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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30 Dec '12 12:18:24 AM

'…to live a merely excusable life…'

26 Dec '12 12:40:22 AM

Shaftesbury, from Section 1 of the 'Letter Concerning Enthusiasm':

'How much the imagination of such a presence must exalt a genius we may observe merely from the influence which an ordinary presence has over men. Our modern wits are more or less raised by the opinion they have of their company, and the idea they form to themselves of the persons to whom they make their addresses. A common actor of the stage will inform us how much a full audience of the better sort exalts him above the common pitch. And you, my Lord, who are the noblest actor and of the noblest part assigned to any mortal on this earthly stage, when you are acting for liberty and mankind, does not the public presence, that of your friends and the well-wishers to your cause, add something to your thought and genius? Or is that sublime of reason and that power of eloquence, which you discover in public, no more than what you are equally master of in private and command at any time alone or with indifferent company or in any easy or cool hour? This indeed were more godlike; but ordinary humanity, I think, reaches not so high.

For my own part, my Lord, I have really so much need of some considerable presence or company to raise my thoughts on any occasion that, when alone, I must endeavour by strength of fancy to supply this want and, in default of a Muse, must inquire out some great man of a more than ordinary genius, whose imagined presence may inspire me with more than what I feel at ordinary hours. And thus, my Lord, have I chosen to address myself to your Lordship, though without subscribing my name, allowing you, as a stranger, the full liberty of reading no more than what you may have a fancy for, but reserving to myself the privilege of imagining you read all with particular notice, as a friend, and one whom I may justifiably treat with the intimacy and freedom which follows.'

Cavell, from the Foreword to Must We Mean What We Say? (pp. xxxiii–xxxiv):

'I do assert a distinction throughout these essays which, because it may seem either controversial or trivial, I want to call attention to from the beginning—a distinction between the modern and the traditional, in philosophy and out. My claim is not that all contemporary philosophy which is good is modern; but the various discussions about the modern I am led to in the course of these essays are the best I can offer in explanation of the way I have written, or the way I would wish to write. The essential fact of (what I refer to as) the modern lies in the relation between the present practice of an enterprise and the history of that enterprise, in the fact that this relation has become problematic. Innovation in philosophy has characteristically gone together with a repudiation—a specifically cast repudiation—of most of the history of the subject. But in the later Wittgenstein (and, I would now add, in Heidegger's Being and Time) the repudiation of the past has a transformed significance, as though containing the consciousness that history will not go away, except through our perfect acknowledgment of it (in particular, our acknowledgment that it is not past), and that one's own practice and ambition can be identified only against the continuous experience of the past.… But "the past" does not in this context refer simply to the historical past; it refers to one's own past, to what is past, or what has passed, within oneself. One could say that in a modernist situation "past" loses its temporal accent and means anything "not present." Meaning what one says becomes a matter of making one's sense present to oneself.…'

18 Dec '12 08:16:43 PM

Only those who would compel you say the truth compels.

16 Dec '12 11:23:44 PM

Cavell thinks of what he says in The Claim of Reason about ordinary language as an advance on what he had said before; but the difficulties of that book can make it hard to track what is being said. He does throw up a few roadsigns. In discussing, in chapter VI (the first in Part Two), the conflict between traditional epistemologist and ordinary language philosopher, he says (pp. 153–54):

'… the issue between them, so far as it concerns the appeal to what is ordinarily said, is not whether one of them is "scientific" and the other not, but concerns the nature of the sort of appeal to ordinary language which is relevant to philosophizing. The sort of appeal which I have taken as relevant is one I have characterized in various ways: in the first essays of Must We Mean What We Say?, I called it an appeal to the "Transcendental Logic" of our language; in the preceding chapters [I–V, i.e. Part One] of this book, I have said that it is a way of reminding ourselves of our criteria in employing concepts. Just now [earlier in the present section of ch. VI, 'The Appeal to Projective Imagination', pp. 145–153] I said that the philosophical appeal to ordinary language essentially involves responding to imagined situations. In Chapter VII, a further characterization of such appeals will be motivated. (I should like to call attention here to the discussion of this issue, among others, in S. Bates and T. Cohen, "More on What We Say".) The philosophical issue of such appeals can be said to concern what a "science" of such appeals would be. I have said that a "science", a knowledge, of such appeals is a matter of self-knowledge. I take it to be a perception, however weak or inconstant, of that fact which is at the root of the hostility between the tradition and its new critics. For I understand ordinary language philosophy not as an effort to reinstate vulgar beliefs, or common sense, to a pre-scientific position of eminence, but to reclaim the human self from its denial and neglect by modern philosophy.'

The later (ch. VII) characterization 'of the kind of claims made by philosophers who proceed from an examination of ordinary language, about the kind of validity appealed to when a philosopher says things like "When we say… we are implying…" or "We wouldn't call that (say) 'recounting'"' (pp. 179–80) is:

'In such appeals such a philosopher is voicing (reminding us of) statements of initiation; telling himself or herself, and us, how in fact we (must) go about things, not predicting this or that performance. He is not claiming something as true of the world, for which he is prepared to offer a basis – such statements are not synthetic; he is claiming something as true of himself (of his "world", I keep wanting to say) for which he is offering himself, the details of his feeling and conduct, as authority. In making such claims, which cannot be countered by evidence or formal logic, he is not being dogmatic; any more than someone who says "I didn't promise to…", or "I intend to…", "I wish…", or "I have to…" is being dogmatic, though what he says cannot be countered, in the usual way, by evidence. The authority one has, or assumes, in expressing statements of initiation, in saying "We", is related to the authority one has in expressing or declaring one's promises or intentions. Such declarations cannot be countered by evidence because they are not supported by evidence. We may, of course, be wrong about what we say and do or will say and do. But that failure is not one which can be corrected with a more favorable position of observation or a fuller mastery in the recognition of objects; it requires a new look at oneself and a fuller realization of what one is doing or feeling. An expression of intention is not a specific claim about the world, but an utterance (outer-ance) of oneself; it is countered not by saying that a fact about the world is otherwise than you supposed, but by showing that your world is otherwise than you see. When you are wrong here, you are not in fact mistaken but in soul muddled.'

