We, too, dull our understandings with trifles, fill the heavenly spaces with phantoms, waste the heavenly time with hurry. When I trouble myself over a trifle, even a trifle confessed–the loss of some little article, say–spurring my memory, and hunting the house, not from an immediate need, but from dislike of loss; when a book has been borrowed of me and not returned, and I have forgotten the borrower, and fret over the missing volume…is it not time I lost a few things when I care for them so unreasonably? This losing of things is of the mercy of God: it comes to teach us to let them go. Or have I forgotten a thought that came to me, which seemed of the truth?…I keep trying and trying to call it back, feeling a poor man till that thought be recovered–to be far more lost, perhaps, in a notebook, into which I shall never look again to find it! I forgot that it is live things which God cares about.
Scholars say that an author – usually of a philosophical text with literary dimensions – ‘invites’ us to do this or that, think of this or that, when they wish to treat the text as possessed of a sort of rigor, but also to avoid having to show how this rigor is essentially a matter of the literary dimensions of the text. This is like receiving an invitation, not accepting it, but passing it on to someone else.
‘We’ve been invited!’
‘Oh, how nice. Are you going?’
‘Well you’ve been invited! We all have!’
‘But what about you?’
I would like to say that this can’t be done halfway. To acknowledge the text’s rigor is to accept the invitation. The troublesome question should be, can it be accepted at all if one’s response is any less literary than the original? And more troublesome: how will one make one’s response just as literary, without loss of rigor?
Here is a draft of a talk I am to give soon. I was asked to present something that might inspire majors and non-majors, and to do something more like what I would do in a class than what I would do giving a conference paper. This is the result so far. It is a formalization of the sort of thing I might do in an upper-level class. Since I think of it as a talk and not a paper, it is not bedecked with all the scholarly niceties–footnotes or full footnotes, etc. Most of the footnotes are really just drawers in which I have stashed useful quotations or (I hope) brief, helpful clarifications. Comments welcome.
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?
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.
Those who have been following the blog will recognize this as a both recapitulation and variation on earlier bits and pieces. It is from the essay I am working on.
A…Socratic aspect of Kierkegaard’s thought is found in its instrumentalism, its consistently pragmatic character with reference to theory, expression, and practice. In this connection is it instructive to remember the difference between Socrates and Plato. The dialectic which in the hands of Socrates was an instrument to sweep away the cobwebs of illusion to make room for the human ideals, therefore a means of self-discipline and incidentally also a discipline of others, this dialectic was transformed by Plato, more or less clearly and consciously, into an end in itself, and the abstractions developed by this dialectic therefore naturally became the supreme realities. In short, Socrates was an existential thinker, to use Kierkegaard’s terminology, while Plato was a speculative metaphysician. What Kierkegaard especially admires in Socrates is that he had no objective result, but only a way, that that it is only by following the Socratic way that one can reach the Socratic result…
In this Socratic sense, Kierkegaard’s own thought was instrumental and pragmatic also. His objective thinking is everywhere absorbed–absorbed back into the subjective, the personality… –Swenson, “A Danish Socrates”
I’m not entirely sure the actual Plato (as opposed to the textbook Plato) is quite as far from Socrates as Swenson puts him, but I think the contrast a good one–even if the actual men contrasted do not stand in such contrast to one another.