A Bit from a Dust-gathering Paper Draft: Decreating Philosophical Problems

As I have found myself thinking fairly regularly over the past few years, the best description of Philosophical Investigations is: it decreates philosophical problems. (I borrow the notion from Weil.)  Wittgenstein teaches his readers what philosophical problems are and how readers should treat them. Wittgenstein’s revolution in philosophy–and he is a revolutionary fi gure, whose revolution we have still rightly to measure and deservingly to inherit–is not just an overthrow of the previous understanding of philosophical problems that is meant to result in, well, quiet, at least after the dust clears, a stillness, in which nothing philosophical stirs. This would be a revolution aimed at ending philosophy, punkt. Nothing on the hither side of what ended, only the overthrown stuff on the yonder side, now reduced to stone and rubble. But that is not the revolution. That is not decreation–decreation is a passage from the created into the uncreated, not from the created into nothingness. The revolution does aim at ending philosophy of a sort, philosophy fueled by a particular understanding of philosophical problems, but that is not to be the end of philosophy, punkt; it is only to be the end of that sort of philosophy, the yonder sort. On the hither side, the hither sort: philosophy pursued as the decreation of philosophical problems, philosophy as involving constant self-overcoming. The sort of philosophy that Wittgenstein does, and he does do philosophy, not just attack those who do it, goes on–and on.  –Philosophically, things change. But they do not just end. No. Philosophy has not been dammed up or damned down. No. (“riverrun, past Eve and Adams, from swerve of shore to bend of bay…”)

(As noted, I borrow the notion of `decreation’ from Simone Weil. I explore decreation in Philosophical Investigations briefly in my “Motives for Philosophizing”, Metaphilosophy Vol.40, No. 2, April 2009, pp. 260-272, as well as in my essay, “Philosophical Remarks” in Ludwig Wittgenstein: Key Concepts, and in my essay, “Metaschematizing Socrates”, in the forthcoming Hamann and the Tradition. Only the fi rst of these employs Weil’s notion explicitly. The second two beat about in the bushes neighboring the notion. I am still working through the consequences of my use of it).

11 responses

  1. Dr. Jolley,

    Does “decreation” mean specifically an unraveling of issues or a destruction of them? “Decreation” (and I looked up the term) is terribly vague, especially since I do not understand how problems in general were created in the first place (except if they were created by lies). Therefore, my first and foremost problem with this piece of prose is that it needs a more specific metaphor. I would never accuse you of intentionally doing this, because I know what a good teacher you are, because I took your intro to logic course in 2000–but often writers–and especially philosophers–try to use language that may be seen as clever but that really means nothing specific. How exactly did Wittgenstein destabilize the comfort of so many philosophers and thinkers? I ask this as one who really does not know, because the only thing I really know about the man is his duck-rabbit, which I like, but I wish someone could tell me, using clear, distinct metaphors exactly what was so great about him. But like I say, I am just ignorant.

    • Joel, thanks for this. Glad to know who you are. I knew the name was familiar but I wasn’t sure its bearer was.

      ‘Decreation’ is a hard term. I don’t think it is vague, exactly, but it does tax the understanding. I chose to post this largely because it seems to me responsive to some of the recent issues on the blog, about our relationship to philosophical problems. I haven’t deliberately used the term so as to seem clever but mean nothing specific–although it is possible that I do mean nothing in particular by it. I admit though (as my parenthetical’s end was meant to make explicit) that what I have written does run ahead of what I can fully explain. –I think writing like that is useful, but it does open me up to censure of various sorts. I do it though as a way of contracting with myself, of indebting tomorrow’s me to today’s me. Sometimes you have to follow a word where it leads you, even if the its path seems demoralizingly strait. (In a different spirit, Cavell once said to me, apropos of such words, “It all depends on whether you can make them pay and play.”)

