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From The Chonicle of Higher Education, November 27, 2007

World Philosophy Day has come and gone. Perhaps you noticed; more likely you didn’t. The festivities, sponsored by Unesco, commenced on November 15 and included symposia on “Philosophy and Its Future,” the essayist Frantz Fanon, and “The Philosophical Foundations of Peace and Human Rights.”

The purpose of World Philosophy Day, according to Koichiro Matsuura, director general of Unesco, is to “set out the conditions for such a universal dialogue by opening up to the diversity of interlocutors, and of philosophical currents and traditions, in an endeavor to take stock, to provide a perspective on the world, and to engage in a critical rereading of our concepts and ways of thinking.”

But what, exactly, is World Philosophy Day intended to celebrate? That is the question posed by Julian Baggini, editor of The Philosophers’ Magazine. After reciting some quips from Plato, Bertrand Russell, and Wittgenstein, Baggini concludes that “the matter is inconclusive.” After all, what power does philosophy have to usher in a more humane, peaceful world?

To emphasize his skepticism, Baggini turns to the Rutgers University philosopher Jerry Foder, who writes in the forthcoming issue of the magazine: “Anybody who thinks that philosophers as such have access to large resources of practical wisdom hasn’t been going to faculty meetings.” 



What color should the next square be?

According to Witgenstein, there are laid up in the forms of our languages and in the metaphors and similes we use as a matter of course, emblematic illustrations of our concepts. The picture of blindness as a darkness in the soul or that a person has a soul are examples of such iconographic representations.

At play in academia is the picture that illustrates the scholar as a stick figure with an inflated head. Many academics and institutions cleave to this form of representation. It influences academic experience, academic relations and academic values. The picture encourages the view that mind matters most. By contrast, the body is the incubator that digests and secretes. It is like a hollow test tube acting as pedastal for the overblown head that crowns and overcomes it.

The picture encourages false seriousness in human relations. For one wants to be seen to be extended beyond the mere obviousness of one’s body. In academic writing, the hold of the picture has been detected and is called ‘false difficulty’. Nonetheless, it is still widely judged to be a sin of the mind, not of the will. The air of soleminity at academic gatherings, such as the conference and lecture, gives to the feeling that something of vital importance is transpiring. The strong inclination to think this may show the resolve of the picture only, through whose spectacled frame we see whatever we look it. The appeal to tradition, to the great minds whose passing we still mourn and in whose name we speak in hushed tones: we merely curl and caress with our fingers the conceptual frame that sits on our nose. Don’t we ever wish to take them off? 

Cloud Gate Dance Theater of Taiwan

It is testimony to the strong hold of the Augustinian picture in our life that we even say of music that it necessarily ‘points to something beyond itself’. Of course, one is not preoccupied with this thought as one listens to music, much less when ones dances to it or with it; nonetheless, we do seek to explain the meaning of music, and this by means of philosophy terms and concepts, and so it is natural to want to say this. For there is similarity between music and language. Superficially, it does not strain the mind to conceive of music notes as words, melodies as phrases, or symphonies as sentences. Nor, therefore, to take the next step, to conceive of the ‘meaning’ of music as something extra-musical. The model is already familiar to us by now: Here is the money, there is the cow I buy with it. Name and object. But if we choose to assimilate music and the Augustinian picture we should be inclined to ask: what object?

What could this extra-musical something possibly be in a particular case? That no material object is immediately forthcoming doesn’t deter us in the least. For we simply add that music points beyond itself, and swirl our hands upward. We may even develop this thought and claim that music is ‘transcendent’ or ‘spiritual’. Yet, are we aware here of our unconscious adherence to the Augustinian picture? Where music suggests an object and there is none, we are strongly inclined to say: there is a spirit. Compare this with Investigations, remark 36: ‘…because we cannot specify any one bodily action which we call pointing to the shape (as opposed, for example, to the colour), we say that a spiritual activity corresponds to these words…Where our language suggests a body and there is none: there, we should like to say, is a spirit‘. It is mistaken to suppose that a spirit is present when language suggests a body and there is none. Why? Pointing is a bodily act, although it is not as a bodily act that pointing to the colour is distinguished. Much less pointing by a sort of abstract substance, like a spirit. In the case of music, it seems we have music and referential failure. But we press on undeterred and say that music points to something abstract, immaterial.

