Wittgenstein's Bastard

Waxing - and Waning - Philosophic


An investigation into the utility (or futility) of seeking meaning in a quasi-post-modern world.

In his famous Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, Wittgenstein sought to design a philosophical system encompassing everything logic could show. He concluded, "That of which we cannot speak, we must pass over in silence." Even though the phrase is a tautology, it is still wrong. Our aim is to speak of that which Wittgenstein could not: the illogical majesty of the universe, the nature of its creator and the meaning of man's being all wrapped up in it.

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Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus: German-English Text





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Friday, May 26, 2006

Rambling about Goldstein

Jeff Goldstein's been writing about intentionalism (eg here and here), and as someone who got out of the narratology biz sometime back - to the extent I was ever in it, I'm not going to get into any great debates about the subject matter. But there are a few ideas I think need to be tossed out for consideration as regards the imposition of meaning by interpretative communities. When Goldstein refers to intentionalism and the idea that utterances have the meaning intended by the utterer, he offers what strikes me less as a physical law than as a useful traffic rule.

There is the notion that when we speak, we know what we intend to say. There is the notion that when an author writes, he knows the message he would broadcast or the tale he would tell. This doesn't always work. Writing on this blog - and to a lesser extent the Turkeyblog, I am often surprised by where I wind up based on my starting premise. I am even at times surprised to discover things about my beliefs about the world that I hadn't previously considered. Language has a way of creating meaning. By imposing an orderly but constrained framework on our thoughts, it forces us to make long-term and spur-of-the-moment decisions not only about how to express what we think but about what we actually believe. The same goes for those thoughts we leave unvoiced. We are advised, "Know thyself," but most of us don't, and many would be quite surprised at the picture of their thought left by their choice of words - including choice of subject, approach to argument, and so on.


It is extremely problematic to believe to wholeheartedly in intentionalism as a way of locating actual meaning, because it involves the bizarre assumption that the average person knows what he is talking about. At the same time, it has a clear advantage over listening to select interpretative communities, especially when listening to the latter requires removing from the utterer any benefit of the doubt as regards his intentions: the people listening aren't usually that much more credible than the people talking. There is a disconnect between our experience of language and our experience of the world that makes the marvel just how much we can communicate, even if imperfectly.

The place where we really run into trouble is when the communication seems clearest. Anger. Passion. Joy. Hope. When a speech or a work of literature truly moves us, it taps into that part of our thinking that goes beyond interpreted language to the accelerated heartbeat, the flushed cheeks, a physical response to airy language. Many people might be moved by a novel, but all in different ways. Because while the overall set of intertwined signifiers points to something magnificent, we each experience those signifiers in a different way.

Some people see in the American flag a symbol of freedom. Others see a symbol of oppression. Two grown men may unconsciously associate the American flag with starting class with the Pledge every morning when they were second graders. The first man wanted to stay home and draw airplanes and has no idea why the sight of the flag - symbol of liberty - weighs heavy on his heart and makes him feel tired. He's a bit of a hippy and wary of anything done in the name of God and country. The second man, from a dysfunctional family, found in the recitation of the Pledge the first bits of order in his day. Now he's a cop and has no idea of the real reason he so reveres the flag, nor of how the source of his reverence prompts him to fervently pursue justice for all but with less thought for liberty. What do you do when these two men get into an argument about, say, the war on terror? Neither one of them knows the source of their own arguments, much less grasps emotionally the arguments of the other.

We are all subject to this problem of understanding what meaning means. Of determining what signifiers actually signify. And the killer is that it isn't confusion about the signifiers that hampers us. It's that each of us has an individual language where the things that matter most are also the most difficult to define because of the flavor of meaning they contain owing to us knowing them through necessarily unique experiences.

