One of the many famous aphorisms that have been plucked out of Wittgenstein’s Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus is, “The limits of my language are the limits of my world” (“Die grenzen meiner sprache sind die grenzen meiner welt” section 5.6). Like much in the Tractatus, this gnomic aphorism invites interpretation and can never be exhausted.
One way to construe this Wittgensteinism very broadly would be to think of it as the limits of my idiom are the limits of my world, with “idiom” construed broadly to include any way of talking about the world, and not merely a particular language. If you’re of a continental persuasion, you could say the limits of my discourse are the limits of my world. It amounts to pretty much the same thing.
Particular theories about the world are idioms for talking about the world, forms of discourse, if you will. Scientific theories are scientific idioms for talking about the world. Now, scientific theories often broaden our horizons and allow us to see and to understand things of which we were previously unaware. But a scientific theory, being a particular idiom as it is, may also limit us, and limit the way we see the world.
The limitations we take upon ourselves by thinking in terms of particular theories or speaking in particular ways are human limits that we have chosen for ourselves; they are not intrinsic limitations imposed upon us by the world, and this, of course, is something that Wittgenstein wanted to bring to our explicit attention.
We very frequently mistake the idioms we employ, and the particular ways in which we understand these idioms, to constitute the very fabric of the world. When in this frame of mind we make claims for our theories that are not supported by the theories themselves, but rather reflect our particular, limited understanding of very difficult matters. This has been the case with the general theory of relativity and quantum theory, both of which are very young sciences, but which now dominate physics. Because of the dominate position of these theories, and of particular interpretations of these theories, we forget how young they are, and how far we have to go in really coming to an adequate understanding of them.
Our inadequate understanding of quantum theory, in particular, has been glossed so many times by scientific popularizers that one might be forgiven for supposing that quantum theory is a form of mysticism rather than of science. It is inevitable that, as our understanding of the world gradually and incrementally improves, much in quantum theory that now seems inscrutable will eventually make sense to us, rather than the theory being a mere systematization of a mystery.
A recent paper in Science by Sacha Kocsis, Boris Braverman, Sylvain Ravets, Martin J. Stevens, Richard P. Mirin, L. Krister Shalm, and Aephraim M. Steinberg, Observing the Average Trajectories of Single Photons in a Two-Slit Interferometer, points to new ways of thinking and talking about quantum theory. Here is the abstract of the paper:
“A consequence of the quantum mechanical uncertainty principle is that one may not discuss the path or “trajectory” that a quantum particle takes, because any measurement of position irrevocably disturbs the momentum, and vice versa. Using weak measurements, however, it is possible to operationally define a set of trajectories for an ensemble of quantum particles. We sent single photons emitted by a quantum dot through a double-slit interferometer and reconstructed these trajectories by performing a weak measurement of the photon momentum, postselected according to the result of a strong measurement of photon position in a series of planes. The results provide an observationally grounded description of the propagation of subensembles of quantum particles in a two-slit interferometer.”
There is a good article by Jason Palmer of the BBC, Quantum mechanics rule ‘bent’ in classic experiment, about the paper and its ramifications. Palmer writes that researchers, “say the feat ‘pulls back the veil’ on quantum reality in a way that was thought to be prohibited by theory.” If one wanted to go seeking headlines, one could say something dramatic like “Scientists break the laws of quantum physics” — you get the idea.
But what has been thought to be prohibited is in large measure a limitation upon the current language of quantum theory and, to a certain extent, an artifact of particular experiments. As more sophisticated experiments are conceived and conducted, we may someday know quite a bit more about quantum theory than has been thought possible to date.
In Palmer’s BBC story there is an excellent quote from Marlan Scully of Texas A&M University:
The trouble with quantum mechanics is that while we’ve learned to calculate the outcomes of all sorts of experiments, we’ve lost much of our ability to describe what is really happening in any natural language.
I think that this has really hampered our ability to make progress, to come up with new ideas and see intuitively how new systems ought to behave.
Progress in understanding quantum theory will, as implied by Scully, ultimately take the form of being able to discuss it in natural language and to formulate the theory in an intuitively perspicuous manner. We do not yet have the language or the concepts to do this, but each advance like the recent results reported in Science bring us a little closer, chipping away at the limits of our language that currently constitute the limits on our world.
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Philosophical thought is often believed to be remote from the concerns of quotidian life. One of the reasons that I created this particular forum was to attempt to show the deep and systematic way that philosophical ideas penetrate even the most mundane and ordinary concerns of our daily lives.
