14 November 2008

"The point of the book is ethical"

I've occasionally been annoyed at how rarely Wittgenstein interpreters try to flesh out the "ethical point " of the Tractatus. I recall Insight and Illusion particularly annoying me on this point: Hacker clearly had no problems "effing the ineffable" on every other point where there was supposed to be something which "couldn't be said, but only shown", but when he got to "the mystical" he suddenly hits something which really can't be said, and so he just compares it to "feeling absolutely safe" and "wonder and amazement at the existence of the world" -- the only original note Hacker seems to offer as an interpretation of what Wittgenstein was whistling here is that it's "a romantic ethics of the ineffable." "Resolute" readings of the book generally don't leave me greatly more satisfied -- there's often some gesturing to the virtues of avoiding confusion & thinking clearly, but it always seems like thin gruel as ethics.

Kremer's "The Purpose of Tractarian Nonsense" explains Wittgenstein by a preliminary discussion of Saints Paul and Augustine, attributes the showing/saying distinction to pride, and claims that the book aims to promote humility & love of one's neighbor. Now that's "not chickening out"!

(Kremer also moves seamlessly from a discussion of "justification" in Romans to a discussion of "justification" in epistemology, which is something I'd always wanted to see done. They're the same word, after all -- we can seek to justify all sorts of things, not just beliefs. Paul's not using "dikaiosune" as some weird technical term; it just means "being right/good", like in normal Greek.)

(I am also reminded here of Isaac Levi's attack on "pedigree epistemology"; Levi's rejection of a justification component in knowledge appears even more radical, in this company. I suppose this sort of thing should be expected when one wants to break down the "theory/practice" dichotomy, like a good pragmatist, but it's still striking when one notices it.)

Kremer's essay is good in general. I like this piece more than "The Cardinal Problem in Philosophy", but I suspect that's partly because I read that one first. "Cardinal Problem"'s central claim about LW's letter seems more plausible now that I've seen more of how Kremer would want to tell this story. Some of the details still seem sketchy -- Kremer likes to claim that "We can't say that p" is nonsense, where it just looks like a contradiction to me (and thus like something with a sense). But his responses to Hacker on the specific points he looks at in the later portions of the paper seem pretty compelling. They require Wittgenstein to have spoken ironically in his letters at some points, but it doesn't seem to me to be a great stretch to think that Wittgenstein didn't talk "straightforwardly" when rushed, since he clearly doesn't in his published works. His writing is just always like that.

Also Kremer quotes an amazon.com reviewer at the start of the paper. The kind of reviewer that spells "philosophy" wrong.

16 comments:

Ben Wolfson said...

Do you know Ethics without Philosophy? It's quite explicitly concerned with ethics & the Tractatus, but when I read it (and indeed even now) I was (& indeed am) completely unable to evaluate it as a work of W. interpretation.

Daniel Lindquist said...

Sorry, I don't know it. I notice that the subtitle is "Wittgenstein and the Moral Life" -- I wonder if the title of Crary's Cora Diamond Fechtschrift is supposed to be an homage, or if it's just a coincidence?

J said...
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J said...

Holy Fact-value Distinction batman (google Hume, start over). Carnap's understanding of Humean analysis one of the key factors why RudySpeak remains superior to St. Witt's analytical phil (analphil-lite), even if not as touchy-feely, or mystterioso.

Alvie Gewirth tried to undermine Hume's criticism of "rational ethics" (as did Rawls, really), and failed--except in the sense of it's prudent (ie consistent, but not logically necessary) to be nice to your neighbor or somethin', which Hume would have probably agreed to.......with exemptions for war, famine, Katrinas, gangs, riots, etc

Ah Wittgensteinian ethics about like Wittgensteinian filosophy in general: i.e. more akin to

N. N. said...

What do you make of the "Lecture on Ethics," in particular, the last paragraph:

"That is to say: I see now that these nonsensical expressions were not nonsensical because I had not yet found the correct expressions, but that their nonsensicality was their very essence. For all I wanted to do with them was just to go beyond the world and that is to say beyond significant language. My whole tendency and, I believe, the tendency of all men who ever tried to write or talk Ethics or Religion was to run against the boundaries of language. This running against the walls of our cage is perfectly, absolutely hopeless. Ethics so far as it springs from the desire to say something about the ultimate meaning of life, the absolute good, the absolute valuable, can be no science. What it says does not add to our knowledge in any sense. But it is a document of a tendency in the human mind which I personally cannot help respecting deeply and I would not for my life ridicule it."

Daniel Lindquist said...

