Philosophical Questions 4: Understanding Rhees

One of the striking things about Rhees’ passage is this:  there is not only something deeply peculiar about the question that seeks understanding in philosophy, but there is also something deeply peculiar about the understanding which is sought.  It is not something that can be formulated, stated.  I will say more about that this week, but for now I just want to relate the idea to the work of Rhees himself.

Reading Rhees is itself a peculiar experience.  In one sense, everything is simple, and its simplicity is further simplified by its repetitive, chant-like structure.  Sentences are short.  Rarely is any technical or recondite vocabulary employed.  And yet, and yet Rhees work is extremely difficult.  It is as though what he wants you to understand cannot be found in any of his sentences, no matter how often repeated.  It is as though what he wants you to understand is somehow floating among the sentences, brought to presence by them, but embodied in no one of them nor in their conjunction.  —So maybe Rhees has found a way of writing that is true to his conception of the understanding that is sought in philosophy?

Rhees on Philosophical Puzzlement (or, Philosophical Questions 2)

Philosophical puzzlement:  unless this does–or may–threaten the possibility of understanding altogether, then it is not the sort of thing that has worried philosophers.  If you overlook that, then you do not see what the understanding is that is sought in philosophy; or what it is that may be reached.  But the understanding that is sought, and the understanding that may be reached–the understanding that has been achieved if philosophical difficulty has really been resolved–is not something one could formulate; as though one could now give an account of the structure of reality, and how how language corresponds to it; and to show the possibility or reality of discourse in that way.

This is from Rush Rhees’ Wittgenstein and the Possibility of Discourse.  I will have a say about it over the next few days.


It is Sarte’s birthday.  I find myself conflicted.

Coming of age philosophically in a department supersaturated by the methods and work of Chisholm and Gettier was difficult for me.  My sympathies were wider than that, and, even worse,  I had serious reservations about the Propose-a-Definition-Cast-about-for-a-Counterexample style of philosophizing I was being taught.  In those days, the president of Rochester was a philosopher, Dennis O’Brien.  O’Brien had written a dissertation on Wittgenstein (under Richard McKeon, believe it or not), taught at Princeton (where he wrote a book, Hegel on Reason in History), and served as president of Bucknell before coming to Rochester.  (Those familiar with the secondary literature on Wittgenstein may know O’Brien’s fine paper, “The Unity of Wittgenstein’s Thought”, one of the earliest papers challenging the Two Wittgensteins orthodoxy, and containing the exactly appropriate continuation of the famous Wittgensteinian advice, “Don’t ask for the meaning, ask for the use”–”And don’t ask for the use, either!”)  At Rochester, O’Brien discomfitted the faculty by teaching courses on Sartre.  The TA assignment for those courses was disrelished by graduate students:  after all, the courses were on Sartre, Sartre!—and they required a lot of preparation because O’Brien’s presidential duties could any week call him away leaving the grad student with a 3-hour lecture to give on some portion of Being and Nothingness.  Predictably, given the view in the department that I would read anything (not exactly a compliment), I got tabbed for the assignment. It was a lot of work, but I learnt a lot about Sartre and a lot about teaching from O’Brien.  I am in his debt.

But, Sartre.  Well, I never know what to say about him.  There’s so much I admire and so much I don’t.  Undoubtedly, the man could write–and there are many moments of profound phenomenological insight in his work.  Still, there is something wrong with it.  Marcel, I believe, has helpful things to say about that.  In an aside in “Testimony and Existentialism”, Marcel quotes Sartre’s B & N discussion of gifts and giving, which opens with “Gift is a primitive form of destruction…Generosity is, above all, a destructive function”.  Marcel responds:

I doubt if there exists a passage in Sartre’s work which is more revealing of his inability to grasp the genuine reality of what is meant by we or of what governs this reality, that is precisely the capacity to open ourselves to others.

