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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4 Nov '14 03:50:35 AM

Work in progress on Cavell's conclusions concerning skepticism about others in The Claim of Reason.

Near the beginning of Claim, Cavell mentions that (with perhaps astonishingly slim means) Descartes 'refined the options for philosophical belief'. I'm trying to work out a sense in which that remains true of Cavell in his own work, however much appearances, or his Wittgensteinianism (or Kantianism), might suggest otherwise—say, by making it unclear in what sense he cares to have a 'position'. (His usual preference for talking about 'conviction' in the early essays, akin to the passages in which he talks about finding our 'necessaries' at the end of chapter V of Claim, thereby recalling his reading of Thoreau in Senses of Walden as searching for our 'true necessaries', signals how much interest he retains in belief as a result, or aim, of philosophizing. Also the level at which that belief is situated, for him.) My approach is to use a distinction between 'belief that' and 'belief in' to help explain how Cavell reaches statements like 'I live my skepticism', produced somewhat as if they were conclusions, even though he regards his explicit consideration of the status of skepticism about others (in the active 'skeptical recital') as literally not conclusive in the way that external-world skeptical considerations are.

As you may see, in this draft I stop just short of the point where Cavell states, 'I do not picture my everyday knowledge of others as confined but as exposed. It is exposed, I would like to say, not to possibilities but to actualities, to history' (XIII/21, p. 432). If what I have so far gives you any thoughts about what is being said in that passage, I would love to hear them. I've never learned the knack of sharing work in progress, at least not with anyone but friends. I don't understand how people can read out whole, seemingly finished papers which they nevertheless think are not done. So instead, I'm trying something else: sharing things that are literally, visibly, not done, in the hopes that they'll stimulate others to share their own thoughts and (hopefully) help me along with mine.

3 Nov '14 08:10:01 PM

Cavell contends that Wittgenstein's work is to be read as modernist—so, for example, as produced in a context, or situation, or world (and with it the philosophy and art called for) which we conceive of or experience as 'having decisively but not yet intelligibly changed, as having become strange' (MWM?, p. xxvii). Elsewhere, that situation is more usually glossed in terms of a problematic relation of the present practice of a discipline to its history. But he typically reserves his most explicit, but still occasional, elaborations on what modernism is, or entails, to his remarks on the arts, not philosophy. In 'Music Discomposed', the leading note in his characterization of 'the new music', and of modernism, is the concept of fraudulence:

'… the possibility of fraudulence, and the experience of fraudulence, is endemic in the experience of contemporary music; […] its full impact, even its immediate relevance, depends upon a willingness to trust the object, knowing that the time spent with its difficulties may be betrayed' (MWM?, p. 188).

The conceptual neighborhood here is not unfamiliar. It is one in which 'what count as the genuine article… is not given, but requires critical determination' (p. 189), but 'there is no one feature, or definite set of features… and no specific tests by which… fraudulence can be detected and exposed' (p. 190). Which is to say, one in which established or traditional or conventional criteria for what counts as art are of no help, because (as the story he rehearses goes) the arts have developed in such a way that new instances seem compelled to repudiate the traditions they belong—or don't quite belong—to somehow, but in doing so (or trying to), also seem to deprive us of our, or any, means for making sense of how they belong with what preceded them, and so invite us to think of them too as novels, as poems, as compositions, as music, as 'art'. To stress a word Cavell often associates with both the discriminating and proclamatory moments in our judgments, our calling things what they are, this is a situation in which we cannot tell. No one can.

