Easy Pieces? (Zettel 447)

(Another past class handout.)

In Zettel Wittgenstein writes:

Disquiet in philosophy might be said to arise from looking at philosophy wrongly, seeing it wrong, namely as if it were divided into (infinite) longitudinal strips instead of into (finite) cross strips. This inversion in our conception produces the greatest difficulty. So we try as it were to grasp the unlimited strips and complain that it cannot be done piecemeal. To be sure it cannot, if by a piece one means an infinite longitudinal strip. But it may well bedone, if one means a cross-strip. –But in that case we never get to the end of our work! –Of course not, for it has no end. (447)

This is a paragraph worth frequenting. It is a fine example of the elasticity of Wittgenstein’s philosophical imagination, and of course it’s more than just that. Wittgenstein here disjoins two ways of looking at philosophy, what I will call the longitudinal view and the latitudinal view. On the longitudinal view, the one Wittgenstein believes common, philosophy is divided into (a finite number of) longitudinal strips–each strip a philosophical problem–and each strip itself infinitely long. On the latitudinal view, the one Wittgenstein recommends, philosophy is divided into (an infinite set of) latitudinal strips, each strip only finitely long. Now, on each view, the work of philosophy never ends, but its unendingness is presented under very different aspects. Latitudinally, we can solve individual philosophical problems: they are finite. But we never finish with philosophy, since there are an infinite number of problems.  Longitudinally, we cannot solve individual problems: they are infinite. And we of course then never finish with philosophy either, but only because we never finish with any of its problems. –This last predicament disquiets us. We never finish with any problem and so we never finish with philosophy. We never get nowhere. (You pass no mile markers on The Road to Nowhere, since you are never any closer to nor any further away from your destination.)  On the latitudinal view, there are an infinite number of philosophical problems. That might strike you as showing that what is meant by ‘problem’ on the view cannot be quite the same as what is meant by ‘problem’ on the longitudinal view. In fact, the idea that there are an infinite number of philosophical problems may itself worry you. Yes, such an idea makes philosophical piecework possible, but only a the expense of making mysterious the idea of a philosophical problem. Are there infinitely many? Could there be?

Stepping beyond what is actually said in 447, I consider Wittgenstein to count philosophical problems in person-sensitive ways. E.g., there is Kelly’s skeptical problem, Brian’s, Betrand’s, and so on. The Skeptical Problem is the determinable for all of these determinates, roughly as red is the determinable for cardinal, scarlet, candy-apple, and so on. To engage with skepticism is to engage with Kelly or Brian or Bertrand or whomever, qua skeptic. –At any rate, if we count philosophical problems in person-sensitive ways, it becomes easier to see how there might be infinitely many, particularly if we also are willing to count problems in person-(at-a-time)-sensitive ways, as I suspect we ultimately must be. I can solve, say, Brian’s (lunchtime on Tuesday the 11th) skeptical problem. That is to have achieved something in philosophy. There are an infinite number of such tasks to perform; the philosopher will never go out of business. But his or her business is a cheek by jowl struggle with the dynamics of the actual thinking of an actual person, and not distanced, person-insensitive reflection on the geometry of thought.

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