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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18 Jan '16 09:03:08 PM

(From an old draft, July 2014…)

Stephen Mulhall's Inheritance and Originality apparently consists of readings of Wittgenstein, Heidegger, Kierkegaard, and (briefly, in the introduction) Cavell. But it also constitutes an extended, indirect argument with Cavell waged in part through careful choices about its form and presentation. Each of its parts, for example, sees the book's uniform task identified in a title or subtitle: 'Reading the Philosophical Investigations', 'Reading Being and Time and What is Called Thinking?', 'Reading Philosophical Fragments, Fear and Trembling, and Repetition', with the gerund emphasizing the relationship of reader to text, and the dynamic orientation toward texts read from beginning to end (and onward), incorporated into Mulhall's hermeneutic practice. Likewise, the titles of the book's parts designate, for each author read, his role in the scheme of Mulhall's argument: 'Wittgenstein's Vision of Language', 'Heidegger's Vision of Scepticism', 'Kierkegaard's Vision of Religion'. The bases of the argument's arc are found in the book's opening and concluding sections, the reading of Cavell, 'Modernist Origins', and the 'Concluding Dogmatic Postscript', 'Biblical Origins'. The subtitle of the book as a whole is simply 'Wittgenstein, Heidegger, Kierkegaard'. But I think that it could be subtitled 'Mulhall's vision of tradition'.

It is notable that he is able to get the effect of a 'tradition' by reading only three authors' works in juxtaposition. Heidegger's own work calls back explicitly to Kierkegaard's, and that is one of the most immediate reasons for reading them both here. But this calls attention to a fact about works which we, as a matter of fact, take to form traditions, to belong together and be a primary form in which the past is intelligible to us, in fact in which we are bound to take up the past: these works select their own traditions, name their own predecessors. Their authors nominate themselves members of traditions in the works in which they seriously confront, if not those traditions, then at least the merest links of chains which could be construed as traditions, author to author, person to person. One or two or three is all it takes—more than enough.

Mulhall's own presentation of a tradition in the work of Wittgenstein, Heidegger, and Kierkegaard is not quite that direct, but in a way which is telling of his purposes and his attitude toward the work of confronting tradition. The linkage from Wittgenstein to Heidegger is partially made through Cavell's own indirect linking of the two; through Mulhall's placement, at the front of his book, of a brief reading of Cavell; through Mulhall's own fuller attempt to link Wittgenstein and Heidegger elsewhere; and I think most substantively, through the attitude Mulhall enacts throughout Inheritance, that of a reader. It is through the receptively productive, dependent posture of the reader, the interpreter, that Mulhall is able to join the voices of his texts and their authors into a single coherent text which knits the authors into a tradition which, with a kind of insistence, keeps directing us back to the past.

Since this tradition is in effect a little (fragment of a) canon, it is worth considering what this stance means for readers.

'A voice in the canon's conversation', but only that; not even that; traditions such as these have an exclusive aspect which a lone reader's readings, voiced occasionally and partially, cannot puncture. Readers' voices lack authority (which is why disciplined readers must work so hard to establish that their voices carry authority: that they are derived from the texts themselves, that they speak on behalf of readers, that their moments of subjectivity or insight are made good by being worked through in application to the text). A 'readerly' canon is one that has a tendency to exclude people from full participation in it, fully equal participation, because the works they must confront there overwhelm their voices, will almost always possess more authority.

(This seems to call for a note about the measures authors of books like these can take to secure themselves against excluding others from shared authority.)

18 Jan '16 07:11:31 PM

'One less bell to answer, not one more.'

15 Jan '16 05:11:55 AM

'… a future-in-the-present in which one must protect oneself from the world, from other people and from one's own visions, desires and fears…'

15 Jan '16 02:05:45 AM

'… an emptiness and cruel superficiality of everyday thought…'

11 Jan '16 06:25:51 PM

'… waiting for the gift of sound and vision.'

8 Jan '16 06:45:17 AM

'When a person has suffered very much and been very exhausted by his own sensibility, he sees that one must live day by day, forget very much, and finally clear away as much life as continues to arrive.'

2 Jan '16 04:45:35 AM

'We're Russians', the woman says to the barista. 'Oh', the barista says, interestedly, 'have you been here a—' and you can nearly hear the expression on the Russian's face, flat, factual, as she finishes the barista's sentence: 'Long time'. —No point to having an attitude one way or the other.

1 Jan '16 04:51:53 AM

'That's the way it goes.'

31 Dec '15 08:54:38 AM

What more would recognizing the role of 'believing in' entail? It's instructive to consult ordinary language again. Recall some of the contrasts from the case of God: believing in him, believing that he exists, proof of his existence as against lived belief. In the case of the world, hardly anyone asks whether we believe in it (though our acquaintance with reality is often questioned), and it takes something like a philosopher's constructions—'belief in the existence of the world', or better, 'belief in the existence of the external world'—to make disbelief sound abstruse rather than mad. The analogous contrast to philosophical proof of existence as against lived belief in it is not quite that the one misses the other, which is readily lacking (as in the case of God), but that it's hard to believe in the need for the one because the other seems to take care of itself, in the ordinary course of living. And if we would only with some oddity talk of not believing in the world, it is a sad fact that we not only sometimes do not believe in life, but that when this is so, the words to say so fail us. In the shadow of this fact, disbelief is not yet mad, but sick, and the long distances between needless proof, a matter-of-fact existence in the world, and a troubled one are cause for everyone's despair. Since one tradition of complaint against the philosopher's proof of existence (that practice dispels a doubt at best theoretical, that the vita activa has no use for this particular deliverance of the vita contemplativa) contends basically that philosophy does not believe (without proof) that the world exists because it does not believe in (practical) life, this suggests a convergence: the counterpart to 'believing in God' in the case of the world's existence is belief in life, itself just as much (as the melancholic's position shows) susceptible to disappearance, contraction, and expansion as a lived belief in God is, and just as liable to be distant from (or its absence concealed by) explicit affirmations of belief in the world's existence.

The philosopher and the melancholic are both as it were set apart from others. The philosopher steps aside, the melancholic falls away from them. But both show how not believing in life means not sharing in it, and this suggests a way in which belief that the world exists can be conceived as a sort of dogma of ordinary life, for the philosopher to be questioned and hopefully replaced by a sort of orthodoxy, and for the melancholic, simply not believed in, not in his life. 'Belief in', just as much as 'belief that', can be 'what we believe (in)'—just as the religious case already shows—and to lack it or not to affirm it would seem accordingly to have implications for one's community with others.

But world and life are not one. Perceiving the affinities between this pattern and the more clear-cut religious case does not itself show the way to make the case for lived 'belief in' the existence of the world as against philosophical proofs of existence that one may affirm but can't believe in, because, as it were, the terms are too far apart. We talk about believing in life, not believing in life; we talk about knowledge of the world's existence, and about proof for it. But it's not obvious how to infuse those proofs with our belief in life, not obvious how or that they don't believe in life (that's just life's complaint against philosophy, and philosophy has its answer: when you stop and think about this, it says, you'll see). Ordinary language seems to permit this discrepancy, and does not offer straightforward guidance as to how to remove it.

(from an old draft to an old draft)