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.

Staying Put

Here are a few lines from Fr. Stephen Freeman, addressing place and stability:

In monastic tradition, a monk makes four vows: poverty, chastity, obedience and stability. Most people are familiar with the first three but not with the fourth. In classical monastic practice it meant that a monk stayed put: he did not move from monastery to monastery. It was not a new idea. Before this vow was formalized in various Rules, there was already the saying from the Desert: “Stay in your cell and your cell will teach you everything.”

I have been lucky to have been able to stay put.  Perhaps, if I had been more talented or more ambitious or both, I would not have stayed put.  Perhaps I would have aimed more seriously at career upward mobility.  But I was not more talented and was not and am not more ambitious.  So, here I am.  So, here I stay.  Here I hope to stay–until I stay put permanently, resting, I hope, in peace.

When I got my job at Auburn, my teacher, Lewis White Beck, was very pleased.  He grew up not far from here.  His brother still lived (in those days) just north up 85, in Westpoint, Ga.  (I used to visit him to hear stories of Lewis’ childhood.)  Beck counseled me about Auburn:  “Don’t go and leave.  Stay and make it the kind of place where you want to be.”  The philosophy department at Auburn has become that, although I deserve little of the credit.  But I do think that staying has made me more of the person I have wanted to be.  I do not mean I am not deeply flawed; of course I am, of course.  Still, staying put has been a revelator and tutor:  I have learnt something about fidelity and commitment, about what it means to work with others to build something bigger and better than the builders.  I have learnt something about being unknown and unremarked, and about first being restively reconciled to it and later accepting it and still later coming to desire it.  “Live hidden” is good advice.  (Beck was once asked by the NYTimes (if I remember correctly) if they could do a feature on him, a sort of Elder Philosopher at Home bit.  He declined, telling them that he was determined to enjoy “the beneficent obscurity of senectitude”.   –Is that a line from Gibbon?)  I guess I still have a few years before I enter my senectitude, but it is not too early for obscurity to be beneficent.

As I grow older, my classes and my students fascinate me more than ever before.  Philosophical problems incarnate are now my meditation.  Philosophical problems disincarnate no longer exert much pull on me.  Perhaps what I have come to appreciate more fully is that there is a strict specificity about philosophical problems–they exist only in a specific person and they can be grappled with only in conjunction with that person and they can be solved–in whatever sense they are solved–only by that person.  Where I am not that person, I can help or hurt (from the lectern, from the page); but I can only help or hurt; but I can no more solve the problem for him or her than I can be prudent for him or her.  Philosophical problems arise from and are finally only responsive to the living experience of a specific person.  I believe I have learnt that from Socrates–himself a master of staying put.

As Robert Frost once recommended:  “Don’t get converted.  Stay.”

Thursday Thought for the Day

I ran across the following in a recent post on Language Goes on Holiday.  It is from Simone Weil.

The distinctive method of philosophy consists in getting a clear conception of insoluble problems in their insolubility, then in contemplating those problems without anything else; fixedly, tirelessly, for years, without the least hope, in a state of waiting.

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.

Easy Pieces? (Zettel 447)

(Another past class handout.)

In Zettel Wittgenstein writes:

Disquiet in philosophy might be said to arise from looking at philosophy wrongly, seeing it wrong, namely as if it were divided into (infinite) longitudinal strips instead of into (finite) cross strips. This inversion in our conception produces the greatest difficulty. So we try as it were to grasp the unlimited strips and complain that it cannot be done piecemeal. To be sure it cannot, if by a piece one means an infinite longitudinal strip. But it may well bedone, if one means a cross-strip. –But in that case we never get to the end of our work! –Of course not, for it has no end. (447)

This is a paragraph worth frequenting. It is a fine example of the elasticity of Wittgenstein’s philosophical imagination, and of course it’s more than just that. Wittgenstein here disjoins two ways of looking at philosophy, what I will call the longitudinal view and the latitudinal view. On the longitudinal view, the one Wittgenstein believes common, philosophy is divided into (a finite number of) longitudinal strips–each strip a philosophical problem–and each strip itself infinitely long. On the latitudinal view, the one Wittgenstein recommends, philosophy is divided into (an infinite set of) latitudinal strips, each strip only finitely long. Now, on each view, the work of philosophy never ends, but its unendingness is presented under very different aspects. Latitudinally, we can solve individual philosophical problems: they are finite. But we never finish with philosophy, since there are an infinite number of problems.  Longitudinally, we cannot solve individual problems: they are infinite. And we of course then never finish with philosophy either, but only because we never finish with any of its problems. –This last predicament disquiets us. We never finish with any problem and so we never finish with philosophy. We never get nowhere. (You pass no mile markers on The Road to Nowhere, since you are never any closer to nor any further away from your destination.)  On the latitudinal view, there are an infinite number of philosophical problems. That might strike you as showing that what is meant by ‘problem’ on the view cannot be quite the same as what is meant by ‘problem’ on the longitudinal view. In fact, the idea that there are an infinite number of philosophical problems may itself worry you. Yes, such an idea makes philosophical piecework possible, but only a the expense of making mysterious the idea of a philosophical problem. Are there infinitely many? Could there be?

Stepping beyond what is actually said in 447, I consider Wittgenstein to count philosophical problems in person-sensitive ways. E.g., there is Kelly’s skeptical problem, Brian’s, Betrand’s, and so on. The Skeptical Problem is the determinable for all of these determinates, roughly as red is the determinable for cardinal, scarlet, candy-apple, and so on. To engage with skepticism is to engage with Kelly or Brian or Bertrand or whomever, qua skeptic. –At any rate, if we count philosophical problems in person-sensitive ways, it becomes easier to see how there might be infinitely many, particularly if we also are willing to count problems in person-(at-a-time)-sensitive ways, as I suspect we ultimately must be. I can solve, say, Brian’s (lunchtime on Tuesday the 11th) skeptical problem. That is to have achieved something in philosophy. There are an infinite number of such tasks to perform; the philosopher will never go out of business. But his or her business is a cheek by jowl struggle with the dynamics of the actual thinking of an actual person, and not distanced, person-insensitive reflection on the geometry of thought.

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