No Show, Again

I was re-reading today F. R. Leavis’ “Memories of Wittgenstein”, and came across the following story.  Leavis and Wittgenstein hired a boat and, after Wittgenstein had paddled for a while, he stopped and got out, saying that he and Leavis should get out and walk.  The walk takes them a fair distance and quite a bit of time.  Eventually, Leavis reminds Wittgenstein that they hired the boat, have a long trek back (both by foot and by boat) and that the man from whom they hired the boat must still be waiting for them to return.  They go back, arriving at the boathouse at about midnight.

The man came forward and held our canoe as we got out.  Wittgenstein, who insisted imperiously on paying, didn’t, I deduced from the man’s protest, give him any tip.  I, in my effort to get in first with the payment, had my hand on some money in my trousers pocket and pulling it out, I slipped a couple of coins to the man.  As we went away, Wittgenstein asked:  “How much did you give him?”  I told him, and Wittgenstein said:  “I hope that is not going to be a precedent.”  Not, this time, suppressing the impatience I felt [Leavis had been impatient with Wittgenstein for a good part of the evening], I returned:  “The man told you that he had been waiting for us for a couple of hours—for us alone, and there is every reason for believing that he spoke the truth.”  “I, ” said Wittgenstein, “always associate the man with the boathouse.”  “You may, ” I retorted, “but you know that he is separable and has a life apart from it.”  Wittgenstein said nothing.

Wittgenstein on this occasion provides an example of the sort of thing that Marcel is trying to prevent in himself in the remark I quoted a few days ago:  “I am not watching a show.”  What Marcel wants to prevent in himself is, put one way, a failure of moral imagination, a failure of negative capability.  Wittgenstein gives in to the impulse to see the world (to see the man at the boathouse) as (part of) a closed, rational system oriented on his own desires and habits and needs, as two-dimensional.  The man at the boathouse becomes, slightly alarmingly, somewhat like the owner of the house in PI 398c:

Think of a picture of a landscape, an imaginary landscape with a house in it.–Someone asks “Whose house is that?”–The answer, by the way, might be “It belongs to the farmer who is sitting on the bench in front of it”. But then he cannot for example enter his house.

Wittgenstein’s boatman cannot leave the boathouse; he cannot return to his own home, to his life that is separate and apart from the boathouse.  –We all give in to this impulse from time to time.  That is why Marcel calls the no-show-ness of the world in which he finds himself “a fundamental spiritual fact”.  Like all spiritual facts, ignorance of it counts not as being ill-informed, but as a refusal to know.

One reason this story struck me was because I was again re-pondering Marcel’s remark due to reflections Lowe provides on her blog.

20 responses

  1. “We all give in to this impulse from time to time.” Indeed. This is similar to the kind of acknowledgment of others I have been suggesting is inseparable from genuine moral courage–a facing of the other in the full awareness of their own individual (moral) agency, rather than writing them off into some abstract category, and so seeing them as furniture in one’s own universe (a universe cluttered by obstacles to be overcome). DR has some nice thoughts about this, too, in connection with “thinking the particular” on his blog, which you probably saw.

  2. Should we read the whole of PI398 with Wittgenstein also seeing this way of interacting with the world in a sort of ‘flattened’ way as being a negative ability? I’m having a bit of trouble with the wording, but it all seems like W is saying something akin to Marcel, or something like two dimensional views on the world are impossibly incomplete…

    • I have decontextualized PI 398c. Wittgenstein is concerned to capture features of imagination and of images as they enter into philosophy. He is playing Old Harry with the peculiar flatness, the peculiar two-dimensionality of mental images (at least as they enter into philosophy). And so he is playing Old Harry with the showiness of mental images. In that way it is akin to Marcel (and that is part of what I was drawing on in mentioning the passage), but Marcel’s concern is spiritual, Wittgenstein’s (at least in 398 and its immediate neighbors) is not so much that.

  3. Pingback: I am not watching a show, I am writing one « Practice and History of Philosophy

  4. This is very nicely observed, as ever. Wittgenstein’s attitude here is sometimes called solipsism. Martin Amis uses the word ‘solipsism’ this way, for instance, I’m pretty sure. I wonder how closely connected metaphysics and ethics are here. I’m tempted to think they are very close, and that Schopenhauer’s rejection of solipsism (only a crazy person would believe such a thing) has a moral aspect to it. There is something morally or spiritually crazy about this kind of moral solipsism, at least if taken much farther than most of us take it.

