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Strip Teasy: Wittgenstein and Joyce

Die Sprache verkleidet den Gedanken.

1.This statement from section §4.002 of the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus (1921/2), which Pears and McGuiness translate as ‘language disguises thought’, sets the terms of the early Wittgenstein’s philosophy of language. Drawing on the immediate context, we could parse it as follows: ‘everyday/ordinary language (Umgangssprache) hides the true identity of the proposition (der Satz)’. ‘So much so’, the next sentence continues, ‘that from the outward form of the clothing it is impossible to infer the form of the clothed thought beneath it, because the outward form of the clothing is not designed to reveal the form of the body, but for entirely different purposes.’ This is a perfectly good translation. Yet by deleting the word ‘clothed’ (bekleideten) from the first clause—because it seems redundant?—Pears and McGuiness downplay the poetic logic of the original which follows a thread of phonetic-orthographic associations peculiar to German: ‘verkleidet’ (disguises) links to ‘Kleides’ (clothing or dress) and to ‘bekleideten’ (clothed but also dressed up), reinforcing the idea of ordinary language as a cover or mask that needs to be stripped away.

1.1 It is as if, for the early Wittgenstein, the following three sentences disguise the essential thought or propositional content, namely, that the speaker’s female biological parent died on, say, 12 December 1992:

Mum passed away today.
Mother kicked the bucket today.
Maman died today.

In fact, Wittgenstein had no interest in recasting such sentences in an apparently more transparent or neutral everyday idiom. He wanted to re-write them in an alternative quasi-algebraic notation or propositional calculus that would make the logical form of the thought explicit (e.g. ‘aRb’).

1.1.2 This was also the dream of the early twentieth-century positivists who attempted to turn philosophy into a rigorous science by developing what Bertrand Russell in 1918 called a ‘logically perfect language’ that could serve as a ground for all empirically verifiable truth-claims (25). Though Russell claimed Wittgenstein as an ally in this venture in his introduction to the English edition of the Tractatus (1922), he was at best an awkward fellow-traveller—the anecdote about Wittgenstein reading Rabindranath Tagore to the members of the Vienna Circle in the late 1920s reflects the testiness of his relationship to the more mainstream positivists. Whereas they tended, for instance, to see their perfected calculus as an alternative to the inherent illogicality of ordinary language, he insisted that ‘all the propositions of our everyday language, just as they stand, are in perfect logical order’ (§5.5563). The trouble was that this apparent or simply opaque logic (the clothing) was designed for purposes other than revealing the real logic of the thought (the unadorned body)—hence the need for a more transparent notation that would make the underlying logical form visible.

2. Section §4 of the Tractatus begins with a statement that goes some way towards explaining why Wittgenstein felt this was necessary:

§4.  A thought is a proposition with a sense.

A ‘proposition with a sense’, we soon learn, is one that in some way corresponds to ‘reality/truth’ (Wirklichkeit), though here too his thinking took took an unorthodox turn:

§4.01 A proposition is a picture of reality.
  A proposition is a model of reality as we imagine it.

Few card-carrying early positivists would have felt comfortable with the second claim. For Wittgenstein, however, pairing these two statements held open the possibility that propositions might be true or false, or at least falsifiable. So, on his account, ordinary language needs to be stripped away not because it is inherently illogical but because it hides the logic of sense-making propositions, which may be true or false, and therefore interferes with our capacity to represent reality/truth either as it is or as we imagine it to be.

2.1 Wittgenstein may have been more tolerant of uncertainty than most positivists, but he set himself as firmly against radical scepticism as they did. Defining his own conception of philosophy in a brief aside, he invoked (only to reject) the most extreme linguistic sceptic of the early twentieth century, the Austro-Hungarian writer-philosopher Fritz Mauthner:

§4.0031 All philosophy is a ‘critique of language’ (though not in Mauthner’s sense).