I admit that seems right to me.  I have sometimes teased students in my classes by commenting that many forms of existentialism can be produced via a formula:  Choose one of the seven deadly sins.  Imagine someone held fast in the grip of the vice.  Now, treat that person as the norm of human existence, and the phenomenology of the vice as the phenomenology of existence per se.  Of course, I am teasing when I say this, but like most professorial humor it has a point, it is meant to shed some light.  In Henry Fairlie’s book, The Seven Deadly Sins Today, each chapter on a deadly sin is prefaced by a drawing by Vint Lawrence.  Here’s the drawing of envy.

Isn’t this a drawing of the Sartrean human?  Sideways keyhole spying, fingernail gnawing, distendly squatting, beingful of nothingness?

Of course, I could be wrong.

Hell Hath No Fury…

Hell hath no fury like a romantically oriented reader of the Tractatus who has thought of the early Wittgenstein as an enchanting mystagogue, but gone on to read the later one and realized subconsciously that the project of the thaumaturgic Tractatus is fundamentally the same as that of the quotidian Investigations.  — T. P. Uschanov, “The Strange Death of Ordinary Language Philosophy

Language and Bewitchment: PI 109

A footnote from an old essay of mine:

Think of the instructive amphiboly in the (translation of the) concluding line of PI 109:  “Philosophy is the battle against the bewitchment of our intelligence by means of language.”  How is this to be understood?  Is it (1) “Philosophy is the battle against the-bewitchment-of-our-intelligence-by-means-of-language” or (2) “Philosophy is the battle against the-bewitchment-of-our-intelligence by means of language”?

And then in the text proper:

The very thing which is to free us from confusion is the very thing which confused us to begin with.  The poison is also the antidote.

Both Object and Means of Interpretation

Cavell notes that in Part IV of The Claim of Reason PI had shifted for him from object of interpretation to means of interpretation.  I mention this because of my growing sense of how much of the blog has been devoted to trying to say something about the importance of PI, to reveal something of what and how it is central in my life, and I am chagrined by the error of each trial.  Nonetheless, I continue, even as I fail to satisfy myself in treating PI as an object of interpretation, —I continue unabashedly to use it as a means, even as my primary mean, of interpretation.  That impresses me now as mysterious.  Is it because I am convinced by the rightness of PI beyond my ability to articulate that rightness?  But how should I understand that inarticulate conviction?  Can it be trusted?  Or is it rather that my conviction of its rightness is itself justified for me by my repetitiously endured inability to articulate that rightness, as if being able to articulate it would demote PI from its position as standard for me, so that success would be a form of self-defeat?  Or is it rather because my conviction is that PI requires itself to withstand all of its own judgments, understands itself both as supplying and suffering its own terms of criticism, making itself simultaneously object and source of philosophical criticism?  Or is it rather because only what shows itself as a faithful means of interpretation is surely worth the difficulty of interpreting?

Writing Without Authority–Kierkegaard and Wittgenstein

Kierkegaard understands himself to be, wants to be understood as, writing without authority.  I’ve lately been mulling over whether it means anything, and if means anything whether it means anything sufficiently interesting, to say that Wittgenstein understands himself to be, wants to be understood as, writing PI without authority.  The answer of course hinges on what it is to write without authority.  For Kierkegaard we might say that writing without authority is, first and foremost, to abjure the role of preacher.  But that is not all that it is for him:  he clearly means not only to reject one form of relationship to his reader, but a panoply of forms–any form that would make it the case that the reader’s attention finds it easier, more natural, to perch on Kierkegaard than on the reader himself, any form that deflects self-attention.  So Kierkegaard is always and forever side-stepping, ducking out, disappearing.  He wants his reader to read as if the reader is reading what the reader has written.  Reading as self-confrontation.

But how is that to work?  Is the experience of such reading supposed to be like the experience of finding something you’ve written previously but forgotten, so that now its content seems news, as does the fact that you are its author?  That seems too distanced a relationship to what is written.  Is the experience supposed to be like the experience of re-writing something that you have written, editing, poking, patting and scraping?  That seems a not-distanced-enough relationship to what is written.  (Partly because there is, in an important sense, nothing written yet.  You are still writing.  Everything remains in the flux of composition.)  So what is the experience supposed to be like?

