Thursday, February 25, 2010

Who's been up all night writing about Wittgenstein?

I've written a paper much too long to be suitable for a blog entry, but I will be happy to make it available upon request. Excerpt follows:
6.5 When the answer cannot be put into words, neither can the question be put into words.
The riddle does not exist.
If a question can be framed at all, it is also possible to answer it.

One is tempted at a number of points in reading the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus to exclaim, perhaps while throwing the book against the wall, “But that's obviously wrong, Ludwig!” Proposition 6.5 seems to afford such an occasion: surely riddles bedevil us all our lives. Leaving aside for now the question of the meaning of being, what about the not uncommon question, “What do I do?” Whether I ask this question as I stumble blearily out of bed on a Saturday morning, or as I confront an overwhelming pile of unprocessed work, or even at the nadir of despair-—in any case, I ask it precisely because no action immediately presents itself, and I am forced to reconsider my disposition to action in a radically different way than when I coast mechanically from task to task. The question has a reflective turn mirrored in its reflexive structure: what do I do? I might as well ask, what does my doing do? Obviously no answer on the order of “Pour a bowl of Wheaties” or “Write an abstract for a conference submission” will serve here, because it would have to be selected from a range of options already “on the table,” which is just what is lacking when I ask this question. Rather, I have come to interrogate the sustaining source of my doings—-yet, this questioning necessarily occurs only in the absence of that source, at the moment of its sudden abandonment: otherwise it would already be providing me with an action and give me no cause to ask, “What do I do?” Now an answer to this question “in words” would not supply what the question is asking for--its satisfaction would take place only in a grant from the sustaining source of my doings. In other words, the answer to this question can only be a conversion: the source and I must reconcile. Does it follow that the question was never put into words in the first place? With careful attention to Wittgenstein's sense of what it means to be “put into words,” we may see in what way it can be said that a riddle such as the one described above is not ever a question put into words.