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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5 Jul '03 10:34:20 AM

All of my thoughts are reactive.

3 Jul '03 11:35:54 AM

I would like to say (I'm not sure if it's true) that all of the questions I posed yesterday, the ones that ought to be addressed by interpretations of the Investigations, arise out of sort of cynical, immediate reactions to some prominent features of the book.

"Why is the book written the way it is?" The book is obviously strange.

"Does Wittgenstein advance any theories or take any philosophical positions?" He seems to avoid doing so, and makes remarks to the effect that he shouldn't or doesn't want to or can't: so the instinctive (killer-philosopher) response is to try to catch him on it. Especially because he makes so many gestures toward positions (meaning is use, language is made up of language-games, there can be no private language, others) or creates a general atmosphere, as a result of his sustained criticism, that suggests that if he were working properly he would be able to come up with a clear statement of his position, or at the very least a single, stationary target for his criticisms in large areas like language and mind.

"Why or why not?" If he does, then there are questions about why he does so while pretending not to. If he doesn't, this is unusual enough to merit explanation - note that this is not just a lack of positive work as compared to negative work, because he doesn't just offer criticism, but, again, seems to claim that he shouldn't or can't do anything else (as far as traditional philosophers are concerned).

"Does the book contain any technical concepts?" This is related to the questions about theories and positions - but it seems to be a favored foothold for people interested in either turning Wittgenstein against himself, or refining his inchoate positive work. Terms Wittgenstein uses repeatedly like "language-game" are new, and not given even the kind of cursory definition expected in the tradition in which Wittgenstein worked.

"Why did Wittgenstein stop writing about ethics?" It's not too difficult to see how the Tractatus was, as Janik and Toulmin put it, an "ethical deed". Just this and Wittgenstein's ongoing concern with ethical conduct suggest that he wouldn't have abandoned the central concern of his earlier years. The obvious lack of discussion of ethics (the word itself only shows up once) in the Investigations, together with even a pop-culture awareness of the end of the Tractatus (silence, all that stuff), makes it tempting to suppose that maybe Wittgenstein started taking his ethical beliefs even more seriously than before, by keeping quiet about them. But his tactic in the Tractatus - shut up the blowhards and keep ethics safe - invites speculation about possibly subversive attempts to do the same in the Investigations.

"What are we supposed to do with the book?" If you're hostile, then you're supposed to get your shit together (plug up those holes, rebuild those foundations on more solid ground). If you're sympathetic, then you're supposed to: wave the flag, avoid talking about necessary and sufficient conditions or mental phenomena, use lots of examples, big up ordinary language, renounce theories, become a drill press operator. Or, following remarks about the nature of philosophy: try to avoid letting philosophy get you sick in the head. Depending on the severity of these responses, the unusual character of the book and Wittgenstein's admonishments regarding philosophy incline one toward not doing anything at all. Many of the obvious options also seem to be poor ones.

"What can we do with the book?" Supposed to and can aren't always the same.

2 Jul '03 10:34:50 PM

"Tessio" isn't at the top yet. But it is nine and a half minutes long, and kind of an undertaking.

Top ten with playcounts:

1. "Party and Bullshit" - Biggie Smalls - 14
2. "Kevin Rowlands 13th Time" - Dexy's Midnight Runners - 6
3. "Tessio" [Present Lover] - Luomo - 4
4. "All N My Grill" - Missy Elliott f. Big Boi & Nicole - 4
5. "Still the Same" - More Fire Crew f. Dizzee Rascal - 4
6. "Beware of the Boys" - Punjabi MC f. Jay-Z - 4
7. "Crazy in Love" - Beyonce - 3
8. "Baby Boy" - Beyonce - 3
9. "This is What She's Like" - Dexy's Midnight Runners - 3
10. "My National Pride" - Dexy's Midnight Runners - 3

It turns out that #11 is also Punjabi MC f. Jay-Z, which I've played 3 times. That's the version from the S. Carter Collection Mixtape; it has two Jay verses where the one at #6 above only has the first verse (but that one is still a longer track, and it's just the beat and singing for like two minutes at the end). It would be nice if I could consolidate these, but I suppose I would actually feel scandalized if iTunes let me play around with something as sacred as playcounts.

2 Jul '03 10:20:37 AM

How do the various aspects of the style of the Investigations serve its purpose(s)?

This question is like the previous one, but I have framed it differently. I just urged attentiveness to Wittgenstein's style, but I fear I haven't emphasized enough what I mean. It depends on a distinction between a philosophical purpose that uses style as a means to that purpose, and a philosophical purpose that is in some sense constituted by style. I am not even sure what I mean by this.


