Gotham Diary:
Last Entry?
September 2017 (II)

12, 13 and 14 September

Tuesday 12th

If you’d told me a year ago that I’d be reading Wittgenstein’s Philosophical Investigations… but don’t worry! I haven’t got very far, and I don’t have anything to say, yet. I’m too busy trying to learn something.

Wittgenstein does, however, have an excellent bedside manner. He is calm and curious and he never shouts. Unlike Plato and Kant, he does not squint at you as if to say that perhaps you do not deserve treatment. Nor does he give the impression, which I always get from Descartes, of a well-behaved madman, the crackpot nature of whose theories threatens to reveal itself at any minute. The medicine that Wittgenstein pours out does not taste horrible. Regardless of whether what he’s saying makes any sense, he is reassuring. He has made my problem with philosophy go away, at least a little.

A very popular feature in the Times Magazine every Sunday deals with “ethical” questions that readers submit to such experts as Kwame Anthony Appiah. “Should I tell my sister that her husband is having an affair?” I never read it. The urge behind these questions is always, plainly, gossip. Insofar as gossip serves as a social regulator, making sure that nobody gets away with any fast moves, that’s as it should be, but it’s wrong, I think, to confuse gossip with the distinction of right from wrong. As an American, I have lived my entire intellectual life in an atmosphere of gentle pragmatism, which is governed by two principles — you do what you can, and you can always do better — and one caveat: if you beat yourself up, you’ll be no good for anything. I am rarely troubled by doubts about the right thing to do under the circumstances. This may account for my problem with philosophy: it bogs down under circumstances.

Thanks to Wittgenstein, however, I have at least been able to put philosophy in perspective. To be exact, it’s a perspective that relates philosophy to other ways of using words to settle questions of right and wrong. The law is one. By “the law” I mean the professional practice of law, with all of its technicalities and terms of art, that is brought to bear on everyday problems in and out of courtrooms. In the West, we have two very different types of everyday law, one that speaks English and one that’s inherited from the Romans. Notwithstanding the pronouncements of philosophers and theologians, we in the West settle our disputes in court. Many laymen feel that this is a mistake, but it has the advantage of operating without violence.

Poetry is another mode of talking about truth. Poems aren’t very good at deciding cases, but they remind us of the peculiar dimensions of the human space in which we live. The morality of poetry is a morality of diction: not of right and wrong but of good and better.

I don’t know what to do with philology or linguistics. Is philology just linguistics applied to ancient texts, a history of Western languages, in effect? Is linguistics a species of philosophy, or a branch of biology? What do we want these disciplines to tell us? The difference between philosophy, even as Wittgenstein practices it, and linguistics seems to be philosophy’s working assumption that there is something permanent about the language that the philosopher uses. Linguists such as Noam Chomsky appear to believe something of the sort, but I think they’re mistaken. The only thing that languages have in common — the different languages, with their simplifying labels (French, Urdu, &c), that people speak today, but also the different languages that each language has been throughout its history — is the need to provide a reliable medium for communication. Solutions to this need have varied widely.

Meanwhile, “Platte!” “Slab!”


Wednesday 13th

It may be that language is too fluid for philosophy. Not only does it change over time, but it means different things to people who have been brought up differently. This used not to be a problem, because all literate persons had the same education — there weren’t very many of them. You may imagine than literacy used to be an elitist preserve, but this did not become the case until the Renaissance (in the West). Many medieval grandees could neither read nor write, and many more, while they could get by if they had to, and if the context was familiar, preferred to have their reading done for them by secretaries. Only last night, I was reading, in Robin Lane Fox’s The Unauthorized Version: Truth and Fiction in the Bible, that Aramaic was the language of the Persian court secretaries, because the Persians themselves “were illiterate.”

So, when Socrates was holding forth, or, more to the point — since Socrates was opposed to literacy (yes he was!) — when Plato was writing things down, there weren’t very many people (and all of them were men) who were capable of following his arguments, and almost all of those people had been educated in such a way that Plato could take a lot of things for granted, such as the idea that heavenly bodies must move in uniform circular motion. Plato’s only argument for this notoriously non-observational proposition is that heavenly bodies are perfect, because they are up there — above the moon, to be precise. Only a savage would demand to know how Plato knew this.

Philosophy flourished in the Middle Ages because it was conducted in Latin, which everyone had to learn as a second language. Modern philosophy, which dates from the death of Latin in the Renaissance, is divided into two main schools, deontology and utilitarianism. Deontology speaks German (and other “Continental” tongues); utilitarianism speaks English. Each of these schools makes much more sense in its own native language than it does in the other.

