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Showing posts with label wittgenstein philosophical investigations. Show all posts
Showing posts with label wittgenstein philosophical investigations. Show all posts

Friday 11 October 2019

Essay: Thirty Eight Minutes with Olga Tokarczuk

Olga Tokarczuk, two of whose books have been reviewed previously on this Blog in their English translations published by Fitzcarraldo, has just been awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature. Here is an essay spun off from her work which I include in my book of essays, Between Remembering and Forgetting (published 15 February 2020):

The Polish writer Olga Tokarczuk loves obscure facts and strange little stories which are not just the stuff of competitive quizzes but capable of setting our minds racing. Thus at page 109 in the English translation of her novel Flights, she tells us that

The shortest war in history was waged between Zanzibar and England in 1896, lasting thirty-eight minutes.

If that yields a smile, it is because we discover that we have always sort of assumed that, well, wars - properly speaking - are the sort of thing that have to last a bit longer. How much longer? Well, we have never actually considered that question and right now we don’t have a definite answer. Nonetheless, thirty-eight minutes, no, that’s not long enough. How can you start and finish a war in thirty-eight minutes? Wikipedia tells us that you can:

The ultimatum expired at 09:00 East Africa Time (EAT) on 27 August, by which time the British had gathered three cruisers, two gunboats, 150 marines and sailors, and 900 Zanzibaris in the harbour area…. Around 2,800 Zanzibaris defended the palace; most were recruited from the civilian population, but they also included the sultan's palace guard and several hundred of his servants and slaves. The defenders had several artillery pieces and machine guns, which were set in front of the palace sighted at the British ships. A bombardment, opened at 09:02, set the palace on fire and disabled the defending artillery. A small naval action took place, with the British sinking the Zanzibari royal yacht  HHS Glasgow  and two smaller vessels, and some shots were fired ineffectually at the pro-British Zanzibari troops as they approached the palace. The flag at the palace was shot down and fire ceased at 09:40.
The sultan's forces sustained roughly 500 casualties, while only one British sailor was injured….The war marked the end of the Zanzibar Sultanate as a sovereign state and the start of a period of heavy British influence.

No doubt about it: a proper war with a bombardment for a beginning, a casualty-strewn middle, and victory for British imperialism at the end.


But my mind is still racing. Thirty-eight minutes. Can you be in love for thirty-eight minutes? Can you mourn for thirty-eight minutes? These are also things which happen in time, in real time, and which have duration so it must be possible to say something about that duration. You fall in love with someone and later you fall out of love, that is normal; but if it is love must not some time elapse before the second can follow the first? Make the time too short and you have a passing infatuation or simply the hots. We have words to describe such short-lived states. The same for mourning. In thirty-eight minutes you can be upset and then stop being upset, but you can’t really mourn, can you? Wittgenstein thought about such problems:

What is a deep feeling? Could someone have a feeling of ardent love or hope for one second - no matter what preceded or followed this second …. The surroundings give it [the feeling - TP] its importance. (Philosophical Investigations, para. 583)

To understand what he is getting at, think of negligence. It isn’t a state of mind, like forgetfulness. A plane comes in to land and the pilot forgets to lower the undercarriage; the plane crashes. Those “surroundings” turn the pilot’s forgetfulness into negligence.

Now look at things another way. Love and mourning are sometimes unending. There are people who marry, live together for sixty years or more, and who still describe themselves as in love with each other. It’s very rare, but the newspapers tell us that such enduring love does happen – but of course, rarely, in the same way that it is rare to live to be older than a hundred.

Some people never stop mourning a loss, but in that case we are less likely to admire and more likely to introduce a new word, melancholy, to describe what has happened. In the middle of the carnage of the First World War, Freud wrote his Mourning and Melancholia which distinguishes the two states, with the one treated as normal and the other as pathological. But the difference was already well-established and the anatomy of melancholy well-understood. A melancholy disposition is just about tolerable in a person, though we may wish sometimes that they would snap out of it, but full-blown and life-long melancholy is something we cannot accommodate. Miss Havisham, jilted at the altar and wearing her wedding dress for the rest of her life, is not an admirable character.

I have deferred the question. How long must it last for it to be love or mourning? We have some vague notions which relate to our sense of the human scale of things. A week in politics is a long time, but a week in love surely not. And if your husband or wife dies, it is offensive to some sense of - what? decorum?- that you should re-marry before a certain period has elapsed. If you do, it suggests that you did not love the person who died or that you do not love the new person you are marrying. Either way, or both, it suggests that you are rather too concerned with your own creature comforts. So there is a moral dimension involved in our assessment.

Unfortunately, there is no Wikipedia page to tell us the story of the shortest love in history or the briefest of sincere mourning. The internet can tell you how many seconds it takes to fall in love (four is popular), for how long the  Roman Catholic church expects you to mourn a loss, and much more besides. But that still doesn’t answer the question, How long must it last, at a minimum?

