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This New Yet Unapproachable America
Lectures after Emerson after Wittgenstein
By Stanley Cavell
The University of Chicago PressCopyright © 1989 Stanley Cavell
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Wittgenstein as a Philosopher of Culture
When the organizers of a small seminar on Wittgenstein, to be held in Tromsø, Norway, in late September of 1986, invited me to take for my topic Wittgenstein as a philosopher of culture, the chance to view the world from above the Arctic Circle evidently so enchanted me that I accepted, not realizing until my flight back down to the bewitchments of New England that I never learned specifically what had been expected of or hoped for from me — not even whether I was to speak primarily to an anthropological sense of culture in which every organized society has or is a culture (one or more), and hence about Wittgenstein's relation perhaps to matters of so-called cultural relativism or perhaps to his emphasis on the social drive of language, as opposed to its private drive; or whether primarily (or equally) to an artistic sense of high culture which a given society may lack (in one or more (even all?) of the arts), and hence perhaps about Wittgenstein's standing as a writer, and the bearing of this calling on his calling as a philosopher (not a bearing most philosophers have had to contend with — or is this true?), or perhaps about his relation to his fund of reading, to writers he admired or was provoked by, ones he may or may not have included among his others, a fund famous for including names such as Kierkegaard and Spengler and Weininger and Freud, and notably putting behind him the names most professional philosophers in the English-speaking tradition of philosophy would have dwelt upon as central to their work, part of their education (Frege, Russell, Moore), and not mentioning those of the German-speaking professional tradition (notably Kant and Hegel). Wittgenstein shares his exclusions with, or found they were made possible by, the other major figures in the development of so-called analytical philosophy, whereas his inclusions he shares with, and found were made possible by, no one — I mean by no other philosopher formed by or against the development of analytical philosophy (neither in the mathematical-logical-physical line coming from Frege and Russell and inspiring logical positivism nor in the line of linguistic analysis coming from Moore and leading, obliquely, to Austin).
The singular inclusions were more on my mind than Wittgenstein's shared exclusions as I turned over the invitation from Norway and found my ideas, while going off in various directions, to be guided by two thoughts, both, I believe, controversial.
First, even when the acceptance of Wittgenstein as one of the major philosophical voices in the West since Kant may be taken for granted, it is apt to be controversial to find that his reception by professional philosophy is insufficient, that the spiritual fervor or seriousness of his writing is internal to his teaching, say the manner (or method) to the substance, and that something in the very professionalization of philosophy debars professional philosophers from taking his seriousness seriously. I put this so as to bring out a structural pathos in this debarment — in philosophy's blindness to, or constricted view of, one of its masters — for various reasons. Above all to indicate that I am not interested in expressing or assessing blame for this situation, either of those who may neglect the spiritual fervor as philosophically impertinent or of those who may insist on the fervor impertinently. Wittgenstein's detractors will respond to his seriousness as a matter of psychology or at best an aesthetic phenomenon, a stylistic excess; his followers are more likely to feel it as an abiding moral or religious demand, an unmarked — perhaps unmarkable — abyss.
My second guiding thought, perhaps not so much controversial as not quite considered, is that the idea of a philosophy of culture signals something fundamental, if not yet quite surveyable, in Wittgenstein's teaching, internal to it; it is a way of seeing the teaching. This means that I do not take Wittgenstein's observations (those I know, say those collected in Professor von Wright's admirable collection of passages from Wittgenstein's unpublished manuscripts, translated under the title Culture and Value) on, for example, music and Jewishness and originality and architecture and Shakespeare, to constitute Wittgenstein's claim as a philosopher of culture. In themselves those observations are on the whole not as interesting as those to be found on these or similar subjects in the pages of, let us say, Theodor Adorno's cultural criticism, and certainly not in those of Hannah Arendt, let alone in comparable pages of Kafka or Freud, or those of Nietzsche or Marx, figures of something like Wittgenstein's intellectual distinction and force. Wittgenstein's remarks on so-called cultural matters of the sort I cited are primarily of interest because it is Wittgenstein who has made them. That is no small matter to understand. It requires us to ask who or what Wittgenstein is, and what then constitutes his claim as a philosopher of culture, and how that is internal to his teaching.