Ludwig Wittgenstein, an Austrian, created a third school of philosophy at the beginning of the Twentieth Century, by concentrating on words rather than ideas. I’d like to say that he came to language from mathematics and logic, and wanted to know the extent to which language could be as exact, but I don’t really know what I’m talking about. I bring up Wittgenstein only to point out, what may seem an ephemeral observation, that when I read the Philosophical Investigations, with the English on the right-hand page and the original German on the left, I am amazed that anyone could regard them as related languages. Certainly there are many similar words. But the habits of thought that are reflected in the structures of sentences are not at all alike. This may not be because English and German are “different,” but rather because educated speakers of English and German have developed widely different styles of assumption and expression. It’s faintly comic to see what happens to a sentence in German in which Wittgenstein is struggling to pin down the significance of utterly ordinary, sub-literate expressions — “Slab!”, for “Bring me a red slab.” — when it appears on the facing page. The simple expressions are much the same, but the explanatory language in which Wittgenstein presents them are not. How can we be sure that we understand him?

There has always been a tension in philosophy between description and prescription — much like the struggle that is familiar to us from the dictionary wars, but of much greater scope. The dictionary wars are waged by those who believe that dictionaries ought to lay down the law on correct usage against those who expect no more than a record of how words are actually used. (Although I believe in using words correctly, I do not expect dictionaries to guarantee my usage, so certain words, such as “fulsome,” hopelessly compromised by widespread contradictory usages, must simply be avoided. I remain, however, a stickler for inferring what other people imply.) Does philosophy describe the world, or does it tells us what to do? Aristotle got as close as anyone to having it both ways: if you know what is good (that is, if you have observed the world correctly), then you will do what is good (thus obviating moral decisions). There is also a further tension, between the universal and the particular. Philosophers are people who, in my view, are inordinately interested in universals, in finding out what is always the case everywhere and under all circumstances. As far as I’m concerned, nothing is always the case everywhere under all circumstances, nothing at all. But lots of things are usually true, so I concern myself with those.

If I have a pressing philosophical question, it’s this: what is critical thinking, exactly? What are the rules — or are there rules? Reflecting on what I’ve written here today, I’m tempted to say that critical thinking is the attempt to account for the coexistence of as many particulars as possible. As such, critical thinking is always sailing toward chaos, but never reaching it, because it organizes and settles whatever it touches. I hear an echo here of Freud’s psychotherapeutic mission, to reveal (and thereby tame) as much of the unconscious as possible. I would say, somewhat patly to be sure, that critical thinking transforms complication into complexity. Never mind what that means; just observe my taking two words that have evolved from the same root, from one original idea as it were (complico, to fold over or embrace) and turned them into a pair of contradictions. That is how language evolves. It is also how language so naturally destabilizes philosophical statements.


Thursday 14th

Old joke:

— I know what’s in every book in every library in the world.
— What?
— Words.

But that’s just it: words exist in books, yes — but what about outside of them?

I remember receiving a scolding letter, while I was in college, from my father. It was crisply typed by his secretary. “For all intents and purposes,” he wrote, prefatory to some unpleasant judgment. But never mind. I’d always heard the phrase as “for all intensive purposes.” Kathleen would later confess to the same misunderstanding. Not until we saw the phrase in print did we grasp our mistake — if mistake is what it really was. For the life of me, I couldn’t tell the difference, given the way the phrase is, or used to be, flung about.

Certain languages, such as Turkish, are described as “agglutinative,” because the parts of speech are fused into single words, so that the statement, “I have just come inside out of the rain,” may appear as one word. But is this so very remarkable? What may distinguish Turkish is that the agglutination is written. If I say to Kathleen, “Would you mind setting the table for dinner,” she will register this as a formulaic clump. There is nothing in the request to analyze, because there are no variants to discriminate. Assuming that I am speaking in the late afternoon, I am not proposing that she set the table for breakfast; nor do I want her to set the books in the book room in order, or to make the bed, or to do anything in the world except a very regular task. (Nor do I have to explain what setting the table for dinner involves.) In her mind, she is not diagramming the sentence to make sure that its logical import doesn’t elude her. She does not even come up with an answer: with the “would you mind” part of my statement, I am telling her that she mustn’t say “no” unless there is a problem that I’m unaware of. But this “would you mind part” is not really detachable from the rest, either, because what I am really asking for is her acknowledgment, via participation in the presentation of a meal, of her status as a member of the family. (In fact, I never ask Kathleen to set the table for dinner.)

