Wednesday, September 15, 2010

The blogocentric predicament

I've mentioned before that one aspect of Wittgensteinian philosophy is purely critical. I think bursting bubbles is sometimes useful, but you need to pick the bubbles carefully: some aren't worth the time and some are more substantial than they look. But one temptation with a blog is to seek out houses of cards to knock down. That's the predicament I want to avoid. So I'm glad that Wes Alwan pointed out that my response to one of his posts was misleading, unfair, or both. The main point I had wanted to make was that he was perhaps more Wittgensteinian than he realized, but the way I wrote it was more like, "You're wrong!" My bad, and thanks to Wes for being so generous in his response.

But some criticism can be constructive, I hope, (or perhaps engagement is more what I have in mind) and when someone freely admits that they have a problem, it might be OK to attempt a solution. This, for instance, caught my attention. For a long time I have wanted to see a dialogue between Wittgenstein and Heidegger, or Wittgensteinians and Heideggerians, that treats W and H as each having something to say that is worth taking seriously without that something being the same. At the very least their ways of saying it are different, and I can't believe that this isn't significant. Perhaps Sean D. Kelly's work is an opportunity for that kind of dialogue to happen. I don't expect him to start reading what I write, of course, but I can at least think about what he writes and respond to it here.

Kelly is interested in "the gratitude one feels in the presence of a gift without a giver." One problem in connection with this comes out in a discussion he has had with Charles Spinosa:
The issue that Charles and I are discussing is whether one can feel gratitude without feeling it as gratitude towards someone or something. I think you can and that you ought to hold onto this possibility. Charles thinks that one sometimes does, if I understand him correctly, but that this is a weaker and less impressive experience of the divine. We can hope for more.
Kelly comments on his disagreement with Spinosa as follows:
The disagreement, then, is partly about the phenomenology itself but partly also about what matters in it. In the basic case of the gratitude one feels in the presence of things revealed as wonderful, for example, it is hard for me to see what it adds to say that the gratitude is experienced as directed toward some entity. The phenomenon of gratitude as I experience it in these instances is deep and abiding, and it is gratitude for something that feels as though it was given to me rather than produced by me. But to say that it feels as though it was given to me by someone or something seems to me to be adding something more, and I’m not sure what aspect of the phenomenon this more picks out. But moreover, I think this is a good position to be in, rather than something to be bemoaned.
He refers to this gratitude as something that one feels, as a mood, as a phenomenon, and as something that one experiences. There isn't much that one could disagree with there, but I wonder what Wittgenstein might say about it. He would certainly warn against treating such gratitude as a phenomenon that one might understand better by focusing one's attention on it, as if it were a kind of thing or mental entity that could be scrutinized internally. Kelly does not make this mistake, but he might come too close to it for Wittgensteinian comfort.

I think Wittgenstein would distinguish between experiences by looking at how they are described. Basically, if the descriptions are the same then the experiences are the same. I'm pretty sure some investigation might be necessary to avoid mistakes in cases where the description is very thin or, in the opposite case, very poetical. Two people who say "It's painful" are not necessarily having the same experience. And if one person says "I feel completely safe" and another says "I feel at one with everything," they might in fact be having the very same experience. Looking at the context, asking them to elaborate, and seeing whether they consider their experiences to be the same or different would be relevant.

This is close to what Kelly does. He looks at how various people through history have described similar(-sounding) experiences and considers the historical and cultural context. He also returns to his own expression of his thoughts and adds complications as necessary. This is all in line with what I think Wittgenstein would consider the right approach to take.

And yet I still feel that his focus would be slightly different (for better or worse). Perhaps this is too crude or jargony, but the kind of experience of gratitude that Kelly describes is (I think) what Wittgenstein might call the experience of the dawning of an aspect. Nothing changes yet everything now seems wonderful or amazing or like a tremendous gift. This wonder is itself something we might wonder at or about. But the thing to do then is to express it and then, if there is anything left to be done, look at this expression. Is it adequate? This is a question for the person who has had the experience to answer, just as in Freudian therapy it is for the patient to say whether the analyst's diagnosis is correct. There is no way to judge the correctness of a form of expression objectively. Which is why talk of description of a phenomenon is potentially misleading.

It is not at all clear to me that Kelly has been misled in any way. Nor is it clear that Wittgenstein's approach (so far as I can even tell what that would be) is better than a Heideggerian approach. The two seem very similar, in fact, yet there is a different feel or flavour (however slight) to each. And if Kelly is finding that one is not completely satisfactory, perhaps he should try the other. The truly Wittgensteinian approach, I suppose, would be the one that brings peace. But saying that is hardly helpful! Or would even the late Wittgenstein recommend silence in such cases?

I'll have to think about this some more.

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