Wisdom, Other Minds I (Part 2): Philosophical Criticism

Wisdom offers a piece of philosophical criticism, in this case, self-criticism.  He takes what he is doing to be decisively influenced by Wittgenstein, but it does not live up to Wittgenstein’s example.  It is not sufficiently hard-working.  It is a bit cheap and flash. It is tempting to understand this as admitting that although what Wisdom has to say is–in terms of its content–decisively influenced by Wittgenstein, it is not–in terms of its form–decisively influenced by Wittgenstein.  It does not live up to the standards Wittgenstein set.

This is not a hopeless understanding of Wisdom’s admission, but the bare distinction between form and content seems too crude to clarify much–particularly where Wittgenstein’s work is part of the story.  Whatever else is true of Wittgenstein’s work–and I take this to characterize his lecturing as well as his writing–he aimed at work that unified form and content.  Wisdom got that, I think.  He aims at unifying form and content in his own work.  (Renford Bambrough tells the story of taking an essay he had written to Wisdom.  Wisdom reads it and responds with dismay–“A return to the old dogmatic idiom.”  Wisdom writes always in an idiom other than dogmatic–playful, tentative, dialectically complex and committed, but aporetic.)  Part of his admission is that his work does not quite unify form and content, or unify it to the degree that Wittgenstein’s did.  I think this gets us closer to what Wisdom is admitting.  But I do not think it quite gets us there.

Wisdom takes his admission to bring ‘personal’ attitudes into assessing philosophical work.  He rates ‘personal’ attitudes as appropriate, and rates ‘impersonal’ or objective attitudes as potentially confusing categories, as turning (or threatening to turn) philosophy into science.  The objective attitude asks whether what a philosopher says is true.  It asks for the reasons a philosopher offers for what he says.  And that is all.  Nothing else matters.

Wisdom believes other things matter.

Before I start trying to tabulate these other things, let me take an apparent detour that will be not a detour but a shortcut.  One of the most important themes in Cavell’s Must We Mean What We Say? is that of philosophical criticism.  I am reasonably sure that the term ‘philosophical criticism’ itself, and the theme of philosophical criticism in the book, are anchored to this passage of Wisdom’s.  I do not mean that Cavell meekly inherits Wisdom’s terminology or theme (when has Cavell ever done that–with anyone’s term or theme?) but rather that Wisdom is a key figure in the origin story of Cavell’s theme of philosophical criticism.  Consider this passage.  Cavell is talking about Austin’s terms of criticism:

To suggest that if such terms do not seem formidable directions of criticism, and perhaps not philosophical at all…that may be because philosophy is only just learning, for all its history of self-criticism and self-consciousness, to become conscious of itself in a new way, at further ranges of its activity.  One could say that attention is being shifted from the character of the philosopher’s argument to the character of the philosopher arguing…[Such a shift] could…open a new literary-philosophical criticism, in a tradition which knows how to claim, for example, the best of Kierkegaard and Nietzsche.  Whatever the outcome, however, what I am confident of is that the relevance of the shift should itself become a philosophical problem.

I hope the connection between this passage and Wisdom seems generally clear.  I will say more about details next time.

(Addendum:  Cavell imprisons Wisdom in MWMWWS?’s footnotes.  So far as I can recall, he never mentions Wisdom in the text proper.  But he mentions him in several notes in the early essays.  The notes tend to be stationed at rather important junctures in the essays.  The most openly appreciative is on p. 40, n. 36.)

Both Object and Means of Interpretation

Cavell notes that in Part IV of The Claim of Reason PI had shifted for him from object of interpretation to means of interpretation.  I mention this because of my growing sense of how much of the blog has been devoted to trying to say something about the importance of PI, to reveal something of what and how it is central in my life, and I am chagrined by the error of each trial.  Nonetheless, I continue, even as I fail to satisfy myself in treating PI as an object of interpretation, —I continue unabashedly to use it as a means, even as my primary mean, of interpretation.  That impresses me now as mysterious.  Is it because I am convinced by the rightness of PI beyond my ability to articulate that rightness?  But how should I understand that inarticulate conviction?  Can it be trusted?  Or is it rather that my conviction of its rightness is itself justified for me by my repetitiously endured inability to articulate that rightness, as if being able to articulate it would demote PI from its position as standard for me, so that success would be a form of self-defeat?  Or is it rather because my conviction is that PI requires itself to withstand all of its own judgments, understands itself both as supplying and suffering its own terms of criticism, making itself simultaneously object and source of philosophical criticism?  Or is it rather because only what shows itself as a faithful means of interpretation is surely worth the difficulty of interpreting?

Terms of Engagement–A Question

I am currently writing a new paper and have been developing in it a ‘variant’ of a point of Cavell’s–his point about the importance of identifying and thinking through a philosopher’s terms of criticism in reckoning the significance of the philosopher’s work.  I want to say that there is a genus of which terms of criticism are a species, namely terms of engagement.  These include the terms of address (of reader, of interlocutor) used by the philosopher, the expositives, exercitives, commissives, behabitives and verdictives typically employed, etc.  Assuming this makes sense, I am curious:  what stands out to you about Wittgenstein’s terms of engagement in PI?

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