josh blog

Ordinary language is all right.

One could divide humanity into two classes:
those who master a metaphor, and those who hold by a formula.
Those with a bent for both are too few, they do not comprise a class.

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18 Jan '16 11:38:58 PM

A couple years ago or so, I realized that several of the projects I had going but that weren't coming together made more sense if I thought of them together, so I started deliberately imagining them as a book. I've stopped and started work repeatedly since then, but mostly I've been preoccupied with working out the argument of the first essay in the book, on what it could mean to see Wittgenstein as a modernist philosopher. The topic is not exactly manageable, considering how little Cavell (my main source) develops it, but I'd gotten onto it because I had a nice idea about Mulhall in a different essay (the one referred to in the previous two entries, below) that required me to contest his reading of Cavell's idea of modernism, and doing so seemed like it would independently bear fruit. My preoccupation with the first essay developed especially once I started to think that 'cynicism' was a better term than 'nihilism' for covering a basic concern informing Cavell's own practice as a philosopher and writer, since it also seemed to explain some troublesome features of his interpretation of skepticism (particularly skepticism about others, and the relation thereof to literature).

I haven't really touched the Mulhall essay since then. What's been missing in it has been, basically, a focused sense of the substance of Mulhall's argument—since I began with an intuition about the way in which the argument (whatever its specifics) was being made. I've known that it should have to do with his conclusion, the link of which to the body of the book is none too clear because of the way he reaches it, but it's so large (original sin! the Good Samaritan!) that I haven't had many strong feelings one way or the other how the conclusion might relate to my sense of the book as a whole.

Aside from the diversion into modernism itself, I left my work on the essay with a little bit of textual detective work the import of which I might not have appreciated at the time. 'Myth' is a very poorly developed concept in Part Four of Cavell's Claim of Reason, important but often cropping up in ways that stymie understanding. By seizing upon it in his introductory reading of Cavell, Mulhall seems to promise to remedy that lack of development. At least, in a way I would expect, through explicit thematization of the concept of myth (thinking, maybe, of its significant role in the poetics of people like Frye or Todorov). He doesn't give that; per the index, what you get are mainly discussions of myth in the texts he's already reading, in situ. I suppose I took a look at these and at least noticed (because I bolded some text in my notes) that his most significant discussions of myth also locate it at doubly significant points in the texts he reads, and in his procedure of identifying moments of continuation (of originality, of renewal and the new) in, particularly, thinkers' subsequent texts. For Wittgenstein, a fairly continuous reading of the Investigations up til the point of the rule-following passages ends up focusing on the suggestion that 'the ways in which we talk about such rules… are in fact figurative or symbolic—more precisely, that they are mythological' (p. 139), which then gives way in Mulhall's text to a reprise of his 'aspect-seeing' reading (i.e., stressing the importance of Part II of the Investigations, which can be considered another text) of Wittgenstein. For Heidegger, after an initial reading of the quotation of Plato's Sophist (in which the Eleatic Stranger being quoted imagines having a conversation with 'tellers of myths about Being'), the concept of myth crops up in a reading of the myth of care in Being and Time which situates it as the turning point (which it is) between Division I and Division II, then quickly gives way to Mulhall's own transition to a reading of What is Called Thinking, where relations between myth, philosophy, and religion become the overarching theme.

The transition to the third part, on Kierkegaard, is made via Heidegger's failure to (adequately) acknowledge the greatest source of his own reading of Christianity, viz. in Kierkegaard's writings. But the point of contact, conceptually, between this part of Mulhall's account and earlier and later parts comes from Heidegger's invocation of Nietzsche (primarily from Zarathustra):

Heidegger cites a passage from Schopenhauer to drive home his central point: 'however immeasurable and massive the world may be, yet its existence hangs by one single thin thread: and that is the given individual consciousness by which it is constituted' (WTC 40). In other words, if (as Schopenhauer elsewhere puts it) 'the world is my idea', then the very existence of that world and everything in it is subject to scepticism; but this subjection is not a discovery about reality, about the way things are really set up between human beings and their world—it is rather created by a particular conceptualization of it. We set up the world and its objects in such a way that we set upon them; sceptical doubts assail us because we have assailed the independent reality of things by decomposing and thereby deposing them.

