cjbanning: (Ludwig Wittgenstein)
The pursuit of a philosophical metaethic which simultaneously manages to be postfoundationalist and non-relativist dominated much of 20th-century thought, and has continued (and no doubt will continue) to do so into the 21st century. Of the major thinkers associated with this project, one might not think first of Ludwig Wittgenstein, whose remarks on ethics were admittedly both rare and brief. Still, I think it's worthwhile to use this post to quickly sketch a portrait of Wittgenstein's metaethical position, because his thought has been such a heavy influence on my own philosophy and theology, and because I think its explicitly mystical character ought to make it of particular interest to the metaethicist who is also a theologian.

Wittgenstein's most sustained enquiry into the metaethical was his 1929 "Lecture on Ethics". I recommend you follow the link to read the whole thing--it's pretty short--but the upshot is that Wittgenstein finally comes to the following conclusion:
I see now that these nonsensical expressions were not nonsensical because I had not yet found the correct expressions, but that their nonsensicality was their very essence. For all I wanted to do with them was just to go beyond the world and that is to say beyond significant language. My whole tendency and, I believe, the tendency of all men [sic] who ever tried to write or talk Ethics or Religion was to run against the boundaries of language.

This running against the walls of our cage is perfectly, absolutely hopeless. Ethics so far as it springs from the desire to say something about the ultimate meaning of life, the absolute good, the absolute valuable, can be no science. What it says does not add to our knowledge in any sense. But it is a document of a tendency in the human mind which I personally cannot help respecting deeply and I would not for my life ridicule it.
This is a further development of the line of thought on ethics found in the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus:
6.41 The sense of the world must lie outside the world. In the world everything is as it is and happens as it does happen. In it there is no value—and if there were, it would be of no value.
If there is a value which is of value, it must lie outside all happening and being-so. For all happening and being-so is accidental.
What makes it non-accidental cannot lie in the world, for otherwise this would again be accidental.
It must lie outside the world.

6.42 Hence also there can be no ethical propositions.
Propositions cannot express anything higher.

6.421 It is clear that ethics cannot be expressed.
Ethics are transcendental.
(Ethics and æsthetics are one.)

6.422 The first thought in setting up an ethical law of the form “thou shalt …” is: And what if I do not do it? But it is clear that ethics has nothing to do with punishment and reward in the ordinary sense. This question as to the consequences of an action must therefore be irrelevant. At least these consequences will not be events. For there must be something right in that formulation of the question. There must be some sort of ethical reward and ethical punishment, but this must lie in the action itself.
(And this is clear also that the reward must be something acceptable, and the punishment something unacceptable.)

6.423 Of the will as the subject of the ethical we cannot speak.
And the will as a phenomenon is only of interest to psychology.
Obviously, there is not much here to satisfy the typical analytical philosopher, who is likely to reject it as so much mystery-mongering. But we need to place Wittgenstein's metaethics into the context of his broader metaphysical project and his deflationary metaphilosophy, a project my understanding of which I have tried to sketch out in my previous posts on Wittgenstein. Wittgenstein's mysticism about ethics is, of course, not a specific refusal to address the ethical, but rather simply a subset of a broader mystical approach to the relationship between reality and language in general.

A potentially damning criticism of Wittgenstein's metaethics is that his mysticism doesn't provide any real insight into how we ought to actually go about the activity of ethical reflection. Mystical notions of transcendental good and evil don't necessarily provide all that much help in, say, determining the morality of drone warfare--or even whether one should cheat on a test. However, I think this understates the usefulness of Wittgenstein's guidance. It is of course true that Wittgenstein never took up these issues directly (and only rarely even indirectly) and that the following is thus of necessity somewhat speculative. That said, I think it should be possible (and not even difficult) to imagine what a Wittgensteinian ethical approach ought to look like from extrapolating from the work Wittgenstein did do on metaphysics, philosophy of language, and philosophy of mind.

Imagine if Wittgenstein were to have written an Ethical Investigations alongside the Philosophical Investigations, in which he applied the PI's quasi-phenomenological method to moral reasoning. Just as PI enquires into philosophy of language by examining the real-world ways in which human beings actually use language, this hypothetical EI would look at the actual ways we go about the process of reasoning morally--a phenomenology of morals, if you will. (It's been a while since I read the book, but I suspect that an argument could be made that Nietzsche had already done precisely that in his Genealogy of Morals--although I also suspect that, given Wittgenstein's known Tolstoyan sympathies, the Austrian philosopher would have come to very different conclusions had he undertaken the project than had the German.)

