Merleau-Ponty Underwrites Wittgenstein?

From The Visible and the Invisible:

We need only take language…in the living or nascent state, with all its references, those behind it, which connect it to the mute things it interpellates, and those it sends before itself and which make up the world of things said–with its movement, its subtleties, its reversals, its life, which expresses and multiplies tenfold the life of the bare things.  Language is a life, is our life and the life of the bare things.  Not that language takes possession of life and reserves it for itself:  what would there be to say if there existed nothing but things said?  it is the error of the semantic philosophies to close up language as if it spoke only of itself:  language lives only from silence; everything we cast to the others has germinated in this great mute land which we never leave.  But because he has experienced within himself the need to speak, the birth of speech as the bubbling up at the bottom of his mute experience, the philosopher knows better than anyone that what is lived is lived-spoken, that, born at this depth, language is not a mask over Being, but–if one knows how to grasp it with all its roots and foliation–the most valuable witness to Being, that it does not interrupt an immediation that would be perfect without it, that the vision itself, the thought itself, are, as has been said, “structured as language,” are articulation before the letter, apparition of something where there was nothing or something else…Philosophy itself is language, rests on language; but this does not disqualify it from speaking of language, nor from speaking of the pre-language and of the mute world which doubles them:  on the contrary, philosophy is an operative language, that language that can be known only from within, through its exercise, is open upon the things, called forth by the voices of silence, and continues an effort of articulation which is the Being of every being.

Keeping Your Distance: More on Merleau-Ponty (Philosophical Questions 6)

Just as we do not speak for the sake of speaking but speak to someone of something or of someone, and in this initiative of speaking an aiming at the world and at the others is involved upon which is suspended all that which we say; so also the lexical signification and even the pure significations which are deliberately reconstructed, such as those of geometry, aim at a universe of brute being and of coexistence, toward which we were already thrown when we spoke and thought, and which, for its part, by principle does not admit the procedure of objectifying or reflective approximation, since it is at a distance, by way of horizon, latent or dissimulated.  It is that universe that philosophy aims at, that is, as we say, the object of philosophy—but here never will the lacuna be filled in, the unknown transformed into the known; the “object” of philosophy will never come to fill in the philosophical question, since this obturation would take from it the depth and distance that are essential to it. The effective, present, ultimate and primary beings, the thing itself, are in principle apprehended in transparency through their perspectives, offer themselves therefore only to someone who wishes not to have them but to see them, not to hold them, as with forceps, or to immobilize them as under the objective of a microscope, but to let them be and to witness their continued being—to someone who therefore limits himself to giving them the hollow, the free space they ask for in return, the resonance they require, who follows their own movement, who is therefore not a nothingness the full being would come to stop up, but a question consonant with the porous being which it questions and from which it obtains not an answer, but a confirmation of its astonishment.  It is necessary to comprehend perception as this interrogative thought which lets the perceived world be rather than posits it, before which the things form and undo themselves in a sort of gliding, beneath the yes and the no. (The Visible and the Invisible)

In one of the essays in Signs, MMP says this about seeing:  “Seeing is that strange way of rendering ourselves present while keeping our distance…”  In his lecture, “In Praise of Philosophy”, he talks of philosophy as the Utopia of possession at a distance.  And he goes on from the long passage I have quoted above to talk of philosophy as a way of encountering what is far-off as far-off.  Has any philosopher ever made vision more definitive of philosophy than MMP?  When MMP thinks about philosophical questions and answers, he thinks in terms of seeing and of what is seen.  Distance is central:  “To possess ourselves we must begin by abandoning ourselves; to see the world we must first withdraw from it.”  But the distance must be a tethered distance:  it is a distance from something that is a way of rendering ourselves present to it, even while we remain distanced:   “A being which is in principle at a distance, in regard to which distance is a bond but with which there can be no question of coincidence.”  Given this, and given his conception of philosophy as interrogative, it is perhaps unsurprising that MMP comes to understand seeing itself as interrogative.  But if seeing is asking, how is the asking answered?  By having its astonishment confirmed.  And that means…what?  It means, I take it, that interrogative seeing reveals things as they thing and unthing, glidingly form and unform themselves, but in a way that is beneath, before, any yes or no, anything that would seem like a standard answer to a standard question.  (Interrogative seeing chips the sediment of traditon and habit and knowingness off things, the sediment that works like sand in the gears of things, keeping them frozen or relatively frozen, unable or nearly unable to glide.)  But since what I interrogatively see is of this sort, I can get it no nearer to me, and I cannot treat it as itself an answer to any traditional philosophical question.  I witness the instructive spontaneity of and in things, but that spontaneity neither confirms nor disconfirms standard philosophical questions, although it can, I take it, render those standard questions null or reveal them as sedimented and sedimenting.  Or, to put the matter differently, when we ask the standard questions, but not in the standard way, when the questions themselves become open-natured orientings upon Being, then the questions, while still not answered, create a free space; and, in that free space, there is

