Thursday, November 13, 2008

Wittgenstein & biography

One of the many misses in my long ongoing uneducation was my failure to really connect with James Klagge when he joined the philosophy department at Virginia Tech my senior year. Not his fault, really – I was at that stupid stage of intellectual growth where I actually thought I knew something, or at least that I knew what I wanted to know, & the class of JK's I was enrolled in – Ethics, I think – just didn't dovetail with my interests at the time. If I'd known he was going to turn out to be a bigtime Wittgenstein scholar, I'd have thought differently, because I was already deeply into Wittgenstein, thanks to a seminar taught by the brilliant and Matthew Arnold-bewhiskered Peter Barker.

Come to think of it, doing a philosophy degree at Tech was one of the smartest things I ever blundered into. I read ancient Greek philosophy – painstakingly, slowly – with Nick Smith, who probably knows more about  Sokrates than anyone alive; I read Spinoza, Descartes, Leibniz, and bunches of medieval cosmology with Roger Ariew; I read Kant's Critique of Pure Reason – in the old-fashioned manner, a chapter or two at a time, turning in a precis of what I'd read on a weekly basis – with a now-deceased professor with the resonant name of Bill Williams.

I was on the Tech campus again late last week as part of our annual get-out-of-south-Florida-and-see-the-leaves vacation, and spent an extraordinarily pleasant couple of hours strolling the drillfield and the streets of Blacksburg with Tom Gardner, the man I consider my mentor in this business (greyer and perhaps a trifle balder, but otherwise absolutely unchanged from – well, we won't say how many years ago). And then a couple of days later, in the Barnes & Noble in Williamsburg, I came upon a collection edited by James Klagge, Wittgenstein: Biography and Philosophy (Cambridge, 2001).

Most of the  essays in the book treat particular topics in Wittgenstein's life or particular cruxes in a biographical reading of LW's philosophy. The opening two pieces, however, struck me as especially fascinating: Ray Monk's "Philosophical Biography: The Very Idea" and James Conant's "Philosophy and Biography." I'm interested in them because biographies of philosophers are if anything even more marginalized within academic departments of philosophy than biographies of poets are within English departments, & there's a concomitant dearth of writing about the significance of biographical writing within the study of philosophy. (I admit that there's been a decent number of books about literary biography, but I'd argue that the really good ones can be counted on the fingers of one mangled hand.)

Monk is of course the author of the widely hailed Ludwig Wittgenstein: The Duty of Genius (and a more controversial biography of Bertrand Russell), one of the few biographies of a philosopher I've read that made the figure come luminously alive for me. He draws wonderful parallels in his brief "Philosophical Biography" essay between the mode of biography – "showing" rather than "explaining" – and what Wittgenstein saw the task of philosophy to be. "The insights [biography] has to offer have to be shown rather than stated."
I was once taken to task for being "too lenient" with Wittgenstein by not criticizing his appalling treatment of the young children he taught at elementary school. Yet, it seemed to me, and still seems to me, that, if you describe someone beating a schoolgirl until she bleeds because she is unable to grasp logic, it adds nothing to the description to follow it with a comment such as, "That wasn't very nice, was it?"
Ultimately, he argues, the use of philosophical biography lies less in the elucidating of particular cruxes in a thinker's thought than in the illustration or presentation of the overall "tone" of the thinker's intellectual achievement.

Conant, in a much more wordy (call it overtly "analytical") essay, says much the same thing:
If there is an important relationship between what philosophical biography shows and how it shows it, then we should not be surprised to learn that the sorts of change of aspect that philosophical biography permits to dawn in our perception of a philosopher's work are not ones easily brought into view by an alternative genre of writing. In particular, the sort of change of aspect in question will not admit expression via a mode of exposition of a philosopher's thought proper to the exposition of features of his thought graspable independently of their relationship to the character of his thought as a whole.
Conant is especially interested in thinking about the union of thought and life characteristic of early Greek philosophy (think Socrates, for instance), a union whose demise is lamented in Nietzsche & Kierkegaard (not to mention Thoreau) and which is oddly revived in Wittgenstein. (Is there, I wonder, a way of "living" poetry? Did, say, Jack Spicer make more of a "poem" of his life than Louis Zukofsky did?)

