Language and Bewitchment: PI 109

A footnote from an old essay of mine:

Think of the instructive amphiboly in the (translation of the) concluding line of PI 109:  “Philosophy is the battle against the bewitchment of our intelligence by means of language.”  How is this to be understood?  Is it (1) “Philosophy is the battle against the-bewitchment-of-our-intelligence-by-means-of-language” or (2) “Philosophy is the battle against the-bewitchment-of-our-intelligence by means of language”?

And then in the text proper:

The very thing which is to free us from confusion is the very thing which confused us to begin with.  The poison is also the antidote.

7 responses

  1. If it were (1) shouldn’t it read: “Philosophy is the battle against the-bewitchment-of-our-intelligence-by-language.” Language, in this rephrasing, would not be a means to bewitchment, but its cause or occasion. Means suggest to me plans or instruments adopted in order to achieve an end. Surely we don’t adopt means in order to bewitch ourselves. I vote for (2).

  2. On the other hand, if it IS (2) shouldn’t it read: “Philosophy is the battle against the bewitchment of our intelligence[,] by means of the language.” Or even better: “Philosophy is the battle, by means of the language, against the bewitchment of our intelligence.” I wonder if the German syntax makes it less ambiguous?

    • But you think that the ambiguity is just the point, right? Yes, I can see it – if one tolerates that particular use of ‘means’ AND ignores the fact that English syntax wants the prepositional phrase, if not separated by a comma, to qualify its nearest noun or noun phrase. Hum… Danged if I know! It’s impossible that Wittgenstein could have written poorly, so I’m surmising that the quote may have lost something in translation. OR I clearly don’t know what I’m talking about, in which case the moderator will kindly save me any embarrassment and expunge these replies.

    • Agreeing with you that it’s best to preserve Wittgenstein’s idea that language is at once the problem and the solution, and assuming that my criticisms of his famous aphorism have some merit, how about this for a rephrasing?

      “Philosophy is the battle against the bewitchment of our intelligence by language, with the weapons of language.”

      The “military” image may be unfortunate, but Wittgenstein started it. Also, this line may lack some of the punch of the original. But perhaps it’s clearer?

      (I’ll drop this bone now. Thank you.)

      • I think of this line as comparable to lines in Thoreau, like his

        I think we may safely trust a good deal more than we do.

        I take this to bear two readings (I’ll try to do without the hyphens):

        I think we may safely trust A GOOD DEAL more than we do. (and)
        I think we may safe trust a good deal MORE than we do.

        So each can be seen as segmented via a question:

        What can we safely trust more than we do? A good deal.
        How much can we safely trust? A good deal more than we do.

        So, too, Wittgenstein:

        What is philosophy a battle against? The bewitchment of our intelligence by means of language.
        (and)
        What is philosophy a battle against? The bewitchment of our intelligence. By what means is it fought? By means of language.

        I have no idea if this ought to be treated as deliberately amphibolous. I do think it instructive. I am sure the Thoreau ought to be–it is a stock-in-trade for him, call it a sentential pun.

        I like your rephrasing, Bill.

    • In Wittgenstein’s aphorism, I was saying, the amphiboly, if actually intended as such, fails because of word choice and syntax. Okay. But let’s assume that it was intended and that it succeeds in the smooth, sly way Thoreau’s does, would the aphorism then not be in itself a kind of bewitchment, a little induced trace or spell? And for what reason, do you think? Perhaps as an ironic invitation to do battle against it, i.e., to resist its surface charm, sort it out, and rewrite it? Or, as a non-ordinary-language philosopher might say, to de-amphibolize it?

      Thank you, Kelly. I enjoy your blog uncommonly!

      • Bill, many thanks to you. I’ve enjoyed your thoughts about PI109. And I like your suggestion that if the amphiboly is deliberate, it is best read as an “ironic invitation” (fine phrase!) to “resist its surface charm, sort it out, rewrite it” (and again!). I’m pleased you enjoy the blog. I hope to get back to it more attentively in another week or so.

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