Monday, April 26, 2010

The Popularization of Tolerance [i]

(more on musical form soon, if anyone is interested)

If we take it for granted that the unity of a morally divided political body is worth working for, and that the remedy for moral division is the development of broad-mindedness, how should we inculcate this virtue in the people? I believe that we have seen the failure of simply expounding this principle by direct promulgation (preaching to schoolchildren), narrative exempla with the moral readily extractable (the after-school special), and habitual disapproval of anything smelling even faintly of "fundamentalism" (passim). Ask around and I'm sure it won't take you long to find someone who will affirm for you the absolute necessity of transcending one's own perspective while they themselves can demonstrate no idea of anyone else's. The political party which in America currently fuels itself with the sentiment (you know what I'm talking about by now, if you've been following the current administration's practice of "bipartisanship") satisfies itself and its constituents with emphatic (no doubt sincere) pronouncements of it--while often evidencing no greater understanding of their rivals' principles than their rivals do of theirs. Getting a moral principle into people's heads gets them no closer to principled moral behavior. Broad-mindedness in particular becomes nothing more than an especially stupid narrow-mindedness when it makes its way into politics by way of an explicit concept.

But didn't Joseph Addison notch down the rancor of the political rhetoric of early eighteenth century England, and encourage a common ethic of tolerance, by teaching the people to read John Locke? It seems he did. But close examination of the methods by which Addison influenced the people, and of his explications and clarifications of Locke's thinking, reveals the incommensurability of his success with Lockean principles of education.

More to follow.

readings yesterday

  • Maclean, Kenneth. John Locke and English Literature of the Eighteenth Century. "Book One: Neither Principles nor Ideas are Innate." [summary]

  • Harper's:
    • Lapham's editorial;

    • de Botton, Alain. "Arrivals." From a book (forgot the title)

    • Farley, Paul. "Quality Street" (poem).

    • Smith, Heather. "Squeal Estate."

  • The Economist (browsed).

Thursday, April 22, 2010

The Musical Form of Thinking [ii]

Far more than the "technique of finance and the technique of construction" lifted the formal and material limitations of architecture, the technique of digital representation lifts the material and formal constraints on music. One could compose music today by entering a series of hexadecimal characters. Or at least, so one might conclude from the fact that a digital recording of a musical performance is nothing else but a long, algorithmic concatenation of answers to positive yes-or-no questions (i.e., a series of 1's and 0's). If we can reproduce musical performances in this way, why not produce them digitally to begin with? (Here I'm not talking about "digital instruments" like the keyboard or the drumitar, with palpable spatio-temporal interfaces--just typing characters into a computer).

The temptation is to think that one only needs to accomplish a more complete synopsis of the possibilities of sound, and then freely achieve perfect forms of music without regard to any limitations. Well, why not? Is it so different from composing? Doesn't a composer put the tune he hears in his head down on paper according to a standard, completely interpretable notation?

Unlike a software engineer, a composer does not presuppose any algorithmic 'mode of projection' on the part of the executor of his notations. True: the musical notations do to some extent describe a series of sounds with a determinate pitch, volume, duration, and sequence. Yet such a series is not yet a tune. It is merely what the listener has to take no notice of in order to hear the tune. (As soon as you start focusing intently on the tones in a tune and trying to add up the positive features of sound, you stop hearing the tune.)

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

More Inelegant Discussion of Confinement

Today the difference between a good and a poor architect is that the poor architect succumbs to every temptation and the good one resists it.
--Wittgenstein, Culture and Value (the quotation is from 1930)

How can the difference between good and poor change so that it is something different "today" than it once was? Isn't it always the criterion of a good architect that he designs good buildings?

Well, what makes a building good? That depends: what is it for? In the light of this question, the architect (to put it roughly) chooses materials suitable to the purpose and within the means of the client to procure, and designs a form within the limitations imposed by this material. However, these last two limitations (the availability of materials and the physical constraints on the structuring of materials), as Le Corbusier observed in 1923, erode over time: "The technical equipment of this epoch -- the technique of finance and the technique of construction -- is ready to carry out this task [of conceiving and planning towns throughout their entire extent.]" The new range of possibility open to the architect, Le Corbusier says, requires a new "breadth of vision" to match it. Only by drawing form and material together under this "breadth of vision" would architects catch up to engineers, whose ready grasp of and application to "problems" had given them the edge. But Le Corbusier raises no question as to whether the first limitation on architecture, namely, what it is for, can in principle open up under the advances of technique, or whether the broadening of vision would always exceed the bounds of purpose within which a 'good building' is even conceivable.

