The Threat of Solipsism: Wittgenstein and Cavell on Meaning, Skepticism, and Finitude 3110702657, 9783110702651, 9783110702859, 9783110702880

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The Threat of Solipsism: Wittgenstein and Cavell on Meaning, Skepticism, and Finitude
 3110702657, 9783110702651, 9783110702859, 9783110702880

Table of contents :
1. Solipsism and the limits of sense in the Tractatus Logico- Philosophicus
2. Solipsism and method in the Philosophical Remarks
3. Solipsism, privacy, and the grammar of the first person in The Blue Book
4. The threat of privacy in the Philosophical Investigations: Cavell and Kripke on skepticism about meaning
5. Seeing souls: Wittgenstein and Cavell on skepticism about other minds
6. Taking skepticism seriously: Stroud and Cavell
7. Skepticism, perfectionism, and the limits of morality
Index of subjects
Index of names

Citation preview

Jônadas Techio The Threat of Solipsism

Berlin Studies in Knowledge Research

Edited by Günter Abel and James Conant

Volume 16

Jônadas Techio

The Threat of Solipsism Wittgenstein and Cavell on Meaning, Skepticism, and Finitude

Series Editors Prof. Dr. Günter Abel Technische Universität Berlin Institut für Philosophie Straße des 17. Juni 135 10623 Berlin Germany e-mail: [email protected] Prof. Dr. James Conant The University of Chicago Dept. of Philosophy 1115 E. 58th Street Chicago IL 60637 USA e-mail: [email protected]

ISBN 978-3-11-070265-1 e-ISBN (PDF) 978-3-11-070285-9 e-ISBN (EPUB) 978-3-11-070288-0 ISSN 2365-1601

Library of Congress Control Number: 2020943195 Bibliographic information published by the Deutsche Nationalbibliothek The Deutsche Nationalbibliothek lists this publication in the Deutsche Nationalbibliografie; detailed bibliographic data are available on the Internet at © 2021 Walter de Gruyter GmbH, Berlin/Boston Printing and binding: CPI books GmbH, Leck

For Adenir, Elisa, and Karina

I have heard the key Turn in the door once and turn once only We think of the key, each in his prison thinking of the key, each confirms a prison T. S. Eliot (The Waste Land, sec. III: “The Fire Sermon”)

Acknowledgments Several people have read and commented on this book, or parts of it, at different stages of its development. My greatest debts are to my friend, colleague and former supervisor Paulo Faria, both for his helpful comments and suggestions made on successive drafts and for his continuous incentive and support. I also owe many important insights, both exegetical and philosophical, to Jim Conant, with whom I had the opportunity to discuss much of the material comprising this book on a number of occasions. Eric Ritter read a previous version of the whole manuscript and made important philosophical suggestions, besides helping me with some grammatical infelicities. Flavio Williges read and made a number of helpful comments to an initial version of the book’s Introduction and to chapter 7. Many other colleagues, students and friends contributed, both in written and in oral form, to the development of the reflections leading to particular chapters, and I am afraid I will not be able to recall all of their names at this point. So I ask the following few to stand as representatives of that larger set: Alexandre Noronha Machado, André Klaudat, André Porto, Avner Baz, Bento Prado Neto, Eduardo Vicentini de Medeiros, Erin Seeba, Eros Moreira Carvalho, Fernando Carlucci, Gilad Nir, Gordon Bearn, Hannes Worthmann, James South, João Carlos Brum Torres, João Vergílio Cutter, Jolley Dean Kelley, Lizzie Finnegan, Marcelo Carvalho, Martin Shuster, Mauro Engelmann, Nykolas Correia Motta, Plínio Junqueira Smith, Priscilla Tesch Spinelli, Rafael Vogelmann, Rodrigo De Ulhôa Canto Reis, Stephen Mulhall, Steven Affeldt, Victor J. Krebs, Waldomiro Silva Filho, Wes Atkinson, and William Day. The research leading to this book was funded by the following sponsoring agencies and programs: CAPES (Coordination for the Improvement of Higher Education Personnel, Brazil) via Visiting Scholar Program n. 88881.171587/2018 – 01 and via Institutional Program for Internationalization n. 23038.016333/2017– 85; CNPq (National Council for Scientific and Technological Development, Brazil) via Research Productivity Grant n. 303905/2017– 4; and The Fulbright Foundation (in partnership with CAPES) via the CAPES/Fulbright Visiting Scholar Program n. 1043/41– 3. I would like to thank those agencies, as well as the staff and collaborators from the Universities of Chicago and Leipzig for hosting me during two sabbatical leaves, in 2014 and 2018 – 2019. Finally, I would like to thank all of my colleagues from the Philosophy Department at the Federal University of Rio Grande do Sul for authorizing and supporting those leaves. Previous versions of the following chapters appeared in print before, and I would like to thank the Editors of their original publications for allowing me to revise and update them for the present book: chapter 1 appeared in Philosoph



ical Topics 42 (2014); chapter 2 appeared in Manuscrito 35/2 (2012); chapter 3 appeared in DoisPontos 9/2 (2012); chapter 4 appeared in Wittgenstein-Studien 11/1 (2020); chapter 5 appeared in Conversations 1/1 (2013); chapter 6 appeared in Sképsis 14/1 (2016); chapter 7 appeared in Ethic@ 15/2 (2016). Porto Alegre, June 2020 Jônadas Techio

Contents Abbreviations Introduction  . . . . . . . . . . .

 . . . .  . . . . .


Solipsism and the limits of sense in the Tractatus LogicoPhilosophicus 18 Introduction 18 20 The limits of sense: a first pass The limits of (my) language and the limits of (my) world: the solipsistic move 27 33 The “truth in solipsism”: a first pass “I am my world”: solipsism coincides with “pure realism” 37 40 Throwing the ladder away: a first attempt Back to the ladder: problematizing the solipsistic move 42 Throwing the “picture theory of meaning” away 44 50 The “truth in solipsism”: a second pass Throwing the ladder away: a second attempt 54 Concluding methodological remarks: distinguishing cure and 58 prevention Solipsism and method in the Philosophical Remarks Introduction 61 “The world as idea”: solipsism and the limits of experience 72 Time, memory, and sublimation 81 90 Solipsism of the present moment


Solipsism, privacy, and the grammar of the first person in The Blue 94 Book 94 Introduction “I can’t feel his pain”: a first route to solipsism 96 When language goes on holiday: some further routes to 104 solipsism “‘I’ does not refer”: the peculiar grammar of the first person pronoun 107 Teaching differences 117


 . . . . . . 


The threat of privacy in the Philosophical Investigations: Cavell and Kripke on skepticism about meaning 119 119 Introduction 122 Kripke’s Wittgenstein on rules and private language Kripke’s Wittgenstein vs. Cavell’s Wittgenstein on rules and private language 126 Kripke’s Wittgenstein vs. Cavell’s Wittgenstein on inheriting 134 language: two readings of the “scene of instruction” 137 Skepticism and our aspiration for the sublime Meaning and its risks 140

. . . . .

Seeing souls: Wittgenstein and Cavell on skepticism about other minds 143 Introduction 143 145 The problem of other minds in PI I Outward criteria, and their limits 148 152 Aspect perception and the problem of other minds Soul-blindness (or: “living our skepticism”) 157

 . . . .

Taking skepticism seriously: Stroud and Cavell 163 163 Introduction 166 Cavell and Stroud on skepticism and meaning Cavell and Stroud on the truth in skepticism 178 Coda 185

 . . . .

Skepticism, perfectionism, and the limits of morality Introduction 187 188 What is the point of a moral argument? Perfectionism and the limits of morality 195 200 Final remarks



Index of subjects Index of names

208 210


Abbreviations BB BT

Wittgenstein, Ludwig (1958): The Blue and Brown Books. Oxford: Blackwell. Wittgenstein, Ludwig (2005): The Big Typescript: TS 213 (German-English Scholar’s Edition). C. Grant Luckhardt/Maximilian Aue (eds.). Oxford: Blackwell. CHU Cavell, Stanley (1990): Conditions Handsome and Unhandsome: The Constitution of Emersonian Perfectionism. Oxford and London: The University of Chicago Press. CR Cavell, Stanley (1979): The Claim of Reason: Wittgenstein, Skepticism, Morality and Tragedy. Oxford: Clarendon Press. CW Cavell, Stanley (2004): Cities of Words: Pedagogical Letters on a Register of the Moral Life. Cambridge, MA and London: Harvard University Press. IQO Cavell, Stanley (1994): In Quest of the Ordinary: Lines of Skepticism and Romanticism. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. K Kripke, Saul (1982): Wittgenstein on Rules and Private Language: An Elementary Exposition. Oxford: Basil Blackwell. MWM Cavell, Stanley (1976): Must We Mean What We Say?. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. NAT Cavell, Stanley (1996): “Notes and Afterthoughts on the Opening of Wittgenstein’s Investigations”. In: Hans D. Sluga/David G. Stern (eds.), The Cambridge Companion to Wittgenstein. Cambridge and New York: Cambridge University Press, pp. 261 – 295. NB Wittgenstein, Ludwig (1984): Notebooks 1914 – 1916, 2nd ed. G. E. M. Anscombe/G. H. von Wright (eds.). Chicago: The University of Chicago Press. OC Wittgenstein, Ludwig (1969): On Certainty. G. E. M. Anscombe/G. H. von Wright (eds.). Oxford: Blackwell. PDAT Cavell, Stanley (2005): Philosophy The Day After Tomorrow. Cambridge, MA and London: Harvard University Press. PI Wittgenstein, Ludwig (2009): Philosophical Investigations, 4th ed., translated by G. E. M. Anscombe, P. M. S. Hacker and Joachim Schulte. Oxford: Blackwell. PO Wittgenstein, Ludwig (1993): Philosophical Occasions, 1912 – 1951. James Carl Klagge/ Alfred Nordmann (eds.). Indianapolis and Cambridge: Hackett. PR Wittgenstein, Ludwig (1975): Philosophical Remarks. Rush Rhees (ed.). Oxford: Basil Blackwell. RPP I Wittgenstein, Ludwig (1980): Remarks on the Philosophy of Psychology, Vol. 1. G. E. M. Anscombe/G. H. von Wright (eds.). Oxford: Basil Blackwell. RPP II Wittgenstein, Ludwig (1980): Remarks on the Philosophy of Psychology, Vol. 2. C. G. Luckhardt/M. Aue (eds.). Oxford: Basil Blackwell. SRLF Wittgenstein, Ludwig (1993): “Some Remarks on Logical Form”. In: PO, pp. 28 – 35. TLP Wittgenstein, Ludwig (1974): Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul. WE Cavell, Stanley (2006): “The Wittgensteinian Event” In: Alice Crary/Sanford Shieh (eds.), Reading Cavell. London and New York: Routledge, pp. 8 – 25. WLC Wittgenstein, Ludwig (2001): Wittgenstein’s Lectures: Cambridge, 1932 – 1935. From the notes of Alice Ambrose/Margaret Macdonald. Alice Ambrose (ed.). New York: Prometheus.




Wittgenstein, Ludwig (1979): Ludwig Wittgenstein and the Vienna Circle: Conversations Recorded by Friedrich Waismann. Brian McGuinness (ed.). Oxford: Blackwell. Wittgenstein, Ludwig (1967): Zettel. G. E. M. Anscombe/G. H. von Wright (eds.). Oxford: Basil Blackwell.