Ethical Investigations might even go on to speak of "ethics games" just as Philosophical Investigations does of language games. Just as Wittgenstein wanted ""to bring into prominence the fact that the speaking of language is part of an activity, or a form of life" (PI §23), in EI he would want to similarly focus on the way in which ethical discourse represented a human activity and way of life. This would not be moral relativism (remember that for Wittgenstein, there was some sort of "bastard sense" in which transcendent notions of good and evil still held reign) but rather a faith in the power of our ethical discourses as they take place "on the ground" to encourage moral behavior and discourage immoral behavior--a sort of critical moral realism coupled with a skepticism that philosophy (at least as the discipline has been practiced for the the last couple of centuries or so) represents the best tool for coming to moral conclusions.

Richard Rorty famously said in Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity that if one took care of freedom, truth would take care of itself. I think there is a sense that for Wittgenstein, ethics ought to be similarly capable of "taking care of itself." I think that Wittgenstein might have agreed with Rorty's subsequent comments in CIS:
If we are ironic enough about our final vocabularies, and curious enough about everyone else's, we do not have to worry about whether we are in direct contact with moral reality, or whether we are blinded by ideology, or whether we are being weakly "relativistic." (176-77)
No doubt there is plenty in the above paragraphs which would be perhaps somewhat less than totally persuasive to our hypothetical analytic interlocutor. So it goes. However, I do think there are many reasons why a Witggensteinian metaethical mysticism ought to prove especially attractive to the Christian moral theologian--and in particular, to the progressive Christian moral theologian--and I hope to discuss those in my next post.
cjbanning: (Bowed Head)
The issue which Wittgenstein's mysticism foregrounds is not unique to his philosophy, as it seems some of his interpreters would have one believe, but rather are as old as philosophy itself, with poststructuralist theorists like (here it comes) that of Jacques Derrida or Julia Kristeva locating it in Plato's cosmological Timaeus, in the notion of the chora, the chasm which lies beyond the limits of time and space. (Derrida omits the article before the term chora, claiming that “the definitive article presupposes the existence of a thing, the existent chorato which, via a common name, it would be easy to refer” [“Chora.” Trans. Ian McCloud. Chora L Works. By Jacques Derrida and Peter Eisenman. Ed. Jeffrey Kipnis and Thomas Leeser. New York: Monacelli, 1997: 17]. I know of no such grammatical principle in either English or French, and thus I refrain from this practice.) Kristeva acknowledges that naming the chora (even in Greek) “ontologizes” it, i.e. makes it a “thing,” but concludes that we cannot not talk about it either (Kristeva, Julia. “From Revolution in Poetic Language.” Trans. Margaret Walker. The Nortan Anthology of Theory and Criticism. Ed. Vincent B. Leitch. New York: Norton, 2001: 2171).

She thus turns to the ontologized term and its self-contradiction as an example of the very difficulties inherent in its use. When we speak of chora we do not so much use language as reveal its limits. By relying on a brutish display of linguistic force, a “bastard reasoning,” we can assert that the chora is pre-symbolic—not de-ontologizing the term chora but at least recalling to the mind the need to de-ontologize (2171). This assertion of negative theology—the via negativa—is enough for Kristeva to feel she can dismiss any worries that she is illegitimately ontologizing the chora.

Derrida is distrustful of projects like Kristeva's which apply bastard reasoning in order to build a psychoanalytic theory upon the chora—there is a point, it seems,” Derrida argues, “where the relevance of this rhetorical code meets a limit and must be questioned as such, must become a theme and cease to be merely operatory”—but nonetheless recognizes that its very impossibility brings its reader to the problems of philosophy which it fails to denote (31). For Kristeva and Derrida, then, the quietist conclusion of the Tractatus must be rejected.

Note that my appeal to Derrida and Kristeva has not really gotten us any farther than we were before (which is why, I think, any accusation of “Derrida-izing” Wittgenstein must ultimately fall flat); we have only put forth the problem in a way which will be familiar to students of the postmodernist Continental tradition and, in so doing, perhaps made clear its essential features. Derrida and Kristeva merely seem to have fallen into the same trap that Wittgenstein has in the Tractatus. Both Derrida and Kristeva's responses do not, after all, seem to be significantly different from what we have already called the ineffabilist interpretation: "there is something which is sort of true, but sort of not, because we really cannot talk about it, but we sort of can, and you know what I'm trying to say, right?" No wonder the analytic philosophers throw up their arms in disgust!

But my interest is not so much in how Wittgenstein's conception of the mystical is similar to the Derridean or Kristevan chora—the similarities are undoubtedly great—but how differently he talks about it, the stark disconnect between the philosophical methods employed. Invoking these two French thinkers clarifies for me exactly what it is that we need from the Austrian: a sustained defense of this type of bastard reasoning. Instead, we get a call for silence:
7 What we cannot speak about we must pass over in silence.
Thus ends the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus. Having concluded that philosophy can produce no truths, no genuine insights gained, the project is drawn to a close. Philosophy is finished.

