points— the “monotonous babbling in our dreams” that Crispin fears, for instance, or the id-like “subman” of “Owl’s Clover,” or even the “cozening and coaxing sound” of sleep in “An Ordinary Evening” (Collected, 32, 167, 411). But Stevens is not content with, compulsive wish fulfillment, as he suggests with his reference to “terrible incantations of defeats” in “Men Made Out of Words” (Collected, 310). Rather, he would make defeat into victory, unwitting incantation into active anticipation; he would consciously yearn for the end of consciousness. He would join the unending repetitions of the nonhuman less in capitulation than in conquest.

He would acknowledge, moreover, the high cost of that conquest: an evacuation of memory. With this, the “tomorrow” of “The Auroras” includes a difficulty that is less pressing in the springs and mornings of “Notes”; the speaker of the latter poem must eradicate the sense of having been that manifests a division from the world’s “new-come bee” (Collected, 338). “Farewell” to that sense, the work begins; farewell to the past; farewell to all reminders of “something else, last year / Or before” (Collected, 356). The repeated goodbyes of “The Auroras” render yesterday no more than “an idea.” They elegize elegy, one might say, using the genre’s characteristic repetitions to erase rather than to preserve. Stevens had long suggested that “practice” for death, in “a world without heaven to follow,” must be the “Waving Adieu, Adieu, Adieu” that an earlier poem describes, and he repeats in “Notes” the importance of constantly “throw[ing] off ” what one has (Collected, 104, 330). “I think only too often,” Stevens writes in a letter of the same period, “that what we constantly need is a fresh start— a fresh start every day, like a clean shirt” (Letters, 454). By the time of “The Auroras,” however, Stevens’s adieus are both more difficult and more consequent, and Stevens now writes in a letter that he would like to “throw away everything I have, each autumn” (Letters, 659). The speaker of the poem would go at least as far, casting off not just a possession or event but an entire personhood: the very idea, self-constitutive and self- confirming, of an individual history. However much one hopes otherwise, this identity cannot be preserved; neither a mother’s adulation nor a father’s authority will survive the changes of fate. One must abandon these narcissistic props, forgo this singular yesterday, and give up the assumption that life is a scripted story designed by parental solicitude. The only true theater is the indifferent, impersonal flux of the northern lights themselves, and this earthly transience will destroy the “scholar of one candle”: the distinct self, holding his own light, who sees the fires of necessity “flaring on the frame / Of everything he is” (Collected, 359).

“And he feels afraid,” Stevens adds; “The Auroras” presents the greatest risk in his poetry. Yet it presents the greatest reward as well. When he bids farewell to the idea of a “single man” and his single life story, Stevens finds a new identity and a new past. If one no longer seeks to retain a specific history, the poem shows, a changeful fate no longer seems like vituperative opposition but appears, rather, to be the object of one’s quest. Free of human parentage, free of a particular childhood, the poet can take necessity itself as both birthright and heritage, thereby discovering the security that he had thought sacrificed. He might inhabit the “transparen[t] . . . peace” of a childhood union and meet the reassuring beneficence of a “mother’s face” (Collected, 356). These are the very “purpose of the poem,” “The Auroras” suggests, and their “vivid transparence” and “peace” provide a purpose for “Notes Toward a Supreme Fiction,” too, since the earlier poem anticipates the same in the crystalline harmony of its conclusion (Collected, 329). In canto 8 of “The Auroras,” one may finally “partake thereof,” lying down as if “awake, we lay in the quiet of sleep,” listening as an “innocent mother” sings a lullaby that “create[s] the time and place in which we breathed” (Collected, 361). The scene offers a childhood paradise remade; Eden is no longer a faraway garden from which one has been exiled but the innocence of one’s present setting— as well as of any possible “imminence.”

What’s striking is how quintessentially American Stevens’ attitude is. In a line from Emerson, there is the assurance, more or less, that things will go on as they have been, unaffected by outside circumstances, and open to some extent to autonomous change. This all too aptly befits the geographically insulated United States. I think it also explains the bizarre displacement and anonymity of Stevens’ war poetry, which  James Longenbach says shows “Stevens the reductionist.” When writing of “a generation that does  not  know  itself,” Stevens was writing of himself vis a vis the world outside daily routine. In light of Phillips’ discussion, I realize I find much of Stevens’ war poetry unsuccessful because the subject matter does not fit Stevens’ worldview.