Introduction Two ways, in general, are open for an existing individual: Either he can do his utmost to forget that he is an existing individual, by which he becomes a comic figure, since existence has the remarkable trait of compelling an existing individual to exist whether he will it or not […] Or he can concentrate his entire energy upon the fact that he is an existing individual. It is from this side, in the first instance, that objection must be made to modern philosophy; not that it has a mistaken presupposition, occasioned by its having forgotten, in a sort of world-historical absent-mindedness, what it means to be a human being. Not indeed, what it means to be a human being in general; for this is the sort of thing that one might even induce a speculative philosopher to agree to; but what it means that you and I and he are human beings, each one for himself. (Søren Kierkegaard¹) Working in philosophy […] is really more a working on oneself. On one’s own interpretation. On one’s way of seeing things. (And what one expects of them). (Ludwig Wittgenstein²) The requirement of purity imposed by philosophy now looks like a wish to leave me out, I mean each of us, the self, with its arbitrary needs and unruly desires. (Stanley Cavell³) I remain too impressed with Freud’s vision of the human animal’s compromise with existence ― the defense or deflection of our ego in knowledge of ourselves from what there is to know about ourselves ― to suppose that a human life can get itself without residue into the clear. (Stanley Cavell⁴)

Conceptions of philosophy are inextricably tied to conceptions of what it means to be human. Thus, to take two ends of a spectrum, an essentialist emphasis on abstract and universal human capacities – such as, say, rationality and thinking – dovetails with a conception of philosophy as an impersonal pursuit of general truths, while a non-essentialist (or even an anti-essentialist) emphasis on concrete and singular circumstances of human existence fits better with a conception of philosophy as a practical and personal response to the embodied needs of individuals – including desires, cravings, temptations, expectations, aversions, fears, fixations, regrets, anxieties, and numerous other affective and unruly dispositions related to our finite condition. Philosophers in the Western    

Kierkegaard 1968, 109. CV 16. CHU 77. Cavell et al. 2008, 121.



tradition have generally gravitated toward the first of these two conceptions. Notable exceptions to this rule include the authors quoted above, who insist that a pervasive self-deception may be involved in our tradition, hence that a work of self-criticism is necessary in order to move forward, toward a deeper and more realistic understanding of both philosophy and of what it means to be human. The essays that comprise this book try to unearth some of the causes of this self-deception, as well as to exemplify an alternative philosophical approach which is willing to acknowledge human finitude while being equally alert to the human tendency to deflect or repress that knowledge about itself. These goals are pursued mainly by means of close readings of representative writings by Ludwig Wittgenstein and Stanley Cavell dealing with a kernel of philosophical problems conventionally subsumed under the headings of solipsism and/or skepticism. What unifies these readings is a controversial claim – controversial both in the sense that it runs against the grain of traditional philosophical construals of those positions and against prevalent interpretations of the texts under scrutiny – namely that in order to achieve a more adequate understanding of solipsism and skepticism one must take into account a set of underlying existential difficulties which are in turn related to disappointments with our finite condition. Commencing with solipsism, the following definition may be taken as representative of how philosophers in our tradition tend to understand it: “Solipsism is the doctrine according to which nothing exists save myself and mental states of myself.”⁵ ― That sounds straightforward enough, at least prima facie and for someone already used to think of philosophical doctrines in such general terms; yet, come to think of it, can we really take the content of this definition at face value? After all who, except perhaps a madman, could possibly subscribe to such a doctrine? And if there are no real philosophers – no concrete human be-

 Hacker 1986, 216. A more elaborate definition to the same effect is given by Stephen P. Thornton in the entry “Solipsism and the Problem of Other Minds”, in the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy: “Solipsism is sometimes expressed as the view that ‘I am the only mind which exists’, or ‘My mental states are the only mental states.’ However, the sole survivor of a nuclear holocaust might truly come to believe in either of these propositions without thereby being a solipsist. Solipsism is therefore more properly regarded as the doctrine that, in principle, ‘existence’ means for me my existence and that of my mental states. […] For the solipsist, it is not merely the case that he believes that his thoughts, experiences, and emotions are, as a matter of contingent fact, the only thoughts, experiences, and emotions. Rather, the solipsist can attach no meaning to the supposition that there could be thoughts, experiences, and emotions other than his own. In short, the true solipsist understands the word ‘pain’, for example, to mean ‘my pain.’ He cannot accordingly conceive how this word is to be applied in any sense other than this exclusively egocentric one.” (Thornton 2020, §1)



ings – willing to support it,⁶ then what is the point of claiming that solipsism is a philosophical doctrine to begin with? Raising these questions should help us get a better grip on the differences between the two conceptions of philosophy distinguished in the opening paragraph. For suppose, on the one hand, that philosophy is essentially a disinterested argumentative activity aiming at obtaining general truths by means of a dialectical contest of theses and counter-theses; given that aim, it suffices for something to count as a philosophical doctrine that it can be characterized by some clear and distinct thesis, or a set of them, regardless of their being held by any real human being. And solipsism, as just characterized, entirely satisfies that requirement, in that it can be easily distinguished from and dialectically contrasted with a series of other philosophical doctrines such as realism, anti-realism, idealism, skepticism, and so on. On the other hand, if philosophy is to be ultimately understood as an expression of existential difficulties affecting individuals,⁷ it would be crucial to point out that there are plenty of real philosophers willing to support versions of each of the latter doctrines, with the notable exception of solipsism. Why is that so? Is it because solipsism is too far removed

 Of course many philosophical attempts to elucidate the nature of our experience have been accused of, at the very least, tending to conclusions which are very reminiscent of the solipsistic doctrine as defined above. This is particularly true of the modern epistemological tradition – recall how much discussion has been (and continues to be) generated by the reception of, say, Descartes’s polemical proof of the existence of an external world in the Meditations, or Locke’s harsh appeal to the notion of a material substance to the same effect in his Essay Concerning Human Understanding. In fact, it was partially because of the problems perceived in those earlier views that Berkeley ended up claiming that all we can know to exist – besides ourselves qua percipient beings and God qua efficient cause of our perception – are the very ideas immediately given to our perception. A similar (epistemologically restrictive) position was held by Hume, whose theory of the “bundle of perceptions” continued to exert influence on those empiricist positions entangled with sense-data, qualia, and other similar notions connected with “indirect realisms” of many sorts. Moreover, much of the discussions concerning German Idealism centered precisely on the question of whether Kant could be freed of the accusation of solipsism (a charge which was voiced by Jacobi and other critics only a few months after the publication of Kant’s first Critique). Notwithstanding these critical reactions throughout the history of philosophy, the fact remains that virtually no philosopher seemed willing to really draw what their critics describe as the inevitable solipsistic consequences of their initial premises.  To be clear, thinking of individuals is not supposed to be in conflict with thinking of communities – on the contrary, as I will argue in the chapters to follow, one important lesson that can be obtained from investigating the threat of solipsism along the lines I am proposing has to do precisely with the centrality (but also with the difficulties involved in) the mutually constitutive relationship between the self and other selves. That said, the main reason for keeping the emphasis on the individual is precisely to try to avoid the temptation to think of what it means to be human in the abstract, as opposed to in concrete.



from our pre-philosophical intuitions even to be considered as a serious candidate? But then again, intuitiveness alone will not do, since many philosophers are rather proud to defend many sorts of admittedly counter-intuitive views from time to time. Then why has solipsism this peculiar fate of serving as a mere philosophical scarecrow? What is so special, or so disturbing, about solipsism that makes it be seen as at best a temptation, a disease from whose infection philosophers try, more or less consciously, to escape? In order to start answering these questions, as a kind of warming exercise, let us take some further steps into the second route described above, and suppose that traditional philosophical problems and doctrines may be intellectualized versions of perplexities and difficulties related to the human needs of concrete individuals. With that supposition in place, we may then ask what kinds of perplexities and difficulties could be specifically linked to the solipsistic doctrine as previously defined. Here is a first stab at providing what must remain an essentially open-ended list of facts related to our finite condition – as well as the temptations and disappointments that they may give rise to – which I will try to connect more explicitly with solipsism in what follows: 1. Our perception of the objects surrounding us is, at any particular moment, limited, partial, situated and perspectival.⁸ Reflection upon this fact may sometimes lead us to feel that there is something we cannot do in perception – namely, we cannot see the whole of particular objects well in front of us, even in optimal perceptual conditions. In some moods, this realization will be disappointing – the conditions of human perception will be felt as limitations, as obstacles to achieving a truly objective view of the world. 2. Our actions take place in time, and the passage of time is inexorable – the present keeps becoming past and the future keeps becoming present. This means that once performed, an action (or lack thereof) cannot be undone or modified, and its consequences, intended or unintended, are out of our control. In some moods this realization may make us feel either powerless or overwhelmed – since we cannot change the past or foresee the future, having to choose a course of action under these conditions means that we must be able to cope with the always imminent onset of anxiety and regret,

 The following passage from Strawson’s Individuals is exemplary in its articulation of this point: “Our methods, or criteria, of reidentification must allow for such facts as these: that the field of our observation is limited; that we go to sleep; that we move. That is to say, they must allow for the facts that we cannot at any moment observe the whole of the spatial framework we use, that there is no part of it that we can observe continuously, and that we ourselves do not occupy a fixed position within it.” (Strawson 1959, 32)







and that may in turn result in a view of human freedom as either unachievable or inescapable. People often dissimulate their feelings and their thoughts, or they may simply find themselves involuntarily inexpressive; now, since we cannot point to people’s feelings and thoughts as we can point to their bodily behavior, we may well be tempted to conclude (again, in some specific moods and circumstances) that their body is some kind of obstacle or veil concealing their real selves – say their souls or their minds – from us. Sometimes it is hard to express our own feelings and thoughts accurately, or what we express may go beyond our control; thus we may find ourselves feeling either unable to make our own real selves – our souls or our minds – known to others, or unable to control that knowledge; in either case our very identity or self-conception might be at stake. We have a limited amount of time allotted to spend on this planet; we are also fragile creatures continuously exposed to all sorts of physical injuries and threats, and as we age that fragility becomes more accentuated, as does our dependence on others. Given that realization, mortality itself may sometimes feel like a limitation, something that prevents us from achieving our full potential. For many of us in the West God is indeed dead, or at the very least moribund. Once this (presumptive) absolute foundation is shaken we are faced with the task of trying to cope with this loss, finding alternative – and hopefully stable and shared – grounds for meaning and value; in the absence of such grounds we may feel lost or disoriented or simply not at home in our disenchanted, secularized world.

The facts listed above are all related to the condition of a being who, at least in some moods and circumstances, might experience its limits as limitations, as obstacles preventing a fuller existence – one with less doubts, less uncertainty, less impotence, less isolation, less dependence and less disorientation. Finitude thus sometimes becomes, understandably, disappointing. To be in this condition means to be constantly exposed to what I will call the threat of solipsism: the possibility of finding oneself secluded, estranged from the world, from others, and even from oneself. The wish to escape this condition is at least in part a wish not to bear the burden of having to constantly negotiate and nurture the fragile connections with the world and others which, as things go, are our only available options to try to overcome our (logical, metaphysical and/or epistemological) loneliness, achieving meaning and community. Keeping this point in mind, I want to suggest two ways of reinterpreting the doctrine of solipsism so as to disclose its connection to the sorts of disappoint-



ment with finitude lurking in the facts listed above. On the first reinterpretation, solipsism itself may be seen as an intellectualized version of loneliness, a displaced response to the realization that one is constantly exposed to find oneself isolated from the world and from others. In this case, rather than facing that risk and accepting the burdens it brings, one might instead find some solace in a logical or metaphysical story according to which the very idea of there being anything outside or beyond one’s own private experiences is simply nonsensical. On the second reinterpretation, solipsism may be seen as an intellectualized attempt at avoiding a confrontation with the possibility of loneliness that actually results in a repression of it, since it replaces for it a fantasy in which all reality ends up coordinated with the self, as if with no rest, so that the subject herself would, in a sense, disappear, thus allowing solipsism to coincide with the purest and more direct form of realism.⁹ One may think of these two reinterpretations, respectively, as the half-empty and half-full glasses of solipsism. Both are intellectualized responses to a set of real (and, at least in some moods, really threatening) difficulties faced by finite beings like us, endowed with such capacities and burdens as we have of taking up our limited and conditioned experiences of the world and of others and trying to make sense of them. And since those difficulties are inextricable from the human condition, solipsism, on both interpretations, may also be thought of as a particularly radical effort at reckoning with finitude which nonetheless falls short of the mark and ends up deflecting or repressing the very existential realization which is at its root. As such, solipsism does differ from other, less radical philosophical doctrines,¹⁰ and therefore offers a more formidable casestudy for someone interested in thinking some philosophical (self-)images through in order to achieve a more resolute acknowledgment and acceptance of finitude. This brings me back to the two philosophers whose names are cited in the title of this book: Wittgenstein and Cavell. As we will see, both have paid a remarkable amount of attention to the issues associated with the threat of solipsism in their respective attempts at elucidating what it means to be human. Moreover, they also share in common a methodological concern with disclosing the ultimate sources and consequences of the philosophical problems and posi-

 I am in this paragraph echoing passages from Wittgenstein (especially in section 5.6 of the Tractatus) to which I will return at length later, beginning with chapter 1.  An implication which I explore in the chapters to follow is that the remaining metaphysical positions mentioned above – i.e., realism, anti-realism, idealism and skepticism, in their multiple manifestations – might also be seen as deflections from this realization which simply do not take the consequences of their assumptions to their limit, as solipsism does.



tions with which they engage, centrally among which are the problems related to the conditions of possibility of meaning – the meaning of our words, of our behavior and of our actions, and ultimately of our lives and of our worlds;¹¹ hence their concern with the various skeptical challenges raised against the possibility of meaning in each of those spheres, as well as their commitment to indicate, in each case, how those challenges may be connected with temptations, disappointments and perplexities which can become vivid for finite beings like us at any time. Somewhat uncommonly for a member of the analytical tradition, Wittgenstein was strongly committed to the methodological requirement just presented, and took great pains to uncover the ultimate sources of the dissatisfaction lying at the basis of the solipsistic temptation. As Peter Hacker has pointed out, the solipsist is nothing less than “the archetypal fly in the original flybottle” from which Wittgenstein wanted to show a “way out” with his philosophy,¹² and “puzzles surrounding solipsism […] became for Wittgenstein the paradigm of the diseases of the intellect to which philosophers are so prone”.¹³ I think we must agree with that assessment. But this initial agreement hides a deeper disagreement,¹⁴ which gets perspicuously expressed in the conflicting answers we will consider vis-à-vis the following pair of questions: (i) How exactly is the way out of solipsism (hence of the other confusions for which solipsism serves as a paradigm) supposed to be exhibited in Wittgenstein’s writings? And (since there seems to be an issue about the very continuity of those writings), (ii) how are we to understand the historical development of Wittgenstein’s views about solipsism?

