Essence and Grammar (and Definition)

Reshef Agam-Segal has asked about the difference between Socrates’ desire for a definition and Wittgenstein’s for grammar.  The two desires meet or can seem to meet in the word ‘essence’.  Socrates wants to know, say, the essence of piety.  Wittgenstein wants to know the grammar of piety (“theology as grammar”); and, according to Wittgenstein, “essence is expressed by grammar”.  So each chases essence.

What Socrates chases is familiar enough (at least as standardly interpreted).  What Wittgenstein chases is not so familiar. To succeed in construing the grammar of piety would be to express the essence of piety.  The grammar of piety would be construed in an a series of grammatical remarks. But the series of grammatical remarks does not tell us the essence of piety.  Rather, the series of remarks expresses the essence of piety.  ‘Express’ in “essence is expressed by grammar” works intransitively.  That is, what grammar expresses is not something that we can tell, can say. If you like, what grammar expresses is inexpressible. (Moving, in that sentence, from the intransitive to transitive.)

We are here at one of those anti-type spots in PI–of which, of course, TLP contains the type.  We are in the ambit of showing/saying, as indeed in Wittgenstein we always already are.  But, as my typological talk is meant to suggest, what we have in PI is something foreshadowed in TLP; but what we have in PI is not what we have in TLP.  Getting the differences straight is more than I can do; I will though do what I can.  Perhaps the best place to start is with a glaring absence in PI:  the absence of the symbolism.  The symbolism glyphs the pages of TLP.  It wards those pages.  Without a real, active and sympathetic inwardness with the symbolism, TLP is a closed book.  (Anyone who has attempted to teach the book to undergraduates will know this.)  But the symbolism is almost nowhere to be seen in PI.  What does that mean?  And what does it mean for showing/saying in PI?  [Pause here to light pipe.]

One thing it means, I reckon, is that showing or expressing is now something done by means of ordinary sentences, by means of the spatio-temporal phenomena of language.  The crucial issue in PI is the issue of our relationship to those sentences, to those phenomena.  A sentence is a grammatical remark not in and of itself–noumenally, as it were–but rather because of our orientation upon it.  The possibility of the orientation that makes a sentence a grammatical remark, and so one that expresses or contributes to the expression of essence, results from our being in the grip of a philosophical problem.  The problems provide the light, we might say, in which a sentence can shine forth as grammatical, as essence-expression. Without the problem, the sentence is, well, just a sentence.  Philosophy is a battle against the-bewitchment-of-our-intelligence by means of language, by means of the spatio-temporal phenomena of language.  But the language is only a weapon in that battle–a weapon of peace, ultimately, to be sure–if we orient on it in a way made possible by a philosophical problem.

This makes philosophizing in Wittgenstein’s way both easier and harder.  It is easier in that we need no special magical weapon, no Excalibur, no symbolism, to do what needs doing in philosophy.  It is harder because the weapons we have can always appear to be no weapons at all, to be valueless in the fight.  (“So?  That’s just more words.”)  Being in the grip of a philosophical problem makes the necessary orientation possible, but it does not make it automatic.  Being in the grip of a philosophical problem can also make the necessary orientation look only like so much rigmarole, like a willful way of losing track of what really matters in responding to the problem. Losing our way among words can lead us further afield, but it can also allow words to lead us home in a way that they ordinarily do not.  “Where the danger is, also grows the saving power.”  [Pipe dies; re-light.]

Having written all this, I am aware that I have still not answered Reshef’s question.  But I hope this opens the way to answering his question.  And I hope to get back to his question again soon.  (Thanks to D. for a recent useful conversation about these topics.)

7 responses

  1. i wonder if ‘what grammar expresses’ opens up a space in which competitors to wittgenstein could be situated. i’m thinking of families of views in which, for example, ‘practice’ or ‘what we do’ or ‘mastery of techniques’ or ‘forms of life’ are variously appealed to as prior principles to language or meaning.

    (your manner of expression there put me in mind of brandom, who would take issue with certain ways of… leaving what is expressed by grammar inaccessible or inexpressible in residue or in principle, i guess. not that i know brandom all that well.)

  2. I don’t know Brandom well either. But I agree that he would likely take issue with this. Your first question is a good one. I’m going to think about it and I will get back to you later today, if I can. Thanks as always!

    • j, I am unsure, after thinking about this, whether I fully understand what you have in mind. But I am sure the difficulty is mine, of understanding, and not yours, of expression.

