Monday, January 27, 2014

The unrealistic spirit

Apparently it's Holocaust Memorial Day, so this post I've been working on seems apt.

The Act of Killing (about the brutal suppression of communists and "communists" in Indonesia) is a good film, although not as surreal as some reviews had led me to expect. If you don't read any such reviews, though, I think it would be surreal. The sight of overweight, middle-aged murderers performing a musical about their crimes in drag is weird. The painful reality of memory and evasive fantasy take turns, with fantasy mostly winning out. Its victory is never secure, though, because it's so unbelievable. (Which is related to its badness as art and tempts me to say something about the truth of great art, but I'll resist. Evil people do seem to have terrible taste, though, and I think this must have something to do with an inability to see, or to accept, reality.)

Not long after seeing this I watched S21, about the torture and mass murder of the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia. The best part of the film is where one of the survivors of the S21 prison, Vann Nath, talks to former prison guards. He objects to their use of words like 'destruction' instead of 'murder' or 'killing', and to their claim that they had no choice about whether to kill prisoners because they would have been killed themselves if they had refused. He does not deny that they would have been killed, but he presents their excuses as a kind of attack on humanity. Humanity requires that we not use de-humanized, evasive words like 'destruction' and that we not think of ourselves as having no choice or responsibility, even when threatened with death. Humanity requires a kind of realism, albeit not the kind of realism that would see a coerced person as indeed having no real choice or responsibility. It isn't realistic to say, "What could I do? My hands were tied," because a person whose hands are tied does not just shrug when forced to kill.

Thinking about what it means to be realistic has led me to think about the meaning and ethics of facing death, and of what Wittgenstein says about this in the Tractatus. Here's 6.4311:
Death is not an event in life. One does not live through death.
If one understands eternity not as an endless period of time but as timelessness, then he who lives in the present lives eternally.
Our life is just as endless as our field of vision is limitless.   
The first sentence there is odd. Death certainly is an event in life, i.e. it happens. But it happens to other people: one does not live through one's own death. That's almost a joke. It's hardly news. So my death is not an event in my life in the sense that within the duration of my life the end of that life does not arrive. That is also a tautology or analytic truth that sounds almost like a bit of comforting Epicurean therapy, but anyone who is comforted by tautologies is surely confused.

The next paragraph sounds like the kind of idea that is standardly labeled 'inspirational,' but again it's just playing with words, isn't it? If one takes 'eternity' to mean timelessness then the present, which is not a measurable period of time, is an eternity. So what? We cannot live our whole lives in the present in this sense any more than Zeno's paradoxes mean that we can never reach the door or catch up with a turtle.

And then the comparison of life with the field of vision: Life as we experience it contains no limits because we do not, cannot, experience a limit to our experience. Again this is a tautology. The limit of my field of vision is not part of the field of vision, not one of the things I can see. Any sense of wisdom, insight, or comfort here seems illusory.

There's also this:
6.431 As too at death the world does not change, but rather stops.
This strikes me as false. The world does not stop when I die. I'm not sure what it would means for the world to stop, actually, and if it's a possibility then it might stop at the same time as I die. Not because I am so crucial to the world but rather because if the world ever stops then I will probably not survive. At my death my world will stop, the world as it appears or exists for me will stop, but that's just to say that I will permanently lose consciousness. And 'death' here presumably means something like 'permanent loss of consciousness.' This is not a hypothesis about immortality. 6.431 seems to say nothing, but it is a comment on 6.43, so what does that say?
6.43 If good or evil willing alters the world, then it can only alter the limits of the world, not the facts; not that which can be expressed through language.
In short, the world must then thereby become an altogether different one. It must, so to speak, wane or wax as a whole.
The world of the happy is a different one than that of the unhappy. 
This doesn't sound like nonsense, or empty speech. How might the world of the happy differ from that of the unhappy? Well, one belongs to the happy and the other does not. Is the former in some sense, or in what sense might it be, larger than the other? Some people do have little minds, lacking imagination or much sense of the reality of other people's lives. Their cares are narrowly concentrated on themselves. These are the kind of people we call small or miserable. This section does not feel like a joke, but its apparent content does seem to evaporate on inspection. The benevolent are happy if by 'happy' we mean 'benevolent', and likewise for the malevolent and unhappiness. Is there more here than that?

