Merleau-Ponty Underwrites Wittgenstein?

From The Visible and the Invisible:

We need only take language…in the living or nascent state, with all its references, those behind it, which connect it to the mute things it interpellates, and those it sends before itself and which make up the world of things said–with its movement, its subtleties, its reversals, its life, which expresses and multiplies tenfold the life of the bare things.  Language is a life, is our life and the life of the bare things.  Not that language takes possession of life and reserves it for itself:  what would there be to say if there existed nothing but things said?  it is the error of the semantic philosophies to close up language as if it spoke only of itself:  language lives only from silence; everything we cast to the others has germinated in this great mute land which we never leave.  But because he has experienced within himself the need to speak, the birth of speech as the bubbling up at the bottom of his mute experience, the philosopher knows better than anyone that what is lived is lived-spoken, that, born at this depth, language is not a mask over Being, but–if one knows how to grasp it with all its roots and foliation–the most valuable witness to Being, that it does not interrupt an immediation that would be perfect without it, that the vision itself, the thought itself, are, as has been said, “structured as language,” are articulation before the letter, apparition of something where there was nothing or something else…Philosophy itself is language, rests on language; but this does not disqualify it from speaking of language, nor from speaking of the pre-language and of the mute world which doubles them:  on the contrary, philosophy is an operative language, that language that can be known only from within, through its exercise, is open upon the things, called forth by the voices of silence, and continues an effort of articulation which is the Being of every being.

Completed Draft of New Talk

Since I posted bits of this already–its first part yesterday and its last part a while back–I thought I would go ahead and post the whole thing.  I find writing talks for audiences that will include both philosophers and non-philosophers especially hard.  I wish I were better at it.

Philosophical Investigations and Three Kinds of Illusion:  A Talk

Final Paragraphs of New Talk: Philosophical Investigations

[I’m unsure how much sense these paragraphs make without the preceding 15 pages or so. First draft material.]

Allow me to reiterate my thinking about the three illusions in PI As I have said, I think that transcendental illusions are central to PI, central to understanding its conception of philosophical problems. But I do not mean to deny that the other two types of illusion make appearances in PI. They do. If they didn’t, the other two readings of PI I have discussed would probably never have tempted anyone. But I do not think either of those other two illusions is central in the way transcendental illusion is central. Even more, although I do not have time to detail this now, I also think that the other two types of illusion can metastasize into transcendental illusions, and that what seems merely an empirical or logical illusion can itself be revealed to be or involve a transcendental illusion.

Still, I suspect at this point that you may be less interested in this nicety of housekeeping and more interested in the spirit-sinking midwinter bleakness of the picture of philosophical problems that I have been presenting. Haven’t I said that philosophical problems don’t get solved? —Yes. Haven’t I said that the best we can hope for is to cope with them, and that only temporarily? —Yes. Isn’t that an incredible downer? —Yes. —No. —Yes and no.

Let me revert to Kant once more, while also recalling my opening remarks. At least from his early 20’s, Kant is vexed by the uncanny fact that for so long and so often philosophers of equal education and gifts, each deeply serious and sincere, persist in apparently irreconcilable conflict. Kant regards this as a disgrace to reason. We can think of Kant’s entire philosophical career as driven by his passionate concern to settle conflicts in philosophy—not by entering a judgment in favor of either of the conflicting philosophers, but rather by entering a judgment on the conflict itself, by finding a way to end it. Kant first pictured these conflicts as between philosophers; but he later came to picture them as conflicts between arguments; and still later he came to picture them as reason in conflict with itself, as reason having fallen out of agreement with itself. This became Kant’s new picture of the uncanny fact: reason can fall into apparently irreconcilable conflict with itself.

Wittgenstein we can think of as accepting and, in a sense, extending this movement of Kant’s. He comes to see philosophical problems as manifesting my having fallen out of agreement with myself. It is this uncanny fact about me—and about you too of course—that is the mainspring of PI. Philosophical problems are all at once conceptual, i.e., invulnerable to the empirical, and also deeply personal, personal in the sense that I am at stake in them in various ways, personal in the sense that the problems encroach upon me. My desires and longings, my needs and fears, –my whole affective being potentially is part of the problem. Because it is, we cannot take a simply objective approach to the problems. We must instead always and everywhere approach the problem subjectively, attending to our mode of involvement in it. And there is always already one of those whenever we reflect on a philosophical problem. (Reflecting on a philosophical problem is not an empty holding of something, of the problem.) I am a part of, involved in, every philosophical problem that I take up, like it or not. You too are part of every philosophical problem you take up. The mode of involvement in the problem matters and is, in fact, itself a part of the problem. When we see this, we are also position so as to see what PI is showing each of us: I am susceptible to transcendental illusion. I can, with practice, develop a discipline of response to such illusions. I can teach myself—-with the aid of PI—-to push back against the pressures of transcendental illusion, to stick to ordinary realities. But learning this discipline neither ends philosophy itself for me nor ends any philosophical problem permanently. I have to recognize that I am tempted and I need to find a way of responding to the temptation other than yielding to it. And I have to recognize that there is no way simply to end temptation. I should expect to be tempted until my last breath. But none of this makes much sense if we think that philosophical problems can be independent of modes of reception. To care about illusion as Wittgenstein does is to care about modes of involvement and vice-versa: To use `illusion’ as a term of criticism as Wittgenstein does is to bring the mode of involvement in a philosophical problem into work on the problem.