      Let me take a stab at it anyway. Part of what I was trying to capture was a sense in which grammatical remarks are not simply “there”, as it were, always and anyway accessible, and so in that sense “prior” to language or meaning. As I would like to be able to see it, grammatical remarks are accessible only on certain conditions, in, as I like to put it, certain straits of exigency. Indeed, such remarks are only “there” for the person who is in those straits. For that person, grammatical remarks do enjoy a “priority”, but it is a dependent or conditioned “priority”. If anything has a independent or unconditioned “priority”, it is language or meaning, not what is appealed to (grammatical remarks). To make the remarks “prior” would be to give in to the PI-version of “a myth of symbolism”.

      (Perhaps I am able to say these things only because, as you suggest, a space has been opened up for situating other views–not as variations on what W is doing, but as seeming variations.)

      Having said that, I should add again that I realize I likely misunderstand your question; that I am unsure my answer makes sense even if I understand; that if my answer makes sense, it (and my original post) over-exaggerates the distance of PI from TLP, as well as making TLP treat the symbolism more monolithically than it actually does.

      • i think i was not paying sufficient attention to the conditional aspect of a grammatical remark’s effectiveness, in your telling of it.

        perhaps what i had in mind by talking about priority would be that, on some readings of wittgenstein, or some competitors’ misreadings, the key thing is to characterize the peculiar mode of availability of grammatical remarks by showing that something which is more or less always there (and so, ‘always available’) nevertheless has a special relation to speakers of a language (e.g. it is relatively impersonal, it is a common inheritance, it is the kind of thing which speakers learn or are trained to exhibit mastery of, but then becomes a matter of second-nature).

        i think it might be common to think of grammatical remarks as enjoying some priority because they are taken as uncomplicatedly being related to this other, larger, prior thing. so, in some versions: there is a framework of grammatical rules; grammatical remarks are statements of the rules.

        which i think is in the ballpark of what you’re getting at. so i think now i might be re-saying what you’re saying.

  3. So knowing what a chair is—the essence, grammar of ‘chair’—is knowing what it is to sit on a chair. And knowing what knowledge is is knowing what it is to account for ‘knowledge.’ But knowing what it is to account for ‘knowledge’ does not mean being a prophet; and it doesn’t mean having an answer in advance for—or an Excalibur that would protect us, or a magic-symbolism that would be a vaccine against—any possible confusion about the grammar of ‘knowledge.’ Knowing what it is to account for knowledge is being able to resolve such confusions from one case to the next.

    So I’m relieved, and flattered, and humbled. On the one hand I want to say: “I thought I didn’t, but I do know what it is to account for knowledge! I can see where to look for the variety of possible confusions and resolutions. Good for me.” But on the other hand, I do not actually see the variety, and I think I can also see how much I am thereby ignorant–how all the work is still ahead.
    But I can live with that. I mean: I can LIVE with that. Thanks!

  4. Kelly, I realize that it is not the place to get the differences between the TLP and the PI straight, but I would still like a little bit more, just tiny bit more, by way of clarification. I wonder about the exact nature, and extent, of the transition from the symbolism of TLP to the ordinary sentences of the PI. Does the transition mark a difference merely between two media of showing, or also a difference between our relation to that which shows itself? In the post, you seem to focus on the former. In the TLP, symbolism does the showing. In the PI, it is ordinary sentences that serve as grammatical remarks as long as we orient ourselves towards them in a specific way. Here, then, the question of orientation enters in “late,” only with the “later” Wittgenstein. But I am guessing that you did not mean to restrict the question and significance of our approach to that which shows itself only to the PI (even if the nature of the approach changes from the TLP to the PI). After all, you are the one who allowed me to fully acknowledge the significance of our role in seeing the symbol in the sign. Is my guess in the right direction?

    On a different note, I have a feeling that you did answer Reshef’s original question. Would that be possible? If I am reading correctly between the lines of this post, then, on a non-standard reading, say on your reading, it is not that obvious that what Socrates is after is all too familiar, but what Wittgenstein is after is not. Both chase what has become unfamiliar (particularly to their respective interlocutors) in part because it is so familiar (mundane, ordinary, not “philosophical”). Doesn’t Socrates aim at orienting his interlocutor in such a way that the interlocutor’s sentences themselves, his words and beliefs about the nature of piety, can serve as (sorts of) grammatical remarks?

    • Yes, I think your guess is in the right direction. As I mentioned in response to j., my way of contrasting TLP and PI in the original post over-exaggerates. It makes TLP look as if it were, so to speak, beholden to the symbolism throughout in a way that is misleading. Orientation matters in TLP too. But TLP’s way of using the symbolism at least creates the impression that orientation matters less than it actually does. PI corrects that impression (or tries to–both implicitly and explicitly). I’ll work on your second comment and see if I can answer the question you asked.

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