John Wisdom, Other Minds I (Part 1): Reasons and Causes–Philosophical Criticism

Near the beginning of “Other Minds I”, Wisdom makes a distinction between two sources of doubt about other people’s states of mind.  I will not now take up that distinction; I will come back to it soon.  Wisdom notes that his attention was drawn to the need to make the distinction by Wittgenstein.  And Wisdom takes this mention of Wittgenstein’s name as an opportunity to say something about his debt to Wittgenstein:

How much in this paper is due to Wittgenstein will be appreciated only by people who have listened to him.  My debt to him is enormous and is no means to be measured by the few places where I happen to mention that such and such a point come from him or put a W. against an example of his.  At the same time I do not think my way of doing things would quite meet with his approval–it’s not sufficiently hard working–a bit cheap and flash.

I make no apology for mentioning this sort of point.  For this is the sort of criticism of philosophical work which I find appropriate.  Those who deplore so ‘personal’ an attitude and say, “Who cares whether so and so likes what is said, wheat we want to know is whether it is true”, emphasise the objectivity of philosophy to the point of turning it into a science.  I remember with what relish I once heard McTaggert say in a discussion, “What we want to know is not why he said it but what reason he had for saying it”, But I didn’t then realise how near to reasons are some causes which aren’t reasons and how beside the point are many reasons.

I want to spend some time thinking about Wisdom’s sort of philosophical criticism.  I will begin doing so tomorrow or Friday.

Emerson’s Incarnational Method

Right at the beginning of his essay on Montaigne, Emerson writes:

Every fact is related on one side to sensation, and on the other to morals.  The game of thought is, on the appearance of one of these sides, to find the other.

I take this to be a method–Emerson’s method.  For us, raised as we have been to believe that there is a gulf fixed between sensation and morals, the method is hard to imagine.  To play the game one way, finding the morals in sensation, seems romantic.  To play the other way, finding the sensation in morals, seems crass.  And anyway, what exactly is Emerson saying?  Facts have sides?  They can be rotated, reoriented, so that the apparent side changes?

I am not really going to answer these questions.  Instead, I want the asking of them to provide the occasion for saying this:  Emerson writes scripture.  As he says in his essay on Goethe, “we too must write Bibles, to unite again the heavens and the earthly world.”  This is a close to a skeleton key to Emerson as I know.  The broad outlines of Emerson’s work become clear when we reflect on it.  Christian dogma treats Jesus, the God-Man, as the one who unites the heavens and the earthly world.  Emerson will dispense with the dogma but without dispensing with its structure:  the heavens do need to be united to the earthly world.  Jesus was taken to have done that in fact, ontologically, we might say.  But for Emerson Jesus is a man, merely a man.  Jesus, like Montaigne and Goethe, is a representative man, the greatest of representative men.  Still, a mere man.  For Emerson the Incarnation–the uniting of the heavens to the earthly world–is not something that has been done.  It is something that must needs be done.  Incarnation, for Emerson, is not so much a fact or a point of departure; it is more a conquest and a goal.  He writes toward it.  He writes his Bible.

Emerson urges his readers to unite the heavens and the earthly world in themselves; he asks his readers to become Incarnations.  Well, that is not quite right:  he reminds his readers that they are always already Incarnating, becoming more fully Incarnations than they are; his readers are to strive toward an ever more perfect unity of the heavens and the earthly world in themselves.  The heavens and the earthly world need to more fully interpenetrate one another.  The centerpiece of Emerson’s understanding of human greatness–this is it.  Over and over Emerson reminds and urges his readers:  Incarnate yourselves!

For Emerson, each human being is and is called to Incarnation.  Emerson begs us to hear and heed that call.  Because we are Incarnations we can hear it.  Because we can become more fully Incarnations we must heed it.

Emerson’s line about facts is an Incarnational method, a reminder that the good gamester of thought always understands each fact in relation to the heavens and the earthly world, and always works to reveal one when the other threatens to eclipse it.  To fail in the method is either to become a Docetist or an Ebionite about yourself, about everything, it is to leave your task of uniting the heavens and the earthly world undone.

Wittgenstein, Detective

(Digging around in my files, I found what must have been the first handout I ever constructed on Philosophical Investigations (it is dated 5/7/1992). A section of it follows.)

Understanding the Endless Book

Why is the Investigations so “bloody hard”?  Because the book is both a statement of its method and the result of its method.  To quote Cavell:  “The way this book is written is internal to what it teaches, which means that we cannot understand the manner (call it the method), before we understand its work…The Investigations is written in criticism of itself.”

Before even trying to makes sense of these cabalistic pronouncements, it might be a good idea to ask if Wittgenstein gave his reader any hint how to approach the book.  In the Preface he admits that “I should not like my writing to spare other people the trouble of thinking.  But, if possible, to stimulate someone to thoughts of his own.”  Well and good.  What help does this give us?  Maybe a little, especially if we link it with another remark.

What I want to teach you isn’t opinions but a method.  In fact, the method is to treat as irrelevant every question of opinion…If I’m wrong then you are right, which is just as good.  As long as we look for the same thing…I don’t try to make you believe something you don’t believe, but to make you do something you won’t do.

Let me delay comment on this remark long enough to point up its similarity (I think the similarity is instructive, thus the delay) to Kierkegaard’s comments in Section 12  of Purity of Heart.  The talk

…in order to achieve its proper emphasis…must unequivocally demand something of the listener.  It must demand not merely what has previously been requested, that the reader should share in the work with the speaker–now the talk must unconditionally demand the reader’s own decisive activity, and all depends on this.

Wittgenstein, like Kierkegaard, requires more from his reader than merely close attention to the thought–he requires his reader to think the thought as well.  And part of the reader’s “thinking the thought” is the reader having thoughts of his own about it.

To understand, let’s think of the Investigations in a different way.  Wittgenstein had a well-known love for detective magazines.  Interestingly, the letters which follow a detective’s name are “P. I.”–“private investigator”.  Wittgenstein could well have affixed the same letters after his own name:  “P. I.”–“philosophical investigator”.  In fact, Wittgenstein did, in a way, affix them to his name by leaving behind an instruction manual with the appropriate title–Philosophical Investigations.  (Holmes, remember, delighted in calling himself the world’s only “consulting detective”; Wittgenstein may have been the world’s only “philosophical detective”.)  The Investigations is of course more than just an instruction manual, it is also a case book.  When we read it we are watching the detective.  But what we watch is not the completion of cases; nothing is stamped “solved”.  Instead we are given a glimpse into working cases.  We are made privy to conversations with informants, allowed to see mistaken hunches, provided portraits of suspicious characters.  We see reminders, clues not-yet-understood, records of previous crimes.  Interspersed (like voice-overs) are comments on the investigator’s business, how it works, what to do, what not to do, comments on methods that succeed and methods that fail, notes on the variety of temptations that confront the investigator and what happens when he yields to them.  We are taken into confidence, confessed to, told secrets.  In short, we are left with a mountain of pieces, but the puzzles–mysteries, crimes–remain unsolved.  To profit from the book, we must practice the investigator’s technique on the book itself.  We cannot merely read it, memorize it, parrot the book itself.  We must master it.  And mastery requires intense and continuous effort, not only learning the lessons but applying them–on the mean streets, as it were…

%d bloggers like this: