In his Preface to Philosophical Investigations, Wittgenstein confessed his worry that, "It is not impossible that it should fall to the lot of this work, in its poverty and in the darkness of this time, to bring light into one brain or another -- but, of course, it is not likely." Unfortunately, Wittgenstein's worry proved prescient. Certain (in)famous remarks from Investigations, for example, have led respected philosophers to mistake him as endorsing: (i) a behaviorist view of the mind (PI §580: "An 'inner process' stands in need of outer criteria"), (ii) a quietist view of philosophical method (PI §124: "Philosophy ... leaves everything as it is"), and (iii) a conventionalist view of meaning (PI §43: "[T]he meaning of a word is its use in the language"). Fortunately, as William Day and Victor J. Krebs discuss in their helpful introduction to Seeing Wittgenstein Anew, more philosophers have begun, in Stanley Cavell's words, to take Wittgenstein's seriousness seriously -- his idiosyncratic writing style, the spiritual fervor of his personality, and the distinctive approach to philosophy that these reflect -- and, thereby, to avoid misreading him based on certain remarks viewed in isolation. The sixteen specially commissioned essays in this volume are a welcome addition to this trend.
The essays in Seeing Wittgenstein Anew are also welcome because, while discussing Wittgenstein's remarks on aspect-seeing, they elaborate three important themes that should interest not just philosophers and Wittgenstein scholars but anyone concerned with how we find meaning in -- or make sense of -- our lives. As Juliet Floyd observes in one of the volume's strongest contributions:
Wittgenstein concerned himself with the human drive to the symbolical, including ... the drive ... to seek and find perspectives from which the specific content of what is true and false can take a back seat to our absorption in aspects we can draw from (find or see in) a scheme of interpretation or arrangement.... [S]uch finding [of aspects] ... is ... characteristic of certain kinds of significance we find and create in our lives. (323)
Not, of course, that all aspect-seeing has "specific content ... tak[ing] a back seat." Beyond the abstract forms of aspect-seeing in logic and mathematics that Floyd highlights, aspect-seeing often involves particular facts from our everyday lives featured in some novel presentation specially arranged so that we might see in the everyday facts some new, or underappreciated, aspect of them. Or, in Steven G. Affeldt's words, "Wittgenstein's pervasive concern with aspect-seeing" can be understood narrowly and broadly. Understood narrowly, "It will be directed exclusively toward philosophers ... investigating ... 'the concepts of meaning, of understanding, of a proposition, of logic ... states of consciousness, and other things'." (272) But understood broadly, "[It] will be closely allied with Romantic investigations of our recurrent human failure genuinely to experience our world and to appreciate the significance of (events in) our lives." (273)
Before taking up the three topics that I have identified in these essays, I should mention that, taken together, these essays are rich with illuminating readings and extensions of the remarks on aspect-seeing and Wittgenstein's views generally. Those by Garry L. Hagberg, David R. Cerbone, Richard Eldridge, Edward Minar, Affeldt, and Floyd stand out for their depth and clarity. Two other excellent contributions have Avner Baz spiritedly critiquing Stephen Mulhall's work on aspect-seeing and then Mulhall responding in kind. Also noteworthy are the essays by Sandra Laugier, Timothy Gould, Stanley Cavell, Victor J. Krebs, and William Day. (Potential purchasers of this volume might like to know that Cavell's contribution is closely related to, if not exactly the same as, an essay previously published in two other collections.) Finally, the volume also includes William Day's valuable concordance of the unnumbered remarks from the first three editions of Philosophical Investigations, that is, scattered remarks in Part I and all of those in Part II. The first words of each unnumbered remark are listed with the corresponding page and/or paragraph number for each edition, including Peter Hacker and Joachim Schulte's recent fourth edition.
Not coincidentally, the three important themes from this volume that I discuss track the three misreadings with which I began. For Wittgenstein's actual views about mind, method, and meaning prove interesting, in large part, for the same reason that they are apt to be misunderstood. As Wittgenstein was well-aware, philosophical issues are often, if not typically, conceived of as dichotomous: either materialism or mystery about mind; either rationalism or empiricism in method; either conventionalism or realism about meaning, and so on. But while many philosophers almost casually ignore this -- perhaps because he fails to fit their preconceptions -- Wittgenstein wants to avoid the straitjacket of philosophy's dichotomies, its "long-established grooves of thought" (in Hagberg's memorable phrase).
