The Two Desk Problem

Wittgenstein’s parables, like Jesus’, have a peculiar power to capsize thought, to overturn it even as it sails its trade routes.

His BlBk parable about the floor exemplifies the power (p. 45).  The target of the parable is the idea that physics teaches us that the floor, or a desk, is mostly empty space.  This teaching seems to render the floor beneath us or the desk before us shaky, almost visibly trembly, certainly not certainly up to the task of holding me up or holding up my copy of Bradley’s Appearance and Reality (a heavy-ish tome).

But what physics teaches constitutes its explanation of the solidity (not, in this case, the insolidity) of the desk.  Physics explains why the desk shoulders Bradley.  That explanation cannot render the desk unhelpful. And that explanation cannot spawn a second desk–call it ‘the desk of the philosophers’–that now must somehow be reconciled with a first desk–call it ‘the desk of Moore, Austin and Wittgenstein’.  But there is no second desk.  There is just the one, solid, quietly helpful, patient to endure investigation even by physicists.

Explanations cannot swallow their own heads.

Blue Book Family Likenesses–Craving Generality?

There it is.  In every photo in which I am pictured standing empty-handed.  (I am nearly always empty-handed.)  I stand as my dad stands–or stood when he was younger.  I don’t mind that, even if I find it eerie, even if it provokes me to distances–from my picture and from my body at the moment of viewing the picture….


I mention this because I have been teaching the Blue Book and talking with my students about family likeness (BlBk) or family resemblances (PI).  It is remarkable, given the clarity (at least here) of Wittgenstein’s rhetorical construction, that so many come away from the section thinking that Wittgenstein’s revolution consists in replacing a quixotic quest for commonalities with a promising quest for family resemblances.  –As if the attack on the question “What is the meaning of a word?” really reduced to a shift in quest.

Not that there’s anything wrong with family resemblances.  Or with commonalities for that matter.  Except deciding that one or the other is the philosophical desideratum, the fated form of philosophical finality.

The family resemblances bit is a way of reminding us that ‘unity’ is said in many (at least two) ways.  It is not the replacement of one unity-prey with a different unity-prey.  Be wary of going a-hunting for commonalities.  Be wary likewise of going a-hunting for family likenesses.  Throttle back that craving for generality:  don’t just change gears.

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