Gamey Language: Desultory Morning Thoughts

This morning, I was in that half-conscious, pre-volitional dawn that accompanies slow waking, when a snatch of conversation from many years ago pressed itself on me:

I had been unguardedly talking to a student about my excited, initial work on Philosophical Investigations, and I must have used the term, ‘language-game’.  A colleague  of mine, passing through the hallway at that moment, trigger-fingered a drive-by objection:  “Wittgenstein was a fool; language is not a game.”

My memory of the conversation ends there, although I suspect that twenty-four year old me shrugged and went on talking to the student.  Anyway…

Wittgenstein, so far as I can recall, never calls language a game.  To think that his use of the term ‘language-game’ shows that he did is to manifest a tin ear.

Sidestep:  It still amazes me, naif that I am, that a tin ear is not recognized as a liability in philosophy, as it should be, but is often required for membership in the discipline.  So much of philosophy really does takes the form of either missing someone else’s pun or refusing to see that you are committed to one (Schopenhauer on the will, anyone?  Anyone?  Bueller?).

Anyway, right, language is not a game.  But Wittgenstein never said it was.

He also never added a new item to the metaphysical inventory–language-game.

He offered us a comparison.

Julius Kovesi long ago put this right:  a language-game is not a game played with words, but an activity of which words are part.

Wittgenstein was attempting to get us to a vantage point from which we could see that activity.  And keep seeing it.  Why?  Because he knew we tend to forget it, overlook it.

Merleau-Ponty wrote in The Prose of the World that “we all secretly venerate the ideal of a language that would deliver us from language….”

He goes on to complete the line: “…by delivering us to things.”  I’m not so much focused on what we might be delivered to as I am to what we want delivery from.

We hanker for a language that delivers us from language.  Wittgenstein knew that, knew that we wanted to be able to use words unused, untouched by us, fresh from some celestial autoclave, sterile and wonderful, fit for full expression.

But–expression of what?  Of something we don’t say,  can’t say, because we don’t have a clue what we would be talking about.  Because we wouldn’t be talking about anything.  Words do what they do because we are doing things with them.

All the damn time.

We make it happen.

Or nothing happens.

Language is not a game.  But it is only game to the extent we are.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Paul Ziff on Writing Philosophy

Paul was intensely concerned with the problem of how one should write philosophy. I recall comments on the careless and inattentive reading habits of philosophers. Wondering how long he held that opinion, I peruse his preface to Semantic Analysis (1960), and find: “It seems to me that nowadays hardly anyone pays any attention to what a man says, only to what one thinks he means.”

Paul’s papers eventually became experiments in writing, designed to hold his readers to a higher standard of attentiveness. He all but ignored the conventional rules of punctuation. Apart from the colon and period, there was little else. It was risky, of course. The outcome might be a defeat of his intentions, or approximate his intentions but find uncomprehending readers, in both cases risking ridicule. It might, also, exemplify philosophy communicating itself more effectively, in a fusion of form and content releasing new energy for the difficult task of reading.  –Robert Vorsteg

Wittgenstein’s Three Living Principles

More of the fruits of cleaning–an old essay I forgot that I wrote.  I gave it at a Pacific APA, I think; anyway, I likely forgot it because it got anaphora’d (carried up) into my Concept ‘Horse’ Book.  But it now strikes me as usefully revealing the topography of that book.

 

Bradley’s Rule

Another entry in the Bradley Calvacade:

I am afraid that, when some readers hear a poor ‘ontologist’ like myself uttering warning cries about the limits of our knowledge, they will think of Satan mighty in the scriptures or rebuking sin.  And yet I feel bound to submit to their attention that very rule which made me an ontologist, still keeps, and will keep me one:  Where you find a puzzle you are making an assumption, and it is your duty to find out what that assumption is.