Thus far, Heidegger's account of scepticism does not differ in essentials from his general approach in Being and Time; but he goes beyond that old beginning in taking Nietzsche to have seen that this attack is fueled by the spirit of revenge; in other words, he takes scepticism about the external world to be a punishment we impose on reality for some species of suffering that we take it to have inflicted on us. And since vengeance typically aims to give or take like for like, an eye for an eye, Heidegger further implies that our decomposition and deposition of the world aims to inflict upon reality the kind of suffering that we take reality to have inflicted upon us. By means of the representational theory of thinking, and more generally by the technological cultural formation it exemplifies, we take revenge upon the world for what we experience as its attack upon our independence and reality, its attempts to decompose and so depose us. We do not allow the tree to stand where it stands, because we take ourselves to have suffered from the tree's refusal to let us stand where we stand. But how might we have come to think that—to experience our encounter with a tree in bloom as one in which we suffer decomposition and deposition? (pp. 303–304)

This all convinces me that the concept of myth plays a substantial, if not necessarily foregrounded, role in the book's argument. So it must be meaningful that in the third part, the one on 'Kierkegaard's Vision of Religion', myth drops out completely, although nearly every section addresses some significant aspect of literature or theater. That doesn't mean there's not a lot of interpretive work yet to do there, though.

What's occurred to me in the interim, having shifted the emphasis of my whole (imagined) book with the introduction of 'cynicism' as a key term for me, is that 'myth' is (duh) a key term in the philosophical critique of religion, among other things, a locale where cynicisms formal or informal are often at issue, so that perhaps I would do well, when trying to articulate my sense of the substance of Mulhall's argument, to suppose that he takes himself to be doing the same thing I take Cavell to be doing, attempting to make an uncynical response to a threat of cynicism, even, say, within a (philosophical) culture dominated by it.

I am prone to reading any argument favorable to religion as cynical (or delusional). I suppose my own sense of Cavell has always been that what I take to be his (more or less) rejection of or indifference toward religion is uncynically honest, so that I read any attempt to correct it as itself stemming from a cynical impulse. But probably a less cynical idea of dogmatics would allow that one can answer an anti-dogmatist uncynically, even if on behalf of the dogma.

18 Jan '16 09:29:11 PM

(From an old draft, December 2012…)

Stephen Mulhall's Inheritance and Originality comprises an introduction, three parts, and a postscript. The first four of these are presented, per their subtitles, as 'readings' of works by Stanley Cavell, Wittgenstein, Heidegger, and Kierkegaard, and to each of the latter three Mulhall also attributes, per the titles in which each appears, 'visions', respectively of language, skepticism, and religion.

Though Mulhall obviously uses the introductory part devoted to Cavell, the shortest one, to declare his acceptance of various methodological ideas of Cavell's and to declare his intention to apply them throughout the readings to follow, the introduction serves a role which I would call more pointed, were the point not so indirectly pursued. The simplest thing to say about this point is that Mulhall declares his acceptance of Cavell's ideas upfront so that he is later in a position to challenge them. This challenge comes most plainly (but probably not only) in the postscript to the book, more diffuse than any preceding discussion but including a quick reading of the Christian dogma or doctrine of original sin. Mulhall asks whether the figure of Christ—specifically, his crucified body as 'giving the best picture of the unacknowledged soul'—does not provide a better way of thinking about acknowledgement, and thus, with Cavell's signature term for thinking about skepticism, knowledge of others, than does the literature which Cavell himself turns to at the end of The Claim of Reason. This is in direct contention with Cavell's declaration elsewhere that philosophy cannot traffic in religious assumptions, 'cannot say sin', and otherwise is to maintain its autonomy or difference from religion. It also renews a challenge (which received some criticism from Cavellians) to Cavell's 'project' that ended an earlier book of Mulhall's which was devoted to explaining Cavell's thought.

Mulhall's challenge to Cavell in respect of the closely linked fortunes of the ideas of acknowledgment and literature is significant precisely because of that linkage and the way Cavell arrives at it. For it is a product of the investigations comprising Part Four of The Claim of Reason, and a product in a way which is as yet obscure in its details, considering the great length of the sole chapter comprising Part Four and the late stage at which Cavell arrives at his assessment of skepticism and his claim regarding literature as the best place to study it. The significance of Mulhall's challenge lies in the fact that despite a mass of careful, penetrating work on Cavell's thought, he has shied away from comprehensive treatment of Part Four of The Claim of Reason. In his earlier book on Cavell, having prepared the way with discussions of Cavell's earlier essays, of other portions of Claim, and of other post-Claim work, Mulhall (understandably) dodged discussion of the argumentative substance of Part Four in favor of a discussion of the body of Shakespeare criticism (adding to Claim's concluding Othello reading and an earlier King Lear essay) and writings on romanticism that Cavell produced subsequent to Claim. Mulhall's avoidance has continued after Inheritance and Originality; he has since issued a short book offered as a continuation of the Cavellian (among other influences) reading of Wittgenstein given in Inheritance which, in focusing on 'Wittgenstein's private language', also proposes to expound some of Cavell's thought about the problem of other minds (among other aims). Though some of this thought is derived by Mulhall from Part Four of Claim, again, it is primarily derived from that part of Part Four before Cavell has begun seriously to attempt to leave his own reading of Wittgenstein behind, and moved toward the investigations which eventually issue in his assessment of skepticism and turn toward literature.