The purpose of music, if it makes sense to speak thus, is not to ‘point’ to anything. Compare music to dance. What is the purpose of dance, broadly understood? Well, one dances to occupy a particular place on the floor. I make this step and move here, make another step and move further there, and so on for the duration of the routine (or, until the music lasts). And if I have a partner, we move in tandem, together thus-and-so through action and reaction. The purpose of dance is to represent itself in space, as it were. The meaning is the position in space it refers to. This seems quite wrong. When you dance, your purpose is not to get to a certain place on the floor. It’s to enjoy each step along the way. Similarly, when we listen to or play music, our purpose is not to arrive at a certain place (e.g., the final cadence). It is to enjoy the way itself. We are the way and the wayfarers.

The meaning of music can be as little severed from the music itself as expressive playing can be severed from the passage that carries it. And when one listens to music, it is the same: one becomes as expression as one who lives in a solilquoy or a conversation. One lives as the music.

The city is built
To music, therefore never built at all,
And therefore built forever.
~Alfred Lord Tennyson

33. One never knows when one is making a memory.

34. Science succeeds in building an ever more complex and larger structure. Its primary function is to build. Insight and discovery add to the arrangement, and by consensus are put to strengthen or replace what ceases to function with the rest of the building. One never looks back nor down; only forward, up and out.  Philosophy, by contrast, never builds. It rearranges. As the construction site is to the building it prepares, so philosophy is to science.

35. Time is well spent when taken with a person with an intellectual or physical disability. For is he not like a mirror into which one peers, and by whose light is reflected back all one’s own weary complexity and daily bibble-babble? He simply gets on with it, with life and living. How wondrous for him to model existence in this way that I may in his presence take leave of myself, of my own tediousness and false difficulty, and to be reminded of this while by his side. Such strength!

My post The Augustinian Picture and the Meaning of Music features on the Hamilton Institute homepage and under Philosophy.

Alexander Hamilton (1755-1804)

New Statesman, 18 October 1974

Wittgenstein never did much to encourage the fossicking of amateurs, and in particular loathed phrase-making dilettantes. Yet people of a literary turn with no training in or indeed capacity for rigorous philosophy (let me hasten to include myself among them) will probably go on finding him of high interest. He said that we shouldn’t be seduced by language-an admonition which will continue being useful to those whose business it is to be seduced by language every day of the week. Wittgenstein is The Cure. He is a rhetorician’s way of going on the wagon.

This new volume of letters to Russell, Keynes and Moore is a companion piece for the slim collection of letters to Ogden and Ramsay. Those, being mainly technical, were stiff going for the non-professional. These-especially the substantial sheaf of letters to Russell-are of much more various interest. The reader will find himself drawn to speculate about all aspects of Wittgenstein’s strange life. The problem of his personality is, I am sure, eventually insoluble, but that doesn’t mean people are going to stop trying.

Most of the letters to Russell stem from the years 1912-21-i.e., from the first Cambridge period up until the publication of the Tractatus. In 1922 came a break in their relationship, of the same kind that severed Wittgenstein from G. B. Moore in Norway in 1914. (Apparently he also quarrelled with Russell in 1914, but Russell’s part of that exchange is not available.) All the intensity of Wittgenstein’s focussed intellect is there from the first moment: ‘There is nothing more wonderful in the world than the true problems of Philosophy’. Engelmann was quite right in saying that thinking was Wittgenstein’s poetry. ‘I feel like mad’. He accuses himself of having ‘half a talent’ for thought.

Entire review here.

Peter Porter (1929-)

Wittgenstein’s Dream here.

He came to believe that a normal, honest human being
could not be a professor. It
is the academy that gave
him his reputation
of impenetrable abstruseness;
never has a
man deserved a reputation less.
who came to him expecting to find a man
of incredibly deep learning, found a man
who saw mankind
held together by suffering
alone, and he invariably advised
them to be
as kind as possible to others.
He read, like
all inquisitive men, to multiply his experience.
He read Tolstoy (always getting bogged down)
and the Gospels
and bales of detective stories.

He shook his head over Freud.
When he died
he was reading Black Beauty.
His last words were: “Tell them I had a wonderful life.”

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