Thursday, October 27, 2016

Saying the same thing

Tommi Uschanov points out that in his 1930 "Sketch for a Foreword" Wittgenstein says that he is "not interested in constructing a building, so much as in having a perspicuous view of the foundations of possible buildings" but then goes on, after this sketch, to say that:
Each of the sentences I write is trying to say the whole thing, i.e. the same thing over and over again; it is as though they were all simply views of one object seen from different angles.
There seems to be a tension here, as Tommi notes. Does Wittgenstein want to see the multiplicity suggested by his reference to "foundations of possible buildings" or the unity of "one object"? He goes on to say the following:
the place I really have to get to is a place I must already be at now. Anything that I might reach by climbing a ladder does not interest me.
     One movement links thoughts with one another in a series, the other keeps aiming at the same spot.
     One is constructive and picks up one stone after another, the other keeps taking hold of the same thing. 
You could free associate until you were blue in the face here. Talk of the same thing over and over reminds me of what Wittgenstein said he wanted to be given to eat when he visited Norman Malcolm (but presumably that's at least mostly irrelevant). Talk of one object seen from different angles reminds me of Wittgenstein's remarks on aspect-perception and on thinking about a stove. Getting to a place you are already at sounds like T. S. Eliot (in 1943, so not what Wittgenstein had in mind). The ladder surely is the ladder mentioned at the end of the Tractatus. The series of linked thoughts also sounds like the Tractatus, while the picking up of stones sounds a bit like Wittgenstein's builders.

The stove passage is from October 8th, 1916:
       As a thing among things, each thing is equally insignificant; as a world each one equally significant. If I have been contemplating the stove, and then am told: but now all you know is the stove, my result does indeed seem trivial. For this represents the matter as if I had studied the stove as one among the many things in the world. But if I was contemplating the stove it was my world, and everything else colourless by contrast with it. (Something good about the whole, but bad in details.) For it is equally possible to take the bare present image as the worthless momentary picture in the whole temporal world, and as the true world among shadows. 
As David Stern says, this is a Schopenhauerian idea.

If Wittgenstein were to say one thing, what might we expect it to be? Here are some candidates:
  • Wow! (Since wonder at the existence of the world is the experience par excellence)
  • It ain't necessarily so (or some kind of liberating word to free us from the grip of some picture) 
  • Try looking at it this way (instead)
The last two of these could go together, and then the result might be the first. Perhaps. It would not obviously be a case of wonder at the existence of the world, but it could involve a sense of liberation and revelation. And when something is revealed to you in a new light you might see it as if for the first time, and so with fresh wonder.

At the BWS meeting in September Chon Tejedor quoted Wittgenstein's saying to Paul Engelmann in 1918 that: "When a man wants, as it were, to invent a machine for becoming decent, such a man has no faith." This machine could be the ladder (the Tractatus) and the remarks from 1930 would be a rejection of any decency (or anything else) that might be gained by climbing this ladder (or using this machine). The problems with the ladder/machine seem to be these:
  1. it takes you to a different place rather than where you already are
  2. it involves a serial movement instead of focusing on one thing
  3. (perhaps) it does (too much of) the work for you
If that is a bad way to attempt to achieve decency then perhaps a good way would:
  1. start and finish where you, in some sense, are already
  2. focus on one thing
  3. make you do the work
Wittgenstein's work early and late makes the reader do a lot of work and thereby in some sense starts and ends with the reader. He doesn't tell you what to think in the manner of a sermonizer or textbook-writer. The Tractatus attempts some leading, though, in a way that perhaps the Investigations does not. The Investigations moves criss-cross over and through the landscape, in a somewhat arbitrary (is that the word?) way. It does not appear to focus on one thing, but it is not a series of remarks that construct anything. It might aim at the same spot from different angles, although what that spot is is not so easy to say. And it might require even more work of the reader than the Tractatus does. Certainly there is no revelation in it of the kind found in Tractatus 6.54 ("Here's how my sentences elucidate: ..."). You might be able to stop reading the Tractatus whenever you get what it is trying to help you see, but you also reach an end point that feels like a conclusion. The Investigations, on the other hand, has no conclusion. Its not being finished doesn't feel entirely coincidental. How would you end a book like that?

But what about the Sketch for a Foreword? Does Wittgenstein say there that he wants one thing or many? It sounds like one thing: to have transparently before him the foundations of possible buildings. Of course, though, there is multiplicity inherent in the idea of possibility, as well as in the plural foundations of buildings that he says he wants to see. Each sentence he writes can perhaps be thought of as an invitation to free oneself. In that sense they are all the same. But freedom implies options (plural), so there is multiplicity too. And what one is freed from might not always be the same thing, even if it is always a prison.