Yet note that the quietism of the Tractatus, like any quietism which is spoken aloud (or, in this case, written down), is always-already unstable; as Russell scathingly points out, “Wittgenstein manages to say a good deal about what cannot be said” (xxiii). "Wittgenstein did want to write the Tractatus,” Moyal-Sharrock notes, “indeed put great effort into writing it, and into producing its translation. So that not following the strictly correct method in the Tractatus, far from implying a repudiation of what was achieved, was essential to achieving it” (168)

Nor is there anything to lead us to assume that the Tractarian project of a “strictly incorrect” but nontheless elucidatory method of philosophy (cf. proposition 6.53) is unique to the Tractatus itself or to Wittgenstein; proposition 6.53 immediately makes one think of the Platonic dialogues (and their similarly therapeutic-poetic formats), as Russell does when he notes in the Introduction that “[i]t is true that the fate of Socrates might befall a man who attempted this method of teaching, but we are not to be deterred by that fear, if it is the only right method” (xxiii).

Wittgenstein too notes that he has “fallen a long way short of what is possible” because his “powers [of expression] are too slight for the accomplishment of the task,” adding, “May others come and do better” (pg. 4). So we do not have one single descent into bastard reasoning, like Dante's into Hell, so as to forever more escape it, but one more work in a line of bastard reasonings—an entire bastard discourse, that is, which as a collective we can and do call “philosophy”—which is neither the first nor the last of its kind, nor should it be.

That said, it is true that Wittgenstein, in his Preface, claims to “have found, on all essential points, the final solution of the problems” (pg. 4); it is equally true that following the writing and publishing of the Tractatus he dropped out of philosophy. But even this is painted as a personal enlightenment―of the sort which might more easily come to a St. Teresa or a Julian of Norwich than an analytic philosopher—which cannot be reliably shared or reproduced. “Perhaps,” Wittgenstein suggests in the Preface, “this book will be understood only by someone who has himself already had the thoughts expressed in it―or at least similar thoughts” (pg. 3). Indeed, for austere readers and some varieties of non-therapists, the only thing that makes the nonsense of the Tractatus more likely to be elucidatory than that of, say, Lewis Carroll's poem “Jabberwocky”―if the Tractatus is in fact more likely to be so (there is indeed, after all, a good deal to be learned about language and its limits by reading Carroll's poem)—is an accident of historical contingency. For the ineffabilist, presumably there is some truth which inheres in the Tractatus which does not in Carroll—although for all one knows, perhaps the meaning of life is that the snark was a boojum after all!

This not to say there is not an uneasy sense―born of the Tractatus' own bastard logic, I believe―that philosophy up to Wittgenstein has been a productive struggle in the sense that it has been striving for its own dissolution which it at last finds in the Tractatus, only afterwards being replaced with the therapeutic approach described in 6.53. At the very least there is the assertion that for at least those who can be said to understand the work it represents an end to their philosophizing, even if other people might well need other works. The Tractatus is, in the end, a quietist document, and this should not be glossed over.

Nor need it be, since Wittgenstein's philosophizing does not in fact end here. Enter the Philosophical Investigations: at some point prior to Wittgenstein's return to philosophy, he clearly abandoned the quietism of the Tractatus; when contrasted with the style of the previous work, in the Investigations he has become downright chatty. This might seem obvious and trivial, but it is worth saying nonetheless, for it represents the most fundamental shift and break between the late and early Wittgensteins.

What we have in the Investigations is the articulation of an entire bastard language. The halfway language, neither sense nor quite what we would typically call nonsense, which the non-therapists attempt to rehabilitate in the Tractatus suddenly becomes all of language. Language guesses/plays/sings/solves (§23) but no longer does it mean in the Tractarian sense. Instead, questions of ontology drop out altogether.
For this is what disputes between Idealists, Solipsists, and Realists look like. The one party attack the normal form of expression as if they were attacking a statement; the others defend it, as if they were stating facts recognized by every reasonable human being. (§402)
Language is described; the world―the mystical―is experienced.

But this recognition only pushes back the demand for explanations, which (we have argued) neither the austere readers nor the ineffabilists nor the non-therapists could quite provide, one step further, so that it now engulfs the Investigations as well as the Tractatus. The non-therapist's reading of the Tractatus is dependent on the premise that nonsense sentences can have “performative significance” (Brand 332), that we can articulate grammatical rules (Moyal-Sharrock 162) or make “purely linguistic proposals” (Matthew B. Ostrow, Wittgenstein's Tractatus. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge U P, 2002: 4, describing Carnap) or use our language “intransitively”—in short, that some nonsense is desirable (Philip M. Hallie, “Wittgenstein's Exclusion of Metaphysical Nonsense.” The Philosophical Quarterly16 [1966]: 101-104).