Does this tell us or show us anything about the ethics of murder or memory or fantasy? I don't think so. It might show that philosophy cannot tell us what is realistic (or good?). Only reality can do that. Can goodness? So far as it, like evil, is part of reality I think it might.


  1. aren't the kinds of changes (in/of the world) relevant to ethics the changes W marks out with 'the world of the happy' / 'the world of the unhappy'? so to say that the world does not change, but stops, at death is to say that death is a limit to change of that sort. it cannot be said to bring a change in our (ethical) condition (say, when wondering about what the afterlife is like, a la socrates' friends in the phaedo), nor can it be considered a way of -changing- our condition (say, escaping despair through suicide).


    1. Thanks, that sounds right. I'm not sure how far it (what Wittgenstein says) gets us, but you are bringing out an aspect of it that I had overlooked.

  2. Doesn't the later Wittgenstein's work have a bearing on the earlier? Wouldn't the later Wittgenstein have said to his earlier self "what do you mean by your uses here?" The use of "eternity" is clearly not what we usually mean nor is the use of a phrase like "the field of vision." The younger Wittgenstein was surely playing loosely with language in a way the older thinker would not have countenanced or, at least, would insisted on his paying more attention to. It's not surprising, then, that Wittgenstein thought he had to return to philosophy despite the sense of completion he initially felt with the Tractatus! It just took him a while to clear up the muddles he himself had fallen into in that earlier time, I think.

    1. Yes, although the Tractatus itself says that its propositions are nonsense. So the muddles may well have been apparent to Wittgenstein at the time. At least some of them.

    2. I think it's reasonable to assume he was conflicted by his own statements like this, yes. Still, I can't get over his own later rejection of the Tractatus in his preface to the PI and the sharp shift his later work takes, much of it seeming to have a bearing on just the kind of talk he was talking in the Tractatus. Surely the older, more seasoned thinker must have looked back with a somewhat jaundiced eye on that younger incarnation of himself and shook his head in a way he no doubt did when punched holes in things his later contemporaries would say along the same lines. Is it unreasonable to think that one ought to side with the older Wittgenstein against his younger self when he, himself, appears to have done something like that?

    3. i have to say, i don't really see what is so obscure about 'eternity' or 'field of vision' here. the sense W is trying to give them may dissolve under pressure, but have you even tried to apply any pressure yet? the way of talking about eternity here is a familiar one. and i take the 'field of vision' remark to assume that our field of vision -is- limited (and what limits it / how is it limited?…), is -not- limitless, so that what is being said is that our life is no more endless than our field of vision is limitless. (the congruence of this way of talking about life as endless/not in connection with death as 'not an event in life', with the diagram of the eye in the visual field, certainly seems pertinent.)

    4. We normally use "field of vision" to denote that which is within the range of our eyes when they are open, operating and in sufficient light to be able to see things, etc. Saying something like "Our life is just as endless as our field of vision is limitless" invokes a different sense, i.e., that wherever we look we can see boundaries but not the boundaries to our field of vision itself because these aren't in our field of vision but rather seve to define it for us. The fact that such boundaries aren't themselves visible doesn't mean they don't exist in the ordinary way we use "field of vision"!

      When my opthalmologist administers an eye exam to determine my visual range when I'm looking straight ahead he doesn't want to know whether I can see the limit or boundary of my visual range! He wants to know what my range is, what its boundaries are. This is determined by my reports of what I am seeing.

      Certainly one can use "field of vision" in the way quoted above, to suggest a certain limitlessness, but it's a specialized use, metaphorical almost, and certainly non-ordinary. Confusing the ordinary with the non-ordinary in this way is what happens when language goes off on holiday, something the later Wittgenstein was generally against!

      This is not to detract from the special insight that comes with realizing that living or existence as an aware organism is like seeing in the sense that it determines the world before us but is not, itself, an observed part of the world. But it does mix uses and can lead to lots of confusion about what there is in the world and what the world, and living in it, actually consists of.

      If the point is to avoid going metaphysical, as I think Wittgenstein very much tried to do in his later period, then falling into the way of speaking exemplified in the Tractatus is not a good way to proceed. That's why so much of the early Wittgenstein seems to many to smack of the mystical, for good or ill, I think.

