Stephen Mulhall introduces Wittgenstein (Part I)
If you’ve got twenty minutes, you can catch the first half of a presentation Stephen Mulhall has given introducing the philosophy of Wittgenstein. It’s a contribution to St John’s Video Timeline Project. Mulhall’s a leading interpreter. (He’ll also be giving Cambridge’s Stanton lectures next year, which will commence on 20 Jan 2014, and will no doubt prove rewarding.)
Stephen Mulhall on Wittgenstein’s Method
“What does Wittgenstein take to be distinctive of a philosophical interest in things? What is the typical character of a philosophical question or problem? According to the discussion of philosophical method in sections 89–133 of the Investigations, a philosopher is interested in the essence of things; she is driven by an urge to comprehend not the facts of nature but rather the basis or essence of everything empirical – the space of possibilities within which what happens to be the case locates itself. A philosophical question is thus one to which the acquisition of further empirical knowledge is irrelevant: the philosopher does not seek new knowledge in order to alleviate ignorance; she seeks understanding in order to relieve a sense of confusion about what she already knows. And whereas traditional philosophers tend to conceive of the essence of things as hidden from view, hence as having to be revealed, say by penetrating the veil of mere appearance, Wittgenstein suggests instead that essence finds expression in grammar – in the kinds of statement that we make about the relevant phenomenon. In short, our philosophical inquiries into essence can and must take the form of grammatical investigations; the essence of things can be rendered surveyable simply by a rearrangement of what any speaker always already knows – how to use words, what to say when.”
“Wittgenstein’s view seems to be that the kinds of statement that we make about a phenomenon, and the kinds of statement that we do not make, make manifest the kind of phenomenon it is; if we clarify the criteria we employ for counting something as a phenomenon of the relevant kind, we thereby clarify that without which such a phenomenon would not be the kind of thing it is. What we judge that it does (not) make sense to say about something makes manifest its essential possibilities, the kinds of features it must possess if it is to count as the kind of thing it is, as well as those features it may possess (and the kinds of variation of feature to which it might intelligibly be subject) without ceasing to count as that kind of thing. To know this is, in effect, to grasp our concept of that thing; and what more might there be to knowing the essence of a thing than that?”
from “Wittgenstein on Religious Belief,” The Oxford Handbook to Wittgenstein, Eds. Oskari Kuusela and Marie McGinn, (OUP, 2011), 757-8.
Ludwig Wittgenstein on the Resurrection
I read: ‘No man can say that Jesus is Lord, but by the Holy Ghost.’ — And it is true: I cannot call him Lord; because that says nothing to me. I could call him ‘the paragon,’ ‘God’ even — or rather, I can understand it when he is called thus; but I cannot utter the word ‘Lord’ with meaning. Because I do not believe that he will come to judge me; because that says nothing to me. And it could say something to me, only if I lived completely differently.
What inclines even me to believe in Christ’s Resurrection? It is as though I play with the thought. — If he did not rise from the dead, then he decomposed in the grave like any other man. He is dead and decomposed. In that case he is a teacher like any other and can no longer help; and once more we are orphaned and alone. So we have to content ourselves with wisdom and speculation. We are in a sort of hell where we can do nothing but dream, roofed in, as it were, and cut off from heaven. But if I am to be REALLY saved, — what I need is certainty — not wisdom, dreams of speculation — and this certainty is faith. And faith is faith in what is needed by my heart, my soul, not my speculative intelligence. For it is my soul with its passions, as it were with its flesh and blood, that has to be saved, not my abstract mind. Perhaps we can say: Only love can believe the Resurrection. Or: It is love that believes the Resurrection. We might say: Redeeming love believes even in the Resurrection; holds fast even to the Resurrection. What combats doubt is, as it were, redemption.
Ludwig Wittgenstein, Culture and Value, Ed. G.H. von Wright, Trans. Peter Winch, (University of Chicago Press, 1980), 33e.