Wittgenstein writes:

Nearly all my writings are private conversations with myself. Things that I say to myself tete-a-tete.

And Kierkegaard prefaces For Self-Examination with this:

My dear reader!  Read, if possible, aloud!  If you do this, allow me to thank you.  If you not only do it yourself, if you induce others to do it also, allow me to thank them severally, and you again and again!  By reading aloud you will most powerfully receive the impression that you have only yourself to consider, not me, who am without authority, or others, the consideration of whom would be a distraction.

I reckon that what Kierkegaard wants from his reader is for the reader to experience the reading as private conversation with himself, as saying things to himself tete-a-tete.  Doing so fastens the reader’s attention on himself, makes any examination the reading requires self-examination.  We read Kierkegaard aright when we read in forgetfulness of him–and only read in remembrance of ourselves.  I believe that this is something Wittgenstein aspires to as well.  That is, I take his remark about conversations with himself as not purely descriptive but as also prescriptive, say as a registration of a realized writerly intention, realized in PI.

In this way, Wittgenstein aims to write without authority.  And I think Wittgenstein signposts this aim:  PI’s self-effacing (as I read it) epigraph leaves it to the reader what sort of advance, if any, and if any, how much, PI represents.  His desire not to spare others the trouble of thinking and his hope that he would stimulate thinking seem not to target thinking about him (Wittgenstein) but rather thinking by the reader and for the reader and about the reader–specifically, about the reader in relationship to philosophical problems.  (As Kierkegaard targets thinking by, for and about the reader–specifically, about the reader in relationship to existential problems.)

Here is what I find myself moved to say:  PI exists as being-for-another.  Wittgenstein writes it as a gift to his readers.  It is a work of testimony, of confession, and Wittgenstein wrote it for those who are troubled as he is troubled.  It is a gage of his friendship, even his love, for them, for his readers.  But for it fully to exist as such, the reader must fully acknowledge it, fully acknowledge it as such.  To fully acknowledge it is to answer its call to self-awakeness.  Wittgenstein wrote a book to be acknowledged, not, if I may put it this way, a book to be known.  (I judge this one of the deep similarities between Wittgenstein and Emerson and Thoreau.  What they write puts the reader in the space of acknowledgement, and their reader answers the call of the writing, or not.  Sometimes gifts are refused.  And sometimes what looks like acceptance is still a form of refusal.)

Wittgenstein toyed seriously with the idea of prefacing his work with Bach’s epigraph to the Little Organ Book:

To the glory of the most high God, and that my neighbour may be benefited thereby.

He hesitated because he thought that in the darkness of our time such a remark would be misunderstood.  And so it probably would.  But why is that?  What has gone wrong in a time when giving and receiving have soured, a time in which we have become so stuffy even while so indigent, a time so graceless as ours?  Job endured the Lord taking back what He had given.  We will never have to endure that.  But only because we have made ourselves unreceptive, and so have never been given anything.  Job got everything back, double; we go on and on with nothing.

Distinctions Among Distinctions

I posted the G. A. Cohen impersonation of Ryle (below) both because I thought it was funny and because it seemed to me to satirize moments in my own work.  Now of course I am not worthy to lace Ryle’s boxing gloves, but I have on occasion distinguished distinctions from distinctions–or tried to.  Here’s a short section from late in my book on the Concept ‘Horse’ Paradox.

At this juncture someone might object that the respondents whose responses I’ve been typifying end up looking quite a lot like Frege (as Wittgenstein read him) and Anscombe and Wittgenstein (early and late)—a lot like the philosophers I think we should follow here. I comment on this as Cavell does on a similar fact: The work of these philosophers forms a sustained and radical criticism of such respondents—so of course it is “like” them. It is “like” them in the way that any criticism is “like” what it criticizes. But ultimately, the work of these philosophers and of the respondents is radically unlike: to use an example of Anscombe’s, as radically unlike as soap and washing.