The Investigations does not defend any of these premises. Wittgenstein does not argue that meaning is use—indeed, he explicitly recognizes that for some ways we use the word “meaning,” meaning is not use:
For a large class of cases—though not for all—in which we employ the word “meaning” it can be defined thus: the meaning of a word is its use in the language. (§43)
Instead he simply demonstrates—makes manifest—the manifold of ways that language can function. If some set of analytic philosophers wish to exclude the mystical from their language game, then they are free to do so—or at least to try. And, Wittgenstein recognizes, often it is best to do so. We cannot always live in an ecstatic state in which things are and are not true, do and do not exist. For science, law, and many other language games, trying to grasp what is—the mystical—that is, to theorize—would be a grave mistake: a confusion, an illness, a disease.

Having grown out of the mystical which, resisting language, both is and is not, Wittgenstein's anti/theory similarly both is and is not a theory. This is not a naïve positivism, in which comprehension is confused for apprehension and the theoretical structures used to understand the world are rendered invisible. That would be the position he attacks, that of the Saint Augustine and the picture theory, when he exposes the insidious assumptions which underly our ways of talking about language: “How does one know?” is the constant refrain throughout the first hundred sections of the Investigations, giving the lie to the idea that our language games are transparent or immediate. Wittgenstein recognizes and accepts the deeply theoretical nature (by which we mean, based on unquestioned rules) of every game, including Wittgensteinian therapy. Wittgenstein's anti/theory (like Foucault's, ultimately) is descriptive, not destructive.

On Ineffability

Monday, 8 November 2010 08:05 pm
cjbanning: (Bowed Head)
"It's true that I can't directly tell you what it is that can't be said." -- André Kukla
The ineffability thesis, when construed as a thesis, is of course self-refuting: it contends to possess knowledge about the ineffable which under its own rules is impossible. Of course, the natural thing for the ineffabilist is to deny that she is asserting a thesis; the so-called ineffability thesis is simply a bastard sentence, leading to a throwing-away of the ladder, and that claim about the ineffability thesis is also a bastard sentence, and so on unto infinite regress.

At this point the pure philosopher is liable to, understandably, throw up her hands. The ineffabilist has admitted to speaking nonsense, and while she may claim that nonsense may somehow point the way to a higher truth, she has admitted also that even that claim is nonsense! Why should the philosopher take her at all seriously?

At this point, the ineffabilist puts forth both a positive and a negative claim: no one has put forth a claim about truth that does make sense (she would argue), and furthermore by the logic of the pure philosopher, they cannot.

The pure philosopher will no doubt fear that the ineffabilist has introduced an irrational element which threatens to undermine philosophy. The ineffabilist has abandoned any requirement for intellectual rigor, the pure philosopher will argue, by referring everything to an ineffable standard.

This is, of course, true, at least in a sense. But the truth is also that the ineffabilist can assume the standards of intellectual rigor proposed by the pure philosopher, if only deconstructively. She can demonstrate that the philosopher's claims to intellectual rigor are themselves exaggerated. This motivates a deflationaryism towards metaphysics, but this is nothing new.

What separates the ineffabilist from the pragmatist (or more specifically, the neopragmatist) is that the pragmatist, to some degree or other, is a quietist and the ineffabilist is not. By the pragmatist's account, there should be no such thing as pragmatism, or at least no such thing as an overarching thesis of pragmatism. To be sure, she can be involved in specific deconstructive attempts to show a certain way of talking about X has fallen into error by the standards of those doing the talking, but she cannot make the claim that we should stop talking about X. Any coordinated effort to stop talking about X represents a betrayal of pragmatist principles.

But insofar as the extrarationalism of the ineffabilist frees her to speek, it may seem to provide her what might look like an overbroad freedom: there is nothing she cannot say. Again, the pure philosopher finds it hard to take her seriously, to care what she has to say. But the ineffabilist does not expect to be taken seriously, except when she is deconstructively engaging in the language games of her peers. Otherwise, she simply wants to be able to be left to her extrarational appreciation and engagement in peace.

And that's where (transcendental) religion enters the picture. Ineffability, of course, lies at the center of the Christian faith. The Athanasian Creed lays out the Trinitarian doctrine of the Church thusly: "the Parent-God incomprehensible, the Child-God incomprehensible, and the Holy Spirit incomprehensible, and yet they are not three incomprehensibles, but one incomprehensible."

Yet transcendental religion is not irrational in the sense of requiring the religionist to hold propositions as true which reason requires her to reject as false. (Or vice versa.) In Christianity, after all, reason is traditionally regarded as one of the primary sources of authority, a leg not only of Anglican's three-legged stool but also of the Wesleyan quadrilateral. Instead, it is extrarational in that transcendental religion steps in with something to say at precisely those moments when reason's limits are themselves met.
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My Prayer

"This is my prayer: that your love may overflow more and more with knowledge and full insight to help you to determine what is best."
-- St. Paul's Epistle to the Philippians 1:9-10

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