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.

newest | archives | search | about | wishlist | flickr | email | rss

17 Jan '13 10:53:23 PM

I'm sitting in my office.

In a couple of hours I won't be, because I will have moved out, and because it won't be my office any more.

I've been teaching, lecturing, at my graduate school alma mater, my old department.

I moved from graduating, to a visiting professorship at a small school, to being unemployed and living with my parents again, to returning to the Twin Cities for work offered to me, a couple of summers back, at nearly the point when I had run out of unemployment benefits, money, and hope.

I suspect that I owed the opportunity almost wholly to an administrative assistant who works in my old department, normally involved with the job searches of graduates and with the semester-to-semester teaching assignments of the graduate students. I'm not sure that anyone else paid that much mind. To anyone but her, there was just a slot to be filled, and any way of filling it would have worked.

My hopes were heightened at first, like they always are with a new semester. My year starts in August, not January. I was teaching under new conditions that challenged me to improve my work, and I think I did. I also got to see old friends and do some thinking with them.

The job market is a sink for hope. It drains hope. It barely permits reasonable thought; if you do badly, it's hard to know why, to assess yourself or your prospects.

I have a pretty good idea why I haven't done that well so far. This hasn't prevented me from feeling frustration, shame, resentment, anger, despair, from year to year.

So it went that first year back, and then again that spring, hunting for fall work. Again, I had almost no prospects and experienced rejection that frustrated understanding. Again I was saved at the last minute by the kindness of the same assistant in my old department; and by the accident of a peer scoring a full-time job that led him to vacate another one.

Now the work has dried up, or I haven't hustled enough to secure any. It's hard for me to maintain the sense that I have a future—that anything I do could carry forward. That doesn't stop me from acting as if it will. Turned down for a job teaching an ethics course, I nevertheless keep reading Kant, who I otherwise don't care that much about, and think about the syllabus for that course. It's just that this kind of habituated practice proves fragile, borders on unintelligible, owing to the turns of my moods.

Since I started writing here again I've thought a lot about how best to integrate my various interests and aspirations, how to fashion a written voice for myself, after too long having confined myself or only allowed myself expression in limited ways: talking with friends, teaching, writing with the vain hope of professional success, writing because I have something to say. But especially, writing about my life, which since graduating has been dominated by the fact of professional dissatisfaction and failure. As much as I wished to be myself, it vexed me: how could I write about this kind of disappointment in public, knowing or fantasizing that I would be read by prospective employers, colleagues, without casting my moods, my self-regard, my attitudes about my discipline and my career all out of proportion?

It's not right that someone whose job, or whose vocation, it is to think would not be able to think truthfully and openly about that job, about that vocation. Nor is it right that teaching, or doing philosophy, as kinds of paid work, could be in such a state that I should have to bear these thoughts, to weather the moods that seem to be the condition of intellectual life these days.

I hear and read affirmations like that, or denunciations I guess, plenty. And I can imagine others. But I don't think the readiness of anyone to issue them has much to do with whether people will in general have much time for the frustrations of unsuccessful academics. Everyone has their work, their pay, their teaching load, their papers to write, their colleagues to ingratiate themselves to or perhaps impress. And when they think about adding someone else to work alongside them, whatever criteria it is they use to make those decisions, they pertain pretty much not at all to my frustrations.

But why shouldn't they?

17 Jan '13 04:44:16 PM

Larry Johnson aka 'Ernest Mann', an 'urban Thoreau' and father of the zine movement.

17 Jan '13 09:28:42 AM

In Groundwork I and II, a link between analysis and purification.

17 Jan '13 08:23:03 AM

You're never meant to speak to just one other when asked to 'say a few words'.

16 Jan '13 10:37:07 PM

2012 Pazz and Jop ballot

(and overall and individual statistics)

15 Jan '13 12:53:01 PM

Who would ever think to confer reality upon things?

15 Jan '13 12:08:27 PM

Schopenhauer’s reputation is as an unreconstructed metaphysician, a lapsed or confused Kantian. He encourages that impression by referring affirmatively to the ‘metaphysical’ in the part of World as Will and Representation concerned with nature, the part which involves his argument that the inner natures of all objects given to me as representation are, identically to my own inner nature, ‘will’: that, in effect, all things in the world (as representation) are manifestations of one and the same will.

