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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6 Aug '04 09:50:28 AM

Comment via parataxis gives me more pleasure than I think it should, sometimes.

6 Aug '04 09:44:10 AM

'The idea has occurred to me that if one wanted to crush, to annihilate a man utterly, to inflict on him the most terrible of punishments so that the most ferocious murderer would shudder at it and dread it beforehand, one need only give him work of absolutely, completely useless and irrational character. Though the hard labor now enforced is uninteresting and wearisome for the prisoner, yet in itself as work it is rational; the convict makes bricks, digs, does plastering, building; there is sense and meaning in such work. The convict worker sometimes grows keen over it, tries to work more skillfully, faster, better. But if he had to pour water from one vessel into another and back, over and over again, to pound sand, to move a heap of earth from one place to another and back again--I believe the convict would hang himself in a few days or would commit a thousand crimes, preferring rather to die than to endure such humiliation, shame and torture. Of course such punishment would become a torture, a form of vengeance, and would be senseless, as it would achieve no rational object. But such torture, senselessness, humiliation and shame is an inevitable element in all forced labor; penal labor is incomparably more painful than any free labor--just because it is forced.'

6 Aug '04 09:25:55 AM

'for, as I must repeat again, the first principle of all action is leisure'

3 Aug '04 10:03:18 AM

'Now I gotta give a shout-out to Seagram's gin, cause I drink it, and they payin me for it.'

3 Aug '04 09:05:08 AM

Interestingly, the least knowledgable of those three was the most helpful to me. I suppose this is not all that surprising.

3 Aug '04 08:59:42 AM

A few people wrote to help me with my German question. The answer is, basically, that Anscombe's translation is more or less appropriate, and that mine is not. Though I know about them, I'm not familiar enough with separable verbs to have realized that 'auskennen' is one, and that in 'Ich kenne mich nicht aus' it has been separated. The situation is more or less like that with phrasal verbs in English, where the addition of a particle (not really a preposition, here) like 'up' to 'fuck' results in the distinctly semantically different (from 'to fuck') - and separable - verb 'to fuck up'.

Thanks to Alex, Jessie, and T.P. for the help.

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.)