Friday, April 5, 2019

Wittgenstein in Retrospect

In a series of architectural notes Wittgenstein made while building the spare and block-shaped family home in Vienna [see yesterday's Highbrow post], the philosopher proposed that aesthetic reactions consist of feelings or impressions associated with distaste—“discontent, disgust, discomfort”—and the expressions of these forms of aesthetic distaste were formulated as instructions for reform and improvement—“Make it higher! . . . too low! . . . Do something to this.” If I am not wrong, these notions may lead to a characterization of Wittgenstein’s philosophy at its highest level. This characterization is as follows:

The essential thrust of Wittgenstein’s philosophy is the search for an appropriate response to phenomena. In order to identify this elusive appropriate response, it is necessary to construct a synoptic surview; that is, an imaginative overview or “story” in which the phenomena in question can be regarded with clarity and precision. Our conceptual confusion can cloud our overview and lead to an inappropriate response, be it in our understanding, in our pronouncements, or in our actions. Our use—but of course more essentially our misuse—of language can lead to conceptual confusion and philosophical credulousness, and hence the attention paid in analytic philosophy to the use of language; thus the analysis of propositions is the activity, but the philosophy itself is the quest for an appropriate response, and an understanding of the world that both supports and is incumbent upon that appropriate response.

In an age which has mythologized science—or, indeed, in past ages which have mythologized sympathetic, superstitious and magical relationships—and as well amongst a species (Homo sapiens) which tends toward uniformity, conformity, rationalization, and following the habits of custom—empirical explanation is generally accepted as the end of all serious intellectual inquiry. While offering empirical explanation is the appropriate response to some phenomena—exploiting a pharmacological reaction for medical purposes, for instance—empirical explanation is an inappropriate response to other types of phenomena, such as aesthetic phenomena, which are more appropriately approached with the idea of getting hold of some sort of understanding. This understanding chiefly consists of understanding where we stand in relation to the phenomenon we are examining.

Interestingly enough, our understanding—our nurtured and cultivated understanding, which is rooted in an understanding of our feelings—can and has reformed our science, which (since Bacon, Locke and Newton) has been taken from a level of pursuing empirical (or theoretical) explanation to a level of an on-going skeptical-empirical inquiry. In our cultivated response to poetry we have learned that our poetry (our mythological expression) is in a state of “semiotic flux” and transformation. When our myths become fixed, they stultify and breed orthodoxy and barbarism. Our myths must therefore become supple and changing, yielding softly to the shifting impressions of the philosophical consciousness (compare Aristotle's conclusions regarding the nature of Eudemonia). Civilized science—the skeptical-empirical method—is in a like state of flux. Aristotle’s notion of potentiality and actuality is revised by Galileo’s emphasis on the quantitative measurement of the physical characteristics of motion, which is revised by Newtonian "mechanics", which is revised by Einstein’s relativity, which is revised by quantum mechanics, and so on. These different models are “right” for different times, at different scales, for different tasks, and they all the time progress along a path weaving in and out through ever more subtle and deft articulations of understanding. We don't believe in them, but rather believe in what they can show us, or what they can do for us. They are not essential models, but tools we pick up and set down as we go about engineering new methods for dealing with (and in) the world.

To be continued...

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