(I want to make the distinction in order to make room for the latter possibility, purpose constituted by style. This is because it's the one that will most obviously require us to focus in on every aspect of style in the overall patchwork of styles that is the book. It's something like an insistence that we get all of the evidence; prematurely determining the book's purpose to be the former kind, one using the book's style as a means, seems as if it might happen much more readily when we attempt to stand too far back, or are selective about the aspects of style we consider.)

2 Jul '03 09:28:50 AM

Why is the Investigations written the way it is?

The book is unusual as compared to both normative philosophical writing, and books in general. It is not written in any recognizable form, such as the essay or technical paper, although it has affinities with the dialogue, the aphorism, the confession, the parable, and others. Although it is divided into two parts, and each of these into smaller parts, these divisions do not give the book an obvious large-scale structure. Locally, we might be comfortable calling the book an argument. But if so, it's an argument in the more conversational sense. From section to section, a particular claim might be debated, attacked, scrutinized, entertained, clarified, transmuted. Or, a number of different claims might be advanced as a result of damaging criticism - but the entire run of sections will still center on the same topic, such as how words mean things, or what it means to follow a rule. Yet these patches of continuity are punctuated by changes of subject (sometimes apparently unrelated, sometimes subtly related) which do not always settle back down into relatively well behaved passages of argument. And despite of the use of the word "argument" here, the arguments carried on in the book are remarkably resistant to more conventional reformulation, making conventional philosophical engagement with it difficult. This difficulty is compounded by Wittgenstein's reluctance or refusal to advance positive theses, or really any theses. It's compounded even further when Wittgenstein leaves his technical terms like "language-game" or the provocative "life-form" apparently unelaborated, leaving him open to misreading, or criticism that he fails to hold himself to the same standards he applies to his targets.

There's more. There are gnomic pronouncements, especially about the nature of philosophy. There are unfavorable remarks about philosophers - usually not specific ones, but apparently all of them. There are, as has often been noted, parts that are: funny, strange, exhortative, ironic, banal, poetic. There are pictures. There are examples - lots of them.

I can't go on, though I should. I have said this much about how strange a book the Investigations is because I think its strangeness demands explanation, but the briefest argument I can give to that effect is short-circuited by a well-entrenched point of view in philosophy. The argument is this: if the way the book is written is essential to its purpose as a piece of philosophy, then we should attend carefully to the way it's written. There is convincing evidence that the way the Investigations is written is essential to its purpose as a piece of philosophy. But that evidence puts Wittgenstein on the wrong side of the old and casually observed boundary between reasoning and rhetoric. Evidence is hardly necessary, anyway, because the fact that there is such a divide, together with philosophy's identification with reasoning and thus opposition to rhetoric, means that the only things that are supposed to be essential to a book of philosophy are its arguments.

So instead of considering the book's style and form seriously, philosophers, including Wittgenstein scholars, ignore them or quickly explain them away (with explanations like: that's just how he wrote, it's meant to complement or flatter his conception of philosophy, he's avoiding his obligation to give clear arguments, yes it's interesting but). But the book is so extraordinarily different that I can't see why we wouldn't take that difference seriously in every respect, in order to understand whether it's philosophically important or not.

2 Jul '03 07:10:37 AM

Questions that should be addressed by any synoptic reading of Wittgenstein's Philosophical Investigations:

Why is the book written the way it is?
How do the various aspects of the book's style and form serve its purpose(s)?
Does Wittgenstein advance any theories or take any philosophical positions?
Why does(n't) he?
Does the book contain any technical concepts?
Why did Wittgenstein stop writing about ethics?
What are we supposed to do with the book?
What can we do with the book?

27 Jun '03 04:55:04 AM

If you get sleepy when reading a book, go to sleep!

26 Jun '03 08:01:17 PM

Dramatic tension, that is, borrowed from simulated realism.

26 Jun '03 10:53:08 AM

The central conceit in Big's "Suicidal Thoughts" is that he kills himself at the end, after rehearsing his litany of suffering ("reasons", you might say, if there are reasons for suicide). But it's also made to sound like a phone call - you can hear the person on the other end become more and more agitated as he realizes what Big is saying, and the longer Big ignores him. Something about this feels wrong. I'd prefer to have just Biggie's monologue. The person on the phone is meant to add some kind of dramatic tension, I suppose, but I don't want it. Big's part has enough of that. I would have liked to have said that it comes from some kind of progression in his lyrics, but looking at them now I'm not so sure.