Once upon a time, I tried to be a practical realist, knowing that meaning was unstable and absolute truth unlikely to be found, but that we had to make an effort to get at some idea of what was really there. But I keep drifting back to the postmoderns, because I think they're right about the nature of meaning, even if they're wrong about everything else. The practical realists are right, of course, that we have to seek some notion of tentative truth, have to believe some meaning can be extracted from our shared experiences of the world. Were it not so, language - even with its imperfections - could not exist. But there's one underlying problem with the practical realists, and it sums up nicely: In a world of unstable interpretations, the thing the practical realists need to guard against most is the thing postmodernism warns against most stronly: subjectivity, or the imposition of meaning through force.

When academics discover racism and utterers declare innocence, there are plainly multiple meanings being given to a select set of signifiers. The problem is not the multiplicity of meanings - doubtless the speaker spoke and the listeners heard and they all had experiences of meaning with greater and lesser degrees of shared understanding. The problem, rather, is one of power. Should utterers be able to force listeners to absorb sets of signifiers that combined they find offensive? Should listeners, relying on their responses to signifiers, be able to impose new signifiers upon an original utterer when he claims not to have meant what they understood? If I use a derogatory term in reference to a Black person, I am doubtless imposing a signifier upon him, am giving him a meaning that I am not entitled to place upon him. But the same is true when we call someone a racist without sufficiently clear provocation.

In the world of literature, intentionalism provides us with a way to avoid having every book be a book about the oppression of homosexuals just because the chair of the department is gay and has issues. It also provides us with a way to dig deeper into the original thought processes that generated a highly complex set of signifiers that provoked in us an emotional response. When we're dealing with a book by a long dead author, having these debates is a way to see how we each comprehend and respond to the world differently. In this circumstance, it is fair to say that some interpretations are better than others. In particular, if one critic offers different interpretations for every work he encounters but another always discovers the same story, we can conjecture that the first critic may be responding more to the work, while the second is interacting less with the individual works than with the frame of reference within which he reads. Still, we cannot absolutely privilege one meaning over all others, but must instead accept that that which is most commonly held may have a grain of truth in it - just as the cliché has its power in that it wouldn't be a cliché were it not so widely held.

Outside the world of literature - and literature from long ago - we run into a circumstance that requires a different treatment: The matter is no longer academic - to use the term in the pejorative sense. When we debate about what it means to keep Sophocles in the curriculum, we are debating about how we as a culture create, interpret and extend meaning. And we, as a culture, will eventually wind up imposing a view, just as we impose the leadership of a party upon those who oppose it, the hearing of popular songs upon those who don't like them and even, by vote of the marketplace, the choice of muffins one finds at Starbucks. But these aggregate decisions, filtered across time and space, are of a different order than what one finds in a confrontation between a living individual and an interpretative community. A man judged racist may lose the means to feed himself, feed his family and express his unique but not unworthy understanding of the world through the life he chooses to live. For this reason, when we move from imposing signifiers upon works to imposing them upon people, we must take care.

In the political correctness debates, some people like to fling about careless language to prove that they can. They are wrong, and their auditors are right to be suspect about their motives. But that careless language includes both epithets and charges of racism, sexism, homophobia and all the rest. In this environment, we ignore the postmodernists' warnings about subjectivity - about imposing meaning because we can - at our peril. We must, rather, observe the Golden Rule, and respond to the utterances of others with the greatest measure of generosity we can offer, assuming the best and understanding that if we wish to debate no holds-barred with bold charges and bold language, we have to expect the same in return, but that if we expect others to be careful of our feelings and sympathetic in their bearing we must first extend this courtesy on our part.

In other words, and to end, when we move from debates about meaning to debates about the worthiness of individual people based on the things they express, the usual rules about finding meaning must go. At this point, the meaning of signifiers is too personal and the possibility for oppression by interpretation is too great. When we reach this point, we must work to depersonalize the debate, moving away from charges about the nature of the person we are addressing and toward the dissection of the arguments they present as we understand them with the necessary caveats about talking at cross purposes. Only in this way can we assure the academic freedom necessary to take on the big ideas and avoid the twin messes of debate silenced or points of view silenced.

posted by gbarto at 5:13 PM

Monday, May 22, 2006

As you think...