Why is that? Why this radical unlikeness? Well, I’ve done my best throughout the chapter to provide answers to that question. There is a gulf fixed between the work of these philosophers and the respondents, a gulf that closely resembles the gulf between constative language and ladder-language because it is that gulf. The gulf is another of these distinctions without a genus. The philosophers I think we should follow do not take themselves to be trying to bargain the absoluteness of the distinction between concepts and objects away—although I admit they occasionally slip from the strait and narrow onto the broad way. But, no, they are trying to make clear that we can come to see the CHP as no paradox at all only by letting the distinction between concepts and objects be the distinction it is. It is not a distinction with a genus. It is not a distinction of which we need to be informed; we need rather to be reminded of it. It is not a distinction which we recognize and then, having recognized it, impose on thoughts that were thinkable before the imposition. Again, it is know-how, not know-that.

The distinction is of philosophical importance not because it can be given as an answer, in some bit of constative language, to a deep philosophical question. The distinction is of philosophical importance because it is implicated as deeply in thoughts as any distinction could be. No matter how far into thinking nature we retreat, when we turn to think we find such distinctions retreating and turning with us. They are a part of what we are. They are elements in that tawny grammar, that mother-wit, that know-how, that we are initiated into when we are initiated into what Cavell calls “human speech and activity, sanity and community.”  They are what we do. They are what thinkers do.

There are distinctions and distinctions—and so of course the details make a difference. One of the things that reflecting on the CHP’s respondents reveals is how very hard it is to keep straight distinctions among distinctions. After we have distinguished quantitative distinctions from qualitative distinctions, we think we’ve finished distinguishing distinctions. But there are more distinctions to make yet. Is the distinction between soap and washing quantitative or qualitative? It seems to me to be neither. But it’s still a distinction, for all that.

Drama of the Soul in Exile: PI, (Yet) Again

Those who have been following the blog will recognize this as a both recapitulation and variation on earlier bits and pieces.  It is from the essay I am working on.

Soul in Exile

Hearing Voices in PI

[A thought connected to the paper I am working on today.]

Consider the interlocutory voices in PI. How am I, the reader, supposed to relate to them?

My surmise: I have to find my way to hearing all the voices as mine. I ought not simply choose one and denominate it my champion, or denominate it me. No, I must come to hear the voices as giving voice to different modulations of my existence; I find myself in each voice. To achieve this is to achieve a regrouping of my own mind. The best single term I know to use here is Gabriel Marcel’s: ingatheredness. I find my way to ingatheredness–and the ingatheredness is not achieved apart from the philosophical problems that confront the voices; rather the philosophical problems that confront the voices are themselves factors in the ingathering; they must play a role in my self-recollection because they play(ed) a role in my self-forgetfulness. (Finding myself in all the voices helps to make that clear.)

“But this means that the whole of PI is devoted to putting me back together? To finding in myself all these temptations, these corrections, these murks, these clarities?” –Yes. “So what do I take away from PI?” –Yourself. “I started with that.” –Did you?

To travel the length of PI, really to find yourself in all its voices, to achieve ingatheredness, is to have undergone ‘a change without change’. Marcel:

…[W]e must suppose that we are here in the presence of an act of inner creativity or transmutation, but also that this creative or transmuting act, though a paradox…also has the character of being a return–only a return in which what is given after the return is not identical with what was given before…The best analogy for this process of self-discovery which, though it is genuinely discovery, does also genuinely create something new, is the development of a musical composition; even if such a composition apparently ends with the very same phrases that it started with, they are not longer felt as being the same–they are, as it were, coloured by all the vicissitudes they have gone through and by which their final recapture, in their first form, has been accompanied.

[Footnote: N.B. the relationship between PI 1 and PI 693.]

I win and lose, win and lose ingatheredness: but this isn’t to toggle between the same two conditions again and again, but rather is the local shape of a globally ‘upward’, winning movement. And over and over, PI helps.

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