Both Monk and Conant quote a delicious anecdote from Stanley Cavell's autobiographical A Pitch of Philosophy, recalling his music theory class with Ernst Bloch at Berkeley:
[Bloch] would play something simple, at the piano, for instance a Bach four-part chorale, with one note altered by a half step from Bach's rendering; then he would play the Bach unaltered. Perhaps he would turn to us, fix us with a stare, then turn back to the piano and repeat, as if for himself, the two versions. The drama mounted, then broke open with a monologue which I reconstruct along these lines: "You hear that? You hear the difference?"...He went on: "My version is perfectly correct; but the Bach, the Bach is perfect; late sunlight burning the edges of a cloud. Of course I do not say you must hear this. Not at all. No. But." The head lowered a little, the eyes looked up at us, the tempo slowed ominously: "If you do not hear, do not say to yourself that you are a musician. There are many honorable trades. Shoemaking, for example."


Ed Baker said...

a fun book John Heaton's and Judy Groves' WITTGENSTEIN for Beginners

1994 ICON Books..

I see some of these "kids" imitating "Tractatus Logico-Philossophicus" not only it's form but it s content.. you know, that:

"5.251 A function cannot be its own argument, but the result of an operation can be its own basis."

also a terrific book Kenny's (editor of): The Wittgenstein Reader

what a life! "we" surely are lucky for this Gift of Wittgensein (could be a title for a book!

Norman Finkelstein said...

Is there, I wonder, a way of "living" poetry? Did, say, Jack Spicer make more of a "poem" of his life than Louis Zukofsky did?

I find this sort of speculation irresistible but also somewhat scary, and perhaps ultimately imponderable. Consider, in addition to Zukofsky and Spicer, Stevens, or Dickinson, or Coleridge, or Rimbaud. Each one of the lives of the poets could lead us to a different conclusion, or maybe the same one: that there is a peculiar relationship between the poetry and the "poem of a life" that depends on an infinite number of variables, mainly historical and psychological, but even physiological (what if Olson was as short as Keats, or Keats as tall as Olson?). Then again, quite aside from the relationship of life to work, is there a way of "being poetically in the world"? And must one write poetry to live that way...?

Vance Maverick said...

Did, say, Jack Spicer make more of a "poem" of his life than Louis Zukofsky did?

Were Spicer's writings more "poems" than Zukofsky's were? I suspect if we don't know how to judge the appropriateness of the term in its literal sense, our grasp on the figurative application can only be weaker.

That Conant passage is indeed on the outer margins of legibility, for me, anyway. Late James ain't in it. Do you know what he means by "alternative genre"? Alternative to standard-biographical, or to standard-philosophical, or ...?

Mark Scroggins said...

I guess, Norman, that the question – raised devil's advocately – is probably unfair, as it plays on a false analogy with the ancient notion of philosophy as something *lived* as well as *thought*, & I'm not at all clear that there's a tradition of *being* a poet that goes deeper than the functional act of making poems. But oddly enough it's something I've begun to think about in connection with a (possible, tentative) book on biography.

Vance – "Late James ain't in it" – brilliant phrase: Gang of Four meets The Master of the passive voice. I take it that by "alternative genre" Conant – no Jonathan Swift, he – means no more than "a genre other than philosophical biography." His 30 pages are devoted to answering 2 questions: Is philosophical biography possible? and Can it be a good thing? Answers: Yes, it's possible because it exists (flawless logic, no?); and maybe, probably, I think so, but since I can't prove it I'll leave it up to my readers to decide.

Small wonder academic philosophy in the USA has such a sterile reputation.

Vance Maverick said...

Ah, thanks, there it is ("philosophical biography") earlier in the sentence, though not self-evidently in apposition.

Book on biography? Do it!

Vance Maverick said...

Also (very belatedly): I smell a rat in Cavell's anecdote. Detecting that one note has been altered by a half-step is a matter of having a good ear, not of artistic sensitivity. Put the other way, one can imagine Bloch reharmonizing a chorale, less well than Bach; but this could hardly be a matter of just a half-step change in one note.

I know you're a musician -- did you take classical music theory? I suspect Cavell remembered Bloch's remark at the end and fabricated the details.