 The following passage from Cavell summarizes beautifully the connection between the meaning of our words and the meaning of our worlds: “A word has meaning against the context of a sentence. A sentence has meaning against the context of a language. A language has meaning against the context of a form of life. A form of life has meaning against the context of a world. A world has meaning against the context of a word.” (Cavell 1972, 112).  See Hacker 1986, 215. (The passage alluded to by Hacker is PI §309.)  Hacker 1986, 215.  The main reason for contrasting my own reading with Hacker’s is that I take the latter as representative of a general approach to Wittgenstein’s philosophy which, for historical reasons, deserves the title “orthodox”. As is well known, that reading has been strongly criticized in at least one front in the last few decades by the so-called “resolute readers” of the Tractatus – among whom notoriously figure James Conant and Cora Diamond (see esp. Conant 1989, 1990, 1993, 2000a and 2002, Diamond 1995 and 2000, and Conant/Diamond 2004). Although my own approach is surely more aligned to the resolute reading I do not think it is necessary to assume its truth in order for my argument to be put forward, but I mention that dispute here in order to indicate that it has been in the background of my own reflections.



Starting with (ii), I believe Hacker’s answer to that question can be summarized as follows: (a) for the “young Wittgenstein” (by which Hacker means, basically, the author of the Notebooks and the Tractatus), “there is a sense in which solipsism is true”;¹⁵ (b) because he held solipsism to be, in some sense, true, we should conclude that “[young] Wittgenstein himself was not only tempted, but succumbed” to it;¹⁶ (c) the particular sort of solipsism to which he would have succumbed is one of Schopenhauerian lineage, which Hacker dubs “Transcendental Solipsism”.¹⁷ (d) Against that young, sympathetic attitude toward solipsism, the “later Wittgenstein” (i.e., the one who wrote during the 1930s, and ended up producing the Investigations) would have changed his mind radically, offering what Hacker describes as a “detailed refutation of solipsism”, which was eventually “incorporated, in low key, in the Investigations”.¹⁸ (I emphasize that “refutation” is Hacker’s preferred term of criticism to describe the way out of solipsism intended by Wittgenstein in his mature phase because this offers an important clue to understanding Hacker’s own view concerning question (i) above; more on this point in a moment.) (e) That refutation, in turn, has its own historical development, which Hacker summarizes in the following passage: [Wittgenstein’s] refutation [of solipsism] comes in three phases. The first stage is to be found in the writings and reports of the transitional period from 1929 to the academic year 1932/3. The Philosophical Remarks is particularly important here, but the notes taken by Waismann and Moore are also significant. The second and most revealing phase of his concern with uncovering the errors of solipsism (in particular) and idealism (in general) is between 1933 and 1936. The Blue Book and “Notes for Lectures” contain Wittgenstein’s most important arguments in refutation of solipsism. The third and final phase finds its full expression in the Investigations, with some additional material in Zettel. Here the direct and overt interest in solipsism is diminished, and its place taken by the fully developed argument against the possibility of a private language, a brief sketch of which had already appeared in the “Notes for Lectures”. Although solipsism is only indirectly alluded to, most of the arguments developed in the second phase reappear in highly condensed form in the Investigations and Zettel. (Hacker 1986, 215–216)

There is, in fact, much to be learned from the summary presented above. Particularly notable is the way Hacker connects Wittgenstein’s early engagement with solipsism to the celebrated argument concerning the possibility of a private language in the Investigations. Again, I agree completely on the importance of drawing that connection, only I want to make it even tighter: in my view, to the extent    

Hacker Hacker Hacker Hacker

1986, 81. 1986, 104. 1986, 99. 1986, 81–82.



in which there is some truth in solipsism for the young Wittgenstein, the same holds of later Wittgenstein’s treatment of privacy; by the same token, I cannot accept that the way out of solipsism is correctly construed as a matter of refuting that position any more than I can accept that later Wittgenstein provides a proof of the impossibility of a private language (i.e., a refutation of it). This is not to say that there are no differences between the accounts of young and later Wittgenstein, but I think the most illuminating way to understand those differences is by looking at them against the background of their shared (if evolving) methodological assumptions. Providing that background will be one of the main tasks of chapters 1 to 5. As we will see in those chapters, contrary to the rather dismissive attitude toward such topics as solipsism or privacy commonly adopted by analytic philosophers, Wittgenstein tried to make the pains of the solipsist/private linguist his own, systematically engaging in his reflections in an attempt to acknowledge and to give full voice to these philosophical temptations. In this sense it is not exactly surprising that his attitude could be mistaken for a symptom of his own “succumbing” to those temptations. But I will argue that the truth here is more complicated, in that for (young and later) Wittgenstein there is no effective treatment of “the diseases of the intellect to which philosophers are so prone”¹⁹ except immunization by means of one’s own defenses – something which is brought about only by being first infected oneself. But notice that “effective treatment” is not to be taken as equivalent to something like “final cure”; this is just to point out that one of the things we have yet to understand is what exactly one should expect from the kind of “therapy” that Wittgenstein purports to offer in his writings. And if solipsism can be seen as not only a paradigm, but also as one of the most intense of those diseases – an outburst or paroxysm of philosophical anxieties which find more subdued expressions in other problems and positions – then this could perhaps account for the rather careful, aseptic handling which characterizes the standard attitude towards it found among analytic philosophers, few of whom are willing to strictly follow through the implications of their own initial assumptions. As I read Wittgenstein,²⁰ his is a text where solipsism and privacy, among so many instances of our all-too-human attempts to evade the “problems of life”,²¹

 Hacker 1986, 215.  And that applies particularly, though in no way exclusively, to the writings which constitute the main objects of analysis in the following chapters, namely the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus (chapter 1), the Philosophical Remarks (chapter 2), The Blue Book (chapter 3), and the Philosophical Investigations (chapters 4 and 5).  See TLP 5.62.



are neither exactly refuted nor exactly defended; rather, they are enacted and thought through, and are supposed to be re-enacted and re-thought through by the reader, with the ultimate end of being cured by her own means. This, as we will see, requires a peculiar effort of self-criticism and self-discovery, leading to the realization that, contrary to what one might be initially tempted to suppose, one’s attempts at formulating those positions end up producing one of two equally unsatisfying results, namely apparently substantial yet ultimately pointless statements or meaningful yet trivial ones. And this realization, in turn, will hopefully enable one to see that resorting to such positions purporting to state “the essence of reality” may be a way of deflecting the existential difficulties posed by (our responses to) that reality. But in order for that self-diagnosis and the corresponding self-therapy to be successful, one needs to be ready to counteract old philosophical habits, which might be deeply rooted; faced with that challenge, it is all but impossible not to fall back and take the grammatical reminders presented by Wittgenstein as further paths, or excuses, for deflection, thereby reinforcing the repression of the real issues at stake. As we will see, it is ultimately up to each of us to find a resolution to this situation – to take Wittgenstein’s reminders as laying down the (logico-grammatical) Law, or as mere rungs in so many ladders to be thrown away once the therapeutic progress is over. The (admittedly shocking) claim made above about there being some truth in solipsism/privacy has a Cavellian inspiration, which will be brought to the fore especially in chapters 4 to 7. As it happens, Cavell has notoriously claimed that there is some truth in skepticism,²² in that one is often not exactly unjustified in becoming disappointed with (what later Wittgenstein calls) criteria since these actually cannot ensure, as it were impersonally, that agreement and hence meaning will be forthcoming. Given that view on the reach of our criteria, Cavell is constantly driven to emphasize that Wittgenstein does not exactly want to deny the possibility of a private language;²³ rather, what he wants to show is that privacy is a standing human possibility, in that our criteria, being grounded in our human interests and needs (“all the whirl of organism Wittgenstein calls ‘forms of life’”; MWM 5), and in our sharing of a common “natural history”²⁴ must be always open to the kind of repudiation indulged in by the skeptic. The implication is that, contrary to what more than a few Wittgensteinian philosophers have argued, recounting our criteria simply cannot be a way to refute

 See, e.g., MWM 258 and CR 241 and 448, just to indicate the main contexts where this idea is put forward.  See, e.g., CR 329 and 344.  See PI §415.



skepticism; in fact, it can actually reinforce it by showing how fragile and all-toohuman our grounds for agreement and meaning really are. This, as we will see, does not mean that privacy is simply insurmountable or that skepticism should be simply accepted: the skeptic may well be right in pointing out (as against a dogmatic adversary²⁵) that achievements such as giving meaning to our words, being connected with the external world or with other minds cannot be secured impersonally, once and for all, without exposing us to the burdens of making the right connections, finding shared grounds and becoming mutually attuned – or failing in doing so. But the skeptic would be as mistaken as a dogmatic adversary if she were to interpret the result of her arguments as a demonstration that meaning, the external world or other minds might well not be real. All that skepticism actually shows is that these are constant tasks for which each of us has to take responsibility. Put differently, the meaning of our words, the givenness of the world and the humanity of others are not functions of our (passively) coming to know them, but rather of our (active) engagement in finding and maintaining attunement, in accepting and acknowledging the claims made upon us by the world and by others. Thus understood, skepticism turns out to be a constant and real possibility, in that it is always possible to find oneself isolated, unable or unwilling to share the judgments made by one’s (erstwhile) community or to accept and acknowledge the claims made by the world and by others. Yet, as we will see with the help of Cavell and Cavell’s Wittgenstein, the true costs involved in these skeptical responses are not simply epistemic and theoretical, but rather practical or existential – whatever may be the practical or existential costs of denying or repressing our participation in a community, our acceptance of the world and our acknowledgment of others. (I trust it will become clearer as we progress that this makes for a very large set of tasks and commitments whose limits cannot be foreseen by a priori speculation, and that by collectively referring to these costs with the expression “the threat of solipsism” I do not mean to offer a reductionist account, but rather the opposite, namely pointing to a whole field of investigation whose surface I will barely be able to scratch.) The considerations offered up to this point are meant to provide a guiding thread thematically connecting the readings presented in the chapters comprising this book. Although they all derive from previously published papers,²⁶ and therefore should be somewhat self-standing, each of them was developed as part

 Two such adversaries to be considered in what follows are Saul Kripke (chapter 4) and Peter Strawson (chapter 5).  See the Acknowledgments for references.



of a unified research project that began with my PhD dissertation²⁷ and continued for more than a decade. In reworking these materials, I did my best to make the connections among the individual chapters more evident, and it is my hope that by presenting them in this unified form, and in an order which roughly reflects the chronology of the writings of Wittgenstein and Cavell subsequently under scrutiny, the result will be a gradual, cumulative and cohesive articulation of some under-appreciated aspects of their constantly evolving methodology. Before I summarize the aims and structure of each individual chapter, some words are in order regarding my general interpretive approach to the writings themselves. Throughout this book I will be working with a contrast between what one might call, on the one hand, a substantial reading of a philosophical text, which sees it as designed to contribute to the attainment of some sort of theoretical (say metaphysical) knowledge about the essence of reality by answering bona fide philosophical questions, and, on the other hand what I call a dialectical reading, which takes as the central aim of a text to give voice to or enact a number of different views, which are then supposed to be put into conversation, thus allowing the reader to be alternately tempted by metaphysical questions, urged to uncover the sources of those temptations, and ultimately be freed from their fascination, achieving that kind of “peace” that Wittgenstein talks about in various contexts.²⁸ The main inspiration for this latter approach was an early essay of Cavell’s²⁹ in which he distinguishes two main voices in Wittgenstein’s (mature) writings, namely: (i) the voice of temptation, which prompts the reader to theorize or philosophize, and (ii) the voice of correctness, which aims to return the reader to ordinary life.³⁰ As will become clear in what follows, I am willing to adapt and apply this Cavellian distinction not only in my readings of Wittgenstein’s mature writings but also in those of the work leading up to the Investigations, starting with the Tractatus. I also prefer to distinguish among different inflections of those two voices – after all, one might be tempted

 Techio 2009.  Manifestly in PI §133, but also, if less manifestly, in TLP 6.53, where Wittgenstein claims that the correct method in philosophy would be, for the philosopher tempted to “say something metaphysical”, “unbefriedigend” – a word derived from the noun “Fried” (peace) and from the verb “befrieden”, which we may translate as “to pacify” or “to bring peace to”. (Thanks to Paulo Faria for pointing this out.)  “The Availability of Wittgenstein’s Later Philosophy”, first published in 1962 and reprinted in MWM.  In a later essay Cavell re-dubs the pair of voices, calling them “the voices of melancholy and merriment, or of metaphysics and the ordinary” (NAT 270).