Recognizing Wittgenstein's desire to avoid philosophically-motivated dichotomies, David R. Cerbone brings his remark -- "It is as if he became transparent to us through a human facial expression" -- to bear on contemporary philosophy of mind. Here, on one hand, materialists like Daniel Dennett would allow everyday psychological categories -- anger, hope, grief, and joy, for instance -- only as shorthand for the neuro-physical categories of some nascent brain science. On the other hand, mysterians like Thomas Nagel follow Descartes in conceiving of "mind, especially consciousness, as an elusive, mysterious wholly 'inner' phenomenon, possibly untouchable by the natural sciences." (143-144)
Now Cerbone concedes that Wittgenstein seems to oscillate between materialism and mystery. On one hand, he wants to "turn ... away from an 'occult' or 'magical' conception of the mind, as a place or realm where meaning happens ..." On the other hand, Wittgenstein "insists on the legitimacy of the concept or category of the soul, of talking about and treating others as ensouled without any desire to demonstrate that, say, all talk about the soul is really just talk about the body ..." (145) But seeing this apparent oscillation as significant, Cerbone argues that:
Taken together ... these two tendencies provide a way ... past the current deadlock in the philosophy of mind since they suggest a kind of blindness on the part of both sides ... to the 'transparency' afforded by 'a human facial expression'. That is, for materialist and mysterian alike, the play of the face, the ebb and flow of gesture and expression, none of that is ... even relevant ..." (145)
And these "subtleties of glance, gesture, and tone" (PI 228d) do seem relevant to the "problem of other minds," that is, the question of whether other human beings are, in fact, conscious with thoughts and feelings of their own. Indeed, though both materialists and mysterians regard it as insignificant, we typically have no doubts that other human beings (as opposed to the lumps of gray matter inside their skulls or the silicon chips inside computers) have self-conscious mental lives. But what this absence of doubt reveals is not that "the play of the face, the ebb and flow of gesture and expression" are evidentially relevant, as if the question of whether a friend has a conscious mental life genuinely arises for us and her facial expressions soothe our anxiety on this score. Rather, the expressions at play on our friend's face foreclose the question of her mindedness. They are criterial of -- help define -- what it means to have a mental life. Or, in light of the expressions at play on another's face, we might say: "My attitude towards him is an attitude towards a soul. I am not of the opinion that he has a soul." (PI 178d)
Though talk of blindness best fits those alien to our everyday ways of thinking and (most) philosophers are not really alien in this sense -- 'willful or pretend ignorance' might be more accurate -- Cerbone's basic point that contemporary philosophers of mind are 'blind' to "the 'transparency' afforded by 'a human facial expression'" is essentially correct. For contemporary materialists regard our everyday psychological concepts as hypotheses about what's going on inside our brains/bodies. As Cerbone explains:
In our dealings with one another, we [are supposed to] infer the states picked out by [our everyday psychological] concepts, and the basis of our inference is the "behavior" we observe. Such "states" are thus not anything we perceive: We do not really see another's joy or anger ... [Thus] casting our ordinary psychological concepts in the role of a theory about the inner workings of the human body (treating joy, for example, as an "inward thing") ... denies precisely the kind of transparency Wittgenstein attributes to the face. (157)
Thus, Cerbone's fundamental question: why do philosophers feel compelled to treat "glance, gesture, and tone" as mere data, considerations that may or may not support the existence of some hypothesized internal state? Alternatively, why do philosophers feel compelled to deny that we can see joy on a child's face?
