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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21 Mar '16 01:56:24 AM

But further down.

21 Mar '16 01:55:55 AM

I mean, I do again. I did, then didn't, now do again.

21 Mar '16 01:54:59 AM

I still do. Live on it. The street.

21 Mar '16 01:53:58 AM

Me, to self, walking in the dark down the street I used to live on, coming up to the building where there was a girl who would sunbathe in the front yard:

— I wonder if she…

— Well, it has been fourteen years…

20 Mar '16 06:47:32 PM

'Artists just go into their studios every day and shut the door and remain there.'

20 Mar '16 04:44:30 AM

March snows, erratic, falling within days, but not blanketing them.

18 Mar '16 10:55:34 PM

The topic that dominates both the foreword and the later preface to Cavell's Claim of Reason is Part Four of that book: its genesis and its relation to the preceding three parts.

Below, a draft (dating from November 2012) collecting Cavell's most pertinent remarks about Part Four from the foreword:

I find it helpful to think of the foreword as falling into two parts, the first more thematic and the second more procedural. The first part gets going from Cavell's statement that although Claim was supposed to be a revision of his dissertation from seventeen years prior, 'it is no more properly speaking a revision than its predecessor was properly speaking a dissertation' (p. xv).

He says little to substantiate the self-deprecating remark of the latter half of this claim: just that prior to Austin's visit to Harvard he was 'on the road to a proper dissertation' which was subsequently scrapped. Any further mention of that dissertation (its eventual completion, submission, 'circulation in mimeograph' and consultation at the Harvard library, and service as source for material appearing in Claim) goes no further to explaining what might have been improper about it, save perhaps that it was a 'culling' from three years' worth of manuscripts (p. xxii).

So it seems that the interest in this claim, at least so far as it's elaborated in the foreword, lies in its former half, which I take to center on Cavell's denial: The Claim of Reason is not, properly speaking, a revision. Why not?

A simple answer would be that there is too much material for the later work to count as a revision of the earlier one, even if it was made on the basis of the earlier one. Somewhat tediously, he notes that about half of Claim is made up of about three-fourths of the dissertation, appearing with less (Parts Two and Three) or more extensive revision (Part One, 'salvaged' from about fifty pages of the dissertation, 'in fragments running from individual sentences and paragraphs through two or three consecutive pages' and 'interspersed' among a hundred newer pages). Part Four comprises 168 pages of Claim's 496 pages, so that third of the book seems to be mostly new, not revised dissertation material (leaving some 80 pages that were added in incorporating the half that derived from the dissertation).

So the mere fact of Part Four's being new, not revised, would be reason enough to deny that Claim is a proper revision of its predecessor. But Cavell goes well beyond accounting for this denial by accounting for the proportions of revision and invention in the finished work. He devotes a great deal of the foreword to (and discusses almost exclusively in the later preface) the manner of production of Part Four, to how it was and is written. I'd like to focus on what he says about this, with the thought that it will shed some light on his insistence upon the novelty of the book as a whole. What about the writing of Part Four especially strikes him as a new accomplishment?

Both parts of the foreword describe Part Four as something Cavell had to arrive at, to make his way toward—taking around ten years after the dissertation (p. xvii) to get to 'the center of Part Four', and even several years after Part Four's opening material on other minds was written (p. xxii) and three or four after Cavell knew 'the direction the conclusion was hauling itself toward', which had to do with the connection between skepticism and tragedy, acknowledgment and avoidance (which is something said, explicitly, at the beginning of the eleventh section of Part Four, p. 389), even if '[h]ow I might arrive at such a conclusion was distinctly less clear' (p. xxiii).

Rather than characterizing his arrival in terms we might expect of a philosophical conclusion, Cavell describes it instead in terms emphasizing an end of writing:

What emerged during those autumns and winters, which is to say during the writing of most of Part Four, was something I more and more came to regard, or to accept, even to depend upon, as the keeping of a limited philosophical journal. Writing it was like the keeping of a journal in two main respects. First, the autonomy of each span of writing is a more important goal than smooth, or any, transitions between spans (where one span may join any number of actual days, or occupy less than one full day). This ordering of goals tends to push prose to the aphoristic.… Second, there would be no point, or no hope, in showing the work to others until the life, or place, of which it was the journal, was successfully, if temporarily, left behind, used up (pp. xxii–xxiii).

This—call it Cavell's calling Part Four a journal—is pretty much his last word on the 'strata' of his writing; from here on the foreword passes into a lengthy four more pages of acknowledgments to friends, colleagues, students, institutional sponsors, family, and at last, those Cavell has not met yet, or only just met, his readers: 'Greetings to you all' (p. xxvi).

