Guy Davenport on Wittgenstein

[Wittgenstein] was committed to absolute honesty.  Nothing–nothing at all–was to be allowed to escape analysis.  He had nothing up his sleeve; he had nothing to teach.  The world was to him an absolute puzzle, a great lump of opaque pig iron.  Can we think about the lump?  What is thought?  What is the meaning of ‘can’, of ‘can we’, of ‘can we think’?  What is the meaning of ‘we’?  What does it mean to ask what is the meaning of ‘we’?  If we know the answer to these questions on Monday, are the answers valid on Tuesday?  If I answer them at all, do I think the answer, believe the answer, know the answer, or imagine the answer?

15 responses

  1. Does this mean, then, that Wittgenstein regularly focused his absolute honesty on the absolute puzzle of itself? Or was his commitment to absolute honesty absolute? If the latter, then what, one wonders, was the basis of his commitment? Surely not anything arbitrary.

  2. Davenport’s representation of Wittgenstein seems to me to come perilously close to Monty Python’s parody of Oxonian philosophical inquiry: “Is there a word ‘zalling’? If there is what does it mean? If there isn’t what does it mean? Perhaps both, maybe neither. What do I mean by the word ‘mean’? What do I mean by the word ‘word’? What do I mean by ‘what do I mean’? What do I mean by ‘do’ and what do I do by ‘mean’? And what do I do by do by do and what do I mean by wasting your time like this?” (transcript; video)

  3. Funny! And true. Wittgenstein, I think, was not as bad off as Davenport’s portrait of him suggests. He was a tormented thinker, yes, but not a ridiculous one. There’s a point at which we properly put our digging implements down, or look for softer ground elsewhere. “If I have exhausted the justifications, I have reached bedrock, and my spade is turned.” (PI, #217) The puzzling stops. (Kelly, you know a wee more about this than I do.)

  4. I like the Davenport as a piece of writing; and I particularly like the long ‘recursive’ list of questions, since I take it to capture something right about the searching restlessness of W’s thinking. But I am not so much a fan of the pig iron image (although how many times does anyone use pig iron imagery?), or the talk of the world as an absolute puzzle.

    Wittgenstein observes that explanations come to an end somewhere; he talks of bedrock; he hunts for the real philosophical discovery, the one that will allow him to stop doing philosophy when he wants to. But I wonder: the first two strike me as bits of ‘grammar’–helping us to see what an explanation is, helping us to see that and how ‘in the beginning was the deed’. The third, though, strikes me as a fantasy Wittgenstein painfully rejects (painfully–since it is his fantasy), the fantasy of the real philosophical discovery. He rejects that fantasy and gives us something else instead. (See PI 133, especially from “Instead” on.) But what we don’t get is peace. –A useful parallel: consider (from PI’s Preface) W’s struggle with the fantasy of a book of a naturally ordered and unbroken procession of thoughts. Eventually he rejects the fantasy: that was a book he could not write. Instead, we get PI.

    • Thanks for that, Kelly. Your statement is much better than Davenport’s, not least for avoiding his rhetorical excesses. Your style is always clear and crisp and a pleasure to read.