Notes Fuzzy Signals (from some time ago):
By contrast, for generative thinking, a positive frame of reference pays off. In tracking brain waves and through other experiments, cognitive psychologists demonstrate that we perceive more options and opportunities when we're in a positive mindset, and far fewer when we're in a negative or depressed fame of thinking. Moreover, therapies that force us to dwell too long on the past (like many psychoanalytical techniques) can make us too passive about our future and embittered by our victimhood. Our lived experiences confirm this as well. We've all felt a deep sense of "stuckness" when we're depressed, that dark place where solutions seem elusive and where every option seems either wrong or undesirable.
This sounds exactly like what James Allen was saying about disposition in As a Man Thinketh, and it fits to a T what his spiritual - though not actual - descendant, Marc Allen, pushes in everything from The Millionaire Course to The Type-Z Guide to Success. What Fuzzy Signals offers is a concern that we're hardwired for "adaptive thinking" - watching for dangers and threats and figuring out how to respond to them - rather than "generative thinking" - figuring out how to envision or shape what isn't but could be. What Marc Allen and other take-it-easy self-help gurus push is, in effect, expanding or harnessing the "generative" mindset - an antidote to this tendency.

What is worrying is that while Fuzzy Signals shows us the need for and logic of seeking ways to increase our "generative thinking," she doesn't tell us what to do about the millions - billions - who find their thinking normal enough (as it is) instead of reading self-help books to find out how we could all be better.

Wittgenstein tells us the world is the sum of facts - and not things. The post-modernists would tag onto this that facts are unstable things, all of us having different ones. And Fuzzy Signals tells us that the facts we're likely to find are the ones about protecting ourselves, not reaching out and building new things.

Are the Islamists hard-wired to fear cultural interchange with us?

Is the West hard-wired to fear Islam?

In other words, is the almost ubiquitious fear of the other the result of us all constructing worlds - emotional and mental universes - that arise when human beings think they know what they see but don't in fact even know why or what they're looking for?

My question, I confess, doesn't really offer any particularly new insights. We've know that babies smile at people who like them for years, for example. But here's the thing: What Fuzzy Signals tells us is that there is a way out. It's just that it's not "sensitivity training," so much as "generative thinking" that needs to be optimized.

The scarier thing for our politics is to wonder how many of our leaders - in government and business alike - think they're making the tough choices in tough times when what they're in fact doing is letting a fear mindset constrain their visions and set us on paths designed only to keep danger at bay a while, rather than preparing us for glorious things in the future.

The next time you read of troops being dispatched, layoffs announced or other such gloomy news, be sure to stop and wonder if fear or hope drove the decision and whether the choices were tough because life is tough or - sadly - because our race conspires inadvertently to make it so.

Now if you'll excuse me, I'm getting back to my Instant Self-Hypnosis books, so that I, at least, can live in a world where things look a little better.

posted by gbarto at 10:38 AM

Thursday, May 11, 2006

Watching television with Wittgenstein?

Yup, someone did a Tractatus of television viewing. Link here.

posted by gbarto at 7:44 PM

What is time like?

I seem to recall a moment in the Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy trilogy in which it was noted that time is even worse than space to get lost in. (Probably, it was in Life, the Universe and Everything.) Scott Adams sent out the call for thoughts on how the universe started. I'm not sure if I believe in it, but I don't see why time couldn't curve in on itself the way space does, in which case everywhere and nowhere would be the point of origin, depending on your perspective. I commented:
When all is said and done - to pick a highly inapt phrase - eternity is probably like infinity, curving around and into itself. Note that like infite space, infinite time is probably not exactly uniform. There are probably bubbles, pockmarks. But where (or when) they are probably shifts.
For those seeking a mix of confusing prose and still more confusing reasoning, the rest of the comment is here.

posted by gbarto at 7:04 PM