Personally I don’t believe that a person can get out of bed in the morning without implicitly having formulated a philosophical judgment that life is worth living and therefore there is a reason to get out of bed, and not merely to lie there and do nothing. When people do lie in their bed all day and do nothing they are diagnosed with a mental illness, because science is today the paradigm for dealing with such matters. However, we are under no obligation to participate in this paradigm, and we can recognize the possibility of an existential malaise that is the visceral corollary of a philosophical position. This is only one of many ways in which a theoretical attitude can have practical consequences.
If philosophical ideas often seem distant from ordinary concerns, philosophical argument must seem an order of magnitude further removed from life, with its remarkable subtleties and its complex details that demand our careful attention, but I want to try to show how philosophical reasoning and argumentation have a basis in matters familiar to almost everyone.
There is a passage from Carl Sagan’s book The Demon-Haunted World in which he gently makes fun of those who presume to offer up, as authoritative arguments, their gut feelings:
Often, I’m asked next, “What do you really think?”
I say, “I just told you what I really think.”
“Yes, but what’s your gut feeling?”
But I try not to think with my gut. If I’m serious about understanding the world, thinking with anything besides my brain, as tempting as that might be, is likely to get me into trouble. Really, it’s okay to reserve judgment until the evidence is in.
Carl Sagan and Ann Druyan, The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark, 1997, p. 180
While I am not without sympathy for Sagan’s point here, it strikes me as inadequate from a philosophical point of view. Sagan, whatever his reputation as a sage, was ultimately and spiritually a scientist. His thoughts are formulated like a scientist, and science-like observations (which presumably exclude gut feelings) are as crucial to science as science-like reasoning, science-like theories, and science-like predictions.
However, as philosophers we are not limited to science-like observations, any more than we are obligated to participate in the scientific paradigm of existential malaise as mental illness. In fact, as philosophers we not only have the intellectual right to pursue matters on the cusp of the ineffable, but in fact we have an intellectual duty and obligation to do so. We must go farther and test every possibility of evidence or we will fall short of full possibilities of theoretical thought.
Obviously, Sagan did not think that gut instincts constituted “evidence.” Certainly untutored instincts do not constitute scientific evidence, but they are nevertheless evidence of something, and this evidence is of the greatest philosophical interest. The point here is not whether or not our intuitions are evidence, but what the value of what evidence is, what that evidence means, and what place it ought to hold in a given body of knowledge.
There would probably be a way to formulate this in terms of Bayesianism (and hopefully some day I will take the time to work out this formulation), but I won’t pursue that at present. I will, however, pursue an alternative method to doing justice to our intuitions, instincts, and feelings.
Therefore, and without further ado, my sure-fire, quick-and-easy, step-by-step method for formulating a cogent philosophical argument merely on the basis of one’s gut instincts is as follows:
● Step 1: Review the current positions and arguments in any area of philosophy that strikes your interest.
● Step 2: Search your feelings for your visceral reactions to these ideas and arguments. (If you have no visceral reaction whatsoever to ideas, you probably aren’t cut out to be a philosopher.) You will notice that some of your visceral reactions to ideas will be sympathetic, and some will be antipathetic. That is to say, you will like some ideas, and other ideas you will dislike.
● Step 3: Turn your attention to your viscerally negative reactions to some ideas. Examine these reactions carefully. Ask yourself, “Why do I react strongly against this idea?” Inquire carefully into your intellectual likes and dislikes.
● Step 4: If you can bring your feelings to a level of explicit consciousness, you will notice that your antipathetic responses to some ideas usually follow from the fact that the ideas in question have ignored or contradicted something that you intuitively know to be the case, and perhaps also to be important. Ask yourself, “What is the intuition to which this idea has not done justice?”
● Step 5: Bring your neglected or contradicted intuition to full and explicit consciousness. Develop a theoretical exposition of this intuition (or these intuitions, if there are several) on its own terms.
● Step 6: Compare this exposition of your neglected intuition with ideas and arguments to which you felt an immediate sympathy. Does it tally with them? If yes, you can develop your exposition of your intuition in the context of known theories.
● Step 7: If your neglected idea does not tally with existing ideas with which you are sympathetic, you will need to go up to a higher level of generality to find a systematic theoretical context in which you can formulate an exposition of your intuitions.
● Step 8: If you can’t find any systematic theoretical context within which you can fit the exposition of your neglected intuition, then you will have to construct an entire metaphysics from scratch, and you’re in for a long, hard slog. Enjoy it.
● Step 9: Once you have an exposition in a fully developed metaphysical context of some gut instinct to which current philosophical ideas and arguments do not do justice, confront those ideas and arguments with your now powerfully formulated exposition of their ellipses. Wait for the sparks to fly.