In §20 of Philosophical Investigations, Wittgenstein muses on something like this point.

Someone who did not understand a language, a foreigner, who had fairly often heard something giving the order “Bring me a slab!”, might believe that this whole sequence of sounds was one word corresponding perhaps to the word for “building stone” in his language.

This is not so very different from intensive purposes, and it raises the question, to which we have only the roughest, crudest sketches of answers, of how it is that children learn language. Most of what we know is merely evidence showing when and that they do learn languages. We know, for example, that they go through a phase of applying general rules to exceptional cases (abundant in English) and so seeming to revert to more childish usage by saying — after having spoken correctly for some time — “I goed to the park.” But what do we know about learning? What do we know about all the judgments that children learn to make as they pass from toddlerhood to kindergarten? It seems to me that children learn to speak much the same as they learn to walk, more or less unconsciously. That is, the effort itself is largely unconscious. No one will ever know how language is learned.

What complicates things is a second phase, undergone by those children who will grow up to be readers. Those children begin paying explicit attention to learning language well ahead of their uninterested classmates. They are often aware of learning new words, and of learning that some words are quite ambiguous. Wittgenstein hits on one of these words — equally ambiguous in German and English — in §29:

Don’t say: “There isn’t a ‘last’ explanation.” That is just as if you were to say: “There isn’t a last house in this road; one can always build an additional one.”

Last is a tricky word, and, rather like my opposed pairing of complicated and complex, it can mean contradictory things. It can mean “final,” but it can also mean “latest,” which is emphatically not final. I must say that Wittgenstein seems to be floudering here, if not actually going under. He does not take the time to express the distinction. Throughout the book so far, he writes about ostensively teaching simple phrases (“That is a slab.” “Bring me a slab.”) as if ordinary speakers of the language and sophisticated, highly literate speakers such as himself, went about learning in the same way. But of course no ordinary speaker would be at all interested in his speculative investigations into the operation of language. For the ordinary speaker, language is a presence not unlike the sky or the moon. It is simply there. The ordinary speaker’s relation to language is neither dynamic nor analytical. At best, it is comic.

I watched a funny old movie yesterday, Lovers and Other Strangers (1970). It is the adaptation of a Broadway hit of the same name, written by Renée Taylor and Joseph Bologna, and it refreshes the familiar social frictions of a wedding by focusing on the nonsense that is spoken by all parties concerned. The parents of the groom, Bea and Frank Vecchio (Bea Arthur and Richard Castellano) exemplify the total incapacity of ordinary speakers to make sense of new situations. They cannot learn to speak more clearly; they can only wrap up what they know in stranger formulations. Their elder son brings dismay into their kitchen by saying that he wants a divorce. He says that he wants to be happy. His parents mock this: they don’t want to be happy. Then why do you stay together? asks the son. After a moment of nonplussed reflection, they reply that they are “content,” as if this solved anything. Later, the son confides to his father that he feels like a stranger to his wife, and she to him. The father agrees that this is how things are. You start out as strangers, he says, and then, over time, you become deeper strangers. It is all deliciously absurd. Far from springing from witty aperçus, the humor of the dialogue is a mordant commentary on the failure of ordinary language to keep up with new demands.

As if to prove my point by contradicting it, there is a bridesmaid (Marian Haley — can she really have made as few movies as IMDb lists? I’m sure I’ve seen her somewhere else) who is always quoting from books — voguish books of the period, by Khalil Gibran and Kurt Vonnegut, among others. But she drops their nuggets of wisdom like so many indissoluble pearls into her neurotically detached contributions to the conversation that she is trying to keep up with a randy usher who, for his part, only wants to “score.” This woman is bookish without being literate.

In a certain light, Wittgenstein looks like a precursor of Claude Shannon, trying to work out the circuitry of language at its most basic level. For Shannon, the great insight would be to grasp the consequences of Boolean relationships between propositions, which he could translate into the mechanics of digital electronic switching. Shannon learned a new way to write down what we say, one that stripped away all the complications of literacy. So far, I find the author of Philosophical Investigations incapable of developing any such novelty. As stripped down as his examples are, his explanatory language, the language of his own thinking, remains richly, ambiguously literate.

Bon week-end à tous!