Wittgensteinian Clarity and Silence

In PI 133, Wittgenstein talks of “complete clarity”. It is a clarity in which the philosophical problems completely disappear.  Wittgenstein’s notion of clarity is connected with the notion of silence. Let me now say something brief about that. To do so, I distinguish between transitive and intransitive silence.

Think of transitive silence as a silence that involves the silencing of something or other, of something that has more to say but is cut off, shut up. (“Her unexpected laughter silenced his protestation of love.”) Transitive silence gags the problems. Intransitive silence is simple silence, a quiet in which nothing is forceably quieted, an untaut stillness.  Peace.  Genuine peace, not a detente with the problems, in which they hold their peace.

Wittgenstein does not aim at transitive silence; he aims at intransitive silence.  He aims at a silence in which the philosophical problems have been played out, utterly exhausted, at a silence unbroken by problems. The problems have had their say, said their piece; they do not even murmur.  Noiselessly, they dissipate.  They go to their rest.  To be completely clear in philosophy, to have made the problems disappear, is to have achieved intransitive silence.

How can intransitive silence be achieved?  PI is the answer to that.  But let me isolate one central theme:  We can only achieve it by deeply sympathizing with the philosophical problems.  We must, as it were, become the problems; we must hear the words of the problem as if each of the words comes urgently from the depths of our own consciousness. And whatever words we speak to the problem must themselves come from us just as urgently and from just the same depth. The problems take possession of us and then we must exorcise them. So we can only cause the problems to disappear on pain of risking that the problems will take lifelong possession of us, that they will resist exorcism, that our heads will spin permanently.

5 responses

  1. I just woke up, and this post made me very happy already. This is extremely helpful.

    Two questions:
    1. Could you explain why you use the terms “transitive” and “intransitive”?
    2. Is what you say here related to the claim that it is impossible to have theories in philosophy?

    • ‘Transitive’ and ‘intransitive’ is borrowed from Wittgenstein, who distinguishes two such senses of ‘peculiar’ and ‘particular’. There’s a quite helpful gloss on the passage in Wollheim’s Art and its Objects, but I cannot recall the page number. (It is in his discussion of the aesthetic attitude, I believe). I use the distinction in my book on Wittgenstein in the final chapter. Jean-Philippe Narboux uses the distinction in the paper he gave here in the Spring (at the TLP conference). Anyway, the basic idea is grammatical, in a narrow sense: a transitive verb is able to take a direct object, an intransitive not. More broadly, think of the transitive as passing over to something else (of “silencing the problems”, the silencing passes over to the problems, so to speak); think of the intransitive as not passing over. I know that is quick; I hope it is of some help. Wollheim and Narboux will both be of more help.

      Yes, this is related to the “impossibility” of theories in philosophy, at least as I understand that. We will talk about that, and maybe I will post something on it soon.


  2. The BB discussion about particular and peculiar was on my mind whey I asked about the transitive-intransitive uses.
    I think Avner connects the intransitive use of particular to the way he understands the seeing of aspects–as if both indicate coming into a renewed contact with something, taking it more than a matter of course. (In PI p. 207 Wittgenstein makes the connection himself.)
    I was wondering if this was part of what you wanted to capture by the expression “intransitive silence.”

    • I hadn’t really been thinking of Avner’s understanding of aspects, but now that you mention it, I do want to include the idea of coming into new, or renewed contact with something, dwelling on it or marinating in it, as part of the idea of intransitive peculiarity. It may be part of the idea of intransitive silence too, mutatis mutandis. But I suspect that it will be less a part of that idea than it is of intransitive peculiarity.

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