I think this brings up a fundamental paradox and one that really is a specifically American paradox. It may be a cliche to say that the United States’ youth, geographical isolation, and absence of history make erasure easier and more common, but it is one that seems compellingly true. This erasure can even be an aspect of one’s destiny. It is a “letting go” that I really do not see in much European literature; only the spiritual rebirth one sees in Dostoevsky seems to come close. But here, as Phillips points out, it is not dramatic, but quotidian. Stevens’ proto-Ashbery “Notes Toward a Supreme Fiction” embodies this Emersonian imperfectionism as well as any poem I can think of, incessantly throwing out modest ideas and images that do not seek to overwhelm their predecessors, nor enact a final transcendence (it’s “toward,” not “of”).

In the best cases, Phillips writes, the erasure does not take place, but the past is accepted with a certain contingency, a conditioning with a possibility for change. This is a delicate balance. The challenge of retaining one’s memory (i.e., legacy) while modestly creating one’s self anew out of the same materials is not an easy one. I do not think Bishop reaches it more than rarely, but Phillips has convinced me that Stevens often did:

Penelope’s modest “talk . . . to herself,” repeating the name of what is to come, presents yet another instance of the proper nominations possible through iterative practice. Her speech is one more revision of Crispin’s realistic “syllables,” perhaps, and one more idiom or song or hum of the earth’s innocence. Like the best blazons in Stevens’s work, which anticipate a supremacy as repetitive as the process towards it, Penelope’s nominations expect something as “patient” as she. The poem, then, finds a denouement that refuses conclusion without trailing off into inconclusiveness; the steady acceptance of real time is the steady deepening of imaginative triumph. That triumph inheres, moreover, in routines one already performs, routines as “mere” as combing one’s hair. Any everyday process can be the heroic mastery of repetition that Stevens describes in “Notes” or the sovereign rule of reality that he describes in “An Ordinary Evening.”  More simply and accurately, any everyday process can be that “confidence in the world” that Stevens notes in a late lecture, citing Paulhan once again: to “stop to consider what a happy phrase that is,” Stevens writes, is to “wonder whether we shall have the courage to repeat it, until we understand that there is no alternative” (Collected, 864–65). Penelope’s daily meditation, courageously repeating what is necessary, demonstrates this ordinary understanding.

Yet I think a certain sort of American myopia persists in two ways even in these best of cases. First, politically: geopolitical isolation and American individualism, as above. Second, generationally. Whether the poets have children (Frost and Stevens) or not (Bishop and Merrill), a cross-generational focus is blatantly absent in their work. Here time appears symmetrical: the absence of a past makes it far more difficult to conceive of a future. Instead, one’s extensions into the world end up pointing back at one’s self. In the absence of a dominant collective history, one’s individual history becomes a greater weight.

And Phillips makes one of the most compelling points I’ve seen about Merrill, suggesting that his attraction to the occult methods of organization like Tarot was precisely this sort of repetitive everyday restructuring:

In the words of “To the Reader,” each tomorrow might be proven more “right” by being more “exemplary”—more like an exemplum. The “true-est” individual life may be the one closest to a universal form.  Merrill’s respect for such individual conventionalism explains his attention to manners, which he calls an “artifice in the very bloodstream” (Collected Prose, 58), and helps to explain why he can further self-knowledge through a card game: “Last Mornings in California,” for example, links the speaker’s experience to a tarot deck, while other works compare living to a game of patience (Collected Poems, 447–48, 192–94; Sandover, 67–68). Perhaps most important, Merrill’s respect for formal autobiography helps to explain why he wants to tell his story through “conventional stock figures,” as he writes at the start of The Book of Ephraim (Sandover, 4). When McClatchy rightly notes that the child of Water Street often has “a typological rather than an autobiographical emphasis,” one might add that Merrill would often elide the difference (“On Water Street,” 88). Even a draft of “The Broken Home” is labeled “Notes for a Myth” (WU IV.1.a). This myth is a metrical legend, poetic and temporal; as “Verse for Urania” notes, “the first myth was Measure” (Collected Poems, 385– 91). “Rhyme and meter” not only manifest the patterns of “fable[s],” they also inscribe the “conjunctions and epicycles” behind those prototypes, the natural cycles that make “the world go round” as they make human stories repeat. Thus the order of everyday recurrence governs almost every biographical pattern already mentioned.