    5. i think your evangelism for later-wittgensteinianism comes off as exceedingly glib, and out of place. i don't need lessons in what to spend my time on or not spend my time on if they're delivered with no interest in actually teaching anyone anything. surely it can be assumed, on a 'wittgensteinian blog' where the commenters are often all deeply involved in wittgenstein's work, that quick reproaches about 'confusing uses', speaking nonsense, doing metaphysics, etc., accomplish nothing?

      you've delineated a way of understanding the talk about the limitlessness of the visual field, which talk encompasses a potential temptation: if the limits of the visual field are never to be seen within it, then perhaps it is as it were limitless? —but no, understanding the way in which our visual fields are limited (and how their limits determined) shows that there may be a certain emptiness in talking about their limitlessness as if it were the counterpart of their not containing visible determinations of their limits.

      it seems to me that, however secondary or metaphorical or unusual, we've made some sense of that talk. and even done so in a way that appears as if it might provide a useful model for applying to the case of life and death, as seems to be the intent in 6.4311. if the differences between ordinary use and departures from or variations on it are philosophically significant, then articulating an understanding of what a particular departure may involve, and what may tempt someone into making it, would not seem to be a confusion of uses: we do have to talk about both—which we apparently still have to recognize AS uses, whatever their ordinariness or non-ordinariness—in order to mark a difference. (and it's not obvious here that we could succeed in this without ever having to venture into talking about the uses which seem to harbor a potential for emptiness, or if not those, then others: in your own case you end up saying that the boundaries of the visual field 'exist in the ordinary way we use "field of vision"', which seems to me prone to turn out to be a mystifying way of talking about anything at all existing, and later you're moved to talk about 'living or existence as an aware organism… is not, itself, an observed part of the world', which does not seem like it would bear up under much pressure on the ordinary ways we use 'observed'.)

    6. if what is said in 6.4311 about life ('just as endless') is to parallel what is said about the visual field ('limitless'), and if we understand the latter in the complex way articulated here, that (we could say) denies that it fully makes sense (especially on the tractatus' conception of making sense) but recognizes what may go into the temptation to say it as if it made sense anyway (with the background being that the visual field -is- being considered as limited), then the question is what would tempt someone to talk of life as being endless, despite its being quite obviously limited (by death).

      and perhaps this would be suggested by the rest of 6.4311. the obvious candidate for connecting to 'our life is just as endless…' is the first two sentences, which seem to say something relatively unproblematic about not experiencing death (though there is the lingering thing duncan noted: 'not an event in whose life?'). so, with an implication: life has an end, a limit.

      which naturally enough raises a question about the traditional interest in eternal life or the afterlife (connected esp. with the kind of absolutist thinking about ethics from a few remarks ago, esp. in connection with some unusual idea of a non-reward 'reward'), which wittgenstein takes up in an entirely traditional way by reinterpreting the place of eternity/timelessness in a human life in terms of 'living in the present'.

      but the latter had, it seems to me, also accrued a heavy weight of interpretation in the traditions where it had been emphasized, up to wittgenstein's time: with just the kind of mystical readings that seem to have led to investing it (as a kind of safe harbor from within which existential concerns about one's death, the worldly course of one's life etc.) with maybe more than it could sensibly be found to bear. as one might if one connected such 'timeless' interpretation of 'living in the present' with the distinction between experience, had within life, and one's death, an event just said not to be part of one's (own experience of one's) life. perhaps one doing so would derive some kind of profound significance from the thought that for those who live in the present, life is 'endless' (cf. 'limitless').

      but. the final sentence under discussion undercuts such a temptation. you could think of it as trying to de-mysticize the idea of living in the present. because of course life is limited; we die, we have to do all our living 'now'. but it may be that, unmindful of the analogy that can be brought out w/ the model of the visual field and its being limited, we take the implication from this to be that there is -a sense- in which our lives are endless: a sense which these reflections could show to be somewhat empty. and not in a trivial way, rather in a way that carries certain natural temptations despite its emptiness.

      i think it would bear further elaboration in what way this sort of temptation connects back to the remarks about ethical value, changes in the world, etc.

    7. I just noticed your earlier responses to my remark, j. Certainly no aspersion was intended on my part when I expressed a preference for the later Wittgenstein over the earlier and suggested that the later, older thinker would probably have taken the younger one to task. Indeed, I have the strong sense that he might well have found his younger self somewhat intolerable had he encountered him in his later years.

