Thursday, August 18, 2011

More corbel!

Maybe there's no problem, but I've been thinking that my line of questioning about corbels, metaphysics, etc. was pretty obscure. So, if only for my own benefit, here's an attempt to sketch my thinking more fully.

Wittgenstein tends to think of philosophical questions as pseudo-questions, ones that don't really have answers. In Investigations 217 he says that "we sometimes demand explanations for the sake not of their content, but of their form." He does not say here that this is the case with all philosophy, but he does seem to have at least considered the possibility that this is so. He also says that in such cases the demand is "architectural," by which he seems to have meant aesthetic, i.e. a matter of taste. If no explanation can be given then the demand for an explanation gets us nowhere, but we might feel the need to ask for one anyway and be satisfied by a kind of phony answer. For form's sake.

Before I go on, I think two points need to be addressed here. One is that this is very abstract, the other is that Wittgenstein (as I have presented him) has provided no evidence that this obscure and weird-sounding hypothesis is true. So here are some examples of questions that (Wittgenstein seems to think) have no real answers: how is it possible to follow a rule? and: why are the laws of nature as they are? (Perhaps you could just insert any unanswered philosophical question from the last two thousand years or so.) Wisely or not, people have devoted a lot of time to trying to answer these questions. What evidence is there that people ask for form's sake, and can be satisfied with pseudo-answers? One piece of evidence is that there are people who regard questions like these as real questions and who are satisfied with such answers as "Wittgenstein's theory of bedrock," even though the theory in question amounts to little more than: that's just the way it is. I think that Wittgenstein wanted to be able to not ask such questions, but I'm not sure that he ever stopped asking them, even if he realized early on that they could never be answered. They don't have as-yet-undiscovered answers or answers known only to God. They just don't have answers at all.

So why do we ask them? Why do we demand explanations where there are none to be given? Wittgenstein says (i.e. hypothesizes) that it is like the architectural demand for corbels that support nothing. But why do people demand things like that? One possibility is that it is because that is what they/we are used to. We see so many corbels that a building without them doesn't look right. And we ask so many questions that have answers, demand so many explanations that are forthcoming, that we expect every question (perhaps even everything that looks like a question) to have an answer. In the "Dictation for Schlick" Wittgenstein uses the example of someone who is used to getting stomach aches from not eating enough. Such a person will become accustomed to eating whenever he has a stomach ache. If, in one particular case, this is the very thing that will make the pain worse, he will still be inclined to want to eat. That's just what he's used to doing at such times. So, perhaps because the human quest for answers has been so successful, we form questions and look for answers, even when the questions are not the kind that could be answered (and so, in a sense, are not really questions at all).

But perhaps it isn't only a matter of habit. In the "Dictation for Schlick" Wittgenstein says it is a requirement of style (ein Bedürfnis des Stils), in the Investigations he calls our demand architectural (Unsere Forderung ist eine architektonische). Architectural style reflects habit, but also the spirit of the age (or of the architect). Wittgenstein disliked decoration. There is something, I suppose, dishonest or pretentious about a purely decorative corbel. At least it can be regarded that way. Is there something equally immoral (if I can use that word) about philosophical questions and theories? If so, what is pretentious about them?

The section of the "Dictation for Schlick" that I have been discussing ends with the claim that:
it is a desideratum, e.g., to trace back to a creator the coming into being of the universe even though this in a certain sense explains nothing and merely draws attention to the beginning.
If someone wonders why there is something rather than nothing, or why the laws of physics are as they are, then one answer they might be told is that God did it. This explains nothing because it doesn't tell us how God did it, nor what exactly God is, nor why God exists, and so on. (This is to say nothing about the truth or falsity of the claim that God created the universe.)

This passage echoes Tractatus 6.371 and 6.372:
6.371 At the root of the whole modern worldview lies the mistaken view [or: illusion] that the so-called laws of nature are the explanation of natural phenomena.
6.372 Thus they stop at laws of nature as at something sacrosanct, as the ancients stopped at God or fate.
And indeed they are both right, and wrong. The ancients are certainly clearer in so far as they recognize a clear conclusion, whereas in the new system it is supposed to seem as if everything were explained. 
The ancients are (presented as being) wrong because they offer God or fate as an explanation, when really no explanation can be given. But they are right because their answer makes it clear that there is no ultimate explanation. It's tempting to say that they are right because they are so clearly wrong, but that's probably misleadingly paradoxical. The moderns are right because they avoid the mistake of thinking that references to God explain anything, but wrong because they obscure the fact that a complete explanation is impossible. Or a complete explanation. A full account can be given, presumably, by science. But it is a mistake to think that then no mystery remains, that there is nothing to wonder at.

