Pure Philosophical Theses, Plain Reminders

The work of the philosopher consists in assembling reminders for a particular purpose.

If one tried to advance theses in philosophy, it would never be possible to debate them, because everyone would agree to them.

The aspects of things that are most important for us are hidden because of their simplicity and familiarity. (One is unable to notice something–because it is always before one’s eyes.) The real foundations of his enquiry do not strike a man at all. Unless that fact has at some time struck him.–And this means: we fail to be struck by what, once seen, is most striking and most powerful.

Thompson Clarke has been much on my mind, particularly his distinction between the plain and the pure (the philosophical).  According to Clarke, a sentence like “I am awake, not dreaming” has a plain use that can be exhibited thus:  Imagine a scientist experimenting with soporifics.  He has been using himself as subject.  As he tests the various soporifics, he makes notes to himself in his journal.  At one point, after awakening and shaking off his druggy lethargy, he begins a journal entry by writing, “I am awake, not dreaming.”  For Clarke, in the situation as so described, “I am awake, not dreaming” is something that the experimenter knows; in the situation, the written sentence is “implained”, and the experimenter’s knowledge is plain knowledge.  Clarke believes that the sentence, so situated, is an example of what Moore is defending when he defends common sense. (I am muting certain details in saying that.) But the obvious problem here is that the implained sentence, regarded as expressing knowledge, seems to express knowledge that is impure, too dependent on its situation to be such that, in expressing knowledge, it expresses something genuinely philosophically substantial, independent, something that could satisfy the deep intellectual need displayed in the problem of the external world.  But the sentence that could express that is a twin of the plain sentence, i.e., “I am awake, not dreaming”.  On this pure understanding of the sentence, it means whatever its constituent words make it mean, wholly independent of any non-semantic practices.  The experimenter in soporifics does not know the sentence on that understanding; he knows plainly–not purely.  The experimenter’s plain knowledge, compared to the promise of pure knowledge, looks restricted, or, as Clarke’s puts it in memorable phrase, there is a “relative ‘non-objectivity'” about the experimenter’s knowledge.  If he knew that he was awake, not dreaming, and knew it purely, then his knowledge would be absolutely objective.

I present all of this not because I want to trace the mazeways of Clarke’s paper.  I present it because I hope it offers an orientation on PI 127-9.  Here’s a sketch.

Start in the middle, with 128.  Notice that Wittgenstein is not saying that the theses advanced in philosophy cannot be debated because everyone agrees to them.  Rather, he is saying that we cannot really advance theses in philosophy.  When we try, we fail, because what we “advance” never turns out to have the (grammatical) features internal to a thesis–it would not be debate-apt, it would not be controversial.  But that creates at least two questions:  (1) Why might we take ourselves or be taken to be advancing theses?  (2) What might we actually be doing? It is important to bear in mind as I answer that I judge Wittgenstein here to be thinking about someone who is concerned to philosophize in Wittgenstein’s way, not just in any old way.

(1) I reckon that the words we call on as we philosophize  can be understood either plainly or purely.  And it is a standing temptation to understand those words purely, not plainly.  So understood, of course, our calling on those words would be our advancing theses, we would be saying something debatable, controversial.  Some will say “Yea”, others “Nay”.  But when we philosophize in Wittgenstein’s way, our contribution to our engagement with our interlocutor will take the form of plain words.  So understood, the words will not say anything debatable, controversial.  They will simply not be theses.  Again, so understood, everyone will agree with them.  –Still, there is the danger, since the pure saying of the words is, at the level of the words themselves, indistinguishable from the plain saying (they are twins), it will always be possible both for us and our interlocutor (undeliberately) to “gestalt shift” into the pure.  If we do so, however, we leave Wittgenstein’s way of philosophizing.  This sort of reading of 128 seems to me to help with 127–as indeed I believe it was intended to do.  A reminder is plain.  Nothing pure can function as a reminder, as Wittgenstein is thinking of it.  If what I assembled, taking myself to be assembling reminders, were pure, I would instead have assembled theses, advance them.  But reminders are matters of recall, not of advance.  If what I offer you as a reminder is debatable, I have failed in the task assigned in 127.  Wittgenstein once said that nothing he wrote in PI was hard to understand—what was hard to understand was why he wrote it.  Right.  There is going to be a difficulty of staying in the plain, both for ourselves and our interlocutors.  What we are doing will, from one familiar angle, only seem worth doing in the name of ‘philosophy’ if we migrate to the pure.  It is hard to see why anyone would assemble reminders of the sort Wittgenstein has in mind, hard to see how so doing could have any relevance to philosophy.  (As if I tried to settle the debate about the external world by producing my grocery list.)  That bring us to (2).

(2) So what are we doing.  Well, we are implaining ourselves and (we hope) our interlocutor.  We are assembling reminders for the purpose of implaining our interlocutor.  We remind so as to reveal to the interlocutor the distance between where he believes himself to be and where he actually is.  In the face of the twin sentences, with their divergent understandings, the interlocutor can see that he or sh has a forked understanding, divided between the pure and the plain.  To bring his or her understanding back into agreement with itself, the interlocutor needs to integrate either plainly or philosophically.  But to do so philosophically, he or she must be able to stabilize the pure understanding, to make clear what the words he or she calls on them say given their clinical isolation from the entire range of non-semantic practices.  Maybe that can be done; maybe not:  at any rate, each attempt must be met in its particular straits of exigency; there are, I suspect, too many too various strategies for attempting to make clear what the words called on mean purely for there to be any ahead-of-the-moment response to them all.  To integrate plainly is to renounce the pure and to want from the words called on nothing that their relation to the assembled reminders cannot allow them to have, nothing that cannot be intelligibly projected from the assembled reminders.  But that is not all:  fully to integrate plainly is to come to rest, to peace, even if only momentarily, in the plain.  It is to come to struck by the very plainness of the plain, by our own plainness.  It is to see how the very homeliness and familiarity of the plain allow it to be the foundations of our inquiries, despite our inability normally to see it functioning so.  It is to see the plain as what is most striking and powerful.  But that is still not all:  fully to integrate philosophically is to see the plain as what is most striking and powerful, all the while still seeing it as plain, all the while refusing to transfigure the plain into the pure. Doing this would not be a matter of quickly and gestaltly shifting back and forth but would instead be the actualizing of a specific (cultivated) capacity to be awed by the humble, to find the sublime in the everyday.  If we could do this, the plain could satisfy our deep intellectual need.  But we would have made it so by rotating the axis of our examination.

I recall Chesterton’s words from Orthodoxy:

How can we contrive to be at once astonished at the world and yet at home in it? How can this queer cosmic town, with its many-legged citizens, with its monstrous and ancient lamps, how can this world give us at once the fascination of a strange town and the comfort and honour of being our own town?

2 responses

  1. Your discussion of being struck by the plain, being owed by the humble, reminded me of this wonder-ful poem of George Oppen’s:


    Veritas sequitur …

    In the small beauty of the forest
    The wild deer bedding down—
    That they are there!

    Their eyes
    Effortless, the soft lips
    Nuzzle and the alien small teeth
    Tear at the grass

    The roots of it
    Dangle from their mouths
    Scattering earth in the strange woods.
    They who are there.

    Their paths
    Nibbled thru the fields, the leaves that shade them
    Hang in the distances
    Of sun

    The small nouns
    Crying faith
    In this in which the wild deer
    Startle, and stare out.

    — D.

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