Thursday, November 15, 2012

The life and the work

Ray Monk on the philosophical value of his biography of Wittgenstein:
Some philosophers are scornful of the notion that the life can help us understand the work. Wittgenstein had a notion of understanding as seeing connections rather than building a theory. When you understand a person you see connections, you don't build a theory about them. Biography can be like that.
That sounds true to me. And I didn't know this, which also seems quite reasonable:
How did he become a biographer? "It was the result of a series of lucky accidents." In the early 80s, while studying Wittgenstein's philosophy of mathematics at Oxford, he came across two rival interpretations of it. The philosopher Michael Dummett claimed that it involved full-blooded conventionalism, while Crispin Wright argued for its strict finitism. "My thought was that if you had any understanding of the spirit in which Wittgenstein wrote, there was no way you could attribute those positions to him. You could only do that if you read what he wrote about mathematics divorced from the rest of it.
And yet...  The most obvious evidence that Wittgenstein should not be read as adopting a particular theoretical position (if such a reading is possible, of course) is contained within his philosophical work. The more we have to look outside such work to understand what it contains the less sure we can be that we have understood it correctly. The only direct testimony we have about the work is the work itself (except in the case of living authors). That is where the author tells us what she is up to. Knowing what she ate for breakfast or where she went on vacation is not going to tell us anything much. (It might tell us something, for instance Wittgenstein had very spartan tastes in such matters, and that might affect our interpretation of his writings on, say, ethics. But it doesn't tell us much.) More useful would be reports from people who knew him about things he said to them, but here biography shades into the usual studying of texts, and it matters that such reports are secondhand. So they are not as reliable as primary texts.

But it isn't only a matter of which sources of information are reliable. There is also the distinction between causes and reasons. This has been on my mind lately because of philosophy's imminent move into a rhetoric-based English department at VMI. Apparently rhetoric people focus on the ways that beliefs and values shape texts, which I take to be a kind of (presumably somewhat speculative) causal investigation. Given that the author lived in such-and-such a culture, and had such-and-such a life, and was writing for such-and-such an audience, how do these factors (seem to) show up in the text? Whatever value such an exercise might have, it is not philosophy. Regardless of why they might have been produced, philosophy focuses on the arguments as presented. We want to know the reasons offered in support of a conclusion, not what might plausibly have caused the author to present that conclusion. If Hobbes only pretended to believe in God, say, then a philosophical analysis of his work will not care whether he was pretending or not. All that matters is the work that the concept of God does, or does not do, in Hobbes' argument. And the argument that matters (most, to a philosopher) is the best one compatible with the text, not the one that Hobbes himself actually meant.

But is that quite right? Don't I care, as a scholar, what Wittgenstein actually thought and meant? Isn't it helpful when studying Plato's political philosophy to know about the war between Athens and Sparta, and what the Athenian democracy did to Socrates? The answer to the first question is Yes, I do care what Wittgenstein himself actually thought. But that's because I respect his judgment. What he meant to say is likely to be the best thing his text can plausibly be read as saying. Or at least an interesting thing worth thinking about. And Plato's historical circumstances are important partly because they might help explain why he defended what is generally taken to be an implausible position. It helps us decide that we need not keep looking for a better argument in the text. Otherwise such matters are just color or gossip. I like gossip, but it isn't philosophy.


  1. let's say that rhetoricians are interested in the persuasiveness of argumentation. since we have to acknowledge that many of the factors they typically study (dependent upon audience, upon the effectiveness of language, etc.) are historically contingent, specific to occasion and purpose and speaker and audience, it seems reasonable that they often, especially when dealing with historical instances of argumentation, end up producing explanations of the persuasiveness of that argumentation that sound like they appeal to causes. but i think it would be a mistake to think that because of that perhaps greater prominence of causes, they don't give explanations involving reasons. usually their explanations involve, somehow, saying something about 'why a person would say that' or 'what a person could mean by saying that'.

    and is that any different in principle from trying to understand philosophical argumentation? it's not obvious to me that just because it's done under the auspices of a practice called 'philosophy' that the effort to understand philosophical argumentation is possessed of a clear-cut way of beginning with 'the arguments as presented' without at least tacitly supposing certain things about what authors could mean by saying what they do, why they would want to say it, what people in general could mean by saying the things they say. and particular authors, at that; which seems to bring back in the possibility that when confronted with a philosophical text we may want or need to say, 'he says that because...'. is there a principle available (could you state it for me?) that says why if we put a cause in place of the ellipsis we're no longer doing philosophy, but if we put a reason, we still are?

  2. Thanks, j. I was afraid that what I had written might sound anti-rhetoric, and perhaps that has happened. What I say about rhetoric is based primarily on conversations I've had with colleagues, one of whom seems to think that there is a big difference between what rhetoric-people do and what philosophers do. So I'm trying to articulate that difference here, but perhaps it is a fictional difference after all.

    is there a principle available (could you state it for me?) that says why if we put a cause in place of the ellipsis we're no longer doing philosophy, but if we put a reason, we still are?

