Monday, April 11, 2005


"The sense of the world must lie outside the it no value exists..."Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, §6.41.

"A man may sing a song with expression and without expression. Then why not leave out the song--could you have the expression then?"--Ludwig Wittgenstein, Lectures and Conversations on Aesthetics, Psychology and Religious Belief*

The problem of trying to "escape" the world, is that we can't think except in terms supplied to us by the world. On the other hand, we can think, or experience, matters that are not explicable in terms that can codify and capture all meanings identifiable merely as objects or relationships of the world. To do so is to engage in a reductio ad absurdum. "Selfish gene" theory, for example, may provide an "objective" explanation as to why I love my child. But it cannot explain why, having provided me with a child (from the gene theory point of view), I continue to love my wife. In fact, there is no adequate "objective" explanation for love, without subjecting that experience to a reductio argument.

Which brings us back around to Wittgenstein, and "language games." Wittgenstein actually makes two uses of the concep: one derives from Hume, the other from what can only be called common sense.

The idea derived from the empiricism of Hume is that we really cannot talk about anything, because our words are ultimately betrayed by the fact they have no essential connection to reality. Hume explained this by reversing the analytic/synthetic distinction that had held sway in Western philosophy.

An analytic proposition is one made a priori, that is, prior to observation. But Hume said such observations were in fact based on a posteriori knowledge, that is, precisely on the experience of the observation. That is, we encounter bodies in our experience (physical objects with mass), find them to be heavy, and from that synthesize the idea that all bodies are heavy, which we then generalize into a "truth." There is analytical knowledge for Hume, but it is of the nature of "2 + 2 = 4." True a priori, but a statement only of relations of ideas, with no real effect on the world. (You may object that mathematical relationships reflect reality, but only very partially. In biology, for example, 1 + 1 =3, at a minimum; and perhaps more. In fact, if it didn't, there would be no biology). Analytic propositions, then, are pointless in the examination of reality (the subject of empricism), and synthetic propositions are either true or false. But if true, they are virtually meaningless, because no exception to them can be found; and if false, well, obviously they are meaningless. If they cannot be proven, then they are pointless (a much reduced way of introducing Hume's "proof" against the existence of God.). Which leaves us, obviously, with not much to say about anything of importance, such as, well, reality.

This lead, through various steps, to a turn toward language: "What do we mean when we say....?;" to the field of semiotics, of signifiers and signified; and logical positivism, and Wittgenstein's eventual concern that all philosophy was caught up in "language games," which produce a plethora of confusions because language is not, ulimately a formal system such as logic, or even dependent on a formal system, like scientific inquiry.

But this doesn't mean language doesn't get used in useful ways.

Suppose I say that the body will rot, and another says "No. Particles
will rejoin in a thousand years, and there will be a Resurrection of you."
If some said: "Wittgenstein, do you believe in this?" I'd
say: "No." "Do you contradict the man?" I'd say:
Suppose someone were a believer and said: "I believe in a Last
Judgment," and I said: "Well, I'm not so sure. Possibly." You
would say that there is an enormous gulf between us. If he said "There is
a German aeroplane overhead," and I said "Possibly I'm not so sure," you'd
say we were fairly near.
It isn't a question of my being anywhere near him, but on an entirely
different plane, which you could express by saying: "You mean
something altogether different, Wittgenstein."
Whether something is a blunder or not--it is a blunder in a particular
system. Just as something is a blunder in a particular game and not in

Most modern philosophy today betrays a fascination with language, from Wittgenstein to deconstructionism. Semiotics, for example, plays a big role in Biblical hermeneutics, especially in exegeting the Gospel of John, where the miracles of Jesus are uniformly called "semeia," the Greek word for "signs." Scholars even posit that the author of John had a separate "signs gospel" which contained all the miracle stories. However, the author of John doesn't use them to point toward the divinity of the Christ, but as something of a test: if you believe because of the signs, you are not a "true believer" (think of Jesus telling Thomas "Blessed are those who have not seen and yet believe!," which is in John's gospel). Of course, it isn't that simple in John's gospel, but the ambiguity of relationship between sign and signified is already there. But the focus on words, like the focus on the signs, tends to be misleading: it directs our attention away from the signified and onto the signifier.

Or that was, in part, Wittgenstein's concern. He thought for example, that paradox, that beloved concept of Kierkegaard ("the thinker without the paradox is like the lover without passion," says Anti-Climacus) was nothing more than a confusion of language. The essence of the question is: does language "point to" anything, or is it merely a formal system we use for certain purposes, and one which is so central to our thinking that we confuse it with reality?

Certainly it has been confused with reality. To "spell" is both to correctly arrange letters of the alphabet into a word, and to "cast" a "spell," or perform magic. What is magic, in the popular imagination, except an exertion of power of an object (thing or person, both are objects for the purpose)? To "spell" was once considered a magical act (in a world of illiterate people that's easily understood), because it gave you power over the word, and the word defined the essence, in fact was the essence, of the object (one reason no one can know, pronounce, or even spell, the name of the God of Abraham).

But can we escape the world that provides language to us? Certainly every child, as Augustine recognized, learns language first in relationship to objects, and only later in connection with abstractions (which, after all, and this was the basis of Hume's critique, consist entirely of language). Or rather, can we use language to provide us with a higher view, or at least experience, of the world?

Enter lectio divina.

In a marvelous "X-Files" episode, a writer interviews Scully about a story of a young couple who think they've been captured by aliens. The story gets stranger and stranger as the writer reveals the contents of other interviews he's done surrounding the incident, and at one point he and Scully discuss hypnosis in the context of recovering memories (a key part of the story). And he mentions the amazing power of hypnosis: how simply words, nothing more than sounds, can so control the human mind. This is, in a nutshell, one of the central conundrums of modern philosophy: how much of what we know, of even who we are, is caught up with words? What is language, that it should have such a power over us?

Enter lectio divina.

Lectio is an ancient Christian meditative practice. It involves reading scripture, and then allowing one word from that scripture to capture the consciousness, and then meditating on that word, allowing it to do whatever it will in a contemplative state of mind. Adepts at the practice say it brings them into the presence of God, even into mystical states of being. Now, from an empirical or positivistic point of view, this of course establishes nothing. How, indeed, can you establish anything of importance from mere words and subjective experience?

But, as Kierkegaard points out, how can you claim to establish anything outside of words and subjective experience? That puts you in the position of the thinker who so concentrated on cultivating an objective point of view that he awoke one morning to find he no longer existed! As Wittgenstein would say: "If you say this, the contradiction already lies in this."

(*edited by Cyril Barrett, Berkeley, University of California Press,)

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