(As you may have noticed, what I've written here is basically just notes. That's blogging for you. It might be interesting to work this out more though, to see where I've gone wrong and where I've got it right, and how it all ties together.)


  1. as is my wont I tend to take steps of the ladder and the 'case' studies , builders shoppers etc, as ways of showing as well as saying, as trying to get us into a new head-space, new aspect dawning, akin to Kierkegaard on indirect communication, as opposed to head to head debate, straightforward logical proofs, or the like.
    Can't see him trying to reduce down the many to One, seems contrary to teaching differences.
    For Love of the Things Themselves: Derrida’s Hyper-Realism

    1. Right, I don't think he's trying to reduce anything. And "new head-space" is about right. Agreed on the indirect communication too. But you (can) teach differences by getting people to see things, by showing things, in a new light, getting them to make different connections. If you keep doing that then you are in a sense always doing the same thing. But I should try to find some examples.


  3. It might be interesting to work this out more though, to see where I've gone wrong and where I've got it right, and how it all ties together.

    You don't say.

    Your candidates for the one thing Wittgenstein might have wanted to say are ingenious, but I think they're projecting a later (Investigations-era) Wittgenstein onto the Wittgenstein of 1930. I don't think the remarks of the latter can be made to fit with such fairly canonical remarks as "There is not a single philosophical method, though there are indeed methods, different therapies, as it were" (PI §133). I think you'll agree that the most natural approach to "Wow!", "It ain't necessarily so" or "Try looking at it this way" would be to view them as three such methods (or as metonyms for three such methods), which is already two too many.

    Note also that in the foreword for which the "Sketch for a Foreword" was a sketch (published as the foreword to the Philosophical Remarks, although it's generally thought today that it doesn't belong there), Wittgenstein says that the spirit he finds alien and uncongenial "tries to grasp the world by way of its periphery – in its variety", while he wants to grasp it "at its centre – in its essence". This looks back to TLP §5.4711: "To give the essence of proposition means to give the essence of all description, therefore the essence of the world." And TLP §6 of course states: "The general form of truth-function is: [p,ξ,N(ξ)]. This is the general form of proposition."

    So he somehow wants to reach the essence of the world again, but with the difference that he doesn't want to reach it by ladder anymore! It is this aspect of the Tractatus-era Wittgenstein that Wittgenstein was looking back on in 1930, not that reflected in the stove passage. For of course in the Tractatus, the world is everything that is the case – not merely that a stove exists or that Wittgenstein contemplates a stove.

    I think that Wittgenstein's thought on these matters was simply in flux in 1929–30, and that this shows in more passages than one. Note, for instance, how he says that he is "not interested in erecting a building", although he had just recently written the famous remark according to which his "ideal" is a "temple providing a setting for the passions without meddling with them". A temple too is a building, and we can hardly think that he meant a temple built for him by somebody else. And there is thus a very similar tension at play here.

    There are also implications for footnote 3 of your new paper, from which we started:

    It is possible that Wittgenstein did not hold this view at all stages of his career, but I am not aware of evidence that would settle this question, and since my focus is more the value of clarity than what Wittgenstein thought, it is not directly relevant.

    Now there is evidence. Perhaps it's not directly relevant, but I think that if Wittgenstein did not hold the view at all stages of his career, that is indirectly as relevant as anything can be. I can't help thinking that the fact that practically none of these early metaphilosophical remarks survived even into the Big Typescript, much less the Investigations, shows that they should not be identified with "Wittgenstein", even with the addition of a disclaimer. (People have a tendency to equate Wittgenstein with what they themselves get out of Wittgenstein. Even Kripke did so in the misleading title of his book, although he put a much stronger disclaimer inside.)

    1. I think you'll agree that the most natural approach to "Wow!", "It ain't necessarily so" or "Try looking at it this way" would be to view them as three such methods (or as metonyms for three such methods), which is already two too many.

      I'm not sure I do. Of the three only "Try looking at it this way" sounds like a method, and this is echoed in Wittgenstein's later work. The Investigations, it seems to me, invites the reader to see and think differently. And in 1947 (CV p. 61 or 70, depending on the edition) he writes that the philosopher says "Look at things like this!" So this seems like something that Wittgenstein would say, not just the Wittgenstein of 1930. (The philosopher mentioned here might not be him, of course, but, well, I think it is. The paragraphs that follow suggest this to me anyway.)

      I think that Wittgenstein's thought on these matters was simply in flux in 1929–30, and that this shows in more passages than one.

      That's a very reasonable thing to think. I was trying to see whether I could find a coherent, non-flux reading. It may well not be possible though. (And such a reading might be incorrect as far as what Wittgenstein was actually thinking even if it could be found.)

      People have a tendency to equate Wittgenstein with what they themselves get out of Wittgenstein.

      Very true. I should beware of doing this.