The "Lecture on Ethics" strikes me as congenial to Kremer's reading. The "ethical point" isn't something Wittgenstein tries to say (and fails to find the words for); there's nothing to say here.

The nonsensical expressions W. looks at ("absolute safety" etc.) aren't rubbish because they're the wrong things to say (and something else would be right to say), or because we can't say what is important here (as a patient of psychoanalysis can't say what their problem is, but has to be shown it by the analyst), but the very idea of saying something "ethical" is confused. To want to "go beyond the world" and "beyond significant language", when one is under the sway of the bad picture of the ethical, seems like it would do what we want it to do, only it's impossible to do (and that's why we run up against the "walls of our cage", which keep us from saying A Genuinely Ethical Proposition).

Saying things like "One ought to be humble, though of course one can't become humble through one's own efforts" isn't what W. wanted to do -- he wanted people to actually be more humble. Being humble and recognizing the truth of "One ought to be humble" can come apart. And the one that's a matter of "saying" (or of "seeing the correctness of", where one can't say), is the one that doesn't matter. The "ethical point" just doesn't have to do with holding a propositional attitude at all, and one of W.'s aims is to get us to recognize this.

I think Kremer's references to the Gospels are helpful here: Jesus certainly says some things that seem paradoxical (those who would save their lives will lose them, and only those who lose their lives will save them; the last will be first & the first last; etc.), and it's an uncontentious point of theology that the point of such things is to get their hearer to change their way of life, not to communicate something paradoxical. There's also the Pauline motif of how being "puffed up with knowledge" and being without love is worthless; charity is not a matter of holding something true, of recognizing a fact, and certainly not something "esoteric" -- the Gospel is for all. The proponents of a "secret knowledge", of a special kind of Knowing that was what was Really Important, were Paul's opponents. As were those who thought that what was really important to say had to be stated "in the tongues of angels" (and so in no tongue we humans can understand -- though those who spoke in the tongues of angels "knew" what they said, only they couldn't say it in a terrestrial tongue). And also the bit about how no one can say "Jesus is Lord" without the Holy Spirit -- thus what's involved here can't be a matter of merely saying "Jesus is Lord", but of doing something differently, living differently, etc. -- suffice to say, there's a lot of parallels one can draw here. And we know that W. was sensitive to this sort of thing, from his scattered remarks on religion & how Tolstoy's Gospel in Brief "kept him alive during the war" etc.

One of the things Kremer said that I found most helpful in seeing the "Resolute" view of things was that if W. wrote a nonsensical book to try to do what he wanted to do, it shouldn't come as a surprise if he also spoke nonsensically, when he tried to do what he wanted to do in a classroom (or a lecture). In effect, 6.54 is redundant -- even if W. hadn't told us that the propositions of his book were nonsense, this is something we could've come to realize as we tried to understand the book. (Perhaps we'd think we understood the book better than W. did, in that case. But the point remains -- we would've gotten the point of the book, even if we thought it wasn't W.'s point.) So the absence of explicit notices that W. is doing in his lectures what the Resolute readers think he's doing in the TLP doesn't count against them.

(In any case, being explicitly told that W.'s propositions were nonsense doesn't seem to have helped many people with understanding the book, since on the Resolute view practically no one's understood it for decades. And it wasn't just "taking 6.54 seriously" that lead to the Resolute reading; what lead to the Resolute reading was a dissatisfaction with the Standard Interpretation of the TLP. I note that on the Standard Interpretation, too, 6.54 is redundant. It follows from the rest of the book that the propositions of the book have to be nonsense.)

So, for Resolute readers of the TLP, everything else W. wrote or said needs the same sort of treatment as the TLP. "Philosophy is not a body of doctrine, but a sort of activity" -- hence what W. said wasn't philosophy (for a collection of sayings can form a "body of doctrine"), but the saying itself was the philosophy (since it was intended to spur us on to struggle with its intelligibility, and coming to see that there's nothing to see here also leads us to see that that holds good elsewhere, too). The thing that "aims at the logical clarification of thoughts" is the effort to puzzle out why W. said the things he did, and this generally involves coming to recognize it as nonsense.

The "Notes on Logical Form" still seem odd to me, from a Resolute point of view. Kremer doesn't talk about W.'s desire to show us how to write things in a certain sort of script (like Conant talks about in "Monowittgensteinianism"), and I suspect that you have to talk about that part of the TLP project to say what's going on in "Notes", even from a Resolute point of view. Hopefully I'll eventually grow a pair and ask Kremer or someone about this sort of thing. (there are real professors here zomg)

N. N. said...

The "ethical point" isn't something Wittgenstein tries to say (and fails to find the words for); there's nothing to say here.

