A Report on Experience
In November 2002, a series of tutorials was advertised within the University of Cambridge. Neville Critchley—a lecturer in philosophy with a reputation for preferring literature—placed advertisements on college notice boards saying he wanted to hear from students not just philosophically or intellectually intrigued by language but literally made unwell by it. Four young people replied, one of whom subsequently provided me with an account of what passed in Room C28 at Emmanuel College. Almost thirteen years afterwards, this account was published under the title "The Weighing of Our Words."1 Sadly, however, its author—Richard Salisbury—died in September 2016.
Just days earlier he had circulated to a small group the "letter to my friends" presented below. This group included the other three students from 2002—one of whom, Carole, had become his wife—but the material had actually been shaped with other people in mind, people whom (Carole told me) Richard felt did not understand a remark he had recently made at a party to the effect that, psychologically, and in relation to his experience of language in particular, he was "a million miles away even from his closest friends." Apparently, he had felt this lack of understanding in a particularly vivid way.
However, I should make clear that Carole does not accept for a moment that her husband was ill, and she asked me to pursue publication [End Page 444] of the letter, not least for the purpose of clarifying what Richard was really like. She told me the man she lived with was warm and relaxed and outwardly happy, and I had no reason to doubt her. But, Room C28 apart, no one could grasp that he was as different as he was—and that made him feel deeply alone, because Room C28 could never be the answer.
When I met him in Edinburgh in 2012 he was thirty-three. He had been married to Carole since 2003—roughly a year after the tutorials at Emmanuel. The other two students back then, Helena and Vikki, were in Australia, trying to reinvent themselves completely. Critchley was in New York—still in touch but also perhaps trying to overtake his own history. And Carole and Richard had a young son—Mark. They seemed to be very happy being a mum and dad—but of course neither of them was exactly normal. Richard, however, found everyday life more difficult than his wife did.
We came together at Edinburgh City Council, where both of us had ended up working as legal consultants, and we hit it off immediately. He said that I could have been in Room C28 ten years earlier, but that he now wanted to make a break with that world. He even told me that he wanted to avoid speaking altogether, though he knew he was a good talker, and he could laugh at the contradiction. Good talker or not, however, he evidently suffered from an anxiety that could be prompted by the slightest accidents of conversation.
But he wasn't melancholy or manic-depressive. He exhibited no inability to function or immobilization. And yet he did carry a vague aura of pretense, or concealment. He once told me that he thought he was a bit like the Cambridge spy Donald Maclean, who, when drunk, sometimes revealed his treason to people who just couldn't hear what was actually being said to them quite plainly. But I certainly never saw Richard drunk, and I had no reason to suspect that his concealments were serious ones. Perhaps the point of the remark was a "not waving but drowning" one. If he pictured himself as a spy, for whom was he spying? Judging by the papers reprinted below, he was trying to infiltrate the opacity of his own words, in the thrall of an unknown country he couldn't even name.
The last time I saw him, he said in a very gentle way that he had had more than his fair share of luck in his life, more than his fair share of joy, and less than his fair share of simple happiness. Very matter-of-fact, as if self-pity was the last thing he feared I would infer. It made a deep impression. Simple happiness was the biggest prize of all. And he may have got it, at the last. So he may have won every prize that was going. I hope so. [End Page 445]
A Report on Experience: Being a Letter to My Friends
In many ways, the classical music scene in Scotland is quite healthy, but in other ways it remains provincial and conservative. We have three professional orchestras: the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra (BBC SSO), the Scottish Chamber Orchestra (SCO), and the Royal Scottish National Orchestra (RSNO). The BBC SSO is regarded as one of the best orchestras in the UK, and has enjoyed the benefit of a genuinely big name at the helm in recent years, and the SCO is not far behind. The RSNO is a different matter, though. It has existed much longer than either of the other two, but in recent years it hasn't enjoyed critical regard commensurate with its history. There are reasons for that, which I won't go into here. But, just a few days ago, I found myself reading an article that seemed to be hinting that the SCO might also now be in decline. Here's a paragraph from the article in question:
… the past few years have seen something of a lull, with several key string positions unfilled, repertoire increasingly less than adventuresome, and marketing that has failed to reach out to inquisitive new audiences in the way that the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra has managed to do. A half-empty Friday night SCO concert in Glasgow can be demoralizing indeed.
The final sentence snagged. And so off I went!
"A half-empty Friday night SCO concert in Glasgow can be demoralizing indeed."
No. Not good enough. First obvious problem—using nouns as adjectives. But maybe you have to let it go sometimes. Reduce the use of that construction, though.
"A half-empty SCO concert on a Friday night in Glasgow can be demoralizing indeed."
