David Auerbach on literature, tech, film, etc.

Tag: wittgenstein (page 3 of 8)

F.R. Leavis Remembers Wittgenstein

In this essay, literary critic F.R. Leavis recollects his bizarre encounters with Wittgenstein and how his personality was inextricable from his philosophy. That latter point should be already obvious to anyone who’s read Ray Monk’s excellent biography of Wittgenstein. I should quote some of the best bits from it. Wittgenstein seemingly generated representative anecdotes about himself at a rate unmatched by any modern writer, philosopher, or rock star.

Leavis’ agenda is more or less that philosophers like Wittgenstein should stay the hell away from literature (the dismissal of Finnegans Wake elsewhere in the collection signifies a certain protectiveness of Proper Literature), but he’s too honest to ignore Wittgenstein’s peculiar genius. The whole essay is worth reading for anyone even marginally interested in Wittgenstein (one anecdote, where Wittgenstein’s interest in Leavis is raised only after Leavis chastises him for berating a student, is both touching and disturbing), but I’ll quote some of the best bits:

The ‘influence’ represented by the immense vogue generated by Wittgenstein’s genius, which was so manifest and so potent, wasn’t in general the kind that has its proof in improved understanding of the influencer and his theme, or in fortified intellectual powers. And this is the point at which to avow that I can’t believe Wittgenstein to have been a good teacher…I can’t believe that most (at any rate) of even the mature and academically officed professionals who were present supposed that they could sincerely claim to have followed, in the sense of having been able to be even tacit collaborators (that is, serious questioners and critics), the discussions carried on by Wittgenstein.

Wittgenstein’s discussions were discussions carried on by Wittgenstein. I say this with confidence, deriving from my own experience of him, and my own very positive sense of the nature of his genius. I don’t question that now and then some especially gifted, well-equipped, and determined person did succeed in breaking into the battle and maintaining for a while something in the nature of an exchange. But…the wonder and the profit for the lecture-audience lay in the opportunity to witness the sustained spontaneous effort of intellectual genius wrestling with its self-proposed problems.

Wittgenstein is far, far from the only person who falls under the rubric Leavis gives in the first paragraph, but the particular dialogic nature of his incomprehensibility seems to have been iconically his.

Leavis reads William Empson’s “Legal Fictions” to Wittgenstein, who has never even heard of John Donne before. (He preferred detective stories.)

Wittgenstein went to the point at once: ‘Where’s that anthology? Read me his best poem.’ The book was handy; opening it, I said, with ‘Legal Fictions’ before my eyes: ‘I don’t know whether this is his best poem, but it will do.’ When I had read it, Wittgenstein said, ‘Explain it!’ So I began to do so, taking the first line first. ‘Oh! I understand that,’ he interrupted, and, looking over my arm at the text, ‘But what does this mean?’ He pointed two or three lines on. At the third or fourth interruption of the same kind I shut the book, and said, ‘I’m not playing.’

‘It’s perfectly plain that you don’t understand the poem in the least,’ he said. ‘Give me the book.’

I complied, and sure enough, without any difficulty, he went through the poem, explaining the analogical structure that I should have explained myself, if he had allowed me.

This, I think, almost perfectly illustrates Wittgenstein’s Ramunajan-like savantism, and its strengths and drawbacks. Strange to see it applied to natural language, however, and perhaps the entirety of Wittgenstein’s project derives from this tension, the obsessive need to seek clarity where none exists, sinking deeper and deeper into quicksand (but throwing up endless clarifications) in trying to formulate the issue precisely. Maybe this makes him the most honest positivist of all time, the one who takes the positivist’s maxims so seriously that he can never be positive about anything, even the maxims. I think the understanding of his philosophy as therapeutic or Pyrrhonist only goes half the distance–if that was the whole story, he really would have quit philosophy, as he urged others to do.

Update: Since the fancy “Related Links” thing at the bottom does not seem to be smart enough to decide that a post entitled “Wittgenstein’s Confession” is more relevant than the links it has chosen, I here offer this link to Ray Monk’s gripping account of Wittgenstein’s Confession.