What should we make of this rule?  In context, I believe the right way to understand it is to situate it against Kant’s Antinomies, or, relatedly, against Ramsey’s maxim.  Let me use the latter:

It is a heuristic maxim that the truth lies not in one of two disputed views, but in some third possibility which has not yet been thought of, and which we only discover by rejecting something assumed as obvious by the two disputants.

Ramsey’s maxim, forcefully economized (and internalized) as Bradley’s Rule, shapes the whole of Appearance and Reality–and indeed the whole of Bradley’s work.

The anti-Augustinian property colors metaphilosophy:  when someone asks how to do philosophy, we know, but when no one asks (and we are doing it), we do not know.  Philosophical ‘practice’ can seem impermeable to metaphilosophical ‘theory’.  All too often, in the throes of the problems, our metaphilosophy reduces to ornamental chatter.  It bears no load.  But not in Bradley.  He keeps his rules–he walks his talk’s walk.

 

 

 

Oakeshott on the Importance of Teaching Differences

Here is Michael Oakeshott in Experience and Its Modes, channeling Bradley:

To bother about a confusion de genres is the sign of decadent thought.  –But this is not the view of the matter I have come to take.  For…it became increasingly clear that unless these forms of experience were separated and kept separate, our experience would be unprotected against the most insidious and crippling of all forms of error–irrelevance.  And when we consider further the errors and confusion, the irrelevance and cross-purposes, which follow from a failure to determine the exact character and significance of (for example) scientific or historical experience, it becomes possible to suppose that those who offer us their opinions upon these topics may have something to say of which we should take notice.  To dismiss the whole affair as a matter of mere words is the first impulse only of those who are ignorant of the chaos into which experience degenerates when this kind of question is answered perfunctorily or is left altogether without an answer.  “Truth”, says Bacon, “comes more easily out of error than out of confusion”:  but the view I have to recommend is that confusion, ignoratio elenchi, is itself the most fatal of all errors, and that it occurs whenever argument or inference passes from one world of experience to another, from what is abstracted on one principle from what is abstracted upon another, from what is abstract to what is concrete, and from what is concrete to what is abstract…So far, then, as this part of my subject is concerned, it may be considered as an investigation of the character of irrelevance or ignoratio elenchi.

(Oakeshott names Bradley’s Appearance and Reality as one of the two books, along with Hegel’s Phenomenology, from which he has learnt the most.)

Bradley’s Critique

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Kant:

That logic has already, from the earliest times, proceeded upon this sure path is evidenced by the fact that since Aristotle it has not required to retrace a single step, unless, indeed, we care to count as improvements the removal of certain needless subtleties or the clearer exposition of its recognized teaching, features which concern the elegance rather than the certainty of the science. It is remarkable also that to the present day this logic has not been able to advance a single step, and is thus to all appearance a closed and completed body of doctrine. If some of the moderns have thought to enlarge it by introducing psychological chapters on the different faculties of knowledge (imagination, wit, etc.), metaphysical chapters on the origin of knowledge or on the different kinds of certainty according to difference in the objects (idealism, skepticism, etc.), or anthropological chapters on prejudices, their causes and remedies, this could only arise from their ignorance of the peculiar nature of logical science. We do not enlarge but disfigure sciences, if we allow them to trespass upon one another’s territory.  [emphasis mine]  The sphere of logic is quite precisely delimited; its sole concern is to give an exhaustive exposition and a strict proof of the formal rules of all thought, whether it be a priori or empirical, whatever be its origin or its object, and whatever hindrances, accidental or natural, it may encounter in our minds.

I have been reading and teaching F. H. Bradley.  I have also been reading about him–reading T. S. Eliot, Geoffrey Hill, Alan Donagan and others.  Bradley wrote wonderfully (and I have remarked on his prose previously on the blog).  But Bradley was a genuinely gifted thinker as well as stylist.  At the heart of his work is stationed the acknowledgment that Kant expresses above (“We do not enlarge but disfigure…”) and Bradley observes it dutifully throughout all his work.