Not much better. The acronym grates, but the real problem is that "SCO" is being used as an adjective.
"A half-empty Scottish Chamber Orchestra concert on a Friday night in Glasgow can be demoralizing indeed."
Better. "Scottish Chamber Orchestra" as an adjective doesn't sound so bad. But I'm still not happy.
"A half-empty concert by the Scottish Chamber Orchestra on a Friday night in Glasgow can be demoralizing indeed."
What is a half-empty concert? [End Page 446]
"A half-empty hall on a Friday night in Glasgow—when the Scottish Chamber Orchestra should really be playing to a full house in a city of that size—can be demoralizing indeed."
Is there a touch of affectation in "indeed"?
"A half-empty hall on a Friday night in Glasgow—when the Scottish Chamber Orchestra should really be playing to a full house in a city of that size—can be very demoralizing."
"A half-empty hall on a Friday night in Glasgow—when the Scottish Chamber Orchestra should really be playing to a full house in a city of that size—can be very demoralizing for the orchestra and the audience alike."
Any need for "very"?
"A half-empty hall on a Friday night in Glasgow—when the Scottish Chamber Orchestra should really be playing to a full house in a city of that size—can be demoralizing for the orchestra and the audience alike."
"Can be"—or "is"?
"A half-empty hall on a Friday night in Glasgow—when the Scottish Chamber Orchestra should really be playing to a full house in a city of that size—is demoralizing for the orchestra and the audience alike."
But then again I've heard the SCO rise above a poor atmosphere in the Music Hall in Aberdeen.
"A half-empty hall on a Friday night in Glasgow—when the Scottish Chamber Orchestra should really be playing to a full house in a city of that size—is demoralizing for both the orchestra and the audience, unless it's one of those memorable evenings when things just catch fire anyway."
"A half-empty hall on a Friday night in Glasgow, when the Scottish Chamber Orchestra should really be playing to a full house in a city of that size, is demoralizing for both the orchestra and the audience—unless it's one of those memorable evenings when things just catch fire anyway. As when Alina Ibragimova played the Schumann Violin Concerto with them in front of about 800 people—my concert of the year, even ahead of Beethoven's Ninth at a packed Barbican."
I could go on, because I'm still not happy. In truth, I just want to rip it up and start again. But the point is that this is what reading is like for me. I just can't afford to read newspapers with messy writing, so I only ever look at the New York Times, which still publishes stylish journalism and articles worthy of being called essays. No UK newspaper is bearable. I like the New York Review of Books and the New Yorker. Really, though, I'm frightened of reading—a peculiarity that Ludwig Wittgenstein would [End Page 447] have understood. On a beautiful moonlit night in America, he said this to a friend:
If I had planned it, I should never have made the sun at all. See! How beautiful! The sun is too bright and too hot … and if there were only the moon, there would be no reading and writing.
But he just refers to reading there. For Wittgenstein—and for me—the same essential point applies to speech. I'm afraid of speaking. Always have been. How I've managed to hold down a middle-range executive position in local government for thirteen years, I don't know. Someone will say: it can't be true. You're articulate. You speak a lot. You're socially skilled.
Yes. I've coped. You construct a persona. You get by.
Wittgenstein's friend Fania Pascal tells us that, walking around Cambridge in the days before Munich, he was visibly disturbed by the sight of soldiers digging shallow trenches on the green: "I am as much ashamed of what is happening as you are. But we mustn't talk about it." Cheap moral talk offended him more deeply than is fully intelligible to us nowadays in an age when Facebook affectation has replaced moral reserve.
Not only did cheap talk terrify him; it's almost impossible to grasp how lyrical and flexible his sense of felicitous language was. It had nothing to do with being a very clever philosopher with a lot of clever arguments. And it had nothing to do with being good at grammar in a way we can barely imagine nowadays. He was once told about a general who had led from the front and earned the affection and respect of all his men. In a near-hopeless situation, he had gathered them together to speak honestly about their dire predicament, and to say that it had been an honor to lead them, and to have known them, and that he would look forward to knowing them without rank in the life to come—if there was one. Wittgenstein regretted the last bit. "That spoilt everything!" And yet he certainly wasn't affirming a belief in life after death.