● Step 10: If no sparks fly, and your powerful formulation of an ellipsis in contemporary philosophical thought falls dead-born from the press (or, rather, falls too low in Google rankings to ever be seen or read by anyone), prepare to die gracefully and await posthumous discovery and fame. For a philosopher, patience is a virtue and death is the least of considerations when it comes to the value of an idea.
So, there you have it — ten easy steps to philosophical wisdom, and a method for doing justice to matters of the intellect that the intellect sometimes neglects, to do justice to that which we know in our bones. Of course, if you know something in your bones that doesn’t mean that it’s true, only that it has a place in our thought. The next step is to determine what the proper place is in out thought for our instincts, intuitions, and feelings. That will require a further method.
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Studies in Mathematical Intuition
3. Fractal Intuitions: Benoît Mandelbrot, R.I.P.
5. Fractal Intuitions: Fractals and the Banach-Tarski Paradox
6. Fractal Intuitions: A visceral feeling for epsilon zero
8. Fractal Intuitions: A Note on Fractals and Banach-Tarski Extraction
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12 March 2011
The scale of destruction and suffering caused by the earthquake and tsunami that has just struck the northern part of Hokkaido in Japan (2011 Sendai earthquake and tsunami — 東北地方太平洋沖地震), cannot but remind us of other natural disasters, some of them in the recent past, and some long past. It is likely that the Sumatra-Andaman earthquake of 26 December 2004 was the worst natural disaster that has (or will) occur in my lifetime, in terms of total casualties, with almost a quarter million dead, most as a result of the tsunami following the earthquake.
The most famous earthquake and tsunami in Western history is the disaster that struck Lisbon in 1755. I previously mentioned this in The Rational Reconstruction of Cities. I mentioned in that post Nicholas Shrady’s book, The Last Day: Wrath, Ruin, and Reason in the Great Lisbon Earthquake of 1755, which presented in some detail the intellectual controversy that emerged following the disaster. Shrady cited the work of Gabriel Malagrida, whose 1756 pamphlet, “An Opinion on the True Cause of the Earthquake” (“Juizo da verdadeira causa do terramoto”), argued that the disaster in Lisbon was divine retribution for the sins of the people of Lisbon:
“Learn, Oh Lisbon, that the destroyers of our houses, palaces, churches, and convents, the cause of the death of so many people and of the flames that devoured such vast treasures, are your abominable sins, and not comets, stars, vapours and exhalations, and similar natural phenomena. Tragic Lisbon is now a mound of ruins. Would that it were less difficult to think of some method of restoring the place; but it has been abandoned, and the refugees from the city live in despair. As for the dead, what a great harvest of sinful souls such disasters send to Hell! It is scandalous to pretend the earthquake was just a natural event, for if that be true, there is no need to repent and to try to avert the wrath of God, and not even the Devil himself could invent a false idea more likely to lead us all to irreparable ruin. Holy people had prophesied the earthquake was coming, yet the city continued in its sinful ways without a care for the future. Now, indeed, the case of Lisbon is desperate. It is necessary to devote all our strength and purpose to the task of repentance. Would to God we could see as much determination and fervour for this necessary exercise as are devoted to the erection of huts and new buildings! Does being billeted in the country outside the city areas put us outside the jurisdiction of God? God undoubtedly desires to exercise His love and mercy, but be sure that wherever we are, He is watching us, scourge in hand.”
There are probably people who continue to think such things today, and a few who say so in private, but this is not the dominant narrative today. We certainly bear traces of a past dominated by an eschatological conception of history, but civilization has largely moved beyond this. Now, whether we like it or not, or whether we know it or not, Occidental civilization today embodies a naturalistic conception of history. The transition from medievalism to modernism was also a transition from an eschatological Weltanschauung to a naturalistic Weltanschauung. This does not mean that we have “solved” the problems of an earlier era, but only that we have moved on to other problems.
As I said above, we bear the traces of our history, and some of us bear these traces more heavily than others. Recently I have been listening to Bart D. Ehrman’s book God’s Problem: How the Bible Fails to Answer Our Most Important Question — Why We Suffer. Ehrman is a serious scholar of early Christianity, and, by his own account, someone who started out as a sincerely and devoutly believing Christian, only to find that he had lost his faith after many years of study and confronting the problem of suffering.
Over the years I’ve talked with a lot of people about issues pertaining to suffering, and I am struck by the kinds of reactions I get.
