Writing Without Authority–Kierkegaard and Wittgenstein

Kierkegaard understands himself to be, wants to be understood as, writing without authority.  I’ve lately been mulling over whether it means anything, and if means anything whether it means anything sufficiently interesting, to say that Wittgenstein understands himself to be, wants to be understood as, writing PI without authority.  The answer of course hinges on what it is to write without authority.  For Kierkegaard we might say that writing without authority is, first and foremost, to abjure the role of preacher.  But that is not all that it is for him:  he clearly means not only to reject one form of relationship to his reader, but a panoply of forms–any form that would make it the case that the reader’s attention finds it easier, more natural, to perch on Kierkegaard than on the reader himself, any form that deflects self-attention.  So Kierkegaard is always and forever side-stepping, ducking out, disappearing.  He wants his reader to read as if the reader is reading what the reader has written.  Reading as self-confrontation.

But how is that to work?  Is the experience of such reading supposed to be like the experience of finding something you’ve written previously but forgotten, so that now its content seems news, as does the fact that you are its author?  That seems too distanced a relationship to what is written.  Is the experience supposed to be like the experience of re-writing something that you have written, editing, poking, patting and scraping?  That seems a not-distanced-enough relationship to what is written.  (Partly because there is, in an important sense, nothing written yet.  You are still writing.  Everything remains in the flux of composition.)  So what is the experience supposed to be like?

Wittgenstein writes:

Nearly all my writings are private conversations with myself. Things that I say to myself tete-a-tete.

And Kierkegaard prefaces For Self-Examination with this:

My dear reader!  Read, if possible, aloud!  If you do this, allow me to thank you.  If you not only do it yourself, if you induce others to do it also, allow me to thank them severally, and you again and again!  By reading aloud you will most powerfully receive the impression that you have only yourself to consider, not me, who am without authority, or others, the consideration of whom would be a distraction.

I reckon that what Kierkegaard wants from his reader is for the reader to experience the reading as private conversation with himself, as saying things to himself tete-a-tete.  Doing so fastens the reader’s attention on himself, makes any examination the reading requires self-examination.  We read Kierkegaard aright when we read in forgetfulness of him–and only read in remembrance of ourselves.  I believe that this is something Wittgenstein aspires to as well.  That is, I take his remark about conversations with himself as not purely descriptive but as also prescriptive, say as a registration of a realized writerly intention, realized in PI.

In this way, Wittgenstein aims to write without authority.  And I think Wittgenstein signposts this aim:  PI’s self-effacing (as I read it) epigraph leaves it to the reader what sort of advance, if any, and if any, how much, PI represents.  His desire not to spare others the trouble of thinking and his hope that he would stimulate thinking seem not to target thinking about him (Wittgenstein) but rather thinking by the reader and for the reader and about the reader–specifically, about the reader in relationship to philosophical problems.  (As Kierkegaard targets thinking by, for and about the reader–specifically, about the reader in relationship to existential problems.)

Here is what I find myself moved to say:  PI exists as being-for-another.  Wittgenstein writes it as a gift to his readers.  It is a work of testimony, of confession, and Wittgenstein wrote it for those who are troubled as he is troubled.  It is a gage of his friendship, even his love, for them, for his readers.  But for it fully to exist as such, the reader must fully acknowledge it, fully acknowledge it as such.  To fully acknowledge it is to answer its call to self-awakeness.  Wittgenstein wrote a book to be acknowledged, not, if I may put it this way, a book to be known.  (I judge this one of the deep similarities between Wittgenstein and Emerson and Thoreau.  What they write puts the reader in the space of acknowledgement, and their reader answers the call of the writing, or not.  Sometimes gifts are refused.  And sometimes what looks like acceptance is still a form of refusal.)

Wittgenstein toyed seriously with the idea of prefacing his work with Bach’s epigraph to the Little Organ Book:

To the glory of the most high God, and that my neighbour may be benefited thereby.

He hesitated because he thought that in the darkness of our time such a remark would be misunderstood.  And so it probably would.  But why is that?  What has gone wrong in a time when giving and receiving have soured, a time in which we have become so stuffy even while so indigent, a time so graceless as ours?  Job endured the Lord taking back what He had given.  We will never have to endure that.  But only because we have made ourselves unreceptive, and so have never been given anything.  Job got everything back, double; we go on and on with nothing.