    I think the answer is No, although I'm tempted to say that this just is the difference between philosophy and non-philosophy, i.e. that philosophy is all about reasons and that once you're in the business of causes that just isn't philosophy any more. There is something to that, I think, but it's almost certainly an exaggeration. If Descartes tried to prove God's existence for fear of the Inquisition that is (pretty much) irrelevant to philosophy. Whether his arguments work is what matters, regardless of his motives for producing them. Isn't that at least roughly right? Now whether the people who concern themselves with such arguments are called philosophers or something else does not matter at all to me (other things being equal), but the difference between focusing on reasons and focusing on causes seems important.

  3. well, it sounded anti-rhetoric to me, but only because i always want to put in a good word for rhetoric.

    the question i asked, i asked partly in mind of the possibility that one would be giving these reasons or causes -in conversation- with a live producer of argumentation. i would like to think that that brings out an interesting reason to prefer reasons to causes, since opting for the latter would mean that in some sense you have given up on your interlocutor, e.g. by supposing that they have made an error they can't fix, or that they are irrationally unpersuadeable, or are working from an position of entrenched bias, etc. but on the other hand, many varieties of philosophical thinking do start out by supposing that some interlocutors may be likely to say certain things for causally explicable reasons yet for philosophically bad justificatory reasons, so that engaging with these interlocutors may require perceiving the times when such things are said (for 'causal' reasons) so as to be able to maintain a more reason-seeking relation to the interlocutor in the longer run.

    i think this could work in certain text-based contexts, too. if you're nietzsche, for example, you may be predisposed (for various principled reasons, or for base and impatient ones, i guess) to think that none of your predecessors' proofs are going to come to anything. but if you can reasonably attribute descartes' proof to fear rather than hope, wishful thinking, slavish obedience to authority, etc., then that may help determine your interest in his attempt to do so. whereas if no such appeal to 'causes' is available to you, there may just be zero interest in what you start out taking to be pointless attempts at argumentation.

  4. I hadn't thought about actual conversation, oddly enough. That sounds right about Nietzsche (actually it all sounds right), and is roughly the kind of point I wanted to make about Plato's politics.

    I'm still trying to work out the relation between rhetoric and philosophy, but it may be certain individuals I need to find my feet with.

  5. The most obvious evidence that Wittgenstein should not be read as adopting a particular theoretical position (if such a reading is possible, of course) is contained within his philosophical work. The more we have to look outside such work to understand what it contains the less sure we can be that we have understood it correctly. The only direct testimony we have about the work is the work itself (except in the case of living authors). That is where the author tells us what she is up to. Knowing what she ate for breakfast or where she went on vacation is not going to tell us anything much.

    I certainly agree with that last point. But gossip and colour isn’t (all) biographies has to offer. There is an ambiguity to the phrase ”knowing a person”. Knowing someone may in some circumstances consist in knowing all the facts about him -- when and where he was born, where he grew up, what school he went to, what he ate for breakfast and so on. Encyclopaedia articles typically like that. But this isn’t what we mean when we say of a friend that we know him (”I trust him, for I know him,” or: ”I don’t believe you – I know him too well, he would never say a thing like that!” or: ”Okay, so maybe he did say it, but I need to know a little more about the circumstances before jumping to conclusions, the way I know him, he would wouldn’t say what this looks like!”). Biographies, I take Monk to be saying, may convey this sort of aquaintance. -- Of course it wouldn’t be a biography at all without both colour and gossip, but that isn’t what the biographer -– certainly not the good biographer –- aims at. The biographer’s aim is to give us a sense of who that person was.

    To judge an argument –- to determine whether x follows from the premises y and z –- doesn’t require knowledge of what kind of person Wittgenstein was. But to read a work of philosophy –- to interpret it –- in the right spirit may depend on who you think the author was. Wittgenstein himself was very conscious of this. It seems to me that his numerous attempts at writing prefaces were so many attempts to equip his writings with “user manuals”. He feared his intentions should be misunderstood. And I think it can be argued that that is exactly what happened when the Austrian positivists read TLP as a positivist manifesto. And if they misunderstood TLP, isn’t it also a sense in which they misunderstood Wittgenstein too? By that I mean: If the positivists had known who Wittgenstein was -- that he wanted to say of his philosophy that it was made for the glory of God, for instance –- would they even have thought that the author of TLP could be a fellow anti-religious scientist? Maybe the publications of biographies, memoirs and Wittgenstein’s own diaries have contributed to the now common view that their reading of TLP is mistaken?

    Yes, I do care what Wittgenstein himself actually thought. But that's because I respect his judgment. What he meant to say is likely to be the best thing his text can plausibly be read as saying. Or at least an interesting thing worth thinking about.

    But, to respect someone’s judgment, you may need to have an idea of what kinds of judgments this person is likely to make, or what this particular judgment is, don’t you? If I tell you that I think Madame Bovary is a fantastic novel, what are you to make of that? I would say it depends. Am I being sincere in saying this, or am I joking; am I aiming for the truth, though exaggerating (not fantastic but “not bad”); am I being sarcastic or ironic; is this meant as a recommendation or a warning, etc. To see how to take my judgment, you may need to know more than just my exact words: You may need, as it were, to hear may voice too.