This material is now included in my  book Between Remembering and Forgetting (degree zero 2020) available from Amazon, Waterstones, and other booksellers -  but also from me in case of difficulty and should you want a signed copy:

Tuesday 30 July 2019

Notes on Ludwig Wittgenstein, Philosophical Investigations

I’ve been thinking about the topic of cultural change and recently published a  summary  on this Blog (11 September 2018). It struck me as I read through it  that there were things which led back to Wittgenstein, like my use of the idea of a “sample book”.  But I hadn’t read any Wittgenstein-related material let alone Wittgenstein himself since the 1980s. I thought I should retrace my steps and so I bought a copy of the Philosophical Investigations (PI) in the scrupulous modern edition (as a student in the 1960s and 1970s, I used the second edition of 1958 and later sold it when I felt I had no more use).

I have mixed feelings. I’m still not convinced. Here are some thoughts.

  Wittgenstein approaches his work in a territorial spirit. He was of course a Professor of Philosophy in a feudal university, so nothing new there. There is Philosophy and it isn’t Science. The sciences which are mentioned in PI - physiology, psychology, maybe psychoanalysis - look for causes whether in the present or the past. They are sometimes interesting, sometimes not. True, psychology as Wittgenstein knew it (behaviourism, fanciful “experiments ” using undergraduates) had very little going for it (See PI, #307; Part II, #371). Philosophy, in contrast, is concerned with concepts and grammar - though the PI locates those within “forms of life” and so sometimes reads like a theoretical or philosophical anthropology or sociology - and has been read that way. Three thoughts.

   As people took on board his work, they developed it in two directions. First, there was “conceptual analysis” which had mixed success. Extended into areas like ethics or politics, it read as a rather complacent and conservative rendering of what we think, disguised into what “we say” - as if the student needed to learn etiquette. “When we use the word “democracy” we mean …”. As a result, there is a lot of work in old issues of  philosophical journals which is no longer read by anyone. [An aside: in the late 1960s I attended Peter Winch’s seminars at King’s College, London. An old man sat in the corner, Rush Rhees [1905 - 1989], who had been one of Wittgenstein’s acolytes. Occasionally, he made a remark and each time I felt that, well, it wasn’t quite up to what one would expect in a graduate seminar. The remarks were banal. I put it down to his advanced age; but looking now at his dates, that can’t have been the explanation. ]

  The “grammar” when linked into the idea of “forms of life” fairly quickly yielded a sharp distinction between “sentence” and “utterance”, semantics and pragmatics. As early as 1960, J L Austin moved things on with How To Do Things With Words which gets us thinking about situated utterances and the many things they are used to do. In one direction, this helps clarify Wittgensteinian ideas about (say) the way in which understanding might be an achievement rather than a state. We say, “Now I understand!” when we feel we’ve achieved something, that we’ve now got it, and can carry on unaided. We are not reporting a state of mind. In another direction, Austin’s and then Grice’s work turned into contemporary and highly technical linguistic pragmatics.

From (say) the 1970s, the development of artificial intelligence, cognitive science, cognitive theory has often proceeded in ways which has ignored territorial boundaries. Many Wittgensteinians have been appalled. The proof of the pudding is in the eating. There have been extraordinary developments in both what we can do (using machines, implants, what have you) and how we investigate what “forms of life” might be natural to human beings. All this has come about by getting over the prissiness of Wittgenstein’s territorial approach and also past his unreflected thinking about "children", “training” and “ instruction”. (As a young man and a good Austrian Catholic, he clearly believed that error could be beaten out of children: go to Wikipedia for the details).
 Wittgenstein does give the impression that he thinks that it would make no difference if we had sawdust rather than brains between our ears. (see # 282 on the “babble of a baby” as nonsense; #293 “the box might even be empty”; #376;Part II, # 148 “The oddity of children’s drawings”). He also is at risk of turning local empirical truths into necessary truths, a trap into which later Wittgensteinains have fallen. Conversely, necessary truths are sometimes missed:

  # 249 “Lying is a language-game that needs to be learned like any other one”. And truth-telling?  There are plenty of theorists who think that truth-telling isn’t learnt; it’s what comes naturally to us and makes other language games possible.

   Wittgenstein insists that his investigations are not exercises in introspection or phenomenological description (I don’t think the word “phenomenology actually occurs in PI; it isn’t in the Index either). See for example # 232. But they often read as if they are those things and when they do it’s often boring, though there are those who have annexed Wittgenstein for  phenomenology or common sense. There are two specific shortcomings when he is working in this introspective / phenomenological way.

 I want to make a sharper use than does Wittgenstein of the distinction between judgement and intuition. We offer judgements as guidance for other people - You’ve added that up correctly; in English, the plural of sheep is sheep - but intuitions are simply reports of how things strike us, as in the Müller-Lyer illusion where we report that the lines look of unequal length.

 I also want to distinguish two sense of agreement. It is a curious fact that everyone agrees that the Müller-Lyer lines are unequal in length. But they agree this distributively, without discussion or participation in a “form of life” other than a natural one. The Müller-Lyer lines pick up a fact about human vision, not about human culture. In contrast, there are things we agree collectively. That doesn’t mean that we vote or even discuss (very much). All it means is that when we judge (for someone else’s benefit) that the plural of sheep is sheep we are confident enough about what other people think / judge to use our own judgement to guide (say) someone learning English. (Compare PI, # 234, 241; Part II,  #346, #351). Of course, we may get it wrong especially when we are over-reliant on local experience and think that everyone shares our dialect.

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