After briefly discussing avoidance of the issue of suffering altogether and those responses to the problem of suffering that he considers to be answers that are “too pat” to be satisfying, Ehrman moves on to a third category of responses to suffering that he cannot accept:
Other people — including some of my brilliant friends — realize why it’s a religious problem for me but don’t see it as a problem for themselves. In its most nuanced form (and for these friends everything is extremely nuanced), this view is that religious faith is not an intellectualizing system for explaining everything. Faith is a mystery and an experience of the divine in the world, not a solution to a set of problems. (p. 15)
In Ehrman’s formulation of this view that he cannot accept, there is an echo of a famous passage from Hume, who wrote in his essay on miracles:
“…we may conclude, that the Christian Religion not only was at first attended with miracles, but even at this day cannot be believed by any reasonable person without one. Mere reason is insufficient to convince us of its veracity: and whoever is moved by Faith to assent to it, is conscious of a continued miracle in his own person, which subverts all the principles of his understanding, and gives him a determination to believe what is most contrary to custom and experience.”
This passage from Hume has become a standard point of reference not only for those who followed Hume and formulated the naturalistic conception of the world that dominates our thinking today, but also fideists who see in this the last remaining legitimate form of an uncompromising expression of faith: faith is a miracle, therefore proof in and of itself of what faith wants to believe. Thus this from Hume is, at once, both purple passage and locus classicus.
Ehrman writes that he respects this view and sometimes wishes that he could share it, but ultimately he cannot share it. He writes, “The God that I once believed in was a God who was active in this world.” He makes it clear that his confrontation with suffering was crucial to his loss of faith, and he further makes explicit that his remarks about his faith are all in the past tense, so there is no question of an equivocation in his belief; he is not about to say that he will change his mind if only someone can show him an intellectually legitimate way to formulate the problem of human suffering.
Ehrman is living a conundrum. He has abandoned the faith that the world has a particular metaphysical and eschatological structure, but he hangs on to the idea that our suffering must be expressed in eschatological terms, and our response to that suffering must also be expressed in eschatological terms. If it is not so expressed, according to Ehrman, it is avoidance, too pat, or a naturalism that he cannot share. But he has nothing to offer in place of naturalism, except strong feelings of its inadequacy.
I have encountered this attitude elsewhere, and when I thought about it I realized that I had written about it. In my post Cosmic War: An Eschatological Conception I wrote:
Because a cosmic war does not occur in a cosmic vacuum, but it occurs in an overall conception of the world, the grievances too occur within this overall conception of history. If we attempt to ameliorate grievances formulated in an eschatological context with utilitarian and pragmatic means, no matter what we do it will never be enough, and never be right. An eschatological solution is wanted to grievances understood eschatologically, and that is why, in at least some cases, religious militants turn to the idea of cosmic war. Only a cosmic war can truly address cosmic grievances.
Ehrman does not express himself in terms of war, but there is a close parallel between those who reject utilitarian and pragmatic assistance because it does not come wrapped up like an eschatological care package, and those who cannot accept a naturalistic conception of human suffering because it does not answer their deepest needs and longing to do justice to a noble and honorable conception of man, but a conception rooted in an eschatological conception of history that is no longer defensible in rational terms.
For Ehrman, human suffering is a cosmic grievance, and a cosmic grievance can only be addressed by a cosmic remedy. I don’t think that Ehrman is alone in this. Indeed, what makes his view interesting is that he is able to give eloquent expression to something that is sharply and poignantly felt by many who do not have the means to express themselves so well.
The question, then, as I see it, it not how to give the proper cosmic response to the cosmically formulated dilemma, but rather this: is our modern naturalism merely a superficial overlay, so that the vital forces that drive life remain profoundly and unalterably eschatological, or is the kind of attitude Ehrman expresses typical of a transitional age, indicating that we still have a long way to go in coming to terms with the naturalism formulated by visionaries like Hume? There are, of course, other possibilities as well — and interesting possibilities at that. The only reason I am going to bring this post to an end at this time is not because I am satisfied with what I have said, but only because I am tired.
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10 March 2011
Last Saturday night I had a stomach ache when I went to bed. As a result, I tossed and turned, sleeping fitfully, and when I did sleep I dreamed vividly. This is unusual for me. I rarely remember my dreams. This is more or less a choice. I find the irrationality of dreams irritating, so I have made no attempt to remember or cultivate them in my life. As a result, my dream life has withered. (Everyone knows that the more time you spend trying to remember your dreams, or even cultivating them by keeping a dream journal, the more likely you are to recall them. The opposite is also true.) When I sleep, I usually disappear into oblivion until I wake; my rupture with the world is complete and absolute. It therefore takes a relatively powerful dream to break through my benign neglect of the dream world.