His sister Hermine couldn't believe that he was going to waste his genius on teaching rural schoolchildren in the middle of nowhere. He said that she was like someone looking out of a window at a passer-by staggering about in a strange and alarming way, completely failing to understand that, outside her cozy living room, a storm was raging, a storm so wild that the few people forced to stay out in it could only keep their footing with the greatest difficulty. [End Page 448]
What are these storms like? Well, maybe I don't really know, but I think I have some idea. Here's another little story. A few months ago I was talking to the secretary of a chamber music society, and I welcomed her news that Beethoven's Horn Trio was on an upcoming concert program. But in fact Beethoven didn't write a horn trio; I had misheard my interlocutor saying "horn sonata." So what was I up to? Had I intended to make out that I was familiar with a piece that didn't even exist? In my self-importance, had I assumed that it must exist—and that I now needed to sound as if I was familiar with it, in keeping with my reputation as someone knowledgeable about Beethoven? No. I do know a lot about Beethoven, and I "thought" that an early horn trio sounded familiar—although I certainly didn't "remember" ever having heard it. Perhaps I was "thinking" of the early clarinet sonata, which I do have on a CD. But, whatever antecedent facts might or might not have been in play—did I "think" or "remember" any of these things? etc.—I certainly had no notion that there had been any pretense in what I had said. Within seconds I was saying that I was puzzled, and that I wanted to check a Beethoven biography. I thought there was a trio but not a sonata. In fact, it was the other way around. But was all of that an attempt to salvage a bit of sincerity from an impulse toward affectation? What about that very first impulse? My words could have sounded as if I was implying familiarity with the nonexistent piece, and my interlocutor could easily have drawn that very inference. Even worse, I can't actually disprove the inference—all I can do is imagine that it might be getting inferred for reasons that are philosophically mistaken!
Imagine having flurries of experience like this—in relation to reading and speaking—every day of your life. Several times a day. And about every subject under the sun, in every social situation imaginable. I've used two illustrations drawn from the world of classical music, but I could have recounted anecdotes to do with politics or cooking or painting the garden fence.
We have a cat now—Lily. One day I was going to have an early bath and Carole was in the garden, so I said to Mark that Mum and I were going to be out of commission, and that, if Lily came mewing for her tea, I'd laid out a packet of her favorite food, and her dish. I'd laid out a packet of her favorite food and her dish. And I thought—how strange. It was as if I hadn't known those words before. Iris Murdoch tells a story very similar to this. Kafka too. Samuel Beckett as well, I believe, although I've never really tackled him. It's not just Wittgenstein. In fact, I'm going to try to say a bit about Martin Heidegger soon. But anyway. A packet of her [End Page 449] favorite food and her dish. How had those simple words managed to mean what they had meant? Her dish, and a packet of her favorite food. Might I have said: "I've laid out her favorite food—I haven't opened the packet—and her dish." Why did that sound better? It certainly made me feel better. But the plane had lost altitude, and was clipping the tops of the trees.
A packet of her favorite food and her dish.
It bothered me for hours.
But note that the Scottish Chamber Orchestra illustration, the story of the Beethoven Horn Trio, and the sentence about the cat food are all different. I could offer three more examples, or eight more, or eighty. Maybe I should write down hundreds of examples for the rest of my life—and leave behind a book that really would be important. My "language problem" is largely unimaginable to other people, it seems, but a vast number of vivid illustrations might bring it out of the shadows. Mind you, I know one or two individuals who would probably say that they got my point vis-à-vis the endless revision of the sentence about the Scottish Chamber Orchestra. But they don't get it, since they might think that refining sentences is just good fun. And they would think that they could take it or leave it. It's my least extreme example, though. I haven't told you about the most extreme.
Of course, it's easy to say that such neurasthenic excess must be neurotic or narcissistic—or pathological in some hybrid way—but it's too easy. The apotheosis of such psychological categories may be hysterical and abnormal but, all too often, the categories themselves are formulated by people looking for models of normality that are antithetical to what others of us might want to call a sufficiently vivid existence. Think of an existence that would pass Nietzsche's eternal recurrence test. What if a demon were to say that you have to relive your existence time and again, unchanged, with nothing new in it, but every thought and sigh repeated? Maybe some of us have to live like this. Maybe this is the way some of us "show up in existence"—as Heidegger might have put it. We're not all the same. We can be a million miles away even from our closest friends, even from our loved ones. As Wittgenstein once said:
The older I get, the more I realize how terribly difficult it is for people to understand each other, and I think that what misleads one is the fact that they all look so much like each other. If some people looked like elephants and others like cats, or fish, one wouldn't expect them to understand each other and things would look much more like what they really are.2 [End Page 450]
I often talk about conversational miasma. In the middle of the nineteenth century, the word "miasma" was used to describe what were thought to be bad particles in the air, particles that made people ill. And the model was half right. But the air itself wasn't the problem; it was the germs that came from infection, dead animals, rotting food, poor sanitation. Back then, however, no one could see germs, and no one could demonstrate that they even existed. All people could say, speculatively, was that the air seemed to be the problem—which was true—and seemed to explain why disease occurred in the undrained and filthy areas, where the poor lived. Then Louis Pasteur demonstrated the existence of pathogenic organisms. Germ theory was up and running. But the idea of miasma had pointed reformers in the right direction. It had been a good guess, although not strictly accurate.
So—can we say that the microcultures of speech experience are too difficult to "see" well enough to allow them to be described conclusively—but only because "seeing" them requires a mode of human introspection not commonly or publicly recognized as being "what human beings do"?
Or am I going badly wrong as soon as I begin to go down this path? Can these microcultures ever be "seen"—or are they only ever to be imagined? And what's the value of imagination here? These questions are at the heart of the difference between Heidegger and Wittgenstein.
But, before getting to that, I need to sketch in a bit of background. Edmund Husserl says that, instead of asking whether the chair in front of you is really there or not, the point is that, whether it is or isn't, something is going on. As regards that "something," you can't doubt that it is—although you can certainly doubt how it is. In other words, your experience presents itself to you in terms of chairs and tables, and in terms of other people seeming to share the same convictions about the same chairs and tables—and you can't be wrong about that. Whatever other doubts you may have about it, your experience definitely is. A starting point definitely exists. But the old Cartesian assumptions are still there. The self still looks out on the world in a dualistic way—or, rather, it looks out in a dualistic way on its experience, without necessarily inferring a world. The world is bracketed, as it were.
Heidegger, however, ditches dualism altogether—even though Husserl has pared it down to an unprecedentedly lean version. For Heidegger, we're not looking out on anything. We're "in" the world long before we ask philosophical questions about it. For example, if someone says that existence is a queer or uncanny thing, a bit like looking out of a window for a few years before the window just disappears—but also a bit like [End Page 451] being the window too—we feel much more comfortable with the first analogy. The second one seems to underestimate our individuality. Yet the window is a better analogy than that of a spectator looking out of it. We shouldn't place the mind on one side and the world on the other. But we have no evidence to stick to that vaguely Buddhist-sounding advice—unless the felt limitation of the experience of speech changes the play of forces altogether.
And it does. Indeed, for Heidegger, our everyday language and our everyday moods—the apparently irreducible panoply of our everydayness in all respects—are vivid reminders that we ordinarily make sense (to ourselves and others) without—well, without thinking! But this is not behaviorism. On the contrary, it's pretty wonderful. Our moods, for instance—far from being pangs of irritation or wafts of pleasure—are actually vivid disclosures of our "already-being-in-the-world"—if only we can notice.
And the primus inter pares of these disclosures is language. I'm sure that "a packet of her favorite food and her dish" was an illustration of this. I think I experienced a kind of primordial surprise at my own words, a sudden shaft of realization that I was operating in a mesh of irreducibly deep cognitive and sensory nuance that could never be brought onstage for inspection. But Heidegger doesn't settle for irreducibility. He thinks we can get bits of the mesh onstage and have a look. The jargon, however, is an enormous challenge. As Richard Rorty once said, Heideggerese is Heidegger's gift to us, not Being's gift to Heidegger!
Wittgenstein, on the other hand, thinks the mesh really is irreducible—but that wonderment alone is a sufficient response. Perhaps, but it's a very difficult ideal to live up to. And the whole question is more complicated than I've said.
Sometimes it feels as if I've traveled so far in all of this—as if several lifetimes have passed already.
My first philosophical hero was the philosopher of religion Don Cupitt. He was an academic theologian who should have been hidden away among the cloisters of Emmanuel College, but actually became a significant public figure in the United Kingdom, frequently appearing on television and radio in the eighties. His central idea was that, even if the word "God" was just a word, a sign in a language game, religious practices could still function—just as economic exchange could continue when money no longer had the backing of a real gold standard. If eternity were timelessness, not infinite temporal duration, then eternal life belongs to those who live in the present—pouring themselves out heedlessly, like the sun. [End Page 452]
He's a great guy, still going strong in his eighties and still tossing around vivid analogies about things that flit in and out of existence, things that are delicate and light. A favored image is that of insects—especially pond skaters traversing the surface of things, reacting to the contingent ripples in the water. We also hear about butterflies that only live for half a day, and little birds that sing their hearts out all the way through their tiny life spans. It's marvelous stuff, but one objection to it would be that it doesn't really face up to the emotional depth of our affinities and attachments.
