Tuesday, June 10, 2014

Because it is terrible

In the Remarks on Frazer (pp. 2-3) Wittgenstein writes:
     Frazer says it is very difficult to discover the error in magic and this is why it persists for so long—because, for example, a ceremony which is supposed to bring rain is sure to appear effective sooner or later.
     But then it is queer that people do not notice sooner that it does rain sooner or later anyway.
     I think one reason why the attempt to find an explanation is wrong is that we have only to put together in the right way what we know, without adding anything, and the satisfaction we are trying to get from the explanation comes of itself.
     And here the explanation is not what satisfies us anyway. When Frazer begins by telling us the story of the King of the Wood of Nemi, he does this in a tone which shows that something strange and terrible is happening here.  And that is the answer to the question “why is this happening?” : Because it is terrible.  In other words, what strikes us in this course of events as terrible, impressive, horrible, tragic, &c., anything but trivial and insignificant, that is what gave birth to them. 
Here Wittgenstein implies that the attempt to find an explanation of magical behavior is wrong but then almost immediately appears to offer an explanation of his own. We could respond to this seeming hypocrisy by saying that these are just notes, and they are, but this is from the early part of the book, not the later part that consists of what Rush Rhees calls "rough notes", and this material was dictated to a typist, so it isn't just notes.

It might help to look at the original German: das hat diesen Vorgang ins leben gerufen--that called this procedure [Klagge and Nordmann have 'incident'] into life. I think we have to take this as something other than a causal hypothesis. (This is confirmed by remarks on p. 8 and p. 9.) Wittgenstein wants to understand not why a particular form of behavior happened to begin but why it persisted, why its first occurrence was the beginning of something that continued to occur. And his answer is: because it is something that strikes human beings as highly significant, as not in the least bedeutungslos. This is not an hypothesis but something we know, because we feel it too. And it is not an explanation of anything, but it provides the satisfaction that we (mistakenly) look for in explanations. All that we need to do in such cases is to arrange what we know in the right way and then allow the facts to strike us, allow ourselves to feel in response to these facts (and their arrangement, but the relevant arrangement just is, I take it, the one that makes us respond in this way). Then, I almost wrote, there is no mystery. But of course there is a mystery. The mystery, though, is not why people would behave in this way. The mystery is in the behavior and is the answer to our question. People do this sort of thing because it is mysterious or, perhaps better, powerfully uncanny. They aren't trying to be obscure, after all. They want meaning, and this kind of thing provides a powerful sense of meaning.

Wittgenstein rejects as inevitably unsatisfactory attempts to explain magic and religion. Religious actions, he writes, can be 'explained' and cannot be explained (p. 4). What he offers, I take it, is an 'explanation' but not an explanation. It appeals to an inclination in ourselves, an inclination that we might call the ceremonial or ritualistic in contrast to the animal:
one might begin a book on anthropology in this way : When we watch the life and behavior of men all over the earth we see that apart from what we might call animal activities, taking food &c., &c., men also carry out actions that bear a peculiar character and might be called ritualistic. (p. 7)         
(This is reminiscent of the distinction in the Lecture on Ethics between the trivial/relative and the ethical/absolute. Nonsensicality belongs to the essence of ethical expressions, just as inexplicability belongs to the essence of magical actions. Indeed Wittgenstein identifies the ethical and the religious in the Lecture on Ethics (and says that ethics is about the meaning of life) and the magical and the religious (which are also about meaning) in the notes on Frazer. I don't mean that what he said about ethics in 1929 is exactly what he said about magic in 1931, but there are connections. And I'm not saying that they are not identical either. I need to read and think about this more.)

It is in this sense that "Frazer is much more savage than most of his savages" (p. 8), because Frazer is closer to being stuck in animal mode, understanding magic only as an ineffective way to get food, etc.  But even he uses words like 'ghost' in his explanations of "savage" behavior. He is still human, after all, despite his modernity and his Englishness. And so he is still somewhat in touch with what is frightening and terrible in the stories he relates, qualities they acquire from the evidence:
from the thought of man and his past, from the strangeness of what I see in myself and in others, what I have seen and have heard. (p. 18)    
I should have a conclusion here but I'd rather just repeat "the strangeness of what I see in myself" to fade. And to connect this with Wittgenstein's famous earlier remark to Paul Engelmann:
And this is how it is: if one does not endeavor to express the inexpressible, then nothing gets lost. But the inexpressible will be — inexpressibly — contained in what has been expressed. 
A good description of the facts of the case concerning the King of the Wood of Nemi loses nothing but contains the inexpressibly terrible. Because the facts themselves are terrible. Not in some absolute way, but to us. As long, that is, as we are sufficiently strange (i.e. normal).


  1. is meaning really what we are after or the satisfactions of various impulses and anxieties related to making our ways in/of the world?

    1. Could they be the same thing? I'm not sure exactly what 'meaning' means in this context.

    2. yes that's a good question, I guess in this context I was thinking of something along the lines of a high-school teacher asking a student to write an essay on what the poem in question "means" as opposed to say how did it hit/effect the student as a reader or such.

    3. I see. Yes, I don't think Wittgenstein is, or should be, talking about meaning in that sense. Human sacrifice isn't meaningful or significant in the sense of standing for or representing something. I mean, it might represent something but that isn't what gives it meaning in this sense. Significance is a better word, probably. And its significance is a matter of its striking us a certain way, namely as significant. Which is not very informative, but there you are. It is non-trivial, but if anyone asked why it was not trivial there really wouldn't be much you could tell them.