Ludwig Wittgenstein, Letter to Drury
“I have thought a fair amount about our conversation on Sunday and I would like to say, or rather not to say but write, a few things about the conversations. Mainly I think this: Don’t think about yourself, but think about others, e.g. your patients. You said in the Park yesterday that possibly you had made a mistake in taking up medicine: you immediately added that probably it was wrong to think such a thing at all. I am sure it is. But not because being a doctor you may not go the wrong way, or go to the dogs, but because if you do, this has nothing to do with your choice of profession being a mistake. For what human being can say what would have been the right thing if this is the wrong one? You didn’t make a mistake because there was nothing at the time you knew or ought to have known that you overlooked. Only this one could have called making a mistake: and even if you had made a mistake in this sense, this would now have to be regarded as a datum as all the other circumstances inside and outside which you can’t alter (control). The thing now is to live in the world in which you are, not to think or dream about the world you would like to be in. Look at people’s sufferings, physical and mental, you have them close to hand, and this ought to be a good remedy for your troubles. Another way is to take a rest whenever you ought to take one and collect yourself. (Not with me because I wouldn’t rest you.) As to religious thoughts I do not think the craving for placidity is religious: I think a religious person regards placidity or peace as a gift from heaven, not as something one ought to hunt after. Look at your patients more closely as human beings in trouble and enjoy more the opportunity you have to say ‘good night’ to so many people. This alone is a gift from heaven which many people would envy you. And this sort of thing ought to heal your frayed soul, I believe. It won’t rest it; but when you are healthily tired you can just take a rest. I think in some sense you don’t look at people’s faces closely enough.
“In conversations with me don’t so much try to have the converstations which you think would taste well (though you will never get that anyway) but try to have the conversations which will have the pleastantest after-taste. It is most important that we should not one day have to tell ourselves that we had wasted the time we were allowed to spend together.
“I wish you good thoughts but chiefly good feelings.”
Ludwig Wittgenstein, in Wittgenstein: A Religious Point of View? Ed. Peter Winch, (Routledge, 2007), 125-6.
On reading the gospels
A. Ludwig Wittgenstein
“Kierkegaard writes: If Christianity were so easy and cosy, why should God in his Scriptures have set Heaven and Earth in motion and threatened eternal punishments? — Question: But in that case why is this Scripture so unclear? If we want to warn someone of a terrible danger, do we go about it by telling him a riddle whose solution will be the warning? — But who is to say that the Scripture really is unclear? Isn’t it possible that it was essential in this case to ‘tell a riddle’? And that, on the other hand, giving a more direct warning would necessarily have had the wrong effect? God has four people recount the life of his incarnate Son, in each case differently and with inconsistencies — but might we not say: It is important that this narrative should not be more than quite averagely historically plausible just so that this should not be taken as the essential, decisive thing? So that the letter should not be believed more strongly than is proper and the spirit may receive its due. I.e. what you are supposed to see cannot be communicated even by the best and most accurate historian; and therefore a mediocre account suffices, is even to be preferred. For that too can tell you what you are supposed to be told. (Roughly in the way a mediocre stage set can be better than a sophisticated one, painted trees better than real ones, — because these might distract attention from what matters.)
“The Spirit puts what is essential, essential for your life into these words. The point is precisely that you are only supposed to see clearly what appears clearly even in this representation. (I am not sure how far all this is exactly in the spirit of Kierkegaard.)”
from Culture and Value, Ed. G.H. von Wright, Trans. Peter Winch, (University of Chicago Press, 1980), 31e-32e.
B. Wayne Booth
“At a bear minimum, the Gospels demonstrate that some men — in fact, many men indeed — have been able to believe these strange beliefs. Their historical weaknesses — even if taken to the extreme of arguing that no such figure as Jesus ever existed — could not entirely destroy their power as a rhetoric for one view of how man can or should live in the world.”
from Modern Dogma and the Rhetoric of Assent, (University of Notre Dame Press, 1974), 155.