Mulhall's avoidance of the core of Cavell's writings on skepticism about others and literature is exhibited internally to Inheritance as well as externally. For its introduction is not just a declaration of methodological ideas but is also, like the main parts of the book (per their subtitles), a reading, albeit a much more compressed one. In this case, a reading of the whole, in some sense, of Cavell's Claim of Reason. Though Mulhall's introductory chapter can give the impression of being excessively concerned with the beginning of Cavell's text, as if out of some kind of theatrical interpretative gesture which begins to interpret, or rather questions the very possibility of ever getting past merely beginning to interpret, by interpreting the beginning of someone else's interpretation—an impression fostered by the introduction's indication, in its part titles, that it will be comprised wholly of discussions of the first five paragraphs of Claim (that is, about three pages of text)—Mulhall turns out to use the discussion of modernism broached by Cavell's fourth paragraph as a sort of capsule reading of Claim as a whole. A discussion of fragmentation as the mode of composition of modernist texts, specifically Claim and its uneasily juxtaposed four Parts, is followed by a discussion of Claim's aims qua modernist text, and then a discussion of the mode of composition of Chapter XIII (i.e. Part Four) of Claim itself, which is said to recapitulate the whole and to itself be composed recapitulatively, and then a note on how the conclusion to Chapter XIII's concluding section (30, said to recapitulate Chapter XIII) might itself be thought of as epitomizing the concluding section's recapitulation of Chapter XIII and Chapter XIII, or Part Four's, recapitulation of the whole of Claim; and this conclusion is a point at which Cavell returns to his claim about literature and questions whether it is really possible for philosophy 'to become literature and still know itself'.

All the talk of recapitulation is important to emphasize because it is by means of it that Mulhall leaps over what one might expect he ought most not to leap over. He gives a quick description of the structure of Chapter XIII:

Its themes—the relations between body and mind, self and society—receive an initial exposition in the opening thirty pages, which derive from Wittgenstein's remarks on private languages and seeing aspects; the opening discussion of the parable of the boiling pot might even be read as an epitome of the argumentative substance Cavell derives from material relating to the private diarist, and Wittgenstein's aphorism that the human body is the best picture of the human soul might be read as its recapitulation. The multiple implications of that aphorism are variously developed (by means of arguments, narratives, science fiction, and literary criticism, each instance of which is aphoristically epitomized); and the whole is then recapitulated in the concluding reading of Othello.

Chapter XIII comprises thirty unnumbered sections of text. The content Mulhall associates with the 'opening thirty pages' (I am not sure it is that many) comes in sections 1–4 or so, by the end of which 'Wittgenstein's aphorism' has been re-stated and Cavell has begun working up material Mulhall slots under the description 'remarks… on seeing aspects', having left behind the private diarist and indeed a focus on privacy considered primarily in terms of the idea of a private language. The 'multiple implications' of Wittgenstein's aphorism which Mulhall says that Cavell develops are covered in sections 5–29, the bulk of the chapter. The recapitulating, concluding reading of Othello comprises (with a quick read of The Winter's Tale) section 30.

So Mulhall treats much of Cavell's discussion quite lightly. He doesn't stint it completely; to 'more precisely' (p. 20) characterize 'the motley of writing modes to which Cavell resorts in the development sequence of part IV' Mulhall turns to section 6's idea of myth, which Mulhall is careful to link to Wittgenstein's aphorism (as an example of a reinterpreted myth or a fragment of a myth meant to replace another fragment of a myth, of the body as veil). Myth-fragments of this sort are said to be those with which the modernist philosophical writer (whose task Mulhall sketched previously) is concerned. Then, Mulhall gives a quick statement of how Cavell uses 'mythological uses of words', as inviting accounts of why they seem to give expression to truths whose expression may meet the genuine human desires also said to be the modernist philosophical writer's concern.