Standing as a complement to the poets Phillips treats are some of the poets under the “objectivism” rubric: Zukofsky, Oppen, Niedecker. I say a complement rather than a contrast because these three were all after a sort of kairos as well, and also sought it by first rejecting epiphany. These three shared a tendency to elevate non-epiphanic experience and treat it in as impressionistic a fashion as the most epiphanic moments of Wordsworth. They sometimes negate the temporal aspect that becomes such a problem when dealt with either as finitude or momentariness–at the risk, I think, of the same sterility I mentioned in association with Wyndham Lewis. The objectivists’ subjects tend to be there to revisit, albeit always in different ways. By withdrawing the explicit, never-to-be-reclaimed emotional content traditional to poetry, they provide far more eternal-seeming moments. But the recurrence is wholly implicit and never stated.

Because this sort of imperfectionism is an ongoing process that does not know final success, it brings with it the simple problem of maintenance, the danger of always falling out of the work of renewing the everyday and falling into despair or torpor.

In genuine contrast, and as a model I would wish to put up against those of these four poets, is James Joyce, who put world and family first rather than the individual. As a secular, expatriated Irish ex-Catholic, Joyce came out of a worldview that had an enormous weight of history and culture behind it, in stark contrast to the tabula rasa on which Emerson and Whitman had wrote. (The New World, of course, was not a tabula rasa, but European immigrants certainly treated it as such: it was not their history that was to be found there.) Joyce’s later work rejects epiphany (as A. Walton Litz observes) as an adolescent stage in development, seeking instead a universalization of particulars in all their incompatible variation.

Variation among repetition is central to the entire scheme of Finnegans Wake, but it overlays all variations across peoples and nations over one another simultaneously. To amass such a work, Joyce indeed still required underlying structural principles beyond that which the American poets were ever comfortable embracing. Perhaps history and legacy–the certainty of a past and a future to which one is inextricably and often painfully tied–are necessary in order to legitimate any such large-scale structure. Yet Joyce’s near-eidetic obessiveness that all life be recorded makes impossible the sort of creative affirmation which Phillips finds in Frost, Stevens, Merrill, and sometimes Bishop. Joyce is too deterministic for that.

What I like about The Poetics of the Everyday, which deserves more than the generic blurbs on its back cover, is that it lays bare the conceptual foundations that underpin so much modern American poetry and helps explain why Frost, Stevens, and Bishop were successfully innovative while much recent poetry is not. These conceptual arrangements, which usually go unquestioned, have remained so uniform so as to create a hermetic discourse that has not seriously progressed since the middle of the 20th century. (For the most part, the same goes for prose. As I have said before, such conceptual impoverishment is responsible for the tedium of so much current literature.) Only by taking a more aggressively interrogative tack, as Phillips does here in the spirit of Coleridge, Empson, and Zukofsky, does there seem to be the possibility of a forward progression.

Stanley Cavell and Timothy Williamson: Must We Mean What We Say? And How?

This is an extension of earlier thoughts on Wittgenstein, and particularly about how philosophers think of meaning and to what extent culture gets involved in it. I want to contrast Stanley Cavell, for whom culture is very nearly the starting point of philosophical investigation, and Timothy Williamson, for whom it seems to be a recurrent nuisance. Both claim very different aspects of Wittgenstein for their own projects. I side with Cavell.

“Must We Mean What We Say?” is very early Cavell, dating from 1957, before he had gotten his PhD. I am not sure how widely read it is today, because it is written in the argot of the Ordinary Language Philosophy of the time (Cavell was a student of J.L. Austin’s). Although the essay goes far beyond Austin in its underlying concerns, Cavell is still working within an orthodoxy that he would soon transcend.

The signs are clearly already there, as Cavell concertedly links the technical aspects of Wittgenstein and Ordinary Language Philosophy to looser concerns of art, literature, and taste. He yokes the ideas of language games and social practice to somewhat Kantian ideas about the experience of art, beauty, and meaning. His skill in doing so is already manifest. His employment of technical discourse (here Wittgenstein, elsewhere psychoanalysis) never overshadows the literary humanist sense that comes to the forefront in his later work; Cavell fits in my mind next to William Empson, Erich Auerbach and Northrop Frye rather than to Austin or Ryle.

