The Wittgensteinian

D.Z. Phillips Contemplative Philosophy

This is an excerpt from a longer paper and I have removed the end in which I suggest that there is something important in Phillips account (as this part does not make much sense without the context of the rest of the paper):

D.Z. Phillips, in Philosophy’s Cool Place, argues that the purely negative account of Wittgenstein’s philosophy is deficient (I will call it ‘cold’ below). Instead, he proposes what he calls ‘contemplative philosophy,’ which he believes is a truly Wittgensteinian conception of philosophy. But, he does not see the negative account as deficient because it fails to advance any positive theses; he is equally opposed to philosophy that seeks to offer substantive solutions to questions in ethics, religion, politics, metaphysics, etc (I will call offering substantive solutions ‘hot’ philosophy- Wittgenstein voices his opposition to this ‘hot’ philosophy in PI 124).  Contemplative philosophy somehow sits between these two poles- in a ‘cool’ place. Phillips puts the question that motivates contemplative philosophy as so:

How can philosophy give an account of reality which shows that it is necessary to go beyond simply noting differences between various modes of discourse, without invoking a common measure of ‘the real’ or assuming that all modes of discourse have a common subject, namely, Reality? (Phillips, 1999: 11)

The way in which it does this and sits between the poles of hot and cold is by giving an account of the possibility of discourse as such. This, Philips thinks, is an aspect of Wittgenstein’s philosophy that is disregarded by the cold conception and it is an aspect that ties Wittgenstein’s work with one of the perennial concerns of philosophy (which he thinks is particularly evident in Plato).

            According to the cold conception the philosopher is involved in nothing more than perspicuously representing the structure of the relevant language games, and the grammatical differences between them. There is, then, no reason to think that language has a unity as a whole (it is just a collection of independent language-games); the philosopher has no business characterizing that unity. To do so would be to look for the essence of language- which is ruled out by Wittgenstein’s method. If one is confused about the use of a concept and if someone then attempts to clear up that confusion, it will be assumed that one already speaks a language full blown (it is important to note that Wittgenstein has the exact same concern in PI 120). And so, Phillips argues that by refusing to acknowledge that an attempt to characterize the unity or generality of language is intelligible, supporters of the cold conception of philosophy are in fact “occluding a precondition of their own enterprise” (Mulhall, 2007: 17). That is, the unity of language is a precondition of speaking at all. In trying to clear up a confusion about the possibility of discourse there is no way to perspicuously represent language as a whole, additionally, it seems senseless to talk about language as a whole as confused (Phillips 49). 

            So, Phillips thinks then that there is a positive task for philosophy, namely, contemplating the possibility and reality of discourse. Although contemplative philosophy does not offer any new knowledge of reality, it offers nonetheless some kind of new positive understanding of it.  In Philosophy’s Cool Place, unfortunately, it is very hard to see what Phillips’ means by this. As Stephen Mulhall writes, “the most frustrating aspect of this book is that Phillips gives little positive substance to his idea of reality of discourse” and Timo Koistinen shares this sentiment (qtd. in Koistinen 2011: 345).  The cold/therapeutic conception of philosophy would see Phillips’ question about the possibility of discourse as one about the concepts ‘language,’ ‘speaking,’ and ‘saying something.’ So, to clarify the concept of language we would simply give perspicuous representation of the way the word ‘language’ is used. Now, here Philips thinks we are presupposing our ability to speak and our ability to use words to say something and yet denying the unity of our discourse which allows us to do these things. However, there is no paradox here; as Wittgenstein writes

One might think: If philosophy speaks of the word ‘philosophy,’ there must be a second-order philosophy. But that’s not the way it is; it is, rather, like the case of orthography, which deals with the word ‘orthography’ among others without then being second-order. (PI 121)

In raising the question ‘how is discourse possible?’ in the first place one assumes one’s mastery of discourse- the very same presupposition informs this question (Mulhall 19). If everyday language is a suitable medium to frame the question about the possibility of discourse and if the our ordinary words ‘language’, ‘speaking’, and ‘discourse’ refer to the phenomena which interests us then why is it not an suitable  medium to answer it in? And why is it not suitable to do so by clarifying the grammar of those ordinary words? As Phillips (2004, 44) says about contemplating colour judgements: philosophy’s concern with such thing is a concern with the sense of those judgements, which includes, of course, the way in which distinctions between truth and falsity are drawn.” To my ears, this sounds exactly like what a grammatical investigation involves. So, is Phillips doing anything different when he discusses the dialogic relations between various language games and broader linguistic practices? Is he not just perspicuously representing aspects, hidden from us by their familiarity, of the grammar of ‘language’?  That is, he is looking at the way the concept ‘language’ works in our lives and bringing out an aspect of it that emphasizes the immense interrelatedness of types of discourse.

So, Phillips may have identified a dimension of Wittgenstein that is concerned with perennial philosophical problems that have been around since Plato (i.e. the possibility of discourse), but it seems he has not made a convincing case that its further investigation involves transcending the project of perspicuously representing the grammar of our ordinary words. He has not given a clear account of Wittgenstein’s aim in philosophy beyond the purely negative.  

-O. DesRues

If analytic philosophers wrote stories.

At time t a man j went W to the store s. At t1 j left L his house h and got in his car c. From h j drove D his c to s at t2. At t3 j arrived at s and spoke to the store owner o. In the s, j bought B a pie p from o (B(jpo)) . At t4 j got in c and D to h. At t5 j arrived at h and he ate A p

-O. DesRues. 

