Tuesday


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 InvestigationsPhilosophical 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 anyone 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 it’s impossible we should since there is nothing that contrasts with the form of our world.”

Ludwig Wittgenstein, Philosophical Remarks, University of Chicago Press, 1975, p. 80, section 47

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.”

Ludwig Wittgenstein, Culture and Value, p. 4e

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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Friday


Last August I wrote about the possibly apocryphal quote from Paul Valéry: to see is to forget the name of the thing one sees. I mentioned then that I am fascinated by this quote and often return to it. I found myself thinking about it again recently and find that I have more to say on it. A good aphorism is pregnant with meaning and can always be the point of departure for another meditation, as a text of scripture can always be the point of departure for another sermon.

To see is to forget the name of the thing one sees. What is meant by “seeing” in this context?

Seeing — true seeing, genuine seeing — is seeing that transcends the ordinary experience of seeing. The ordinary experience of seeing gets lost in conventions. People scarcely notice the things around them. As soon as a thing is seen, it is immediately assigned to some familiar category and no more attention is paid to. In this way, seeing becomes an exercise in identification, and identification draws upon a familiar conceptual scheme, a Weltanschauung in which there is a place for everything and everything is to be found in its place. Such “seeing” is little more than an excuse to dismiss things with a glance, to ignore the world.

To see is to forget the name of the thing one sees. This encapsulation of an extraordinary kind of seeing immediately suggests another kind of seeing, the kind of seeing that is ordinary seeing. What is ordinary experience? What defines the mundane? There is a passage from a posthumously published fragment of Wittgenstein that comes to mind:

“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.”

Ludwig Wittgenstein, Culture and Value, p. 4e

Wittgenstein here observes an unexpected coincidence of ordinary and extraordinary experience. For Wittgenstein, extraordinary seeing is simply a shift in perspective away from ordinary seeing. And ordinary seeing is not an excuse to ignore the world, as I wrote above, but is an immersion in the world. The Wittgensteinian conception of extraordinary experience is immanent; Wittgenstein rejects the transcendent as a source of the extraordinary.

I can imagine someone not getting the point of Wittgenstein’s example; it is more in the nature of a parable than an argument. And like most parables, it is inherently ambiguous. Wittgenstein was, after all, from Vienna: a crucible of modernity in which thoroughly modern ideas were no sooner given their initial formulation than they were dialectically confronted with their opposite number. As I have noted elsewhere, reflexivity is of the essence of modernity.

Should we seek the extraordinary variety of seeing invoked in the possibly apocryphal Valéry quote in ordinary experience? Is there a dialectic of ordinary and the extraordinary experience that would reveal seeing as the seeing the forgets itself as seeing? For Wittgenstein, it is a change of one’s point of view that renders the ordinary extraordinary. Presumably, also, there is a change in point of view that would render the extraordinary ordinary.

Is there a changed point of view that would give us extraordinary experience from our ordinary experience? Can we find an unexpected coincidence of the two through a shift in perspective? Can a change within oneself make one see as one has not seen before? What is true seeing, genuine seeing? Vision. Thus the seeing with which the quote is concerned is visionary seeing. How does one attain a vision?

The ordinary might converge upon the extraordinary through repetition. Repetitive rituals — essentially, iterations of ordinary experience — have long been employed to induce altered states of consciousness, that is to say, extraordinary experience. I wrote about this in Algorithms of Ecstasy.

But Valéry would not likely have been sympathetic to this. In his famous essay, “Man and the Sea Shell,” Valéry wrote, “…it is the nature of the intelligence to do away with the infinite and to abolish repetitions.” It is perhaps unreasonable to take this line from Valéry out of context, for it is a line that means something in its context. But it is not entirely unreasonable. Elsewhere Valéry makes explicit criticisms of Cantorianism and the Cantorian conception of the infinite, and the simplest way to the infinite is the endless iteration of anything.

There is also, in Valéry, an implicit criticism of the extraordinary, and this criticism could well be of a piece with his rejection of Cantor. If the quote that concerns us is indeed from Valéry, it is not a paean to outlandishness for the sake of outlandishness. For Valéry, Cantor is too outlandish. For Valéry, even extraordinary vision would be ordinary in a sense, finite to be sure, not the excrescence of an altered state of mind. And thus we find ourselves back at the coincidence and convertibility of ordinary and extraordinary experience, of mundane seeing and visionary seeing.

