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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3 Aug '04 04:35:15 AM

A reader who came across my blog recently sent me a couple of books from my wishlist, something which hasn't happened to me in quite a while. By way of explanation (this was rather quick; and I usually have already gotten to know, in some way or another, people who send me anything via meat-mail), they wrote:

'two or three years ago, i hated most everything, and was a savage & vituperative soul, and did many things that hurt and alienated people, perhaps myself more than anyone else. times have changed (tremendously) and i've finally crawled up to a high enough ridge that i can look back on that era with some perspective, survey the damage, and be aghast at it. i don't think i can explain exactly why sending you gifts constitutes part of the reparations, but you'll have to take my word for it.'

This means more to me than the prospect of gifts. It reminds me of an attitude I used to slip into with little effort, one in which I would often write, here. It has something to do with the difficulty I have sometimes had with explaining why it is that I write in public, especially in light of the fact that I often seem to be uninterested in writing the sort of things that are generally thought to have public appeal.

Writing used to feel more like a gift. Not to me, but from me, to whoever would eventually read what I wrote. A gift in the best sense.

3 Aug '04 04:19:34 AM

'Two questions are immediately to be expected: (1) How can I, what gives me the right to, speak for the group of which I am a member? How have I gained that remarkable privilege? What confidence am I to place in a generalization from what I say to what everybody says?: the sample is irresponsibly, preposterously small. (2) If I am supposed to have been party to the criteria we have established, how can I fail to know what these are; and why do I not recognize the fact that I have been engaged in so extraordinary an enterprise?

1. If what I say about what we say is in fact a generalization, and all I'm going on is the fact that I say it (and perhaps, but not necessarily, that I've heard some others say it too), then the thing is preposterous. Since I do not think that the claim to speak for "us" is preposterous, I do not think it is a generalization. But what else is it? For all Wittgenstein's claims about what we say, he is always at the same time aware that others might not agree, that a given person or group (a "tribe") might not share our criteria. "One human being can be a complete enigma to another" (Investigations, p. 223). Disagreement about our criteria, or the possibility of disagreement, is as fundamental a topic in Wittgenstein as the eliciting of criteria itself is.

This point may not fully alleviate the sense of Wittgenstein's dogmatism, but it might help raise the question of what he is being dogmatic about. It may even turn out that he sometimes does not care at all whether others would say what he says "we" say. - Well, evidently, that's what his dogmatism is all about. - No, I mean he "does not care", not in the sense that he will go on maintaining that he speaks for "us" no matter what "you" say, but that he is content not to speak for us, should it prove that he does not. This would make him not so much dogmatic as egomaniacal. "If I have exhausted the justifications . . . then I am inclined to say, 'This is simply what I do'" (§217); "Explanations come to an end somewhere" (§1); "Well, how do I know [how to continue]? . . . If that means 'Have I reasons?' the answer is: my reasons will soon give out. And then I shall act, without reason" (§211).

Then I am inclined . . . ; somewhere . . . ; then I shall act . . . But when and where is this? Who is to say when? - These are not my problems at the moment. Anyone has as much right or need to say as anyone else; and when one will or must admit the exhaustion of reasons is in each case an empirical question. My problem is rather to see what kind of crossroads this is.

When Wittgenstein, or at this stage any philosopher appealing to ordinary language, "says what we say", what he produces is not a generalization (though he may, later, generalize), but a (supposed) instance of what we say. We may think of it as a sample. The introduction of the sample by the words "We say . . ." is an invitation for you to see whether you have such a sample, or can accept mine as a sound one. One sample does not refute or disconfirm another; if two are in disagreement they vie with one another for the same confirmation. The only source of confirmation here is ourselves. And each of us is fully authoritative in this struggle. An initial disagreement may be overcome; it may turn out that we were producing samples of different things (e.g., imagining a situation differently) or that one of us had not looked carefully at the sample he produced and only imagined that he wished to produce it, and then retracts or exchanges it. But if the disagreement persists, there is no appeal beyond us, or if beyond us two, then not beyond some eventual us. There is such a thing as intellectual tragedy. It is not a matter of saying something false. Nor is it an inability or refusal to say something or to hear something, from which other tragedies may spring.

"I should like to say: 'I experience the because'" (§177). Suppose someone responded: "Well, I certainly shouldn't. It isn't even grammatical speech!" At such a crossroads we have to conclude that on this point we are simply different; that is, we cannot here speak for one another. But no claim has been made which has been disconfirmed; my authority has been restricted. Even if Wittgenstein had (and it is significant that he did not) introduced the ungrammatical wish by saying "We should like to say . . .", then when it turns out that I should not like to say that, he is not obliged to correct his statement in order to account for my difference; rather he retracts it in the face of my rebuke. He hasn't said something false about "us"; he has learned that there is no us (yet, maybe never) to say anything about. What is wrong with his statement is that he made it to the wrong party.

The philosophical appeal of what we say, and the search for our criteria on the basis of which we say what we say, are claims to community. And the claim to community is always a search for the basis upon which it can or has been established. I have nothing more to go on than my conviction, my sense that I make sense. It may prove to be the case that I am wrong, that my conviction isolates me, from all others, from myself. That will not be the same as a discovery that I am dogmatic or egomaniacal. The wish and search for a community are the wish and search for reason.'

