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  • Syntextural Investigations
  • Jonathan Monroe (bio)

What kinds of investigation, of “tracing out” or “tracking in” (from the Latin investigare), are called for by the names “philosophy” and “poetry”? How should we trace them out or track them down? Where do we locate their borders, and what would it mean to live within them or, alternatively, to step across or outside them, to investigate what lies between? What would it mean to get off their tracks, to get untracked from or by them? Confronting these problems in Philosophical Investigations in a key passage quoting from his earlier work, Wittgenstein writes:

[Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus 4.5]: The general form of propositions [Die allgemeine Form des Satzes] is: “This is how things are” [Es verhält sich so und so]—That is the kind of proposition [ein Satz] that one repeats to oneself countless times. One thinks that one is tracing the outline of the thing’s nature over and over again, and one is merely tracing round the frame through which we look at it.


What Wittgenstein discovers in the process of tracing round the borders or frame of philosophy is, as the paragraph immediately following indicates, a sense of entrapment: “A ‘picture’ held us captive [Ein ‘Bild’ hielt uns gefangen]. And we could not get outside it, for it lay in our language and seemed to repeat it to us inexorably” [115]. In attempting to get at the ways in which the picture offered by the language of philosophy makes us captive, and thus begin to open onto the possibility of sketching an alternative picture that would “bring words back from their metaphysical to their everyday use” [116], Wittgenstein traces out a project that bears some striking family resemblances to Gertrude Stein’s insistently grammatical investigations of poetry and prose. The works of both writers are informed by a fundamental question: What is it in language that has the power to make us captive, to captivate and so entrap us? To this question, we might add: If philosophy is “a battle against the bewitchment [Verhexung] of our intelligence by means of language” [109], might poetry have a similar function? If it is “precisely in our idealizations,” as Charles Altieri has written, “that we reveal our entrapments” [223], what of the “bewitching” power of our idealizations of philosophy and poetry themselves?

“Our motto might be,” Wittgenstein writes: “‘Let us not be bewitched’” [119e]. As the word “bewitched” indicates (in the German also, behexen, from Hexe, “witch”), the fight against enchantment, which may be said to be the philosophical struggle par excellence, is conceived by Wittgenstein in prototypically philosophical, in this case misogynistically gendered terms. As Wittgenstein puts it in On Certainty: “one is often bewitched by a word. For example, by the word ‘know’” [Man wird oft von einem Wort behext. Z.B. vom Wort ‘wissen’ 57/57e]. From a philosophical point of view, the word “know” or wissen is, of course, no mere example among others. The problem of knowledge is rather the problem of philosophy tout court. Stein is keenly aware of this problem, which she recognizes as a crucial concern for poetry no less than philosophy: [End Page 126]

Patriarchal in investigation and renewing of an intermediate rectification of the initial boundary between cows and fishes. Both are admittedly not inferior in which case they may be obtained as the result of organisation industry concentration assistance and matter of fact and by this this is their chance and to appear and to reunite as to their date and their estate. . . .

[“Patriarchal Poetry” 110–11]

Patriarchal poetry reasonably. Patriarchal poetry administratedly. Patriarchal poetry with them too. Patriarchal poetry as to mind. Patriarchal poetry reserved. Patriarchal poetry interdiminished. Patriarchal poetry in regular places largely in regular places placed regularly as if it were as if it were placed regularly. [123]

For the Wittgenstein of the Philosophical Investigations, the means required to counter the captivating power of philosophy are above all grammatical:

We feel as if we had to penetrate phenomena: our investigation, however, is directed not towards phenomena, but, as one might say, toward the ‘possibilities’ of phenomena. We remind ourselves, that is to say, of the kind of statement...