Essence and Grammar (and Definition)

Reshef Agam-Segal has asked about the difference between Socrates’ desire for a definition and Wittgenstein’s for grammar.  The two desires meet or can seem to meet in the word ‘essence’.  Socrates wants to know, say, the essence of piety.  Wittgenstein wants to know the grammar of piety (“theology as grammar”); and, according to Wittgenstein, “essence is expressed by grammar”.  So each chases essence.

What Socrates chases is familiar enough (at least as standardly interpreted).  What Wittgenstein chases is not so familiar. To succeed in construing the grammar of piety would be to express the essence of piety.  The grammar of piety would be construed in an a series of grammatical remarks. But the series of grammatical remarks does not tell us the essence of piety.  Rather, the series of remarks expresses the essence of piety.  ‘Express’ in “essence is expressed by grammar” works intransitively.  That is, what grammar expresses is not something that we can tell, can say. If you like, what grammar expresses is inexpressible. (Moving, in that sentence, from the intransitive to transitive.)

We are here at one of those anti-type spots in PI–of which, of course, TLP contains the type.  We are in the ambit of showing/saying, as indeed in Wittgenstein we always already are.  But, as my typological talk is meant to suggest, what we have in PI is something foreshadowed in TLP; but what we have in PI is not what we have in TLP.  Getting the differences straight is more than I can do; I will though do what I can.  Perhaps the best place to start is with a glaring absence in PI:  the absence of the symbolism.  The symbolism glyphs the pages of TLP.  It wards those pages.  Without a real, active and sympathetic inwardness with the symbolism, TLP is a closed book.  (Anyone who has attempted to teach the book to undergraduates will know this.)  But the symbolism is almost nowhere to be seen in PI.  What does that mean?  And what does it mean for showing/saying in PI?  [Pause here to light pipe.]

One thing it means, I reckon, is that showing or expressing is now something done by means of ordinary sentences, by means of the spatio-temporal phenomena of language.  The crucial issue in PI is the issue of our relationship to those sentences, to those phenomena.  A sentence is a grammatical remark not in and of itself–noumenally, as it were–but rather because of our orientation upon it.  The possibility of the orientation that makes a sentence a grammatical remark, and so one that expresses or contributes to the expression of essence, results from our being in the grip of a philosophical problem.  The problems provide the light, we might say, in which a sentence can shine forth as grammatical, as essence-expression. Without the problem, the sentence is, well, just a sentence.  Philosophy is a battle against the-bewitchment-of-our-intelligence by means of language, by means of the spatio-temporal phenomena of language.  But the language is only a weapon in that battle–a weapon of peace, ultimately, to be sure–if we orient on it in a way made possible by a philosophical problem.

This makes philosophizing in Wittgenstein’s way both easier and harder.  It is easier in that we need no special magical weapon, no Excalibur, no symbolism, to do what needs doing in philosophy.  It is harder because the weapons we have can always appear to be no weapons at all, to be valueless in the fight.  (“So?  That’s just more words.”)  Being in the grip of a philosophical problem makes the necessary orientation possible, but it does not make it automatic.  Being in the grip of a philosophical problem can also make the necessary orientation look only like so much rigmarole, like a willful way of losing track of what really matters in responding to the problem. Losing our way among words can lead us further afield, but it can also allow words to lead us home in a way that they ordinarily do not.  “Where the danger is, also grows the saving power.”  [Pipe dies; re-light.]

Having written all this, I am aware that I have still not answered Reshef’s question.  But I hope this opens the way to answering his question.  And I hope to get back to his question again soon.  (Thanks to D. for a recent useful conversation about these topics.)

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