Consider one important, wholly characteristic passage:

The supposed gulf between sheer errors and utter truths is, again, created by the same vice of abstractionism.  A truth so true that it has no other side, and an error so false that it contains no truth, I have condemned as idols.  They are to me no better than the truths which are never at all born in time, or again the truths whose life does not pass beyond that which is made and unmade by chance and change…

On the one hand it is the entire Reality alone which matters.  On the other hand, every single thing, so far as it matters, is so far real, real in its own place and degree, and according as more or less it contains and carries out the in-dwelling character of the concrete Whole.  But there is nothing anywhere in the world which, taken barely in its own right and unconditionally, has importance and is real.  And one main work of philosophy is to show that, where there is isolation and abstraction, there is everywhere, so far as this abstraction forgets itself, unreality and error.

This:  Bradley’s peculiar anti-reductionism.  Bradley’s (Absolute) idealism largely resolves into this anti-reductionism.  It is easy to miss it, in part because Bradley’s talk of abstractionism makes you think up not down as reductionism usually does.  The anti-reductionism yeilds an ideal-ized version of Butler:  Everything is what it is and not another thing, and in the place that it is and not another place, and to the degree that it is and not to another.

Everything is justified as being real in its own sphere and degree, but not so as to entitle it to invade other spheres, and, whether positively or negatively, to usurp other powers…And it is the true Absolute alone that gives its due to every interest just because it refuses to everything more than its own due.  Justice in the name of the Whole to each aspect of the world according to its special place and proper rank–Reality everywhere through self-restriction and in denial…

For Bradley, philosophy enforces justice in the name of the Whole.  Isolation discounts the Whole for the sake of a part; abstraction discounts the part for the sake of the Whole. We may, if we need, knowingly isolate or knowingly abstract–knowingly discount Whole or part for the sake of the other.  But we must not allow ourselves to forget what we are doing, and so lose either the Whole or the part.  Bradley knew that to take thought is almost always to isolate or to abstract, and so he knew that taking thought renders the thinker liable to unreality or error.  The only way to resist the unreality or error is to remain constantly aware not only of the product of isolation or abstraction, but also of the process of isolation or abstraction that produced it, and so not lose sight of the product’s limited value and reality.  Philosophy itself matters, remains real, only through self-restriction and in denial.  Bradley would have appreciated J. L. Austin’s metaphilosophical reminder–neither a be-all nor and end-all be.

Bradley’s work is a remarkable conceptual successor of Kant’s; it is thoroughly Critical, and so thoroughly critical.  It builds nothing but character.

 

 

John Wisdom *Other Minds*

Now that the *Chuck* storm is subsiding (I am doing some desultory redrafting), I am going to turn my attention to John Wisdom’s *Other Minds*.  I plan to write a bit about it here over the next few weeks.  It was Wisdom, not Wittgenstein, not Austin, who first drew me into ordinary language philosophy.  I am a big fan.  More on this soon.

John Wisdom

John Wisdom

Philosophical Investigations and Three Kinds of Illusion

I am linking an essay of mine that has been hanging out in my Huh? File.  That is, the file in which I put things I have written whose merits and demerits are unclear to me, or so nearly even that I cannot decide whether to invest any more effort in them.  I wrote this for viva voce delivery.  I don’t know that it deserves further work, deserves my trying to make it a full-on scholarly essay.  If any of you have the time and the curiosity to read this, let me know what you think.  Thanks in advance!