We might, at this point, characterize the writing of Part Four, according to Cavell's calling it a journal, something like this: he knew roughly where he was headed, or meant or wanted to go—but not how to get there; the process by which he got there involved a certain way of writing which emphasized getting something out, or down, and getting past something, moving on.

This is thin, seemingly so thin as to apply to any serious process of writing. This appearance is partly due to not having incorporated much of the idea of writing a journal into my characterization of Cavell's writing of Part Four. I will do so on the next section of the present essay. But before doing so, I'd also like to collect his other main remarks about Part Four made in the foreword. I won't make much use of them for a while, but they do echo the terms I've just used—getting something out, getting it down, getting past something, moving on—and so will lend a little substance to my subsequent discussion of journal writing.

Where Cavell's focus in the second part of the foreword is on the circumstances, schedule, and practical activity of writing (thus what I called 'procedural'), with his moving on dependent upon acceptance of a certain mode of writing ('the keeping of a limited philosophical journal'), in the first part his focus is more thematic. He details the intellectual situation which led up to his experience and eventual resolution of the difficulty of moving on which centered, practically speaking, on the writing of Part Four.

He describes himself as 'shocked', knocked off his horse, by Austin's procedures, 'procedures some of us called ordinary language philosophy' (p. xv). He was further impressed by the work of Thompson Clarke which seemed to him to show 'that the dictates of ordinary language… were as supportive as they were destructive of the enterprise of traditional epistemology' (p. xvi). And so he needed to back up: 'I saw that, even saw where, I was going to have to take backward steps before moving onward again'. Backing up involved his study of Wittgenstein, to whom Cavell attributes, among other things, 'a discovery for philosophy of the problem of the other' (p. xvii). His appreciation of Wittgenstein's discovery informs his study of skepticism as influenced by Clarke. Part Two of Claim focuses on Cavell's 'response' to skepticism with respect to the external world making use of Clarke's ideas and Cavell's own, but Cavell notes that '[f]rom the first, I contrasted such considerations… with their working out in the companion case, often contrary, of knowing other minds' (p. xxv). Though the case of knowing other minds is broached in Part One, it is only really in Part Four that Cavell elaborates it, and, as we have seen, it Part Four that is the locus of his difficulties with moving on. These difficulties are thus linked, thematically, with his study of Wittgenstein, how he took the step back he needed to take 'before moving onward again'. I will quote two remarks linking Wittgenstein to Cavell's difficulties in writing Part Four.

The first identifies Cavell's reason for seeing Wittgenstein's work as the way of backing up, as the direction in which he had to back up:

I have found the Investigations, I suppose more than any other work of this century, to be a dominating present of the history of philosophy for me. This has meant, as these things will, living with the sound of it, subjected to the sound. To find a certain freedom from that sound was therefore necessary if I was to feel I was finding my way to an investigation of my own preoccupations. This in practice meant discovering ways of writing which I could regard as philosophical and could recognize as sometimes extensions—hence sometimes denials—of Wittgenstein's, and of course also of those of any other writer from whom I make my way. I should say, accordingly, that as my book moves into its latest strata, and continuously after about the first fourth of Part Four, I no longer regard my citations of the Investigations as interpretations of it (p. xix).

What Cavell here refers to as 'the sound' of the Investigations—as it were metonymically, emphasizing a subjective aspect—he earlier characterizes with the word 'voice', while describing the study of Wittgenstein which followed upon his realization that Austin's procedures and Thompson Clarke's work required that he 'take backward steps before moving onward again':

This was borne out by my beginning serious study of Philosophical Investigations, in which the recurrence of skeptical voices, and answering voices, struck me as sometimes strangely casual and sometimes strangely conclusive, as sometimes devious and sometimes definitive. I knew reasonably soon thereafter and reasonably well that my fascination with the Investigations had to do with my response to it as a feat of writing. It was some years before I understood it as what I came to think of as a discovery for philosophy of the problem of the other: and further years before these issues looked to me like functions of one another.… Not confidently until around the center of Part Four… would I feel that I was saying something fairly continuously at the right level for thinking usefully about the connection of writing and the problem of the other… (pp. xvi–xvii).