But by choosing the term 'fraudulence' to characterize what he calls the 'dangers' of this situation, Cavell is calling attention to a natural, or necessary, consequence for our experience of art (and non-art, or perhaps-art) in such a situation. Saying that we cannot tell, like the idea of fraudulence itself, suggests that superficial or initial or outward appearances never decide the issue for us; and saying that we cannot tell, again like the idea of fraudulence, suggests a related possibility that Cavell has to explicitly reject as disanalogous for his use of the term 'fraudulence': viz., that we could tell eventually, on closer inspection, in time, by finding some mark, some flaw, some decisive feature, or lack thereof. No, he says; that's what it means that we cannot tell; that we also could not even tell then, in that way. What his use of the term 'fraudulence' to characterize this situation brings out is, let's say, the nature of our experience in the interim: in the course of trying to tell, say, we still have to experience these works, these objects; come to know them, test them, negotiate their difficulties, let them test us, discover their satisfactions, find places for them in our lives, find the places in our lives that they touch or reveal; live with them. The full impact of modern arts, of art in this situation, he says, 'depends upon a willingness to trust the object' (p. 188). What we (have to) trust, we live with. Cavell draws a striking and strange comparison:

'Contemporary music is only the clearest case of something common to modernism as a whole, and modernism only makes explicit and bare what has always been true of art. (That is almost a definition of modernism, not to say its purpose.) Aesthetics so far has been the aesthetics of the classics, which is as if we investigated the problem of other minds by using as examples our experience of great men or dead men. In emphasizing the experiences of fraudulence and trust as essential to the experience of art, I am in effect claiming that the answer to the question "What is art?" will in part be an answer which explains why it is we treat certain objects, or how we can treat certain objects, in ways normally reserved for treating persons' (p. 189).

What we (have to) trust, we live with. Like we live with people, with others.

24 Oct '14 11:11:50 PM

'Someone coming with a piece of paper who says you have to leave.'

21 Oct '14 08:35:29 PM

'I'm finally learning how to work like a choir director.'

19 Oct '14 09:54:25 PM

Forms have, I want to say, grammars. Something about blogging, as a form—or not just one thing about it—makes (us say that) people stop blogging. Not just stop, but decide (it is time) to stop; or trail off, or cease abruptly; not only stop, but also to announce that they are stopping; or to end without notice, without explanation.

Calling these remarks 'grammatical' is a way of saying that they're in some way forced on us, when we talk about blogs; they are the ways in which the form is intelligible to us. Obviously the fact that we have to say a blogger stops is related to the form's sustained, open-ended continuity (however much discontinuity it may otherwise permit): its basically diurnal character. In some cases, a blogger will note that they no longer have anything to say (about a specifically or narrowly chosen topic, especially). Certain kinds of writers, like academics, do not. Or cannot, as if professionally bound to have something to say, for life. But academics, or other kinds of writers especially, those who earn a living with their writing (as academics don't), like journalists of any sort, can choose to husband their resources (aiming for that book, or book deal), or they can move on to a paying gig, to bigger leagues. Those who do persist often manage, even thrive, through a kind of instrumentalization of the form, always working up the next conference paper, always storing up a reserve of pre-fab commentary to serve as ballast in some future endeavor. Or, for more public-facing writers, addressing, in some way, the times, or matters of public concern, what is built up is literally a body of opinion, a profile, a presence in the public world. A rep, and a following; thus the constant stream of self-promotion in which almost all writers are compelled to swim or drown now: 'Here's a link to my new piece'—elsewhere.

The more public a blogger is—the more a journalist or an academic, say—the more their blogging is apt constantly to be done in view of an elsewhere, somewhere more permanent, more visible, higher status, more respectable, official. Elsewhere, publication is decided by someone else, to be alongside someone else, or several someone elses. Writing elsewhere is somehow detached from you, detachable, in a way your blogging can never be—even if signed. Publications are signed, or not; blogs have names, moreso than titles, because they're more like people than pieces, more consubstantial with their authors, in Montaigne's sense, than any form of print publication since, perhaps, the sole-proprietor newspaper or newsletter. (The latter, often named after those who run them.) They are, at some limit, more like saying something in public, than saying something in print; more like saying something out in the open, than appearing in print.