  6. Thanks, vh. I'm less certain about all this than my original post might have suggested, so part of me agrees with you entirely. I do agree with your last paragraph, although I'm not sure how to apply it to a philosophical text. They aren't usually hard to interpret in that way (i.e. they are usually much longer than one sentence, and they tend to be fairly explicit about their purpose). But perhaps the TLP is a good example to consider.

    How's this? If someone writes a book that seems to be a defence of, let's say, logical positivism, but we know that this person saw his work as being in line with various kinds of mysticism, then this suggests we should re-read the book and see whether we have perhaps misunderstood it. But receiving this kind of hint or clue is not itself philosophy. (Of course it is related to philosophy, because it has to do with a work in that subject. But not everything related to philosophy is philosophy.) Even interpreting the book, or re-interpreting it, might not really be philosophy. Perhaps, for instance, I realize that it matters whether we take 'Satz' to refer to a sentence or a proposition, and taking it to mean sentence produces a very different reading of the whole book. This work of translation is not philosophy. Some people even insist that interpreting the work of other philosophers is never doing philosophy.

    That seems wrong to me. I don't see how one can interpret philosophy without understanding it (which takes at least some philosophical ability) and without being able to think through the strengths and weaknesses of various different possible interpretations of arguments, etc., which again involves the ability to assess philosophical arguments. So there seems to be a kind of scale, with analyzing concepts and assessing arguments (most philosophical) at the top, questions of translation and good biography somewhere in the middle, and mere gossip and colour at the bottom (least philosophical).

    I don't mind that way of putting it. I don't think philosophy can be completely separated from all other disciplines. But there is something distinctive about it (certainly Wittgenstein thought so), and I want to preserve this sense in the face of extreme claims along the lines that everything is a text (including both the TLP and Wittgenstein's life, as well as Wittgenstein's breakfast, etc.) and interpreting one is much the same activity as interpreting another. There are connections and similarities, but there are differences too. And the differences seem to have to do with the distinction between reasons and causes, a distinction that might break down at some point but that is often important and useful.

  7. I agree entirely. Though, I feel the need to clearify some of my points. (However, I am not sure to what extent such clearification is needed, nor indeed if this makes things less obscure at all. Forgive me if what follows is just rambling.)

    I agree that my example in the last paragraph was poorly chosen, even for my own purposes. What I wanted to say wasn’t that biographies would help us to interpret individual sentences (though they might, perhaps, in some cases), but that our picture of the philosopher may guide our reading of the philosophy at a more overarching level, what I called reading the works in the right spirit.

    The positivist misunderstanding of TLP seems to me to be a clear case of this, but similar things might come into play in contoversies surrounding Wittgenstein’s later writings as well. Despite Wittgenstein’s many claims to the contrary, some readers keep looking for philosophical doctrines in these writings, some even find theories of language, consciousness, knowledge, etc. Responding to this, I may point to all the features of Wittgenstein’s writings they need to disregard in order to make this interpretation stick: his many anti-theory remarks, for instance, and his returning claim that philosophical questions are not deep puzzles in need of solutions, but rather deep linguistic confusions that needs dissolving. Had these features been unknown to these people, then my pointers might have won them over to my side. But this isn’t how it generally is. I have actually heared people (even people who regard themselves as Wittgensteinians of a sort) discard Wittgenstein’s attacks on traditional philosophy as just another expression of his eccentric personality, along side his odd chioce of lifestyle. Some have also described his way of writing, his aphoristic style, his collection of reminders and lack of argument in the normal sense, as a sort of accident: Wittgenstein would have ended up writing ”proper” philosophy if only he had had the time or the ability. The fact that Wittgenstein never regarded his writings as publishable, might give rise to such understandings. From the point of view of this understanding, the most charitable reading of Wittgenstein would perhaps be to focus on what appears to be the substantial passages of his works, because it simply isn’t possible to work all of his remarks into a coherent whole. If one by ”coherent whole” means something like a theory, this is perfectly true of course -- though I think (along with many others) that this reading isn’t charitable at all, but rather a case of misplased or unwanted charity, because these attempts to find philosophical theories in his writings reflect deep misunderstandings of the spirit of Wittgenstein’s later philosophy.

    Often I am tempted to describe this as only one side taking Wittgenstein seriously. But I am not sure this is always true. On both sides there may be people who think they are doing philosophy in Wittgenstein’s spirit and tries, as it were, to get him right. When we have diverging views on what a charitable reading of Wittgenstein amounts to because we have diverging views on what his philosophical aims were, then turning to biographical information, friends’ and students’ testimonies and evidence from his own diaries might strengthen the case for one of the readings. Introducing such evidence isn’t doing philosophy, I totally agree -- it isn’t even interpretation, but it is, as you say, connected both to philosophy and interpretation, and I think it clearly can be a legitimate move in a (philosophically) serious attemt to get Wittgenstein and his philosophy right, in the exegetic sense. -- Whether Wittgenstein’s own views on philosophy are ultimately right, whether his way of philosophising is fruitful or not, and whether I should agree with him or not, are of course different and probably a more philosophical questions.

  8. Thanks, vh. I think this is all helpful, and I agree with you.