Sunday, February 9, 2014

Words and symptoms

One way to read a text is as a product of a certain environment, to treat it as symptomatic of the circumstances that produced it. This is to treat it as the effect of various causes. No doubt this can be useful. But it involves looking past the author, who then becomes a mere conduit for other forces. It also involves ignoring any logical connections there might be between parts of the text. This does not follow from that. Instead, both this and that are the result, the effect, of other forces. We are dealing with cause and effect, not reason or intention. It is mechanics, not anything as human as philosophy. Hence, presumably, Heidegger's famous claim that all you need to know about a philosopher's life is that he/she was born, did philosophy, and died. To treat other facts as relevant is no longer to treat the philosopher's work as philosophy, no longer to treat it as something that makes sense on its own terms. Of course not everything does make sense, but we should look for causes of a philosopher's writing this or that only after we have tried and failed to find reasons. At least we should do so according to a certain view of what it means to do philosophy.

In the Notebooks Wittgenstein writes:
1.8.16 Only from the consciousness of the uniqueness of my life arises religion--science--and art.
2.8.16 And this consciousness is life itself. 
I don't know what this means, but it seems related to me to the point in the first paragraph above. God is how things stand, Wittgenstein says in the same place. That suggests a contrast between everything else and the consciousness that is life, between God and me, between the world and me. In what sense is my life unique? It is the only life that is mine. Consciousness of my life as mine is consciousness of myself as the author of my life, as responsible for my actions, as meaning the things I say. This is the consciousness involved in having a life, in living a life rather than simply being alive. I don't think this life, life in this sense, necessarily has to have much of a story to it. But it is the kind of thing about which one might write a biography rather than just do biology. It is also the kind of place where ethics belongs or can get a foothold. It seems as though ethics must somehow be about the relation between the subject and the world, and that the ethical relation must be a harmonious one. What other kind of relation could be good? If anything is wrong then suicide, (regarded as) the rejection of the whole world, is wrong. So the world must be accepted. But what does this mean?

Above all it means not committing suicide, being happy. It is like (I don't mean exactly the same as) Nietzsche's saying yes to everything, even the terrible. But that still recognizes the terrible as terrible. It is certainly not a matter of being happy about the terrible things in the world.

Treating words as symptoms rather than as expressing the meaning of their author is then seemingly anti-life, a rejection of the consciousness of the uniqueness of the subject that is life itself, according to Wittgenstein. (I don't mean that Wittgenstein is necessarily correct, and I haven't thought this through very carefully, but I'm trying to make up for not having blogged all week by posting some things I started and never got around to finishing.)

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