There is, of course, a sense in which we live in two worlds now, with the internet, especially anyone who writes on it, says anything on it, published or posted or tweeted—and the terrible consequences of that fact still take us by surprise all the time. Nevertheless, of the two poles, treating utterance there more like 'saying' or more like 'publishing' or its less permanent cousin, 'public speaking' (giving a talk, going on the radio, on TV, etc.), the former often seems more natural to me, more sane. More honest, less ridiculous. Journalists, and writers who live off their writing, can worry about the distinction between committing something to print, to publication, and saying it offhand; but when they blog they seem fully aware of, and responsive to, the conditions under which they do so, which are in the rough neighborhood of speech, of talking: of saying something out in the open, and saying it now, in your voice, as you.

I suppose I constantly compare journalists to academics in this context because, having kept this blog since the earliest days of blogging, and having lived with, on, the internet for even longer, it seemed quite perceptible to me that, especially after a more experimental, frontierish period, when blogging coalesced around several different types of the form, there was an affinity between the journalistic, comment-boxed forms of regular, extemporaneous commentary on news, novelties, and opinion, and the (belated, I think) typical academic uses of blogging, which seem to me to treat it as a kind of annex to the university, or an outpost in the world, every post and its comment thread a kind of ad hoc conference presentation (bad), the occasional staged event a kind of time- and space-shifted seminar or reading group (ok)—in short, as a kind of colonization of the internet, an attempt to transfer the norms of one's profession, or of the academy, into another space somewhat lending itself to the transfer, and maybe somewhat not. To capture this space in the name of others.

And the norms of those other spaces haunt, hound, academic bloggers; control their speech. They can hardly say a thing without hedging, making excuses, diminishing both the space and whatever they've said in it: it doesn't take much pushback before many of them will come to say, in response to commenters, 'this is only a blog post'. In similar circumstances, offline, I suspect that a person would have to come to quite different straits, much further along, to say, 'we're only talking here', as if some imagined surety achievable only in print obviously made mere conversation nearly worthless. As if the circuit from silent thinking to writing could do what immediate utterance never could.

Now, what I've been wanting to say, this whole time, about stopping, is that there's a way of stopping, a grammatical possibility that the form of blogging has in virtue of what it is, its essence or nature, that's easily overlooked or lost when more (I want to call them, despite the ambiguity) public forms of blogging on the journalistic or academic models are taken almost to exhaust the space, the possibilities of the form. And this other possibility lights up a depth possessed by the form in virtue of what I've been insisting is its more natural affinity with speech than with print. A blogger who stops goes silent—in something like the way a poet does, either when he or she no longer publishes, or stops writing poetry entirely.

That there is a real analogy here depends, I'm sure, on the particular way in which a private blogger's words are made public—in time, in the context of the days of the blogger's life, and potentially with the permanence of print; and in scope, open to truly unimpeded access by any and all readers, yet with an immediacy to and inseparability from the blogger, not shielded by the institutions of print or the forms of its writing, and ideally, not backed by, or speaking in the person of, those institutions, either—as against some sense that a poet speaks from within, perhaps only more so or most so when doing so in print, where there are claims to be made (or shirked, or denied, or contested) for poems' speaking for us all. (Yes, something like Mill's definition of lyric: it's useful, at least.)

Which is not to say that blogging is like writing a poem; it's to say that this form, in this medium, offers configurations of possibilities for writing whose analogues in another medium have been found naturally to invite, or call for, conceptualization in the terms native or local to the concept of 'poetry'. (Or: there already was poetry; with the advent and spread of print, poetry as an art found all the ways it could to exploit the advantages its new home afforded.) Specifically, say, in terms of what occasions poetry; in terms of the relationships a poet can have to a poem, for him- or herself and for us; in terms of the range of voicing, from the most personal to the most universal, expressing the most fleeting or momentary things up to the most enduring ones, which we normally allow to poems and poets but prohibit or circumscribe in other, more public forms of culture. And maybe: in terms of the relation we think sometimes exists between a poet, his or her writing poetry, and his or her life. A poet who stops publishing stops writing (or, from our vantage point, 'writing') for us; a poet who stops writing at all stops writing for him- or herself. The need subsides, or persists but is allowed no outlet, or thwarted by incapacity, blocked. Or: other satisfactions are available, and enough. Or other things simply need to be done more. Here the grammar bottoms out in the details of life, of a life.