27 Jul '04 01:48:10 AM

A question for my German-speaking readers - please drop me a note if you can offer any help:

Anscombe translates a sentence of Wittgenstein's, 'Ich kenne mich nicht aus', as 'I don't know my way about'. I'm curious to know how literally the sentence is understood in German. The presence of 'aus' inclines me to translate the sentence in terms of the English 'way', especially since the verb is 'kennen'. But if I were trying for a more literal translation than Anscombe's, I might try 'I don't know my way out', so that the sense is less of being lost and more of feeling trapped (if you're familiar with Wittgenstein's tendency to question pictures, like that of thoughts going on in a space in someone's head, that are felt to be inescapably necessary, then perhaps you see why I am interested in this).

So, how should this be translated? Along the same lines, I'm wondering how it is that a sentence like 'Ich kenne mich nicht' is thought to be related to 'Ich kenne mich nicht aus', and to what extent it is appropriate or preferable to say something like 'Ich kenne nicht meinen Ausweg'.

(I feel sure that the ordering, especially, of my made-up sentences is goofy somehow. Sorry about that.)

24 Jul '04 10:03:44 AM

Today I heard John Fahey in two different public places, and (probably) Stephane Grappelli soloing over Django Reinhardt, in two other different public places.

One of these was the sidewalk in front of someone's house.

I even heard the same Fahey song in both places, though it was a different recording the second time.

22 Jul '04 12:03:01 PM

The moral here being, that is: fuck that shit.

22 Jul '04 11:58:35 AM

This week the National Labor Relations Board denied a petition by graduate student employees at Brown to be recognized as a group for the purpose of collective bargaining. (See the Times story, or the NLRB press release.) The decision holds them to be primarily students, and thus not to count as statutory employees.

I surely haven't understood all of the details of the decision, but the majority's basic argument seems clear enough. The Board claims to make the distinction between whether an employee is primarily a student or an employee in order to protect the integrity and autonomy of the educational relationship the student has with the university. They contend that in the case of Brown, the basic relationship between graduate students and their university is primarily an academic one, as demonstrated by these claims (from page 10 of the decision):

"(1) the petitioned-for individuals are students; (2) working as a TA, RA, or proctor, and receipt of a stipend and tuition remission, depends on continued enrollment as a student; (3) the principal time commitment at Brown is focused on obtaining a degree, and, thus, being a student; and (4) serving as a TA, RA, or proctor, is part and parcel of the core elements of the Ph.D. degree, which are teaching and research."

I suspect that if the only criterion for whether an employee is primarily this or that were the relative amounts of time spent doing this or that, the point of making the distinction between primary and secondary would dissolve; the reasoning would then go like: "they don't work enough to be allowed to unionize", which is a difficult thing to say about half-time employees. No - the most significant move the majority makes, I think, is to emphasize the way that a graduate student's teaching or research work is understood to be part of their education. In some places they do so by basically pointing out that being enrolled as a student is a necessary but not sufficient condition on being an assistant of some kind, but here the assertions are weakly supported; while it is possible in various ways to be a graduate student without being employed as an assistant (namely: be independently wealthy, imprudently place yourself deeply in debt, or be one of the few fortunate enough to win fellowship support by virtue of your academic achievements, the pursuit of which is, nota bene, hindered, to say the least, by the usual required assistant work), and impossible to be employed as an assistant without being a student, students are more or less required to teach (or research). There may be minor differences at private schools, but as far as I know they, like public schools, have even been changing admission procedures so as to only admit students that they can guarantee a degree's worth of financial support to, which more or less means support in the form of assistantships.

To emphasize instead the fact that teaching or researching is itself considered part of the student's education seems like a better strategy, but I think it founders when confronted with what actually goes on, especially in the case of teaching work. For example, teaching is not evaluated by the same sort of standards as coursework or thesis research, and those evaluations are only minimally important to the completion of a degree. For bad teaching to prevent completion, it mostly has to be so bad that the graduate student is not even employable as a teaching assistant, but in many cases the reason the student cannot then complete his or her degree would be that they can't fulfill their part of the agreement that trades the (necessary) financial support for teaching labor. Slightly better teaching would be sufficient to complete a degree. By contrast, coursework and thesis work just barely adequate to avoid being kicked out would not, I think, be acceptable. 'Just barely adequate' is not adequate.

Consider this: I've been a graduate assistant in two different sorts of programs at two different schools for a total of four years, and none of the people responsible for my education have ever sat in on any of the class meetings I've led. (A fellow graduate student sat in one of them, once, for twenty minutes, in order to fill out a peer evaluation form by circling pre-given answers. Once.)

18 Jul '04 09:50:07 AM

My one successful act of defiance today was to read this:

I Know a Man

As I sd to my
friend, because I am
always talking, - John, I

sd, which was not his
name, the darkness sur-
rounds us, what

can we do against
it, or else, shall we &
why not, buy a goddamn big car,

drive, he sd, for
christ's sake, look
out where yr going.

8 Jul '04 10:45:36 PM


7 Jul '04 10:10:42 AM

'Doubt of any sort cannot be removed except action.'