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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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….

family-resemblances.png

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.

 

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.

 

Heidegger on Philosophy, Art and Religion

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.)

%d bloggers like this: