Thursday 19 May 2011

Sass and the need for an anti-resolute reading of the later Wittgenstein

I have realised that, having been marking essays for the last few days, I have only a couple of days to rewrite a paper for Emotion Review which includes a criticism of Louis Sass and a draft of which was here. One reviewer said it should be published as it stood but the other, Sass himself it turned out, understandably didn’t like the criticism of Sass in it. Responding to all his objections would require commenting in detail on about 20 pages of Wittgenstein so, in a 4,000 word paper whose original main theme was not actually Sass, that is not practical. (The paper now has three worked examples and a general claim about how to interpret the others. It will be up to readers to work out what they think.) But Sass’ first criticism is interesting and worth commenting on. He says of my paper that:

It is basically in the vein of those “new Wittgensteinians” who have a rigorous and rather exclusionary notion of what Wittgenstein would countenance as possible forms of meaningful discourse or understanding. Others in this tradition are James Conant, Cora Diamond, and Rupert Read. The position is best known for its re-interpretation of Wittg’s early book, the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, in which that book is seen as an essentially meaningless quasi-joke whereby Wittgenstein gives his readers the impression he is saying something, but then pulls the rug from under the feet of his readers; and in which the famous final line, “Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must remain silent,” is viewed as itself a completely meaningless pseudo-statement. (The “new Wittgenstein” approach is not a unitary position, by the way, but a set of sometimes only loosely associated interpretative claims; some elements of the new Wittg are less relevant here, such as the idea that the early and later Wittgensteins should be seen as more congruent than previously assumed.)
I think that in this paper, there should be some acknowledgment of the above-mentioned ongoing debate re Wittg interpretation (referred to above as the debate re the “new Wittg”), both for the sake of clarifying just what sort of argument is being offered here, and also because that would avoid (what might be interpreted as) a dismissive tone—as if it were a simple matter of revealing the “correct” interpretation of Wittg, which would clearly show that Sass is simply in the wrong. Well, as this very well-informed author knows, there are many people who disagree with the version of the new Wittg mentioned above, including Hacker (see final chapter in the book The New Wittgenstein); and this is an ongoing and complex debate, perhaps ultimately an undecidable one. The new Wittg’ian position I mention above has been presented in a fascinating, often brilliant manner, and has reinvigorated various aspects of Wittgenstein studies; but there are also a great many problems with sustaining this new Wittg.ian position, some of which are outlined in the Hacker chapter just referred to, and some of which Sass alludes to in an earlier response to Rupert Read in the journal Philosophy Psychiatry Psychology or PPP.

The objection is that, like Rupert Read’s criticism of the use of Wittgenstein’s description of solipsism to shed light on other aspects of schizophrenia, it presupposes a recent and contested approach to Wittgenstein sometimes called the ‘New Wittgenstein’ [Read 2001, Crary and Read 2000].Since this approach to Wittgenstein is controversial (it is contested by such authorities as Peter Hacker, for example), it cannot simply be taken for granted as countering Sass’ own work.

This is a fair point and suggests that there cannot be a simple refutation of Sass’ hermeneutic project. But it is worth outlining something of the nature of the New Wittgensteinian approach. In The New Wittgenstein, Crary and Read suggest that this label gathers together approaches to the early and later Wittgenstein. In the former case, the ‘new’ approach is more familiarly known by its supporters as the ‘resolute’ approach. It is the approach which ‘resolutely’ accepts the nonsensical status of almost the whole of the Tractatus Logico Philosophicus and takes nonsense to be just that. What cannot be said, cannot be said and – in Frank Ramsey’s phrase – cannot be whistled either. Hacker’s critique of this approach (in his ‘Was he trying to whistle it?’ [Hacker 2000]) concerns the early Wittgenstein.

It is rather less clear what the ‘New Wittgenstein’ picks out when applied to texts after the Tractatus (such as the Brown Book). But Crary and Read suggest that it refers to a) therapeutic interpretations which b) take the rejection of external or platonic standards for judging language to be incoherent rather than merely false and thus c) do not see Wittgenstein’s critique as undermining pre-philosophical conceptions of objectivity [Crary and Read 2000: 3-4]. It excludes, in other words, both Kripke’s sceptical reading of Wittgenstein and Crispin Wright’s philosophical theory building. It is far from clear that Hacker, for example, who explicitly criticises sceptical readings of Wittgenstein, opposes a ‘New Wittgenstein’ approach to the middle and later period Wittgenstein including the §500 explicit view of nonsense (see below). So if Sass is to defend his account of the Brown Book as one which opposes a ‘New Wittgensteinian’ conception of philosophy as therapy, he will need to substantiate how he differs from this now more standard reading of the later Wittgenstein. (Simply opposing a ‘resolute’ reading of the early Wittgenstein is not enough.)

A different way to make this point is this. Sass can object to Read’s criticism of Sass as follows. Whilst Read, as a resolute reader, says that the passages of the early Wittgenstein that Sass invokes are strictly meaningless, there is a reputable anti-resolute view that says both that Wittgenstein intended them to be a special kind of nonsense which could still communicate an insight and that that is a reasonable intention. So Sass can use that special kind of nonsense to shed light on schizophrenia. But, by contrast, it is not clear that there can be an anti-resolute reading of the later Wittgenstein because the resolute reading of the early Wittgenstein reads into that early work what he says explicitly in his later work. He discusses the example of the orders ‘Bring me sugar’ and ‘Bring me milk’, which make sense, but not the combination ‘Milk me sugar’. He goes on to say, ‘When a sentence is called senseless, it is not as it were its sense that is senseless. But a combination of words is being excluded from the language, withdrawn from circulation.’ [Wittgenstein 1953 §500]. So on this later view, nonsense is simply a lack of sense. (That is the view behind the Brown Book.) A resolute reading of the later Wittgenstein is standard rather than unusual. But Sass needs an anti-resolute reading if his response to Read will also work here.

The only candidate I can think of as such an anti-resolute reader is Jonathan Lear who does think that Wittgenstein has to do philosophy by gesture, pointing beyond the limits of sense. If this is Sass’ view, he will need to do rather better than Lear in filling out the nature of this transcendental insight and then link it back into these Brown Book passages.

Crary, A. and Read, R.(eds) (2000) The New Wittgenstein, London: Routledge
Hacker, P.M.S. (2000) ‘Was he trying to whistle it?’ in Crary, A. and Read, R.(eds) The New Wittgenstein, London: Routledge
Read, R. (2001) ‘On approaching schizophrenia through Wittgenstein’ Philosophical Psychology 14: 449-475

Sass, L.A. (1994) The Paradoxes of Delusion, New York: Cornell
Wittgenstein, L. (1953) Philosophical Investigations, Oxford: Blackwell
Wittgenstein, L. (1958) The Blue and Brown books, Oxford: Blackwell