To say what such questions entail will be my way of heeding Professor von Wright's caution in his Preface to Culture and Value that "these notes can be properly understood and appreciated only against the background of Wittgenstein's philosophy." I should add at once that by "Wittgenstein's philosophy" or "Wittgenstein's teaching" I will always, and almost always exclusively, mean what is contained in Philosophical Investigations. One may object to this procedure that one cannot understand that work without seeing it in its development from his Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus and from his work of the 1930s. That may be so; so may the reverse. My subject here, however, can only be the Investigations as I have inherited it in the philosophical work I do. Of the differences in my way of seeing the Investigations from the ways of others that I am familiar with, certain differences of emphasis are of immediate pertinence in sketching, even in a few strokes, what I mean by saying that there is a perspective from which Wittgenstein's philosophy may be seen as a philosophy of culture. I think of them as different directions of answer to the questions: What is the everydayness or ordinariness of language? and What is a form of life?
Everydayness as Home
The Investigations lends itself to, perhaps it calls out for, competing emphases in its consideration of human discourse — an emphasis on its distrust of language or an emphasis on its trust of ordinary human speech. The competition is the emblem of philosophy's struggle with itself. Every student of the book will have some reaction to both sides, or voices.
Those who emphasize Wittgenstein's distrust of language take most to heart the side of Wittgenstein's thought that speaks variously of "problems arising through a misinterpretation of our forms of language" (Philosophical Investigations, § 111). Coming to the Investigations not from the Tractatus but as it were for itself, what strikes me is rather the side of Wittgenstein that trusts ordinary speech, that finds what peace there is from the "deep disquietudes" (ibid.) of our philosophical misinterpretation in the appeal of the everyday. I do not mean that in the Tractatus Wittgenstein distrusts everyday language (for everyday interests?). There he had famously said at 5.5563, "In fact, all the propositions of our everyday language, just as they stand, are in perfect logical order." But that order is exactly not, as I would like to say it is for the Investigations, recognized as the medium of philosophical thinking. The power of this recognition of the ordinary for philosophy is bound up with the recognition that refusing or forcing the order of the ordinary is a cause of philosophical emptiness (say avoidance) and violence. Whatever the distance between what in the passage just quoted from the Tractatus is called unsererUmgangsspmche (translated by Pears and McGuinness as "our everyday language," and may, no less dangerously, be translated as "our colloquial speech"; C. K. Ogden's earlier translation has "our colloquial language") and what in the Investigations is called unserer alläglichen Sprache (§ 134) (translated by Anscombe as "our everyday language"), their continuity in Wittgenstein's thought is secured by his sense of them both as ours; the distance is measured by his later sense of the ordinary in connection with an idea of home. What I had in mind in alluding to some "danger" in translating Umgangssprache as colloquial speech is that it may make words appear as fashions of speech, dictates of sociability, manners of putting something that are more or less evanescent or arbitrary and are always to be passed beyond philosophically into something more permanent and precise. The danger in translating Umgangssprache as colloquial speech is that it leaves out the German word's extraordinary representation of everday language as a form of circulation, communication as exchange; it makes the word too, let us say, colloquial. I do not say that the informality of the colloquial is insignificant, merely that it is no more significant than the formality of the colloquy. Yet philosophers find it their intellectual birthright to distrust the everyday, as in Descartes's second meditation: "... words impede me, and I am nearly deceived by the terms of ordinary language. For we say that we see the same wax...." And I know of no respectable philosopher since the time of Descartes who entrusts the health of the human spirit to ordinary language with Wittgenstein's completeness. (I am not here considering Austin and the areas of conjunction between him and Wittgenstein. I merely say that my old teacher seems to me (except in certain notable cases) fantastically underrated in the circles I mostly move in — either scientized or else accepted as the superficial sensibility he liked to portray himself, with profound deviousness, to be.) Philosophers before Wittgenstein had found that our lives are distorted or waylaid by illusion. But what other philosopher has found the antidote to illusion in the particular and repeated humility of remembering and tracking the uses of humble words, looking philosophically as it were beneath our feet rather than over our heads?
Inquiring that way (into entrusting the health of the human spirit) I am in fact armed with names, before all with those of Emerson and of Thoreau, whose emphasis on what they call the common, the everyday, the near, the low, I have in recent years repeatedly claimed as underwriting the ordinariness sought in the ordinary language methods of Wittgenstein and of Austin. I will come back more than once to Emerson and to Thoreau, but I have at once to acknowledge a commitment, given my stake in the method of the recovery of the ordinary, to find a measure of Wittgenstein's originality in the originality of his approach to the everyday.