One cannot be certain what Wittgenstein meant by "temptations" of architecture, but certainly enough a temptation was manifesting itself to the practice of architects for the first time as he wrote: a temptation to indulge the architect's vision on a scale indifferent to limitation. Here it is not a question of limitations imposed on a work by technical deficiencies, but of the confines (or in a more architectural term, the enclosure) of the form of life within which the work could take its direction.

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

readings yesterday

Koethe, The Continuity of Wittgenstein's Thought (browsed) [notes]
Kripke, Wittgenstein on Rules and Private Language (browsed) [notes]
Wittgenstein, Philosophical Investigations, secs. 477-486. [notes]

The Musical Form of Thinking [i]

It might be unobjectionable to say that thinking has musical form, up to a certain point. You can see that it involves a certain dissonance which is resolved, perhaps by a series of logical cadences or perhaps all at once, in the thought which you have been trying to reach.

"I am thinking my way towards something." Here you feel the thought as what would satisfy, though you can say nothing else about it yet.

But what about the thought itself? Aren't my thoughts punctiform, static, and complete in themselves, once I have arrived at them? At least, those thoughts which I am inclined to call "thoughts about facts." There do seem to be two kinds of thoughts: 1) those having to do with "what is the case," (facts) and 2) those having to do with the directedness/intentionality of the one thinking (shall we say, values). The latter would seem to have something musical about them, but the former, well, not so much: "prosaic" seems more the word.

When do I have a thought about what is the case? I reach for an example, and notice the beer next to me and think the words, "This beer is empty." When does this thought occur to me? When I reach out to drink the beer, perhaps even raise it to my lips and find with a shock of disappointment that nothing is inside. Then of course, there is the case (as in the present) of looking for an example in philosophy--then I say, look, this bottle will do: it has a distinctive fact about it. Here for once it is "the fact that" and not the emptiness of the beer that occurs to me. But I wanted the emptiness of the bottle, that was supposed to be the example. So the thought becomes of no use, it turns out to be empty of its expected exemplarity. (An example, too, I can 'raise to my lips' in expectation, and likewise find it already drained.)

Try and pick up one of those "punctiform, static, and complete in itself" thoughts, and see if it serves your purpose.

Thursday, April 15, 2010

How to not say what cannot be said or not said.

It's common to divide Wittgenstein's philosophy into two phases: there is the Wittgenstein of the TLP and then there is the late Wittgenstein (and maybe also a middle one). There is some obvious justification for this division. When he published the TLP, Wittgenstein claimed to have dissolved all the problems of philosophy -- so that the very fact that he later returned to philosophy indicates that at least this assessment of his early career came under revision. Furthermore, it is a fact that Wittgenstein explicitly criticized aspects of the Tractatus. Besides, the reader of the Philosophical Investigations can hardly fail to gather that something radically different from the TLP is going on in this text.

Yet, it is not possible to account for the difference between the early and late Wittgenstein by saying that what earlier he maintained he later denied. Conversely, the important continuity will not be indicated by saying that he continued to assert certain propositions, e.g. that "The world is all that is the case." Part of the problem, I have been trying to say, is that it is not clear in what way Wittgenstein asserted anything at all even in the TLP, since the propositions therein are famously denied the status of propositions, and therefore the possibility of being asserted. But there is more than one way of not asserting non-propositions. The shift or shifts in Wittgenstein's thinking have most fundamentally to do not with what philosophy should say or not say, but how it should go about its task of keeping silence.
Can you really make a promise to yourself? Give yourself a command? Expect yourself to do something? Or should you just say "I will..."?

I resolved yesterday to spend three hours writing every day and immediately I had the feeling that there was no one to whom I could appeal, or apologize when I fail.

If you can make a promise to yourself you can also give yourself excuses.

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Ashok Karra invites us to rethink the fear of death. Is constant expectation of the exhaustion of time even compatible with a good life, let alone the basis of one? The site of this rethinking is Emily Dickinson's "Each Second is the last:"

Each second is the last
Perhaps, recalls the Man
Just measuring unconsciousness
The Sea and Spar between.

