Wittgenstein, Bouwsma and Our Relationship to Philosophical Problems

O. K. Bouwsma once declaimed that “…Wittgenstein’s interest was not in any particular problem, but in the bothered individual, particularly the hot and bothered.” He was rhetorizing about PI.

I believe Bouwsma is on to something quite important here, even though he seems to me to miss a better way of putting his point. It is not that Wittgenstein is not interested in any particular philosophical problem in PI–he is, in fact, interested in many–but rather that he keeps steadily before himself the puzzled (“hot and bothered”) person (now his interlocutor, now his reader, now both, now both in different ways), the particular problem, and the relationship of the person to the problem. Wittgenstein’s specific focus, the spotlight of his attention, shifts across this structure in complicated, sometimes dizzying ways, but more often than not, he spotlights the relationship between the person and the problem. Wittgenstein over and over again tries to make that relationship the available to the person, often doing so (in part) by making his own relationship to the problem available to the person–i.e., by making himself exemplary (in one sense of the term). (H/T to j.) As I understand Wittgenstein, he believes that the person believes that the particular problem is just there, palpitating problematically in its isolation, and that his or her relationship to the problem has nothing whatever to do with its being problematic. But the person’s belief is confused. I do not have time now to go into detail, so let me try to explain briefly by means of two quotations, both from Remarks on Color:

In every serious philosophical question uncertainty extends to the very roots of the problem.
We must always be prepared to learn something new. (I, 15)

In philosophy we must always ask: “How must we look at this problem in order for it to become solvable?” (II, 11)

Each of these is a response to the relationship between the person and the problem. The first is a reminder that we are all-too-often guilty of a philosophical knowingness, of a carried-with-us conviction that we are certain at least of the roots of the problem, that we understand its logical aetiology. We are prepared to learn something new, but not at the root level: that would mean that we have misunderstood the problem completely, or fancied a problem where there is none. The second is a reminder that we tend to occupy one fixed position in front of a philosophical problem, as if there were a chair bolted to floor and as if we had to sit in that chair in order to see the problem for what it is. We will not unfix our position, bound from the chair, and take a look around, hunting specifically for an angle of vision on the problem that allows us to undo it, like an apparently complicated knot that simply falls out of the string when we pull on the right end. –We can comment on one thing that unites these remarks by using a term of Kenneth Burke’s, occupational psychosis. An occcupational psychosis is a kind of blindness created by the aquisition of certain skills, the shadow, as it were, of our occupational accomplishments. (By ‘psychosis’ Burke does not anything strictly psychiatric; instead, “it applies simply to a pronounced character [Burke’s emphasis] of the mind.”) We approach philosophical problems as philosophers, where that means that we approach the problems occupationally: we believe we know what the problems are and we believe we know how to see them–knowing these things is what makes us philosophers. We are not prepared to learn that we do not know what a philosophical problem is, that we are at the root confused. We are not prepared to abandon our familiar angle of vision on the problem. To abandon these would be to approach the problem non-occupationally, to approach the problem with empty hands. That is hard, really quite hard, to do. Our occupation is our preoccupation. How could philosophy become unskilled labor and still know itself as philosophy? (Forgive me for that.)

How often the conjuring trick that illudes us is one we play on ourselves, one that we play on ourselves when we pride ourselves on our skill at avoiding illusion.

9 responses

  1. the first thing the ordinary languageist in me wants to do when i read ‘a person’s relationship to a problem’ is ask for other examples of places where we talk about a person’s relationship to problems.

      • I don’t know of any particular use of the phrase that I would want to cite as elucidation. The question is whether I have given the phrase a use, not whether I have used it as it has been elsewhere or elsewhen used. The use I intend to give it runs parallel to the subjective (the how) side of Kierkegaard’s distinction between the subjective and the objective (the what). I’ve written about this at more length in the chapter, “W’s Philosophical Remarks”, in the Key Concepts book I edited.

  2. Thank you, Kelly, for the Bouwsma quote — what a great writer on Wittgenstein he was — for the occupational psychosis lead — reminds me of working in the United Nations system — and for your beautiful conclusion and reminder.

    More combatively, and as regards problems and solutions, these seem to me part of a more general “psychosis”, or diversion of our species and of these United States. Forgive my laziness — copying and pasting from the Wittgenstein essay that I will send you when it comes out in a month or two —
    . . . this other, not really Wittgensteinian idea—of there being a philosophical therapy or a therapy for philosophy—participates in a larger fantasy: that where and when problems are identified, solutions may—no, must—be found. (“I’m not worried about the country’s long-term future,” Steve Jobs apparently once told Barack Obama. “What I’m worried about is that we don’t talk enough about solutions.”) The yet larger fantasy is that a rich way of viewing the human predicament is through the lens of problems and solutions, of diseases, therapies, cures.

    Best, William Eaton Warner

  3. I got myself confused about a question that seems to me to go tangent to some of what you say here—a question about the nature of the solution of philosophical problems.