I continue to be caught by Wittgenstein's description of his itinerary as asking oneself: "Is the word ever actually used this way in the language game which is its original home?" (§ 116). It expresses a sense that in philosophy (wherever that is) words are somehow "away," as if in exile, since Wittgenstein's word seeks its Heimat. The image or sense of our words as out, as absent, or truant, casts a certain light on Wittgenstein's speaking of language in philosophy as "idle" (cf. § 132): it presents that condition as caused, not as it were by something in language, but, since these are our words, caused by us; or at least it is a condition for which we, each of us philosophers, is responsible, or say answerable, not perhaps as if we personally banish our words but as if it is up to us to seek their return. Wittgenstein says in the sentence following that containing Heimat: "What we do is to bring words back from their metaphysical to their everyday use." Wir führen die Wörter.... We as opposed to "philosophers" (to that side of ourselves); and, I think, the way we "bring" them as opposed to the way philosophers "use" them. (From which point of view is the idea of "use" seen here, from that of philosophy or that of the everyday? Is the everyday a point of view? Is thinking so itself a philosophical distortion? Then perhaps there is a suggestion that to think of the daily round of exchange as "using" words is already to surmise that we misuse them, mistreat them, even everyday. As if the very identifying of the everyday may take too much philosophy.) It would a little better express my sense of Wittgenstein's practice if we translate the idea of bringing words back as leading them back, shepherding them; which suggests not only that we have to find them, to go to where they have wandered, but that they will return only if we attract and command them, which will require listening to them. But the translation is only a little better, because the behavior of words is not something separate from our lives, those of us who are native to them, in mastery of them. The lives themselves have to return.
But now, even if someone agreed that such intuitions are from time to time expressed in Wittgenstein's writing, doesn't the fancifulness or melodrama of the way I have expressed them show at once that they present a psychological problem (mine, not Wittgenstein's), to be treated at best as aesthetic matters? I might reply that my expressions are no more melodramatic than such moments in Wittgenstein as his describing us as "captive" and "bewitched" in relation to language. But this might only mean that Wittgenstein occasionally yields to a flair for melodrama. That aside for the moment, Wittgenstein's sense of the loss or exile of words is much more extreme than the couple of images I have cited.
The sense of words as "away," as having to be guided "back," pervades the Investigations, to the extent, say, that the sense of speaking "outside a language-game" (§ 47) is something that pervades the Investigations. I pick here a phrase about outsideness whose entrance is quite casual, without drama, both to indicate the pervasiveness of the sense I wish to describe and to recognize that it may be shared only if it describes one's sense of one's own practice in thinking as derived from Wittgenstein's. That he inspires various practices is sufficiently notorious that I need hardly apologize for wishing to follow my own, so long as it genuinely traces back to his text, to however limited a region. My feeling, however, is that the threat or fact of exile in Wittgenstein's philosophizing — I mean of course the exile of words — is not limited.
Exile is under interpretation in Wittgenstein's general characterization: "A philosophical problem has the form: 'I don't know my way about'" (§ 123). That characterization is just made for Wittgenstein's idea of a "perspicuous (re) presentation" (cf. § 122) as marking the end or disappearance of a philosophical problem. What Wittgenstein means by a grammatical investigation and its eliciting of our criteria is precisely the philosophical path to this end or disappearance of a philosophical problem. Then one can take the idea of not knowing one's way about, of being lost, as the form specifically of the beginning or appearance of a philosophical problem. I am naturally attracted by the implication of the German here — Ich kenne mich nicht aus — that the issue is one of a loss of self-knowledge; of being, so to speak, at a loss. If there is melodrama here, it is everywhere in the Investigations.
Doubtless I bear the marks of reading in Thoreau and in texts of related writers. I think of the eighth chapter of Walden, entitled "The Village": "Not till we are lost [or turned around], in other words, not till we have lost the world, do we begin to find ourselves, and realize where we are and the infinite extent of our relations." Lost and found and turning are founding concepts of Thoreau's Walden, which takes up into itself various scriptural traditions of the identification of spiritual darkness as loss, of requiring a turn, of the search for a path; as for instance in what is I suppose the greatest opening moment in Western literature specifically to picture this state: "In the middle of the journey of our life I came to myself within a dark wood where the straight way was lost. Ah, how hard a thing it is to tell of that wood...." Of course I cite Dante to associate Wittgenstein's text with another greatness, but equally to remember the commonness of a certain dimension of the Investigations' preoccupations, including the stress on difficulty. (The opening short paragraph of Walden does not contain the word journey but instead sojourner.)
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Table of ContentsWork in Progress: An Introductory Report
I. Declining Decline
II. Finding as Founding