But Schopenhauer introduces this argument, in book two, by way of a characterization of the world which readers needn’t be familiar with Cavell’s work on skepticism, to recognize as a variation of external-world skepticism. Schopenhauer takes a very clear position about external-world skepticism proper—traditional, e.g. Cartesian external-world skepticism—in book one. The skeptical ‘position’ arises from a misunderstanding of the principle of sufficient reason and the relation of causality (which holds between objects, that is, between representations, never between the subject and the object represented to it). However, there is a legitimate question to be asked. Schopenhauer usually phrases it in terms such as: ‘is the world anything over and above representation?’. When he elaborates on it, the terms he chooses produce a picture of the subject regarding a flat spectacle, a façade, light backed by no substance—exactly the same picture as an external-world skeptic of the pre-Kantian stripe would produce. How then could he not be a skeptic in that way? How is he not simply (unaccountably) reverting from the Kantianism he professed pages earlier? In Cavell’s work on skepticism, he has suggested that images of this sort press upon the skeptic because his relation to the world has been emptied of interest in particular ways—as he has come to regard it via skeptical doubt, it has no attraction for him. This is of some relevance to how Schopenhauer could be a kind of skeptic, and to why he answers the question he raises in terms of my will.

‘Is the world anything over and above representation?’ This is arguably a question which one would only ask out of disappointment or dissatisfaction with the world as representation, which is exactly the world of everyday experience of objects, and the scientific investigation of that world. So suppose that we take it as just that, an expression of disappointment. Then we could also ask of the ensuing investigation (of the ‘inner nature of the world’), particularly as it concludes: has it issued in satisfaction? Has coming to know, or recognize, the inner nature of the world to be will, in the manner in which Schopenhauer has done so, removed the disappointment which was occasioned by considering the world as ‘mere’ representation, that is, occasioned by regarding it only insofar as it can be known?

This is a hard question to answer. For one thing, Schopenhauer does not seem to address it explicitly. Perhaps his answer is implied by his finding, that the inner nature of the world is will, and because of the relationship between its inner nature and the totality of its phenomena, that will is groundless, a ceaseless striving for no reason. This could readily be taken as a confirmation of the initial disappointment: yes, the world is something more than representation—but it is not anything that you were hoping for.

For another thing, Schopenhauer is not all that explicit about the nature of or grounds for the disappointment in the first place. These must be read off what he says about the problem he frames in terms of the disappointment, sometimes not in the indicative mood but in a complicated combination of subjunctive considerations, not all of which are clearly meant to do more than frame (rhetorically) the opening of book two. We want to know: what is the significance, or meaning, in general, of representation—that is, of anschauliche representation as such? What is the significance of our having such representations? The suggestion is floated (and is recalled throughout book two, as a possibility to be avoided) that if representation as such lacked this significance, then representations as a whole (i.e., ‘the world as representation’) would be like ‘phantoms’ to us, passing us by like an empty (wesenloser) dream or a ‘ghostly structure of air (gespensterhaftes Luftgebilde) not worth our attention’. (Later on in book two [§24], this line of consideration is extended via its association with the form–content dyad: if what we know of the world were only formal, reducible to form, then representation would be nothing but ‘empty phantoms’.) The suggestion that the significance sought after (as ‘significance’ seems to imply, anyway) shall have something to do with us, with what we value and care about, which is implied in the latter formulations—‘empty’, ‘not worth our attention’—is also made more explicit at the outset. Possessed of significance, the world as representation would speak to us, have something to say to us, make some claim upon us and our interest. It would also—in a figure that also carries through book two, but not always very explicitly—be legible to us, particularly so far as it expresses, reveals, or manifests the inner nature of the world (perhaps via the inner natures of the phenomena in, or which are, the world). One of the most general criteria Schopenhauer associates with the significance he seeks, and one of the most troublesome because of its apparent conflict with everything he has already said about the world as representation, comes later once he commences to extend recognition of the inner natures of things as will to all other beings in the world: ‘if I am to be the only real thing in the world…’, he says, implying that insofar as my phenomenon, my body, is possessed of significance because of my double knowledge of it, once as representation and once immediately as will—insofar as I am will as well as representation—I am real, implying that other things, other representations, other phenomena, must also be will on pain of not being real.