the disclosure of a Being that is not posited because it has no need to be, because it is silently behind all our affirmations, negations, and even behind all formulated questions, not that it is a matter of forgetting them in its silence, not that it is a matter of imprisoning it in our chatter, but because philosophy is the reconversion of silence and speech into one another…

Indeed, so understood, philosophy would seem impossible–it would be the rendering commensurate, first one way and then another, of two incommensurates; yes, it would seem impossible; except that the re-commensuration, the reconversion, happens on MMP’s pages, in a hard-won language that speaks silences and silences speech.

More anon.

Rhees on Philosophical Puzzlement (or, Philosophical Questions 2)

Philosophical puzzlement:  unless this does–or may–threaten the possibility of understanding altogether, then it is not the sort of thing that has worried philosophers.  If you overlook that, then you do not see what the understanding is that is sought in philosophy; or what it is that may be reached.  But the understanding that is sought, and the understanding that may be reached–the understanding that has been achieved if philosophical difficulty has really been resolved–is not something one could formulate; as though one could now give an account of the structure of reality, and how how language corresponds to it; and to show the possibility or reality of discourse in that way.

This is from Rush Rhees’ Wittgenstein and the Possibility of Discourse.  I will have a say about it over the next few days.

Language and Bewitchment: PI 109

A footnote from an old essay of mine:

Think of the instructive amphiboly in the (translation of the) concluding line of PI 109:  “Philosophy is the battle against the bewitchment of our intelligence by means of language.”  How is this to be understood?  Is it (1) “Philosophy is the battle against the-bewitchment-of-our-intelligence-by-means-of-language” or (2) “Philosophy is the battle against the-bewitchment-of-our-intelligence by means of language”?

And then in the text proper:

The very thing which is to free us from confusion is the very thing which confused us to begin with.  The poison is also the antidote.

Eliot’s (Religious) Struggle with Words: Leavis

It is a mark of Eliot’s peculiar importance to us—that is, of his major status as a poet of our time—that he should have had his distinctive preoccupation with language.  I am thinking of the preoccupation that, with the pressure behind it, is expressed here, in the opening section V of ‘East Coker;:

So here I am in the middle way, having had twenty
Twenty years largely wasted, the years of l’entre
deux guerres—
Trying to learn to use words, and every attempt
Is a wholly new start, and a different kind of failure
Because one has only learnt to get the better of words
For the thing one no longer has to say, or the way in
One is no longer disposed to say it

The poet of ‘The Hollow Men’ was clearly a man driven by a desperate need; a need to apprehend with sureness a reality that could compel belief, claim allegiance and create a centre of significance.  The association, or identification, of the quest driven by such a need with the unendingly resourceful struggle to ‘get the better of words’ determines the way and the sense in which Eliot’s later poetry is religious.

Now the mode of Ash-Wednesday differs very obviously from that of Four Quartets.  Nowhere in it is that anything that challenges the full attention of the waking mind in the blunt, prose-like way of the opening of ‘Burnt Norton’, where we seem to be starting on a metaphysical essay.  You might be inclined to say that the insistently liturgical element and the accompanying character of the rhythm—isn’t it incantory?—make a thinking attention to the sense impossible; at any rate, that they don’t demand it; rather, they discourage it.  If you said that, you would be showing that, though you might sincerely say that you enjoyed the poetry, you hadn’t really read it.  There would be no reason why you should quarrel with Anglo-Catholic expositors who make the poetry something utterly different from what it is, which is something utterly different as religious poetry from (say) Herbert’s.  For it is in answering the question, ‘In what sense is this religious poetry?’, that one has to take account of its insistent challenge to the thinking–the pondering, distinguishing, relating–mind.

