Duncan Richter wrote a lovely reflection on my talk at VMI on Wednesday. Thanks to him for listening so carefully and following up so gracefully–and all with a cold!
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.
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.
Here’s a thing about Heidegger. For all that is forbidding and foreboding in his writing, he can produce passages of a peculiar beauty. Often, the passages seem to come from next-to-nothing, like a mouse spontaneously generated from grey rags and dust. Or they suddenly loom up, unforeseeably jutting out of an apparently flat landscape.
Consider the abrupt apotheosizing of the inner form of philosophy in this passage:
Only if we go along with this work [Hegel’s Phenomenology] with patience–understood in the sense of really working with it–will it show its actuality and its inner form. However, the form of this work–here as everywhere else in genuine philosophy–is not an addition which is meant for the literary connoisseur. Nor is the question that of literary decoration or of stylistic talent. Rather, its inner form is the inner necessity of the issue itself. For philosophy is, like art and religion, a human-superhuman affair of primary and ultimate significance. Clearly separated from both art and religion and yet equally primary with both of them, philosophy necessarily stands in the radiance of what is beautiful and in the throes of what is holy.
(It is fascinating how this passage resonates with the Preface of PI. Wittgenstein there relates how he pictured the essence of the book he wanted to write, and how he then came to repent of the picture. He realized that the actual inner form of his book was the inner necessity of the book’s issue itself–and that the book’s inner form was not one that proceeded from one remark to another naturally and without breaks. So when he ends the Preface by conceding that he has not written a good book–or not as good a book as he would have liked to write–he is not measuring his lack of success against the pictured essence of the book. And he is not measuring the book’s literary decoration or his stylistic talent, where each of those is understood as ‘additive’. No. He is measuring the book, measuring himself as its writer, against a full realization of the book’s own actual inner form, a full realization of its own inner necessity. Every force evolves a form, yes; but not every force fully evolves its form.)
Accidents will happen; yes, they will. I wrote this little essay more than 25 years ago. I think it was my first–certainly it was one of my first–attempts to say much of anything about ordinary language philosophy or about Elvis Costello. It fell out of my file cabinet today as I was hunting something else. I had thought it gone for good. Perhaps it would have been better if I had not found it; perhaps I should not post it. Perhaps. Anyway, here it is. Apologies in advance.
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.)
But I didn’t then realize how near to reasons are causes which aren’t reasons and how beside the point are many reasons.
What is Wisdom saying? I do not think we can answer this unless we face the fact that Wisdom understands philosophy as targeting individuals with philosophical problems instead of philosophical problems. Consider this passage from “The Logic of God”:
But I want to come to know what you mean. I want to know what’s at the back of your saying that questions which seem to be real questions aren’t really; I want to know what makes you say it…
Now, in this passage, Wisdom goes on to say that he wants to know the reasons the person has, whether the person is right or wrong or neither. Let’s ignore that for a bit and focus instead on the lines I quoted. A source of much of the energy of Wisdom’s philosophizing is his desire to come to know what someone means, what he (Wisdom) means. Much of what he writes serves that purpose–and often, when he has come to know what someone means, Wisdom is finished. That is a stopping place for his way of doing philosophy. And that is important to bear in mind. Coming to know what a particular person means is a process of coming to know what is at the back of the person saying what he or she says. I highlight this idea because it frames the comment about reasons and causes with which I started.
Wisdom is wrestling with embodied philosophical problems, the philosophical problems of someone somewhere sometime. Often, what gives philosophical problems there special air of urgent depth is the fact that the person with the problem is in the causal grip of something that is damn near a reason, all but a reason. Wisdom is courting paradox here–as he nearly always does: he is the troubadour of paradox (but that is a topic for later). Wisdom believed in the seclusion of causes from reasons. But he never denies that they can almost touch. There are causes that are yes-yes-yes-almost reasons. That is, there are causes of things we believe, things we think, that work in ways that mimic some of the ways reasons work. These are causes that determine our thinking but in ways that we can clarify to ourselves, in ways that we can alter by taking (the right kind of) thought, by coming to know what we mean. These causes that are almost reasons are often what we find when we discover what is at the back of our saying, philosophically, this or that. Ridding ourselves of such causes is possible–but very tricky. Because they are not reasons, they cannot be falsified. To press a term of Bouwsma’s into new service, these causes have to be disfuted, not refuted.
I will say more about this soon, but I will finish for now with this thought. Consider what Wittgenstein calls “pictures” in PI. Should we think of these as causes of ways we think, what we think, or as reasons? Or are they best thought of as causes that are almost reasons? Surely, they are often what we discover when we come to know what we mean, when we come to know what is at the back of what we think.