Wednesday, 9 July 2014

On failing to read Lee Braver's Groundless Grounds

I hope that this will not seem like much of a criticism of Lee Braver's Groundless Grounds. I cannot offer a philosophical engagement with it because, although I have turned every page and, as much as ever, read every word (with the usual re-reading of particularly tricky, pithy passages) I don't think that I have actually read it.

So first a rough sketch of that thought and then, second, a brief suggestion as to why.

What do I think when I think that I have read a book in the, I guess, normatively charged sense of the word I am trying to deploy? Something like this: I have grasped sufficient of the surface meaning which amounts to grasping the way in which the author wants me to understand the ideas she is sketching. That isn't a very good way of putting the point and I do not mean to hint at acts of philosophy by pointing (contra Jonathan Lear on Wittgenstein). But much philosophy isn't entirely pellucid. Often I can give an account of the surface of a piece of philosophy without being yet in a position to assess it.

At the moment I am reading a 2009 paper by Alex Byrne criticising Travis's criticism of 'content' views of experience. I could describe the general argumentative structure and point to where the key terms of art are introduced and sketch their broad role. But right now I could not explain to someone else what Byrne means by 'non-comparative looks'. When, shortly (tomorrow?) I can then I will have read the paper. And only then will I be able to think (next week, after further intuition or judgement) about whether I am persuaded by the argument so constructed. There is a point at which, poor memory aside, I don't think I need to read the paper any more, I have reached a kind of data saturation, but I have not done with it. The further stage, however, calls for imagination on my part which may never come. But the paper itself has done its work.

I don't seem to be able to reach even that initial stage with Lee Braver's book, however. This seems odd because he writes well, with flair, and deploys a series of metaphors and similes to helpful effect. I bet some of his phrases make their way into my ways of explaining Wittgenstein (for which apologies to him in advance). But I think I know the problem.

Some years ago I had a frosty reception at a conference from a famous American philosopher of mind. After I had given my paper, he warmed and in conversation I realised that he'd assumed that I subscribed to a principle, which really irritated him:

W: Wittgenstein says that p, therefore p.

Although I do indeed assume a kind of hermeneutic principle of charity, and so use something like W as a regulative principle, working out what it is that Wittgenstein says, in the sense of means, takes some effort which turns on working out what it would be justified, perhaps for him but via for us, to say. So W ends up guiding an argument to establish the truth of p rather than being a naked appeal to authority. In the works on Wittgenstein that I am able to read (on this rather arch understanding), there is a similar method. By contrast, this book is closer to the locution: Wittgenstein insists... Thus even though the views ascribed do indeed hang together, they are not bound together in the surface presentation by an explicit structure of reasons. The surface form is more history of ideas than an attempt to inhabit an argumentative position and work out its rational connections. The net result is that I cannot get a hold on it, grasp a surveyable whole. The links which would help form the scaffolding of my understanding of it are hidden beneath the surface of the text.

It is a pity because although a book on Wittgenstein and Heidegger would not be the first of its kind nor one which deploys a contrast with the earlier Wittgenstein to illustrate the later (in truth best not to read this book at the same time as Marie McGinn's book on the Tractatus) still putting Heiddegger and Wittgenstein in my more explicit contrast to the Tractatus might help go further than Rorty's brisk comments on this thirty years ago.

PS: my thoughtful correspondent DY suggests, in a response by email, that he has/is never finished with a text: 'Subsequent reading illuminates things, and these things always need checking against previous materials. I reread and reread all the time!' I have to say that this rings rather truer than my own description above. But I guess, in a spirit vaguely influenced by the arguments between McDowell and Travis on perception, I want to confine these subsequent discoveries to acts of judgement after the fact of reading (akin to a Travisian move) whilst thinking that the reading mentioned here involves a lesser conceptual grasp (a McDowellian move). Indulge me!