    • I agree that something like solipsism is on offer here. (Not that it is W’s settled reaction; and even Leavis spends several paragraphs trying rightly to describe what W did here.) Yes, solipsism seems somehow all at once a metaphysical, a moral and even an epistemological attitude, and it seems crazy along each dimension, although crazier along some than along others, especially the moral dimension. –It is worth keeping in mind that the Marcel passage (from Being and Having) is in a set of remarks on or about the day of his baptism.

    • since schopenhauer’s official rejection of skepticism turns on distinguishing between the appearance of an object to a subject and causes (appearances are not caused by objects), it might be interesting that the moral order, for him, involves inextricable involvement in the causal order. if you think that the world that appears to you is like one in which the boatman is localized to your causal interactions with the boathouse, then in some way you’re not appreciating something about the causal order (since it encompasses both of you). at least that’s one way of trying to spell out the relation between the world as it appears to you, and the world as it also appears sometimes (but not to you). to take that thought fully over into the domain of morality for schopenhauer would, i guess, involve characterizing compassion as seeing through the veil of maya, which might be thought of as a way of accounting for mutual involvement in the causal order by… grasping its underlying condition in a way that makes no distinctions as to where one is in it (at the boathouse, not at the boathouse). but i don’t know—schopenhauer seems very hard to me on acknowledgment of others. for all the metaphysical unity his thought still feels pretty desolate, bereft of actual others.

      • Your remark ends with a keen observation. Piercing the veil of Maya and acknowledging actual others do not seem obviously to amount to the same thing at all. I agree that his thought feels desolate (a nice choice of words, I reckon).

  5. Yes, I agree. Can you maybe say a little more about the significance of the connection with baptism? Is it that this is a spiritual issue (or at least one with a spiritual aspect), or do you (or Marcel) have something more specific in mind?

    • Sorry. I realized last night that I left that remark hanging mid-air. All I really had in mind was what you said: that this is a spiritual issue. But I do find it significant that this would be the form Marcel’s new task, his task as “a new creature”, would be to avoid seeing the world as a show. It’s a fascinating understanding of what the “circumcision of the heart” might be, or at least might crucially involve. After all, though we rarely seem to notice it, a presupposition of obeying the Golden Rule is that we acknowledge that there are others.

      • Thanks, that clears that up. Yes, there are others to be acknowledged, and somehow the reality of the rest of the world too. Which means something like: life isn’t all about experiences. Or that’s (part of) how I would take the world’s not being a show anyway.

  6. It seems to me that the ‘no-show’ attitude cannot be our ordinary attitude. It takes imagination to think of the cashier at the store as someone’s daughter, for instance. It is not something we do as a matter of course. It is not part of the routine transaction—and that’s a matter of grammar. To try to force the ‘no-show’ into the routine transaction would be like having an image of the meaning of each word you say as you say it. This would make our sentences explode. (I have in mind the explosion-metaphor from Wittgenstein’s “Lecture on Ethics”)
    It seems to me that the whole point of adopting, forcing on oneself, a ‘no-show’ attitude has to be to transcend the ordinary somehow. But that things are not a show is something we can only remind ourselves of—normally with a kind of spiritual exercise; we cannot, that is, stay with the memory of it. We cannot make the ‘no-show’ attitude into a second nature.

    I’m saying all of this, partly because although it is certainly right to say that Wittgenstein here gave in to a temptation, there is also the opposite temptation: to think that we can ordinarily, as a matter of course, adopt a ‘no-show’ attitude.

    • Reshef: right. The ‘No-Show’ attitude is a task, something to be acheived. Although Marcel nowhere that I know quite puts it this way, tasks like that, spiritual tasks, are not such that we can habituate ourselves to them, or at least not exactly such. I regard the issue here to be a form of the difficulty of the so-called Theological Virtues, faith, hope and love. Traditionally, these have been taken to be virtues, even while they do not admit of a mean and even while their “on-set conditions” are unlike the Cardinal Virtues’ (for instance, we do not straightforwardly acquire the relevant potentialities by first acquiring the relevant actualities). Theological Virtues are infused, in some sense; they are or require grace: so, too, I think, the ‘No-Show’ attitude (which may itself be a specification of one of the Theological Virtues? or which may in some sense be the an existential focusing of them all?). Not everyone will agree with me about that (although that is another reason I mentioned Marcel’s baptism in connection with the quotation); some may say that it an attunement of imagination, and so more like a Cardinal Virtue. At any rate, your phrases: “transcend the ordinary” and “spiritual exercise” chime agreeably with the way I am thinking about this. Many thanks!