The analogy attracts me, I suppose, because I think of my own blog as something I write for myself, though I am well aware of the fact of the form, of the difference it makes that one writes something primarily for oneself, in public, with this peculiar character of immediate utterance, owned more than signed, and (in the long view) lived more than worked, left behind more than finished. But it's not a form I understand. Or: I sense, and have long sensed, that it can be for something, without ever having been confident that I've managed to find that something, or do well at it (for long). I write for myself, or try to, without knowing how to, or why to. But also without knowing how not to, at this point.

19 Oct '14 05:03:45 PM

'What seemed most important to me was not the fact of the 'I' but the way it moved through the text and the world.'

14 Oct '14 04:57:43 PM

Any account of Moore's 'teaching' has to address the ways he conveys the 'importance' of the matters he discusses. Chief among them, in print, I think, are his italics:

'And it seems to me that, on the view we have accepted with regard to sense-data, our knowledge of the existence of material objects by means of the senses must be analogous to memory at least in this: it must consist in our knowing that there exists something different from any sense-datum or image which we are directly apprehending at the moment. This would seem to be the minimum which we must know, if we are to know of the existence of any material object by means of the senses. We must know, when we directly apprehend certain sense-data, that there exists also something other than these sense-data—something which we do not directly apprehend. And there seems no sort of reason why we should not at least know this, once we have dismissed the prejudice that we cannot know of the existence of anything except what we directly apprehend. Of course, merely to know this, would be to know very little. If the something, whose existence we know of really is, in fact, a material object, we might be said to know of the existence of a material object, even if we did not know that it was a material object. But, we must know much more than this, if we are to know also that this something is a material object. And moreover, if we are to know that we all saw the same envelope, we must know that the something, of whose existence we each of us know, is the same something. But there seems no reason again why we should not know many things of this kind.…'

Moore is a gifted expositor; despite the occasional (well, regular) stretch of tedium in these lectures he somehow manages to make the existence of material objects sound like a natural issue to address, even from a strenuously insisted upon 'Common Sense' starting point, and to make the inquiry in pursuit of an answer itself sound, and feel, natural. This requires a sense that something important is as yet unresolved—actually, a constantly controlled sense of irresolution, as one consideration, one possibility, one argument gives way to another, and then another. The exercise of control depends, obviously, partly on where the emphasis is placed; its timing, its rhythm. This passage falls at nearly the end of the chapter in Some Main Problems titled 'Sense-Data'. The use of italics in the passage is not particularly more pronounced than it is in others, for that—for comparison, here are all the words and phrases Moore italicizes in the same chapter, in each paragraph—

supposing, certainly do, supposing, is

by means of the senses, based, it, some, some, only, see, mutatis mutandis

see, mental, seeing, do, know, "seeing," seeing

what, seeing, is

saw, it, the same, the same, it, one, one, it, one

part, sense-data, given, sensations, had, had, seeing, seeing, had, had, had, had, had, have, having, not, either, conceivable, my seeing, sense-datum, existing, conceivable, seeing, conceivable, conceivable, conceivable, seeing, sense-data, seeing, impressions, ideas, sense-data, direct apprehension, directly apprehending, sense-data

the same, same sense-data, this, this, knew, know, same, the same man, same sense-data

if, did, identical with, all

whole, this, that, part, part

see, a part of, sets of sense-data, part

part, part, in


size, shape, part, part, occupy, is, is, has, be


all, all, one, not, not, not, is, this

all, one, much the same, the, only, one, if, whether

all, one, not, is, is, is, roughly, the, the same, the, the same, the, the, same, the, same, two, not, of, of, the, in quality, numerically, numerically, two, squares, one, another, the, must, two, numerically, of the same size, the, the, real, is, shape, the, is, the, the, of, the, one, the, the, numerically, the, exactly, the

was the, not, all, the, in

was, none, none

space, this, not, part, space occupied by, seem, seem, really do, really are, this, is, is, seems