13 responses

  1. i like this. and / but it puts me in mind of a funny question-from-the-audience, perhaps because of also having in mind the quote tommi uschanov posted over at duncan’s –

    “In philosophy it’s always a matter of the application of a series of utterly simple basic principles that any child knows, and the – enormous – difficulty is only one of applying these in the confusion our language creates. It’s never a question of the latest results of experiments with exotic fish or the most recent developments in mathematics. But the difficulty in applying the simple basic principles shakes our confidence in the principles themselves.” (Philosophical Remarks §133)

    – the question-from-the-audience being, wouldn’t all this stuff about a writer’s authority go away if you would just concern yourself with giving clear arguments and making empirically testable (where possible) claims?

    (thinking of this as the kind of question an audience member at a talk might ask when they were not on the same page but ‘willing’ to be persuaded that there was something going on they didn’t understand.)

    • j, hmmm … what to say? This I guess: Yes, this would all go away, all this authority stuff, if I just gave clear arguments and made empirically testable claims. It would go away because I would no longer be doing what I was trying to do. What I am trying to do is, admittedly, obscure in various ways–as Thoreau said, there are more secrets in my trade than most men’s, and yet not voluntarily kept, but inseparable from its very nature. What you would rather me do is a fine, perfectly respectable sort of intellectual endeavor. But it does not have any hegemony over intellectual endeavor. And, again, it is not my task, not my trade.

      What you would rather me do is to trade in information. I want to trade in self-knowledge–but not self-knowledge of the I am 6′ 3″ or I have greying hair sort. I want self-knowledge of the sort that Socrates sought in service to the Oracle (“Know yourself!”), that Kierkegaard sought as he stood before eternity (“Choose yourself!”), that Emerson sought in his series without extremes (“Obey yourself!”). This isn’t empirical knowledge, certainly not exactly empirical knowledge; but it can be tested, just not by your favored sorts of tests. It is first-personal knowledge, not third-personal. It is a kind of knowledge that is, even as it exacts, change in the person who acquires it–transmuting knowledge.

      Of course, this probably just sounds like blah, blah, so blah, blah. As what I said that prompted the question probably sounded like blah, blah, so blah, blah too. I am sorry for that. I will happily, or at least willingly, talk more. But, nota bene, nothing that I am saying, and nothing I will say will amount to clear arguments for empirically testable claims. So maybe what I am saying is just blah, blah so blah, blah; but I don’t think so; I trust that it will amount to more than that in the end.

      –Not much, I know, j. I fear this is what comes of philosophizing, as I do, flat-footed and empty-handed.

      • kelly, thanks for the reply. i hope you appreciate that i don’t mean to plague you with this kind of question – i would just like to take advantage of your experience at having to account for yourself to such questioners, so that i can better learn how to account for MYself to them.

        i wonder if one could plead necessity in some way. a standard attitude toward research is to tackle problems that are tackleable, and to not fritter away one’s energies trying to solve, or even get an approach to, problems before the state of research has developed to the point of their being approachable. but perhaps one could say, in defense of work aiming at self-knowledge, that part of its troublesome character is that it can hardly be done without the involvement of the researcher. if it COULD be easily done by ‘giving clear arguments’, etc., stating the positions and such, then that would be wonderful, but to the extent that doing it requires the pre-‘clear argument’-capable self be involved, things are just going to have to go the hard way. further, the NEED for self-knowledge is great enough, pressing enough, that it would be a shabby response to say that while it would certainly be a good thing to have or to inquire about, still one should (as a researcher) stick to things which are more readily to be (by the standard approaches) had.

        (haven’t thought about where to stick ‘authority’ back in there yet.)

  2. Kelly, J,
    I’m not sure, but perhaps it will help if we could discern shades or kinds of self-knowledge. I mean, the whole thing might look like a big blur, and that may be enough to make someone opt out of this in favor of some more informational endeavor. But perhaps if we could compare, say the kind of self-knowledge that might come from thinking about the metaphysics of numbers to the kind of self-knowledge that might come from thinking about other minds, to the kind of self knowledge that might come from thinking about Socrates’ claim that its better to suffer than do evil, to the kind of self knowledge that might come from thinking about transubstantiation and divine grace, and so on–perhaps this will give us a better feel of the topography of self-knowledge, and of the point of walking through this terrain.
    I don’t know how to do it myself.