For example, one day I may have to watch Carole leave my hospital ward, knowing that I'll never see her again. What price "delicate and light" then? But, even here, my thoughts turn to questions about communication. Perhaps Mark will be in America when I die. Is someone going to suggest to me that I could speak to him one last time on some form of social media? I can't think of anything worse. In fact, if all things were equal, I'd rather not risk a last farewell in person—let alone on a screen. That's how I already am in everyday life. I often avoid people I like (as well as people I don't like) because talking to them isn't worth the risk. Not here, not now.
When I was very young, just six or seven years old, my school class was going to a puppet show—Peter Pan—at a local theater, and I didn't put my name forward. Everyone else did. The problem was that we were going to be away at this performance until early evening, and I had my own little agenda at home on Friday evenings, which I placed ahead of Peter Pan. But I didn't really want to share this with my teacher, or my fellow pupils, because it was an understated agenda, on a homely and domestic scale. I knew that everyone else would think that Peter Pan with puppets was surely a better option. And I ended up going to the show because my teacher and the head teacher were worried that I was being bullied, or that something else was upsetting me. My parents were brought in to discuss the problem. My dad thought I should be left in peace to do what I wanted, but my mum was concerned that I was rocking the boat. I went to Peter Pan just to get a quiet life again. Of course, I enjoyed it perfectly well. But the die was cast.
So—how to conclude? Really, I suppose I should say that I only enjoy communication when a bit of flavor emerges—perhaps indirectly—and that the only way I can enjoy existence routinely is to refrain from communication. And I do. None of you thinks that can be accurate, because I've not chosen to withdraw from sociality. But I don't find sociality natural or easy. On the other hand, I certainly don't think I have to be [End Page 453] the star of the show. My interlocutors can have the glittering lines. But I do want our sentences to catch the wind. I want to experience words flitting and coalescing. I don't want to have to talk to people who stiffen before words, as if standing to attention. I want rhythmic and swirling conversational loops and circuits, repetitious yet beautiful.
Such moments are rare. But here's one I stumbled on recently.
CAUTION: The appalling and needless loss of life on this mountain has been due largely to the failure of robust trampers to realize that wintry storms of incredible violence occur at times, even during the summer months. Rocks become ice-coated, freezing fog blinds and suffocates, winds of hurricane force exhaust the tramper, and, when he stops to rest, a temperature below freezing completes the tragedy. If you are experiencing difficulty, abandon your climb! The highest wind velocities ever recorded were attained on Mt. Washington. Since the worst is yet to come, turn back without shame, before it's too late.3
I don't want anything less than that. Ever. But I'm crazy.
If I fail to get started with the task of painting our garden fence, I can say to Carole lots of things that purport to explain my dilatoriness, and report my explanations in terms of prior thoughts. "I thought it would be better to wait because of X," I may say. And I assume that this thought about X is an event that must have first occurred in the past. After all, something must have happened back then, or else I would have painted the fence. Or perhaps not. If I live alone—with no need to explain my behavior to anyone—I simply don't paint the fence. Then, perhaps a week later, I do paint it. Imagine a little dog that goes to the park every day to get a biscuit from the gardeners during their coffee break. We assume that such a dog has no means of representing to itself the sense of its behavior, but that a human being does—i.e., through words. But what if the comparison with the dog is not the obvious one? What if human language use doesn't surpass the dog's habitual behavior but is actually just like it? The dog doesn't have words at its disposal—but is no more "habitual" than we are.
Now imagine a game in which footballs (soccer balls to any American who might be reading) are repeatedly thrown at a contestant, preceded [End Page 454] on each occasion by a shouted command: "catch," "kick," "dodge," or "header." Because the instructions are so simple, we find it believable that the meanings of these words are not processed by the contestant, but that he or she simply reacts to them immediately. However, if this is true, the immediacy still has to contain the correct meaning—rather than one of the incorrect ones. The correct meaning would be doing its work without being processed. We find this believable when the instructions are extremely simple. But when the language use is more complicated, we imagine we need more.
And yet. You get out of bed in the middle of the night, half-asleep, in the dark, and go through to the bathroom. Then you return to bed and fall asleep again. But if you do this in a hotel, you proceed much more carefully. Back home again, if your wife has moved your bed a few inches while vacuuming, you may get up in the middle of the night and stub your toe because handling the situation in immediacy has been sabotaged by those few inches. Recriminations may follow.
What's the lesson here? That the sense human beings make every moment of every day will not have existed in advance of the practical activities that evince it? Yes. But we never learn this lesson. It's far too difficult. We revert to the old prejudice: never mind analogies about stubbing your toe in the dark; the fact remains that it stands to reason that human sense is qualitatively different from the sense made by little dogs who go to the park every morning.