Notably, he draws out those aspects of Wittgenstein closest to this sensibility, which Austin and Ryle clearly did not possess: the amazement and bafflement at culture, the ability to be temporarily transported by a “game,” be it a work of art or a conversation, the sense of awe. Wittgenstein’s deployment of these moments was very sparing and always cautiously conditioned by his radical uncertainty. Cavell seems to possess more holistic certainty, and as Nightspore suggested in a comment, this allows parts of Wittgenstein’s work to come forward more fully in a way that Wittgenstein would never have allowed.

Cavell does defend Ordinary Language Philosophy from an attack by the logician and skeptic Benson Mates. I have not read the attack, but from Cavell’s quotes, it seems a bit more temperate than Ernest Gellner’s attack, but not all that much more sympathetic, akin to Timothy Williamson‘s recent urgings that we forget about all those ordinary language anecdotes and platitudes and once more get down to solving logical and metaphysical issues for all time. Reading Williamson’s “Must Do Better” seems to indicate that we haven’t come very far in the last 50 years:

What about progress on realism and truth? Far more is known in 2004 about truth than was known in 1964, as a result of technical work by philosophical and mathematical logicians such as Saul Kripke, Solomon Feferman, Anil Gupta, Vann McGee, Volker Halbach and many others on how close a predicate in a language can come to satisfying a full disquotational schema for that very language without incurring semantic paradoxes. Their results have significant and complex implications, not yet fully absorbed, for current debates concerning deflationism and minimalism. One clear lesson is that claims about truth need to be formulated with extreme precision, not out of kneejerk pedantry but because in practice correct general claims about truth often turn out to differ so subtly from provably incorrect claims that arguing in impressionistic terms is a hopelessly unreliable method. Unfortunately, much philosophical discussion of truth is still conducted in a programmatic, vague and technically uninformed spirit whose products inspire little confidence.

Precision is often regarded as a hyper-cautious characteristic. It is importantly the opposite. Vague statements are the hardest to convict of error. Obscurity is the oracle’s self-defense. To be precise is to make it as easy as possible for others to prove one wrong. That is what requires courage. But the community can lower the cost of precision by keeping in mind that precise errors often do more than vague truths for scientific progress.

In addition to the humdrum methodological virtues, we need far more reflectiveness about how philosophical debates are to be subjected to enough constraints to be worth conducting. For example, Dummett’s anti-realism about the past involved, remarkably, the abandonment of two of the main constraints on much philosophical activity. In rejecting instances of the law of excluded middle concerning past times, such as ‘Either a mammoth stood on this spot a hundred thousand years ago or no mammoth stood on this spot a hundred thousand years ago’, the anti-realist rejected both common sense and classical logic. Neither constraint is methodologically sacrosanct; both can intelligibly be challenged, even together. But when participants in a debate are allowed to throw out both simultaneously, methodological alarm bells should ring: it is at least not obvious that enough constraints are left to frame a fruitful debate.

When law and order break down, the result is not freedom or anarchy but the capricious tyranny of petty feuding warlords. Similarly, the unclarity of constraints in philosophy leads to authoritarianism. Whether an argument is widely accepted depends not on publicly accessible criteria that we can all apply for ourselves but on the say-so of charismatic authority figures. Pupils cannot become autonomous from their teachers because they cannot securely learn the standards by which their teachers judge. A modicum of willful unpredictability in the application of standards is a good policy for a professor who does not want his students to gain too much independence.

Timothy Williamson, “Must Do Better” (2004) [I wish he had called it “Must Fail Better”]

The details are different, but the resemblance to Mates’, Ayer’s, and yes, even Gellner’s criticism of the post-Wittgensteinian movements in analytic philosophy is uncanny, right down to the excoriation of mystic philosophical oracles. And Cavell’s defense could just as well apply to the unnamed folks whom Williamson is bashing:

 But the philosopher who proceeds from ordinary language is concerned less to avenge sensational crimes against the intellect than to redress its civil wrongs; to steady any imbalance, the tiniest usurpation, in the mind. This inevitably re­quires reintroducing ideas which have become tyrannical (e.g., exist­ence, obligation, certainty, identity, reality, truth . . . ) into the specific contexts in which they function naturally.

This is not a question of cutting big ideas down to size, but of giving them the exact space in which they can move without corrupting. Nor does our wish to rehabilitate rather than to deny or expel such ideas (by such sentences as, “We can never know for certain . . . “; “The table is not real (really solid)”; “To tell me what I ought to do is always to tell me what you want me to do . . . “) come from a sentimental altruism. It is a question of self-preservation: for who is it that the philosopher punishes when it is the mind itself which assaults the mind?

