A Thought on Cavellian Generic Objects and Our Relationship to Philosophical Problems

I’ve been talking about our relationship to philosophical problems, and I want to say more about that idea.  The idea is made more clear by Cavell’s notion of a generic object–and in its turn makes Cavell’s notion clearer.  (I will not now say more about the use to which the notion (and its companion notion, specific object) is put by Cavell.   To see that use, look at pages 52ff. of The Claim of Reason.)

Consider Cavell’s crucial comment:

I will not by such titles be meaning to suggest that there are two kinds of objects in the world [generic and specific], but rather to summarize the spirit in which an object is under discussion, the kind of problem that has arisen about it, the problem in which it presents itself as the focus of investigation.”

Here (briefly) is what I take to be crucial:  whether the object under discussion is to be ‘classified’ as generic is a matter not settled by the object itself (by its marks or features), but rather by the way in which we are related to the object–but that means by the way in which we are related to the problem of which the object is the focus.  To ‘classify’ the object as generic is really to classify the spirit of our discussion, our relationship to the problem.  In the Kierkegaardian terminology I habitually use here, to ‘classify’ an object as a generic object is to highlight the how of our relationship to it, not the what of the object.  (The distinction between generic and specific objects is not metaphysical but metaphilosophical.)

Cavell’s phenomenologies of philosophizing, populating the pages of The Claim of Reason, are extensions of Wittgenstein’s own (less protracted) phenomenologies of philosophizing, populating the pages of Philosophical Investigations.  And the phenomenologies are devoted to revealing our relationship to philosophical problems.

Resolute Reading–New Paper Intro (Draft)

Below is the draft intro of my new paper, “Resolute Reading”.  I will post more as I finish the draft.

The Resolute Reading of TLP exerts a willy-nilly but mesmeric fascination. Its fans try to substantialize it; its opponents try to prevent its substantialization. We all know about food fights. But this is a recipe fight. Before the cake has been baked, indeed before the batter battered, the bakers fall on each other, rending and tearing.

Well, ok, so it is not quite as bad as all that. But it is bad, bad enough. Perhaps the worst of it is the seemingly interminable character of the debate. How is it to end? What are the (are there?) conditions of winning? What kind of debate is it, really?

I want to provide an answer to that last question. I hope that doing so will allow me to shed some light on the previous two. –When I say I want to provide an answer, I do not mean to say that I want to dogmatize about the answer. I want instead to suggest an answer that strikes me as helpful. If it turns out not to be the final answer, that is fine with me, so long as it helps us to the final answer.

Here is how I want to reach my suggestion of a helpful answer: I want to backtrack to a debate about Philosophical Investigations between O. K. Bouwsma and Gilbert Ryle. After reconstructing that debate, I will talk a bit about why it seems hopeless, why it is that Bouwsma and Ryle resemble two blindfolded fencers back-to-back, each lunging to deliver the final blow to his opponent, but each stabbing nothing but air. –Well, ok, so it is not quite as bad as all that. But it is bad, bad enough.

Essence and Grammar (and Definition)

Reshef Agam-Segal has asked about the difference between Socrates’ desire for a definition and Wittgenstein’s for grammar.  The two desires meet or can seem to meet in the word ‘essence’.  Socrates wants to know, say, the essence of piety.  Wittgenstein wants to know the grammar of piety (“theology as grammar”); and, according to Wittgenstein, “essence is expressed by grammar”.  So each chases essence.

What Socrates chases is familiar enough (at least as standardly interpreted).  What Wittgenstein chases is not so familiar. To succeed in construing the grammar of piety would be to express the essence of piety.  The grammar of piety would be construed in an a series of grammatical remarks. But the series of grammatical remarks does not tell us the essence of piety.  Rather, the series of remarks expresses the essence of piety.  ‘Express’ in “essence is expressed by grammar” works intransitively.  That is, what grammar expresses is not something that we can tell, can say. If you like, what grammar expresses is inexpressible. (Moving, in that sentence, from the intransitive to transitive.)

We are here at one of those anti-type spots in PI–of which, of course, TLP contains the type.  We are in the ambit of showing/saying, as indeed in Wittgenstein we always already are.  But, as my typological talk is meant to suggest, what we have in PI is something foreshadowed in TLP; but what we have in PI is not what we have in TLP.  Getting the differences straight is more than I can do; I will though do what I can.  Perhaps the best place to start is with a glaring absence in PI:  the absence of the symbolism.  The symbolism glyphs the pages of TLP.  It wards those pages.  Without a real, active and sympathetic inwardness with the symbolism, TLP is a closed book.  (Anyone who has attempted to teach the book to undergraduates will know this.)  But the symbolism is almost nowhere to be seen in PI.  What does that mean?  And what does it mean for showing/saying in PI?  [Pause here to light pipe.]

One thing it means, I reckon, is that showing or expressing is now something done by means of ordinary sentences, by means of the spatio-temporal phenomena of language.  The crucial issue in PI is the issue of our relationship to those sentences, to those phenomena.  A sentence is a grammatical remark not in and of itself–noumenally, as it were–but rather because of our orientation upon it.  The possibility of the orientation that makes a sentence a grammatical remark, and so one that expresses or contributes to the expression of essence, results from our being in the grip of a philosophical problem.  The problems provide the light, we might say, in which a sentence can shine forth as grammatical, as essence-expression. Without the problem, the sentence is, well, just a sentence.  Philosophy is a battle against the-bewitchment-of-our-intelligence by means of language, by means of the spatio-temporal phenomena of language.  But the language is only a weapon in that battle–a weapon of peace, ultimately, to be sure–if we orient on it in a way made possible by a philosophical problem.

This makes philosophizing in Wittgenstein’s way both easier and harder.  It is easier in that we need no special magical weapon, no Excalibur, no symbolism, to do what needs doing in philosophy.  It is harder because the weapons we have can always appear to be no weapons at all, to be valueless in the fight.  (“So?  That’s just more words.”)  Being in the grip of a philosophical problem makes the necessary orientation possible, but it does not make it automatic.  Being in the grip of a philosophical problem can also make the necessary orientation look only like so much rigmarole, like a willful way of losing track of what really matters in responding to the problem. Losing our way among words can lead us further afield, but it can also allow words to lead us home in a way that they ordinarily do not.  “Where the danger is, also grows the saving power.”  [Pipe dies; re-light.]

Having written all this, I am aware that I have still not answered Reshef’s question.  But I hope this opens the way to answering his question.  And I hope to get back to his question again soon.  (Thanks to D. for a recent useful conversation about these topics.)

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