    • I don’t exactly agree with this. Seeing the boatman as a man with a life outside the boatyard is not “transcending the ordinary” although it is to transcend how some people tend to interact with others. I think there are people who show a generosity of spirit (or a kind of love, etc.), and an attunement to the other as an individual (fellow, etc.) with all, or nearly all, the people they meet. Now I don’t know, maybe they have to struggle inwardly to do this.

      I guess what I don’t quite get is what it means to say that this kind of attunement–or, the ability/disposition to maintain this kind of attunement–couldn’t be, as it were, second nature. (Does something’s being second nature rule out its still involving various forms of thoughtfulness?)

      • I understand your reticence, Matt; or I believe I do. I certainly do not want to say that something’s being second nature rules out thoughtfulness (as I am sure you know, one of the dangers of talking of the virtues as second nature–or habits–is that it can seem to rule out just that). I take the Cardinal Virtues not only to involve but to serve as exemplars of thoughtfulness (so, too, with certain important variations in detail, the Theological Virtues). Nor do I want to say that something’s being a spiritual task always involves an experienced inward struggle. But what I want to say (although I am unsure I can make it clear to myself, much less anyone else) is that the Cardinal Virtues are self-stable in a way that the Theological Virtues are not. Retaining them, acting out of them across time, is a task, and cannot be reduced to second nature–or habit.

        Now, I admit that numbering the ‘No-Show’ attitude among the Theological Virtues is contentious (and of course the existence of the Theological Virtues is contentious too). I can certainly understand (without agreeing) if someone wants to number the attitude among the Cardinal Virtues (or to treat it as resembling the Cardinal more than the Theological Virtues). The issues get tricky quickly, since it is quite difficult to articulate any satisfactory understanding of the relation of the one set of Virtues to the Other. I guess the Cardinal Virtues, in some way, grow into the Theological Virtues, but then again, that the Cardinal Virtues are grown into by the Theological. But what that comes to in detail is an on-going project for me.

        Of course, none of this proves anything. I certainly do not deny that there are people of the sort you mention and I do not claim that they struggle inwardly to be of that sort. And yet I want to say what I want to say, that what they do is a task and not second nature. I will keep thinking about it. I’m in your debt.

  7. Thanks. I appreciate the idea that “what they do is a task and not second nature.” (The gracefulness with which some perform the task may, perhaps, make what they do look as if it is ‘second nature’ to others. I’m a baseball fan, and so perhaps a mundane analogy here would be the way some hitters (or pitchers) make what they do seem easy, and also do it beautifully. At the same time, they do this through a combination of both great skill and great concentration. And many of them may hold themselves to standards which would seem, as it were, ‘supererogatory,’ even if there is a sense in which they would not see their holding themselves to those standards that way…)

  8. Avner Baz talks of how we need sometimes to “restore an intimacy with the world—an intimacy that is forever at stake, and that if taken for granted is bound to be lost.” I understand that as a kind of stepping back from our ordinary transactions, and this connects for me with the need to adopt a ‘no-show’ attitude sometimes.
    But I’m not sure about that. I’ll explain why: The point of such stepping back—what the ‘restoration of intimacy with the world’ may come to—may be different in different cases, and I can think of two kinds of cases: (1) We may step back with a view to establishing a routine. Someone may say, for instance, that it would be good to take a ‘no-show’ attitude toward the boatman, because this will allow us to recognize his rights. In this case, the ‘no-show’ attitude functions like a compass: it guides us to the right sort of routine with the boatman. (2) Alternatively, however, the stepping back may be done because the boatman is not a matter of course—not a prop in someone else’s story. The stepping back, in this case, will be done—if I may use a bit of obscure language—with a view to surrendering oneself to the existence of the boatman. This has nothing to do with trying to find the right sort of routine with the boatman, but is a kind of pure wondering at the boatman.
    And this is what I’m not sure about: Does the ‘no-show’ attitude connect with both kinds of stepping back, or only with the second?

    Also, I think that Matt (hi Matt!) is right to resist the idea that there is something extraordinary about remembering that the boatman has a life outside the boathouse. There is nothing necessarily extraordinary about taking that step back from the matter-of-course. the ordinary is not uniform—it is not all matter of course—and it is part of our life with things that we take a step back from them to reflect on them from time to time.
    The point is that we cannot spend our life taking steps back. We need to return. Taking such steps back takes breaking with the routine; it takes imagination. For Wittgenstein it took making a mental switch, but even for Leavis, remembering that the boatman has a life is not a working-part of the matter-of-course interaction with the boatman. It is not just an ornament either.

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