Wednesday, April 3, 2019

Appropriate Response to Phenomena: Empirical Explanation vs. Understanding

Let’s take Frazer’s The Golden Bough as a point of departure. Wittgenstein was unsatisfied with Frazer’s reading and conclusions regarding Frazer’s own anthropological findings. Wittgenstein asserted that the human rituals Frazer cataloged went beyond the simple expedient of an empirical explanation, and that, indeed, understanding Frazer’s discoveries does not require an empirical explanation. Frank Cioffi describes this in Wittgenstein on Freud and Frazer: “Whatever relevance empirical method may have to the question of the nature and origin of ritual practices . . . is not the central question which Frazer raises and is not, in any case, the question which arises for us when we contemplate human sacrifice and the ritual life of mankind.”1  Wittgenstein voices the same objection to psychoanalytic explanation. Again, according to Cioffi, “Freud advances explanations when the matters he deals with demand clarification, that is, they call for an elucidation of the relation in which we stand to the phenomena rather than an explanation of them.”2  Again, as to aesthetics, “causal hypotheses are conceptually inappropriate responses to requests for the explanation of aesthetic experiences and . . . they are not what we really want.” 3  Melville also makes this distinction in Moby-Dick. In Moby-Dick, Melville is rejecting scientific, philosophical and religious explanations in favor of what he really wants, which is a kind of self-understanding regarding various phenomena, or an understanding of how he stands in relation to the scientific, religious and philosophical language others offer to explain various phenomena.  4

1. Frank Cioffi, Wittgenstein on Freud and Frazer, (Cambridge: Cambridge, 1998), 2.
2. Ibid., 3.
3. Ibid.
4. Carter Kaplan, Critical Synoptics, 117.

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