I think I may widen the scope of this blog a little and start including some not-directly-Wittgenstein-related content. However, it will remain philosophically relevant. 

Wittgenstein and bad conceptual art

 ”…it is a gloomy fact that since his death Wittgenstein seems to have become the victim of everything he hated most. This is true not only in the academy but also among all the legions of his supposed admirers. Having made it his moral purpose to “clarify the use of our language,” he is the subject of some of the most impenetrable prose ever written. Having warred against pretentiousness of every kind, he is routinely hauled in to lend credence to some of the most pretentious cultural artifacts of our time.

In the art world especially, where conceptual artists have adopted him as their guru, he seems doomed to a perpetual afterlife of misappropriation. Thus a piece consisting of four sheets of glass propped up against a gallery wall, with the words CLEAR SQUARE GLASS LEANING written on them, is called by the artist a “Proposition,” after those of theTractatus, and is said to “work with Ludwig Wittgenstein’s analytic philosophy of language” to “stimulate the spiritual faculties of the individual as a dialectical, culturally located counterpart.” Works that consist of the scrawled or flashing words “Pay attention mother fuckers” and “Fuck and live. Suck and die” are claimed by a curator at the Museum of Modern Art to go “directly to the heart of the existential problem Wittgenstein’s inquiries pose… . Nauman’s [the artist’s] method has much in common with that of Ludwig Wittgenstein… . Whether videos, neons, drawings, prints or spatial constructions, each of his works asks the same question: how does being resonate in language?”

The uninitiated viewer may have trouble seeing how a Bruce Nauman work called Shit in Your Hat — Head on a Chair asks that question. Equally, it is hard to fathom why a neon sign that said RUN FROM FEAR. FUN FROM REAR is said to have been praised by a critic for its “Wittgensteinian synchronicity.” Such, however, are the uses of philosophy in our time.”

- From “The Wittgenstein Controversy,” Evelyn Toynton. full article here:

Sceptical Arguments

Appealing to logical possibility has always been a key element of a sceptical strategy; most sceptical arguments start; “suppose that…”, “conceive of a…”, etc.. It is taken to be the case, in a sceptical strategy, that our ability to conceive of something makes that thing a logical possibility (this means: if we can conceive of it then it is a state of affairs that gives rise to no logical contradiction).  Typical examples of logical possibility include switching bodies with someone else, having thoughts put in your head,  and a plethora of other strange cases. Of course, switching bodies with someone, for example, is not physically possible, but it remains logically possible. But the problem is, as Moyal-Sharrock puts it, “that physical and logical possibility are confused or conflated” (Sharrock, 2004) in a sceptical argument. Wittgenstein, in On Certainty, can help us understand what is going wrong here. 

For something like “I can switch bodies with someone” to make sense it needs a context; a use. Usually the context given is a fictional one (evil geniuses, brain downloading machines, wizards, etc.), and not our everyday ordinary contexts of use.  Most sceptical arguments start with this sort of story (Descartes: I will suppose that… a malicious demon…etc.). The issue, however, is that the fictional pretence is dropped and a conclusion about a real-life situation (rather than a fictional one) is drawn. But, possibility (like meaning) does not automatically get transferred from context to context- it is not a context-independent property of a sentence. So, we can understand a fictionally (i.e. logically) possible situation but this does not warrant us to think that it depicts a human (physically) possibility. ‘I have a body’ is a falsifiable sentence in a fictional situation but in the human world it is bound of sense that does not admit of falsifiability in ordinary contexts. There is no meaningful description of my possibly not having a body in our normal human world as it acts as hinge upon which the rest of our speaking turns.  


Culture and Value #19

I read: “…philosophers are no nearer to the meaning of ‘Reality’ than Plato got, ….”. What a strange situation. How extraordinary that Plato could have got even as far as he did! Or that we could not get any further! Was it because Plato was so extremely clever?

                                                                                                     –C&V 1931

One of my favourite remarks from Culture and Value. 

Culture and Value #18

 People say again and again that philosophy doesn’t really progress, that we are still occupied with the same philosophical problems as were the Greeks. But the people who say this don’t understand why it has to be so. It is because our language has remained the same and keeps seducing us into asking the same questions. As long as there continues to be a verb ‘to be’ that looks as if it functions in the same way as ‘to eat’ and ‘to drink’, as long as we still have the adjectives ‘identical,’ ‘true’, ‘false’, ‘possible’, as long as we continue to talk of a river of time, of an expanse of space, etc. etc., people will keep stumbling over the same puzzling difficulties and find themselves staring at something which no explanation seems capable of clearing up.

            And what’s more, this satisfies a longing for the transcendent, because in so far as people think they can see the “limits of human understanding”, they believe of course that they can see beyond these. - C&V 1931

“Not empiricism and yet realism in philosophy, that is the hardest thing.” RFM VI S. 23. 

This section in Remarks on the Foundations of Mathematics (it is a response to a view about the relation between logic and empirical data held by Ramsey) is starting to play a very central role in my project, largely due to its analysis by Cora Diamond in her Wittgenstein and the Realistic Spirit. It has given me a fresh understanding of Wittgenstein’s point, as it were. I highly recommend it. 

I am going to start posting more again. I have been working on a research project this year on philosophical method in Wittgenstein supervised by Prof. Sedivy at the UofT. I will be putting up excerpts from things I have been reading and I will try to continue with the Culture and Value posts (and of course, anything else that is relevant). Maybe I will put up my finished paper at the end if anyone is interested in reading it- it should be done in a month and a half or so.