by a number of different philosophical views, and accordingly might need to be “corrected”, i.e., brought back to ordinary life, by different means. Let us see how this dialectical approach is applied in each of the individual chapters to follow. Chapter 1: Solipsism and the limits of sense in the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus. In the Preface of the Tractatus Wittgenstein presents his proposal of “drawing limits” separating sense from nonsense as a way to get rid of philosophical problems caused by “misunderstandings of the logic of our language” (TLP 3). But how exactly are such limits supposed to be drawn, and how is this procedure supposed to help us get rid of logical misunderstandings? Traditional interpreters of the book have answered these questions by suggesting that the limits of sense are to be drawn by means of a method allowing us to determine whether a given projection of a string of signs was made in accordance with the rules of logical syntax, or else violated them, thus generating metaphysical (pseudo-) propositions. However, as other readers have noticed, the idea of drawing such limits seems to be in tension with Wittgenstein’s actual procedure in most of the Tractatus, which from its very first proposition seems to introduce metaphysical (pseudo) theses again and again in order to achieve the results programmatically indicated in the Preface – hence the need for the self-undoing message at the end of the book, urging the reader to recognize those propositions “as nonsensical, when he has used them – as steps – to climb up beyond them” (TLP 6.54). This tension creates some of the most challenging questions in the still ongoing debate about how to read the Tractatus – questions such as: How we are supposed to use Wittgenstein’s propositions (and which ones?) as “steps in a ladder”? What “throwing the ladder away” exactly amounts to? And what does it mean to “see the world aright” upon “overcoming” those propositions? Chapter 1 attempts to answer these questions by means of a close, dialectical reading of a representative set of propositions dealing with solipsism and the limits of language (TLP 5.6n’s³¹). Although limited in scope, the hope is that such reading might stand as a test case for parallel readings of other parts of the book, as well as for the parallel readings of later writings of Wittgenstein’s dealing with similar issues, which are offered in subsequent chapters. Chapter 2: Solipsism and method in the Philosophical Remarks. After a brief overview of some important philosophical developments that took place in the period between the publication of the Tractatus and Wittgenstein’s return to Cambridge in 1929, chapter 2 investigates Wittgenstein’s self-proclaimed new methodology, focusing on the analysis of the conditions of experience that he

 About the numbering system of the Tractatus, see fn. 46.



articulates in his Philosophical Remarks. By means of a close reading of some key passages dealing with solipsism in that work I will try to lay bare their self-subverting character: the fact that they amount to miniature dialectical exercises offering directions to pass from particular pieces of disguised nonsense to corresponding pieces of patent nonsense. Yet, similarly to what I argue we must do in reading the Tractatus, in order to follow these directions we need to allow ourselves to become both tempted by and suspicious of their all-too-evident “metaphysical tone” – a tone which is particularly manifest in those claims purporting to state what can or cannot be the case, and, still more particularly, those purporting to state what can or cannot be done in language or thought, leading to the view that there are some (determinate) things which are ineffable or unthinkable. I close the chapter by suggesting that in writing these remarks Wittgenstein was still moved by the ethical project at work in the Tractatus, which gets displayed in his reiterated attempts to cure the readers (and himself) from some of the temptations expressed by solipsism. Chapter 3: Solipsism, privacy and the grammar of the first person in The Blue Book. Following the same strategy that has been applied in the preceding two chapters, chapter 3 argues for a dialectical reading of Wittgenstein’s grammatical reminders concerning the uses of the first person pronoun in The Blue Book. Against a widespread, “non-referential” view which takes those reminders as direct attempts at blocking some substantial metaphysical results,³² the reading I put forward emphasizes their topic and therapeutic role as part of an attempt to unveil the sources of some philosophical temptations, among them particularly that of solipsism, ultimately aiming to loosen its grip. I conclude by suggesting that the fundamental gain of Wittgenstein’s grammatical elucidation of the pronoun “I” in this context is to remind us of important differences between its various uses, without trying to fit them into some narrow bins, whatever those may be (e.g., reference, demonstration, description, expression, etc.). Chapter 4: The threat of privacy in the Philosophical Investigations: Cavell and Kripke on skepticism about meaning. Most readers of the Investigations take skepticism about meaning as a target of Wittgenstein’s remarks, something to be refuted by means of a clear grasp of our criteria, which should therefore show that the very idea of a “private language” is misguided or nonsensical. Cavell was arguably the first interpreter to challenge that prevalent view by reminding us that our criteria are constantly open to skeptical repudiation, hence that privacy is a standing human possibility. Saul Kripke too contested the orthodoxy in his cele-

 The main exponents of the non-referential reading are Kenny 1984, Malcolm 1995 and Hacker 1990 and 1997.



brated Wittgenstein on Rules and Private Language,³³ arguing that a skeptical paradox concerning rules and meaning not only is the central problem of the Investigations, but that it receives a “skeptical solution”. Chapter 4 offers a critical and comparative assessment of Cavell’s and Kripke’s readings and tries to show that, although Kripke has done an outstanding job in articulating and emphasizing the force of the skeptical arguments in the Investigations – being more faithful to Wittgenstein’s text it in this particular respect than Cavell – he does not seem to take privacy as a standing and real threat for finite beings like us, and instead follows the orthodoxy in reading Wittgenstein as offering an argument against its very possibility. The chapter closes by delineating an understanding of our linguistic practices that acknowledges the seriousness of skepticism while avoiding the kind of evasion shared by Kripke and the orthodoxy, enabling us to see agreement and meaning as continual tasks whose failure is imbued with high existential costs. Chapter 5: Seeing souls – Wittgenstein and Cavell on skepticism about other minds. It is not uncommon to associate Wittgenstein’s “externalistic” remarks concerning the conditions for the ascription of mental states to others in the Investigations with a “grammatical refutation” of skepticism concerning other minds.³⁴ Chapter 5 aims to criticize that view, calling attention to its lack of recognition of the real difficulties involved in our relationship with others. It does that again by means of a close reading of a number of key passages, aiming at highlighting some under-appreciated connections between Wittgenstein’s remarks concerning human behavior and its relation to the human soul in (what was once called) Part I of the Investigations and his later discussion about aspect-seeing in (what was once called) Part II of the book.³⁵ In particular, I emphasize the importance of the phenomenon of “continuous aspect-perception” in the context of discussing the problem of other minds. The chapter ends on a more polemical note, mobilizing the results thereby achieved to assess one influential “anti-skeptical” argument which was partially inspired by Wittgenstein’s remarks, namely Peter Strawson’s.³⁶ I argue that although Strawson is correct in emphasizing the role played by a “non-detached” attitude toward

 Kripke 1982.  One of the earliest and more influential exponents of this anti-skeptical reading is Malcolm (see esp. 1954, 1958 and 1995), but it is not an exaggeration to say it is still almost universally held. In particular, I think it is fair to ascribe it to Hacker (1997).  The editorial problems of dividing the work that way are explained in Hacker and Schulte’s preface to the new edition (see PI ix–xi), which drops those titles.  Especially in chapter 3 of Individuals (Strawson 1959) and in the essay “Freedom and Resentment” (reprinted in Strawson 2008).



others in his account of the conditions for achieving a “non-solipsistic consciousness” of the world, his analysis does not go far enough toward taking seriously the real, existential threat posed by skepticism, namely the fact that it is up to us (as a challenge which may be resolutely faced as much as quietly denied) to acknowledge the humanity of others. Chapter 6: Taking skepticism seriously: Stroud and Cavell. Analytic epistemologists tend to see skepticism as at best an intellectual game designed to introduce technical problems in their field. In the opposite direction, as the two preceding chapters show, Cavell tried to convince us of the seriousness or even the truth in skepticism. Something similar can be said of Barry Stroud, as witnessed by the title of one of his earliest and most discussed books, The Significance of Philosophical Scepticism.³⁷ But that attestation, as I argue in chapter 6, does not imply that either Cavell or Stroud would be willing to accept the skeptical conclusions, at least not in the way both the skeptic and her analytic critics tend to interpret them; rather, their avowed task is to provide a reassessment of the whole epistemological debate, avoiding to draw negative conclusions prematurely, thereby missing the chance of learning what skepticism, if well understood, has to teach about our condition. Affinities notwithstanding, Stroud suspects that Cavell’s own engagement with skepticism has failed to live up to those methodological requirements. There are two main lines of criticism supporting that suspicion which I intend to reconstruct and balance against each other in chapter 6, namely: (i) according to Stroud, Cavell wants to show that some of the skeptic’s “claims” are nonsensical, but in order to achieve that verdict he assumes a theory about the conditions of sense which is not explicitly developed and buttressed in his writings; (ii) Cavell also proposes an alternative view of our relations to the world and others which is supposed to be immune to skeptical threats, but again, on Stroud’s estimation, he fails to offer a satisfactory account of the nature of those relations. Although both criticisms point to crucial aspects of Cavell’s argument that deserve to be better articulated – a task I will take up – I will argue that they ultimately miss their target in virtue of being predicated upon narrow (if natural) construals of distinctive Cavellian procedures, which I try to elucidate. I close by suggesting that notwithstanding Stroud’s own positive appraisal of the significance of philosophical skepticism, he has not fully taken to heart Cavell’s point about it not being exactly or merely an epistemological problem in need of a theoretical (dis)solution, but rather an intellectualization of our disappointment with our finite condition.

 Stroud 1984.



Chapter 7: Skepticism, perfectionism and the limits of morality. This final chapter explores a couple of issues conventionally subsumed under the heading of “metaethics” which were mostly left implicit in the preceding chapters, namely: What does it mean to lead a moral life? And how should we understand the role of practical rationality in that life? I try to answer these questions taking as a test case a single sequence from the movie Mr. Deeds Goes to Town,³⁸ which was commented upon by Cavell in one of his later writings.³⁹ The most immediate question that sequence raises is whether there might be situations in our moral arguments in which the proper and rational attitude to be assumed by an agent is to give up a conversation without reaching agreement, e.g. by expressing indignation. Many philosophers seem committed to a conception of moral reasoning that takes as its end rational agreement among agents; from that perspective, expressing indignation would just amount to an irrational way of trying to get rid of the burdens put upon the agent’s shoulders in the context of a moral argument. Against that widespread view I will present and defend a Cavellian version of moral perfectionism which takes rational disagreement as a legitimate (and even productive) possible outcome of moral arguments. That view, as we will see, is predicated upon a distinctive understanding of practical rationality which I will try to articulate by means of grammatical reminders comparing instances of moral arguments with other forms of rational engagement (particularly aesthetic, scientific and mathematical). I close by emphasizing the importance of trying not to abandon prematurely the complexities of our ordinary lives in favor of general theories and idealized situations when dealing with ethical and metaethical issues, and by suggesting that films are particularly suitable objects of comparison for capturing those complexities.

 Frank Capra, USA/Columbia, 1936.  See CW 207.

1 Solipsism and the limits of sense in the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus In philosophizing we may not cut off a disease of thought. It must run its natural course, and slow cure is all important. (Ludwig Wittgenstein⁴⁰)

1.1 Introduction The first explicit reference to solipsism in Wittgenstein’s Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus⁴¹ occurs relatively late, in section 5.6; implicitly, however, solipsism may be said to be present from its very beginning – or so I will argue. But where exactly does the book begin? Is it in the first numbered proposition? In the first line of the Preface? In the motto from Kürnberger? Or is the real beginning something that precedes the book itself, perhaps going back to Wittgenstein’s first recorded philosophical reflections in his notebooks, or even further, to the texts he read and which influenced his own views in the Tractatus? Although questions like these can, of course, be asked of any philosophical book, they are especially pressing in the case of the Tractatus, since much of what one takes to be the outcome of this particular book will depend on how and where one decides to start reading it – as well as on how and where one takes the reading to end. Let me put it this way: I take it that because of the peculiar way in which the Tractatus is organized – call it the book’s dialectical structure – there is a real risk of extracting conclusions too soon, before its ideas are ripe, so to speak. Evidently, since the text itself does not change, this process of ripening must occur somewhere else; and this is precisely how I am inclined to describe my experience as a reader. The book thus works as a mirror whose reflected image changes according to the changes it produces in the perceiver. Moreover, these changes are not merely in details, but rather akin to Gestalt switches, whose alternating results are the impression that nothing makes sense any longer – that all the pieces of the puzzle are out of place – followed by the impression that everything is finally fitting together.

 Z §382; translation amended.  Unless stated otherwise, all the quotations and page numbers in this chapter are from Wittgenstein 1974 (the revised edition of the English translation of the Tractatus by D. F. Pears and B. F. McGuinness), hereafter “TLP”.

