Accidents Will Happen: Elvis Costello as Philosopher


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.

Link to essay


Oakeshott on the Importance of Teaching Differences

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.)

Wisdom Other Minds I (3): Nearly Reasons Causes

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.

Philosophical Investigations and Three Kinds of Illusion

I am linking an essay of mine that has been hanging out in my Huh? File.  That is, the file in which I put things I have written whose merits and demerits are unclear to me, or so nearly even that I cannot decide whether to invest any more effort in them.  I wrote this for viva voce delivery.  I don’t know that it deserves further work, deserves my trying to make it a full-on scholarly essay.  If any of you have the time and the curiosity to read this, let me know what you think.  Thanks in advance!

Philosophical Investigations and Three Kinds of Illusion

The Fly Bottle, Paul Horwich and Arthur Collins



“What is your aim in philosophy?–To shew the fly the way out of the fly-bottle” (PI 309)

My icon of Philosophical Investigations is an antique, green glass fly bottle that hangs on my back porch.  Morning and evening most days, as I sit outside with my dogs, I eventually find myself staring at it and thinking yet again about philosophical problems, self-entrapment and freedom.  The last few days, my thinking as been preoccupied by Paul Horwich’s preoccupation with the fly bottle in his Wittgenstein’s Metaphilosophy.  I am now at work on a new paper on Wittgenstein (for a collection on metaphilosophy) and in that paper I spend some time on Horwich’s book.  Having more or less sorted what I want to say about it, I began at last to look to see what others had said, and found a nice NDPR review of the book by a philosopher I much respect, Arthur Collins.  In the review is the following sober and sobering passage,

Like any other fan I enjoy this fly-in-a-bottle image. It is valid if it is itself not over-generalized. It says what happens to some philosophical problems according to some passages. It is not presented by Wittgenstein as the overall story for philosophy. Wittgenstein does not think that philosophy is an activity that always has the same formulaic structure, or that philosophy might close up shop one day. We should bear in mind that, the fly-bottle boast notwithstanding, Wittgenstein returns again and again to the same philosophical problems providing ever-new comparisons, examples, and insights. For instance, he had a life-long desire to deliver us from the idea of inner mental processes or entities that we can describe and report and that are somehow constitutive of our perceptual experience, sensation, remembering, believing, meaning, understanding, intending, and so on; constitutive, that is, of our conscious mental life. His work is full of brilliant passages that offer help in this project, but no completion of it is suggested. He did his brilliant and profound best. No one has matched his success. He did not think he had done anything like enough, and he was right.

And so is Collins.

More on Abiding in Hope

Abiding in hope…

Ed Mooney, over at Mists on the Rivers, has been mulling over the Heidegger passage I posted yesterday, as have I.  The passage fascinates me in part because so many paths intersect in it:  one from Socrates and his avowal of ignorance, one from Eckhart and his working-out of contemplation, one from St. Thomas and his condemnation of curiositas as a form of cognitive intemperance, one from Neitzsche and his linking the will to knowledge to the will to power, one from Husserl and his plying of the reduction, one from Marcel and his ideal of secondary reflection, and one from Wittgenstein and his contrast of explanation and description.

I cannot rise to the level of Ed Mooney–but let me say a bit more about the line from Marcel.  Marcel distinguishes primary from secondary reflection by distinguishing between what we might call their ‘objects’, problems and mysteries.  There is a lot to say about that distinction, and I have toyed with it on the blog a time or two (here for example).  But a key idea is the idea of investigations that are, as it were, self-willed, where the investigator stands above, over and against, what he investigates, and one where the investigator is ‘object-willed’, moved to consideration of what she stands enmeshed in, alongside, and which calls out to her for consideration.  We might say that in the first case, the investigation proceeds in light produced by the investigator, in the second, in light produced by the ‘object’ investigated.  (Marcel works a far-reaching change on the popular understanding of mystery, which he regards, not as a darkness that overwhelms, but as a light that is blinding, –at first, but that becomes eventually the light in which we see light:  think of Christ on Mount Tabor.)  Heidegger seems to understand some things as worthy of thought, as calling out to us to think them, and to think in relationship to them.  Curiosity all-too-often is something that we project upon the world–we think about what we regard as worthy of thought, instead of what calls us out of ourselves and into thought.