To fail within a Chance -
How terribler a thing
Than perish from the Chance's list
Before the Perishing!

About the opening line Ashok observes, "But something is dubious about the proposition in merely articulating it: it was recalled after a second had passed." In the time it takes to summon up a generalization that can tell us about the present moment, the moment passes. Perhaps instead of "merely articulating" the proposition as such the Man should have gone further--and this is not to say that he should have also applied the generalization to the new present moment (since this, too, makes the moment disappear), but rather that the difference between generalization and application should have been surmounted.

Doesn't one fear what can be present? But the fearful perhaps is already past when the proposition reaches it.

Monday, April 12, 2010

Renunciation and limitation seem to be related in the following way: one discovers or invents or receives limitations and thereupon renounces what lies on the far side in obedience to these limitations. This would be, for example, John Locke's sense of the renunciation called for in philosophy. Does this happen in every case? It seems to in these following at least:

If I renounce speaking about God perhaps it is because I have been taught or found out for myself that the concepts of my language are inadequate to God. If I renounce sweets it is perhaps because I recognize the limitations of my metabolism, or perhaps the limitations of my discipline.

But what of the renunciation of the picture of mental processes? Is this renunciation in obedience to a limitation?
"But surely you can't deny that, for example, in remembering, an inner process takes place." -- What gives the impression that we want to deny anything? When one says, "Still, an inner process does take place here" -- one wants to go on: "After all, you see it." And it is this inner process that one means by the word "remembering". -- The impression that we wanted to deny something arises from our setting our face against the picture of an 'inner process'. What we deny is that the picture of an inner process gives us the correct idea of the use of the word "remember". Indeed, we're saying that this picture, with its ramifications, stands in the way of our seeing the use of the word as it is.
(PI, Sec. 305)
Or in another place:
As I have often said, philosophy does not call on me for any sacrifice, because I am not denying myself the saying of anything but simply giving up a certain combination of words as senseless. In a different sense, however, philosophy does demand a renunciation, but a renunciation of feeling, not of understanding. Perhaps that is what makes it so hard for many people. It can be as hard to refrain from using an expression as it is to hold back tears, or hold in anger.

Is this renunciation in obedience to a limitation? If it were a denial of mental processes, it would be easy to understand it in this way. However, Wittgenstein is explicit that "[t]he great difficulty here is not to present the matter as if there were something one couldn't do. As if there really were an object, from which I extract a description, which I am not in a position to show anyone." Wittgenstein here denies denial as an explanation of his thinking. There is in this special denial a development of the position taken in the Tractatus. Here Wittgenstein's thinking becomes more musical. In the Tractatus, Wittgenstein thought that he could draw a picture of the other side of a limitation and deny this picture, provided that this denial came under erasure--under the retractions applying the general renunciation of propositions: the ladder thrown away.
I said last week that I am inclined at times to pursue possible directions of thinking "methodically one at a time as they occur to me." I wonder now how I can have thought that made any sense.

For the time during which I pursued things as they occur to me, one could say that I was following a certain method. But this only proves that the meaning of the word "method" submits so pliably to philosophical extension that it can be applied easily to its opposite. The concept in that case disappears.

This "method" is the same as that to which I contrasted it: pursuing all the directions for thinking "in a frantic mixture."

Apparently my invocation of method was just a cover for my consummately frantic disposition.

Friday, April 9, 2010

Goodness gracious you people have posted a lot of comments lately. I promise I will get to them soon.

Thursday, April 8, 2010

The recent discussion here of context, limitation, totality, dialectic, confinement, and no doubt some other sixth thing provides me with many different directions to follow. And unlike a certain person I could name if he were not pseudonymous, my habit in such a situation is to pursue all the directions, methodically one at a time as they occur to me, or in a frantic mixture. The motto which now appears at the top of this blog was originally the motto for just this post, but it occurred to me that I would no doubt be repeating it constantly and it may as well cover the whole enterprise. Take it as you wish, however, for perhaps after all one unwavering rule to which I remain confined guides all the directions I take, without my knowing how.

