Sunday, August 1, 2010

Wittgenstein and Youth

It's not always easy to know when you are reading and when you are reading into a text, but surely there are implicit references to Wittgenstein in Coetzee's Youth. For instance, this passage raises the philosophical question of what counts as speech, mentions silence (which is the last note of Wittgenstein's Tractatus), and features a man writing S in his diary:
About quitting IBM he has no regrets. But now he has no one to speak to, not even bill Briggs. Day after day goes by when not a word passes his lips. He begins to mark them off with an S in his diary: days of silence.

Outside the Underground station he bumps by mistake against a little old man selling newspapers. ‘Sorry!’ he says. ‘Watch where you’re going!’ snarls the man. ‘Sorry!’ he repeats. Sorry: the word comes heavily out of his mouth, like a stone. Does a single word of indeterminate class count as speech? Has what has occurred between himself and the old man been an instance of human contact, or is it better described as mere social interaction, like the touching of feelers between ants? To the old man, certainly, it was nothing.
Compare Wittgenstein:
258. Let us imagine the following case. I want to keep a diary about the recurrence of a certain sensation. To this end I associate it with the sign "S" and write this sign in a calendar for every day on which I have the sensation. - I will remark first of all that a definition of the sign cannot be formulated. - but still I give myself a kind of ostensive definition. How? Can I point to the sensation? Not in the ordinary sense. But I speak, or write the sign down, and at the same time I concentrate my attention on the sensation. But what is this ceremony for? for that is all it seems to be. A definition surely serves to establish the meaning of a sign. - Well that is done precisely by the concentration of my attention; for in this way I impress upon myself the connection between the sign and the sensation. But "I impress it on myself" can only mean: this process brings it about that I remember the connection right in the future. But in the present case I have no criterion of correctness. One would like to say: Whatever is going to seem right to me is right, and that only means that here we can't talk about 'right'.

259. Are the rules of the private language impressions of rules? - The balance on which impressions are weighed is not the impression of a balance.

260. "Well, I believe that this is the sensation S again." - Perhaps you believe that you believe it! Then did the man who made the entry in the calendar make a note of nothing whatever? - don't consider it a matter of course that a person is making a note of something when he makes a mark - say in a calendar. For a note has a function, and this "S" so far has none. (One can talk to oneself. - If a person speaks when no-one else is present, does that mean he is speaking to himself?)

It isn't clear what Coetzee's response to Wittgenstein is. Is his echo just an echo, or is he engaging more significantly than that? One thing he seems to be doing is working Wittgenstein's example into a life, so that it is less a context-free thought-experiment and more...what? Real? Worth thinking about? Something like that. And this imagining of a life to go with the imagined language is a very Wittgensteinian thing to do. Earlier in the Philosophical Investigations Wittgenstein writes that "to imagine a language means to imagine a form of life." I imagine that he would sympathize at least somewhat with the passage from Goethe that is the motto of Youth:
Wer den Dichter will verstehen,
Muß in Dichters Lande gehen.
("Who would the poet understand, Must go into the poet's land," or something like that.)

If we want to understand the diarist's S we must see where he is coming from, how it fits into his life. Or so I think both Coetzee and Wittgenstein would say. The difference is that Wittgenstein doesn't really do this in the Investigations and that, by giving S a meaning, Coetzee moves away from Wittgenstein's example, which is not about days of silence. Both raise questions about meaning, though, and I think both allow for ambiguity: it isn't simply, always, clearcut what has meaning and what does not, what counts as speech and what does not, what counts as an instance of human contact and what does not. Awareness of such ambiguity, and the ability to handle it, makes human understanding quite different from the abilities to read, understand, and process information possessed by the machines that Coetzee programs in the novel.

Finally, in case all this seems forced, Coetzee refers later in the novel to reading about the history of logic, including works by Carnap and others. He doesn't mention Wittgenstein, but it seems likely that anyone who read much Carnap would be aware of Wittgenstein's work. So, all in all, it seems hard to doubt that Coetzee has Wittgenstein in mind in at least some parts of the novel. But seeing this relies on a kind of ability that a) would be very hard to give to a computer, and b) is inescapably fallible.

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