For me, even more rare than a dream is a dream that is philosophically significant. I have had a few philosophically interesting dreams in my life, but only a handful in total. Nevertheless, I know it from my limited experience to be a fascinating experience. There is a famous story that English philosopher G. E. Moore (a friend and contemporary of Bertrand Russell and Ludwig Wittgenstein) had a dream in which he was unable to distinguish tables from propositions. Since G. E. Moore is known for his “common sense” philosophy, one can understand how disturbing such a dream might have been.
My philosophical dream that occurred sometime between Saturday night and Sunday morning did, in a way, concern itself with propositions, but only indirectly — it didn’t involve mistaking propositions (abstract objects) for anything else or mistaking tables (concrete objects) for anything else (much less each other). What I did experience in my dream was a kind of experience — experience without language, as though I were living in the world of our pre-linguistic ancestors.
In my dream I can recall encountering objects in all of the ordinary ways that we encounter objects in our experience, but primarily seeing them. I moved through a world of objects, and in my dream I had no words whatsoever to describe these objects, but I knew what they were, and I had definite feelings toward them (for example, feelings of desire or avoidance), and perhaps it could even be said that I had ideas of these ordinary objects, but the world of this particular dream was most definitely a pre-linguistic or non-linguistic world. Within the dream my experience of the world was utterly unmediated by language or the concepts institutionalized in language. For me this was a unique experience, and quite different from anything I have experienced previously either in dreams or in waking life. Perhaps dreams of non-linguistic experience are common, but I am unaware of this since I have made no study of dreams.
I began thinking of this dream as soon as I woke up — the power of the dreamed experience stayed with me for some time, and though I took no notes at the time I can still recall it several days later –and I immediately realized that there is an established terminology in phenomenology for such experience: prepredicative experience. So I dreamed prepredicatively.
The term “prepredicative” is introduced in Husserl’s Experience and Judgment: Investigations in a Genealogy of Logic. This was actually a manuscript assembled by Ludwig Landgrebe from Husserl’s manuscripts, though under Husserl’s direction while the latter was still alive. In his Introduction Landgrebe called the book, “a collaboration of a wholly unique kind” (p. 7).
Throughout his philosophical career, Husserl bent every effort to try to get to the experience itself without any mediation. An obvious corollary of this philosophical project was to get at experience, including the fundamental and constitutive experiences of logic, without recourse to language or even to the concepts employed in language. One can see this quest for unmediated experience as Quixotic yet doomed, or as simply foolish. There are few in the Anglo-American tradition today that even believe anything like this is possible. Most philosophers today believe that they have “seen through” any and all attempts to get at “pure experience” (which was what William James called it).
It is actually quite difficult to pluck out a good quote from Husserl that perfectly expresses his position in a pithy aphorism. Husserl does have some pithy aphorisms — like to the things themselves — but these are few and far between. For the most part, reading Husserl is a lot like reading medieval logicians like Ockham and Buridan: you have to put in several years of study before you can even understand what he is getting at, and why it is so difficult for him to express what he is getting at in clear and concise language. Anyway, for a flavor of Husserl’s ruminations on the prepredicative, consider the following:
“An object, as the possible substrate of a judgment, can be self-evidently given without having to be judged about in a predicative judgment. On the other hand, a self-evident predicative judgment concerning this object is not possible unless the object itself is given with self-evidence. For judgments of experience, this is, to begin with, nothing astonishing; indeed, in this case we seem only to be expressing a truism with the allusion to the founding of predicative self-evidence on the prepredicative. But the return to objective, prepredicative self-evidence obtains its proper emphasis and full significance only with the stipulation that this relation of founding concerns not only judgments grounded in experience but every self-evident predicative judgment in general, and therewith also the judgments of the logician himself, with their apodictic self-evidence, which, after all, make the claim of being valid ‘in themselves,’ i.e., regardless of their possible application to a determinate range of substrates.”
Edmund Husserl, Experience and Judgment: Investigations in a Genealogy of Logic, revised and edited by Ludwig Landgrebe, translated by James S. Churchill and Karl Ameriks, Northwestern University Press, Evanston, 1973, p. 20, emphasis in original
Now that this definitive quote from Husserl has cleared matters up, we can move on.
I consider my dream to be a sufficient thought experiment to prove to me for my own purposes that prepredicative experience is in fact possible. This is definitely an odd claim for me to make. Most if not all thought experiments are based on conscious intentions to think in a certain way about certain things. I cannot tell anyone except a lucid dreamer (and I have never myself experienced lucid dreams) to try this thought experiment, so it is not that kind of experiment that admits of repetition and independent confirmation. Nevertheless, I have experienced it myself and now “feel it in my bones.” While dream evidence (which sounds frighteningly like “spectral evidence” ) is not science, it is philosophy, at least in so far as I understand the openness of philosophical inquiry to any method whatsoever.