Why not: The "ethical point" is something Wittgenstein tries to say (he speaks of "what have we in mind and what do we try to express"), but there's nothing to say. That is, the temptation to speak of absolute value isn't completely illegitimate because the ethical shows up in certain "experiences" that can, nevertheless, not be meaningfully described in language.

Thus, Wittgenstein says that is "the verbal expression which we give to these experiences is nonsense." The suggestion is that the experiences are ineffable.

Again, "we cannot express what we want to express and that all we can say about the absolute[ly] miraculous remains nonsense."

There is something that we want to express but fail in our attempts to do so.

Finally, "no description that I can think of would do to describe what I mean by absolute value."

There is something he "means" by absolute value but that cannot be meaningfully described.

...if W. wrote a nonsensical book to try to do what he wanted to do, it shouldn't come as a surprise if he also spoke nonsensically, when he tried to do what he wanted to do in a classroom (or a lecture). [...] So the absence of explicit notices that W. is doing in his lectures what the Resolute readers think he's doing in the TLP doesn't count against them.

One of the irritating things about Straussians is that even their commentary (indeed, even their descriptions of their own methodology; see, for example, Strauss's Persecution and the Art of Writing) are written in the esoteric mode. But at least one might expect to find an explicit account of their motives in a personal diary. Apparently with Wittgenstein, we cannot even expect the that. I find this extremely implausible. That there wouldn't be an explicit account of the austere project in any of Wittgenstein's writings including his notebooks is, as far as I'm concerned, significant evidence against the austere reading.

J said...
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Daniel Lindquist said...

"But at least one might expect to find an explicit account of their motives in a personal diary."

I'm actually not sure this is true. The impression I get from what I've read of Strauss/Straussians (and we still have some at Chicago -- apparently one is teaching Plato's "Republic" this quarter, and there's an Iraq vet in the class -- rumors of secret communiques between them seem to be unfounded, as best I can tell, but there are rumors...) is that it really is "esotericism all the way down" -- even their letters etc. are written with an eye to eventually being read by the hoi polloi. The distinguishing mark between the "good" Straussians and the hacks is generally laid out as being whether or not there's any "there there" -- whether or not there's anything interesting to be found when you look for esoteric meanings. (As you'd expect, debates over who is or is not a "good" Straussian can get rather convoluted, since you're arguing over what can be found between the lines.)

I'm pretty sure that if a Straussian (or at least a "good" Straussian) ever did write out their views clearly in a private notebook, they burned it shortly thereafter. It seems like the sort of thing they'd do.

(Incidentally, I like the Spinoza essay in "Persecution and the Art of Writing". It strikes me as both clearly written and clearly right about Spinoza. Somehow Strauss's reading is regarded as unspeakably bad by most of the current literature on Spinoza's Tractatus -- people take all of that theologico-religious ass-covering & hand-waving seriously. This bewilders me. The book has never seemed that obscure to me; the way Spinoza means to lead the reader away from theology seems pretty straightforward. And yet, Strauss's name is mud in Spinoza studies. Baffling. But, I digress.)

Now, Wittgenstein wouldn't intentionally hide himself like that. Or at least, there's no reason to think he would. But the Resolute readers don't think he did: they think that some of the disputed passages clearly speak in favor of their reading of W. And they think that no passage clearly speaks in favor of the Standard Interpretation. Others think the situation reversed.

One certainly might wish that things had been otherwise, but W. did complain about his own difficulties in writing. (Thus the remark in TLP's preface where W. hopes that someone else can do a better job at writing his book, and the claim that PI is not a "good book", but is the best he could do.)

Now, W. certainly didn't write anything like the meta-methodological essays the Resolute readers like churning out. But neither did he address what seem to be obvious responses to the Standard Interpretation. All parties to the debate can perhaps agree that W. did not write quite as one might have liked him to. (This is even setting aside the whole "never publish anything" thing. That is a not a good way to make oneself understood, generally.)

"That is, the temptation to speak of absolute value isn't completely illegitimate because the ethical shows up in certain "experiences" that can, nevertheless, not be meaningfully described in language."

Here I think the worry is: How can we have a notion of "experience" where this is intelligible? Such "experiences" as these "ineffable" ones are would have to lack anything like propositional content, yet they still seem to be called on to play some epistemic role. They spur us on to try to talk in this way, and to alter our valuations like that, and yet the experience seems to be "empty". Which looks incoherent -- it seems to be a case of the Myth of the Given.

