Monday, June 2, 2008

The Romance of Philosophical Investigations

        What kind of work is Philosophical Investigations? There have been many interpretations of this work, from the serviceably perspicuous to the spiritedly wrong and just as many characterizations as to what to call it. My gift for interpreting philosophy being quite minor, I could not possibly hope to add anything useful to the great body of literature on the subject. On the other hand, my gift for misinterpreting things and making things up has been remarked upon and pointed out to me by the best of minds, and, as such, I feel I have noted something about the contextual hypostasis of this remarkable work that no other author, to my knowledge, has observed: Philosophical Investigations proceeds as it does, in an serious of thematically related and interrelated remarks with an unnamed and curious interlocutor, because it is, in fact, the story of a tragic and unhappy romance between the primary voice of the Investigations and the obscure and difficult object of his love, a mysterious person known only as “N.N.” Of N.N. we directly learn quite little, but there is much we can infer about N.N. and the difficult course of their relationship from the remarks inspired by N.N. made by the “narrator” of the Investigations, who may or may not be Ludwig Wittgenstein himself, but who we will refer to here as “L.W.”

        When we first really meet N.N. in the Investigations, it seems they are already involved from some perspective or the other:

§406. "But surely what you want to do with the words 'I am....' is to distinguish between yourself and other people."--Can this be said in every case? Even when I merely groan? And even if I do 'want to distinguish' between myself and other people--do I want to distinguish between the person L.W. and the person N.N.?

Only in the context of some kind of association does it make sense for L.W. to ask if he wants to distinguish himself from N.N.. Perhaps they are quite similar and this even explains L.W.’s attraction to N.N.. N.N. is not just like “other people.” It would seem that their relationship starts in medias res in Investigations, but if we look further back to Remarks on the Foundations of Mathematics, we find this salacious tidbit:

§17 …a regulation says, "All who are taller than five foot six are to join the __-section". A clerk reads out the men's names and heights. Another allots them to such-and-such sections.--"N.N. five foot nine." "So N.N. to the ___ section." That is inference.

This suggests that L.W. and N.N. perhaps first met during some sort of compulsory military or other service. It also suggests what first attracted L.W. to N.N. to begin with: N.N.’s average or above average stature( fn 1).

        That too, is inference, and probably wrong. However, as we read on in the Investigations, it becomes immediately clear that their relationship is one that inspires L.W. with as much passion, as misgiving and uncertainty:

§583. "But you talk as if I weren't really expecting, hoping, now –as I thought I was. As if what were happening now had no deep significance."-What does it mean to say "What is happening now has significance" or "has deep significance"? What is a deep feeling? Could someone have a feeling of ardent love or hope for the space of one second -no matter what preceded or followed this second? - What is happening now has significance -in these surroundings. The surroundings give it its importance. And the word "hope" refers to a phenomenon of human life. (A smiling mouth smiles only in a human face.)

        From this it sounds as though L.W. has had some sort of intense emotional experience with N.N., but also reason to question its meaning, indeed, the conditions of its meaning. We can also infer at least one more thing about N.N.: it seems that N.N. has a smile that L.W. finds irresistible, that fills L.W. with hope for something more, even.

        The source of L.W.’s misgivings and the nature of their relationship take a very dark turn as revealed in the next remark:

§584. Now suppose I sit in my room and hope that N.N. will come and bring me some money, and suppose one minute of this state could be isolated, cut out of its context (fn 3); would what happened in it then not be hope? -Think, for example, of the words which you perhaps utter in this space of time. They are no longer part of this language. And in different surroundings the institution of money doesn't exist either. A coronation is the picture of pomp and dignity. Cut one minute of this proceeding out of its surroundings: the crown is being placed on the head of the king in his coronation robes.-But in different surroundings gold is the cheapest of metals, its gleam is thought vulgar. There the fabric of the robe is cheap to produce. A crown is a parody of a respectable hat. And so on.