Moreover, I will make the further and perhaps even more tenuous claim that my dream of prepredicative experience is just about as close as someone from our age can come to experiencing the pre-linguistic world of our early ancestors, which would also have been innocent of those concepts that were built up with the use of language over the past fifty thousand years or so since anatomical modernity made speech possible and an ordinary part of human experience.
At this point in my exposition I am likely to lose even sympathetic phenomenologists, since there is a strong resistance among those who take up philosophical questions in this spirit with identifying ideas or experiences with particular historical instantiations. This resistance has a long, complex, and interesting history. Both Frege, the ancestor of analytical Anglo-American philosophy, and Husserl, and ancestor of continental philosophy, are part of this story.
Frege was dead-set against confusing the origins of things for the things themselves, and especially for confusing logic with any natural history of how logic came about in human experience. His writings frequently contain passages like the following:
“While the mathematician defines objects, concepts, and relations, the psychological logician is spying upon the origin and evolution of ideas, and to him at bottom the mathematician’s defining can only appear foolish because it does not reproduce the essence of ideation. ”
Gottlob Frege, The Basic Laws of Arithmetic: Exposition of the System, p. 24
This position consistently rejected by Frege is sometimes called psychologism, or logical psychologism. The early Husserl had psychologistic tendencies, but Frege wrote a devastating review of Husserl’s book Philosophy of Arithmetic, and Husserl henceforth explicitly repudiated logical psychologism. J. N. Mohanty wrote an entire book, Husserl and Frege, to prove that Husserl was moving in this direction anyway and that Frege did not “convert” Husserl to anti-psychologism, but it seems clear to me that Frege, at least at this point, had a decisive influence on Husserl.
Frege also wrote the following in a posthumously published manuscript:
“‘2 times 2 is 4′ is true and will continue to be so even if, as a result of Darwinian evolution, human beings were to come to assert that 2 times 2 is 5. Every truth is eternal and independent of being thought by anyone and of the psychological make-up of anyone thinking it.”
Gottlob Frege, “17 Key Sentences on Logic” in Posthumous Writings, University of Chicago Press, 1979, p. 174
I do not disagree with Frege, and I am not suggesting a psychologistic approach to logic, or even a more vague psychologistic orientation of thought, but because of my dreamed experience I have come to think that it is possible to speak meaningfully of experience independent of language and the infrastructure of concepts made possible by language. It therefore also seems entirely reasonable to me that say that we might be able to speak meaningfully of the genesis of language and language-dependent concepts from a pre-linguistic stage of human experience. Moreover, I will assert that under certain (admittedly unusual) circumstances, it is possible for those of us living long after the introduction of language to experience something analogous to the experiences our ancestors prior to language.
None of this strikes me as particularly controversial, much less heretical, but I know the history of these ideas well enough to know why such claims — especially when interpreted unsympathetically — could be construed as controversial. That is why I have filled in a little more background of the intellectual history than I do in most posts. It would be easy to devote a weighty volume, indeed several volumes, to an exposition of this idea, why it is controversial, and how it is to be understood in a way that does not contradiction the clarifications of Frege and Husserl, with which I have no issue. Perhaps if I live long enough I may eventually write those volumes. In the meantime, I wanted to set down the idea before I forgot it.
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22 February 2011
To continue with the Wittgensteinian theme of yesterday’s guest post from William Lyons (A Play about Wittgenstein), the author of the soon-to-be-produced play about Wittgenstein, The Crooked Roads, I’d like to consider Wittgenstein’s transitional period. Scholars of Wittgenstein distinguish between the early Wittgenstein of the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus and the later Wittgenstein of the Philosophical Investigations and the ordinary language philosophy that this book spawned. Between these two periods concerned, respectively, with the formal character of language and the informal character of language, Wittgenstein wrote much and published nothing.
Almost everyone has heard, “Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must remain silent” (“Wovon man nicht sprechen kann, darüber muß man schweigen”) from the Tractatus, and probably most have heard, “Back to the rough ground!” and, “Nothing is hidden” from the later Wittgenstein (although I note that neither of these examples appear on the Wittgenstein page of Wikiquote).
Wittgenstein was no less aphoristic during his transitional period, and his posthumously published works that fell between the Tractatus and the early drafts of the Philosophical Investigations — Philosophical Remarks, Philosophical Grammar — are a rich source of ideas. While Wittgenstein had a program and a method when he wrote the Tractatus and the Philosophical Investigations, during his transitional period he was groping for answers. His former thought had come to seem inadequate to him, and he had not yet arrived at the ordinary language method that he employed in his later period. I find the tentative and exploratory character of the transitional works to be quite congenial.