We can't resist thinking that, when we humans go to the park, we—unlike little dogs—definitely know why! I want to go to the park because I can walk there with Helena without people getting the wrong impression if we're seen together. Walking along the beach is a bit more suspicious—the sea evokes yearning—and, huddled together in a pub, our body language could be misconstrued. I haven't said yet if I'm having an affair or if I'm just worried about being suspected of having one. If it's the latter, do I want to be free of any criticism that I should know better than to be in a suspicious-looking situation, but want to enjoy nevertheless the frisson of spectators wondering in any case? Pretty girl, Helena. Have you known her for long? I went out with her for a while in Cambridge. Oh. Does Carole mind? Carole was very much on the scene at the same time. Carole was the one, not Helena. Yes. But the person who saw me in the park with Helena is already thinking that some people have all the luck. And I enjoy sensing that some sort of sexual luster is being attributed to me. [End Page 455]
Can all of that really have no meaning prior to the practical activities that evince it?
Definitely. In fact, I can hardly imagine otherwise.
But we always feel we have to posit something like super-fast computations in the brain to allow us to have meanings as complicated as that. But Wittgenstein suggests that the analogy of "catch," "kick," "dodge," or "header" is actually a sufficient kick-start. Going back to that unpainted fence, can I really take seriously the idea that reasons were rehearsed in my mind when I decided not to get the paint out? If I rehearse them again now, by way of placating my wife, why do I feel as if I'm rehearsing them for the first time? And why does it seem more like a set of newly intelligible ideas than the retrieval of old ones? As I "explain myself," the explanation may well be plausible—but did I actually have those thoughts? On reflection, I doubt it. My explanations seem like plausible models of causality—perhaps incontrovertibly so—but I can easily lose confidence in them as reports on prior events. One might almost say: we accomplish meaning without experiencing it. But that's not quite right.
How about this? "We experience the accomplishment." An accomplishment. The sense—a sense—of the meaning comes later, if anyone asks. But it's good if they don't. It's when we're asked for explanations that we get into a muddle. We report the putative sense of our actions as if we've already experienced it. But we haven't.
We experience the accomplishment of something that passes quite properly for meaning, but it's not as much meaning as we assume. Nevertheless, we have to call it meaning. After all, how on earth could we call it less than meaning? It's the most obvious form of human meaning I can think of: a successful and extended outward movement of consequential human transaction. So why do I imagine that I have to say that it "passes quite properly for meaning"—as if some other marvelous thing could be brought onstage as quintessential meaning?
Probably because "the putative sense" is always an imaginative possibility.
Here's Wittgenstein as imagined by Terry Eagleton in his 1987 comic novel Saints and Scholars:
Because the drama seems bungling and amateurish we can't resist peering behind the scenes for a purer, finer play being conducted out of sight. But the stage, don't you see, is bare. They came to the tomb and found it empty: that was the true revelation. Not how things came to be, but that they are: this is the mystery. [End Page 456]
To stop "peering behind the scenes"—to affirm the bungling and the amateurish—I love it! When I first read this at Cambridge in 1999, I thought it was wonderful. That really is what Wittgenstein is trying to say, I thought. And it is.
Sometimes, though, he doesn't live up to it. The thought of "a purer, finer play being conducted out of sight" haunts his imagination. To repeat: "the putative sense" is always an imaginative possibility.
And—unfortunately—those of us who know how momentously true it is that no "purer, finer play" is "being conducted out of sight" can also imagine better than anyone else what a purer, finer play might look like!
Because felicitous conversations do exist—and they tempt us. The putative sense of what we say—as opposed to "an accomplishment" of meaning—can move closer to hand. But we never enter a real clearing. We just feel that we can imagine it well enough to be edified by a felt openness that wasn't there before. The imagined recovery of the putative sense—in a conversation hospitable enough to allow the imagining to begin—is a heart-easing experience. That's why, in letters and journals, we find Wittgenstein wanting to set up his conversations—to set them up in the hope of saying only fitting words in felicitous situations. He even wanted his death to reach him in a fitting moment. He warmed to simplicity in all things: unaffected people speaking unaffectedly to unaffected interlocutors about unaffected topics. And he was "excessively sensitive to the disposition of the people whom he happened to encounter."4 But he could still enjoy naturalistic or unmediated moments. Moments of human warmth. While in Ireland in 1948, he wrote to Norman Malcolm:
I haven't anyone at all to talk to here, & this is good & in a way bad. It would be good to see someone occasionally to whom one could say a really friendly word. I don't need conversations. What I'd like would be someone to smile at occasionally.5
On an earlier occasion, we find him writing to Hermine about the methods according to which he and his brothers and sisters might "talk pleasantly to each other" during a family Christmas in Vienna. Certain combinations of siblings could possibly work if certain other conditions were met, he says, but "it would be absurd to wish to be cozily together if there is no connecting element."6
Now many of us might think we can grasp this concern. A lot of people dread family get-togethers, etc. But Wittgenstein was overwhelmed by [End Page 457] the dread that he would have to have an "unfitting" conversation—overwhelmed all through his life and overwhelmed to the extent that he hid away for months at a time, high above a Norwegian fjord and on the Galway coast in Ireland. Yes, something of this phobia exists in Kierkegaard and Kafka and Beckett and Eliot—but with Wittgenstein, we're looking at nothing less than a fear of speaking.
