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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26 May '06 08:18:32 AM

'the lovable junkie snitch'

23 May '06 09:02:25 AM

'For him, remembering is no longer what it was, unforeseen or willful recollections of this thing or that.'

19 May '06 10:05:34 AM

And a footnote:

'Just one prominent example of the difficulty of sustaining the subjunctive mood in English is Norman Kemp Smith's translation of Kant's Critique of Pure Reason. Kant wrote a chapter on noumena and phenoumena entirely in the subjunctive mood ("if one could talk of the things in themselves, what might one say about them?"). In order to avoid tedium and repetition, the translation reverts, for the most part, to the indicative mood - inadvertently fostering the widespread misunderstanding that this is the point where Kant's critical philosophy breaks down and where it treats noumena as existent - see (A 249).'

19 May '06 10:01:04 AM

'Since the subjunctive mood is used ever more rarely and since many of its verbal constructions are becoming extinct in English, Laurence Sterne's whimsical 1761 treatment of "a white bear" serves as a welcome reminder of its possibilities.

A white Bear! Very well. Have I ever seen one? Might I ever have seen one? Am I ever to see one? Ought I ever to have seen one? Or can I ever see one?

Would I had seen a white bear! (for how can I imagine it?) If I should see a white bear, what should I say? If I should never see a white bear, what then?

If I never have, can, must or shall see a white bear alive; have I ever seen the skin of one? Did I ever see one painted? - described? Have I ever dreamed of one? Did my father, mother, uncle, aunt, brothers or sisters, ever see a white bear? What would they give? How would they behave? How would the white bear have behaved? Is he wild? Tame? Terrible? Rough? Smooth?

- Is the white bear worth seeing? -

- Is there no sin in it? -

Is it better than a Black One?

If this is the wild and playful side of the subjunctive mood, Wittgenstein's Vienna represented its tentative and dubious side. In the first chapter of his Analysis of Sensations, Ernst Mach ridicules the man who says "it seems to me that you have given me a beating," while Allan Janik and Stephen Toulmin describe Viennese society as being so delicate and unstable that a more direct tone might easily bring it down.

Before turning to the formal aspects of the subjunctive mood in the context of the Tractatus, I will consider its strictly philosophical and simultaneously literary significance. As with writing aphorisms, Wittgenstein's use of the subjunctive is not primarily a matter of art and aesthetics, but concerns the method and conduct of thought. This was true even of Tristram Shandy's father when he "danced his white-bear backwards and forwards through half a dozen pages" and justified his grammatical extravaganza as an impulse for philosophical experimentation with ideas:

the use of the Auxiliaries is, at once to set the soul a going by herself upon the materials as they are brought to her; and by the versatility of this great engine, round which they are twisted, to open new tracks of enquiry, and make every idea engender millions . . . The verbs auxiliary we are concerned in here, continued my father, are, am; was; have; do; did; make; made; suffer; shall; should; will; would; can; could; owe; ought; used; or is wont. - And these varied with tenses, present, past, future, and conjugated with the verb see, - or with these questions added to them; - Is it? Was it? Will it be? Would it be? May it be? Might it be? And these again put negatively . . . Or hypothetically. - If it was; If it was not? What would follow? - If the French should beat the English? If the Sun should go out of the Zodiac? . . . Tristram . . . shall be made to conjugate every word in the dictionary, backwards and forwards the same way; - every word. Yorick, by this means, you see, is converted into a thesis or an hypothesis . . . every one of which leads the mind on again, into fresh tracks of enquiries and doubtings. - The force of this engine . . . is incredible in opening a child's head.

"Or hypothetically; - If it was; If it was not? What would follow?" This is the question also of reductio-arguments, evidently in the subjunctive mood. "If this hypothesis were true," these arguments say, "what would follow from it?" This mode of questioning allows us to entertain the hypothesis without endorsing it; we adopt it tentatively for the sake of a thought experiment that tests its mettle. Only as we arrive at the conclusion can we return from the subjunctive to the indicative mood: "If we were to adopt this hypothesis, we would end up contradicting ourselves, and therefore, the hypothesis is false or incoherent and must be rejected."

Also, to say "if we were to adopt this hypothesis, we might run into a contradiction" is different from saying "if we were to drop this stone, it would fall to the ground." In the latter case, we are considering a so-called irreal or counterfactual conditional. In that case we know that when the stone is dropped, it will fall to the ground - no subjunctive here! - and all we have to do is talk about a case where the initial condition (dropping the stone) is not fulfilled but might be. In contrast, the hypothesis of a thought experiment or reductio ad absurdum invites us to think with a sense of possibility, to play things through under the assumption that the hypothesis, no matter how unlikely, is potentially true. Or we might set out to conduct a reductio-argument and discover that the hypothesis contradicts a long-held belief of ours - and then we decide not to reject the hypothesis but to question instead that long-held belief. A statement of the sort "if this hypothesis were true, where might we go from here" is therefore a so-called potential conditional or conjunctivus potentialis. It invites us to inhabit for a while the subjunctive sphere of possibility.

Aphoristic writing often invokes such potential conditionals. For example, take this philosophical thought experiment by Lichtenberg: "I have often wished that there might be a language in which it would be impossible ever to say a falsehood, or where at least every breach of truth would be a breach of grammar." Like a reductio argument, this thought experiment proceeds hypothetically, it begins with a "what if" in the subjunctive mood. In contrast to an irreal or counterfactual conditional, there are no initial conditions here which are not in fact, but might well be satisfiable. Instead, there is no expectation that there could ever be such a language. To entertain this possibility is to conduct a thought experiment about the limits of language that remains confined within the subjunctive sphere.