Whether one wonders is a matter of taste or habit, something about which there can be no purely rational debate. But the pseudo-answer "that's just how it is" suggests, and perhaps promotes, a kind of boredom. To stop this unappreciative boredom at the world we might need to stop the pseudo-questions that give rise to that kind of pseudo-answers. But appreciation of the world requires mental activity all the same. We need, Wittgenstein seems to think, to be somewhat like Aristotle's god, contemplating the good of the world without  having to inquire into it. Philosophical investigations (in German literally "under-seekings," I take it) are a mistake. Nothing is hidden, so there is nothing to find, no matter how deep we dig, or think we are digging. Not how we follow rules but that we follow rules is the thing to hold onto.

Or so I think Wittgenstein thinks.

(I have skipped over part of the "Dictation for Schlick" that I find obscure. I will try to return to this some time.)


  1. "But they are right because their answer makes it clear that there is no ultimate explanation. It's tempting to say that they are right because they are so clearly wrong, but that's probably misleadingly paradoxical."

    I think this is just what Wittgenstein meant -- it lines up exactly with his view of the Euthyphro dilemma. "Justice is what the gods love" is the better answer because it so clearly stops the inquiry without being satisfying. I'm failing to find *where* he discusses Euthhyphro, though -- I know it came up in conversation with the Vienna Circle (or just Schlick?) and that someone like Rush Rhees reported on it later.

  2. @D.L. ...

    Wittgenstein discussed the Euthyphro dilemma at Schlicks house at the 17. of December 1930, with Wittgenstein, Schlick and Waismann present. Schlick and Wittgenstein discussed, while Waismann took shorthand notes. These notes first appeared along side with Rhees's essay on Wittgenstein's ethics in The Philosophical Review 1965 - and they are also to be found in some extended versions of the Lectures & Conversations-book.

  3. And @DR... Great blog!... Even though I have Hackerite tendencies :-)

  4. Thanks!

    Daniel, yes, it does line up with that idea about goodness. I should check the original (thanks for the detailed references, Presskorn!) and see whether it's really the same idea or a related one. Either way it would be interesting to me.

    Presskorn, I used to be a Hackerite myself and, although I wouldn't describe myself that way any more, I try not to be anti-Hackerite in a prejudiced way. I still think that some of his work is extremely good. On a different subject, your showing up here reminds me that if I do any more work on the idea of rights, as I intend to, I need to look again at the essays in Bedeutung. Watch this space.

  5. These notes first appeared along side with Rhees's essay on Wittgenstein's ethics in The Philosophical Review 1965 - and they are also to be found in some extended versions of the Lectures & Conversations-book.

    There is no such version, or at least not in English. Perhaps you're thinking of the complete edition of Waismann's notes on Wittgenstein's conversations with Schlick and himself, published as Wittgenstein und der Wiener Kreis (1967) and translated as Wittgenstein and the Vienna Circle (1979). That book and the original excerpted version of the 1929 and 1930 remarks on ethics in the Philosophical Review (which censored Wittgenstein's references to Heidegger and St. Augustine!) are the two sources that I can think of.

    From slightly later (May 1931), there is also an entry in Wittgenstein's so-called Koder diaries: "'It is good because God commanded it' is the right expression for the lack of reason." (p. 83 in Alfred Nordmann's translation in Wittgenstein's Public and Private Occasions. I think Nordmann's alternative translation in a footnote, "... for the absence of justification," is probably better.)

  6. Cute title. On the idea that nothing is hidden. Yes, perhaps, except that which we hide from ourselves, which can, in a sense, include ourselves. And perhaps confronting what we have hidden from ourselves, in a way such that we can face it, is where considerations of style (and judgment about which reminders are the ones which will effect a shift in perspective, or insight about how to proceed) become important.

  7. Thanks, Tommi and Matt.

    Matt, yes, I suppose something must be hidden or forgotten or something, otherwise what's the point of Wittgensteinian philosophy meant to be? But (as I understand it) it's meant to help us see what is right under our noses, so it's not about discovery in the obvious sense. And getting people to see things that are already in some sense obvious is going to take a special kind of skill, one that I would expect to be similar to the kind of skill that good therapists, writers, and comedians (at least of the observational type) have.

  8. @Tommi... I haven't looked into it, but perhaps you're right that no such book exist in English... But it is indeed printed in the Danish translation of Lectures & Conservations [Forelæsninger og Samtaler, Philosophia 2001, p. 120-121]... Who knew that Denmark was ahead on the publication of Wittgenstein...