Together, these two remarks suggest a schematic story about how Part Four of Claim was written. I've been characterizing that writing in terms of difficulties that Cavell faced and tried to overcome. If we like, we could identify Wittgenstein as the source of those difficulties: namely, the Investigations, considered as a 'feat of writing', specifically insofar as it contained a striking recurrence of skeptical and answering voices, seeming sometimes casual, sometimes conclusive, sometimes devious, sometimes definitive. This is how the text struck Cavell; in fact he found himself 'subjected to the sound' of the Investigations, a sound he lived with. To find a way to an investigation of his own preoccupations—presumably including the study linking skepticism and tragedy in Part Four—it was necessary for Cavell to find 'a certain freedom from' the sound of the Investigations. In practice, this meant 'discovering ways of writing' which Cavell could regard in two ways. First, as philosophical—which suggests his gradual acceptance of his writing of Part Four as 'the keeping of a limited philosophical journal'. And second, which he could recognize 'as sometimes extensions—hence sometimes denials—of Wittgenstein's'—a recognition presumably required by Cavell's sense of having freed his voice for response to the writing of a philosopher to whose own voice he found himself subjected, by whose voice he found himself temporarily silenced. Having accomplished this discovery by 'around the center of Part Four', and thus feeling that he was 'saying something fairly continuously at the right level for thinking usefully about the connection of writing and the problem of the other', Cavell is thus in a position to write in continuation of the 'discovery for philosophy of the problem of the other' which he attributes as much to Wittgenstein's accomplishment as a writer as to Wittgenstein as a philosopher.

This story suggests to me two main issues about the writing of Part Four. First, what does it mean to regard this writing as the keeping of a limited philosophical journal? Second, how can Cavell's discovery or acceptance of this way of writing, itself seen by him as a way of moving on from Wittgenstein's thought and writing, be understood in terms of voice, the main term with which Cavell characterizes his response to Wittgenstein's work as 'a feat of writing'?

15 Mar '16 07:51:15 PM

I read a not atypical passage of interpretive work by an academic, a tissue of quotations, citations, and carefully wrought phrases that echo the author being interpreted. Not entirely useless work, but inert, any possible impetus to thought that might be derived from it already dispersed into the haze of 'the literature'. What's wrong with it?

I imagine it being otherwise—perhaps being structured dialectically, or structured as an inquiry or investigation undertaken by the author, or even presented (after the fact) as such by the author for my sake. Why would that be preferable? Let's say that there are modes, or topics, of discourse for which this academic author's practice would be well suited. I imagine this as the province of proofs and cases, of evidence and authoritative ways of dealing with facts, making judgments. For this sort of discourse, up to a point, facts speak for themselves, or the procedures used to obtain them serve to validate them; or the consequences of principles, say consequences activated by facts placed in evidence, seem to follow naturally or necessarily. There's some room for inquiry, dialectic, even here—but the writing consists mostly in showing one's probity by staying out of the way. In contrast, what I imagine as writing which is 'investigative' on its face would be writing in which the author, in however thinly manifested a sense, cannot just stay out of the way: she's in it, the discourse is a product or result of choices she's made, thoughts she can attest to, findings from her own experience. It would be rare, of course, that an author could represent any substantial inquiry as it occurred, as she conducted it: this sort of inquiry is a mess. It's reconstructed retrospectively. So the requirements of this sort of writing incline it toward the performative, the rhetorical, at least enough to establish a persona who can be seen by readers to believably make her way through an inquiry. Which is different from the other mode of writing, with its preference for procedure and impersonal authors, how? An author who investigates, whose persona follows a path of inquiry, shows herself taking responsibility for the inquiry: which in the humanities often means, for everything in it, every word, every punctuation mark. (There's a close proximity here to mathematical or logical 'proof', but at the same time the greatest difference.)

The quotation-riddled interpretive work of the sort I'm thinking of tries to satisfy standards associated with coherence, say of some intellectual or artistic or moral vision—but usually without any marks of conviction which would speak to any not already deeply invested in the material being interpreted. This is, I'd say, a version of vision—but without depth, without insight. Interpreters like this try to show you what someone else sees by amassing and reordering evidence of what they've said. If not for the constant resonance induced by quotation and even opted for in the subsumption of the interpreter's voice in the other author's own, this practice might well strike readers as involving some violence to the original texts from which the evidence is mined, hunted, sourced. They enjoy little integrity as works in their own right under this practice. And from such scattered evidence, dispersed in who knows what ways through so many other texts—this practice is most evident in interpreters dealing with a body of texts, more so than single texts—it just stops being practicable, or possible, for an interpreter to show you how she even came by the evidence. All traces of her acts of reading are omitted, abandoned. Without them, readers to come are left clueless: how might they get from here, from the texts, to this, a way of reading them, some result of having read them? An interpreter of the other sort, an author showing herself to be a reader, thus showing how she is responsible for the reading she gives, might not necessarily be able to lead you from A to B. But she can show you that she got from one point to the other, that it was something she did (or that she took part in).

There's an acknowledgement of agency in doing this, one which too many academics are all too happy to suppress, if they even realize its importance.

15 Mar '16 05:25:39 PM

While philosophy deals with belief, metaphilosophy deals with belief in philosophy—without which anything philosophy has to say about belief is rarely believable for long.