Jacques Derrida on Husserl: Speech and Phenomena

This passage comes from one of Derrida’s earlier works, a short treatise dismissing Husserl’s phenomenology as hopeless due to the nature of language. Ultimately I don’t think it has much to do with Husserl; Derrida is just looking for a place on which to hang his theory of différance, deferrals of meaning, and traces. This is not to say that language doesn’t pose a problem for Husserl, but Derrida’s argument is far more tenuous than it needs to be if you are actually interested in how Husserl’s phenomenology relates to language.

The ideal form of a written signifier, for example, is not in the world, and the distinction between the grapheme and the empirical body of the corresponding graphic sign separates an inside from an outside, phenomenological consciousness from the world. And this is true for every visual or spatial signifier. And yet every non-phonic signifier involves a spatial reference in its very “phenomenon,” in the phenomenological (nonworldly) sphere of experience in which it is given. The sense of being “outside,” “in the world,” is an essential component of its phenomenon. Apparently there is nothing like this in the phenomenon of speech. In phenomenological interiority, hearing oneself and seeing oneself are two radically different orders of self-relation. Even before a description of this difference is sketched out, we can understand why the hypothesis of the “monologue” could have sanctioned the distinction between indication and expression only by presupposing an essential tie between expression and phone. Between the phonic element (in the phenomenological sense and not that of a real sound) and expression, taken as the logical character of a signifier that is animatedin view of the ideal presence of a Bedeutung (itself related to an object), there must be a necessary bond. Husserl is unable to bracket what in glossamatics is called the “substance of expression” without menacing his whole enterprise. The appeal to this substance thus plays a major philosophical role.

Speech and Phenomena VI, “The Voice that Keeps Silence”

Derrida is talking about two aspects of language that Husserl identifies: expression (Ausdruck) and indication (Anzeichen). Expression denotes the aspect of meaning that we give to a linguistic sign. Indication denotes the way in which it empirically points to something else, as well as any contextual and conventional role it may have. When I speak to others, words serve as an indication of my meaning. Husserl believes that within the realm of thought and phenomenology, indication does not have a role to play, and so phenomenology only needs to deal with expression. For me, the meaning is prior to the words, and so I don’t need to worry about what my words indicate. This approach renders language “transparent,” and indeed, Husserl doesn’t talk much about language.

Derrida starts by discussing how, since the mind uses signs that have an indicative role, indication and expression cannot be separated. This is not a new point (Wittgenstein, amongst others, had spent much time here). But he then says, in passages such as the above, that in fact, expression is dependent on indication and in fact expression is nothing more than indication. (The arguments here are fairly arcane and I will not go into them because I’m prepared to grant this point for the sake of my greater argument.) We now have a problem, because indication is incomplete: a sign points to something else, rather than containing any sort of meaning in itself. In other words, all mental relations must also be ones of indication and not of any other type. And since indication can only point to something else rather than contain innate meaning, that meaning is endlessly deferred. Cue Derrida’s larger project and the attack on what Derrida terms “presence,” which seems to be whatever may lie underneath the endless map of signs pointing to one another. And of course Husserl’s project is invalid because the sort of phenomenological bracketing of meaning that Husserl wants is impossible.

But Derrida has cheated. He’s gone from an atomic relation of sign to sign and assumed that because a single signification is bereft of meaning, the entire system must be. This is a negative claim–that no meaning is possible–and he’s achieved it by narrowing the gap on both sides. First, he’s abandoned consideration of the holistic view in which a system of significations could have a meaning which is not contained in isolation in any single signification. (This is basically Quine’s argument in “Two Dogmas of Empiricism“: “The unit of empirical significance is the whole of science.”) Second, he’s insisted that a particular type of meaning, Husserl’s, is the only one possible, so any problem with Husserl’s admittedly naive theory extends to language in general.