is not, was, was, were, may, exactly like, not, the, is, is, is, it, it, same, same, that, the

every, is, exists

alike, numerically, now, the same, not, at the same time, while


same place, to one another, private space of my own, one

the same space with, in the mind of, in our minds, in, in, in my mind, in, dependent, the accepted view

either, or, one, seems, or, seems, possible, might, seem, really, in, which, the, what, must, not, sense-given, not, against, suppose, suppose


part, saw, at least, that, if, merely, at least, mere part, same, do not, beside, what, direct apprehension, this, directly apprehend, one, another, what, are, may, not, the, something, the, the same, now, saw, not, now, the same, had, now, of, the

this, only, in fact

merely, is, might

also, also, it, my seeing



I did see it a moment ago, know, was, now, now, was

exists something, also, other, except, merely, something, in fact, that it was, also that, is, the same, the same something, should not know, something, was

seeing, seeing, not, it, partly, knowing, besides and at the same time, something, see, not

knowledge, other

—so one couldn't say Moore is just ramping up the use of italics in concert with a little end-of-chapter crescendo of suspense, trying to fill tomorrow night's seats in anticipation: do we know it? how?! did we all see the same envelope?!? Moore's emphases are a constant strategy, a habit; the passage I initially quoted, corresponding to the third last group of italicized words in the list above, does not even stand out as the most insistently emphasized one.

But it does have its rhythm. In reference to the present aim of the inquiry, (knowledge of) the existence of material objects, it shifts from 'there exists something' to 'there exists also something other' in roughly the space of the paragraph's first half—a slight shift in emphasis, as the second phrase paraphrases what was meant by (Moore's saying) the first. Then, addressing himself to a recently-answered opposing view about the limitations imposed on our knowledge by the privacy of sense-data, Moore refers to 'the prejudice that we cannot know of the existence of anything except what we directly apprehend', not only neatly recalling his criticism of the view by labeling it a prejudice, but also paraphrasing the statement of the view (knowledge consists in the direct apprehension of sense-data; all our sense-data are private) into a form—via emphasis on 'except'—that both makes that view sound like an exception to what is really the case, yet accepts the seeming weight of that view, tacitly, as if 'what we directly apprehend' were almost exhausted by our private sense-data, so that, in pursuit of proof that we do in some other way know of the existence of material objects, we're in search of something, something other, something else, something exceptional. And with this, the remainder of the paragraph is structured out of shifts in emphasis as much as it is out of words. This exception, this something, does not amount to much; knowing (of) it would mean little by itself. 'We must know much more than this', even if the something is a material object. A less gifted expositor of philosophy would say, 'we must know that it is a material object'. Moore says, 'we must know also that'—as if an additional piece of information, of a piece with whatever we might have gleaned or intuited about the thing's existence otherwise—'this something is a material object', as if the difficulty that still awaited us were to somehow make out, discern, how something we have barely got hold of is something else, or is like it, or can be found to count as one of those. —When, as the hypnotic lists of italicized words (like unsalvageable Diels-Kranz fragments from some student of Parmenides) suggest, this is a difficulty that forces us into relying on and distinguishing between the slightest senses of, functions of, the smallest words, applied to the very world around us: see, this, one, it, of. Moore's emphases, and his rhythms of emphasis, invest these words with untold importance, as his shows of caution over their precise use signal the care we too are to take as he goes on. Thereby is a sense of inquiry created, sustained.

8 Oct '14 01:06:33 PM

'I sort of want to publicly say where I am at. I don't know why I want to do this except something about seeing a terminal open and a text editor running puts me in a semi-confessional frame. And this is a good place to do it because it's got that mix of public/private that made the early web so great; people will only find it if they want to read it and it will never pester them otherwise.'

6 Oct '14 10:40:40 PM

'A case can be made for the poet giving some of his life to the use of the words the and a: both of which are weighted with as much epos and historical destiny as one man can perhaps resolve. Those who do not believe this are too sure that the little words mean nothing among so many other words.'