Wednesday, February 2, 2011

What is a book?

Via OLP & Literary Studies Online I found Oskari Kuusela's review of a new book on Wittgenstein's Nachlass. I've been re-reading Wittgenstein's Koder diaries and thinking about what he says there about ethics. So I was struck by these paragraphs:
The borderline between philological and philosophical issues is blurred in a number of the volume's essays. An example is Luciano Bazzocchi's discussion of Wittgenstein's organization of the text of the so-called Prototractatus (an earlier manuscript of the Tractatus): how he composed the text and what light that composition throws on his thought. Although the discussion in this chapter is partly purely philological, the principles according to which Wittgenstein organized his text also have interpretative significance. The situation is similar in the case of Ilse Somavilla's discussion of Wittgenstein's remarks written in code and his possible reasons for using code. As she explains, although Wittgenstein's coded remarks are mostly on ethics, aesthetics, religion or are personal/autobiographical in nature, and may have been written in code simply to separate philosophical discussions from private discussions, their relation to remarks not in code seems more complicated than this. For example, there are coded remarks on his philosophical practice, and sometimes issues originally discussed in code are taken up for non-coded philosophical discussion. So the question arises what grounds lie behind Wittgenstein's use of code? What might the answer reveal, for instance, about what he regarded as philosophical topics proper, and how he understood the relation between the personal and philosophical? Did he see these as two different levels of writing?

I had difficulties understanding Somavilla's suggestion that the coded remarks might be on issues Wittgenstein regarded as ineffable. For, if we are talking about what the Tractatus regarded as unsayable, aren't these mostly issues at the core of his philosophizing? Similarly it remains unclear why a code would be a more appropriate expression for something ineffable than normal writing. Nevertheless, a very interesting suggestion is that Wittgenstein's coded discussions of ethics, aesthetics and religion can be seen as constituting a book to be construed out of the Nachlass that extends beyond remarks on these topics collected in Culture and Value.
I've known people to suggest we have no business reading Wittgenstein's coded remarks, but, as suggested here, there is little obvious difference between the kind of things he writes in code and the other things he writes. He also used a code that is very easy to crack, which might be taken to mean that he wanted to avoid being read by casual finders of his notebook but might not have minded its being read by people like, well, us. Who knows. I see no reason why Culture and Value should be treated as a work and these remarks not (other than the use of code).

The kind of thing he says in these diaries is similar to the kind of thing he says in the Lecture on Ethics. He also (as I might have mentioned here before) talks as if he feels that he ought to do whatever his inner voice tells him to do, if only because his reasons for not obeying this voice seem cowardly or lazy or otherwise shameful or vicious. But he doesn't want to do whatever the voice says, if only because it might demand anything or everything of him. It's as if he's living out, or through, a painful struggle between competing kinds of ethics: a kind of religious ethic of obedience to one's daemon versus a more independent and self-interested kind of perfectionism of some sort. So, for instance, on a boat it will occur to him to try to walk on a cable. He knows he would soon fall off and be laughed at. And of course he doesn't do it. But does he not do it just because he doesn't want to be laughed at? Or because he is afraid to fall? And so on. So he feels guilty or ashamed of himself. It's almost as if his conscience is on steroids, but he can't just ignore it. The best solution might be if he just did whatever he felt that he ought to do--this is usually something much more conventionally ethical than walking on a cable. But why do this if the 'instructions' are not actually coming from God? And he does not believe that there really is someone there. So the struggle continues. At the very least it's a fascinating insight into a kind of moral illness, something like the Euthyphro dilemma in real life.

There is more to it than this though. Because it all seems to be intertwined, at least in Wittgenstein's mind, with his other philosophical work. Juliet Floyd writes about these diaries in this review and seems to endorse Alfred Nordmann's view that it would be naïve to use "Wittgenstein’s diaries as a kind of magical key to the unlocking of his thought." Of course that's true. But I think that any interpretation of his thought ought to at least be consistent with what he writes elsewhere, including in these diaries. And I think there might be some light in them.  


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