So Derrida silently assumes logical atomism and a naive theory of reference, then posits that position as one side of a dichotomy and his endless deferral of meaning as the other, with no middle ground. That tons of philosophers had already discussed exactly that middle ground seems to be of little concern to him. He has used Husserl as a straw man, he has ignored stronger arguments against his position, and he has employed false dichotomies so as to prove himself correct by contradiction. Anything other than pure indication is suddenly “presence” and is automatically invalid. This is pretty lame, especially when it later becomes a trapdoor to transcendence in which you can only get past the endless deferral through “radical” means of some form or another.

There are other problems in his thinking here, but these particular flaws stand out because they seem so representative of Derrida’s entire project and its tactics. He is not the first and will not be the last to commit these fallacies, but as houses of sand go, his is particularly egregious.

(For a more thorough examination of these issues, see Kevin Mulligan’s “How Not to Read.”)

Postscript: I read Martin Hagglund’s chapter on Derrida and Husserl in Radical Atheism, which is indeed a reasonably-written book. He says: “The decisive question for Derrida, however, is whether the structure of re-presentation is a condition for consciousness as such.” Hagglund ignores, however, the question of whether, even if it is a condition, it has the implications for meaning that Derrida claims it does. All this stuff about fundamental presence and ideality remains a strawman.

Update: In addition to NN’s helpful comment below examining a section of “Signature Event Context,” I just found that Jon Cogburn made a similar point in passing last year in the context of a much larger discussion of Derrida, Levinas, and Critchley:

[Derrida’s arguments] seem to constitutively involve the fallacy of false dichotomy at every stage of his career, starting with the ur-false dichotomy between some kind of radical holism and an Augustinian philosophy of language/mind, a false dichotomy no reader of Wittgenstein would make.

That about sums it up. Cogburn also cites the Kevin Mulligan article above while discussing Derrida’s responses to the sort of critique I give here:

A number of years Man and World (now Continental Philosophy Review) published an article where the author criticized Derrida’s interpretation of Husserl (note that every serious Husserl scholar I know agrees that Derrida is a terrible reader of Husserl, e.g. http://www.unige.ch/lettres/philo/enseignants/km/doc/HowNotRead1.pdf ). They invited a response from Derrida, but he just wrote a short note saying he disapproved of the spirit in which the author wrote the critique of Derrida. And this is a maneuver Derrida did again and again. Attacking the motives and personality of people much less powerful than him who had the audacity to suggest that he might be mistaken. And this is what bothers me the most.

Huw Price on Robert Brandom

By my lights, then, Brandom’s attitude to metaphysics seems excessively irenic. I want to follow Hume, Ramsey, Ryle, Wittgenstein and Blackburn, in dismissing, or at best deflating, large parts of that discipline. Whereas Brandom — though engaged in fundamentally the same positive enquiry, the same pragmatic explanatory project — seems strangely reluctant to engage with the old enemy.

Nowhere is this difference more striking than in the case of modality. In my view, modality is the soft underbelly of contemporary metaphysics: the belly, because as Brandom himself notes in Lecture 4, so much of what now passes for metaphysics rests on it, or is nourished by it; and soft, because it is vulnerable to attack from precisely the direction to which the subject itself is most keen to be most receptive, that of naturalism. It seems to me that Brandom’s treatment of modality provides precisely the tools required to press this advantage — precisely the sharp implements we need to make mincemeat of modern metaphysics. Hence my puzzlement, at his reluctance to put them to work.

I had planned to end there, but the story is a little more complicated. Modern metaphysics turns out to have two underbellies, both of them soft —a fact which underlines what a strange and vulnerable beast it is, in my view. The second belly is”representationalism” — the fact that much of the subject is built on appeals to reference, and other robust semantic notions. Here, too, as I’ve said, I read Brandom as a somewhat ambiguous ally of the traditional pragmatist attack. On the one hand, he offers us profound new insights into how to do philosophy in another key; on the other hand, as the remark I quoted from Lecture 6 indicates, he sometimes seems to want to get out of it some pragmatic substitute for platonic representation — some surgery which would reconstruct the referential belly of the beast, as it were, in a new and healthy form. Once again, I think that that’s the wrong move. The twobellied beast should simply be put out of its misery, and no one is better placed than Brandom to administer the coup de grâce.