      That said, I don't want to leave you with the impression that I am hostile to or dismissive of the mystical turn or that I think there is no value to be had from thinking about the limits of life and experience in new and different ways. I was, myself, deeply drawn to the Tractatus in my youth -- I think I loved its mystery, the difficulty of grasping every tightly expressed thought and the implications, the sense that it was pointing me toward something beyond what I could say, a knowledge that went beyond the ordinary somehow. In time, though, I lost that awe for it and part of the reason why was the PI.

      I do think that, when we move into the arena claimed, imperfectly, by the Tractatus, we are better off embracing the mystical more fully and not trying to make the issue one of discourse and verbal elaboration. I don't think such insights as are attempted there best achieved or reinforced verbally, even when recognized, at one level at least, as nonsense. Here I think is where approaches like Zen Buddhism offer a better option.

      There certainly is, at least on my view, room for thinking about the really deep things in unorthodox ways but I have come to conclude that such thinking requires a non-linguistic approach because every effort to express such ideas linguistically seems to me to collapse in endless efforts to re-state, clarify, explain and recapitulate thoughts and feelings that really aren't suited to linguistic expression.

      Here, I think, philosophy comes to an end -- and what we call, at least from the outside looking in, the mystical, kicks in.

  3. The statements have to be understood from the perspective of one imbibed with Tolstoy's Gospel and believing that facing death improved his soul and brought him closer to the truth of God. The idea would be that death was part of outerworldliness . To live in the present means to live with the comfort (faith) that time is ultimately irrelevant. One who lives with this peace has a symmetry with the eternal, because time as a condition (state of mind) is neutralized. The propositions are really a state of mind.

    1. By the way, I take 6.43 to only say that God or humans praying to him cannot perform miracles. If either good or evil behavior is to prevail, the way that knowing occurs in the world -- the world being the totality of facts, not of things -- remains the same. Another way of saying it: the assertability conditions for knowing will not change, only the cultural behaviors will.

    2. Tolstoy might well be relevant to what Wittgenstein is getting at here. If the propositions are really a state of mind, though, are they not really propositions? Is Wittgenstein speaking in a kind of metaphor? And is he agreeing with Tolstoy or trying to overcome his way of thinking? Or something else?

      I find myself very confused by the whole book, not really knowing how to begin. At the risk of sounding big-headed my reaction to the book is similar to Frege's: I don't understand what Wittgenstein is saying. And then when I read Wittgenstein writing later in the book that his propositions don't make sense I feel that I am right not to understand. If I stop at that point, as I tend to do, then I have got nothing out of the book and my attempts to read it. But if I try not to stop but to go on then a) I am back to square one, the problem of making sense of each sentence as I come to it, and b) I can't help but wonder what the point of the exercise is. What could I gain by coming to think that nonsensical sentences actually make sense and then overcoming this illusion and realizing that they are actually nonsense? Even Wittgenstein came to think that the book is seriously flawed. I wish that I understood it better, but I don't know that I ever will. I think I lack the necessary patience, and it feels a bit like a spiritual exercise designed for someone very different from me.

    3. DUNCAN: "If the propositions are really a state of mind, though, are they not really propositions?"

      He tells you that they are elucidatory as such.

      DUNCAN: "And then when I read Wittgenstein writing later in the book that his propositions don't make sense I feel that I am right not to understand."

      The propositions are only senseless if you have the right aspect-sight. You have to have climbed the mountain, so to speak, and thrown away the ladder. It's not that the props are senseless; it is that, to see them as such, you will have then understood the book. The main ideas in props 6 are about outerwordliness -- the stuff that can be shown (felt by the devout or pure of heart), but not said as true/false statements (propositions), properly speaking. Only a person who could understand Wittgenstein's state of mind would see the props to be senseless, strictly speaking. His state of mind about the mystical was formed when he god God, Tolstoy's Bible, went to the front to experience a sense of death, and then gave up his wealth. The Tractatus is about aspect change.


      Also, Wittgenstein did not come to think the book was seriously flawed; he came to think that portions of it were. The Tractatus is like an ancient ruin. Much of the old Colosseum still stands in full view after "new Wittgenstein" arrived. I'm thinking here that a perfect analogy is Soldier Field in Chicago.

