Thursday, 19 March 2009

More on the everyday uncanny

What would it be like to see life as God’s work of art? How would that be? What is it to feel things to be uncanny or unreal?

This looks to be some sort of seeing as, a notion familiar from Wittgenstein’s discussion in the second part of the Investigations. And there is a hint that this might be worth thinking about in this context because Sass also invokes it. He suggests that Schreber’s construal of his body as feminine is a case of seeing as, and he connects his remark to Wittgenstein’s discussion of this phenomenon together with aspect-dawning [Sass1994: 30; Wittgenstein 1953: 193-229]. But at first this does not seem to help at all. How can Schreber see his body as feminine?

The most famous instances of seeing-as are cases of aspect dawning such as seeing either a duck or a rabbit in the duck-rabbit figure from Jastrow. Whilst the experiential change of aspect possible in such cases is peculiar there is something else quite straight forward in this example. The word ‘duck’ in the report ‘Now it is a duck’ carries an unproblematic interpretation. There is a complication here. Now it is a duck implies it isn’t a rabbit. And yet looking at the figure one also knows that nothing has changed. Still that doesn’t make ‘duck’ a different carry a different sense. But there are other cases of seeing-as which are less straight forward and thus more helpful in this context.

Wittgenstein suggests that there are some cases of seeing-as which can only be characterised with words used in a ‘secondary sense’. The key instance he gives is the attitude most of us have towards words. We feel that a word carries its meaning somehow immediately with it. It can loose this kind of meaning if repeated. Wittgenstein describes this kind of immediate perception of the meaning of a word in isolation as a form of understanding meaning. But since Wittgenstein’s official recommendation is to think of understanding as grasp of a practice, the use of the words ‘understanding’ and ‘meaning’ in the case at hand is not straight-forward. It is not a metaphor, however, because nothing can be said to explain why we want to use these words for this kind of experience. But whilst this is not a metaphorical use it is nevertheless a secondary use: one which we find natural given the primary use, but which is discontinuous with, and could not be used to teach, the primary use [Mulhall 2001: 163-82, Wittgenstein 1953: 216].

The Wittgensteinian philosopher Oswald Hanfling argues that the secondary use of words is more widespread than a few examples suggests [Hanfling1991]. In aesthetics, he argues, words such as ‘sad’ applied to music are used in secondary sense. (The music need not make a hearer sad, does not sound like a sad person etc.) In the description of feelings, phrases such as ‘pins and needles’, ‘butterflies in the stomach’ and ‘stabbing pains’ are all used in this way. Further, Wittgenstein’s own description of ‘feelings of unreality’ in which ‘everything seems somehow not real’ is also secondary.

§125. The feeling of the unreality of one’s surroundings. This feeling I have had once, and many have it before the onset of mental illness. Everything seems somehow not real; but not as if one saw things unclear or blurred; everything looks quite as usual. And how do I know that another has felt what I have? Because he uses the same words as I find appropriate.
But why do I choose precisely the word “unreality” to express it? Surely not because of its sound. (A word of very like sound but different meaning would not do.) I choose it because of its meaning.

But I surely did not learn to use the word to mean: a feeling. No; but I learned to use it with a particular meaning and now I use it spontaneously like this. One might say--though it may mislead--: When I have learnt the word in its ordinary meaning, then I choose that meaning as a simile for my feeling. But of course what is in question here is not a simile, not a comparison of the feeling with something else.

§126. The fact is simply that I use a word, the bearer of another technique, as the expression of a feeling. I use it in a new way. And wherein consists this new kind of use? Well, one thing is that I say: I have a ‘feeling of unreality’--after I have, of course, learnt the use of the word “feeling” in the ordinary way. Also: the feeling is a state. [Wittgenstein RPP I]

So the picture we have is this. Words in secondary sense are used in the expression of some moods and feelings. In characterising how such a feeling feels, in describing its ‘content’, one makes use of a phrase that does not straightforwardly mean (in this context) what it seems to say, although what it is used to say in the context depends on its primary meaning. To see life as God’s work of art looks to be such a use. To say that something is or feels unreal or uncanny is the same. The scene is not really unreal. Nor could it feel as if it were unreal. What would that be? What would it be if true?

So if the ‘everyday’ sense of the uncanny is a matter for secondary sense, could the same move work for the psychopathological case of delusional atmosphere? Two thoughts:

1) No. Contrast Schreber’s case with the claims both that a subject can see the duck-rabbit as a duck and that one can hear the meaning in a word.
a) In the duck-rabbit case, further explanation and justification can be given as to how the figure can be seen in that way (‘these are the wings, this the beak’ etc). In Schreber’s case, by contrast and as Sass himself emphasises, no further clarification is available.
b) But unlike the case of thinking of words as having meaning in itself in isolation - where again no further explanation appears available - we lack any more primitive shared understanding of the case. We can make nothing of Schreber’s use of female in this case. (To call it secondary sense would be at most a kind of external structural description. But what are the external meaning-free marks of secondary sense?)

2) It’s tempting – well it is for me! – to think that this is a case where the limits of sense are limitations (a distinction Stephen Mulhall (pictured) is good at pointing out and arguing against the latter [Mulhall 2006]). Ie that the attempt to force ‘female’ to carry a particular secondary sense as somehow against its (secondary sense) rules. But that is to mythologize secondary sense in the same way that construing the limits of sense as limitations mythologizes primary sense. Whilst in the case of primary sense, we might not have given symbols a use, so in the case of secondary sense, we have not found a place for a characteristic expressive use. How characteristic?

§789. When dealing with a ‘feeling of unreality’, we are inclined to say: “All I know is that under certain circumstances human beings often say that they felt everything around them was ‘unreal’. Naturally we also know what use of this word the people had learnt, and besides that something about their other utterances. More we do not know.”--Why don’t we talk in the same way when what is in question is utterances expressive of pleasure, of conviction, of the voluntariness and involuntariness of movements? [Wittgenstein RPP I]

We can say something in reply to this. The expressive uses of language for pleasure, conviction and voluntariness can all be disciplined by both third person criteria and further explanations and descriptions of their proper use. By contrast, the further descriptions that apply to feeling of unreality are few and closely dependent on its first person expression (not vice versa). But just as ‘butterflies in the stomach’ can take on stable third person conditions of use – it can attach to broader expressive behaviour, expressive of a feeling or mood – so there does not seem to be any principled barrier to less familiar use gaining more connections to a richer description of the context for its ‘proper’ use. That is, it can become normatively charged. Unusual secondary sense expression is just the limit case of this.

If so, the limits of secondary sense relevant to charting psychopathology may be porous and there is no interesting explanation of why we do not understand Schreber, if we do not. We just do not.

For a description of Sass's response to this line of thought, see this.