Wisdom, Other Minds I (Part 2): Philosophical Criticism

Wisdom offers a piece of philosophical criticism, in this case, self-criticism.  He takes what he is doing to be decisively influenced by Wittgenstein, but it does not live up to Wittgenstein’s example.  It is not sufficiently hard-working.  It is a bit cheap and flash. It is tempting to understand this as admitting that although what Wisdom has to say is–in terms of its content–decisively influenced by Wittgenstein, it is not–in terms of its form–decisively influenced by Wittgenstein.  It does not live up to the standards Wittgenstein set.

This is not a hopeless understanding of Wisdom’s admission, but the bare distinction between form and content seems too crude to clarify much–particularly where Wittgenstein’s work is part of the story.  Whatever else is true of Wittgenstein’s work–and I take this to characterize his lecturing as well as his writing–he aimed at work that unified form and content.  Wisdom got that, I think.  He aims at unifying form and content in his own work.  (Renford Bambrough tells the story of taking an essay he had written to Wisdom.  Wisdom reads it and responds with dismay–“A return to the old dogmatic idiom.”  Wisdom writes always in an idiom other than dogmatic–playful, tentative, dialectically complex and committed, but aporetic.)  Part of his admission is that his work does not quite unify form and content, or unify it to the degree that Wittgenstein’s did.  I think this gets us closer to what Wisdom is admitting.  But I do not think it quite gets us there.

Wisdom takes his admission to bring ‘personal’ attitudes into assessing philosophical work.  He rates ‘personal’ attitudes as appropriate, and rates ‘impersonal’ or objective attitudes as potentially confusing categories, as turning (or threatening to turn) philosophy into science.  The objective attitude asks whether what a philosopher says is true.  It asks for the reasons a philosopher offers for what he says.  And that is all.  Nothing else matters.

Wisdom believes other things matter.

Before I start trying to tabulate these other things, let me take an apparent detour that will be not a detour but a shortcut.  One of the most important themes in Cavell’s Must We Mean What We Say? is that of philosophical criticism.  I am reasonably sure that the term ‘philosophical criticism’ itself, and the theme of philosophical criticism in the book, are anchored to this passage of Wisdom’s.  I do not mean that Cavell meekly inherits Wisdom’s terminology or theme (when has Cavell ever done that–with anyone’s term or theme?) but rather that Wisdom is a key figure in the origin story of Cavell’s theme of philosophical criticism.  Consider this passage.  Cavell is talking about Austin’s terms of criticism:

To suggest that if such terms do not seem formidable directions of criticism, and perhaps not philosophical at all…that may be because philosophy is only just learning, for all its history of self-criticism and self-consciousness, to become conscious of itself in a new way, at further ranges of its activity.  One could say that attention is being shifted from the character of the philosopher’s argument to the character of the philosopher arguing…[Such a shift] could…open a new literary-philosophical criticism, in a tradition which knows how to claim, for example, the best of Kierkegaard and Nietzsche.  Whatever the outcome, however, what I am confident of is that the relevance of the shift should itself become a philosophical problem.

I hope the connection between this passage and Wisdom seems generally clear.  I will say more about details next time.

(Addendum:  Cavell imprisons Wisdom in MWMWWS?’s footnotes.  So far as I can recall, he never mentions Wisdom in the text proper.  But he mentions him in several notes in the early essays.  The notes tend to be stationed at rather important junctures in the essays.  The most openly appreciative is on p. 40, n. 36.)

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