    4. Sean: "Wittgenstein did not come to think the book was seriously flawed; he came to think that portions of it were."

      How is that so different? Whenever a book is flawed it's because portions of it are, no?

      Isn't it worth considering that he may have been mistaken in some of what he had to say in the Tractatus? Surely, that's the takeaway we get from his comment in the preface to the PI, i.e., that he came to recognize "grave mistakes" in the old work and felt the need to rectify them with the new work. Perhaps there really is a flaw in the idea that one can write something as if one meant it but then assert it really to be nonsense after all? It is certainly a kind of mystical move to assert contrary thoughts, rather in the way Zen Buddhists treat koans. And maybe there's value in doing so (I tend to think there is) but isn't there also a great risk of confusion in doing this, too? If the aim is to be clear in our language, can we make things clearer by invoking contrary thoughts? Zen Buddhists, of course, want to shut down our ordinary language using/thinking mechanism and produce a kind of immediate experience of something they call clarity. But that isn't (or doesn't seem to be) the kind of clarity Wittgenstein urged when he tried to get us to pay closer attention to how we actually use language, how we actually speak and behave.

      I think you're generally right, Sean, to suggest that he was also after a shift in aspects to reorient our way of seeing some things which traditional philosophy conjures up for us into a kind of messy morass, the infamous muddle. But to the extent that he was after clearer thinking he surely wanted clearer use of language and you don't get there by emphasizing contradictions and using language in atypical ways.

    5. Have you tried going through Kelly's discussion here?

      I take is as a paradigm for the kind of exercises the TLP is full of.

    6. Kelly concludes: "When someone comes to see clearly the symbols in a genuine sentence or when someone comes to see that there is nothing that he means by some sentence-like structure, then what was said to get him to see that has no further role to play. All that matters is the person’s clear recognition of the sense or the nonsense."

      Shall we then take it that this was what Wittgenstein meant by his closing remarks about ladders and tossing them away? If so, if the outcome of reading the Tractatus is to say from all that preceded that now we know how silly, meaningless, pointless all this has been, then the book can be said to have succeeded.

      But then why did Wittgenstein later conclude that it contained "grave mistakes" and take a different tack, i.e., one that challenged the very kinds of usages he applied in the Tractaus?

      Granting certain continuities (the interest in language and in delineating the extent of what could be said, the concern for logic in the earlier book, grammar in the later, the emphasis on showing in some cases rather than saying), aren't there also serious divergences between the two works and aren't those divergences the sort that suggest that the writer of the later book would have challenged a great many of the things said in the earlier? Of course, we know Wittgenstein in general acknowledged mistakes in the earlier work but he doesn't specify what they are. With a few exceptions, where he does offer some specifics in the later work in relation to the earlier, he mainly appears content to let us work our way through the thinking of the PI and then, presumably, apply it backwards to the Tractatus as his preface suggests he has done.

      Kelly's piece is great, by the way. He certainly shows how showing works in a case like the one he presents where one cannot quite say what is wrong with the initial statement of the aspiring metaphysician, "there are objects," and yet, by exploring the different ways it can be used, the different logical functions that can be deployed to try to make sense of it, he shows how one can be brought to a point where a point is seen, i.e., that the logic of the original statement doesn't work, the statement is without a sense.

      Thanks for the link.

    7. Thanks, everyone, for the comments, and thanks to Reshef for the link to Kelly Jolley's piece. I have read that but ought to return to it. Instead, at the moment, I find myself with no time even to keep up with comments on my own blog. Hopefully I'll have more time in the next few days.

  4. About your reading of Wittgenstein here: Can you say where you take his insights to be coming from? What are his reasons for making those claims in the 6.4s? – I’m looking for a way to connect those supposed moral insights of Wittgenstein to the rest of the Tractatus, if this is at all possible. Or at least, to identify a background—religious, cultural, or otherwise—that would allow for the testing of those claims.

    The need to test those claims comes from their obscurity. You seem to me to be taking the claims at face value: you take those pronouncements as if they were made by a person in a casual conversation, essentially asking: “What would the person on the street most plausibly be saying if they made such pronouncements?” I feel I can’t do that. I don’t know in what conversation I am in. I am asking you to convince me that I’m in a normal conversation, or else to explain what conversation we’re in in the 6.4s; what the background is that we should be assuming. I feel that since those claims are so obscure, and since I don’t know what the background is against which we should test those claims, if we read the claims at face value (if we assume a man-on-the-street background) we will read too much of ourselves into the text—our views and expectations. We would not allow Wittgenstein’s claims to shape our expectations.