        Why is L.W. sitting in his room waiting for N.N. to bring him money? Money for what? We might think that it is some sort of simple exchange; where N.N. is buying or has bought something from L.W. on credit, but it is strange that such an exchange would occur in the context of a relationship already under way. What other reasons are there for monetary exchange? The way it is expressed, it does not seem like L.W. is working for N.N.. A particularly peccant possibility is that N.N. is actually out there working for L.W., walking the streets (if you catch my drift), as L.W. not so patiently waits. A more likely possibility, given N.N.’s intransigent character (of which more later), is that N.N. has simply borrowed money from L.W., probably to buy something (cigarettes, bourbon, a t-shirt, cocaine in rock form, the Muppets on video, slab) and gone out and L.W. is patiently waiting (fn  2) for N.N. to come back to bring L.W. L.W.’s change from the purchases and there probably won’t be any. This last interpretation will no doubt sound strange, unfamiliar and unlikely to most readers fortunate enough to not know what I am talking about; to everyone else, it will remind them of something they would much rather forget.

        For money is not the issue for L.W., who by imagining it otherwise (“And in different surroundings the institution of money doesn't exist either”) rather clearly wishes it did not exist at all. What is L.W. doing while he is waiting? He is talking to himself: “Think, for example, of the words which you perhaps utter in this space of time. They are no longer part of this language.” Not only is he muttering to himself in his room, he is muttering to himself about muttering to himself. Clearly, he is quite disturbed by the whole scenario, vis-à-vis N.N., whose failure to appear fills him with more skepticism than any problems of meaning. L.W. has nothing more to do than wait in this room and worry himself with counterfactuals. His discussion of his surroundings (“in different surroundings gold is the cheapest of metals, its gleam is thought vulgar. There the fabric of the robe is cheap to produce. A crown is a parody of a respectable hat”), suggests that the room in which L.W. is waiting is tricked out in some ostentatious manner, his reaction to which, however, suggests that L.W. is beginning to find the whole situation rather tacky, which, taken together with the money question, prompts all sorts of questions that I will only note here, as to what kind of assignation L.W. and N.N. are really having.

        Certainly, their relationship has its problems: L.W. feels he is always waiting for N.N. and N.N., at the very least, does not appear to be very prompt. This would, in itself, not be such a serious matter, except that L.W.’s waiting is the unhappiest kind, lacking any confidence or certainty in what he is waiting for:

§585. When someone says "I hope he'll come” -is this a report about his state of mind, or a manifestation of his hope? -I can, for example, say it to myself. And surely I am not giving myself a report. It may be a sigh; but it need not. If I tell someone "I can't keep my mind on my work today; I keep on thinking of his coming” –this will be called a description of my state of mind.

        It is clear from this remark that L.W. wishes to see N.N., but just never knows if N.N. is actually coming and this fills L.W. with anticipation, preoccupation and despair, probably in that order(fn 4). It is so much on L.W.’s mind that he tells others about it, and it interferes with his work in general (though, ironically it seems to have directly inspired this particular remark).

§586. "I have heard he is coming; I have been waiting for him all day." That is a report on how I have spent the day. -In conversation I came to the conclusion that a particular event is to be expected, and I draw this conclusion in the words: "So now I must expect him to come". This may be called the first thought, the first act, of this expectation. -The exclamation "I'm longing to see him!" may be called an act of expecting. But I can utter the same words as the result of self-observation, and then they might mean: "So, after all that has happened, I am still longing to see him." The point is: what led up to these words?

        As L.W. can conclude from conversation with others that N.N. is coming, it seems perhaps that other people actually know if N.N. is coming or going, while L.W. just spends the whole day waiting. This suggests that there is something altogether cagey in N.N.’s promises to come to L.W. and that other people who know both N.N. and L.W. seem to know more about N.N.’s movements and what N.N. is up to and really about than perhaps L.W. is picking up on. It is clear, at least, that L.W. doesn’t feel that he has been treated particularly well: “So, after all that has happened, I am still longing to see him.” Yet L.W. cannot help this longing, even exclaiming it (a bad sign), which leads L.W. to wonder just what has happened in their relationship: “The point is: what led up to these words?”

        In the next remark, it is clear that their relationship has reached a serious crisis, leading L.W. to examine introspection itself:

§587. Does it make sense to ask "How do you know that you believe?"-and is the answer: "I know it by introspection"? In some cases it will be possible to say some such thing, in most not. It makes sense to ask: "Do I really love her, or am I only pretending to myself?" and the process of introspection is the calling up of memories; of imagined possible situations, and of the feelings that one would have if. . . .