Albrecht Schöne has actually undertaken the task of counting occurrences of the various varieties of subjunctive construction. He has found that the subjunctive was far more frequently employed in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries than it is today, and he found that Lichtenberg's frequency of usage, especially of the potential conditional was way ahead even of his contemporaries. Schöne takes the actual employment and mastery of the subjunctive as an expression of a "hypothetical-experimental" style of writing and thinking, a style that does not require explicitly subjunctive constructions, since in many cases a suppressed subjunctive can be inferred from context, from method of hypothesis or mode of qualification. Indeed, all or most of the aphorisms by Lichtenberg, Novalis, and Kraus originate in the suppressed subjunctive "If I thought this possible, what might occur to me?" Wittgenstein, for example, could have premised every remark of the Tractatus by writing something like "If any sense whatsoever were expressible in speech and I wanted to express thoughts about the relation of language and world, it would first occur to me that the world is all that is the case." Instead, all of his remarks in the Tractatus can be said to be elliptical, giving us only the last part of the cumbersome construction - what and how it really did occur to him under the conditions of the thought experiment. Insofar as they presuppose hypothetically that it is possible to speak about the relation of language and world, his remarks therefore involve an implied subjunctive. Only while exploring this possibility can a thought occur to him which - as a real occurrence - he records in the indicative mood: "The gramophone record, the musical thought, the score, the soundwaves all stand in the same internal relation to one another as that which obtains between language and world. To all of them the logical structure is in common" (TLP 4.014). Here, the implied subjunctive allows Wittgenstein's imagination to venture further than the consideration of language itself. Going beyond even the musical metaphor, a parenthetical afterthought draws the reader into the speculative world of a romantic fairy tale, wedding the idea of internal relations and of common logical plan to the poetic ideal of unity in difference: "(Just as in the fairy tale the two youths, their two horses and their lilies. They are all in a certain sense One.)"

If remarks like this one testify to Wittgenstein's ability to experiment aphoristically with ideas, there are many others that more explicitly display his fondness and remarkable mastery of the subjunctive mood. Here is just one of numerous examples from the Tractatus: "If this weren't so, how could we apply logic? One might say: if there were a logic, even if there were no world, how then could there be a logic, since there is a world" (TLP 5.5521). A sampling from Culture and Value underscores how Wittgenstein uses expressions in the subjunctive mood to provoke the imaginative activity of the aphoristic thought experiment. Again and again he posits or invents a world in which objects appear in new and different states of affairs, while names appear in new and different configurations. Wittgenstein's subjunctive formulations thus disengage us from the world as we find it and thereby create a vantage point from which we can reflect it (Lichtenberg: "If everyone inhabited his own planet, what would philosophy then be?"):

If anyone should think he has solved the problem of life...
If someone is merely ahead of his time... (it will catch up with him one day.)
(If the hem of his clothes hadn't caught in the machine?)
If it is said on occasion that (someone's) philosophy is a matter of temperament...
If one wanted to characterize the essence of Mendelssohn's music...
If I say A. has beautiful eyes...
If you use a trick in logic... (whom can you be tricking but yourself?)
If someone prophesies that the generation to come will take up these problems & solve them...
If you offer a sacrifice & then are conceited about it...
If, for example, certain metaphors are established as dogmas of thought for the people...
If I realized how mean & petty I am...
If this stone doesn't want to budge, if it is wedged in... (first, move other stones around it.)
If you already have someone's love...
If in life we are surrounded by death...
If there is anything in the Freudian theory of dream interpretation...
If people did not sometimes commit stupidities... (nothing intelligent at all would ever happen.)
If I had written a good sentence, & it happened to be two rhyming lines... (this would be a mistake.)
If it is true, as I believe, that Mahler's music is worthless...
If God really does choose those who are saved...
If nightdreams have a similar function as daydreams...
If someone can believe in God with complete certainty... (why not in the soul of others?)
If a false thought is only expressed boldly & clearly... (a great deal has been gained already.)
If you cannot unravel a tangle...
If Christianity is the truth... (then all the philosophy about it is false.)
If the believer in God looks around & asks "Where does everything I see come from?"

Add to this: If any sense whatsoever were expressible in speech... (how would objectivity and truth be possible?)'

- Alfred Nordmann

19 May '06 08:52:26 AM

(Bencivenga's remark about 'philosophy of coercion' comes with a footnote which is unfortunately not immediately helpful for filling out in what way he means 'coercion'. 'Of course, the philosopher of necessity will often claim that the limits in question are not limits he sets, but limits the concepts themselves have. It would take me too far afield to argue here against such "conceptual realism." For a statement of its impracticability, at least in the specific area of the meanings of words and phrases, see my "A New Paradigm of Meaning"' - that paper also not being very directly helpful. (The footnote before this mentions Nozick, whose introduction to Philosphical Explantions also makes a distinction between coercive and non-coercive philosophy.) But that second paper does have an interesting footnote of its own on 'Frege's conviction that language is meaningful only insofar as something is communicated through it', that being the reason Frege chooses a communication metaphor for his semantics: 'Notice also that the origin of the communication metaphor is probably to be found in those ritual activities (analogous to the holy communion) through which a group of people reinforce their sense of themselves as constituting one community.')

19 May '06 07:35:42 AM

(Try not to forget how strange and surprising the Tractatus already is - stranger than you think. 'Logic', ha.)

19 May '06 06:15:13 AM

I sure miss this show sometimes.

14 May '06 07:06:39 AM

Science, dropped

9 May '06 09:05:30 AM

George Steiner on the second volume of Edward Timms' study of Karl Kraus.