Stanley Cavell, “Must We Mean What We Say?” (1957)

This reintroduction that Cavell recommends inevitably carries with it all the ambiguity and unprovability that Williamson (and Gellner) detest. It comes as little surprise that Williamson’s take on Wittgenstein and Austin is rather off-the-mark:

A standard framework for description is an incipient theory; it embodies a view of the important dimensions of the phenomena to be described. Since Wittgenstein and Austin were notoriously suspicious of philosophical theory, they inhibited theory-making even of this mild kind. Of course, many philosophers of the period escaped their influence. Austin himself permitted philosophical theories, if they were not premature; it was just that he put the age of maturity so late.

Wittgenstein held that philosophical theories were symptoms of philosophical puzzlement, not answers to it, but that was itself one of his philosophical theories. His work was always driven by theoretical concerns. This applies in particular to his account of family resemblance terms, his specific contribution to the study of vagueness, as it does to Friedrich Waismann’s similar notion of open texture, developed under Wittgenstein’s influence. However, theory does not flourish when it must be done on the quiet. It needs to be kept in the open, where it can be properly criticized.

Timothy Williamson, Vagueness (1994)

Williamson’s demands pose positivistic, scientific criteria for theories that much of Wittgenstein’s work cannot meet, and I gather Williamson is happy to throw that out and keep only what he deems satisfactory. But regardless of accuracy or inclusiveness, if the question comes down to whether I prefer Cavell’s Wittgenstein or Williamson’s Wittgenstein, the choice for me is obviously Cavell, as much as it must seem obviously Williamson to others. But I also don’t think that we know more about truth today than we did 50 years ago, at least not in any ordinary language sense of that claim.

And yet there is a worthy theory behind Cavell and Cavell’s Wittgenstein, but not one having to do with vagueness or predication. It is closer to the early Quine, and it certainly is miles from Williamson’s emphasis on referential semantics. It comes out toward the end of “Must We Mean What We Say?” and it speaks of a cultural, functionalist holism:

Few speakers of a language utilize the full range of perception which the language provides, just as they do without so much of the rest of their cultural heritage. Not even the philosopher will come to possess all of his past, but to neglect it deliberately is foolhardy. The consequence of such neglect is that our philosophical memory and perception become fixated upon a few accidents of intellectual history.

The mistake, however, is to suppose that the ordinary use of a word is a function of the internal state of the speaker.

I should urge that we do justice to the fact that an individual’s intentions or wishes can no more produce the general mean­ing for a word than they can produce horses for beggars, or home runs from pop flies, or successful poems out of unsuccessful poems.

Stanley Cavell, “Must We Mean What We Say?” (1957)

I take this to first propose an externalist, functionalist idea of meaning: what we “mean” when we say something has nothing to do with some private intention we may possess, and everything to do with the rules and standards of language use in our linguistic community. Cavell’s specific contribution is to say that if this is so, philosophy must take on the full burden of the linguistic and cultural history of our community, which includes (and even privileges) the difficult and arcane effects produced by literature. This is a huge responsibility, and no doubt a huge burden to those like Williamson who would rather examine meaning on a semantic or locally pragmatic level. Unfortunately, I think the burden of a more holistic pragmatism, one that inevitably requires heuristic inexactitude, is unavoidable.

A more formal attempt to describe this sort of functionalist pragmatism had already been given in 1948 by Wilfrid Sellars. Sellars later refined this vision to be considerably more complex, but already Sellars’ grasp of the problem in a non-skeptical way is inspiring. Rejecting empiricism, he describes a meeting of idealist and analytic traditions in a hybrid of metaphysical realism and linguistic idealism:

I like to think we have reformulated in our own way a familiar type of Idealistic argument. It has been said that human experience can only be understood as a fragment of an ideally coherent experience. Our claim is that our empirical language can only be (epistemologically) understood as an incoherent and fragmentary schema of an ideally coherent language. The Idealism, but not the wisdom, disappears with the dropping of the term ‘experience.’ Formally, all languages and worlds are on an equal footing. This is indeed a principle of indifference. On the other hand, a reconstruction of the pragmatics of common sense and the scientific outlook points to conformation rules requiring a [world-]story to contain sentences which are confirmed but not verified. In this sense the ideal of our language is a realistic language; and this is the place of Realism in the New Way of Words.

