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  • What’s So Ordinary about Poetry? An Argument in Seven Scenes
  • Larry Jackson (bio)

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Philosophy ought really to be written only as a poetic composition.

—Ludwig Wittgenstein, Culture and Value

But can philosophy become literature and still know itself?

—Stanley Cavell, The Claim of Reason

Scene One: This Is Simply What I Do in which a spade is turned and a mystery is unearthed

Poor Ludwig Wittgenstein. How many times as a schoolteacher had he turned a student’s chair so that it faced the wall as punishment for not understanding a lesson?1 And now, here he was, the greatest philosopher of the twentieth century, staring at the wall like a surly child. Only this punishment was self-imposed.

Misunderstood by his audience—the philosophers who would later be known as the Vienna Circle—Wittgenstein turned his back on them to read poetry aloud to the cobwebs and shadows that clung to the corners of the room, as though he were staging one of those enigmatic scenes found in his Philosophical Investigations.2 Like so many of the images in that work, this moment might also raise knotty questions about how we understand one another and why we often fail to do so. “Once I have exhausted the justifications, I have reached bedrock, and my spade is turned,” writes Wittgenstein, drawing on another of his short-lived professions, that of monastery gardener, to convey the exasperation of the educator.3 “Then I am inclined to say: ‘This is simply what I do.’” But when Wittgenstein turned his spade and his back on this group of prominent philosophers in the 1920s, he also raised a far more basic question. Just why was he acting this way?

No one among the group of intellectuals that comprised the Vienna Circle had treated Wittgenstein with contempt. On the contrary: they had invited him to speak in depth about the ideas that he had developed in the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, many of which their own school of thought, logical positivism, attempted to amplify and refine. However much they erred in their interpretations of Wittgenstein’s ideas, surely they deserved a thoughtful response, not a puzzling poetic protest. Why did Wittgenstein not try harder to persuade them? And if that could not be done, then why accept their invitations in the first place? Obviously, he was making a point. But was this a profound philosophical point or a petty, personal one? And if it was philosophical, then why not present it the usual way, in the form of an argument?

Go back to that passage quoted a moment ago about exhausting justifications and reaching bedrock. You will see that there is, in fact, a striking difference between Wittgenstein’s real-life café contretemps and his parabolic turned spade in the Investigations. When Wittgenstein could not make himself understood to the philosophers of the Vienna Circle, he read poetry, whereas his fictional teacher, the one who hits rock bottom, confesses only that he is inclined to say something.4 We can interpret that silent inclination as prologue to any number of words or actions on the part of the teacher. Wittgenstein himself offers one such possibility in an early study for the Investigations, [End Page 29] when he writes, “If a child does not respond to the suggestive gesture [to go on counting correctly], it is separated from the others and treated as a lunatic.”5 But we can just as easily imagine the teacher instead repeating the lesson or offering new examples, berating the student or collapsing in agony.

We can also interpret the silence not as mere prelude to some grand pedagogical strategy or personal meltdown, but as the action or lesson itself. Teaching is not just about talking. There are many scenarios in which silence might be the best, or even the only, way to educate (or be educated). Here is one of them:

If the child, little or big, asks me: Why do we eat animals? or Why are some people poor and others rich? or What is God? or Why do I have to go to school? or Do you love...