      As for my earlier remark, “The puzzling stops [period],” perhaps I should have continued with “…when it successfully assembles reminders for a particular purpose.” (#127). That way I would not have suggested that the need for philosophy – in Wittgenstein’s flexible, open-ended style, at any rate – comes to a complete stop. But does the absence of complete rest imply that philosophy finds no peace at all, ever? I still wonder. Looking at #133 again, starting at “The real discovery…,” has Wittgenstein made clear what activity he wants to be able to stop doing? At first he seems to identify it with philosophy in general, perhaps even with philosophy as he himself practices it in PI; but then, after the hyphen, he seems to identify it with second-order philosophy, philosophy that calls *itself* into question. By the latter, does he mean philosophy that strives to be self-grounding and omni-explanatory and in the process only succeeds in making itself more problematic – as when, for example, the second-order objections began to insinuate themselves on the Tractatus and cause the whole thing collapsed in heap? Perhaps Wittgenstein is saying that he wants to stop the torments of *that* kind of philosophy and focus instead on quite specific problems that *can* be successfully dealt with piecemeal. Such an approach would enabling him (and us) to experience at least *small* moments of real resolution and peace that don’t bring disillusionment in their train. “Problems *are* solved (difficulties eliminated),” he says, “not a *single* problem.” (First emphasis mine.) So perhaps Wittgenstein has made a “real discovery” after all: the discovery that philosophy doesn’t have to be like a single, very big problem demanding a single, very big answer – with tormenting consequences if the answer doesn’t hold. This would imply that #133 is not a picture of Wittgenstein calling into question his own philosophical practice in PI. That practice is not the activity he needs to be able to stop doing. Indeed, it may even be that the self-limiting objectives and eschewal of closure that characterize this practice might just constitute the flexible attitude that makes it possible for him (and if not him, then someone) to stop philosophizing when he wants to. Like now, for instance.

      • That wasn’t intended to be an April Fool’s joke, but it sure turned out that way, with the joke on me of course. I guess the ambiguity that got me in trouble was between stopping doing philosophy permanently, because one has completed the system or else been driven to despair trying; and stopping doing philosophy when one wants to, because philosophy is not the sort of activity that *can* be completed, only rested from. If philosophical peace amounts to stopping because one has reached the end, then there is no peace; but if it amounts to stopping on an open-ended journey, then perhaps there is peace along the way. I guess all I am saying is that Wittgenstein’s later philosophical practice, since it’s not motivated by an urgent *need* to reach an end, is more likely to be able to take natural rests on the journey. Philosophy may have been compulsory for Wittgenstein (it was his calling), but it need not have been compulsive.

        Don’t mind me, Kelly, I’m just muddling through.

  5. I don’t mind you at all, certainly not. There is much that I agree with in both of your comments. I particularly like the idea of rest stops, sorta like the Arbors that Christian finds periodically on the straight and narrow path up the Hill of Difficulty. (Wittgenstein’s stick figure man on an incline: is he clambering up or sliding back down?) But the path remains, and the Hill, and the climb, and it is unclear what it would be to have overtopped the Hill, to have exited from Difficulty.

    As I often tell my students: Philosophy is muddle-wrestling!

  6. I know you’ve moved on to Kant now, but I can’t resist relaying this coincidental discovery. While reading on Amazon yesterday some sample pages of “Leading a Human Life” by Richard Eldridge, I was stopped in my tracks when he quoted Rush Rhees paraphrasing something Wittgenstein once said to him apropos of PI #133. “In my book I say that I am able to leave off with a problem in philosophy when I want to. But that’s a lie; I can’t.” Eldridge correctly notes that Wittgenstein as usual was being unreasonably hard on himself, since the passage in question only states what the “real discovery” *would* be, not that Wittgenstein himself had actually made it. I overlooked that in my own reading. So if we trust Rhees’s memory (and I certainly have no reason to doubt it), then it appears my conjectures are incorrect. PI’s open-ended form of querying does *not* after all represent the discovery that enabled him to rest from his philosophical compulsion. For what it’s worth, it now occurs to me that Wittgenstein’s mention of second-order philosophy was not a reference to any sort of formal undertaking, such as philosophy grounding itself or whatever. Rather it was probably a reference to his very personal problem of constantly second guessing philosophy, not just the compulsive way he happened to go about it, but the very point of the activity itself even when engaged in by more balanced minds. This habit of second guessing fits Wittgenstein’s famous recommendation to his students that they find more useful lines of work than philosophy. Ultimately, of course, concerns about this man’s quite unique neurosis is of no importance for people more harmoniously engaged in thought. (It’s dark and I’m whistling.)

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