      I first chose the word in part because it gave me a word like ‘deconstruction’ but importantly different, you might say it gave me a positively charged alternative to ‘deconstruction’. It also appealed to me because it is a word from a spiritual register, and because I ultimately prefer such words in my understanding of Wittgenstein (whose work seems crucially spiritual to me). More closely, what I like about the word is the way in which it suggests that a Wittgensteinian handling of philosophical problems is not simply a destructive exercise (W: “I destroy, I destroy, I destroy.”) but is rather a destructive exercise that becomes something constructive–not constructive in the sense of the construction of a philosophical theory, but rather constructive as creating positive change in the person who does it. In Weil, the term is bound up with what we might call humility, or self-disbelief, or, best, kenosis. So in Weil it is bound up with the will. I take it that Wittgenstein thinks of philosophical problems as bound up with the will (as well as the intellect). This is in part what I have been trying to bring into relief in talking about our relationship to philosophical problems–our relationship to the problems is all-over-and-at-once cognitive and conative, involving head and heart. Because it is also conative, treating philosophical problems requires a kind of change in us other than just heady, intellectual change–it requires a change of heart. –That’s about what I have to say at the moment about ‘decreation’; like you, and I am just ignorant. I am groping toward something I hope to explain eventually to others–and to myself.

  2. Dr. Jolley,

    I meant to get back with you sooner, but I got distracted, as Eliot would say, “distracted from distraction by distraction.” I like what you say, especially that philosophy must not just change the mind, but move the heart. Sometimes there is a disconnect between heart and mind. Maybe it is even possible for the heart and mind to become severed from each other. I don’t know. But I think I know enough to say Wittgenstein’s motives seem pure and honest. That, as you know, is the most important part of being a thinker. There have been terrible liars in the history, and they always get found out. Sometimes folks know someone is lying but can’t prove it to the satisfaction of anyone but themselves. As I said once, “To prove is no more to convince than to convince is to prove.” At first I had my doubts about whether this sentence was actually true, and, God forbid (and I say that reverently), I should become a spinner of lies myself! We must not fall in love with our words. That is dangerous. To love a lie is terrible. We tell them and write them without thinking. But we must never fall in love with them. I just think there is sometimes–I think usually–a disconnect between proving and convincing. There’s a certain difference between the two, but there are atheists who will always be atheists no matter what you prove about God. I’m sure you know this more than I. Personally, I write with fear and trembling.

    • “We must not fall in love with our words. That is dangerous.” Sober words.

      (I have to say, though you needn’t respond, that I find your use of ‘lie’ and ‘liar’ a bit head-tilting. Is anything false a lie? Is anyone who says something false a liar? I would’ve thought there was more to the phenomenon of lying than that.)

  3. There is, I think, something interesting about the fate of attempts to describe Wittgenstein’s philosophizing—as opposed, perhaps, to describing Descartes’ philosophizing. Frustratingly, it is impossible to describe or to understand Wittgenstein’s method(s) without undergoing them. I say ‘undergoing’ and not ‘utilizing,’ because it is a normal (essential?) part of what happens in the process of Wittgensteinian philosophizing that one realizes what one has done philosophically (the method) only in retrospect. Only in retrospect one can fully own one’s philosophical actions—realize what it takes to work through a philosophical problem, by noticing that in working on the problem, one has in effect also been working on oneself. The result is that descriptions of Wittgenstein’s method are only intelligible to those who are in some sense already familiar with them. (This is reminiscent of what he says in the introduction to the TLP.) These descriptions of Wittgenstein’s philosophizing (including the present one, I guess) have a tendency to be of a particular kind of speech act: somewhat similar to that of the person who has gone through some unexpected ordeal and is now looking back at what happened to them, and is trying to describe it. Except that the ordeal in the Wittgensteinian case is highly personal, and is like the discovery of a new form of sensation—a new way of making sense of things. And this is why this hindsight-description also requires a language—“decreation,” for instance—that was not available to one before.

  4. Good. I need to think about this a bit more, but it sounds on the right track right to me.

    Object of comparison: Marcel says that one of “the essential notes” of a philosophy of his type is “of the nature of a kind of appeal to the listener or the reader, a kind of call upon his inner resources.” He goes on:

    “In other words, such a philosophy could never be completely embodied into a kind of dogmatic exposition of which the listener or reader would merely have to grasp the content…Existential philosophy is at all times exposed to a very serious danger: that of continuing to speak in the name of various kinds of deep inner experience, which are certainly the points of departure for everything it affirms, but which cannot be renewed at will. Thus the affirmations of existential philosophy are perpetually in danger of losing their inner substance, of ringing hollow.”

    It is interesting too that Marcel talks of philosophizing of his sort as itself a trial, an ordeal.

  5. I was wondering about what a useful object of comparison would be here—to characterize the transformative experience of philosophy. I keep wanting to come back to three things: to the transformative nature of art, personal relationships (does parenthood fall into this category?), and divine grace. Complicated comparisons. But one thing seems to me right: the quality of the transformation in philosophy in comparison is somehow much more mundane and gray and unspectacular. It is as if philosophy has no patience for anything but the very essence of the transformation—no salt, no churches, no museums, no ceremonies.