18 Jan '16 09:03:08 PM

(From an old draft, July 2014…)

Stephen Mulhall's Inheritance and Originality apparently consists of readings of Wittgenstein, Heidegger, Kierkegaard, and (briefly, in the introduction) Cavell. But it also constitutes an extended, indirect argument with Cavell waged in part through careful choices about its form and presentation. Each of its parts, for example, sees the book's uniform task identified in a title or subtitle: 'Reading the Philosophical Investigations', 'Reading Being and Time and What is Called Thinking?', 'Reading Philosophical Fragments, Fear and Trembling, and Repetition', with the gerund emphasizing the relationship of reader to text, and the dynamic orientation toward texts read from beginning to end (and onward), incorporated into Mulhall's hermeneutic practice. Likewise, the titles of the book's parts designate, for each author read, his role in the scheme of Mulhall's argument: 'Wittgenstein's Vision of Language', 'Heidegger's Vision of Scepticism', 'Kierkegaard's Vision of Religion'. The bases of the argument's arc are found in the book's opening and concluding sections, the reading of Cavell, 'Modernist Origins', and the 'Concluding Dogmatic Postscript', 'Biblical Origins'. The subtitle of the book as a whole is simply 'Wittgenstein, Heidegger, Kierkegaard'. But I think that it could be subtitled 'Mulhall's vision of tradition'.

It is notable that he is able to get the effect of a 'tradition' by reading only three authors' works in juxtaposition. Heidegger's own work calls back explicitly to Kierkegaard's, and that is one of the most immediate reasons for reading them both here. But this calls attention to a fact about works which we, as a matter of fact, take to form traditions, to belong together and be a primary form in which the past is intelligible to us, in fact in which we are bound to take up the past: these works select their own traditions, name their own predecessors. Their authors nominate themselves members of traditions in the works in which they seriously confront, if not those traditions, then at least the merest links of chains which could be construed as traditions, author to author, person to person. One or two or three is all it takes—more than enough.

Mulhall's own presentation of a tradition in the work of Wittgenstein, Heidegger, and Kierkegaard is not quite that direct, but in a way which is telling of his purposes and his attitude toward the work of confronting tradition. The linkage from Wittgenstein to Heidegger is partially made through Cavell's own indirect linking of the two; through Mulhall's placement, at the front of his book, of a brief reading of Cavell; through Mulhall's own fuller attempt to link Wittgenstein and Heidegger elsewhere; and I think most substantively, through the attitude Mulhall enacts throughout Inheritance, that of a reader. It is through the receptively productive, dependent posture of the reader, the interpreter, that Mulhall is able to join the voices of his texts and their authors into a single coherent text which knits the authors into a tradition which, with a kind of insistence, keeps directing us back to the past.

Since this tradition is in effect a little (fragment of a) canon, it is worth considering what this stance means for readers.

'A voice in the canon's conversation', but only that; not even that; traditions such as these have an exclusive aspect which a lone reader's readings, voiced occasionally and partially, cannot puncture. Readers' voices lack authority (which is why disciplined readers must work so hard to establish that their voices carry authority: that they are derived from the texts themselves, that they speak on behalf of readers, that their moments of subjectivity or insight are made good by being worked through in application to the text). A 'readerly' canon is one that has a tendency to exclude people from full participation in it, fully equal participation, because the works they must confront there overwhelm their voices, will almost always possess more authority.

(This seems to call for a note about the measures authors of books like these can take to secure themselves against excluding others from shared authority.)

18 Jan '16 07:11:31 PM

'One less bell to answer, not one more.'

15 Jan '16 05:11:55 AM

'… a future-in-the-present in which one must protect oneself from the world, from other people and from one's own visions, desires and fears…'

15 Jan '16 02:05:45 AM

'… an emptiness and cruel superficiality of everyday thought…'

11 Jan '16 06:25:51 PM

'… waiting for the gift of sound and vision.'

8 Jan '16 06:45:17 AM

'When a person has suffered very much and been very exhausted by his own sensibility, he sees that one must live day by day, forget very much, and finally clear away as much life as continues to arrive.'

2 Jan '16 04:45:35 AM

'We're Russians', the woman says to the barista. 'Oh', the barista says, interestedly, 'have you been here a—' and you can nearly hear the expression on the Russian's face, flat, factual, as she finishes the barista's sentence: 'Long time'. —No point to having an attitude one way or the other.