    Am I being too timid?

    1. i had a student once who was very keen on the idea you can get, in various places, that our own deaths are facts of the utmost concern and that we will do anything we can not to consider them. a perspective from which getting people to acknowledge their mortality can become one of the leading items on the philosopher's agenda.

      this seemed to me to be kind of a hard line to take regularly, with credibility, from someone barely in his 20s. (not to say that it couldn't have been quite serious for him.) as if it were suspicious whether the conversations had had their proper time and place yet. i'm reminded of the tractatus being a 'war book'.

    2. I did not mean the historical background. I meant the conceptual scheme, the intellectual exercise, the mental activity, the spiritual purpose.

      What I don't think we have a good enough idea of is what Wittgenstein is even trying to do with those obscure props--the "speech act." Part of what activity are they? - This is why they are so obscure.

      There is a temptation because of that obscurity to just stipulate a context--Kierkegaard, Tolstoy, Schopenhauer, Weininger, the war.

      For what its worth, I think Duncan's innocent stipulation of the-man-on-the-street context is somewhat better than the alternatives I mentioned above.

    3. well, i think the historical background suggests a route from the man-on-the-street context to the part of the conceptual landscape where questions about life and death are located, let's say.

    4. Thing is, those kinds of reading of the TLP remarks in the 6.4s and 6.5s always seem so detached from the rest of the book; or at least detachable. And that's a bad sign.

      It is perhaps possible to read those remarks in light of Kierkegaard, Tolstoy, Schopenhauer, Weininger, or the war. But if that's what one wants to do, then one would probably be better off just reading Kierkegaard, Tolstoy, Schopenhauer, or Weininger, or about the war.

      (Jim Conant makes a similar complaint in his What Ethics in the TLP is Not.)

    5. well, i'm not sure what you think i'm saying, but what i AM saying is that one way to answer 'what conversation am i having?' with an author writing about life and death might be to reflect on the differences in seriousness, let's say, between someone who has been in a war and who has struggled with suicide, and someone who never has and is just reading some philosopher write about those things in a book. that's all. i don't think this amounts to doing any violence to the relevant remarks.

    6. Can't agree here. Props 6 and 7 put 1-5 in their place. 1-5 were significant in their own right. (Actually, it's somewhere inside 6 that would be a better dividing line). Besides, I think a major point is missed when you read the book out of its actual context. Much of what Wittgenstein is doing is drawing a line in the sand between people like Plato, whose metaphysics talked of "forms," and people like Tolstoy, whose metaphysics talked of spirituality. Wittgenstein wanted to say that the former was gassing and that the latter was trying to say something outerworldly , which could only be felt but not asserted as "truth." This is the forgotten line in the sand. People who fail to understand the Tractatus through biography always miss this important distinction. There are 3 quantities in the Tractatus, not two. You have propositions (true, false things), "junk" or gassing, and you have they outerworldliness (can only be shown but not asserted). The devout are therefore excused for what they do, in theory, while the philosophers are not. See my lecture here

    7. J.

      I don’t think one is necessarily doing violence to the remark if one remembers that they were written by a person who struggled with suicide. However, as I see things, in order to get something out of such reading, one first needs to have an idea what these remarks are saying—a first reading, as it were. (Just as when one wants to give Little Red Riding Hood a psychoanalytic interpretation, one first needs to know the story--the different characters, the chain of events, and so on.) The problem is that when it comes to the remarks on ethics in the TLP, I don’t think we have that. We don’t even have a first reading. The book as a whole, but these remarks especially, resists first readings. That’s part of the method in the book—part of how it tries to lure us, ensnare us in the proper kind of reading, the relevant kind of intellectual activity.

      Typically, when people bring in Kierkegaard or Tolstoy etc. or the fact that Wittgenstein struggled with suicide to the reading of the remarks on ethics in the TLP, this is done instead of giving a first reading. Or, it is meant as a first reading. And as such it does do violence to the remarks. In particular, it is a refusal of that resistance to first readings I mentioned, refusal of that difficulty.