There is one line from the Philosophical Remarks that has haunted me for years, and I don’t think that this has achieved the recognition it deserves. In fact, I have never heard anyone quote, and I have never seen any cite, this line: “Nothing contrasts with the form of the world.” I stumbled upon this not long after acquiring my copy of Philosophical Remarks, and I have remembered it and thought about it time and again over the years, much as I continue to think about the line attributed to Valery, too see is to forget the name of the thing one sees.
Like much in Wittgenstein it sounds more like a Zen koan than an aphorism of Western philosophy. What is the sound of one hand clapping? What contrasts with the form of the world? This is more a locus of meditation than an answer to a question.
Here’s the quote from Wittgenstein with some context:
That it doesn’t strike us at all when we look around us, move about in space, feel our own bodies, etc., etc., shows how natural these things are to us. We do not notice that we see space perspectively or that our visual field is in some sense blurred towards the edges. It doesn’t strike us and can never strike us because it is the way we perceive. We never give it a thought, and its impossible we should since there is nothing that contrasts with the form of our world.
This observation is not so distant from another quote from Wittgenstein that I previously mentioned in my second reflection on the Paul Valéry line above, in Of Seeing and Forgetting…
“Nothing could be more remarkable than seeing a man who thinks he is unobserved performing some quite simple everyday activity. Let us imagine a theatre; the curtain goes up and we see a man alone in a room, walking up and down, lighting a cigarette, sitting down, etc. so that suddenly we are observing a human being from outside in a way that ordinarily we can never observe ourselves; it would be like watching a chapter of biography with our own eyes, — surely this would be uncanny and wonderful at the same time. We should be observing something more wonderful than anything a playwright could arrange to be acted or spoken on the stage: life itself. — But then we do see this every day without its making the slightest impression on us! True enough, but we do not see it from that point of view.”
One can feel Wittgenstein struggling toward the ordinary world in these quotes, as though it were difficult to grasp. And perhaps it was difficult for Wittgenstein to grasp the ordinary world in which we walk up and down and feel our own bodies. In his Concluding Unscientific Postscript, Kierkegaard wrote this about the relationship of the wise man to simplicity:
“…is it not the case that what is most difficult of all for the wise man to understand, is precisely the simple? The plain man understands the simple directly, when when the wise man sets himself to understand it, it becomes infinitely difficult. Is this an indignity visited upon the wise man that his person is so emphasized that the simplest things become the most difficult things, because it is he who is concerned with them? By no means. When a servant-girl weds a day-laborer everything passes off quietly, but when a king weds a princess it becomes an event. Is it derogatory to the king to say this about him?”
Like much that Kierkegaard wrote, this passage has a beautifully poetic quality to it, and even a fairy tale quality to it also. If Hans Christian Anderson had written philosophy it would have sounded like this.
After Wittgenstein heroically struggled toward an understanding of simplicity, he ultimately institutionalized that understanding in a new philosophical method that placed a ordinary language describing an ordinary world at the center. Yet I still find some value in the struggle itself, before any answers have been formulated, and for serious thinkers the struggle is never finished.
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21 February 2011
William Lyons wrote a comment to my post The Ludwig Wittgenstein Reading Club regarding the production of his play about Wittgenstein. I invited him to write about this in more detail. What follows is from Mr. Lyons.
Perhaps a bit of background may help. I’ve been a student or teacher of philosophy for most of my life (I’m now officially in retirement since 2004, according to current EU rules) but, in my later years, I became interested in theatre. In particular I’ve become involved with what I call “theatre of thought” — the attempt by me to write plays that are more thoughtful and challenging than the usual fare. In particular I’ve engaged with such topics as intellectual courage and cowardice, honour and treachery, integrity and the lack of it. The scenery in which I’ve sought to dramatize these concerns has been the lives of some famous philosophers.
The play, “The Crooked Roads” (the title is part of a famous quote from Blake, a poet much admired by Wittgenstein), is centred on the life of the Austrian-British philosopher, Ludwig Wittgenstein, and is about the traumatic and alienating effects of the life of and with a genius. It was completed at the end of 2004 and won the START Chapbooks drama competition, run annually in conjunction with the Clonmel Literary Festival, in Ireland, 2005. The chief adjudicator in this “open entry and blind adjudication” competition was the scholar of contemporary Irish theatre (particularly of the work of Brian Friel), Dr Patrick Burke. In his report he said that “The characters are well drawn within a delicate and keenly crafted plot that both satisfies and informs the audience. Lyons has succeeded in giving us a tight lens through which to examine his subject”. Among the places that we applied to for a grant to support a professional production of the play was the APA (American Philosophical Association). The APA were both very generous and very encouraging. The chief adjudicator of the APA review process involved took the trouble to write to me personally saying that “it [the play] was terrifically interesting and beautifully done…I much look forward to seeing it on stage…So many, indeed virtually all details throughout struck me as just right in tone and spirit… Almost forgot: absolutely brilliant closing line of Ottoline’s: ‘What about them?’”