There seems to me little doubt that Walden (to hook up with Ed’s reflections) is not only a book about but a book that exemplifies secondary reflection.  And I think that secondary reflection is at play too, albeit in different ways, in Socrates’ unknowledge, Echart’s contemplation, St. Thomas’ studiositas (the contrast to curiositas), Husserl’s reduction and Wittgenstein’s descriptions.  It seems likely true even in Nietzsche’s transvalued knowledge.  For all of these, the relationship between the investigator and the investigated transforms the investigation, and that must always already be on the mind of the investigator.  The world does not bumble around us, a flattened pother of objects indifferent to their investigation and that we investigate willy-nilly as we choose, but  instead structures and variegates itself around us, featuring objects that call us to thought and objects that do not.  And what they reveal to us is not a matter of what we take from them but of what they give us, sometimes only after we have earned it by abiding in hope before them, listening even to their silence, waiting for them to speak. What we ‘know’ of them in such moments is not something that we can commodify, something that we can learn by banking on our own conceptions of reasoning about them, our own ability to wring answers to our questions from them.

Didn’t Aristotle push us this way, too, long ago, when he noted that the problem of method is entirely (note that word) determined by the object?

What Does Husserl Want?

I am preparing for a seminar on Plato, the Sophists, and psychologism this Fall.  Among the texts we will read is (sections of) Husserl’s Logical Investigations.  I have been working on the early sections on logic this morning.  Husserl complains of the incompleteness of all the sciences; none have that “inner clarity and rationality”:  as theories, they are not “crystal-clear”, the functions of all their concepts and propositions are not fully intelligible, not all of their propositions have been exactly analyzed.  –My question is this:  is this crystalline clarity Husserl demands itself crystal-clear, fully intelligible?  If not even mathematics (to take the crucial case) exhibits this crystalline clarity, then what grasp of what Husserl wants do we have?  Do we want a more mathematical mathematics?  Hard to see how that would help, since it would presumably only apply the lack of inner clarity and rationality to itself.  (And presumably not in a “fight fire with fire”-ish way.)

Now it is true that, in an important sense, Husserl attempts to explain what he wants across much of the rest of the book, often enough by the example of his phenomenological practice.  But it remains necessary to be aware that we do not really know what Husserl wants in the early sections:  clarity is something about which we have to become clear.  (Consider how distant Wittgenstein’s desiderated clarity is from Husserl’s.)

PI’s Opening Remark

The final paragraph of a paper I am now finishing:

Wittgenstein puts away the common notions that a book, particularly a book of philosophy, should open either by presenting its undeniable first premise or by defining its terms or by telling you what is coming. He does nothing of the sort. He begins instead with a quotation from St. Augustine. That quotation serves as a blessing from St. Augustine, who Wittgenstein venerated; as an example of authority or the lack of it in philosophy, or at least of its nature and its acknowledgment or denial; as a reminder of the way in which philosophy can shape even what seem relatively unremarkable remarks, as if philosophy were always stealing a march on us, out ahead of and so determining what we have it in us to think or to say; as a critical target, carrying with it a germ, a contagion, a communicable if not wholly communicated picture of communication; as a lexicon-in-use, a first glimpse of a use (or attempt at a use) of the words whose use (and non-use) will preoccupy the pages of PI; as invoking connections between philosophy and childhood and education, of the ways in which philosophy is now accessible, now inaccessible to childhood, and of the ways in which childhood is now accessible, now inaccessible to philosophy (what makes more merry or kills more joy than childhood, than philosophy?), and of the ways in which philosophy requires us to learn how to learn and how not to learn and how to unlearn what there is to learn or what we have learnt. But of course not all of that can be clear on a first reading of the first remark. Which means, I take it, that the remark has not been read until it has been double-read, until it can be read in relation to the rest of the book and the rest of the book in relation to it. As I said, PI begins but has no beginning, ends but has no ending. When we open it at the first page and we confront its first remark, we are confronting the whole of PI, not just one remark. We may make PI’s acquaintance one remark at a time, but we do not come to understand it that way. In for a dime, in for a dollar–the book makes no small change.

The Slow Cure

Wittgenstein says somewhere (Culture and Value?) that in philosophy, the slow cure is all-important.  Why is that?  Is it because of the way in which philosophical problems involve our will as well as our intellect, and that a change of heart requires rehabilitation, rehabituation, a reorientation of our feelings, –something that takes more time than a change of mind would take?  Otherwise, why take it slow?  You’d need only the time it takes to consider the conclusion in light of the argument.

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