The paradigm of the Given is, of course, private sense-data. W.'s opinion of those is well-known. A Resolute reading of "Lecture on Ethics" would simply make the same argument against this "inexpressable" experience as that other one. (I get the impression that the distinction is between saying "No one else can know THIS pain!" while striking one's breast, as opposed to "No one else can know THIS love", while placing one's hand lightly on one's breast.)

(One doesn't want to mock this talk of the "ineffable", anymore than one wants to mock talk of sense-data. Talk of private sense-data is confused, but sensing really does go on. There are sensations of hot & pain & that one needs to throw the milk out & that this conversation could be going better & I think I need to sneeze & etc. It's only a certain picture of sensations that is problematic, not the very idea of them. With the Ethical the case is even more clear-cut, since there are clearly ethical issues involved in mocking bad ethical expressions that don't come up in mocking Russell's "This" and "That". One threatens to make the fellow look like a bad philosopher, the other like a moral idiot. Only one of these will get you looked down on in polite company.)

"Again, "we cannot express what we want to express and that all we can say about the absolute[ly] miraculous remains nonsense."

There is something that we want to express but fail in our attempts to do so."

This seems incoherent to me. I can want to express that I love you, and be unable to; I can want to express that I feel soaked through with sin, and be unable to; can I want to express "_____" and be unable to? (Nothing can fill in the blank, here. That's what makes this case seem unlike the others.)

I can want to express that p and lack the ability to, or I can want to express that p and be unable to in a way that you'll catch on. I don't see that I can want to express a non-p, something which isn't p-like at all. (And that has to be what the ineffable is like. For it can't be the case that here we simply have a proposition that our language doesn't have a way to express.)

I want to say: What I can't express has to be expressible, even if not by me, here, now, to so-and-so. But this "inefffable" Ethical Thingy seems to be intrinsically ineffable. (Even God couldn't say what it is.) And yet, it's supposed to be something particular -- it's Ethical as opposed to some other kind of ineffability, and goes along with certain sorts of paradoxical/nonsensical expression, a certain sort of feeling (and we can talk about feelings). (W. doesn't say that he wants to talk about the Ethical as "the colorless green giant midget" or "the feeling that one is being chased by a series of irrational numbers". Only certain sorts of nonsense and certain odd feelings are in view here.) How something utterly unlike a propositional content can stand in these sorts of relations to propositional contents seems mysterious.

"There is something he "means" by absolute value but that cannot be meaningfully described."

Well, certainly he has a point in talking in this paradoxical way. Talk of "absolute value", of the ineffable, of the Ethical, plays at least a dialectical role, even if it's nonsense. (We can be under the impression that we understand a particular sort of expression, when there's nothing there to understand. Thus the need to lead one to see "latent nonsense" to be "patent nonsense".) I think the question of why we sometimes feel pressed to "press beyond the bounds of sense" like this is an interesting one. I don't think that allowing that one really can press beyond the bounds of sense (and speak Important Nonsense) is a good way to handle the matter.

Daniel Lindquist said...

"If X tells you his book is nonsense (especially after a few dozen pages of difficult and contradictory writing), it's probably safe to treat it as such."

The Troll deleted this comment, but I thought it was funny so I'm reposting it.

(I don't know why he deletes so many of his comments. Sometimes he edits them lightly, then reposts them. But a lot of the time, he just deletes 'em. Guess he changed his mind.)

J said...

ethics, schmethics. Actually St. Witt.'s idea of the picture theory of consciousness was not completely amiss. Researchers have shown that mammal's cortical area does retain imagery (which can be reproduced, via translating neuron firings into code). The same sort of research also shows that the religious mindstates of monks, nuns, mystics, etc. can be electrically stimulated, and now we have neuro-kinetics and so forth---so if you can control a keypad merely by thinking, hasn't the supposed mind-body problem been solved, or at least greatly dented? Seems so.

And it was Russell, after his logicism days, who sided with Wm James, physiologists, and the behaviorists, with some reservations. See Analysis of Mind-- (Ah so much for the mystico-transcendent BS of the TLP, or Kant for that matter)

J said...

So if visual sensations are like recorded in the brain (and may be reproduced via "neuro-tech"), doesn't something like sense data hold? Or, keep it PC and call it the picture theory of consciousness. Doesn't exactly look like transcendent "qualia".

Thanks for quote. Re LW biographia, I've read the cliffsnotes to Witt's Poker, and I'm fairly convinced that LW was rather unstable and precocious, if not mad--and I don't think late Witt. was particularly religous. Not to say a crackpot like Popper (or Lord Russell hisself) were great role models, but at least had a bit more humility.