    8. well, i am far from having a reading of the tractatus, but i would hope you don't suppose that i am starting from nothing (so that as it were i would eagerly bring stuff in as a replacement for whatever i should have).

      i like the idea of a first reading, but it puts me in mind of some other reading i've been doing lately, with a variety of texts opening up in new ways on several fronts. there, i'm struck by how important parts of things i have ostensibly read have come only recently to seem clear, or to be saying something specific: to have something deserving of the title of 'readings' coalescing around them. at -parts-. and not ones i had previously thought were that important!

      it also strikes me that however much one would like to count as a 'reading' only what orients itself in the right way with respect to certain points across a text as a whole, in practice what appears to be serviceable as 'a reading' takes its bearings from whichever of those more local points of coalescing intelligibility one has managed, or been fortunate enough, to work one's way into. it seems like a willingness to interpret (perhaps in the sense you've talked about recently, involving oneself or putting oneself at stake) might require acceptance of that fact about what happens 'in practice'.

      of course, none of that is very comforting when it comes to a text like the tractatus.

    9. ... to Reshef.

      The Red Riding Hood thing isn't a good comparison. No one is saying that a hidden text exists. The argument is that the failure to understand an autistic personality has consequences upon saying what the person's assertions are.

      Might be helpful to leave it to Bertrand Russell, in his letter to Ottoline. After sitting with Wittgenstein for one week, going through the work line by line, Russell wrote the letter. He had not seen Wittgenstein for six years. He was shocked at what happened to him:

      "I had felt in his book a flavor of mysticism [when he earlier mailed it] … but was astonished when I found he had become a complete mystic. He reads people like Kierkegaard and Angelus Silesius, and he seriously contemplates becoming a monk. It all started from William James’s Varieties of Religious Experience, and grew (not unnaturally) during the winter he spent alone in Norway before the war, when he was nearly mad. Then during the war a curious thing happened. He went on duty to the town of Tarnov in Galicia, and happened to come upon a bookshop, which … seemed to contain nothing but picture postcards. However, he went inside and found that it contained just one book: Tolstoy on the Gospels. He bought it merely because there was no other. He read it and re-read it, and therefore had it always with him, under fire and at all times. ... He has penetrated deep into mystical ways of thought and feeling, but I think (though he wouldn’t agree) that what he likes best in mysticism is its power to make him stop thinking."

    10. j.
      the worry about first reading is not meant as a suggestion that you don’t have one. I don’t take myself to be in a better position. It’s a feature of the book. That’s why I so much like Duncan’s innocent attempt at reading the remarks—at having a first reading: it expresses the need. And Duncan is certainly not new to the book. He translated it!

      Russell’s handling of the Tractatus is often like a tourist in a foreign land looking for Starbucks.

    11. Reshef,

      I can't say that's helpful. He's merely testifying to the differences he sees in Wittgenstein after the war. I wonder which assertion in the letter you think isn't factual? In any event, I suppose no point would be in going further. I just wish people who tried to read the Tractatus with their own mind instead of wondering what was on his mind would at least acknowledge that this is the behavior. That way, we could speak of the Tractatus as it means to those people as opposed to what it meant to the author. So we wouldn't say that 6.4s are read "detached from the book," but rather that the urge to keep the book from being run over by them is simply the orientation of a particular community. If we spoke this way, the matter would more clearly present itself. We have to decide from the outset what the behavior is. Do we read it "as an argument," so that our minds are paramount, or do we read it to know "what is going on inside his head," so that his is paramount (perspectival)? These are different behaviors, and we would do well to speak of them as such. It clears up the confusion when wondering whether 6.4s are detached or not.

  5. You seem to me to be taking the claims at face value

    Yes, I am doing that here. Not so much because I think that the background is irrelevant but because I was just thinking about those remarks on their own. That's probably a mistake. I'm also being influenced (in a way that she might want to distance herself from) by Juliet Floyd's paper "The Uncaptive Eye," in which she writes (p. 87) that with the Tractatus, "One begins with this or that Satzzeichen and comes to see, by thinking, that it has no definite sense." With this in mind I find myself looking for a lack of sense rather than trying first to make sense out of these remarks. It isn't hard to read them as lacking sense, it turns out, but there isn't really any point (that I can see) in doing so. So what I've written above about the Tractatus is sort of a failed experiment in reading.