As to confinement itself, I am struck by the manifold of forms this phenomenon takes in philosophy, and I am all afire to begin cobbling together a history of the task of setting limitations which philosophy has been giving to itself at least since the inception of modernity. What good this will do to anyone I do not know but there you have it: it can't be helped. At any rate nothing more will be done this evening.

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

Confined to all of it

Pseudonoma has some very good questions in response to yesterday's contextualization of the Wittgensteinian mantra, "The limits of my language are the limits of my world." You may recall that I referred this statement back to the opening statement of the work in which it appears: "The world is all that is the case." Here's part of Pseudonoma's response:

How can a whole be MERELY that which divides into parts? Are we not somehow obliged to account for this prior unity as such? And if, at bottom, propositions are (or even merely signify ---feel free to clarify which--) "what is the case, that is, parts of the world", then what are we to call that "language" which refers to the world and which would otherwise SEEM identical in form to the proposition? Or in other words, how are we to define a proposition if the assertion "The world is not something 'about which' propositions are formed" is not a proposition. And finally, what accounts for its SEMBLANCE as a proposition?

Pseudonoma's confinement of our discussion of Wittgenstein is pretty generous: the point to which he would limit us is the same point to which the Tractatus itself and (by the addition of a sign of negation) Wittgenstein's whole career were confined. In addressing Pseudonoma's questions, I will give myself free range over Wittgenstein's writings which do nothing but clarify and develop the statement that "The world is all that is the case."

I beg you to have patience with this statement, the clear truth of which lies in its eventual renunciation (and now I begin to wonder why Pseudonoma takes it to be 'obvious' that the dialectic of Plato is to be preferred here to that of Hegel). And I do wish this "eventual" to be taken seriously as belonging to the renunciation. The Tractatus tries to renounce the statement ahead of time and this is its most serious error.

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

a quotation contextualized

Wittgenstein's statement, "The limits of my language are the limits of my world" is in a certain sense a repetition of the starting point of the Tractatus: "The world is all that is the case." This starting point is enriched by the findings of section 5, in such a way that the world interpreted in section 1 as a free indirect discourse now shows itself to be identical with a world that I call "my" world. This enrichment comes about by way of what is original in the treatment of truth-functions.

It is a condition of complex truth-functions that the arguments which are to be comprised by the range of the function should be of the same type. They could not otherwise indifferently determine the sense of the function. If we are to reach the result that a truth-function says something, it must also be a condition that the arguments are either elementary propositions or can be analyzed into elementary propositions. It follows from these conditions that elementary propositions are of the same type as the complex propositions which are supposed to have been constructed out of them by the addition of 'logical constants.' Elementary propositions are already truth-functions of themselves. This claim is easy to overlook and hard to swallow, but it is the heart of Wittgenstein's logic.

If all propositions are of the same type, then there is in fact only one type: what is the case, that is, the parts of the world. It is necessary that the world which is the totality of these facts (not a whole greater than them but "divid[ing] into" them) would itself be constituted of the same type as that of the arguments of truth-functions. The world is not something 'about which' propositions are formed. If it were something beyond language then it would also be beyond language to say anything about the world.

It is characteristic of free indirect discourse not to present itself as such. Likewise the world does not come with quotation marks around it. Yet, we "picture facts to ourselves." In other words, we say the world to ourselves. The self thus simultaneously disappears from the world (realism) and becomes its limit (solipsism).

Monday, April 5, 2010

Understanding a sentence

Take the case of trying to understanding a peculiar sentence in a philosophical text. "The limits of my language are the limits of my world," says Wittgenstein at the beginning of section 5.6 of the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus. This sub-heading, with all its subsidiary remarks, is so full of resounding, paradoxical statements (one would almost have to quote the entire section to give a full catalog) that it is difficult to fathom how it could be the summation of a a very careful and technical analysis of truth-functions of elementary propositions. Life, subjectivity, reality, the will, the world: none of these themes are fields in which anyone would expect an entirely abstract logical discussion to produce anything. What do truth-tables have to do with these substantial issues?

To be continued.

Thursday, April 1, 2010

When I want to know something, I want to see it as it is. I think that if I could put aside everything else that distracts and clouds my vision (everything competing for my attention), I would see the thing alone and find contentment of understanding in a pure comprehension of it. But when I think of times when I have had the feeling, after long contemplation and puzzlement, --"Now I see it"--, it has always been because I finally understood a context.

To be illustrated in the next post.