Guy Davenport on Wittgenstein

[Wittgenstein] was committed to absolute honesty.  Nothing–nothing at all–was to be allowed to escape analysis.  He had nothing up his sleeve; he had nothing to teach.  The world was to him an absolute puzzle, a great lump of opaque pig iron.  Can we think about the lump?  What is thought?  What is the meaning of ‘can’, of ‘can we’, of ‘can we think’?  What is the meaning of ‘we’?  What does it mean to ask what is the meaning of ‘we’?  If we know the answer to these questions on Monday, are the answers valid on Tuesday?  If I answer them at all, do I think the answer, believe the answer, know the answer, or imagine the answer?

Completed Draft of New Talk

Since I posted bits of this already–its first part yesterday and its last part a while back–I thought I would go ahead and post the whole thing.  I find writing talks for audiences that will include both philosophers and non-philosophers especially hard.  I wish I were better at it.

Philosophical Investigations and Three Kinds of Illusion:  A Talk

Final Paragraphs of New Talk: Philosophical Investigations

[I’m unsure how much sense these paragraphs make without the preceding 15 pages or so. First draft material.]

Allow me to reiterate my thinking about the three illusions in PI As I have said, I think that transcendental illusions are central to PI, central to understanding its conception of philosophical problems. But I do not mean to deny that the other two types of illusion make appearances in PI. They do. If they didn’t, the other two readings of PI I have discussed would probably never have tempted anyone. But I do not think either of those other two illusions is central in the way transcendental illusion is central. Even more, although I do not have time to detail this now, I also think that the other two types of illusion can metastasize into transcendental illusions, and that what seems merely an empirical or logical illusion can itself be revealed to be or involve a transcendental illusion.

Still, I suspect at this point that you may be less interested in this nicety of housekeeping and more interested in the spirit-sinking midwinter bleakness of the picture of philosophical problems that I have been presenting. Haven’t I said that philosophical problems don’t get solved? —Yes. Haven’t I said that the best we can hope for is to cope with them, and that only temporarily? —Yes. Isn’t that an incredible downer? —Yes. —No. —Yes and no.

Let me revert to Kant once more, while also recalling my opening remarks. At least from his early 20’s, Kant is vexed by the uncanny fact that for so long and so often philosophers of equal education and gifts, each deeply serious and sincere, persist in apparently irreconcilable conflict. Kant regards this as a disgrace to reason. We can think of Kant’s entire philosophical career as driven by his passionate concern to settle conflicts in philosophy—not by entering a judgment in favor of either of the conflicting philosophers, but rather by entering a judgment on the conflict itself, by finding a way to end it. Kant first pictured these conflicts as between philosophers; but he later came to picture them as conflicts between arguments; and still later he came to picture them as reason in conflict with itself, as reason having fallen out of agreement with itself. This became Kant’s new picture of the uncanny fact: reason can fall into apparently irreconcilable conflict with itself.

Wittgenstein we can think of as accepting and, in a sense, extending this movement of Kant’s. He comes to see philosophical problems as manifesting my having fallen out of agreement with myself. It is this uncanny fact about me—and about you too of course—that is the mainspring of PI. Philosophical problems are all at once conceptual, i.e., invulnerable to the empirical, and also deeply personal, personal in the sense that I am at stake in them in various ways, personal in the sense that the problems encroach upon me. My desires and longings, my needs and fears, –my whole affective being potentially is part of the problem. Because it is, we cannot take a simply objective approach to the problems. We must instead always and everywhere approach the problem subjectively, attending to our mode of involvement in it. And there is always already one of those whenever we reflect on a philosophical problem. (Reflecting on a philosophical problem is not an empty holding of something, of the problem.) I am a part of, involved in, every philosophical problem that I take up, like it or not. You too are part of every philosophical problem you take up. The mode of involvement in the problem matters and is, in fact, itself a part of the problem. When we see this, we are also position so as to see what PI is showing each of us: I am susceptible to transcendental illusion. I can, with practice, develop a discipline of response to such illusions. I can teach myself—-with the aid of PI—-to push back against the pressures of transcendental illusion, to stick to ordinary realities. But learning this discipline neither ends philosophy itself for me nor ends any philosophical problem permanently. I have to recognize that I am tempted and I need to find a way of responding to the temptation other than yielding to it. And I have to recognize that there is no way simply to end temptation. I should expect to be tempted until my last breath. But none of this makes much sense if we think that philosophical problems can be independent of modes of reception. To care about illusion as Wittgenstein does is to care about modes of involvement and vice-versa: To use `illusion’ as a term of criticism as Wittgenstein does is to bring the mode of involvement in a philosophical problem into work on the problem.