N. N. said...

On a standard reading, there has to be a mode of awareness about the world that is distinct from description of the world. It is in such a mode that 'ethical points' would be intelligible. ('Would be' if we can ever hammer out a coherent version of the standard reading. Here I make a concession to resolute readers, viz., there's a problem with standard readings. The great service of critics like Diamond and Conant is to require a more complete grasp of the Tractatus on 'showing,' 'logical syntax,' etc. We're not there yet, but my deep misgivings about resolute readings still has me in the standard camp).

Concerning the non-descriptive mode, Wittgenstein states in "Notes to Moore": In any ordinary proposition, e.g., "Moore good", this shews and does not say that "Moore" is to the left of "good"; and here what is shewn can be said by another proposition. But this only applies to that part of what is shewn which is arbitrary. The logical properties which it shews are not arbitrary, and that it has these cannot be said in any proposition.

I take two things from this passage. First, the kind of showing Wittgenstein has in mind is the straightforward kind in which one can see that 'Moore' is to the left of 'good'. In the same sense, we can see that 'Moore' is a subject and 'good' is a predicate (i.e., we can see the logical properties). Second, there clearly are 'ineffables' (perhaps this expression is preferable to ineffable 'things'). As Geach rightly points out in his article on showing, there doesn't seem to be any way around this. The basic category distinctions cannot be meaningfully expressed in a language. (Kremer tries to get around this by explicating the kind of 'showing' involved here in terms of knowing how rather than knowing that. But I'm not convinced. For starters, it's hard to read the above passage about Moore in this way.) Sorry, these comments are scattered, but it's late and I'm about spent.

Finally, whether or not questions can be asked about it's coherence, Wittgenstein's way of talking does strongly suggest that there are ethical ineffables.

Daniel Lindquist said...

Happy thanksgiving!

I stayed in Chicago because it was cheaper than trying to fly down & back, and I am thinking this might not have been the right choice. Enjoy your thanksgiving; I am sure I will appreciate next year's a lot more. (At the moment, I have no plans for thanksgiving lunch/dinner. Only know of one other guy who stayed in town, and I just go to voicemail when I try to contact him. Feelin' awkward on a holiday~)

I need to read that Geach article. (I'm assuming it was the one on the say/show distinction that Conant had in the syllabus for his TLP course last winter.) I've heard good things from multiple quarters.

Come to think of it, I'm not positive whether or not I've read the "Notes to Moore". I've been through the Notebooks in full twice, but I don't think I ever bothered reading the Notes. I have no idea why I'd've done it this way, but I think I have. (Guess I'm always tired of reading by the end of the Notebooks.)

"The logical properties which it shews are not arbitrary, and that it has these cannot be said in any proposition."

This seems amenable to Kremer's reading. What is "shown" isn't anything like a propositional content. It's different. Thus the contrast with the sorts of things which are "shewn" that "can be said by another proposition".

One can observe things about the proposition, and these are (in a sense) things the proposition "shows"; that sort of "showing" isn't what W. is concerned with. The "cardinal problem of philosophy" would then be the idea that there are things which "can't be said by another proposition" which are still propositionish. Inefabbly propositionish. (On the Standard Interpretation, this idea is what W. is trying to get us to catch on to. On the Resolute reading, it's what he's trying to get us to stop being attracted to.)

"Finally, whether or not questions can be asked about it's coherence, Wittgenstein's way of talking does strongly suggest that there are ethical ineffables."

I think this is what it should seem to suggest, on Kremer's reading. You have latent nonsense in the foreground, and then you eventually come to recognize it as patent nonsense as you try to get a grip on the thing.

N. N. said...

Happy Thanksgiving to you too. Sorry to hear you're stuck in the Windy City. I'm away from home myself, but we managed to put together a decent meal anyway.

By the way, I met Kremer a while back at a conference. He seemed like a really nice guy. You should press him every chance you get. You've got a few years with some of the greatest philosophical minds in the world. I'd be asking questions left and right.

Daniel Lindquist said...

I have one year with some of the greatest philosophical minds in the world. It is a short MA program! So you are even more right than you would be otherwise. I really need to get over this.

Kremer does seem nice. Wish he was teaching something next quarter. (Looking at the time schedules for last winter filled me with despair: Kremer taught the logic course I want to take, Conant taught a TLP seminar, Pippin taught a PhG seminar, Forster taught "German Philosophy of Language"... this winter I'm looking at a "Lectures on Fine Art" seminar as the high-point. Ah well, gotta work with what's here.)

On the plus side, I found someplace to have dinner today.