Wittgenstein & Arendt

Today in CoPhi it’s Wittgenstein (and recommending Barry Smith on Wittgenstein) and Arendt

Wittgenstein is said to have favored American westerns, but didn’t admit to enjoying them. “I don’t know why we’re here, but I’m pretty sure it’s not to enjoy ourselves.” Was he responding to Santayana (“no cure for birth and death, save to enjoy the interval”) or just being his own morose self? I’ll bet he never took or offered a Happiness class. (In fairness, his family historywas less than cheering.)

But I always try to accentuate the positive, when introducing philosophers. Wittgenstein, to his credit, laudably walked away from the academic profession of philosophy when he thought he’d said everything wherof he could meaningfully speak. Changed his mind later, of course, just in time for the posthumous publication of Philosophical Investigations. But good for him. I think he was moving in the right direction, away from a futile preoccupation with how language might “capture reality” and toward a more constructive inquiry into “the relationship between language and us.”

We must still always remind ourselves, when discussing this most rare and eccentric of modern philosophers: beware the temptation to “explain” Wittgenstein: Barry Smith says he diagnosed “our problem in philosophy as the search for explanations where none can be given.” That’s what it means to be stuck in a fly-bottle, and what he meant by aiming to show us how to get unstuck.

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Wittgenstein the former engineer came to view philosophy not as an abstract quasi-mathematical, scholarly-dispassionate discipline, but as a form of therapy. It’s supposed to be helpful, even if his way of tapping its “meaning-as-use” was often mysteriously cryptic.

But for a would-be therapist, Freeman Dyson reports, he was not really a very nice man. As a young student at Cambridge in 1950 the future physicist Dyson (himself no stranger to eccentricity, check out his performance in a symposium of philosophers called “Glorious Accident“) tried to compliment the philosopher and asked if (as then rumored, and now widely accepted) his views had altererd or evolved in the decades since Tractatus came out in 1922. Wittgenstein churlishly asked what publication the young man worked for. When Dyson said he was a student, not a reporter, Wittgenstein wheeled and walked away.
Wittgenstein’s response to me was humiliating, and his response to female students who tried to attend his lectures was even worse. If a woman appeared in the audience, he would remain standing silent until she left the room. I decided that he was a charlatan using outrageous behavior to attract attention. I hated him for his rudeness.


A new word is like a fresh seed sewn on the ground of the discussion,” it says he said on the wall in Vandy’s Buttrick Hall. It doesn’t say where or when (1929) he said it. It’s in the posthumous collection Culture and Valueright below “Each morning you have to break through the dead rubble afresh so as to reach the living warm seed.” Tell me about it, Ludwig.  But, a “fresh seed”? Sounds more like a nipped bud.

Later in life Dyson, a scientist who “recognize[s] other sources of human wisdom going beyond science” (he names literature, art, history, religion, and philosophy), found himself respecting the permanently-silenced Wittgenstein’s legacy of eloquent inarticulation. He now blames contemporary philosophy’s marginalized place in the larger culture on its dearth of “mystics” like Wittgenstein. He evidently hasn’t read James on vagueness [or Tim Williamson, or Bill Gavin]. “It would be an awful universe if everything could be converted into words, words, words.” Consider the conceptual shotgun.
Philosophy lives in words, but truth and fact well up into our lives in ways that exceed verbal formulation. There is in the living act of perception always something that glimmers and twinkles and will not be caught, and for which reflection comes too late. No one knows this as well as the philosopher. He must fire his volley of new vocables out of his conceptual shotgun, for his profession condemns him to this industry; but he secretly knows the hollowness and irrelevancy.

A  ”dumb region of the heart” may well be, as James said, our deepest organ of communication with the nature of things.” Lay down your conceptual shotgun, pick up your POV gun. (That’s from Douglas Adams, but curiously it’s also referenced, sort of, by Wittgenstein’s biographerRay Monk when he says Wittgenstein didn’t give arguments so much as acknowledge alternative points of view.)

Wittgenstein agreed with James about the frequent hollowness and irrelevancy of words and explanations: there’s much we ought to shut up about. Or at least restrict ourselves to pointing at. Show, don’t say. Stop wasting time trying to eff the ineffable. “Explaining,” says novelist Richard Ford, “is where we all get into trouble.”

But also try to be respectful of the points of view and the feelings of other people, and don’t be rude, Ludwig. Impoliteness and incivility are trouble, too.

But was he finally right, there at the end of the Tractatus? Must we maintain a studied silence, in the face of the unspeakable? I think I prefer wise young Kacey Musgraves‘ counsel to “make some noise.” Eternal silence comes soon enough.


Well, at least Wittgenstein wasn’t a Nazi. Nor did he sleep with one, or hold his tongue in face of horrific evil.

Hannah Arendt was not one to get stuck, to bog down in logic or hair-splitting. She did seem to get stuck defending the object of her old student infatuation, Martin Heidegger. But mostly she was concerned with big questions about birth and death, good and evil, and our vital stake in the “common world”:
The common world is made up of all institutions, all cities, nations, and other communities, and all works of fabrication, art, thought, and science, and it survives the death of every individual. It encompasses not only the present but all past and future generations. “The common world is what we enter when we are born and what we leave behind when we die,” Hannah Arendt writes. “It transcends our life-span into past and future alike; it was there before we came and will outlast our brief sojourn in it…” 
The foundation of a common world is an exclusively human achievement, and to live in a common world–to speak and listen to one another, to read, to write, to know about the past  and look ahead to the future, to receive the achievements of past generations, and to pass them on, together with achievements of our own, to future generations, and otherwise to participate in human enterprises that outlast any individual life–is part of what it means to be human…” -Jonathan Schell, Fate of the Earth


She also said, more pithily:
The sad truth is that most evil is done by people who never make up their minds to be good or evil.  
Education is the point at which we decide whether we love the world enough to assume responsibility for it… 
Forgiveness is the only way to reverse the irreversible flow of history.


Arendt was briefly Heidegger’s lover (talk about “banality of evil”!), but is still widely regarded as a philosopher of integrity who was quite right to notice that “natality” has been too long neglected. The symmetry of death and birth is obvious. Who will write The Book of Newborn Philosophers? Alison Gopnik’s Philosophical Baby is a start. [Evil of Banality] If we want to avoid repeating the evils of history we must stop raising unthinking bureaucrats and formalists “brought up to obey the law and trained to follow orders” without reflection. There’s nothing more dangerous than an unthinking man or woman.

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