In the opening of his monumental Beiträge zu einer Kritik der Sprache (Contributions to a Critique of Language, 1901-02), Mauthner declared in Weiler’s translation:

‘In the beginning was the word’. With the word men stand at the threshold of the knowledge of the world and they remain standing there if they stay attached to the word. (272)

At best, for Mauthner, language articulates a linguistic community’s ‘fable convenue’ (literally ‘agreed fable’) of the world (Kritik, I, 25). Rejecting the idea that it could be re-designed to offer a secure ground for knowledge, he insisted it could only be destroyed—hence the motto on his book plate: ex-libris‘Whoever does not recognise and break the tyranny of language, is not free.’ By contrast, for the early Wittgenstein, language stripped of its everyday opacities can ‘picture’ or ‘model’ reality/truth either as it is or as we imagine it to be. For the purposes of this post, I’ll leave aside the question of what exactly the difference between Wittgenstein’s ‘imagined reality/truth’ and Mauthner’s ‘agreed fable/fiction’ might be.

3. Wittgenstein mostly relied on visual metaphors like Bild (generally translated as ‘picture’) to describe how propositions correspond to reality/truth, but he also proposed a series of other analogies. At one point he turned to the technologies of sound reproduction:

gramophone

§4.014 A gramophone record, the musical idea, the written notes, and the sound-waves, all stand to one another in the same internal relation of depicting that holds between language and the world.

At another he invoked the history of writing systems:

§4.016 In order to understand the essential nature of a proposition, we should consider hieroglyphic script, which depicts the facts that it describes.

       And alphabetic script developed out of it without losing what was essential to depiction.

Anticipating and partly explaining these analogies, he noted:

§4.011 At first sight a proposition—one set out on a printed page, for example—does not seem to be a picture of the reality with which it is concerned. But no more does musical notation at first sight seem to be a picture of music, nor our phonetic notation (the alphabet) to be a picture of our speech.

       And yet these sign-languages prove to be pictures, even in the ordinary sense, of what they represent.

In German, the shift from ‘phonetic notation’ to ‘alphabet’ to ‘speech’ is more suggestive as we move from Lautzeichen-Schrift (literally ‘sounded-signs-script’, e.g. IPA) to Buchstaben-Schrift (‘letters-script’ or more literally ‘book-staves-script’) to Lautsprache (‘sounded-speech’). By setting out the first two as ‘Lautzeichen- (Buchstaben-) Schrift’, Wittgenstein implied that both forms of writing can be understood as direct transcriptions of speech.

4. The main purpose of all this analogizing is clear enough. Re-working Russell’s logical atomism, Wittgenstein wanted to show how c-sharpdiscrete propositions map on to discrete facts, the ‘totality’ of which constitute ‘the world’, as the opening of the Tractatus has it (§1.1) – hence the first statement: ‘The world is everything that is the case’ (§1). Stripped of its everyday disguises and re-analysed as a transparent propositional calculus, he believed ‘language’ could represent ‘the world’  in this sense just as the symbol for C♯, or the groove in a gramophone record, represents the sound produced by, say, a specific key on the piano: different systems or notations, in other words, but the same one-to-one relationship. On his account writing corresponds to speech in the same way.

4.1 This last turn in his analogizing did not bode well. For one thing, hieroglyphs, like early Chinese pictograms, very quickly lost their pictorial character as scribes adopted many stylized conventions to deal with the problem of expressing complex facts or abstractions. For another, the frequency of, say, middle C♯ is precisely measurable (it ‘stands for’ 277.18 Hz); whereas the sound the letter C ‘represents’ is notoriously slippery (think only of the three English words ‘cat’, ‘circle’ and ‘chase’).  True, English is one of the most opaque ‘alphabetic’ systems. The sounds ‘r – eye – t’ rendered as /rʌɪt/ in IPA, for instance, can be written as ‘write’, ‘right,’ ‘wright’ or ‘rite,’ none of which can be thought of as ‘a picture of our speech’ in any straightforward sense. But even more transparent languages, like German and Italiando not represent sounds in a simple one-to-one fashion (consider the German phrase ‘sechs schulen’ – ‘six schools’, pronounced ‘zex shoolin’).