While any satisfactory answer will be complex, the remarks on aspect-seeing play a part. For what is at stake -- that another's soul (or mind) can be transparent through what I see expressed on her face -- is a case of aspect-seeing. So, why do philosophers feel compelled to reject aspect-seeing, at least when it comes to seeing others as angry, grief-stricken, or joyful? In reply, Cerbone offers this remark of Wittgenstein's:
The concept of "seeing" makes a tangled impression. Well, it is tangled.—I look at the landscape, my gaze ranges over it, I see all sorts of distinct and indistinct movement; this impresses itself sharply upon me, that is quite hazy. After all, how completely ragged what we see can appear! And now look all that can be meant by "description of what is seen".—But this just is what is called description of what is seen. There is not one genuine proper case of such description—the rest being vague, something which awaits clarification, or which must just be swept aside as rubbish. (PI 200a)
In other words, seeing the expression on someone's face as anger is part of the variegated tangle that constitutes seeing for us. Furthermore, our description of what we see as anger and, more generally, as making another's thoughts transparent are ways we have of describing what we see, no less legitimate than other forms of description. Contemporary philosophers of mind, however, typically fail to respect this pluralism and subscribe to sophisticated versions of "[trying] to define the concept of a material object in terms of 'what is really seen'." (PI 200b) On their view, we do not -- and cannot -- really see someone's anger right out in the open on her face and in her gestures. Rather, what we see can only be data for constructing theories and drawing inferences about the inner goings on of another's brain/body. Beyond such data, whatever else we think we see must "await[...] clarification" (i.e. reduction) or "be swept aside as rubbish." At least in part, then, denying that the expression on another's face gives us a window onto her soul stems from a prejudice that materialists (at least) hold dear and Wittgenstein would have us reject, namely, the idea that there is "one genuine proper case of ... description." Describing what is seen -- describing reality -- is a matter for all of our linguistic resources, not just those of fundamental physics nor even, more broadly, just those of certain privileged scientific disciplines. As Cerbone reminds us, Wittgenstein is not hard up for categories. We should not be either.
On the quietist (mis)reading of Wittgenstein, philosophy is impotent to generate new knowledge; it merely "leaves everything as it is." Connecting Wittgenstein's remarks on aspect-seeing from Part II of Investigations with his distinctive method evinced in Part I, the essays by Hagberg, Krebs, Eldridge, Minar, and Floyd and to a lesser extent those by Mulhall and Affeldt not only help establish the unity of Wittgenstein's method but put to rest the idea that philosophy, on his view, has nothing to tell us. More importantly, in doing these two things, these essays help us appreciate Wittgenstein's method of constructing perspicuous representations via (telling) description and (creative) arrangement of familiar, ordinary facts. As we come to understand the distinctive way that Wittgenstein tries to engage -- and, yes, reason with -- his readers, the ubiquity of his kind of 'reasoning' begins to dawn on us. For though he provides neither deductions nor empirical explanations, his method is a kind of reasoning, much like the reasoning employed by critics of the arts, literature, and music when they help others see (or hear) meaning in a work.
Consider these remarks of his on method from Investigations Part I:
•"We must do away with all explanation, and description alone must take its place.... [Philosophical] problems are solved, not by giving new information, but by arranging what we have always known." (PI §109)
•"Philosophy simply puts everything before us, and neither explains nor deduces anything. --Since everything lies open to view there is nothing to explain." (PI §126)
•"The aspects of things that are most important for us are hidden because of their simplicity and familiarity. (One is unable to notice something because it is always before one's eyes.)" (PI §129)
•"The concept of a perspicuous representation is of fundamental significance for us. It earmarks the form of account we give, the way we look at things."
"A perspicuous representation produces just that understanding which consists in 'seeing connexions'. Hence the importance of finding and inventing intermediate cases." (PI §122)
That philosophical problems are not to be solved with new information might seem to bolster the case for Wittgenstein's quietism. The same goes for his remark that philosophy involves neither explanation nor deduction but only description. However, as his talk of "arranging" and "finding and inventing intermediate cases" suggests and the entire Investigations surely attests, Wittgenstein conceives of philosophy as an activity, not something passive or even passively accepting of received 'wisdom'. Rather, as PI §109 and §129 imply, he wants us to pay attention to "what we have always known" and to notice aspects of simple, familiar things that may be difficult to see precisely because they are "always before one's eyes."
Ironically, when Wittgenstein talks of perspicuous representation, what he means may not be entirely clear. But his remarks on aspect-seeing help illuminate his meaning as these passages from Seeing Wittgenstein Anew show:
Noticing aspects is precisely that understanding that consists in "seeing connections" -- the very understanding (of internal relations) that Wittgenstein ... made the object of his method at least since [his Remarks on] Frazer. (Krebs, 128)
The dawning of an aspect ... [c]rucially ... involves my actively placing the object seen in a context of comparisons: seeing "a likeness" [eine Ahnlichkeit; a similarity] (PI 193a), not just seeing an object. (Eldridge, 174)
In the dawning of an aspect, after all, one perceives "likenesses" (PI 193a) and "internal relations" (PI 212a), which have in a sense been hidden not by obstacles in the scene itself, but by barriers in us, by our failure to "see connections" (PI §122). Aspect-dawning is (at least) a metaphor for the kind of understanding a perspicuous representation ... produce[s]. (Minar, 184-185)
In other words, we might say that perspicuous representations are constructed precisely to induce the dawning -- or seeing -- of aspects. Thus, a seemingly distinct, peripheral topic -- aspect-seeing -- lies at the core of Wittgenstein's method.