    Initially, I started thinking about this when I read Rupert Reads paper about ‘the hard problem of consciousness’ (I actually got stuck in the middle of Read’s paper). It seemed to me after about 10 or so pages that Read is ONLY:
    a) asking himself Wittgenstein’s question: “How must we look at this problem in order for it to become solvable?”
    It seemed to me that finding a new way of looking at the problem in a way that makes it disappear is not enough. I think we need to (at least) also:
    b) expose the other way of looking at the problem—the one that generates the problem—as A WAY OF LOOKING.
    This is achieved merely by finding another way of looking. But I can’t decide if this is logically distinct or not from (a): I can’t decide that is, if it is possible to do (a) without (b). But this is a separate question. In any case, we also need to:
    c) show the way to move from the one way of looking to the other.
    And also to:
    d) show that nothing valuable is lost in the move.

    And I wanted to connect this to what you discuss in your posts about Wittgenstein’s handling of the problems by way of getting us to examine our own relation to the problem. And I cannot decide (possibly I’m being struck here by shifting aspects): Should we say that if we go through all the stages—(a) through (d), and possibly through some other stages I did not mention—we are forcing our interlocutor to move from an objective to a subjective conception of the problem? Or should we say that this way of handling philosophical problems “translates” the subjective into the objective—expresses the idea of the examination of one’s relation to the problem in objective terms?

    Perhaps the question could be put this way: In the successful process of the (dis)solution of a philosophical problem, is it essential that one realizes that THEIR RELATION to the problem is an essential part of the problem? Or is it enough that they be able to see that A CERTAIN RELATION to the problem is responsible for generating it?

    It seems as if in this process the subjective is revealed qua subjective only when it turns into something objective: The fact that one has a certain relation to the problem, and is in the grip of a way of looking at the problem, is only revealed when one finds a way to loosen this grip, and to admit that it is just one possible way of looking at the problem. And this baffles me. – Smells like Hegel or something…

    • That’s a lot to take in and I am unsure how to go about responding to it all.

      Let me focus on your penultimate paragraph. You offer two possibilities there, and I think I understand the difference between them, so let me say that I take the first possibility to be the right one. That is, I think it is essential to get clear about, to realize, your particular relation to the problem. You might say that the first-personal is ineliminable here: I need to know how I stand in relation to the problem. Until I am clear about that, I am not really clear about the problem and I certainly can’t get clear of it. “A philosophical problem has the form: I don’t know my way about.” (emphasis mine)

      One way perhaps of representing this point is to say that philosophical problems are revealed as figure/ground, and that my relationship to the problem is itself part of the ground on which the figure of the problem exhibits itself. As part of the ground, it exerts a real influence on the figure. –I should also add here, just as a help, that I am not claiming that my relationship to a problem is, so to speak, unrepeatable, that it is never going to be such that someone else could also come to realize that she is related to the problem in the same way that I am. And I think this matters for the way PI is written, for the way in which the issue of representativeness or exemplarity is thematized in it.

      This does mean that something subjective will become objective–but it will do so for the sake of subjectivity, as I like to put it. (This is how I understand Kgaard. Self-knowledge is the recognition of a ‘how’ as a ‘what’, but only if the recognition of the ‘what’ is for the sake of the ‘how’. Mutatis mutandis ditto for Wittgenstein.) Perhaps this is redolent of Hegel–but I don’t worry too much that it is. The objective is not the telos: “Working in philosophy…is really more a working on oneself. On one’s own interpretation. On one’s own way of seeing things. (And what one expects of them.)” (C&V, 16) The aim, I take it, is a changed subjectivity, one subjectivity transfigured into another, not (a) subjectivity that has been changed into (an) objectivity.

  4. Thanks Kelly.
    Let me see if I understand. According to you, can we say this: When we find a way to escape—dissolve—the grip of a philosophical problem, we don’t find a way of looking at it objectively that replaces our previous subjective stance, but rather:
    1) We can see clearly that, and how, a certain subjective stance—our previous relationship to the problem—gets the problem going in the first place: that the problem depends on that stance.
    2) We know how to move from this characteristically rigid stance to another non-rigid stance.
    If this is right, I think there might be an interesting implication here: Before, we occupied a fixed position towards the problem, and it was as if the problem was nailed to our foreheads, making it impossible for us to escape it, or to look at it differently. It went, unchanging, wherever we turned our head. You described it better. After, we do not occupy a different particular fixed position towards the problem. But it is not that we don’t have a relationship to the problem either. We have a relationship to it, but it is not only a different relationship; it is of a different kind: For one thing, it is of the kind that may look like no relationship at all—for a non-rigid stance might not look like a stance at all, like a color without particular shade. But, if I understand what you say, one the grip of the problem on us dissolves, we are for the first time free to wonder about our relationship to the problem—capable of asking questions like where we should like to be, or ought to be, with regard to the problem in any particular case we encounter it. And the point of asking those questions is also not be to find “the right” rigid stance—the right angle in which to re-nail the problem to our forehead.
    Is this the way to distinguish between having the right subjective relationship with a problem and treating the problem objectively? – But if so, I’m still not sure what you mean when you say that “something subjective will become objective.” Or perhaps, talking here about the objective-for-the-sake-of-the-subjective’ is just a way of putting things that recognizes the fact that it is easy to mistake the non-rigid subjective for something objective?

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