And yet, uniquely in philosophical history, he knows in his best moments that the ghost of "a putative sense"—and the very idea of felicitous conversation—are both reversions to "peering behind the scenes." He knows that the point about not peering behind the scenes is that there really is nothing there.
Nothing but our imaginings.
And nowhere for our imaginings to have been earlier.
And, just to complicate the situation further, there will be times when the accomplishment of meaning is haunted not by the imagining of its putative sense but by a self-generated awareness of its purely and radically surface nature. As in "a packet of her favorite food and her dish." Earlier, I characterized this as "a kind of primordial surprise at my own words, a sudden shaft of realization that I was operating in a mesh of irreducibly deep cognitive and sensory nuance that could never be brought onstage for inspection." Yes. Hence the analogy of a plane losing altitude and clipping the tops of the trees.
But, again, you see the differences here. A putative sense is not being imagined in this case. In this case, the accomplishment of meaning is subverting itself simply in that it is the kind of thing it is—as opposed to the kind of thing we're bewitched into thinking it must be. That is to say, an irreducible sense "borne of that distinction" is experienced as an incongruity that overwhelms the consciousness of the savant type who can feel it.
All of which means that, although language is incontrovertibly public and participatory, its demythologized experience on the part of a single participant can cause (for that perspicacious individual) joys and consternations—or imaginings and perplexities—that feel private.
In Benedict Cumberbatch's BBC TV portrayal of Sherlock Holmes as a 21st-century Londoner of the savant type, we sometimes see word clusters appear next to Sherlock's forehead to indicate that, in his "mind palace," he can see a pocket of nuanced intelligibility closed off to mere mortals. In explaining my recurring difficulties over the experience of speech, I am tempted to say that I too see word clusters, rather more mundane ones, and that the contingencies of conversation cause them to tumble down into piles of word rubble, resulting in cognitive distress. [End Page 458]
In a way, it's a good analogy, but it's also a disastrous one, because my central concern is to resist the idea that our words have meaning because our minds or brains contain antecedent or concomitant meanings (verbal or not). So, using an insufficient analogy as a stepping stone across to a better one, I would prefer to say that, when a sense of conversational fragmentation bears down on me, I feel as if I can't get enough room to draw back my arm far enough to make the "throw" that will send my sentences skittering across the surface.
The surface of what? The surface of the conversation, I suppose. The surface of time? Yes, if you like. But the surface, definitely. The outside. Outside of me.
Sentences skittering across the surface aren't sentences that I intend— or at least I don't intend them in the sense that they already exist, because I don't think they do. But things get tricky here. All sentences can be said to be foreseen—in the sense that the sentences that went skittering across the surface immediately beforehand will set up the next "throw." Nevertheless, "words are doing everything by themselves."
As I've recounted, I have a vivid sense of the difference between felicitous conversation and infelicitous conversation. Sometimes it would be appropriate to refer to problems with "speech" rather than "conversation," but sometimes not. And I experience a lot of variation in what it feels like to read. I find a clumsy or confusing text very difficult to deal with. But let's stick with conversation.
First of all, I'm in no doubt about how lovely it is to enjoy a few minutes of seamless discussion or carefree chatter. But the risks of conversation are so enormous and overwhelming that the loveliness never lasts. And you can't bottle it. It doesn't get turned into a liturgy. There's nothing salvific going on when a bit of felicitous talk is heart easing. It's heart easing, but it's transitory.
The salvific, on the other hand, is the understanding that you were meant to be—not the understanding that you'll continue to be conscious in some way after your death but the understanding that, destined to be dead as a doorpost, you know nevertheless that your existence was intended to be what it is, and how it is.
In other words, we're looking at a metaphysical creator to whom stupid questions about how "I never asked for this life" cannot be put. Believing in such a God necessarily precludes ingratitude! But, again, this has nothing to do with life after death, or any such imagining. [End Page 459]
So, if this is what the salvific is like, we can safely say that there's nothing salvific about our words. Yes, a seamless and intimate conversation can leave you with something a bit like postcoital sleepiness—a lovely feeling after a lovely feeling—but you can't bathe in the afterglow for long.