As Wittgenstein is the most famous philosopher of the twentieth century, every indentured academic in philosophy or student majoring in philosophy will come across the work of Wittgenstein. I became very interested in his work, in particular in what is often described as the radical changing of his views about language and meaning from his earlier “Tractatus period” to his later “Investigations period”. But at the same time I became fascinated by his life and read as much as I could about his life and background. In particular I was struck by the intensity and seriousness of his intellectual and moral integrity which in turn, however, led so often to angry and disappointed feelings towards those around him whom, he felt, often did not merely not live up to these same high ideals but did not even seek to embrace them. I also became very interested in what seemed to me to be his traumatic experiences during WW1 (with the background of the ordeals of his brothers in that same war). In a sense, before WW1 he was a young, very clever and very ambitious bourgeois Austrian intellectual, perhaps thinking of a career in academia. After WW1 he seemed to want to divest himself of all this –- of his nationality and family, his wealth and academic ambitions — and to live an austere hidden life. But, of course, his intellectual brilliance and high ideals made sure that he was a failure at the “humble tasks” that he chose to do, such as school teaching, and drew him back to philosophy. Then there is the tension in Wittgenstein between wanting to avoid academic posturing and his desire to stop his “students” from plagiarising or misusing his work, a tension between intellectual pride and personal humility. So the play seeks to bring out all the ten sions with Wittgenstein and between Wittgenstein and others. It is a picture of a troubled but brilliant soul.
The director of “Wittgenstein (The Crooked Roads)” is Nick Blackburn, who is a recent graduate in English (PhD, with an emphasis on drama) from Wittgenstein’s old college, Trinity College, Cambridge. He is also a graduate of the Young Vic “Genesis” Directors’ Programme and has worked with the Judith E. Wilson Drama Studio at Cambridge, with the ENO (English National Opera) in London and with the Wooster Group in New York. My understanding is that, in bringing this Wittgenstein drama to the modern stage, he has been working with the young Austrian award-winning film director, Christoph Rainer, so that there will be “filmed elements”. I don’t know the details as, in this post-modern age, “the text” becomes the property of the director and cast, and the author is kept firmly at arm’s length!
Riverside Studios, Hammersmith, London, is probably the equivalent of Off-Broadway or even Off-Off-Broadway but is a theatre noted for putting on new and innovative drama. It also includes a cinema and art galleries, and so is a centre for the arts in west London.
A second “theatre of thought” play of mine, “The Fir Tree and the Ivy”, is about “trahison des clercs” played out against the background of the rise of National Socialism and the complex relationship between the German philosopher, Martin Heidegger, and his one-time student and later famous political thinker, Hannah Arendt. It was completed in 2005 and won the prestigious Eamon Keane Full Length Play Competition in 2006, part of the annual Listowel Writers’ Week, in Ireland. The chief adjudicator in this “open entry and blind adjudication” competition was Ben Barnes, Artistic Director at the Abbey Theatre 2000-2005.
A third “theatre of thought” play, “Nimbus Clouds”, the earliest, is a comedic “Greek” play that includes a Greek chorus who sing and dance their lines. The play is based very loosely on Aristophanes’ “Clouds”. The characters are borrowed from that play as also is a little of the structure, but the text itself, now a serio-comic drama about the fragility of morality and the hazards of education, is completely new. Centrally, for Aristophanes’ caricature of Socrates as a buffoon, there is substituted the wise and ironic Socrates of Plato’s dialogues. This play won a minor award in an international dialogue competition that included a rehearsed reading of a segment by actors of the Royal Dramatic Theatre of Sweden in Stockholm. It was also given a full rehearsed-and-acted reading, sponsored by the Society of Irish Playwrights at the Irish Writers’ Centre in Dublin, directed by Colette O’Connor with actors from the Abbey Theatre. It has since been developed into a full-length play.
I hope the above makes a little clearer the sort of drama I am interested in and the sort of play “Wittgenstein (The Crooked Roads)” is.
With my best wishes to all at “The Ludwig Wittgenstein Reading Club”,
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