5. Finnegans Wake puts Wittgenstein’s analogizing under more pressure. This is not just because Joyce devised a maze of improbable graphemes that rarely map onto a single meaning, or even language, let alone a specific phoneme. Whatever it is Wakese is not ‘a picture of our speech’ (see Fourth Proposition). Nor is it only because Joyce had some sympathy for Mauthner’s linguistic scepticism (see Chapter 3 of the book). It is because he challenged the early Wittgenstein’s conception of ordinary language by comically embellishing his clothing analogy, restaging it as a dubiously sexualized encounter between a ‘lady’ and an ‘ornery josser, flat-chested fortyish, faintly flatulent and given to Lady's Picratiocination by syncopation in the elucidation of complications’ (Wake, 109). On being introduced to the ‘lady’, the ‘josser’, who is one of the Wake’s many bad male readers, immediately imagines stripping off her ‘definite articles of evolutionary clothing’ so he can ‘vision her plump and plain in her natural altogether’ (109). Indifferent to her ‘local colour and personal perfume’—that is to the singular history and intricacies of each language, writing system or idiom—he also fails to see ‘that the facts of feminine clothiering are there all the time or that the feminine fiction, stranger than the facts, is there also at the same time, only a little to the rere’ (109). By implication, for Joyce, the empress only has clothes, that is, ordinary language can never be completely stripped away, exposing the logical form in its pure unadorned state. Equally, there is no simple way of disentangling facts from fiction, or, in Wittgenstein’s terms, ‘reality/truth’ as it is and as we imagine it. When it comes to knowledge, and much else besides, all we have is ordinary language ‘in all its featureful perfection of imperfection’ (109).

5.1 Reading the Tractatus alongside the Wake makes the notorious split in Wittgenstein’s early philosophy less puzzling than it might at first seem. Seen in Joyce’s terms, the apparently abrupt turn towards ethics and mysticism in the final pages is all of a piece with Wittgenstein’s worries about the opaque logic of ordinary language and his effort to devise more transparent alternative. The mystical (or Kantian?) Wittgenstein who insists that the ‘solution to the riddle of life in space and time lies outside space and time’ (§6.4312) and that ‘ethics is transcendental’ (§6.421) repeats the gestures of the semi-positivistic Wittgenstein who claims that ordinary language ‘disguises thought’ (§4.002) and that ‘logic is transcendental’ (§6.13). Rehearsing an impulse deeply embedded in the European philosophical tradition, he turns his back on what Joyce calls the imperfect ‘citye of Is’ (601), positing an idealized City of Ought as the locus of all value in much the same way as he a posits an abstract propositional calculus as the locus of all truth/falsity. For a literary echo of this from the same period we have to look to T. S. Eliot not to Joyce (see Fifth Proposition) nor, for that matter, to Tagore. Whatever Wittgenstein hoped to achieve by reading the latter to members of the Vienna Circle in the late 1920s, Tagore was never quite the other-worldly Eastern mystic many European devotees of the time wanted him to be (see Chapter 4 of the book).

6. Famously, Wittgenstein changed his mind in the Philosophical Investigations (1953). Rejecting his youthful josserish inclinations, he now insisted that ‘nothing is hidden’ (versteckt could also be translated as ‘disguised’, §435). He also rejected his earlier idea of ordinary language as so much discardable clothing, re-imagining it as ‘an ancient city’ with a Wake-like ‘maze of little streets and squares, of old and new houses, and of houses with additions from various periods; and this surrounded by a multitude of new boroughs with straight regular streets and uniform houses’, all of which call out for exploration in their own right (§18). At the same time he re-considered his analogy with writing systems, taking issue with his earlier ‘over-simple conception of the script’:

§4. Imagine a script in which the letters were used to stand for sounds, and also as signs of emphasis and punctuation. (A script may be conceived as a language for describing sound-patterns [or ‘pictures’, Lautbildern].) Now imagine someone interpreting that script as if there were simply a correspondence of letters to sounds and as if the letters had not also a completely different function.

In another turn in his analogizing, he described ordinary language as a ‘multiplicity of language-games’ (Sprachspiele), underscoring the fact that it supports and even makes possible many activities beyond simply naming things or making claims about the world (§7, §23). These range from ‘giving orders’ to ‘guessing riddles’ and from ‘requesting, thanking, cursing, greeting, praying’ to ‘making up a story (Geschichte)’ (§23). Like games, these are all activities, that is, ways of doing things with words, they are rule-governed, and they make sense within what Wittgenstein called a particular ‘life-form’ (Lebensform, §23). On this account language is not simply an instrument for describing the world. It is a repertoire of practices that shapes and is shaped by culture construed as a complex, evolving way of life.