Philosophy, as Wittgenstein teaches it to us in PI, is transcendental dialectic, but Wittgenstein’s transcendental dialectic is self-critique. Philosophy is self-critique. Philosophy is a form of self-knowledge. Is that a downer? No: there is philosophy to be done. There is always philosophy to be done. Self-critique has no endgame. Even more, there is progress of a sort that can be made. I can become better at resisting temptation, better at recognizing its onset; I can discipline myself to push back harder and for longer and with better focus. That is, I can come better to know myself in such a way that I become better at controlling myself. I cannot make myself impassible, invulnerable to temptation. But I can respond to it better, yield to it less often or less easily. Still, isn’t that a downer? Yes: since such self-knowledge is, face it, almost always bitter. (What I discover will not be things of which I have been ignorant, simply epistemically blank, but things I have refused to know, to acknowledge.) We would all rather not do philosophy as self-examination, self-critique. We would rather do it as distinct from the self, as objective investigation in which my self does not count. We would like to be the investigators of the investigation but not the investigated. We want to be neither shaken nor stirred.

One quick parting comment: We can understand the similarity and difference between Kant and Wittgenstein and their transcendental dialectics in this memorable way, even if it may be slightly misleading: for Kant, we see things aright philosophically when we come to see that the solutions to philosophical problems must be transcendental idealist solutions. For Wittgenstein, we become what we need to be philosophically when we become `transcendental idealists’ about the problems themselves. Wittgenstein’s Copernican Revolution (PI 108) revolves the problems—and, thus revolved, we can see past the apparent need for a solution to them. So, since I have been talking about downers, let me end with a hurrah: Vive la revolution!

Revelation–M. B. Foster

How then are we to understand Revelation in its relation to thought?  Belief in Revelation is belief that ‘God has spoken’.  What does this mean?  Or rather, what is it to believe it, if to believe involves something more than assent to a factual proposition?  Just as to apprehend God’s Holiness is to repent (‘Now mine eye seeth thee.  Wherefore I abhor myself and repent in dust and ashes’); so belief in a divine Revelation seems to involve something like a repentance in the sphere of the intellect.  Certainly it cannot be meant that we, with an unbroken intellect, are somehow privileged to talk about God.  Talking about God is one of the things which the Bible hardly permits us to do.  When Zechariah says, ‘Be silent all flesh before the Lord’, this is not wholly different from Wittgenstein’s ‘Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent’.  What Wittgenstein seems not to believe is that God has spoken.  But what is it to believe this?  –Mystery and Philosophy

Teaching Philosophy, Honestly

As best I can recall, Wittgensten wrote a short letter to Norman Malcolm when Malcolm earned his Ph. D.  It went something like this:

Congratulations to your PhD.  And now may you cheat neither yourself nor your students.  Because, unless I am very much mistaken, that is what will be expected of you.

There may have been a bit more.  My memory fails me.  But just this touches the problem.  How can you teach without cheating yourself or your students?  Exasperated a little by my students, I wrote to them today and said:

You have to decide:  do you want an education–a real education, or do you just want a diploma?  And if you just want a diploma, go and get it in someone else’s class, please:  I don’t care a whit about your diploma.  But I do care about your education.

The problem here is a kind of knot.  Our students all too often want us to cheat them, or are willing to let us; and we all too often want them to want us to cheat them, or are willing to let them want us to cheat them, or be willing to let us cheat them.  And so it goes.

Draft of MMP Talk

Here is a draft of a talk I am to give soon.  I was asked to present something that might inspire majors and non-majors, and to do something more like what I would do in a class than what I would do giving a conference paper.  This is the result so far.  It is a  formalization of the sort of thing I might do in an upper-level class.  Since I think of it as a talk and not a paper, it is not bedecked with all the scholarly niceties–footnotes or full footnotes, etc.  Most of the footnotes are really just drawers in which I have stashed useful quotations or (I hope) brief, helpful clarifications.  Comments welcome.

Philosophical Questions 4: Understanding Rhees

One of the striking things about Rhees’ passage is this:  there is not only something deeply peculiar about the question that seeks understanding in philosophy, but there is also something deeply peculiar about the understanding which is sought.  It is not something that can be formulated, stated.  I will say more about that this week, but for now I just want to relate the idea to the work of Rhees himself.

Reading Rhees is itself a peculiar experience.  In one sense, everything is simple, and its simplicity is further simplified by its repetitive, chant-like structure.  Sentences are short.  Rarely is any technical or recondite vocabulary employed.  And yet, and yet Rhees work is extremely difficult.  It is as though what he wants you to understand cannot be found in any of his sentences, no matter how often repeated.  It is as though what he wants you to understand is somehow floating among the sentences, brought to presence by them, but embodied in no one of them nor in their conjunction.  —So maybe Rhees has found a way of writing that is true to his conception of the understanding that is sought in philosophy?

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