1.1 Introduction


Admittedly, this image raises a series of difficulties, the most immediate of which is how to tell when is the right time to stop. In other words, how to be sure that some particular configuration of those pieces is not yet another illusion? In fact, one of the greatest challenges involved in reading the Tractatus the way I will suggest is precisely the increasing level of philosophical self-consciousness it produces, accompanied by an equally increasing suspicion about the results one gets – or takes oneself to get. This, in turn, is the reason why it becomes so difficult to write about the Tractatus after finding your way through it.⁴² After all, how to combine the self-subversiveness of the process – the awareness, acquired after each round, that the previous approach was in some important respect misguided – with the need to present a linear reconstruction of it? The answer I came up with was that I should try to present my own development in some detail, including its self-questioning and self-suspicious moments, as well as its phases of Gestalt reorganization, so that it could be taken up as an example – to follow, to improve upon, or to reject. The idea is not to record every single step in my journey but to pick out some of the points where the most important changes occurred, in order to make that gradual and evolving process somehow discrete. Some level of artificiality is implied by this choice, which, however ultimately unsatisfactory, seemed unavoidable. Following the path devised by Wittgenstein himself, I will start my reading with a detailed analysis of the Tractatus’ Preface, succeeded by a first pass at some of the main propositions in its body, indicating how they are supposed to fulfill the tasks programmatically presented in the Preface and emphasizing their connection to issues involving solipsism. Eventually, we will arrive at the book’s self-undoing last instructions, and again in the manner of a first pass we will engage in the process it recommends, namely of trying to recognize the book’s propositions as nonsensical, in order to “overcome them” and “see the world aright” (section 1.2). The difficulties raised during this first approach will prompt us to go through a specific and representative set of propositions dealing with solipsism in more detail (sections 1.3 to 1.5), which in turn will trigger a series of Gestalt shifts leading us back to the text for fresh or more profound insights (sections 1.6 to 1.9) culminating in a suggestion of how to (resolutely) “throw away the ladder” (section 1.10).

 A telling enactment of that difficulty can be found in Conant 1989.


1 Solipsism and the limits of sense in the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus

1.2 The limits of sense: a first pass The Preface of the Tractatus opens with the following words: Perhaps this book will be understood only by someone who has himself had the thoughts expressed in it – or at least similar thoughts. – So it is not a textbook. – Its purpose would be achieved if it gave pleasure to one person who read and understood it. (TLP 3)

These words, it seems to me, give us a particular picture of the experience of reading the book they introduce – of the kind of attitude expected from its readers and of the aims it is designed to achieve. For let us take its first sentence at face value (and how else can we take it?): if it is true, then what could be the interest of reading such a book? Is not the reason for reading books to learn new things? Furthermore, what could be the reason to write it, if not to convince at least some readers – particularly those who did not already have those thoughts – of the truth of its theses? Consistently enough, the second and third sentences seem to reinforce the idea that there is nothing to be learned from this book – after all, what else could we expect from reading thoughts we already had, except a kind of (narcissistic?) pleasure? Needless to say, this is not an auspicious beginning for a book. In fact, it is so inauspicious and puzzling that it has almost without exception elicited from the readers an attitude of quick dismissal as if it was obvious – against the parenthetical suggestion I made above – that we should not take those introductory sentences at face value. This should remind us that, notwithstanding the efforts of an author to guide her readers through a well-defined path, it is always the reader’s prerogative to follow it or not. Again, this is arguably true for any reading of any book whatsoever; nevertheless, books like the Tractatus – by which I mean, books written in such an ostensibly self-conscious manner – are peculiar, in that it is always an open possibility in such cases that they might intend to elicit just this kind of dismissive attitude from readers who, when reading these sentences from the first time, are not yet ready to fully grasp their content. ⁴³

 Commenting on an early sentence of Emerson’s “Self-Reliance” – yet another highly self-conscious text – Cavell presents some considerations about the relation text/reader which are also applicable to our predicament facing the opening remarks of the Tractatus. Emerson’s sentence is: “In every work of genius we recognize our own rejected thoughts. They come back to us with a certain alienated majesty.” (Essays, First Series [1841]), available online at:, accessed 06/06/2020). Here are Cavell’s comments on those words: “If the thoughts of a text such as Emerson’s (say, the brief text on rejected thoughts) are yours, then you do not need them. If its thoughts are not yours, they will do you no good. The problem is that the text’s thoughts are neither exactly mine nor not mine. In their sublimity as

1.2 The limits of sense: a first pass


Assuming that we provisionally decide to leave those difficulties aside, let’s move to the second paragraph. Wittgenstein’s tone at this point is slightly different: “The book deals with the problems of philosophy and shows, I believe, that the reason why these problems are posed is that the logic of our language is misunderstood” (TLP 3). I suppose one’s first reaction to this claim may be a quite skeptical one: are we really supposed to believe, first, that all the problems of philosophy (just stop to think of some!) have one and only one source and, second, that this source is purely and simply this: misunderstandings about the “the logic of our language”? Even if we restrict our attention to a family of philosophical methodologies that can in some sense be described as “linguistic” is not the opposite view more plausible – namely that “posing” (and, hopefully, solving) philosophical problems will lead us to a better understanding of the logic of our language? But then again, it is up to us at this point to give the author the benefit of the doubt – after all, perhaps we are just being presented with a hypothesis that the book as a whole is supposed to prove. (Notice, however, that before proving it, the book has yet to clarify what “logical misunderstandings” or “problems of philosophy” mean.) The next sentence of the paragraph continues in this vein: “The whole sense of the book might be summed up in the following words: what can be said at all can be said clearly, and what we cannot talk about we must pass over in silence.” Naturally, we may suppose, if something like a good or sound understanding of the “logic of our language” is the expected result of this book that should be reflected in our talking clearly. The obvious question to be raised at this point is how exactly such a clarity can be attained. In particular, how can it be achieved philosophically, given that we are supposed to dismiss philosophy’s traditional methods as being themselves born from logical misunderstandings? Is Wittgenstein implying that those methods should radically change, or that philosophy is a hopelessly confused enterprise, which should be simply abandoned once we understand its true origins and fate? Be that as it may, the very fact that questions like these are invited at this point goes some way towards explaining why the book we are reading is not a traditional philosophical textbook. The following two paragraphs reinforce this idea:

my rejected – say repressed – thoughts, they represent my further, next, unattained but attainable, self. To think otherwise, to attribute the origin of my thoughts simply to the other, thoughts which are then, as it were, implanted in me – some would say caused – by let us say some Emerson, is idolatry.” (CHU 57)


1 Solipsism and the limits of sense in the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus

Thus the aim of the book is to draw a limit to thought, or rather – not to thought, but to the expression of thoughts: for in order to be able to draw a limit to thought, we should have to find both sides of this limit thinkable (i. e., we should have to be able to think what cannot be thought). It will therefore only be in language that the limit can be drawn, and what lies on the other side of the limit will simply be nonsense. (TLP 3) ⁴⁴

That it is necessary to “draw limits” separating sense from nonsense in order to attain clarity seems again consistent with the idea expressed in the previous paragraph (about the “whole sense of the book”). But it is important to take notice of the specific modalities involved here,⁴⁵ otherwise we would have to assume that the only options envisaged by this book are completely clear sense or no talk at all, and as we know our human language is not tailored for such a clear, binary distinction – there are many gray areas between absolutely clear sense and plain nonsense. Wittgenstein himself testifies to this by confessing, in the penultimate paragraph of the Preface, his own limitations concerning the expression of the thoughts contained in the rest of the book: If this work has any value, it consists in two things: the first is that thoughts are expressed in it, and on this score the better the thoughts are expressed – the more the nail has been hit on the head – the greater will be its value. – Here I am conscious of haven fallen a long way short of what is possible. Simply because my powers are too slight for the accomplishment of the task. – May others come and do it better. (TLP 3 – 4)

So, to summarize this point with the right modal emphases: what can be said at all can (potentially, ideally) be said clearly; but precisely because it is so hard to actualize this potential, philosophical confusions abound. This is the reason why, notwithstanding his confession of having failed to attain perfectly clear expression, Wittgenstein still shows himself confident about “the truth of the thoughts that are here communicated”, claiming, in the last paragraph of the Preface, that it “seems to [him] unassailable and definitive” (TLP 4). The paragraph keeps this self-confident tone in its second sentence, in which the author declares himself “to have found, on all essential points, the final solution of the problems”. It is not uncommon for a philosopher to take his or her own achievements in such a high account, so perhaps this claim is not surprising. What seems really surprising is the next sentence (the last of the Preface): “And if I am not mistaken in this belief, then the second thing in which the value of this work consists is that it shows how little is achieved when these problems  Original paragraph breaks are maintained in all long quotations throughout this book.  I owe this indication to Stephen Mulhall.

1.2 The limits of sense: a first pass


are solved”(TLP 5). Again, are we really supposed to believe that the “final solution” to the problems of philosophy would (if found) be a small achievement? And even if this were true, then how could such a “small achievement” be one of the most important – most valuable – results of the whole book? These are again difficulties that we can decide to put aside provisionally, waiting to see if the rest of the book can help to make things clearer. Assuming we do so, we finally arrive at the main body of the book, the first remarkable aspect of which is the numbering system employed to organize its propositions.⁴⁶ The impression one gets from this system is that of a perfectly well arranged logical order, so that (again) there seems to be no alternative left for the reader except following the path chosen beforehand by the author. (I trust you will by now be suspicious enough of this kind of impression.) The second remarkable aspect is, of course, the content of the book’s propositions. It begins with a seemingly straightforward ontological view (theory?) about the constitution of “the world”, namely that it is comprised of the totality of facts (i. e., combinations of objects), not of things (cf. 1.n’s). Those facts, in turn, are said to be represented by propositions, which, consequently, would amount to kinds of pictures of the facts (cf. 2.n’s). The relation between propositions and facts is said to be (at the bottom) a one-one relation between the constituents of atomic facts and the constituents of elementary propositions (i. e., simple objects and names, respectively). A proposition “applied and thought out” is a thought; thoughts themselves represent facts, and so they also can be described as (special) kinds of “pictures” – logical ones. This “application” (or “thinking of”) of a proposition is its sense (cf. 3.n’s and 4.n’s). Complex propositions result of combining the truth-functions expressed by elementary ones (elementary propositions are truth-functions of themselves – cf. 5.n’s); and since there is a " ! ! N !! ), there is also a general form general form of truth-functions (namely,p! " !" of propositions (cf. 6.n’s). The reason why the results summed up above should be seen as remarkable is that, after reading the Preface, we should expect anything but this kind of traditional philosophical talk. Let us again take note of that difficulty and provisionally leave it aside, trying to understand how those propositions could help with the task presented in the Preface – that of clarifying the “logic of our language”, by “drawing limits” separating sense from nonsense. To begin with, it is worth recalling that the Preface (opaquely) states that the limits separating sense  In a footnote, Wittgenstein explains the numbering system employed by the book by saying that “propositions n.1, n.2, n.3, etc. are comments on proposition no. n”, and that “n.m1, n.m2, etc. are comments on proposition no. n.m; and so on”. Wittgenstein also states that “the decimal numbers […] indicate the logical importance of the propositions” (TLP 7).


1 Solipsism and the limits of sense in the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus

from nonsense must be drawn “in language”. Now this seems to be exactly the role of the general form of propositions (§6), in that its application should enable us to see how any bona fide proposition may be generated from elementary ones, and, consequently, it should enable us to exclude from the category of “proposition” all the strings of signs which do not satisfy that condition (e. g. the pseudo-propositions of mathematics, science, and ethics, dealt with, respectively, in 6.2, 6.3 and 6.4). And this, in turn, is the key to understanding how philosophical problems are supposed to be solved by this book: as illustrated by the cases of “skepticism” (6.51) and the “problem of life” (6.521), applying the general form of propositions to those (alleged) problems should enable us to see that they are in fact just pseudo-problems, which strictly speaking cannot even be “posed” (the word used in the Preface), since the kind of “question” we try to formulate to express them is nonsensical, i. e. it goes against the rules of logical syntax; so of course there are no possible “answers” to them either (the general lesson of 6.5). These considerations will also help us understand two further (opaque) programmatic claims made in the Preface, namely (a) that all the (pseudo‐)problems of philosophy are consequences of “misunderstandings of the logic of our language” and (b) that “little is achieved when these problems are solved”. After all, what we are left with upon applying the procedure mentioned above is not, strictly speaking, a “solution” to any problem whatsoever, but a demonstration that there were no (real) problems to solve, only products of logical confusion: “Of course there are no questions left, and this itself is the answer” (6.52). The reading delineated thus far receives further support when applied to the two penultimate propositions of section 6.5: 6.522 There are, indeed, things that cannot be put into words. They make themselves manifest. They are what is mystical. 6.53 The correct method in philosophy would really be the following: to say nothing except what can be said, i. e., propositions of natural science – i. e., something that has nothing to do with philosophy – and then, whenever someone else wanted to say something metaphysical, to demonstrate to him that he had failed to give a meaning to certain signs in his propositions. Although it would not be satisfying to the other person – he would not have the feeling that we were teaching him philosophy – this method would be the only strictly correct one.

Recall that the two propositions above are meant as clarifications of 6.5’s claim that we should not search for answers when a question “cannot be put into words”. It takes some work to see how proposition 6.522 could play that role; as I am inclined to read it at this point, I would say that it does so in a rather peculiar and negative way: what it “clarifies” is that the idea expressed in 6.5

1.2 The limits of sense: a first pass


is not (perhaps against our expectations) that beyond the “limits of language” (and sense) there is nothing; rather, there is “something” (or some “things”) about which we simply cannot talk. Now these “things” are further said to be (i) “manifestable” (although ineffable), and (ii) “what is mystical”. Let us try to get a grip on these qualifications before we proceed. Starting with (ii) “what is mystical”: the first textual occurrence of the term “mystical” is on 6.44, which reads: “It is not how things are in the world that is mystical, but that it exists.” 6.45 elaborates this, identifying the “mystical” with a kind of “feeling” – the feeling of “the world as a limited whole”. Trying to sum up the view being presented at this juncture, it seems that we can distinguish at least two claims: (ii.i) the fact that the world exists is what is mystical, and (ii.ii) we are aware of this fact when we “view” the world “sub specie aeterni” – or, what amounts to the same, when we “feel” it “as a limited whole”. This throws us immediately back to the talk about limits (of thought, language, and the world) introduced in the Preface and developed in section 6. Now, two different ways of drawing such limits are presented in that section. The first is positive: the unveiling of limit cases of propositions (i. e., tautologies), which display those very limits in their face, so to speak. The second is negative: the unveiling of pseudo-propositions (e. g. those of mathematics, science, and ethics) which arise from hopeless attempts at expressing something necessary about the world, hence trying to go (or to see) beyond its limits. Assuming that these are the ways the limits of language/world are supposed to be made manifest by the method prescribed by this book, and assuming the equation between (the awareness of) the mystical and (the awareness of) those limits, we have an answer to the question of how the mystical can be made manifest – i. e., we can understand qualification (i) above. Notice, however, that this conclusion depends on a particularly “charitable” reading of proposition 6.522: taken at face value, it seems to be conveying that there are “things” (however ineffable) outside or beyond the limits of what can be said, or thought. And this, by the very standards of the book, should not be said at all – recall once again the Preface’s programmatic claims about the need to trace the limits to the expression of thoughts “in language”, i. e., from within, and, consequently, without having to “find both sides of this limit thinkable”, thinking “what cannot be thought”. To be fair, Wittgenstein is not exactly saying that we can express, think or talk about what is beyond the limits of thought and language. So this does not amount to a straightforward contradiction; the problem is, of course, that he does not exactly remain silent either, thus defying his own advice in the Preface. Again, I will suggest we take note of this apparent tension, marking it off for later treatment.


1 Solipsism and the limits of sense in the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus

Let us turn our attention to proposition 6.53. Again, the first question we should ask about this proposition is how it can be said to “clarify” 6.5. The answer seems more straightforward in this case: it does so by making explicit an (otherwise implicit) methodological consequence of 6.5 for dealing with the (pseudo‐)questions that originate philosophical problems. To this extent, 6.53 is coherent both with the programmatic claims made in the Preface and with the (potential) applications of the method suggested thus far (I refer to the analyses of “skepticism” and the “problem of life”). But trouble arises when we stop thinking about these circumscribed cases and start to think about the general procedure followed by the book as a whole. After all, has Wittgenstein followed his own advice in the preceding sections, namely by presenting only “propositions of natural science”? The answer seems to be: not at all; as we saw, he presents metaphysical (ontological) theses from the very beginning of the book in order to achieve the results indicated in the Preface. This provides a clue as to why, for the sake of coherence, the ensuing message presented in the book would have to be self-undoing: 6.54 My propositions serve as elucidations in the following way: anyone who understands me eventually recognizes them as nonsensical, when he has used them – as steps – to climb up beyond them. (He must, so to speak, throw away the ladder after he has climbed up it.) He must overcome these propositions, and then he will see the world aright.⁴⁷

In acknowledging that his own previous “propositions” (all of them?) were nonsensical, and should be used as steps in a ladder to be thrown away, Wittgenstein makes room for accommodating the tension indicated above; after all, in acknowledging that he is also conceding, however implicitly, that such “propositions” (but which ones?) were indeed “metaphysical”. – Is this the reason why, in 6.53, he spoke of what would be the “correct method in philosophy”, instead of just saying what it is? But then again, why not follow the “correct method” from the beginning, instead of going by such sideways? Is it because going by sideways can in some sense be more “satisfying to the other person” (see

 The translation of the last sentence was amended, following a suggestion from Floyd (2007, 187– 188 and n. 29), who in turn owes it to Goldfarb. Both Floyd and Goldfarb think the Pears and McGinness translation of “überwinden” as “to transcend” is tendentious; although this judgment depends on their particular interpretations, I think is uncontroversial that the verb “to transcend” is less vague, and, therefore, less amenable to different interpretations, than the German one, and this is enough reason to prefer the more literal rendition “to overcome”. (Ogden uses “to surmount”, which I think would equally do.)

1.3 The limits of (my) language and the limits of (my) world: the solipsistic move


6.53)? In any event, to say that the tension above can be accommodated in this way is not to say that it ceases to be a tension. The challenge remains that we have yet to understand: (i) how are we (were we?) supposed to use (to have used?) those propositions (which ones?) as steps in such ladder; (ii) how this ladder is supposed to be thrown away; and (iii) what exactly is the result of all that – what it means to “see the world aright”. In what follows I will try to meet that challenge by focusing on a specific set of propositions lying in between the path through which we have been walking in large steps up to this point – namely those dealing with solipsism and the limits of language (5.6n’s).⁴⁸ Analyzing these propositions in detail will allow us to gradually go back to all the loose ends left during this first pass, particularly to the tension created by the apparent reference to “things” existing outside or beyond the limits spoken about in the Preface.

1.3 The limits of (my) language and the limits of (my) world: the solipsistic move After having been introduced in the Preface, the idea of “drawing limits” (to language, thought and the world) will be brought to the foreground again only in proposition 5.6, which reads: “The limits of my language mean the limits of my world.” Before reading the sub-propositions offered to elucidate it, let us pause to reflect on how we have arrived here, i. e., how the general analysis of the conditions for representation presented in the first two-thirds of the book can have this seemingly solipsistic conclusion as its consequence. Let us first recall that section 5 as a whole is intended as a technical exposition of an idea presented before in the book: the account of how complex propositions can be generated from elementary ones – or, to be more precise, the account of how the truth-values of elementary propositions can be combined by means of “truth-operations” in order to generate the complex ones. Technical details aside, this reminder must give us a better sense of how difficult it is, indeed, to understand the role of proposition 5.6 as a sub-proposition of this whole section – after all, how can the idea of limits of (my) language be possibly related to the idea of propositions (in general) being truth-functions of elementary ones?

 Mulhall (2007b) presents a reading of section 6.4 (concerned with “the mystical” and the “absolute value”) which I see as very congenial to my own in what follows; although I do not claim complete faithfulness to his strategy, I happily acknowledge that it was one of my main sources of inspiration.


1 Solipsism and the limits of sense in the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus

In order to answer that question let us notice, first, that proposition 5 itself is already working (however implicitly, given the account previously presented in the book) with a relation between language and world: if all the propositions of our language are truth-functions of elementary propositions (5), and if “[t]ruth-possibilities of elementary propositions mean possibilities of existence and non-existence of states of affairs” (4.3),⁴⁹ then of course the totality of our language must correspond to the totality of possibilities of existence and non-existence of states of affairs – i. e., to all the possible facts in the world. And by means of this reasoning we can at least understand in what sense the limits

 By presenting 4.3’s thesis alone here I intend to cut across a much longer path which was built up to this point since proposition 1, connecting the limits of language and world. It may be of some help to indicate the most important stops in that path, as follows: section 1 established that the world is the totality of facts (instead of things) in logical space; section 2 goes from that brief and very condensed ontology to an examination of the conditions for the representation of those facts which constitute reality. The basic idea is well known: “We picture facts to ourselves” (2.1); pictures are “models of reality” (2.12), they are themselves “facts” (2.141), whose (pictorial) elements “correspond to” (2.13) or “represent” (2.131) the objects which constitute the (other) facts which we want to depict. The form which is shared between the fact depicted and the depicting fact is the “pictorial form” (2.17). When we abstract from the particular medium in which these pictures are conveyed (i. e., whether it is a “spatial picture”, or a “coloured one” – see 2.171), and pay attention only to its logical aspect, we can also call this form a “logicopictorial form” (2.2). The next stop, section 3, deals with thought: “A logical picture of facts is a thought” (3). Thoughts must be made manifest in some perceptible way (3.1), and that is exactly the role of propositions – more specifically (cf. 3.11– 12), of the “perceptible sign of a proposition (as spoken or written, etc.)”. 3.2 further specifies the conditions under which the expression of thoughts is made possible by propositions: since the (pictorial) relation between propositions and facts is ultimately dependent on a one-one relation between constituents of propositions (“simple signs” or “names”, cf. 3.201– 3.202) and constituents of facts (objects), there must be some “objects of the thought” corresponding to the elements of the “propositional sign”. 3.3 testifies that what really matters in this whole account is the combination – of objects to generate facts, and of names to generate (articulated) propositions. In other words, 3.3 is the mirror image, at the level of language, of the ontological thesis expressed in section 1. (3.4 resumes the idea of a “place in logical space”, and clarifies it by providing an analogy with geometry – the idea being that as in (analytical) geometry we can use mathematical expressions (e. g., Cartesian coordinates) to represent points in space, so in logic we can use propositions to represent “points” in “logical space”.) Section 4, in turn, makes more explicit and elaborates the account of how this connection between language and world ultimately obtains. The basic idea is this: “elementary propositions” are comprised of names, and names, in turn, refer to the constituents of facts; if there is an agreement between the way names are related in a particular elementary proposition and the way simple objects relate in the world, then the truth-value (the actualized “truthpossibility”) of that elementary proposition will be “true”; otherwise it will be “false”; now, to express this kind of “agreement” or “disagreement” is further identified (see 4.4) as the role of propositions tout court (i. e., regardless of being complex or elementary).

1.3 The limits of (my) language and the limits of (my) world: the solipsistic move


of language can be said to “mean” the limits of the world: the idea is not, N.B., that of equating two independently existing limits, but rather that of calling our attention to an internal relation, or necessary congruence, in that “both” limits are grounded on the very same operation, by means of which some elements (atomic facts/elementary propositions) are combined in order to generate new “complexes” (factual/propositional). Strictly speaking, then, what we have are not two limits at all – the limits of language and the limits of the world – but rather two aspects, say, of the same limits.⁵⁰ This analysis has an important shortcoming, though, in that it does not explain the appearance of the first personal singular pronoun (in its possessive form, “my”) in 5.6’s original formulation. Why is that pronoun necessary in the first place? After all, if we pay attention to the examination of the conditions for language to represent the world pursued since the beginning of the book, the closest we will find in the direction of a “subjectivity” is the use of the first personal plural pronoun (“we”/“our”) – its first occurrence being in 2.1, where it is stated that “We picture facts to ourselves” (2.1).⁵¹ Now, if we are not to accept that the “my” simply comes out magically onto the scene, it is reasonable to expect that it should be implicit in the analysis of the conditions of representation presented before. A case can be made for that hypothesis if we think about the conditions for applying the method of projection, which is introduced in 3.11, and further worked out in the remaining parts of section 3. For our

 As Cora Diamond (2000) has shown, one of the primary targets of this “solipsistic move” – i.e., that of equating the limits of (my) language and (my) world, hence showing that, in an important sense, there is only one limit instead of two — is precisely a Russellian “two limits view”, according to which, roughly, the limits of my experience (and so the limits of the objects which I can directly name, and be directly acquainted with) are narrower than the limits of the world (of all the objects that there are “out there”), so that, in order for me to reach out toward those (“external”) objects, I would have to resort to descriptions (which in turn use quantifiers), which refer to them only indirectly (see Diamond 2000, 282, fn. 3). Diamond has more to say about where exactly this “solipsistic move” ends up leading us – and so do I.  Truly speaking, it is already noteworthy that such “we” should appear at that point, given the over-impersonal, over-objective way in which the opening propositions of the book are formulated – the talk about “the world” in the 1.n’s seeming to be completely perspectiveless and subjectless. Of course there is a good prima facie reason for this first change, which has to do with the transition from the analysis of the ontological conditions for the world “to be the case”, to the analysis of the logical conditions for representing it – and there is nothing more natural than expecting that the first analysis should not include the representing subject as one of its conditions, if, i. e., the world is to exist independently of our representation of it. The question arises, however, whether after reading the rest of the book we can still have any confidence in the obtaining of the antecedent of this conditional.