    • that seems good. (a series of intermediate cases.) perhaps the trick is to nudge things just enough over into the cases that involve relations between people, so that one is not inclined to worry immediately about concepts like ‘evidence’ or ‘justification’ (understood in certain ways). i think the idea of authority evokes very cartesian/humean thoughts from philosophers in many contexts. and when they’re not thinking about things like the senses or testimony (or developed relatives of those things, like ‘science’), they might find themselves hard-pressed to think about authority except in connection with ‘reason’, that being the standard counter-trope to talk about authority in religious/traditional contexts.

  3. along reshef’s lines, maybe a different approach would be to devise some intermediate cases in which we could try to apply the idea of ‘writing without authority’ – intermediate cases of WRITING with more or less authority.

  4. Kelly, J.,

    Sometimes, in the course of some philosophical discussion–about some question in metaphysics, say–one suddenly realizes that one is not talking merely about metaphysics, but is examining oneself (or that one is not just asking WHAT is rhetoric, but also WHO is Gorgias).
    A question to both of you: To what extent, do you think, self-examination of the kind Kelly is talking about can be intended? To what extent, that is, must it come as a revelation to one that this was what one has been doing (say, in the course of some philosophical discussion about metaphysics)?

    Part of what I’m trying to understand is the tone of so many of the entries in this blog. On first impression, they read like descriptions of things out there in the objective world. But
    when leaving a comment here, it often feels as if I’m intruding into someone’s internal dialogue. Perhaps, then, it feels like that because in some sense these entries are an account of, or attempts to capture, some revelation.

    Another part of the question pertains to what J. is wondering about: About the possibility of revealing this activity of self-examination to someone ELSE. Supposedly, if self-examination is not something you can intend to do–if it is, grammatically, something that happens to you–then it makes less sense to try and show people how to do it. (And if so, describing intermediate cases would not help either).

    • in the past year i have been very interested in the places where cavell appeals to the way that our words can express and reveal our interests. i wanted to get clearer on what he means by that and how it might work, so naturally i tried to sit down and say, ok, what are my interests? what interests me? so far this has been a resounding failure as an exercise. it seems to be something i can’t know about myself just because i intend to.

      i think one comparable case would be ‘having a conversation’. two people can’t just, at any given point in the course of their lives together, however they overlap, sit down and have a conversation. they can’t say, ‘let’s have a conversation’, particularly not the kind that ends up being revelatory and fruitful.

    • Reshef, today’s post is an oblique response to what you say here.

      I sympathize with your puzzlement with the tone of the blog. Many, most maybe, of the entries are parts of an internal dialogue, a conversation I am having with myself. And so the feeling of “intruding” is understandable. But I do not intend the entries as purely autobiographical. Nor do I intend them to be presentations of “theses” that I am defending or that I ask or try to compel my reader to believe. What I intend is for them to help me with my own inner disorder, to help me with my own struggles with unreality–as a reader, a philosopher, a man. I rate such writing, when it succeeds, to be worthwhile because my inner disorder, my struggle with unreality, is never just mine. My reader can find himself in or at least in the neighborhood of my disorder, my struggle, and so I hope find himself or something for himself in what I write. In that way, what I write is meant to be tested against my reader’s experience of himself as disordered or as struggling. (Think of this as my way of accepting Emerson’s idea that when a person writes out of what is most private he writes out of what ends up most public too.) The hard trick to turn is writing in this way and doing so in a way that is still genuinely available, genuine disposable (to use terms that have been travelling with me across many blog entries) to the reader. Cavell often turns this trick, so too does Marcel and so too I claim does Wittgenstein. Emerson and Thoreau are masters at turning it.

      Turning it is to write in a way that calls upon the reader, that asks the reader, not for belief, but for acknowledgment, that seeks not to instill conviction, but to activate responsiveness. It is to write in a way that, if successful, asks the reader to respond with “Yes, but–” and not with “True” or “False”.

