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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21 Jul '05 08:37:52 AM

Some extremely rough notes and drafts on Wittgenstein's method:

It seems common - maybe because it's hard to avoid - for 'therapeutic' readings of Wittgenstein to use, implicitly or explicitly, the figures of doctor and patient, or therapist and patient (if they're more scrupulous about avoiding the unwanted implications of the strictly medical doctor), in some way. I don't know in detail at the moment, but my general impression is that the introduction of the therapeutic relation and its figures into an explanation of Wittgenstein's method may tend to obscure the workings of the method. Consider one way: if Wittgenstein is the doctor, and the reader is the patient, then one might be prone to thinking of Wittgenstein's method as something only Wittgenstein can use, which is to say, as something one can only get at by reading Wittgenstein's writing (or by having been one of Wittgenstein's flesh and blood interlocutors). While it could be true that we are limited in this way in our ability to take up Wittgenstein's thought for ourselves, it would be ironic, given his purposes, if we were to think so only for want of having been able to understand him in any other way.

Wittgenstein usually gets to be the doctor, but there are enough clues internal and external to the Investigations for some readers to have decided that his method may have been meant as a means of self-therapy, of ridding oneself of one's own philosophical problems. This is better, in my opinion, but here the therapeutic metaphor may still cause problems; here Wittgenstein would be both doctor and patient, which is problematic just because weird, unfamiliar.

I think attention to textual, literary, rhetorical, stylistic, and formal features of Wittgenstein's writing may provide means for answering questions about Wittgenstein's method, particularly like those above. Or maybe I can put that more strongly. I don't know how to answer these sorts of questions (which for me all tend to lead back to 'what is Wittgenstein's method?' or 'how can we use Wittgenstein's method for ourselves?' or 'how can we repeat Wittgenstein's method?') without such an investigation. And, I suppose that I think that these questions are significant because no one seems to me to be using Wittgenstein's method, and few use anything that much resembles it (count the method marked by Stanley Cavell's prose style as one such cousin); and if no one is using his method then it's hard to see how anyone is taking real heed of his work in doing their own work.

Consider these various possible combinations: 1. Wittgenstein is the doctor, the reader is the patient. 2. Wittgenstein is the doctor, the 'bad philosopher' is the patient, the reader is an observer to the treatment (like a medical student, say). 3. Wittgenstein is the doctor, Wittgenstein is the patient, the reader is an observer.

I could discuss these at greater length, and should, but I'm mainly interested in the third one because it seems like the - forgive me - most Wittgensteinian reading of the text, by which I guess I have in mind, the least committed to some particular content for his method involving, say, ideas about rule-following or the meanings of words. Or: the reading for which it is least difficult to say what the method is without smuggling in content which is unlikely to be redeemable to other philosophers (who are, ideally, prospective patients, if only through self-adoption).

Some speculation as to how rhetorical criticism, for example, may bear on any of the three ways of reading Wittgenstein just mentioned:

Typically in philosophical writing - especially of the modern era - the reader is taken (by both the author and the reader) to be more or less anyone (even when one factors in various limiting specifications of who the reader is or what they are like owing to professional deformation, what's left is taken to be 'anyone' whose committments are generally taken to contribute to common cause with the author, ultimately; limiting cases of polemic, invective and other rhetorical positioning against real, mischaracterized and imagined opponents are no doubt important and will completely overturn what I've just written). This is bound to have an effect on one's interpretive strategy, on one's efforts to figure out and then say what constitutes Wittgenstein's method, or less narrowly, what his philosophy is up to. If the reader is any old person, and the reader is the patient, as in (1), how much more tempting is it to take Wittgenstein's method to rest on special facts about humans, or special facts about language, or about the philosophical impulse? Things do not seem much better with (2), where the generality of the bad philosopher (unless he enjoys some particularity, for example being a dirty Platonist) invites one to construe Wittgenstein's method in a similar way; and, worse, maybe invites too much identification with Wittgenstein as distinct and against the bad philosopher.

With these easier generalities made unavailable in (3), what is the observer-reader left to observe? (I hope the answer is: Wittgenstein's demonstration of his method, his example. So that the injunction to the student ends up being: try it like this.)

This opens out onto a broader investigation into the construction of the reader of the Investigations, for example by looking at Wittgenstein's use of pronouns - ich, du, wir, man, etc. - the addressees of questions, assumptions about community, committment, complicity, temptation, the relation between Wittgenstein, the reader, and the interlocutors' voices.

On readings that court unwisely substantive explanations of Wittgenstein's method, Cavell's remarks on ordinary language and 'what ''we'' say' seem to be making claims for Wittgenstein about ordinary language, about what a philosophical method that took its nature and relation to philosophy into account would look like. But how might these remarks be taken differently? What is the point of, for example, a search for community, by someone using Wittgenstein's method? Might a rhetorical study say more?

19 Jul '05 10:44:39 AM

'To Generalise is to be an Idiot. To Particularise is the Alone Distinction of Merit. General Knowledges are those Knowledges that Idiots possess.'

19 Jul '05 09:15:26 AM

I now wish he would not have called them 'talking points', but I still am enviously impressed every time I read Michael's posts here, here, and here.

And when I say 'enviously impressed', you should not take me to be implying otherwise about the rest of the entries there that I have not now linked to.

19 Jul '05 08:11:02 AM

Unbeknownst to me, the links to individual entries on this blog were broken by a recent upgrade to the underlying software. I think I have fixed the problem, but if you find that I haven't, please let me know.

9 Jul '05 08:17:56 AM

'Lifestyle marketing': that's a very good phrase for one of the things that makes me averse to the objects of some people's tastes.

I am quite sure that I am totally inconsistent about this.

8 Jul '05 11:28:47 AM

I could play it like a game, I suppose (like playing chess - not that I know how to play chess that way - or, closer to home, like writing a formal proof in logic, or so we tell our students): how many moves do I need to make to get the question 'what is its form?' to turn into 'what do I do with it?' (or better, 'what can I do with it?')?

Or: what will it take to get someone to become interested in the latter questions as a means for answering the first one?

7 Jul '05 12:11:04 PM

Wittgenstein writes, somewhere: 'Nearly all my writings are private conversations with myself. Things that I say to myself tête-à-tête.' So why can't I do the same?

2 Jul '05 11:58:40 AM

I want some Thelonious Monk screw tapes, is what I was going to post, but then I thought it would be much more ironically appropriate to have wanted some Charlie Parker screw tapes. But I would still rather have Thelonious Monk screw tapes.

21 Jun '05 10:27:16 AM

Mick Collins in the liner notes to the new Dirtbombs singles collection:

'To date, the dance-music impulse has won out over the art-damage impulse, but consider yourself duly warned. I just admitted I like Henry Cow; that should be warning enough.'