Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Personal and philosophical ruminations for a Tuesday

Life unfolds. The previous sentence is an apt metaphor. As life unfolds I gradually become aware how much choices have consequences. The consequences I am referring to are unintended. I do not bring this up in order to make some quaint and wholly inaccurate point about how when we make the "right" choices the consequences we desire happen and vice-versa. In fact, the older I get the more I realize that for every right choice I make there is a price to pay. Because of Christ I can say- "So be it." My reason for writing about this at all is to point out that we have to make choices, that is, judgments and, in most instances, there is nothing inherent about the choice, certainly not the ones to which I am referring, that would preclude certain things happening.

The particular choice about which I am writing is the choice to write. To write publicly is to take a tremendous risk. To write in a straight forward manner in my chosen genre (i.e., uncreative non-fiction) is even riskier. By and large people do not like to be provoked and challenged. Rather, we like to be stroked and reassured. Hence, especially in this day and age, we tend to read to people and sources that we know up-front share our point-of-view. This simple fact plays a large role in our political and civil division/alienation. In politics it takes the form of red states and blue states. It also takes the form of congressional, legislative districts being drawn so as to virtually assure that one or the other party holds the seat.

The essence of what I am trying to communicate is not political, though it does have to do with not mindlessly toeing the party line regardless of the party. In many circles it is not fashionable to have an opinion other than the predominant one, which is never to be challenged, even when it is an ill-considered line, a reactive and ideological line, which is not unknown even in the church. Getting to my point, I have never played that way. It started to occur to me late last year the price I have paid for this is quite high. I would like to blame being corrupted not just by Philosophy and by logic in particular, but my attraction toward both was very much the result of who I am. This brings me to the status I posted on my Facebook profile, one that is easily reduced and misunderstood. I wrote: "realized driving home from work that very few of things I worry about matter. I have to have one of those moments once in awhile." This occurred me to because I spend too much time worrying about consequences, making judgments on the basis of bullshit calculations. To be truly alive is to take the risk of engaging reality according to the totality of its factors, which means making judgments.

It has been wonderfully consoling to start reading my dear W once again, not only Ray Monk's truly brilliant little book How To Read Wittgenstein, but the Tractatus Logico Philosophicus itself. While this breathtakingly bold book was proved by Frank Ramsey not to have solved all the problems of philosophy, a proof that forced W to re-think many of its aspects, in it he set forth a way of looking at the world that is not just accurate, but, indeed, beautiful. Like many I do not see a big break between the early thought of W, which culminated in the Tractatus, after the publication of which he left academia believing he had solved all the philosophical problems and went on to teach elementary school, and his later thought. I think the basic issues he introduced in the Tractatus remained the focus of his later thinking. For example, I do not believe W ever conceived of Philosophy very different from how he defined it in the Tractatus:

"Philosophy aims at the logical clarification of thoughts.

Philosophy is not a body of doctrine but an activity.

A philosophical work consists essentially of elucidations.

Philosophy does not result in 'philosophical propositions', but rather in the clarification of propositions.

Without philosophy thoughts are, as it were, cloudy and indistinct: its task is to make them clear and give them sharp boundaries" (4.112).

At the end of the day we have to explore the relationship between thought and and reality. Therefore, not language, but the logic that underlies language becomes the major focus. Take this bit from the Catechism: "Since our knowledge of God is limited, our language about him is equally so" (par. 40). We can turn this around and say that our knowledge of God is limited because our language is limited. Either way, there is no dispute about the fact that "God transcends all creatures. We must therefore continually purify our language of everything in it that is limited, imagebound or imperfect, if we are not to confuse our image of God... with our human representations. Our human words always fall short of the mystery of God" (par. 42).

In my re-reading of W's Tractatus I also re-read Russell's introduction. I had forgotten what a fitting and insightful introduction it is. Towards the end of his discussion of the role mysticism plays in W's early philosophy (mysticism being the sum total of what W refers to in 7 of the Tractatus- "What we cannot speak about we must pass over in silence") Russell observes that W's attitude towards the mystical "grows naturally out of his doctrine in pure logic, according to which the logical proposition is a picture (true or false) of the fact, and has in common with the fact a certain structure which makes it capable of being a picture of the fact, but the structure cannot itself be put into words, since it is a structure of words, as well as of facts to which they refer." The mystical for W is that which can be shown and not spoken, but to show is the most convincing proof.