    4. Well you could tell them it's non-trivial in a moral sense, recognizing that we don't generally consider moral stances non-trivial. Of course societies (and so, their members) may differ as to the moral implication of human sacrifice. Presumably a society which condones it or actively makes use of the practice will claim it is important to propitiate the divinities, etc., and that we/they have an obligation, on a par with the moral, to do so, while societies which deplore the practice will see it as wrong because it's immoral (and have their own reasons for saying so). Ascertaining the role of "moral" in the different cases may well show that each side has a different feature or basis for its claim in mind. But it's not quite right, I don't think, to say we could not say why this sort of thing, whatever position we take on it, isn't trivial. Perhaps it's only because human life is never a trivial question for human beings though. It's not like saying 'well everybody dies' because, in the case of human sacrifice, everyone doesn't, at that point, anyway. And even the claim that "everyone dies" is only trivial in one sense. In another it's among the most significant we can conceive of.

    5. even the claim that "everyone dies" is only trivial in one sense. In another it's among the most significant we can conceive of.

      Yes, I agree. And I agree that human life is never trivial for human beings. But if you have to explain that to someone then there isn't going to be much common ground on which to build explanations of other things we do and care about. Or so I would think.

    6. But it seems to be trivial for some human beings, at least when it's not theirs, and that's where the problem is, isn't it? We want to find a way to say to those folks (and, alas, sometimes even to ourselves) why concern for another's life (or interests) isn't or shouldn't be trivial to them? That's the moral issue at bottom, I think. The rest is about conventions and utility playing by various sets of rules.

    7. Yes, but I'm not sure that saying something, in the sense of giving information, is the way to do it, nor even the way we think we want to try to do it. It's more a matter of waking people up, or something like that. This may well involve words, of course, and even facts, but it isn't simply a matter of communicating facts. That's if it's possible at all, of course.

    8. I think you're right that there are some people who cannot, in practice, be reached. Perhaps even in principle. But most don't fall into that category though perhaps some who can be reached require a lot more work than others. I also agree that it's more like waking someone up than making a logically compelling argument (with deductive certainty). But language is sufficiently open ended and complex for that. The logical paradigm isn't, I think, even definitive for argument per se when conceived as one means of communication. We can argue successfully for things by using words and claims to bring people around to see things in a different way. And I think that's what moral argument turns out to be. We want to give someone (or ourselves at times) reasons to adopt a different perspective, to look at a situation in a different way. So I don't think we want to say that you just can't make a moral argument about something like human sacrifice. Even if a given society has justification for it that makes sense in their "world" I think one could (albeit with a lot of work) bring members of such a society around to deploring it. One just has to have the right grounds in mind with which to reach them and then state those grounds in a way that does. I tried to make that case here http://ludwig.squarespace.com/volume-15/logic-and-moral-discourse-revised.html just recently. Whether I've succeeded yet is of course still an open question. But I do think that there's room for moral argument, that it's not just about where we happen to stand at any given moment in any given social context, period.

    9. Oh yes, there is room for moral argument. It just isn't like all other kinds of argument. And it isn't guaranteed to work (perhaps no kind of argument is). Arguing with people who don't already see killing people as a big deal seems especially likely to be unproductive, but I don't mean that it's bound to fail.

  2. I would say moral arguments are not like arguments about observable facts which, admittedly, are a large part of what we talk about and, as Brandom argues (I have been reading Robert Brandom of late, for good or ill), and such arguments about facts represent a kind of core component of language. (He argues, contra Wittgenstein, that language does have a "downtown" and that it is the assertoric statements, the statements about facts that we can make and which support our conceptual life.)

    Of course factual claims are inevitably mixed in with value claims in real cases but Brandom makes the point that even factual claims are "normative" at bottom (that is, they take their meaning from the inferential relations that surround them). As such, even factual claims can be taken down to some sort of practical activity and here, he seems to suggest, both factual (or assertoric) claims and value claims come to rest on the same ground, the things a speaker does and is prepared to do. So perhaps it's a mistake to suppose that arguments about values are of a fundamentally different order than arguments about facts. And here the issue seems to be what is arguing, itself, about?

    Brandom suggests it's about the commitments we are prepared to make to one another and to acknowledge and so, finally, about what we are prepared to do. Concepts, he argues, stand on practical relations. If so, there would be small reason to suppose that arguments which rest on factual agreement or on deductive logic are any more basic (as a paradigm of knowledge) than arguments used for prompting, as in getting another to see things in a different way.

    If there is a clear path to doing that in the moral case, then moral discourse and debate following that path is no less reliable or basic in our lives than arguments about facts. And then why should we think (and some of us do sometimes think this way) that if a moral claim cannot be supported by factual evidence or syllogistic logic, there is no intelligible basis for making it at all, i.e., that it's just a matter of the sentiments any of us happen to hold at any given time?

    I guess I want to say that there is a way to make moral arguments soundly and convincingly and that it is not obstructed by the fact-value dichotomy nor are moral arguments merely relegatable to some specially carved out niche for them, isolated from the kind of stuff we are sometimes urged to think of as real knowledge.