Take "intermediate cases" and the connections they reveal. Whether we find or invent them, they connect with ordinary, familiar things that, in some sense, "we have always known" and bring out similarities that we had not -- or at least not fully -- appreciated, enabling us to see these ordinary, familiar things in new ways, under new aspects. So, Wittgenstein is no quietist. Philosophy, on his view, does produce new knowledge and understanding. Moreover, his remarks on aspect-seeing elucidate how what "lies open to view" and "is always before one's eyes" possess the depth to support this kind of knowledge, that is, the knowledge we get when some new perspective on the familiar facts of our everyday lives dawns on us. Of course, the availability and importance of such knowledge has not been lost on novelists, poets, and other creative users of language. And this leads to the third and perhaps most important theme that recurs throughout the contributions to Seeing Wittgenstein Anew.
Unlike novelists and poets who know well that, in Affeldt's words, "[T]he work of description and simply put[ting] everything before us cannot themselves be simple matters" (274), others may be unimpressed by Wittgenstein's emphasis on description. For regarding how our words have meaning, how they 'latch on' to the world, we tend to polarize our options -- conventionalism or "realism" -- and gravitate towards the latter. Conventionalism holds that what our words mean is a matter of convention: not just in the superficial sense that we could have settled upon a different word to express this or that category, but in the deeper sense that the classifications effected by our categories (and expressed by our words) are a matter of our choice, our construction. "Realism," by contrast, holds that we have no choice: the classifications effected by our categories (and expressed by our words) are imposed on us by reality. Now "realism" proves attractive, in part, because it elides any role for us. As Cavell puts it:
[I]n thinking of the relation of what we say to what there is, we put aside our part in speech and expect, or demand, that words and world meet, dictate to each other, without my intervention, as if I have no power or responsibility in the matter of the fit between language and my world. (94)
Thus, because many, philosophers included, tend toward "realism" about meaning, Wittgenstein's emphasis on description leaves them cold. For, on this view, description is essentially automatic such that -- if our perceptual-linguistic faculties are hooked up to the world correctly -- the conceptual-linguistic response called for by the world is clear, leaving no "power or responsibility" for us.
As several contributors to Seeing Wittgenstein Anew rightly suggest, Wittgenstein has no truck with this passive view of description and his rejection of it relates to aspect-seeing. As Floyd puts it, "'Seeing-in' implies that there is nothing intrinsically necessary that requires us to apply a concept to a particular situation, and that we therefore bear some responsibility for ... the interpretation of experience." (322) In other words, because experience can be seen under an indefinite number of aspects -- can be understood in an indefinite number of ways -- we have a more-or-less active role to play in making sense of it. Moreover, this implies that -- as Iris Murdoch, Stanley Cavell, and especially Cora Diamond have emphasized -- our life with language is everywhere unavoidably an ethical matter, undermining the idea of 'ethics' as a distinct area of study and the related idea that ethical questions only arise when specifically ethical concepts are in play.