In the difference between the approaches to the extraordinary by way of the transcendent or the immanent, Valéry and Wittgenstein represent the immanent. Cantor perhaps represents the transcendent, though he had little to say regarding experience, whether ordinary or extraordinary. But perhaps a theory of extraordinary experience, hence visionary seeing, might be derived from Cantor, and, once derived, placed in transcendental contrast to the immanence of Valéry and Wittgenstein.

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Addendum on Beholding

2 March 2010

Tuesday


Martin Schongauer’s treatment of the Ecce Homo theme — Behold the man! I once had the good fortune to see an exhibition of Schongauer’s graphic works, when I visited the famous Unter den linden Museum in Colmar, France, where I had made an aesthetic pilgrimage to see the Issenheim Altar.

A couple of days ago in What it Means to Behold I suggested that the relationship of beholding belongs to a unique epistemic category. I didn’t think of it at the time (though it seems obvious now), but the quote attributed to Paul Valéry that I have discussed on several occasions — to see is to forget the name of the thing one sees — could be said to exemplify at least one aspect of beholding.

There is, in the Valéry quote, a recognition of a mode of both perception and of cognition that has become removed from the familiar order of things. The suspension of familiar linguistic conventions and categories implied by the quote is part of this (and this is what the Russian formalists called “defamiliarization”). But beholding goes father than this. One could say that to behold is to forget the name of thing one beholds, and also to forget oneself and to forget the world entire. In the attitude of beholding there is the object that is beheld and nothing else, nothing more.

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Thursday


William Blake's 'Angel of Revelation' is a fitting figure of the inspirations of genius.

Thinking again of what I wrote few days ago in The Mind’s Singular Function, I realized that I should have said that, while the product of inspiration could be considered a memorialization of the singular, it is important to note that it is in no sense an attempt to reproduce, recreate, simulate, or imitate the singular episode of inspiration. In so far as a work of creative expression is a memorialization of the singular, it is an oblique memorialization, and mimesis plays no part in it. This follows from the fact I previously noted that inspiration is not identical to the products derived from inspiration. This makes of the intellectual singular a haeccietas more absolute than any chance event in the mundane world, which latter may have representational memorializations. Inspiration is not a representational memorialization.

I realize that my formulations are as yet highly imperfect, but I have at least the idea (more or less), which I can attempt to refine and to apply. One application is the possibility of defining genius, which is usually treated as an ineffable quality of mind. But in view of the character of inspiration as the singular in the sphere of the intellect, genius can be defined as the continual, or near-continual, immersion in the singular. This reminds me of a remark attributed to Blake’s wife, which I may have quoted previously (it is one of my favorite quotes): “I have little of Mr. Blake’s company — he is always in paradise.” This puts the matter succinctly, not to mention personalizing it.

This latter formulation — i.e., genius as the immersion in the singular — begs the question of immersion. I think that degrees of immersion need to be recognized, but that absolute immersion can be given a relatively simple formulation: it is when the mind is so concentrated on a single focus that the remainder of the world is relegated to the periphery. I call this the “undivided mind”. It is a rare but not unknown state of mind. Another formulation is suggested by the extrapolation that I made of the quote attributed to Paul Valéry, namely, to see is to forget the name of of the thing one sees. The idea implicit here can ultimately be pushed beyond the senses to the transcendence of thought itself: to think is to forget the name of the thing one thinks.

The two instances I cited in Interests and Identity, Camus saying near the end of his life that his work had not yet begun and Cézanne also near the end of his life saying that he is making slow progress, are perfect examples of genius utterly immersed in the object of its fascination. Kenneth Clark, in discussing Mozart, mentioned the “single-mindedness of genius.” This is of a piece with these fragments from the life of Camus and Cézanne.

Sören Kierkegaard, passionate Protestant preacher than he was, devoted an entire devotional work to the proposition Purity of heart is to will one thing. Kierkegaard writes in Chapter 3 of this work:

So let us, then, upon the occasion of a time of Confession speak about this sentence: PURITY OF HEART IS TO WILL ONE THING as we base our meditation on the Apostle James’ words in his Epistle, Chapter 4, verse 8: “Draw nigh to God and he will draw nigh to you. Cleanse your hands, ye sinners; and purify your hearts ye double-minded.” For only the pure in heart can see God, and therefore, draw nigh to Him; and only by God’s drawing nigh to them can they maintain this purity. And he who in truth wills only one thing can will only the Good, and he who only wills one thing when he wills the Good can only will the Good in truth.

Let us speak of this, but let us first put out of our minds the occasion of the office of Confession in order to come to an agreement on an understanding of this verse, and on what the apostolic word of admonition “purify your hearts ye double-minded” is condemning, namely, double-mindedness. Then at the close of the talk we may return more specifically to a treatment of the occasion.

