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David Auerbach on literature, tech, film, etc.

Tag: wittgenstein (page 4 of 8)

Literature Minus One

I’d like to ask you all out there for your participation here: pick a work of literature or philosophy (or poetry, if you can make it work) and a sentence from that work that, if the sentence had been excluded from the work, would have made the greatest difference in the work’s interpretation/reception/history in the following years. I’ll start with what set me off on this line of thinking in the first place:

My propositions serve as elucidations in the following way: anyone who understands me eventually recognizes them as nonsensical, when he has used them–as steps–to climb up beyond them.

Wittgenstein, TLP 6.54

Who’s next?

Wittgenstein’s Confession

In 1936, Wittgenstein took it upon himself to prepare a confession to which he would subject his closest acquaintances. I say “subject” because…well, read on.

For both Rowland Hutt and Fania Pascal, listening to the confession was an uncomfortable experience. In Hutt’s case, the discomfort was simply embarrassment at having to sit in a Lyons cafe while opposite him sat Wittgenstein reciting his sins in a loud and clear voice. Fania Pascal, on the other hand, was exasperated by the whole thing. Wittgenstein had phoned at an inconvenient moment to ask whether he could come and see her. When she asked if it was urgent she was told firmly that it was, and could not wait. ‘If ever a thing could wait,’ she thought, facing him across the table, ‘it is a confession of this kind and made in this manner.’ The stiff and remote way in which he delivered his confession made it impossible for her to react with sympathy. At one point she cried out: ‘What is it? You want to be perfect?’ ‘Of course I want to be perfect,’ he thundered.

In the same year in which he made his confessions, Wittgenstein astounded the villagers of Otterthal by appearing at their doorsteps to apologize personally to the children whom he had physically hurt. He visited at least four of these children (and possibly more), begging their pardon for his ill-conduct towards them. Some of them responded generously…but at the home of Mr Piribauer, who had instigated the action against Wittgenstein, he received a less generous response. There he made his apologies to Piribauer’s daughter Hermine, who bore a deep-seated grudge against him for the times he had pulled her by the ears and by the hair in such a violent fashion that, on occasion, her ears had bled and her hair had come out. To Wittgenstein’s plea for pardon, the girl responded only with a disdainful, ‘Ja, ja.’

In reflecting upon the effects of his confession he wrote:

Last year with God’s help I pulled myself together and made a confession. This brought me into more settled waters, into a better relation with people, and to a greater seriousness. But now it is as though I had spent all that, and I am not far from where I was before. I am cowardly beyond measure. If I do not correct this, I shall again drift entirely into those waters through which I was moving then.

(Ray Monk, Wittgenstein: The Duty of Genius, 370-372)

Gadamer on Hegel and Language

What [Hegel] calls dialectic and what Plato calls dialectic depends, in fact, on subordinating language to the “statement.” The concept of the statement, dialectically accentuated to the point of contradiction, however, is antithetical to the nature of hermeneutical experience and the verbal nature of human experience of the world. In fact, Hegel’s dialectic also follows the speculative spirit of language, but according to Hegel’s self-understanding he is trying to take a hint from the way language playfully determines thought and to raise it by the mediation of the dialectic in the totality of known knowledge, to the self-consciousness of the concept. In this respect his dialectic remains within the dimension of statements and does not attain the dimension of the linguistic experience of the world….

Language itself, however, has something speculative about it in a quite different sense–not only in the sense Hegel intends, as an instinctive prefiguring of logical reflection–but, rather, as the realization of meaning, as the event of speech, of mediation, of coming to an understanding. Such a realization is speculative in that the finite possibilities of the word are oriented toward the sense intended as toward the infinite. A person who has something to say seeks and finds the words to make himself intelligible to the other person. This does not mean that he makes “statements.”

Truth and Method, III.5.3B

Though he may not have intended it as such, I think Gadamer here pins down the gap between Hegel’s instrumental use of language and Wittgenstein’s privileging of it. Gadamer is talking about Hegel’s notoriously obscure Preface to the Phenomenology and the focus on “speculative propositions.” Hegel distinguishes speculative propositions from the Kantian model of subject-predicate (i.e., object-property) in that the predicate does not limit the subject, but instead explicates the concept inherent to the subject. I won’t say more about speculative propositions as such. Instead, focus on the role of language in the process, which is purely instrumental in generating conceptual and dialectical content. The concept, though it may be disguised, logically precedes the subject, which logically precedes any descriptions given to it. Language does not perform any role over and above the underlying concept, nor does it elaborate on it. It only shows the way back to a revealing of the concept.