Unusually for me, I've just been lying in the sun in the garden, enjoying doing nothing. Looking at a blue sky with a few clouds, feeling the warmth on my face, I wondered how to characterize the sense that something is wrong with me, and the concomitant sense that somehow something isn't. Some might say that you can't feel these contradictions if you're hungry, or frightened, but this has always seemed to me to be a particularly superficial idea. I usually refer to Dietrich Bonhoeffer in prison, awaiting execution at the hands of the Nazis but thinking about Kierkegaard.
No, the thing that occurred to me as I enjoyed the sun was that, whatever was wrong with me, or wasn't, I could quite evidently entertain the thought that my heart might stop—and that the window onto the world that is me, and has my personal history, would just disappear. Of course, it disappears every night when I go to sleep, but the cognitive mesh in the background (I'm too fond of cognitive meshes, I know) is such that my immediate comportment clearly isn't a comportment toward not waking up in the morning. Similarly, a thought experiment in the warmth of the sun probably lacks the necessary conviction too. Lazing about in the garden is not the same as being in a cancer ward. But being in a cancer ward isn't quite the point either. I had a minor (but life-saving) operation a year ago and I remember contemplating the risk of a general anaesthetic—or indeed medical error. As I began to go under on the operating table, I thought that I might be being me for the last few seconds of the life that began in 1979 and featured a mother and father and two aunts and my Dad's old Dinky Toys and …
Actually, the last words before my loss of consciousness were about Dumbarton Football Club's old ground at Boghead. The anaesthetist was surprised I'd been there. We got onto the subject (indirectly) because he didn't recognize my accent. It was a felicitous enough conversation. As far as the European cultural tradition of "the good death" was concerned, it was maybe 6 out of 10 on the quirky scale. But I didn't think, "Oh my, unexpected but not bad, 6 for 10 on the quirky scale, that'll do, it'll have to, good night and good luck—I'm going under now." Something salvific would have been different, even if only implicit in the cognitive mesh: "Oh my, unexpected but not bad, 6 for 10 on the quirky scale, that's nice, but, hey, God intended me to be!" [End Page 460]
But that ship has sailed.
Another thing that isn't wrong with me is that I don't mind that my existence will be more or less forgotten within eighty years. If Mark lives to be ninety, he'll take with him the last meaningful (conscious) sense of what I was. If his wife lives longer, she may take a meaningful sense with her, but she can never remember me as deeply as my son can. Isaiah Berlin said that Stravinsky knew he was immortal, and was happy in the knowledge. But a Stravinsky comes along only once or twice in a century. Of course, it would be nice to know that people would be using what you invented until the end of time, but it's not the point, not for me.
No, what's wrong with me is simply that conversation and speech bear down on me oppressively—even though I'd be the last person in the world to imagine a speechless mysticism of some sort. Heidegger says that language is the house of Being and I agree with him. But language also spoils human experience. So—our very house, our home, spoils our experience. Similarly, the representational character of language is incontrovertible—we acquire language by being told what words stand for—but then we never get over it. We can never grasp that the representational nature of language is not in play when we speak and listen, and read and write. Even then, that's not quite right, because the representational aspects are always going to be implicit in the mesh. The mesh again! But suffice to say that language blights human experience despite being intrinsic to it. Less language, less noise, and maybe a bit of luck too, and I'll go gently enough into the dark night.
So, if I understand enough about this predicament, can I move away from language but yet manage to stand in a "correct" relation to it, to allow me to go on enjoying bits of speech and conversation?
I think it can be done.
In fact, I'm asserting the hope that it can be done as nothing less than an ethical and experiential recommendation.
1. David Wemyss, "The Weighing of Our Words," Philosophy and Literature 39, no. 1 (April 2015): 233–242.
2. Ludwig Wittgenstein to Piero Sraffa, August 23, 1949, in Wittgenstein in Cambridge: Letters and Documents 1911–1951, ed. Brian McGuinness (Oxford: Blackwell, 2008), p. 450.
3. Steven D. Smith, Appalachian Mountain Club White Mountain Guide (Boston: Appalachian Mountain Club, 1976), p. 3.
4. Paul Engelmann, Letters from Ludwig Wittgenstein, with a Memoir, ed. B. F. McGuinness, trans. L. Furtmueller (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1967), p. 60.
5. Norman Malcolm, Ludwig Wittgenstein: A Memoir, 2nd ed. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1984), p. 107.
6. Joachim Schulte, "Letters from a Philosopher," in Wittgenstein: Biography and Philosophy, ed. James Klagge (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001), p. 187.