What Russell observes with regard to the Tractatus, I think, holds in W's later thought and writing, namely that we can "only say things about the world as a whole if we could exist outside the world, if, that is to say, it ceased to be for us the whole world. Our world may be bounded for some superior being who can survey it from above," as it were, "but for us, however finite it may be, it cannot have a boundary, since nothing is outside it." In his early phase as expressed in the Tractatus, W encountered in solipsism a particularly difficult problem, as Russell points out, for W "[t]hat the world is my world appears in the fact that the boundaries of language (the only language I understand) indicate the boundaries of my world. The metaphysical subject does not belong to the world but is a boundary of the world."

All of this brings me to the obvious complementarity between W's philosophical insights, the ones he had early on and only worked to develop, not the ones he discarded, and Giussani's method. Take the last sentence I quoted from Russell's introduction to the Tractatus describing W's take on being human: "The metaphysical subject does not belong to the world but is a boundary of the world" and what Giussani says in Is It Possible to Live This Way, Vol. 3 "the 'I' lies at the crossroads between the relationship with the mystery" (i.e., that which W asserts we must pass over in silence) "and the relationship with nothing" (pg. 62). Giussani's insistence that the fact of the Incarnation, which is a fact in the world, is the only appropriate starting point for Christian praxis, for living this way, is also in accord with engaging reality according to the totality of its factors (i.e., the world as it is and not as I wish it to be) is also of paramount importance for Giussani's method.

In the Tractatus W wrote that a) "[t]he world is the totality of facts, not of things," which means that relations constitute the structure of the world; only the relations of things to other things (to strike a Pythonesque tone) constitute facts (1.1); b) "[t]he world is determined by the facts, and by their being all the facts" (1.11); c) "[f]or the totality of facts determines what is the case, and also whatever is not the case" (1.12). Perhaps most foundational to Giussani's method is the uniquely Christian insistence that God became incarnate in Jesus. This is a fact, an event that is the case, something that really happened. It is only by virtue of this fact that we overcome the problem of being bounded by the world, by the limits of our language. Further, living this way is how we show instead of just say, that is why experience always trumps discourse and also why talking about experience clarifies it for us, which is the point of School of Community, where we come to use accurate language to describe experience not just in light of the fact the Incarnation, but in light of the fact of my encounter. This why Fr.Carrón spent time correcting us in our sloppy use of the word correspondence at La Thuile, published as Experience: The Instrument for a Human Journey.

The priority of showing over speaking for the Christian is set forth beautifully in the 1 John 4:7-12: "Beloved, let us love one another, for love is from God, and whoever loves has been born of God and knows God. Anyone who does not love does not know God, because God is love. In this the love of God was made manifest among us, that God sent his only Son into the world, so that we might live through him. In this is love, not that we have loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the propitiation for our sins. Beloved, if God so loved us, we also ought to love one another. No one has ever seen God; if we love one another, God abides in us and his love is perfected in us" (emboldening and underlining emphasis mine).

Think about this: the only way God is seen is through how those who, because they are first loved, in turn, love. As the Holy Father pointed out in Deus Caritas Est, in our time "the term 'love' has become one of the most frequently used and misused of words, a word to which we attach quite different meanings" (par. 2). Love is only known by means of a fact: "that he loved us and sent his Son to be the propitiation for our sins." So, like Philosophy, Christianity, at least in the first instance, "is not a body of doctrine but an activity," one that flows from an event that becomes an encounter.


  1. Thank you -- this is beautiful!

  2. a bit off topic, but I've been thinking the relationship of the early W and the later W is that early W was following a long-standing urge to see the world 'digitally'--in discrete, isomorphic relations--and later W acknowledged that the world is, instead, analogical. The 'digital' urge began long ago, maybe with the Terminist philosophers at Paris and Oxford in the 14th century. It peaked with the Vienna Circle, with Frege and with the development of formal logic. Since then, a more Thomistic turn has taken hold, here and there, and the later W fits right in with that: language is deeply metaphorical, analogical, because it is the very fabric of our relation to mystery.

  3. As you are aware, W was not much taken with the Vienna Circle, especially their verification principle, the obvious problem being that it had to be posited and could not itself be verified, which W took to be a pretty undercutting refutation of the whole enterprise.

    Of course, there is no small dispute about the nature of W's post-Tractatus turn. I certainly agree that W in his early phase wanted to see the world "digitally" as it were. I am intrigued by what you are suggesting about W and seeing the world analogically. Things like language games, etc. would seem to be explorations along these lines. I also see hints, even in the Tractatus, of a phenomenological approach, especially his nice dispatch of the subject/object distinction by seeing the world as composed of states of affairs and objects having identity only in relation to other objects, to state it in a rather hamfisted manner.

    "language is deeply metaphorical, analogical, because it is the very fabric of our relation to mystery." Indeed.

    Actually I acquired Kerr's book on W at your suggestion a few years ago. I'll be honest, I am not familiar with the Terminists.


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