6.1 Joyce would no doubt have welcomed Wittgenstein’s new openness to ordinary language in all its featureful diversity, though he may have questioned the usefulness of his games analogy when applied to some kinds of literary writing. While the many forms and genres of writing conventionally called literary, ranging from the sonnet to the novel, can be thought of as rule-governed games in the later Wittgenstein’s sense, some defy the implied sociability of the analogy by confusingly changing and re-making the rules all the time (like the figure of the recalcitrant pupil who recurs throughout the Philosophical Investigations). Put in Wittgenstein’s terms, we could say they risk creating an impossible, or at least seemingly incomprehensible, private language. As Joyce acknowledged from the outset, Finnegans Wake is a case in point. On 16 October 1926, four years into the protracted seventeen-year history of its composition and already sensitive to the incredulity it was provoking, he wrote to Harriet Shaw Weaver: ‘I know it is no more than a game but it is a game I have learned to play in my own way. Children may just as well play as not. The ogre will come in any case’ (144). This was a bit of artful self-deprecation designed to keep an increasingly chary patron on board. When it came to the various forms of early twentieth-century positivism—and many other kinds of thinking as well—it is clear that his idiosyncratically jocoserious writing-game (Schriftspiel) was neither trivial nor inconsequential (see also Chapter 3 of the book and Fourth Proposition).

REFERENCES:

Richard Ellmann, ed., Letters of James Joyce, III (London: Faber and Faber, 1966).

James Joyce, Finnegans Wake (London: Faber and Faber, 1975).

Fritz Mauthner, Beiträge zu einer Kritik der Sprache, 3 vols. (1901-02; Berlin: J. G. Cotta’sche, 1912).

Bertrand Russell, The Philosophy of Logical Atomism (London: Routledge, 2010).

Gershon Weiler, Mauthner’s Critique of Language (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1970).

Ludwig Wittgenstein, Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, trans. D. F. Pears and B. F. McGuiness (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1961).

Ludwig Wittgenstein, Philosophical Investigations, trans. G. E. M. Anscombe (Oxford: Blackwell Publishing, 2001).

For more on the Tractatus and translation, see tractatusblog.blogspot.co.uk.

Getting past empathy

We are all neighbours now. There are more phones than there are human beings and close to half of humankind has access to the internet. In our cities, we rub shoulders with strangers from every country, culture and faith.

1. So begins Free Speech: Ten Principles for a Connected World (2016), Timothy Garton Ash’s ambitious bid to fashion a new global consensus or at least an updated set of guiding norms about the freedom of expression for the digital age (see also freespeechdebate.com). ‘The world is not a global village but a global city, a virtual cosmopolis’, he continues, establishing one of his central metaphors and correcting Marshall McLuhan’s celebrated description of the new electronic era in the early 1960s. In his conclusion, he returns to the urgent questions life in this new cityscape raises:

The quest for a more universal universalism is one of the great challenges of our time. Over the last half century, human enterprise and innovation, from the jet plane to the smartphone, have created a world in which we are all becoming neighbours, but nowhere is it written, least of all in the book of history, that we will be good neighbours. That requires a transcultural effort of reason and imagination. Central to this endeavour is free speech. Only with freedom of expression can I understand what it is to be you. Only with freedom of information can we control both public and private powers. Only by articulating our differences can we see clearly what they are, and why they are what they are. (380)

In these appeals to ‘our differences’ and to the need for ‘a transcultural effort of reason and imagination’, David Bromwich detects the influence of Isaiah Berlin who, he notes, did much ‘to shape Garton Ash’s understanding of freedom’ (6). Writing in the London Review of Books, Bromwich explains: ‘Berlin sought to apply an idea of political tolerance not only to persons but to whole cultures; the reason was that cultures themselves were expressive achievements akin to works of art’ (7). On this issue Berlin took his cue from the Prussian idealist philosopher Johann Gottfried Herder. ‘To understand a thing was’, Berlin wrote of Herder in 1976, ‘to see how it could be viewed as it was viewed, assessed as it was assessed, valued as it was valued, in a given context, by a particular culture or tradition’ (154). This version of relativism, which blurs the cultural and the cognitive without denying the possibility of mutual understanding, formed the basis of Berlin’s own tolerant pluralism. ‘For to explain human experiences or attitudes’, he continued in the same essay, ‘is to be able to transpose oneself by sympathetic imagination into the situation of the human beings who are to be “explained”; and this amounts to understanding and communicating the coherence of a particular way of life, feeling, action: and thereby the validity of the given act or action, the part it plays in the life and outlook which is “natural” in the situation’ (154). As this suggests, cultures are, for Berlin, akin to works of art in a specifically Romantic sense: they are self-contained, unitary and expressive. 