Style Meld–My Partial Answer

I want now to answer my own question, presented earlier in Style Meld.

F. R. Leavis–that is the writer whose writing I would most like to reduplicate in my own.  Part of what I love about Leavis is the spirit on display everywhere in his work, but most obviously perhaps in what he called his “higher pamphleteering”:  a remarkably strong push-back against the dead and deadening relationship to language shown throughout our culture, but particularly (alas!) among academic humanists—to use Leavis’ words, a “blind, blank, urbane unconcern” for the kind of sensibility that can live only in a living relationship to language, a kind of sensibility that runs deeply counter to the “technologico-Benthamite” times in which we live.  Leavis doesn’t just say things in this spirit, though; every sentence he writes embodies it.  His prose appeals, and perhaps can only appeal, to what he termed “the full attention of the waking mind”.   His sentences command a discriminating, nervous energy, and carry a relationship to their full context that shapes their content and the choices of words in which they are expressed.  So often in Leavis, the argumentative burden is borne not only by the relationships among his sentences but also and simultaneously by the relationships among the words of the sentences.  Leavis once remarked that he thought the novel should be a dramatic poem; and certainly for Leavis, criticism is a critical poem.  (Leavis’ clear concern for and complete mastery of the (internal and interrelated) rhythm of his sentences is comparable to a great poet’s concern for and complete mastery of meter.)  As Wittgenstein once said of Frege,  “I wish I could have written like Frege!”, I will say I wish I could write like Leavis!  (And of course I do not mean slavishly to copy his style or to produce some stiff-fingered pastiche of his writing, but rather to write in a way that displays the same spirit, as such a spirit might take form in my prose.)

I’ll supply some illustrative quotations, as separate posts, over the next few days.

Reflecting on La Bête

My son just finished starring in La Bête here at AU.  He was terrific; the whole cast was great.  –The play revels in language and is a sustained meditation on language.  The two central characters, Valere and Elomire, represent two radically different ways of using and inhabiting language.  Elomire is a kind of Karl Kraus–without the humor:  he is deeply concerned for “moral discourse”, for language properly used.  Valere uses langauge–in a way that is beyond, or at least careless of, usage and abusage.  At the heart of the play is this contrast and the contrast between the two men.

It is easy, I think, to see the play as championing Elomire’s side, but that would be a mistake.  Part of the reason the mistake is easy is that Valere is a reductio (if I may put it this way) on himself.  He shows himself ridiculous in all that he says.  Elomire is no reductio on himself.  Even more, Elomire is championed by a young woman in the play, Dorine.  She is a teenager who has a disturbed relationship with language.  During the play, she refuses to speak except in monosyllabic words rhyming with “do”.  But at one crucial moment, when Elomire is pleading unsuccessfully for understanding from his acting troup, she is the only one who seems to understand.  She marks her understanding with a violation of her own rule.  When Elomire asks, in effect, “Does anyone understand?”, Dorine says, “I do.” (The constative/performative ambiguity in this line is worth reflection.)  –Her willingness to take his side, his relative lack of ridiculousness compared to Valere, these can together make it seem that Elomire is in the right.  But after wondering about that for a while, I realized that the young woman is the reductio of Elomire’s view.  To see how, consider her in relation to Cratylus, the titular character in one of Plato’s dialogues.  The tradition has it that Cratylus was convinced by Heraclitus, but that Cratylus thought Heraclitus had not sufficiently radicalized his own doctrine.  So Cratylus emended “We cannot step into the same river twice” to “We cannot step into the same river once”.  Eventually, his embrace of Heraclitean principles led Cratylus away from words altogether; he spends his last years foregoing speech and simply wiggling a finger (fluxily).  While Elomire is no Heraclitean, he does so raise the stakes in speaking and writing that it can come to seem impossible properly to use language.  And I think Dorine is the victim of his view.  Her desire to speak in a properly moral discourse has robbed her of words.

Valere inhabits a language without rules.  All that matters is what he can press it into doing for him.   He rules language. (And he is largely the sort of clueless despot you would expect.)  Elomire inhabits a language with more rules than Calvin’s Geneva.  Doing anything in it requires a sensitivity and skill that seem to exceed human capacities.  It strikes me that the beast of the title is not so much Valere, although he is referred to in that way by Elomire; no, the beast is language itself, wild and tame, uncontrollable and compelling, infinitely jesting and deadly serious.

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