16 Dec '12 03:11:23 PM

My words are their words; my words are mostly our words. But my life is only rarely your life, and our common language is not itself enough to reconcile how we live with how I live. I am the one who must—with my life, in my life, by living. But in living I can always avail myself of our common language; or make it more mine.

16 Dec '12 02:57:37 PM

One formula for what Cavell calls philosophy, and education, and thus philosophy as 'the education of grownups', he gives as: 'to confront the culture with itself, along the lines in which it meets in me' (Claim, 125). The sides of this self-confrontation (which sounds very German-Idealist, in these terms) are

'… a convening of my culture's criteria, in order to confront them with my words and life as I pursue them and as I may imagine them; and at the same time to confront my words and life as I pursue them with the life my culture's words may imagine for me'

The pair, 'words' and 'life', seems to enter in when Cavell quotes Wittgenstein's formula, 'To imagine a language means to imagine a form of life' (PI §19). In Cavell's discussion this serves to redirect a previous set of oppositions: 'When my reasons come to an end and I am thrown back upon myself, upon my nature as it has so far shown itself… I may feel that my foregone conclusions were never conclusions I had arrived at, but were merely imbibed by me, merely conventional.… I may take the occasion to throw myself back upon my culture, and ask why we do what we do, judge as we judge, how we have arrived at these crossroads. What is the natural ground of our conventions, to what are they in service?'

From me and my nature, from an 'I' whose participation in a 'we' can seem merely conventional, uncertain, hollow, to that source of conventions, 'my culture': there is an opposition here between me and them, between an 'I' opposed to 'we' and an 'I' somehow reconciled more fully (too fully?) to a reconceived 'we'; but also an opposition between, not just nature and culture, but my nature and culture. Yet Cavell moves from talking about my nature to asking about 'the natural ground of our conventions', as if in being thrown back upon my culture I am asking not just about shared conventions but a shared nature, a common, human nature which would warrant being conceived of as 'the' natural ground of our conventions. I'm thrown back on my own nature only 'as it has so far shown itself'. One thing I may find in asking about the natural ground of our conventions is that I had wrongly conceived of my own nature, for example as being more different from that of others than it really (so far) is. But I may also find that my own nature, somehow a source of that which compels me, convinces me, makes me refuse or insist—that it may strike me as all the more different from that described to me by others, or assumed for me in our shared conventions, as our common nature. This seems to be some of the reason that Cavell talks about a confrontation here.

Also a reason that, once redirected by Wittgenstein's remark, Cavell is moved to imagine the confrontation as one involving 'words and life'. My life is the place in which my nature has been fostered, or stifled, by my culture; the site of uncertainty as to whether I really stand that much apart from my culture, from others.

16 Dec '12 02:10:40 AM

'I said: in art, the chances you take are your own. But of course you are inviting others to take them with you. And since they are, nevertheless, your own, and your invitation is based not on power or authority, but on attraction and promise, your invitation incurs one of the most exacting of obligations: that every risk must be shown worthwhile, and every infliction of tension lead to a resolution, and every demand on attention and passion be satisfied—that risks those who trust you can't have known they would take, will be found to yield value they can't have known existed. The creation of art, being human conduct which affects others, has the commitments any conduct has. It escapes morality; not, however, in escaping commitment, but in being free to choose only those commitments it wishes to incur. In this way art plays with one of man's fates, the fate of being accountable for everything you do and are, intended or not. It frees us to sing and dance, gives us actions to perform whose consequences, commitments, and liabilities are discharged in the act itself. The price for freedom in this choice of commitment and accountability is that of an exactitude in meeting those commitments and discharging those accounts which no mere morality can impose. You cede the possibilities of excuse, explanation, or justification for your failures; and the cost of failure is not remorse and recompense, but the loss of coherence altogether.'

15 Dec '12 09:48:05 PM

A relative of Wittgenstein's question about how one learns a word: given a thing, what cultivation does it call for?

15 Dec '12 09:16:49 PM

The animals of Nietzsche's 'Utility and Liability' (§1) are envied because they 'disappear entirely into the present'; the human being regards the animal and desires to live like an animal, yet 'in vain, because he does not desire it in the same way as does the animal'. If an animal desires to live like an animal, the way in which it does so is presumably natural, a matter of what an animal is. When Nietzsche talks about the difference owing to which the human desire to live like an animal is a vain one, it can sound a lot like he is simply contrasting an existence with past, present, and future moments to an existence which is always and only in the present. But it is not simply, for example, that we have pasts and animals don't; it is that to have a past is to have a relation to one's past—'the human being… braces himself against the great and ever-greater burden of the past'—and animals do not have such a relation. (This would, happily leave room in which to be able to say that of course animals do have pasts, do live in a present whose experience somehow opens onto past and future, as we do; but that what matters is how they relate to this past, and this relation, whatever it might be, is so different from our own as to make the pastness of their own lives appear negligible in contrast to ours.)