Huw Price, Brandom and Hume on the Genealogy of Modals

I have to say, those are pretty much the two things that got me out of analytic philosophy: modal metaphysics and the sort of reference it requires not to be specious. What’s strange is that there seemed to be so much progress was being made against them in the middle of last-century, before a growing backslide starting around 40 years ago. Or to put it analogically, if Wittgenstein was FDR, then Brandom is Bill Clinton.

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.

Carnap Meets Wittgenstein

Before the first meeting, Schlick admonished us urgently not to start a discussion of the kind to which we were accustomed in the Circle, because Wittgenstein did not want such a thing under any circumstances. We should even be cautious in asking questions, because Wittgenstein was very sensitive and easily disturbed by a direct question. The best approach, Schlick said, would be to let Wittgenstein talk and then ask only very cautiously for the necessary elucidations.

When I met Wittgenstein, I saw that Schlick’s warnings were fully justified. But his behavior was not caused by any arrogance. In general, he was of a sympathetic temperament and very kind; but he was hypersensitive and easily irritated. Whatever he said was always interesting and stimulating, and the way in which he expressed it was often fascinating. His point of view and his attitude toward people and problems, even theoretical problems, were much more similar to those of a creative artist than to a scientist; one might almost say, similar to those of a religious prophet or seer. When he started to formulate his view on some specific problem, we often felt the internal struggle that occurred in him at that very moment, a struggle by which he tried to penetrate from darkness to light under an intensive and painful strain, which was even visible on his most expressive face. When finally, sometimes after a prolonged arduous effort, his answer came forth, his statement stood before us like a newly created piece of art or a divine revelation. . . . The impression he made on us was as if insight came to him as through a divine inspiration, so that we could not help feeling that any sober ratio- nal comment or analysis of it would be a profanation.

Thus, there was a striking difference between Wittgenstein’s attitude toward philosophical problems and that of Schlick and myself. Our attitude toward philosophical problems was not very different from that which scientists have toward their problems. For us the discussion of doubts and objections of others seemed the best way of testing a new idea in the field of philosophy just as much as in the fields of science; Wittgenstein, on the other hand, tolerated no critical examination by others, once the insight had been gained by an act of inspiration. . . . Earlier when we were reading Wittgenstein’s book in the Circle, I had erroneously believed that his attitude toward metaphysics was similar to ours. I had not paid sufficient attention to the statements in his book about the mystical, because his feelings and thoughts in this area were too divergent from mine. . . . Even at the times when the contrast in Weltanschauung and basic personal attitude became apparent, I found the association with him most interesting, exciting, and rewarding. Therefore, I regretted it when he broke off the contact. From the beginning of 1929 on, Wittgenstein wished to meet only with Schlick and Waismann, no longer with me and Feigl, who had also become acquainted with him in the meantime, let alone with the Circle. Although the difference in our attitudes and personalities expressed itself only on certain occasions, I understood very well that Wittgenstein felt it all the time and, unlike me, was disturbed by it. He said to Schlick that he could talk only with somebody who “holds his hand.”

Rudolf Carnap, Autiobiography

And while Wittgenstein is for me unquestionably the greater thinker, Carnap still easily wins the day as one of the most resolutely sensible philosophers of the time:

The transformation and final abandonment of my religious convictions led at no time to a nihilistic attitude toward moral questions. My moral valuations were afterwards essentially the same as before. It is not easy to characterize these valuations in a few words, since they are not based on explicitly formulated principles, but constitute rather an implicit lasting attitude. The following should therefore be understood as merely a rough and brief indication of certain basic features. The main task of an individual seems to me the development of his personality and the creation of fruitful and healthy relations among human beings. This aim implies the task of co-operation in the development of society and ultimately of the whole of mankind towards a community in which every individual has the possibility of leading a satisfying life and of participating in cultural goods. The fact that everybody knows that he will eventually die need not make his life meaningless or aimless. He himself gives meaning to his life if he sets tasks for himself, struggles to fulfill them to the best of his ability, and regards all the specific tasks of all individuals as parts of the great task of humanity, whose aim goes far beyond the limited span of each individual life.

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