Wilfrid Sellars, “Realism and the New Way of Words“, in Pure Pragmatics and Possible Worlds (1948)

It is not that language defies all attempts to place it under precise understanding. It’s just that we are only local participants in a huge linguistic world to which we have only limited access, which makes the problem very, very hard, but also much richer the problems posed by Williamson. Determinations of meaning are theoretically possible, but in practice inexact, though not indeterminate. We can still proceed with provisional, pragmatic investigations, much in the way that Peirce did, within Sellars’ overarching structure, which I think is a great achievement.

For contrast, see Williamson here, trying to localize problems of vagueness in meaning. Williamson’s view of this community of meaning is limited and emaciated because of the limits imposed on it by his demands for atomistic quantification. The bottom line is that I wouldn’t want to live in a world and a community  in which language could be sufficiently quantified in the way that Williamson thinks it can.

Ernst Cassirer and the Philosophy of Symbolic Forms: A Teaser

Ernst Cassirer was rather evidently a genius, and Michael Friedman’s summary of his magnum opus The Philosophy of Symbolic Forms makes me want to go through his work comprehensively, as soon as I have a large chunk of time. Part of the reason being just so that I can determine whether or not I agree with Friedman’s assessment. Also to do: compare and contrast with C.S. Peirce and Wilfrid Sellars, as well as his most obvious philosophical successor Hans Blumenberg.

Just as the genetic conception of knowledge is primarily oriented towards the “fact of science” and, accordingly, takes the historical development of scientific knowledge as its ultimate given datum, the philosophy of symbolic forms is oriented towards the much more general “fact of culture” and thus takes the history of human culture as a whole as its ultimate given datum.

The conception of human beings as most fundamentally “symbolic animals,” interposing systems of signs or systems of expression between themselves and the world, then becomes the guiding philosophical motif for elucidating the corresponding conditions of possibility for the “fact of culture” in all of its richness and diversity.

Characteristic of the philosophy of symbolic forms is a concern for the more “primitive” forms of world-presentation underlying the “higher” and more sophisticated cultural forms — a concern for the ordinary perceptual awareness of the world expressed primarily in natural language, and, above all, for the mythical view of the world lying at the most primitive level of all.

For Cassirer, these more primitive manifestations of “symbolic meaning” now have an independent status and foundational role that is quite incompatible with both Marburg neo-Kantianism and Kant’s original philosophical conception. In particular, they lie at a deeper, autonomous level of spiritual life which then gives rise to the more sophisticated forms by a dialectical developmental process.

From mythical thought, religion and art develop; from natural language, theoretical science develops. It is precisely here that Cassirer appeals to “romantic” philosophical tendencies lying outside the Kantian and neo-Kantian tradition, deploys an historical dialectic self-consciously derived from Hegel, and comes to terms with the contemporary Lebensphilosophie of Wilhelm Dilthey, Henri Bergson, Max Scheler, and Georg Simmel — as well as with the closely related philosophy of Martin Heidegger.

The most basic and primitive type of symbolic meaning is expressive meaning, the product of what Cassirer calls the expressive function (Ausdrucksfunktion) of thought, which is concerned with the experience of events in the world around us as charged with affective and emotional significance, as desirable or hateful, comforting or threatening. It is this type of meaning that underlies mythical consciousness, for Cassirer, and which explains its most distinctive feature, namely, its total disregard for the distinction between appearance and reality. …

What Cassirer calls representative symbolic meaning, a product of the representative function (Darstellungsfunktion) of thought, then has the task of precipitating out of the original mythical flux of “physiognomic” characters a world of stable and enduring substances, distinguishable and reidentifiable as such. …

We are now able to distinguish the enduring thing-substance, on the one side, from its variable manifestations from different points of view and on different occasions, on the other, and we thereby arrive at a new fundamental distinction between appearance and reality. This distinction is then expressed in its most developed form, for Cassirer, in the linguistic notion of propositional truth and thus in the propositional copula. Here the Kantian “categories” of space, time, substance, and causality take on a distinctively intuitive or “presentational” configuration.

The collapse of appearance and reality at the primitive level also echoes some schools of Buddhist philosophy that take a quasi-skeptical attitude toward ontology, e.g. Madhyamaka. Can the Kantian a priori and general categorical structure bear this sort of weight?