      I am not sure how much help this is but I will hazard it: think of the way in which a poet responds to another poet, not exactly qua critic, but exactly qua poet. The response is to write a responsive poem (along some one of the many dimensions of responsiveness). That new poem is not going to be simply in agreement or disagreement with the poem to which it responds, but it still stands in an intelligible (an internal) relationship to the other poem. You might say that what I hope for is not so much comments on my entries (although I welcome them and find them very helpful) but responsive blog entries by my reader. –As iron sharpens iron, so too can blog entry inspire blog entry?

      • Kelly,
        I’m not complaining about the tone of your blog. Quite the opposite: it seems to me the right tone. What I am wondering about is what we may call the grammar of this tone. Perhaps I hope that by understanding this, I could also understand why this is the right tone.
        You see, you are asking a lot of your reader. (Again, not a complaint!) You are asking a lot of yourself. And I wonder if it is at all possible for the reader, for the writer, to fully know what they are getting themselves into before they start such a reading/writing process. My intuition is that this is something the writer/reader has to discover, to stumble into, each time–from one case to the next. (This is where my question about the possible revelatory nature of such reading/writing came from.)

        Put differently: It seems to me that in the kind of reading and writing you practice and in which you are interested, the before and after are radically different than in the kind of writing/reading that just conveys information. It is the kind whose value is that it holds the promise of conversion–i.e. whose value cannot be recognized in advance, possibly not just because the writer/reader does not have the tools with which to evaluate, but because the reading/writing reveals a dimension of evaluation that was not available to one before.

        Now, you write about how PI is a work of confession, and I have a strong intuition that such writing has to take the form of confession. I’m not sure I know why, though. – Is it because such reading/writing is in the business of creating the Mind–namely, because beforehand there is no shared space of reasons in which we all know how to move together?

  5. I feel like I’m entering a wonderfully complex discussion, and fear I may be just muddying the waters, but let me just dive in. It’s surely correct that the self knowledge we seek is not informational, not a “knowledge that x”. We know Socrates knows himself because he’s steady in his living, and seems to ‘know what he’s doing’ in complex situations that could baffle an ordinary mortal. So knowing himself seems close to knowing how to be himself, or knowing what ‘living-as-Socrates’ must amount to. Now that knowledge is not observational (HE doesn’t conduct observations) and probably isn’t intentional: he doesn’t say to himself “I must try out living as Socrates today.” It may be retrospective: we can imagine him reflecting after a good bit of life is behind him on whether he’s happy with his comportment, has he been living a strange life, or his own life.” That’s a funny question to ask, perhaps, yet people can get alienated from themselves, and regret that they’re “living-as-my-father-wants” rather than “living my own life.”

    Prospectively, I think self knowledge is a “knowing how” that requires intimate acknowledgment of one’s desires, feelings, commitments and their weights, and so forth, and that sort of knowing how — knowing how to dig through all that — always questioning, always weighing, always proceeding in fear and trembling that one might be kidding oneself — is hard to share or expose or make public and will sound like a confession full of fits and starts and ill-formed thoughts. But along with that ‘reflective” and “confessional” side seems to be a willingness to pledge or promise, to stay true to something often only dimly apprehended. So Socrates remained true to things (say the assurance that the oracle was trustworthy, or that Diotima had something worthy to say) even while it’s hard to say what undergirds that pledge to honor a truth intrinsic to who one must be. “Living-as-Socrates”, knowing how to do that, is something Socrates has to work out for himself — we can’t guide him.

    And if we LEARN from Socrates, how does that happen? Perhaps, as Kelly suggests, if I learn from a poem it may show up in my writing my own poem. If I learn ‘knowing how live out the unfolding self I am” by holding Socratic living in mind, that can’t mean Socrates has authority to tell me how to live. If I learn from him, it will not be that I learn how to “live-as-Socrates” (except in the most general way: for example, ‘think about what words you use in probing yourself’). Learning from him will be much more learning how to “live-as-me” — “learning” what can I pledge myself to give my life that sort of solidity and continuity that in the longer run I can look back (and my friends can look back) and say: “for all his (propositional, informational, doctrinal) ignorance he knew himself, he led his own life. And “learning what I can pledge myself to” is perhaps mostly just pledging-in-the-relative-dark: not ‘finding out” but “doing.”

    [Did I REALLY just write all that ?!? ]

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