2. For Bromwich, Garton Ash’s Berlinesque idiom not only leaves him vulnerable to the charge of relativism. It makes him complicit with the efforts on the part of contemporary speech police to ‘discourage criticism of identity politics‘ (7). 

If cultures resemble works of art, if they are supposed to speak in different languages that resist translation, how can my norms be governed by yours? And more: given the investment each person must have in a cultural identity, how can disapproval ever be enough to meet the offence of seeing one’s identity harmed by insults?

Bromwich overplays these concerns. For one thing, though clearly an admirer of Berlin, Garton Ash is well aware of the pitfalls of his thinking. ‘A world composed entirely of Berlins would tend to relativism and excessive tolerance for the sworn enemies of tolerance’, he comments (376). For another thing, he rejects what he calls ‘the “I’m offended” form of the heckler’s veto’ (218) and insists throughout his book, particularly when discussing the principles covering diversity and religion, on the need to create space for the kinds of criticism Bromwich wants to defend:

Principle 5: We express ourselves openly and with robust civility about all kinds of human difference.

Principle 6: We respect the believer but not necessarily the content of the belief. 

What troubles Garton Ash’s analysis is not so much the ghost of Berlin’s Herderian relativism or pluralism as the legacy of his equally Romantic conception of the ‘sympathetic imagination’. This limits him to thinking only in terms of the transcultural, distorts his understanding of identity and difference, and deforms his conception of the role literature might play in his quest to defend the freedom of expression and find a normative language of good neighbourliness attuned to the hazards of life in today’s ‘global city’.

3. As part of his broader justification of free speech as an indispensable ideal, he cites Nina Simone’s rendition of Billy Taylor’s gospel/jazz and American civil rights classic ‘I Wish I Knew How It Would Feel to Be Free‘ (1963). After quoting the following lines from the first verse – ‘I wish I could say / All the things that I should say / Say ’em loud say ’em clear / For the whole world round to hear’ – he singles out two lines from the second – ‘I wish you could know / What it means to be me’ – as ‘the most elemental argument for free speech’ (74). ‘Only with freedom of expression can I understand what it is to be you’, he reminds us in his conclusion as I have already noted, before adding: ‘Only by articulating our differences can we see clearly what they are, and why they are what they are’ (380, italics added). He returns to the theme of art’s knowledge in the chapter on diversity (Principle 5):

Literature, theatre, film, painting, sculpture and many other arts enable us to understand the experience of others in countless ways, with what Martha Nussbaum has called the ‘inner eye’ of imaginative sympathy. They allow us to get inside the skin of other human beings who live in utterly different circumstances from our own, and to discover common humanity beneath the alien garb. (244)

Once again Isaiah Berlin’s influence is clear though, as this passage indicates, Garton Ash is equally indebted to Nussbaum’s understanding of the affective, educative and civic function of the arts – literature above all – as a more or less transparent means of fostering good neighbourliness whether locally, nationally or globally. He references Nussbaum’s The New Religious Intolerance: Overcoming the Politics of Fear in an Anxious Age (2012), but could equally have recalled her earlier books Love’s Knowledge: Essays on Philosophy and Literature (1990), Cultivating Humanity: A Classical Defense of Reform in Liberal Education (1998) or Upheavals of Thought: The Intelligence of Emotions (2003).