What Gadamer says, in effect, is that this underestimates language and overestimates concepts. He mentions “intelligibility” as a task that language can serve from which concepts (and the “statements” in which they are expressed) are excluded. Ignore Gadamer’s double-use of the word “speculative,” and think of language’s role as one of negotiation quite independent of conceptual baggage: an autonomous meaning generator.

This is not an uncommon move in deconstruction, but it’s rarer in hermeneutics because one must still “close the circle,” as it were, and constitute some gestalt of meaning. Gadamer does this at great length, and I believe Wittgenstein does too, though far more obliquely, in his idea of rule-following. Hegel, however, never takes that first step. His intersubjectivity remains one of concepts and not one of language.

Schiller and Wittgenstein

If you’re looking for proto-Wittgenstein parallels from the era of German Idealism, this one seems pithy enough to me:

Warum kann der lebendige Geist dem Geist nicht erscheinen?
Spricht die Seele, so spricht ach! schon die Seele nicht mehr.

Why can’t the living spirit manifest itself to the spirit?
If the soul speaks, alas, it is no longer the soul that speaks.

(Schiller, “Sprache”)

There’s a thread straight through to Hofmannsthal and Wittgenstein (early and late).

Hegel and Wittgenstein

Philosophy-haters, you probably want to skip this one; it’s the stuff of nightmares.

Whoever says he acts in such and such a way from conscience, speaks the truth, for his conscience is the self that knows and wills. But it is essential that he should say so, for this self must be at the same time the universal self. It is not universal in the content of the act, for this, on account of its specificity, is intrinsically an indifferent affair: it is in the form of the act that the universality lies. It is this form which is to be established as actual: it is the self which as such is actual in language, which declares itself to be the truth, and just by so doing acknowledges all other selves and is acknowledged by them.

(Hegel, Phenomenology of Reason 654, tr. Miller)

It is select passages like these that have caused people to link Hegel and Wittgenstein, ones in which Hegel suddenly mentions language in a seemingly non-linguistic context. More than with any other book I have ever read, it is impossible to isolate any intrinsic sense to his words without considering how to interpret them in light of his successors, and just as impossible to hypothesize how they would be read had he had different successors. So as much as he’s an ur-text for any and every philosopher who followed him, Hegel is also in large part an empty prophet, his words awaiting fulfillment by the future. A trivial example: the insane obscurity of Hegel’s text is itself a comment on linguistic content in philosophy, and yet it took Gadamer to explain this sort of problem as one of an ever-shifting historico-interpretive horizon.

This particular passage comes in the middle of the section on conscience, which has something or other to do with how people follow their consciousness on a situation-by-situation basis, avoiding all Kantian moral abstractions. In the absence of any abstract moral laws, conscience justifies itself: if you act on your conscience, you’re moral, because that’s what it is to act on your conscience. But in this passage, it appears, conscience isn’t in your head, it’s in the linguistic act of saying to other people, “This is an act of conscience!” Otherwise, it’s back to subjective-objective dualism and Kant. From that, I’d guess he’s invoking a community that recognizes the idea of individual consciences that can disagree with one another, yet endorses the essential ethicality of all of them, as long as they can explain themselves. Ethicality consists of ones words denoting ethicality to the community and being recognized as such by the community. From here, we remove the ethics and we supposedly get Wittgenstein’s language-game: play the game, follow the rules, and you speak a language. Play the game of verbalizing your conscience, and you are ethical.

Maybe. Hegel is faced with two unattractive options here: first, allow any claim of conscience to count as valid in the community; or second, make claims of conscience subject to some sort of community standards. These two options, not coincidentally, map respectively onto the seesaw between the “acting” and “judging” consciousnesses that then follow.

Rather than address that problem, I want to point out that the problem is in fact a consequence of Hegel’s failure to privilege language. Hegel’s claim for speech is rather empty, because setting up a linguistic community is the easy part. If language, like the civic laws of the community, were simply a matter of communal determination, then indeed, the progression above would make sense. But to do so is to ignore the very heart of the philosophy of language, which is that language is not determined in such a way. It is the difference between enforcing a law and interpreting an explanation, and as far as I can see, Hegel thinks that those two things are the same. By eliding the problem of interpretation, Hegel’s supposed linguistic community is not linguistic at all. The gap that Wittgenstein spent decades on–that of the problematic relation of past speech to new speech acts–is missing. Without any hint as to how language as language is regulated by the community, there is nothing special about language that serves Hegel’s approach in this passage, which is why I tentatively conclude that the injection of language is arbitrary rather than necessary. Hegel’s supposed linguistic insight is only a reiteration of his earlier positions on intersubjectivity.

Robert Brandom has done some work attempting to systematize and synthesize the Hegelian and Wittgensteinian strands, but I’m not terribly familiar with it. Maybe when he’s done, we’ll again look back and see that it was in Hegel all along.

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