What I have above called the undivided mind is here seen as the condition of having transcended double-mindedness — as much a concern for a theologian like Kierkegaard as for a thorough-going naturalist. This famous proposition of Kierkegaard can be given a reformulation much as I reformulated the famous line from Valéry, and Kierkegaard thus extrapolated would run like this: Purity of mind is to think one thing.

The single-mindedness of genius, the immersion of the mind in its object, is the purity of mind that comes from thinking one thing.

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Friday


Paul Valéry

Paul Valéry

To see is to forget the name of the thing one sees.” This is a quote frequently attributed to Paul Valéry, and the line has a quality that is at once both searching and poetic, making the attribution reasonable. I don’t know if Valéry actually said it (I can’t find the source of the quote), but I think of this line every once in a while: my mind returns to it as to an object of fascination, like an intellectual fetish. A good aphorism is perennially pregnant with meaning, and always repays further meditation.

If seeing is forgetting the name of the thing one sees, and mutatis mutandis for the aesthetic experiences that follow from the other senses — e.g., to taste is to forget the name of thing one tastes, and so forth — we may take the idea further and insist that it is the forgetting of not only the name but of all the linguistic (i.e., formal) accretions, all categorizations, and all predications, that enables us to experience the thing-in-itself (to employ a Kantian locution). What we are describing is the pursuit of prepredicative experience after the fact (to employ a Husserlian locution).

This is nothing other than the familiar theme of seeking a pure aesthetic experience unmediated by the intellect, undistracted by conceptualization, unmarred by thought — seeing without thinking the seen. In view of this, can we take the further step, beyond the generalization of naming, extending the conceit to all linguistic formalizations, so that we arrive at a pure aesthesis of thought? Can we say that to think is to forget the name of the thing one thinks?

The pure aesthesis of thought, to feel a thought as one feels an experience of the senses, would be thought unmediated by the conventions of naming, categories, predication, and all the familiar machinery of the intellect, i.e., thought unmediated by the accretions of consciousness. It would be thought without all that we usually think of as being thought. Is such thought even possible? Is this, perhaps, unconscious thought? Is Freud the proper model for a pure aesthesis of thought? Possible or not, conscious or not, Freudian or not, the pursuit of such thought would constitute an effort of thought that must enlarge our intellectual imagination, and the enlargement of our imagination is ultimately the enlargement of our world.

Wittgenstein famously wrote that the limits of my language are the limits of my world (Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, 5.6 — this is another wonderful aphorism that always repays further meditation). But the limits of language can be extended; we can systematically seek to transcend the limits of our language and thus the limits of our world, or we can augment our language and thus augment our world. Russell, Wittgenstein’s mentor and one-time collaborator, rather than focusing on limits of the self, developed an ethic of impersonal self-enlargement, i.e., the transgression of limits. In the last chapter of his The Problems of Philosophy Russell wrote:

All acquisition of knowledge is an enlargement of the Self, but this enlargement is best attained when it is not directly sought. It is obtained when the desire for knowledge is alone operative, by a study which does not wish in advance that its objects should have this or that character, but adapts the Self to the characters which it finds in its objects. This enlargement of Self is not obtained when, taking the Self as it is, we try to show that the world is so similar to this Self that knowledge of it is possible without any admission of what seems alien. The desire to prove this is a form of self-assertion and, like all self-assertion, it is an obstacle to the growth of Self which it desires, and of which the Self knows that it is capable. Self-assertion, in philosophic speculation as elsewhere, views the world as a means to its own ends; thus it makes the world of less account than Self, and the Self sets bounds to the greatness of its goods. In contemplation, on the contrary, we start from the not-Self, and through its greatness the boundaries of Self are enlarged; through the infinity of the universe the mind which contemplates it achieves some share in infinity.

The obvious extension of this conception of impersonal self-enlargement to an ethics of thought enjoins the self-enlargement of the intellect, the transgression of the limits of the intellect. It is the exercise of imagination that enlarges the intellect, and a great many human failures that we put to failures of understanding and cognition are in fact failures of imagination.

The moral obligation of self-enlargement is a duty of intellectual self-transgression. As Nietzsche put it: “A very popular error: having the courage of one’s convictions; rather it is a matter of having the courage for an attack on one’s convictions!”

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Since the above I have written more on the same in Of seeing and forgetting…

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Bertrand Russell

Bertrand Arthur William Russell (1872 – 1970) formulated an ethic of impersonal self-enlargement.

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