4. The idea that literature furnishes a kind of cultural and ethical knowledge attuned not only to ‘our differences’ but to the intricate particularities of what Henry James called ‘felt life‘ has a distinguished pedigree in Euro-American thinking. It can be traced back to Adam Smith’s Theory of Moral Sentiments (1759) and to nineteenth-century novelists like James and George Eliot, to keep just to the English-language tradition; and, following Berlin, to the German-language Weimar classicists of the late-eighteenth century. If the personal statements written by students applying to study literature at universities in the UK and the US are anything to go by, a version of this idea remains at the heart of the contemporary school curriculum. ‘Literature affords us a glimpse into other lives and cultures’ is a common opening gambit. The British academic-administrator Rick Rylance echoes these sentiments in Literature and the Public Good (2016), making them central to his defence of literary study in today’s world. For a contemporary critique of this orthodoxy, see Namwali Serpell’s essay ‘The Banality of Empathy‘ (March 2019), and for some related reflections, see Teju Cole’sCarrying a Single Life: On Literature and Translation‘ (July 2019).

5. Thinking interculturally via literature in the terms set out on this site and argued for in the associated book starts from a different set of premises. It also presupposes an alternative understanding of the knowledge literature affords and, consequently, of the civic role it might play in what Finnegans Wake calls the ‘citye of Is’ – Garton Ash’s ‘virtual cosmopolis’ which is, as he points out in his one citation from the Wake, at once ‘urban and orbal’ (19, see Wake 601). By implicitly repudiating the various Cities of Ought in the Euro-American tradition – St Augustine’s ‘City of God‘, for instance, and the ideal city of Plato’s Republic – Joyce recognized that the ‘everintermutuomergent’ and always imperfect global ‘citye of Is’ would demand a new kind of thinking about norms, empathy and much else besides (Wake, 55).

6. In the first place, thinking interculturally along these lines assumes that before any ‘transcultural effort of reason and imagination’ can properly begin we need to acknowledge that what we take to be our own culture is itself profoundly, if often ‘unconsciously’, indebted to other cultures – for Joyce the porous and always evolving character of the English language and its writing system is the clearest evidence of this (see Chapter 3 of the book). Second, following Coetzee (Chapter 5 and the Disgrace post), it assumes that cultural forms (e.g. the European novel) cannot be relied on as neutral means of ‘articulating our differences’, or of sympathetically transposing ourselves into other cultures, because they are too embedded in particular forms of life and ways of knowing. Third – and conversely – following Mphahlele (Chapter 4), Mehrotra (Chapter 7) and Chaudhuri/Rushdie (Chapter 8), it assumes that cultural forms and inheritances, no less than languages and writing systems, are mobile, adaptable and recyclable, and so never the exclusive property of any one era, tradition or community. Fourth, following Joyce, Tagore and Krog (Chapter 6), it assumes that cultural encounters can effect radical and potentially vitalizing change (of norms, inheritances, forms and languages) on either side, or on both, when it is not simply a matter of translating from A to B, or vice versa, but of A.1 becoming A.2 via B.1, or B.1 becoming B.2 via A.1 (see also the ‘Other Writers’ section).

7. If literature remains a source of contention in the ongoing struggle for the freedom of expression in our evermore connected ‘global city’, it is also one of the primary sites in which the questions of knowledge – its norms, forms and media – so central to that struggle and to the related effort to develop new modes of good neighbourliness arise. This is because what literature affords most immediately is not knowledge of ourselves or others but an experience of the languages and forms of writing in which particular ways of knowing – and forms of life – are staged, mediated, and sometimes tested and transformed. Engaging with this does not require any special powers, let alone a mysterious ‘inner eye’. In the first but not necessarily the last instance all you need are two ordinary, healthy eyes, some training in how to use them and a willingness to keep learning how to read and think differently (see Fourth Proposition).

REFERENCES:

Isaiah Berlin, Vico and Herder (London: Chatto and Windus, 1976).

David Bromwich, ‘What are we allowed to say?’, London Review of Books, 22 September 2016, 3-10.

Timothy Garton Ash, Free Speech: Ten Principles for a Connected World (London: Atlantic Books, 2016).

Namwali Serpell, ‘The Banality of Empathy‘, NYR Daily, 2 March 2019. For a similar critique, which also has much to say about Hannah Arendt, see Lyndsey Stonebridge, Placeless People: Writings, Rights, Refugees (Oxford: OUP, 2018).