Philosophical Investigations and Three Kinds of Illusion

Seeing a Cow in a Hat Shop (Ryle)

A cow wearing a hat

Ryle:

The epistemologist with the usual theoretical habits may bring himself to attend to the ways in which we use task-verbs, and may come to agree that our uses of achievement-verbs are correlated in certain important ways with our uses of task-verbs.  But he will still feel that a theory is being based upon what is exceptional rather than what is regular.  For ordinarily which I report having seen a cow or detected a smell of gas, I cannot, with the best will in the world, report the prior occurrence of a process of scrutiny.  Seeing a cow is not something accomplished as the terminal stage of a methodical process, however swift.  No task was accomplished, undertaken or envisaged.  I just saw a cow.  I did not so manage things or so organise my doings that at the last I saw a cow.  See a cow was, in an important way, the first thing that happened…

Now we must of course grant that the recognition on sight of the obvious cow is not the last move in a series of moves…But the non-occurrence of preliminaries does not entail the non-exercise of a technique.  We do not say that someone is skilful at something only when he frowns and hesitates over the doing of it; indeed, one of the signs that someone has achieved complete mastery of an art like signalling, pruning or long-division, is that he regularly performs perfectly the ordinary tasks in it without his wondering how to do it or preparing himself by any self-reminders, exhortation, exercises or other preliminaries.

Now we are all in the position of having achieved perfect mastery of the art of recognizing on sight the customary occupants of our customary environment–at least, when the light is good or fair, our health is normal, we are not dizzy or standing on our heads, looking through strange optical instruments and so on.  When all is plain sailing, no navigational problems are considered, nor do we try to make out what we are looking at when we get a fair view of a lonely cow in the sort of place where cows are among the things that we are not surprised to come across.  Of course we had once to learn how cows look at different distances, from different angles and in different lights, as well as where cows can be expected to be found, and it is just because that lesson has been learned and not forgotten that the cows is now obvious to us.  Its obviousness is the fact that the technique of recognizing it on sight has no longer to be exercised in a tentative way–and when we do have to exercise the technique in a tentative way, as when a cow confronts us in a thick fog, or in a hat shop, what we are looking at is for a moment or more not obviously a cow.  And, of course, the fact that it is ordinarily obvious that what we are looking at is a cow does not exclude the chance of its not being a cow at all.  It may be a goat, or a hole in the hedge looking like a cow.  Or there may be nothing that looks like a cow and I am just ‘seeing things’.  That such cases are exceptional is part of the meaning of such words as ‘see’. ‘perceive’, and so on, as well as of words like ‘obvious’.  If ‘I see a cow’ were not usually true, I could not fancy I saw a cow…

PI’s Opening Remark

The final paragraph of a paper I am now finishing:

Wittgenstein puts away the common notions that a book, particularly a book of philosophy, should open either by presenting its undeniable first premise or by defining its terms or by telling you what is coming. He does nothing of the sort. He begins instead with a quotation from St. Augustine. That quotation serves as a blessing from St. Augustine, who Wittgenstein venerated; as an example of authority or the lack of it in philosophy, or at least of its nature and its acknowledgment or denial; as a reminder of the way in which philosophy can shape even what seem relatively unremarkable remarks, as if philosophy were always stealing a march on us, out ahead of and so determining what we have it in us to think or to say; as a critical target, carrying with it a germ, a contagion, a communicable if not wholly communicated picture of communication; as a lexicon-in-use, a first glimpse of a use (or attempt at a use) of the words whose use (and non-use) will preoccupy the pages of PI; as invoking connections between philosophy and childhood and education, of the ways in which philosophy is now accessible, now inaccessible to childhood, and of the ways in which childhood is now accessible, now inaccessible to philosophy (what makes more merry or kills more joy than childhood, than philosophy?), and of the ways in which philosophy requires us to learn how to learn and how not to learn and how to unlearn what there is to learn or what we have learnt. But of course not all of that can be clear on a first reading of the first remark. Which means, I take it, that the remark has not been read until it has been double-read, until it can be read in relation to the rest of the book and the rest of the book in relation to it. As I said, PI begins but has no beginning, ends but has no ending. When we open it at the first page and we confront its first remark, we are confronting the whole of PI, not just one remark. We may make PI’s acquaintance one remark at a time, but we do not come to understand it that way. In for a dime, in for a dollar–the book makes no small change.

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