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.

O. K. Bouwsma Does the Forms

Imagine, for this purpose, a museum–a museum, deep in calm, fixed in breathlessness, done in silence, clothed in invisibility, awful, laid away in heaven.  And the walls thereof are purest essence, some quint-essence, some tri-essence, but none semi-essence.  If senescence is no wall, for neither is olderness nor youngerness any ness at all, all is evermore and never the less.  And of what essence and what essences are those walls?  Of all heavenlinessences are they and of brightlinessence the beaminest.  Essences participating in essence, like May-girls around May-pole enribboned, and enribboning one another, they ring-round this conjugation of hyper-supers…This is the museum of quiddities, of whatnesses in their highest nest, tucked away, ensconced, waiting for refiners defining, so fine they are.  The museum of none-such such-and-suches.

Let us enter…

John Locke Lectures, “The Flux”,

Back Again

I have been on extended blog hiatus.  Various reasons for that, lately the conference on Thomas Merton I organized as part of the term’s Philosophy and Religion Workshop activities.  I gave a talk on Merton’s late long poem, Cables to the Ace.  I will likely share a bit of it in the next few days or weeks.

I am about to get back to work on Wittgenstein–I have a new paper I need to get back to, and a number of old ones that need a bit of dressing up before they go out.  I also have to write a new short paper on him (and poetry) for a talk later this Spring.  So, I am guessing that I will be back to posting about him here this term, as I work on these projects.

I have also finished the manuscript of my new book of poems, Brown Studies.  More about that soon.


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