        We do not know all the conditions of the unidentified antecedent, nor all the possibilities that might follow. We do not, in short, know the great details of L.W. and N.N.’s relationship. We only know that, sadly, this “if” and its plaintive tail of aposiopesis do not receive a positive answer for L.W.:

§588. "I am revolving the decision to go away to-morrow." (This may be called a description of a state of mind.) -"Your arguments don't convince me; now as before it is my intention to go away tomorrow." Here one is tempted to call the intention a feeling. The feeling is one of certain rigidity; of unalterable determination. (But there are many different characteristic feelings and attitudes here.) -I am asked: "How long are you staying here?" I reply: "To-morrow I am going away; it's the end of my holidays."-But over against this: I say at the end of a quarrel "All right! Then I leave to-morrow!"; I make a decision.

        We may well ask, at this particular remark, what the setting of L.W. and N.N.’s relationship is. Previously, L.W. and N.N. were close enough to be in some sense indistinguishable; N.N. lived nearby enough, or visited often enough for N.N.’s presence, or lack of presence to interfere with L.W.’s work. Now it seems that L.W. is visiting N.N. and N.N. has apparently suggested at least that L.W. should stay where N.N. is, a situation we may intuitively find sadly familiar, if less sad and less familiar than holing up in a tawdry hotel waiting for someone to bring you money.

        How determined is L.W.? L.W. speaks of “The feeling is one of a certain rigidity; of unalterable determination” but then immediately adds, parenthetically, “but there are many different characteristic feelings and attitudes here.” It’s the end of L.W.’s planned stay: when asked, he says, “"To-morrow I am going away; it's the end of my holidays." Yet this is clearly not the deciding factor: “But over against this: I say at the end of a quarrel "All right! Then I leave to-morrow!"; I make a decision.” The presence of a quarrel suggests that perhaps L.W. may have been at least open to the possibility of staying longer. What makes up L.W.’s mind against it? It is perhaps his judgment of where this relationship is going, his need to retain or reclaim his independence, his right to decide itself: “I make a decision.”

        Yet L.W. seems to have trouble convincing N.N. that this is really L.W.’s intention. Perhaps this indicates just how used to getting his way N.N. is, or perhaps L.W. and N.N. have made the classic mistake of continuing to fool around while in the process of arguing and breaking up, the sort of larger context that tends to vitiate perlocutionary acts otherwise well-formed:

§589. "In my heart I have determined on it." And one is even inclined to point to one's breast as one says it. Psychologically this way of speaking should be taken seriously. Why should it be taken less seriously than the assertion that belief is a state of mind? (Luther: "Faith is under the left nipple.") §590. Someone might learn to understand the meaning of the expression "seriously meaning what one says" by means of a gesture of pointing at the heart. But now we must ask: "How does it come out that he has learnt it?"

        Something has gone so wrong in terms of L.W.’s intention to leave N.N. that L.W. has simply taken to pointing at his chest and remarking on how serious his mode of speaking is. It goes without saying to any familiar reader of Investigations, that this gesture in itself probably brings nothing new to the table.

        For L.W.’s mind is perhaps not all that made up: he has the experience of “veering” and clearly the argument with N.N. continues:

§591. Am I to say that any one who has an intention has an experience of veering towards something? That there are particular experiences of 'veering'? -Remember this case: if one urgently wants to make some remark, some objection, in a discussion, it often happens that one opens one's mouth, draws a breath and holds it; if one then decides to let the objection go, one lets the breath out. The experience of this process is evidently the experience of veering towards saying something. Anyone who observes me will know that I wanted to say something and then thought better of it. In this situation, that is. -In a different one he would not so interpret my behaviour, however characteristic of the intention to speak it may be in the present situation. And is there any reason for assuming that this same experience could not occur in some quite different situation -in which it has nothing to do with any 'veering'?

        This suggests that the character of the argument that L.W. and N.N. is having has totally degenerated, to where N.N. is just going on and on and not even noticing that L.W. clearly wants to say something, whether L.W. is opening his mouth, sighing, or pointing to the locus of his sincerity in his breast.