1 Solipsism and the limits of sense in the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus

present purposes, the list of propositions below shall be enough to summarize Wittgenstein’s view about that method: 1. “We use the perceptible sign of a proposition (spoken or written, etc.) as a projection of a possible situation. / The method of projection is to think the sense of a proposition.” (3.11) 2. “A proposition […] does not actually contain its sense, but does contain the possibility of expressing it.” (3.13) 3. “What a proposition expresses it expresses in a determinate manner, which can be set out clearly […].” (3.251) 4. “A proposition has one and only one complete analysis.” (3.25) 5. “I call any part of a proposition that characterizes its sense an expression (or a symbol).” (3.31) 6. “A sign is what can be perceived of a symbol.” (3.32) 7. “So one and the same sign (written or spoken, etc.) can be common to two different symbols – in which case they will signify in different ways.” (3.321) 8. “In everyday language it very frequently happens that the same word has different modes of signification – and so belongs to different symbols – or that two words that have different modes of signification are employed in propositions in what is superficially the same way.” (3.323) 9. “In this way the most fundamental confusions are easily produced (the whole of philosophy is full of them).” (3.324) 10. “In order to avoid such errors we must make use of a sign-language that excludes them by not using the same sign for different symbols and by not using in a superficially similar way signs that have different modes of signification: that is to say, a sign-language that is governed by logical grammar – by logical syntax.” (3.325) 11. “In order to recognize a symbol by its sign we must observe how it is used with a sense.” (3.326) 12. “A propositional sign, applied and thought out, is a thought.” (3.5) The propositions above introduce a fundamental distinction for the logical task of the book, namely between sign and symbol. We will come back to this distinction below, but the immediate purpose of presenting this list is to help us see how the idea of a representing subject is at least implied – since it is not explicitly mentioned – by the analysis of the conditions for the method of projection. To put it briefly, the idea is that if we are to have propositions with a determinate sense (i. e., propositions, simpliciter), we need a representing subject who can think their sense, and, therefore, who can project their perceptible signs in a determinate way, in order to signify a determinate situation. Notice, however, that it is does not follow from the list above that this subject should himself proceed to

1.3 The limits of (my) language and the limits of (my) world: the solipsistic move


a “complete analysis” (supposedly making use of the “sign-language” mentioned in 10) in order to give a determinate sense to his own propositions; such a “complete analysis” has at most an instrumental role for clarifying possible misunderstandings, but what really marks off the sense intended by a particular subject, in a particular context, is the way the proposition is projected – i. e., used, applied and thought out – by him (11– 12). This general analysis is nicely illustrated later in the book, in a proposition which is often presented by commentators as providing the main reason for introducing the idea of a “representing subject” in the Tractatus. I refer to proposition 5.5423, where we are presented with the following figure:

Figure 1

There are, says Wittgenstein, “two possible ways to see the figure [above] as a cube”, depending on the order in which we look at its corners: “If I look in the first place at the corners marked a and only glance at the b’s, then the a’s appear to be in front, and vice versa.” That is because, as the preceding comment makes clear, “[t]o perceive a complex means to perceive that its constituents are related to one another in such and such a way” – in other words, the combination of the constituents in a perceived complex is a matter of how the perceiving subject arranges those constituents, a matter, i. e., of the method of projection employed by him. Generalizing this case, we can see how the idea of a “representing subject” ends up being presented as a fundamental condition of representation.⁵²

 I take the following quotation from Peter Hacker as illustrative of the accepted view on this respect: “Anything which I can understand as a language must have a content which is assigned to it by my projecting logico-syntactical forms on to reality. ‘Things acquire “Bedeutung” only in relation to my will’ is not only an ethical principle, but a semantic one. Propositional signs are merely ‘inscriptions’; only in relation to my will do they constitute symbols. […] From this point of view language is my language. In order for propositional signs to have sense I have to think the method of projection. What I cannot project is not language. Without the accompaniment of my consciousness language is nothing but a husk.” (Hacker 1986, 100). An important alternative


1 Solipsism and the limits of sense in the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus

The considerations above help us understand why the pronoun “my” is introduced in 5.6, by showing that it was already implicated by Wittgenstein’s account of the method of projection in the preceding parts of the book. This of course is not the same as explaining what exactly is the meaning of the resulting thesis – a task which requires that we read the sub-propositions of this section. However, this analysis already gives us an important clue to understand why solipsism becomes such an important issue at this point – after all, given the (necessary) congruence between the limits of my language and the limits of my world (which, N.B., is presented as an inevitable consequence of the general account of how language works, of how propositions can represent the world), it is only natural to ask whether my language/world can possibly be the same as everybody else’s. Let us then turn back to the main sub-propositions offered to clarify 5.6, starting with 5.61, which reads: 5.61 Logic pervades the world: the limits of the world are also its limits. So we cannot say in logic, “The world has this in it, and this, but not that.” For that would appear to presuppose that we were excluding certain possibilities, and this cannot be the case, since it would require that logic should go beyond the limits of the world; for only in that way could it view those limits from the other side as well. We cannot think what we cannot think; so what we cannot think we cannot say either.

The idea presented in the first sentence (5.61a) is by now familiar – to show that “logic pervades the world”, and that the limits of the world and the limits of logic are one, were the essential tasks set out in the Preface, and pursued by the book as a whole. The second sentence (5.61b) presents a consequence of this general idea: that logic cannot say what there is and what there is not in the world. 5.61c further elucidates the nature of the limitation to “what can be said” (in logic): the idea is not that we cannot talk about what contingently constitutes the world, i. e., a set of facts which are, but could well not be the case; rather, we cannot talk about what holds (or doesn’t hold) necessarily of the world, what necessarily is (or isn’t) the case. The possibilities we cannot exclude

reading of the role of the subject is advanced by Rush Rhees (1996). According to him, the whole set of psychological concepts employed in the Tractatus (e. g., “thinking subject”, “to think the sense of the proposition”) are to be explained (away) by the logical ones (e. g., “projection”, “method of projection”, etc.). Although I shall not rehearse Rhees’s argument here, I take it to be congenial to the results of my own reading. (Thanks to Stephen Mulhall for calling my attention to that reading, and thanks to Paulo Faria for further references.)

1.4 The “truth in solipsism”: a first pass


(and, consequently, include) in logic are those which would depend on going “beyond the limits of the world”, viewing those limits “from the other side” – again, a move already indicated (and excluded) by the programmatic claims of the Preface. These considerations shall help us see the point of (otherwise very innocuous) 5.61d. What makes the tautology presented in its first part (“We cannot think what we cannot think”) relevant to the understanding of its second part (“what we cannot think we cannot say either”) is the implicit assumption (made explicit above, in the analysis of proposition 5.6) of there being a necessary congruence, an internal relation between language and thought. The upshot is that to (really) think is to think something determinate and contingent about the world, and if we are not doing that, then it is of no use to try to use language to express what we (wrongly) supposed we were thinking. Given the limiting conditions imposed by logic to the expression of thoughts, only two options are available: either we say something determinate and contingently true or false about the world, or else we are just babbling, in which case we were better advised to remain silent.⁵³ After these considerations, the role of 5.61 as an “elucidation” of 5.6 should also be clear: basically, it presents a (negative or limiting) consequence of the congruence established before for the expressive capabilities of our language – since the limits of (my) language and the limits of (my) world are one, I cannot use language (logic) to speak of what would presuppose my going beyond those limits.

1.4 The “truth in solipsism”: a first pass With that analysis in mind, let’s move to proposition 5.62, which reads: 5.62 This remark provides a key to the problem, how much truth there is in solipsism. For what the solipsist means is quite correct; only it cannot be said, but makes itself manifest. The world is my world: this is manifest in the fact that the limits of language (of that language which alone I understand) mean the limits of my world.

 This point, besides being already made in the Preface, is presented clearly in proposition 4.116, where we read that: “Everything that can be thought at all can be thought clearly. Everything that can be put into words can be put clearly.”


1 Solipsism and the limits of sense in the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus

This time the relation between this sub-proposition and 5.6 is made clear at the outset: 5.62 explores the consequences of 5.6 concerning the problem of “how much truth there is in solipsism”. As we saw above, it should come as no surprise that this problem is being brought to view in this context – it arises naturally when we start thinking critically about the congruence between the limits of my language and the limits of my world. What, on the other hand, seems surprising is the content of 5.62b, which starts with the claim that “what the solipsist means is quite correct”. Now, before trying to understand how it can be correct, let us try to be clear about what it is that “the solipsist means” in the first place. A rather cryptic answer to that question is given in the first part of 5.62c: “The world is my world.” In order to unpack this solipsistic thesis it will be useful to repeat the main steps of the argument presented up to this point in the book: first, let us recall that the “world” was from the beginning identified with “the totality of facts”; those facts, in turn, were said to be representable by propositions; a proposition “applied and thought out” was identified with a thought; that application, in turn, was said to amount to the operation of combining the truth-functions of elementary propositions; and this operation, as we just saw, presupposes a subject who can put it at work in order to generate a (particular) projection, hence providing a determinate sense to his propositions; now, since all representation is based on that sort of operation, room is made for a solipsistic threat, in the sense that the possibility remains open that a subject could, at least in principle, generate projections that are private, and, in that sense, could live in a world made up of facts which he alone can grasp. These considerations go some way toward explaining (i) “what the solipsist means”, i. e., the content of the solipsistic thesis that “the world is my world”, and also (ii) the sense in which that thesis is said to be “quite correct” – it is, at the very least, coherent with the general analysis of the conditions of representation previously established in the book. But this of course is not the whole story told in 5.62b – in fact, it is at best half of it. The remaining half is presented in the last part of 5.62b, which states that the solipsistic thesis, however inevitable, (iii) “cannot be said”, but (iv) “makes itself manifest”. So, let us turn our attention to those further qualifications. As to (iii), again some work of interpretation is needed if we are to go beyond the absurd (and rather comic) idea that we cannot say what we have just said – viz., that “The world is my world.” Now the analysis of 5.61b–c provides a model which can be smoothly applied to the case in view: if the unpacking of the thesis that “The world is my world” presented above is correct, then what the solipsist is attempting to express is a general and necessary feature of language, and also of the world that can be represented by that language (“which alone I under-

1.4 The “truth in solipsism”: a first pass


stand”); being a necessary feature of the world it cannot be expressed by bona fide, bipolar propositions which, by their own essential (truth-functional) nature must always present situations for a test, as being true or false, and, therefore, contingently one or the other. Therefore, what we (as well as the solipsist) imagined to have said (or thought) when looking at the string of signs which comprises the “solipsistic thesis” (“The world is my world”), was not really said (or thought) at all.⁵⁴ Before continuing with the analysis of 5.62 let us pause to reflect about an important (and possibly unexpected) subversive consequence of the results we obtained for understanding proposition 5.6. Recall that one thing we (and the solipsist) imagined to have expressed by employing the signs “The world is my world” was exactly the necessary congruence of the limits presented in 5.6 (those of [my] world and [my] language). If this is correct we should conclude, echoing 5.61, that such a “necessary congruence” itself cannot be said, because when we try to express “it” the (pseudo‐)propositions we generate seem to be “excluding certain possibilities, and this cannot be the case, since it would require that logic should go beyond the limits of the world; for only in that way could it view those limits from the other side as well”. What is paradoxical about this conclusion is that proposition 5.6 was a necessary step in the argument leading to the limiting consequence presented in 5.61. In other words, it seems that we have been somewhat tricked by first being made to stick to the appearance of sense of proposition 5.6, then extracting an apparent consequence of it (namely 5.61), only in order to conclude, finally, that “proposition” 5.6 had no sense at all – it simply was not a proposition. But the story, as I said, does not end here; we are still left with the fourth and final point made in 6.52b, according to which “what the solipsist means […] makes itself manifest”. This last claim seems to promise a way out of our paradoxical situation. It does so by inviting us to think that, even if we were tricked to take the pseudo-propositions above as expressions of necessary truths about language and the world (when they were in fact just nonsensical strings of signs) we were not just wasting our time, since (hopefully) something was “made manifest” along the way. And understanding what exactly was thus “made manifest” is understanding how much “truth” there is “in solipsism”. Notice, first, that 6.52b is not saying, nor implying (as it could appear in a first reading) that the pseudo-proposition “The world is my world”, which (admittedly)  Notice also the parallel between this analysis and that presented in the concluding part of the book (6.5 ff.), where something (apparently) “said” (or expressed) by a string of signs (the skeptical “question” and the “problem of life”) is shown not to be really said (or even sayable) at all.