Though the idea that our life with language is intrinsically ethical -- that how active and engaged we are in making sense of our experience reflects on us, on our interests and values -- receives little explicit attention in Seeing Wittgenstein Anew, several contributors clearly accept this idea. At the close of his essay, for instance, Avner Baz declares:
[W]e are continually in danger of losing our world, by, as it were, taking it as a matter of course.... [W]e continually have to restore an intimacy with the world -- an intimacy that is forever at stake, and that if taken for granted is bound to be lost. The continual danger, in other words, is that, succumbing to habitual and convenient ways of treating, or regarding, things, we will lose our ability to see them. (248)
And these words of Baz echo those of T.S. Eliot when, writing about William Blake, he noticed that, "[O]rdinary processes of society ... [with their] impersonal ideas ... obscure what we really are and feel, what we really want, and what really excites our interest." (Eliot's words, in turn, recall the "Romantic investigations" that Affeldt, and now Baz, find allied with Wittgenstein's interest in aspect-seeing.) On Baz's view, then, we are responsible for preventing our experience, our world from becoming a rote, lifeless affair, and we fight against this -- that is, we fight "habitual and convenient ways of ... regarding things" (or Eliot's "impersonal ideas") -- by (continually) finding in our experience new aspects of the world to be struck by. And surely, such a project knows no bounds but encompasses all of our life with language. (While Baz's Romantic project no doubt faces great difficulties, it seems capable of succeeding, at least with respect to some of us some of the time. Accordingly, it seems a bit too pessimistic to conclude that, in William Day's words, "[T]he loss of interest in the world's aspects [as an adult] is no less a part of our natural history than having that interest [as a child]." (218))
Since Wittgenstein allows -- some might even say encourages -- an active, creative role for us in applying concepts to experience, he is no "realist" about meaning. But neither is he a conventionalist. For we have, Cavell observes, "what seem opposite criteria for the concept of 'attachment to our words'." (94) On one hand, we have "the aspect case" in which, as we have seen, aspect-dawning suggests fresh, new uses for our words and concepts. On the other hand, however, we also have what Cavell calls "the case of the draw of essence" in which:
[S]omething like the absence of the experience ... of the word ... is required, but also something like its being called forth by (the experience of) the reality of what it conceptualizes, that this thing is a table (not an aspect of a level of water or of a collection of numbers or ...)." (95)
Thus, despite the primary focus in Seeing Wittgenstein Anew on "the aspect case," we should not forget "the case of the draw of essence" when characterizing Wittgenstein's views about meaning. Contrary to what an exclusive focus on aspect-seeing might suggest, he does not regard our use of words and concepts as entirely unconstrained. Merely recognizing that concepts do not apply automatically through some (magical) meeting between words and world -- and, correspondingly, that we play a role in how experience is characterized -- does not imply that anything goes. We do not have a completely freehand in how we characterize experience because, for one thing, there are these cases that Cavell calls the "draw of essence" in which reality -- what a thing is -- makes it clear to us what concept is called for. But conventionalism -- the polar opposite of "realism" -- requires just such a freehand. Since, on Wittgenstein's view, we do not have a completely freehand to carve up and categorize experience as we see fit, Wittgenstein is not a conventionalist about meaning.
Perhaps because I would regard any decent volume dedicated to Wittgenstein's remarks on aspect-seeing as long overdue and be grateful for its existence, I find few flaws in Seeing Wittgenstein Anew. However, I do have two complaints. First, given its predominant focus on visual aspects, someone thinking about aspect perception for the first time based on Seeing Wittgenstein Anew might be excused for thinking the phenomenon fairly limited in application. But, as Avner Baz points out, "[A]spect-dawning can happen virtually anywhere and with anything ..." (247) Unfortunately, Baz's important reminder comes only in a footnote at the end of his essay. Granted, fleeting references reinforce Baz's reminder: Baz and Hagberg talk of hearing a stretch of music as an introduction or as a variation on a theme; Hagberg, Eldridge, Minar, and Floyd discuss 'aspects of organization' which may involve neither representational nor even visual elements. But the overall picture of aspect perception one gets from Seeing Wittgenstein Anew is skewed towards the visual and apt, therefore, to mislead.
The other complaint concerns how significant disagreements among contributors are handled. For instance, various contributors discuss how aspect perception involves "internal relations" and "seeing connections." But Baz apparently regards the phrase "internal relations" with some suspicion. (255) Furthermore, while it seems natural (and harmless) to think of the "connections" and "internal relations" involved in aspect perception as conceptual, Baz objects ("the connections between our attitude to things and the aspects under which we can see them are not conceptual" (244), emphasis in original). One wonders whether (and how) Baz's rejection of conceptual connections here relate to his suspicion of "internal relations." And it is not just Baz. Though Victor J. Krebs, one of the volume's editors, purports to have no issue with "internal relations," he insists with Baz that, "[Wittgenstein] does not mean conceptual (or logical) connections ... [H]e does not want to make us intellectually understand anything." (125) Rather, as Krebs understands it, Wittgenstein's method "depends on ... a mode of awareness that does not issue from the intellect but ... is rooted in the bodily." (123) While we might worry here about the imposition of new dichotomies onto Wittgenstein's thought, my complaint now concerns the paucity of enlightening discussion about such crucial matters. Though editing a volume like this can be a thankless task, this reviewer at least would have appreciated a greater effort to have the contributors squarely face and thoroughly engage their differences with their fellow contributors, especially on questions as important to aspect-seeing as the nature of the connections involved.
© 2010 James Taggart
James Taggart received his PhD in Philosophy from Brown University in 2009. He lives in Maryland.