Wittgenstein and the Ordinary, the Everyday

Kierkegaard’s Judge William distinguishes two histories, external (outer) and internal (inner).  The two histories have different structures.  In the first, the person whose life is historized is understood as a stuggler who does not have what he wants or desires to have, but who eventually acquires it.  In the second, the person whose life is historized is understood as a stuggler who has what he wants or desires, but who cannot take possession of it, because of a series of obstacles.  The first is a “Someday…” history.  The second an “Already but not yet…” history.   The nature of external history allows for shortening, for omission.  Not every moment of the time that passes from lack to acquisition matters; shortening is allowed, even to be encouraged.  But the nature of internal history makes each moment matter; shortening would lose the history itself, lose what it is, in a sense, a history of.

In Philosophical Investigations Wittgenstein characterizes what he calls “the aspects of things that are most important for us”, “the real foundations of our inquiry”–what I want to call the ordinary or everyday–as “hidden because of their simplicity and familiarity”.  How can simplicity and familiarity camouflage anything?  How can simplicity and familiarity hide anything, much less what is most important, the real foundations of inquiry, even–what is “most striking and powerful”?

The answer involves Judge William’s distinction.  According to the Judge, anything that has an internal history is, in an important sense, unrepresentable.  But this also renders anything that has an internal history easy to miss–there are no fanfare moments, no peak instants, in the internal history that would allow what it is a history of suddenly to become conspicuous, to step into view.  No, anything with an internal history is, as such, inconspicuous at each moment.

I take it that the ordinary or the everyday has an internal history.  It is not representable.  Wittgenstein understands the ordinary, the everyday, to be the real foundations of our inquiry, and so rests his philosophizing on something that cannot be singled out, moved into prominence, made striking.  –Or at least it cannot in any straightforward way.  As Wittgenstein puts it, “The real foundations of his enquiry do not strike a man at all.  Unless that fact has at some time struck him.”   We might gloss this as saying that the ordinary, the everyday, comes into view only once we have realized that they do not come into view.  Which means that they do not come into view at all as do those things with external histories.

Here’s a kind of Kierkegaardian parallel.  Take humility.  The genuinely humble person, as C. S. Lewis once pointed out, doesn’t talk of himself or of humility, but is instead wholly interested in others .  As far as humility goes, the genuinely humble person will not strike us as humble.  But that fact about a person can strike us, and, in so doing, reveal the person as genuinely humble.  What it will reveal is not some one moment, however, in which the person’s humility manifests itself, but rather it will reveal to us the shape of the person’s whole life, of all of his moments.  His life is his taking possession of humility, overcoming the obstacles of empty self-obsession that prevent possession.

The work of Philosophical Investigations is taking possession of the ordinary, the everyday, overcoming the obstacles of philosophy that prevent possession.

(H/T to Michael Fried and Stanley Cavell)

5 responses

    • You’re welcome, C. ‘H/T’= hat tip–I use it as a kind of informal footnote or as a way of thanking someone. What I’ve written draws on Cavell and overlaps somewhat with M Fried’s essay on Kgaard and Menzel (in Fried’s book on Menzel). And Fried’s essay also draws on Cavell.

  1. Maybe too suggestive, but j. asks a suggestive question: perhaps times before acquisition don’t matter to external history when, for example, they *remain* in memory, or are somehow otherwise “inner”, say in thought, or dreams or…

    • j. asks a suggestive question…I guess an equally suggestive answer might be: perhaps times before acquisition don’t matter to external history when, for example, they *remain* in memory, or are somehow otherwise “inner”, say in thought, or dreams or…

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