Thursday, October 4, 2012

Fearful symmetry

Someone or other has suggested that Blake's "fearful symmetry" refers not to the two halves of the tiger but to the correspondence between the tiger and its creator. That is certainly suggested by the couplet: "Did he smile his work to see?/ Did he who made the Lamb make thee?" Wittgenstein seems to have had a somewhat similar idea. Anne-Marie Christensen provides this translation of a passage from MS 136 (dated 1948):
We learn the meaning, the use of words in particular circumstances...Do I here have to state all of the circumstances? Does it not suffice that I say: "These concepts do not work here any longer"? (Just as we cannot use the moral concepts of a being that has created the hippopotamus and the crocodile.)
I don't have anything to say about this, but it's a wonderful thought.


  1. (Just as we cannot use the moral concepts of a being that has created the hippopotamus and the crocodile.)

    I'll have to think about this. For some reason, I find this remark surprising (from LW). But I don't know what my reason is...

  2. Well, it's from a manuscript, so maybe he would have disagreed with it himself on reflection. But it sounds OK to me.

    One odd thing about it is that it sounds like saying "If God could talk (about ethics) we would not be able to understand him." And that sounds dubious. If God exists, why couldn't he make himself understood? Isn't communication with us, especially about ethics, part of our idea of God? Then again, Wittgenstein isn't actually saying that we couldn't understand God.

    Another odd thing is that hippos and crocodiles don't exist in isolation but as part of a whole. And the whole doesn't seem that bad. On the contrary. So why couldn't we share a view of life or the world with a being that created such things? I'm not sure what the answer to that is, but I think Wittgenstein is probably right. There is something strange and terrible about these animals, and it's hard to imagine a correspondingly strange and terrible set of moral concepts. (Although maybe not that hard. I wonder what moral concepts the religion of ancient Egypt involved.)

    1. Not that the ethics of Ancient Egyptians are a live option for us.

  3. I'm fairly sure that Wittgenstein is alluding to the biblical Behemoth (Job 40:15–24), which has often been represented, historically inaccurately, as a hippopotamus.

    In which case "we cannot use the moral concepts of a being that has created the hippopotamus" would of course mean "we cannot use the moral concepts of the Christian God"! This was of course Job's position until God gave him a talking to, invoking the Behemoth among other things. But Wittgenstein was on record as saying that if there was an infinitely powerful God, he would personally have no option but to defy this God.

  4. Interesting, thanks. You could well be right about the Behemoth. I don't remember Wittgenstein's remark about having to defy God in enough detail to comment, but I have a feeling there was more to it than God's just being powerful. I'll try to look it up. I should re-read Job too.

  5. As with so many of Wittgenstein's remarks on religion, it's from Drury's recollections:

    "It is a dogma of the Roman Church that the existence of God can be proved by natural reason. Now this dogma would make it impossible for me to be a Roman Catholic. If I thought of God as another being like myself, outside myself, only infinitely more powerful, then I would regard it as my duty to defy him."

  6. That's it, thanks. It's the part about God's being "another being like myself, outside myself, only infinitely more powerful" that I was trying to remember. If God were different from beings like me only in the sense that he was infinitely more powerful then he might not be morally perfect, nor necessarily the creator of the world. So defying him might seem reasonable, from a moral if not a prudential point of view.

    But Wittgenstein links this with the idea of proving God's existence by natural reason. And that suggests that he might have in mind the kind of arguments that do claim to prove that God is the creator and that he is morally perfect (or at least maximally good, as in Aquinas's fourth way). Why would it seem to be a duty to defy such a being? I assume Wittgenstein would not believe in defying it very much if it really were maximally good, unless defying it meant giving his allegiance instead to a being that actually was God, i.e. not "another being like myself." But it's an odd remark, and I don't know quite what to make of it.