        The problem is that L.W.’s stated intention to go away, even his feeling of his desire to leave and his conviction that he will, the undertone of his mental or actual voice, is not playing the role it should in whatever is really going on between L.W. and N.N. and, at this point, L.W. knows it:

§592. "But when you say 'I intend to go away', you surely mean it! Here again it just is the mental act of meaning that gives the sentence life. “If you merely repeat the sentence after someone else, say in order to mock his way of speaking, then you say it without this act of meaning."-When we are doing philosophy it can sometimes look like that. But let us really think out various different situations and conversations, and the ways in which that sentence will be uttered in them.-"I always discover a mental undertone; perhaps not always the same one." And was there no undertone there when you repeated the sentence after someone else? And how is the 'undertone' to be separated from the rest of the experience of speaking? 
§593. A main cause of philosophical disease -a one-sided diet: one nourishes one's thinking with only one kind of example.

 In this context, we see the true import of the oft-quoted §593: L.W. is thinking that he needs to meet new people, date a different kind of person, with the revelation that he can perhaps do better.

        In the end, the argument perhaps turns to the sincerity of love itself, a question that L.W. earlier considered privately:

§594. "But the words, significantly uttered, have after all not only a surface, but also the dimension of depth!" After all, it just is the case that something different takes place when they are uttered significantly from when they are merely uttered. -How I express this is not the point. Whether I say that in the first case they have depth; or that something goes on in me, inside my mind, as I utter them; or that they have an atmosphere-it always comes to the same thing. "Well, if we all agree about it, won't it be true?" (I cannot accept someone else's testimony, because it is not testimony. It only tells me what he is inclined to say.)

It always comes to the same thing. L.W. has come to a decision about leaving and his love for N.N., who plaintively makes a sort of Kripkensteinian appeal for the reality of their love –which L.W. cannot accept. Perhaps N.N. has simply made too many promises he never kept: “I cannot accept someone else's testimony, because it is not testimony. It only tells me what he is inclined to say.”

        This relationship, like Wittgenstein’s philosophy, has a long and sometimes difficult finish. Earlier in the Investigations Wittgenstein gives the example “Mr. N.N. is dead” (§40), a wish we have perhaps all felt, if we have not gotten all our books, clothing and CDs back(fn5). It is clear that L.W. thinks about N.N. a lot, even trying to draw N.N.’s face from memory (§691), which perhaps makes §691 the saddest remark in the Investigations. Even ninety-four remarks later, L.W. is still thinking and talking about N.N., even thinking of seeing him again:

§689. “I am thinking of N.” “I am speaking of N.” How do I speak of him? I say, for instance, “I must go and see N today” -But surely that is not enough!

Not enough, indeed, since it never appears that L.W. and N.N. ever get back together in the Investigations, but L.W., as he does with so many of the other temptations presented to him in that book, manages “to go on” and by Part II(fn6)comes to terms with what he has lost:

IX. My grief is no longer the same; a memory which was still unbearable to me a year ago is now no longer so.

       In the sometimes difficult passages of Philosophical Investigations we learn many things. In these particular remarks we have learned the following: L.W. meets N.N. during compulsory service. L.W. is attracted to N.N. because of N.N.’s stature, and possibly because they are somehow alike. Unfortunately for L.W., N.N. is a manipulative sort, always keeping L.W. waiting and taking his money. N.N. perhaps moves to another town and L.W. goes to visit and ends up staying longer than he should. With great difficulty L.W. breaks up with N.N. and presumably returns home. L.W. never forgets N.N., but is able to move on, throw away the ladder he has ascended, saw off the branch he is sitting on and pass on in silence.


1 Which would make N.N. perhaps comparable in height to Wittgenstein himself.

2 Or again, not so patiently.

3 As much of this essay does with the text of Investigations.

4 And probably repeatedly throughout the course of the day.

5 Also another example of N.N.’s distracting and inspiring role to L.W.’s thinking.

6 With its highly salient discussion of “seeing as.”


1 comment:

Jordan said...

Until now, I have not met a man who can super-analyze a relationship. Even I got lost in the twists and turns of thinking.