    • Reshef, I hope I cotton onto what you are thinking here, but I am unsure that I do. I suppose it is tempting to think of wisdom as grey (doesn’t W toy with such a thought in CV?), and so to think of philosophical transformation (if you’ll allow me the conceit) as a change from gray to grey–at any rate as comparatively unspectacular when arrayed alongside art, parenthood or God. But I wonder if there is any common ruler to appeal to in measuring the quality of these transformations. If the fly is shown the way out of the flybottle, will it rate that change as grey and unspectacular? Won’t it let its freedom ring? Is the dawning of clarity after a long dark grey and unspectacular? Won’t those newly in the clear crow as lustily as Chanticleer, and not only to wake their neighbors up? –But, as I said, I am unsure I cotton onto what you are thinking. I certainly want to keep the transformations you mention separate–but I also think there are analogies across the separations, and I see no reason why one of those can’t be that each is in its way spectacular.

      • I don’t want to deny anyone the right to crow. But I do think there is something in the character of the transformation that is different between the different cases. Maybe the difference between grey and colorful isn’t the right way to put it. Although perhaps there is still something in this characterization: perhaps it is a fact about philosophical transformations that they invite this (mis?)characterization as being grey: the philosopher celebrating their barefootedness. Perhaps, more generally, the difference between the transformations is in the way they can be abused, or tend to be abused. Caricatures often try to capture such abuses. And it seems to me that a caricature of philosophy would require something that’s different from a caricature of art, for instance.

        But maybe there is something more to say here—I’m just testing an idea: for we can, I think, distinguish between two kinds of transformations: transformation into a different place (or into something akin to that) and transformation into the familiar. There is a similar distinction I think I once mentioned between that which is supposed to allow us to fly, and that which is supposed to allow us to float—to keep our heads above water. I want to describe the philosophical transformations as typically a transformations into the familiar, and as something that is typically only meant to keep us from drowning. Are the other kinds of transformations like this too?

  6. Actually, there’s even more. Dafi reminded me of a distinction Diamond makes in her paper on ethics in the Tractatus, between ethics and philosophy (between philosophical nonsense and ethical nonsense). Perhaps this distinction—if it could be made in the first place—could also help me clarify what I mean by saying that philosophical transformation is grey and without salt.
    The distinction, for Diamond, is not a logical distinction. If I understand, the distinction is in the mode of one’s relation to one’s nonsense—a different between subjective attitudes, perhaps. In the philosophical case, supposedly, once one realizes that the propositions they come up with are nonsense, they simply lose interest in them. In the ethical case, they don’t. Possibly, this is a better account of what happens in the Lecture on Ethics, rather than in the Tractatus. In any case, in the Lecture, Wittgenstein characterizes ethics as essentially a kind of running against the walls of language—essentially involving a view of language as cage, of limits as limitations. And the very last thing he says is that he “cannot help respecting [this tendency to run up the limits of language] deeply” and that he “would not for [his] life ridicule it.”
    Perhaps this better captures the idea that there is something in philosophy that can leave you disillusioned, but without the feeling that you thereby lost something–without the sense that there was something to lose in the first place, and perhaps even with the sense that there was something a bit silly about the illusion that there was.

    • Well, I want to decreate something else here. I’ve read Reshef’s last statement as well as most of the others, and I apologize if what I’m saying here doesn’t directly address the matter at hand, but I find philosophical transformation to be sometimes very vibrant and full of salt, so in that sense I am responding to the above. Take the statement, “The unexamined life is not worth living.” Is this a true statement? Well, I used to care for people whose intelligence was so low they couldn’t even speak, but they were not in a vegitative state. They had desires, which they tried to express. They had likes and dislikes. If I assume that the unexamined life is not worth living, I would (it seems) be assuming that these retarded people would be better off dead. But that is a very dangerous idea. If the only value in life comes from thinking, then even something as awful as euthanasia would make sense (ironically). Maybe we should go all the way back to the beginning and decreate Socrates. Of course, some philosophers consider Socrates’s method of death to be suicide, as if he were telling his pupils that he could be as immoral and as humanly flawed as anyone–that we should question what he said. If Socrates did commit suicide, that may have been his final capstone lesson.

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