Michael Rosen on Derrida

From Leiter’s blog, Michael Rosen (who wrote the excellent On Voluntary Servitude, a book I would write about if it weren’t so dense that it’d require a huge amount of time to treat it) talks about academic strategies:

Ephraim Kishon has a story called “Jewish Poker”. Jewish poker is played without cards so all you can do is bluff – and you have to bluff high. I think that this is the secret of Derridean post-modernism as currently practised in U.S. humanities departments: in the end, it’s all competitive hyperbole – who can be more radical?

Someone starts off with a huge unsupported generalization. For example, they write a book saying that the whole of Western thought is under the hegemony (good word) of (say) “logocentrism”, that its genealogy has to be exposed and deconstructed to reveal the Other that it “covers over and disavows”.

That’s a high bid, but you can top that. Why not write a review saying that this is to give “the Other” a “hegemonic status”, that this too needs to be deconstructed and given a genealogy? Say that the re-valuation of values hasn’t been radical enough, that “the Nietzschean trans-valuation is far from being complete: in its second stage, at the threshold of which we find ourselves today, it will necessitate a de-hierarchization of the already inverted values, so that alterity, too, would lose its newly acquired transcendental status, just as sameness and identity did in twentieth-century thought.”

Of course, tone and style matter. Although you’ve left banalities like “sameness and identity” (and hence, presumably, essence, cause and logical inference) far behind, don’t hesitate to use terms like “necessitate” for the ideas you are advocating, or (although you don’t believe in such fetishes as truth in interpretation) to describe others’ interpretations as “deeply flawed”. To think that once you’ve toppled the idols of objectivity you can’t write as if they were still standing is a sign of hopeless logocentrism.

It’s good too to write as if your native language isn’t English, or that, at least, your English has been saturated by what you’ve absorbed in your many years on the *rive gauche*. A nice Derridean-Althusserian touch here (see Judith Butler, *passim*) is the spurious use of the term “precisely” when you make an especially vague assertion (“The promise of deconstruction lies, precisely, in its ability to inspire this post-metaphysical thrust ‘beyond the same and the other.’”) Introducing your sentences with pompous phrases like “Let us note that …” may not add anything of substance to them but it does convey the impression that you are addressing your audience from a position of authority (a podium at the École Normale?). Above all, the secret is to convince people that you are further up the mountain than everyone else and looking down on them. Writing in this condescending way won’t make you popular, no doubt, but what the hell – oderint dum metuant!

Where will it all end? Presumably, this too can be out-bid – perhaps someone else will come along and offer a genealogy of deconstruction or a deconstruction of genealogy. There doesn’t seem to be any limit to how many iterations the transvaluation of valuations can go through. Yet there must – surely – come a point where the whole thing vanishes up its own …

But what to do until that happy day? Certainly, it is heart-breaking for those of us who would like Continental philosophy to be taken more seriously, but how do you argue with people for whom “reason” and “argument” (like “sameness” and “identity”) are simply terms in a “hegemonic discourse” they have left behind? And, if they can shrug off the Sokal hoax and take Alain Badiou seriously, they are obviously past being laughed back into sanity by a sense of the absurd. So I think that all the rest of us can do is to keep out of their way and leave them to patronize one another to their hearts’ content.

Michael Rosen

Rosen and Leiter edited the Oxford Handbook of Continental Philosophy, and seem to be part of a vague movement afoot among Anglo philosophers to write about Continental theorists in comparatively clear and methodical ways. I have a fair bit of sympathy with this movement. One of the ongoing debates, though, is which of the theorists are irredeemable. Here’s how the categories seem to be shaking out, from my perspective. (I could be wrong about any of these; this is just a general impression and not reflective of the views of any single person.)

Solid: Herder, Hegel, Marx, Peirce, Dilthey, Nietzsche, Husserl, Adorno, Merleau-Ponty, Sartre, Habermas

Sketchy: Heidegger, Gadamer, Foucault, Kuhn, Deleuze

Fraudulent: Derrida, Levinas, Althusser, Badiou, Zizek

Given this arrangement, I’m surprised there hasn’t been more attention paid to Vico, Cassirer, Ricoeur, and Apel, but perhaps in time, just as Herder seems just now to be having a renaissance.

I’ll have my own say on Derrida and phenomenology shortly….

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