Where does the disappointment lie here? There is almost too much. In representation, we see, know, a world—which proves (in book one) to be a knowledge relative to the knowing subjects we find ourselves as, knowledge of a world whose existence is conditioned by, relative to, our own. Here the suggestion might be that we expected—wanted? were looking for?—a world apart from us, a knowledge of it without condition. What we seek is the significance of our representations—the Bedeutung, implying that we feel them to pertain to something not given in them (as representation) which is also suitable enough, in some way, to be understood by us, to be meaningful to us. (Schopenhauer is not very precise here, so there is not any obvious reason to understand him here to be talking about what representations ‘refer’ to in some sense relevant to their truth, or about that in virtue of which representations are contentful as opposed to contentless, in a Kantian vein, or about that in virtue of which they would possess a meaning we do or could care about, a ‘significance’, as opposed to any of the foregoing, which may be regarded as somewhat less rich.) Here, the suggestion might be that ‘mere’ representation is meaningful only in reference to something else, something which (however plausibly) is not part of the world of objects, the world which we can know—which seems to mean, representation would be meaningful only in reference to something which is not part of the world. The world as representation would be meaningful only because of some extra-worldly significance, but nothing extra-worldly can be found in the world as representation—so although sought, its significance cannot be found. Absent significance, the world as representation would be ‘not worth our attention’, would pass us by, as if we were mere spectators, appearing, though, not as an engrossing spectacle or a show of great interest, but as something empty, dreamlike, ‘ghostly’ in the sense in which one might normally regard specters with which one, strictly speaking, can have nothing to do, no real interaction. Ghosts have nothing to say to us; whatever they expect of us, whatever they call upon us to do, has no hold upon us. In this respect, the world as representation would disappoint because it—odd as this sounds—is not part of our world after all, which is to say, is not (yet—so far as we understand it here in the course of considering it philosophically) the world in which we live. The world in which we live is real; we are real because we belong to the world. If anything else in the world is to be as real as we are, it must have something to do with our lives.

15 Jan '13 11:51:15 AM

'Everything must be said as precisely as possible, and every technical term, including "will," must be set aside' (19 [46], Summer 1872–Early 1873).

15 Jan '13 09:45:36 AM

The fourth of Cavell's characterizations of philosophical appeals to ordinary language (Claim 153–54), 'statements of initiation' (179), is backed by a substantial statement about the idea of initiation (178):

'Instead, then, of saying either that we tell beginners what words mean, or that we teach them what objects are, I will say: We initiate them, into the relevant forms of life held in language and gathered around the objects and persons of our world. For that to be possible, we must make ourselves exemplary and take responsibility for that assumption of authority; and the initiate must be able to follow us, in however rudimentary a way, naturally; and he must want to follow us. "Teaching" here would mean something like "showing them what we say and do", and "accepting what they say and do as what we say and do", etc.; and this will be more than we know, or can say.'

The idea of authority appears soon after Cavell names these appeals 'statements of initiation', and likewise soon after the second characterization of the appeals, as reminders of our criteria, turns to Cavell's comparison between Wittgensteinian criteria and the idea of a social contract (17–28) (in fact, it is the point of disanalogy between ordinary criteria and Wittgensteinian criteria, that their 'source of authority' is 'we', 'the human group as such', which prompts the comparison).

In those settings, Cavell is generally concerned to distinguish the sort of authority invoked from any sort of dogmatism (18, 20, 153, 179), as he was when he first characterized the appeals to ordinary language as 'appeals to the "Transcendental Logic" of our language' (see e.g. 'Must We Mean…', 2, 13; 'Availability', 56–70). His attempts along these lines connect up in various ways with what could be seen as substitutes, in the philosophical tradition, for an ordinary or traditional idea of authority (closely related to religion and morality, and in need of critique): the authority attaching to the first person (and his incorrigible perceptions or his indubitable consciousness of his own existence, for example) or to something like the a priori or the necessary (thus, to truths knowable by reason alone, or to certain universal features of thought or the world).

Where some Wittgensteinians would be quick to meet an accusation of dogmatism with a denial to have properly claimed anything ('these are just reminders!'), Cavell generally replies by invoking authority which is asserted to be legitimate and legitimately invoked. (I think the latter is probably the best site at which to situate Mulhall-style readings of Cavell as non-dogmatically or resolutely 'responsive' to interlocutors.) When that authority is rooted in features of first-person utterances or in a form of necessity attaching to some of those utterances ('when we say… we mean…', 'you can't call that…'), the presence of the idea of authority does make sense in light of the connection to the traditional philosophical invocations of it. But it's less obvious why authority need play a role at all, apart from that. (Weren't the traditional philosophical uses of it, meant to displace or re-constitute more ordinary or traditional forms of authority, also something like distortions of the ordinary ideas of authority? So why hold on to Wittgensteinian relatives of them?)

The appearance of the idea of authority in the passage above seems as if it would give a basis for the use of the idea of authority in Cavell's characterizations of appeals to ordinary language. In the passage above authority is given a source, and Cavell's claims about our each being fully authoritative in making such appeals seem to me to make more sense in light of our prior sharing in the authority we each inherit upon initiation into our language. (Conveniently, this characterization of appeals to ordinary language occurs in an 'Excursus' which Cavell introduces by referring to 'the vision of language underlying ordinary language procedures in philosophy', which at least situates the shared authority in the right place, 'underlying'. If it seems as if these ought to be on the same level—possession of a natural language, and the use of ordinary language procedures in philosophy—then the difference probably depends on seeing the latter as a kind of cultural achievement, which is also a theme of the 'Excursus'.)