Philosophy, as Wittgenstein teaches it to us in PI, is transcendental dialectic, but Wittgenstein’s transcendental dialectic is self-critique. Philosophy is self-critique. Philosophy is a form of self-knowledge. Is that a downer? No: there is philosophy to be done. There is always philosophy to be done. Self-critique has no endgame. Even more, there is progress of a sort that can be made. I can become better at resisting temptation, better at recognizing its onset; I can discipline myself to push back harder and for longer and with better focus. That is, I can come better to know myself in such a way that I become better at controlling myself. I cannot make myself impassible, invulnerable to temptation. But I can respond to it better, yield to it less often or less easily. Still, isn’t that a downer? Yes: since such self-knowledge is, face it, almost always bitter. (What I discover will not be things of which I have been ignorant, simply epistemically blank, but things I have refused to know, to acknowledge.) We would all rather not do philosophy as self-examination, self-critique. We would rather do it as distinct from the self, as objective investigation in which my self does not count. We would like to be the investigators of the investigation but not the investigated. We want to be neither shaken nor stirred.

One quick parting comment: We can understand the similarity and difference between Kant and Wittgenstein and their transcendental dialectics in this memorable way, even if it may be slightly misleading: for Kant, we see things aright philosophically when we come to see that the solutions to philosophical problems must be transcendental idealist solutions. For Wittgenstein, we become what we need to be philosophically when we become `transcendental idealists’ about the problems themselves. Wittgenstein’s Copernican Revolution (PI 108) revolves the problems—and, thus revolved, we can see past the apparent need for a solution to them. So, since I have been talking about downers, let me end with a hurrah: Vive la revolution!

Dick Moran Keeps it Real

There’s much to profit from in Moran’s recent interview at 3am magazine.  The section on Experimental Philosophy is a tour de force.

As to ‘experimental philosophy, I can’t claim to be very well versed in it, but it seems to be a research program in its early days. I think that by now, even its practitioners are beginning to realise that simply asking people, outside of any particular context, about their “intuitions” about some concept of philosophical interest is not really going to be informative since without any philosophical background to the question, the respondents themselves can’t really know just what question they are being asked to answer, what their responses are responses to. There are just too many different things that can be meant by a question like, “‘Was such-and-such an action intentional or not?”, for example. And without further discussion or further analysis, the experimenters themselves can’t know what answers they are being given by the respondents. It’s not good data. So I can imagine experimental philosophy evolving in a way to account for this, and starting to include some philosophical background to the investigation, perhaps even some philosophical history, to provide the needed context to the particular intuitions that they are trying to expose and test for. At that point, the experimental situation might also become less one-sided, with a researcher examining a respondent, and could allow for the experimental subjects themselves to ask questions of the experimenters, including questions of clarification and disambiguation, and perhaps even challenges to the way the experimenter has framed the questions.

Later it might be found useful to conduct such experiments in small groups rather than individually, with one experimenter and one subject, and instead the respondents could be encouraged to discuss the questions among themselves as well as with the experimenter. People could meet in these groups two or three times a week and perhaps some relevant reading could be assigned, to clarify and expand upon the question, and the respondents would be given time to do the reading, and asked to write something later on about the question in connection with the reading and the discussions they have had. Then the experimenter could provide “comments” on this writing for the experimental subjects themselves. I think grading the results would be optional in such an arrangement, and probably of no experimental interest, but other than that I think something like this could be the future of experimental philosophy. It’s worth trying anyway.

Philosophical Questions 4: Understanding Rhees

One of the striking things about Rhees’ passage is this:  there is not only something deeply peculiar about the question that seeks understanding in philosophy, but there is also something deeply peculiar about the understanding which is sought.  It is not something that can be formulated, stated.  I will say more about that this week, but for now I just want to relate the idea to the work of Rhees himself.

Reading Rhees is itself a peculiar experience.  In one sense, everything is simple, and its simplicity is further simplified by its repetitive, chant-like structure.  Sentences are short.  Rarely is any technical or recondite vocabulary employed.  And yet, and yet Rhees work is extremely difficult.  It is as though what he wants you to understand cannot be found in any of his sentences, no matter how often repeated.  It is as though what he wants you to understand is somehow floating among the sentences, brought to presence by them, but embodied in no one of them nor in their conjunction.  —So maybe Rhees has found a way of writing that is true to his conception of the understanding that is sought in philosophy?

Philosophical Questions 3

Philosophical puzzlement:  unless this does–or may–threaten the possibility of understanding altogether, then it is not the sort of thing that has worried philosophers.  If you overlook that, then you do not see what the understanding is that is sought in philosophy; or what it is that may be reached.  But the understanding that is sought, and the understanding that may be reached–the understanding that has been achieved if philosophical difficulty has really been resolved–is not something one could formulate; as though one could now give an account of the structure of reality, and how how language corresponds to it; and to show the possibility or reality of discourse in that way.  –Rush Rhees

A most remarkable passage.  There’s much that I’d like to say about it, but I want for now to limit myself to its bearing on the issue of philosophical questions and answers.  Take Rhees to be pointing out just how hard it is to see how deep philosophical questions go, and so how hard it is to see how peculiar the answers to them must be.

Philosophical question threaten the very possibility of understanding altogether, but this means that the questions threaten their very possibility as questions, and threaten the very possibility of answers to them.  The questions challenge the reality of discourse, of understanding:  but how can a question, a mode of discourse, something that must be understood, challenge the reality of discourse or understanding?  Success would seem failure; but failure cannot be success, can it?  What sorts of questions are these?

More soon.

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