1 Solipsism and the limits of sense in the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus

says nothing, can by itself “make something manifest”. If such a string of signs says nothing, it a fortiori cannot say (as we might have imagined it did) “what the solipsist means”. What the solipsist means — what he tries to say by employing the signs presented in the first part of 6.52c – is what (supposedly) “makes itself manifest” by the fact presented in its second half, namely, that when one tries to go beyond “the limits of language” one says nothing, and just ends up producing plainly nonsensical combinations of signs. In the face of these considerations, it seems that we can sum up the content of 5.62 as the triviality that there is nothing (and no thing either) to understand, to think, or to talk about, beyond the limits of what I understand, think and talk about. Now if there is nothing beyond those limits, it follows that the very opposition between what is “mine” (be it my experience, my language, or my world) and something else is itself nonsensical, and, consequently, must be abandoned. To the extent, then, that there is some “truth in solipsism”, its truth would be simply the inescapable fact with which I am faced when I unsuccessfully try to express the “solipsistic thesis”, i. e., that I am fated to express only what my language can express; and this “truth” is not something that I discover because I can “view those limits from the other side as well” – on the contrary, it is exactly the failure in my hopeless attempt to do so that shows that this is impossible.⁵⁵ (By the same token, this trivializing or deflationary reading must also hold of 5.621, which states that “The world and life are one” – so that its whole point will turn out to be simply that I cannot live except in the world that I live.) But this deflationary rendition of the “truth in solipsism” faces some immediate problems. First, are we really supposed to believe, without further ado, that such a triviality is “what the solipsist means” – i. e., what the solipsist always wanted (however hopelessly) to say? How can we (or Wittgenstein) be sure

 H. O. Mounce, in his commentary to the Tractatus, reaches a very similar conclusion. Having argued that it is an error to think, as some commentators (Hacker included) do, that “although it is a confusion to express solipsism, nevertheless it is really true” (Mounce 1981, 91), he claims that there is, in fact, “a truth behind solipsism” – solipsism itself being just the “confused result” of trying to state such (ineffable) truth. The truth, according to Mounce, “is not that I alone am real but that I have a point of view on the world which is without neighbours” (Mounce 1981, 91). He adds the following considerations in order to clarify the content of that claim: “[…] Wittgenstein’s point, I think, is as follows. What I conceive of as the world is given to me in language. This conception is the only one there is. I know this not because I have considered other possibilities and rejected them. Rather, I know this precisely because it shows itself in there being no other possibilities. For there is no language but language and therefore no conception of the world other than the one language gives. This conception is my conception. My conception of the world, therefore, like my visual field, is without neighbours.” (Mounce 1981, 92).

1.5 “I am my world”: solipsism coincides with “pure realism”


about that? Second, and more importantly, are we really clear about the content of this “truth”? As my own attempt at clarifying it testifies, when we try to spell it out we inevitably end up producing more and more strings of signs which, by the Tractatus’ own standards, are simply nonsense, since they are themselves intended as expressions of a necessary feature of our language. Notice that even if we try to neutralize this problem, as I myself did above, by repeating Wittgenstein’s strategy of “pointing to” (supposedly without having to speak about) some kind of fact, we cannot avoid helping ourselves of some linguistic description (e. g., by describing it as “the fact that I am fated to express only what my language can express”). Therefore, there seems to be an infinite regress latent in this strategy – a regress which can only be stopped if we entirely give up the attempt to explain what the truth in solipsism is. If this truth is ineffable, then we should stop babbling about it – in fact, we should follow the advice given in the very last proposition of the book (7), and “pass over [it] in silence”. This, of course, may not be “satisfying to the other person” (i. e., the solipsist), but it seems to be the only strictly correct attitude to take in this case. But if this is the case, then why does Wittgenstein continue to invite us to think (or to imagine that we are thinking) about it in the remainder of the section? Why doesn’t he remain silent about this subject from this point on? Is it because to really learn to remain silent we need a greater exposition to the effects of trying to go beyond the limits of language? But how much further do we need to flutter in the flybottle before we can get our rest? Let us see if we can get clearer about these questions by reading the remaining propositions of section 5.6.

1.5 “I am my world”: solipsism coincides with “pure realism” The next proposition in our list is 5.63: “I am my world. (The microcosm.).” Taken by itself, this proposition seems again amenable to the kind of deflationary rendition presented above, so that its whole point could be rephrased (if only it could really be expressed in a proposition!) as saying that the only world in which I can live in is the world in which I am, the world which alone my language can represent. As if the nonsensical and ineffable character of what I have just tried to say was not puzzling enough, matters become even worse when we read the sub-propositions which are intended to clarify 5.63. Let us have a list: 5.631 There is no such thing as the subject that thinks or entertains ideas. If I wrote a book called The World as I found it, I should have to include a report on my body, and should have to say which parts were subordinate to my will, and which


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were not, etc., this being a method of isolating the subject, or rather of showing that in an important sense there is no subject; for it alone could not be mentioned in that book. — 5.632 The subject does not belong to the world: rather, it is a limit of the world. 5.633 Where in the world is a metaphysical subject to be found? You will say that this is exactly like the case of the eye and the visual field. But really you do not see the eye. And nothing in the visual field allows you to infer that it is seen by an eye. 5.634 This is connected with the fact that no part of our experience is at the same time a priori. Whatever we see could be other than it is. Whatever we can describe at all could be other than it is. There is no a priori order of things.

The first remarkable thing about proposition 5.631 is that its first part – i. e., 5.631a, declaring that there is no thinking subject – if taken at face value, directly contradicts 5.61 – stating that we cannot say in logic what there is and what there is not in the world; furthermore, it also contradicts (however less manifestly) the last proposition of the list – i. e., 5.634, about there being no a priori “part of our experience”, “no a priori order of things”. In fact, the contradiction is so striking that it cries for some kind of reinterpretation. Following the method we applied to similar cases before, the first step would be to notice that, contrary to appearances, 5.631a is not a proposition at all, but rather a nonsensical string of signs, a pseudo-proposition – after all, if, per impossibile, it had a sense, it could not be false, it should be necessary; hence, it would not satisfy the book’s own standards for something to count as a bona fide proposition, i. e., its capability of being true or false, of allowing us to think the opposite of what it says, etc. Consequently, this sentence also has a self-subversive character, in that it first drives us to imagine that we understood its sense – and that by saying/thinking it we are “excluding certain possibilities”, thereby presenting an a priori part of our experience – when in fact the very conditions of representation make that impossible, since “it would require that logic should go beyond the limits of the world”, enabling us to view those limits “from the other side as well” (5.61). Having noticed this strange predicament, I suppose one would like to ask what the point of presenting “proposition” 5.631a may be in the first place. If the comparison with the cases analyzed before is in order, its point must lie precisely in its self-subversive character, in that something should be “made manifest” after the process triggered by it. What, then, is made manifest by that pseu-

1.5 “I am my world”: solipsism coincides with “pure realism”


do-proposition? To answer that question we shall pay attention to the next sentence, 5.631b. Again, there is something very remarkable about that sentence, in that it enacts a “method of isolating the subject” just in order to show that failure in this task is inevitable, hence making manifest that “in an important sense there is no subject”. Notice, though, that this last phrase is just as nonsensical as the former one (5.631a): it also appears to “exclude certain possibilities”, to describe a contingent feature of our world, when in fact it should be presenting the only actuality there is, and there can be – the “a priori order of things”. So its whole point cannot lie in what it says (again: because it says nothing), but rather in what is made manifest by it – i. e., the impossibility of finding an “I” who could be in any sense separated from the “world”.⁵⁶ And the same goes for 5.633, where we are presented with the very same kind of enactment – of the search for the “metaphysical subject” – only using another simile, so that instead of something that I am incapable of mentioning in the “great book of beings”, the idea now is that there is something that I cannot find, and not even infer, from what I “see” in my “visual field”. This analysis shall help us to understand how 5.631 and 5.633 can be seen as elucidations of 5.63, i. e., the (pseudo‐)thesis that “I am my world”: to repeat, what both propositions “made manifest” (even if they were not capable of saying it) was that we cannot separate subject and world. And this conclusion, in turn, would provide a further confirmation – a further elucidation – of 5.6’s general view of a necessary congruence between (my) language and (my) world. The problem for this reading emerges when we try to apply it to the proposition which lies in between the former ones, 5.632. More specifically, the problem arises from the idea expressed in its second half: “The subject […] is a limit of the world”; notice that, if this sentence is true, then we should conclude that the subject is not exactly a nothing, as the former propositions could have made us think it was. The key to solving this apparent problem is to take proposition 5.632 not as being in direct opposition to its neighbors, but rather as an attempt to “soften” or to “balance” the radical view these (seemingly) put forward. Con-

 It is hardly necessary to indicate the parallel between this enactment of a search for the “thinking subject” and Hume’s notorious (self-aware) failure in attempting to find an “impression of the subject”. The same point is made in still more clearly Humean fashion in the Notebooks, e. g., when Wittgenstein says that “The I is not an object. I objectively confront every object. But not the I.” (NB 80) The parallel is also often noticed by commentators; Hacker again provides an illustrative opinion on this parallel, his conclusion being that: “Wittgenstein was willing to adopt a neo-Humean analysis of the empirical self. There is no empirical soul-substance thinking thoughts, there are only thoughts. The self of psychology is a manifold, a series of experiences, a bundle of perceptions in perpetual flux.” (Hacker 1986, 86)


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sequently, even if it is true that “in an important sense there is no subject” (it is not a “something”), maybe it is also true that, in another important sense, there is one (it is not a “nothing” either). That the subject cannot be separated from the world does not imply that it cannot be at least distinguished in some way (i. e., as a limit). In fact, the case here is not like that of “the eye and the visual field”, where the former is really separated from the later, but rather like the case of the point in geometry, which does not “exist” in any other way except as a limit of lines, shapes, and, ultimately, three-dimensional objects. This analogy with geometry is presented by Wittgenstein himself in the second half of the next first-level sub-proposition (5.64), which reads: “The self of solipsism shrinks to a point without extension, and there remains the reality co-ordinated with it.” It is interesting that Wittgenstein here (re‐)describes the “metaphysical subject” as “the self of solipsism”; this gives a further reason to take seriously the idea that there is some “truth in solipsism”, something correct in what the solipsist means, but is incapable of saying; in fact, this much is repeated, with something of a twist, in the first half of the proposition under analysis: “Here it can be seen that solipsism, when its implications are followed out strictly, coincides with pure realism.” It may well seem far-fetched to equate solipsism and (pure) realism, but think about it this way: what could be better for a “realist” than a complete suppression of the “self” – taken as the “subject that thinks or entertains ideas” – to give room for a direct apprehension of the whole reality? If “realism” is epitomized by the thesis that what we experience directly is reality itself (as opposed to ideas which “stand for” that reality), then solipsism (as presented so far) is its flip-side – another way of satisfying the craving for a direct contact with “the whole reality”, therefore avoiding metaphysical and epistemological loneliness.⁵⁷

1.6 Throwing the ladder away: a first attempt Focusing on the set of propositions dealing with solipsism shows that the main steps of the self-subversive procedure presented at the end of the book were already at work in that particular stretch. In order to make this clear, the first thing we should observe is that the dialectical situation presented in 6.53 was reproduced in (my reading of) 5.6: on the one hand, we had someone – the solipsist, say – wanting to “say something metaphysical”, namely that “the world is my

 I am here echoing Floyd 1998, a text to which I shall come back later in some detail (section 1.9).

1.6 Throwing the ladder away: a first attempt


world”; on the other hand we had someone – call him Wittgenstein – trying to demonstrate to his solipsistic interlocutor that “he had failed to give a meaning to certain signs in his propositions”. Having noticed that fact, the question arises whether Wittgenstein has “demonstrated” that the solipsist’s position is problematic by “saying nothing except what can be said, i. e., propositions of natural science”. And the answer to that question is: of course not; as we saw, in order to show that the solipsist was producing nonsense Wittgenstein clearly employed some “metaphysical theses” – e. g., that “the limits of my language are the limits of my world” (5.6), that “The subject does not belong to the world; rather, it is a limit of the world” (5.632), and so on. Yet those “metaphysical theses”, as we also observed, were themselves self-subversive, in that they attempted to express something necessary about the world and language – something which, according to the general analysis presented before in the book, simply could not be said by any bona fide proposition. What is more remarkable, however, is that the selfsubversive character of those “metaphysical theses” was also made manifest by the internal tension generated when we closely compared their (alleged) “content” with the (alleged) “content” of other claims made in the very same section (5.6), e. g., that we cannot say in logic, “The world has this in it, and this, but not that” (5.61), or that “no part of our experience is at the same time a priori” (5.634). Given the notorious self-subversive character of the “metaphysical theses” employed in section 5.6 to point out the shortcomings of solipsism, we must conclude that Wittgenstein was making a self-conscious use of nonsense in this context. By thus inviting us to flutter in the walls of language an awareness of the limits of sense is produced, and that awareness should disavow us (as well as the solipsistic interlocutor) of tacitly, un-self-consciously, producing nonsense – in other words, this strategy is useful to make latent nonsensicality patent. Now this conclusion can be used as a starting point, or as a test case, to answer the questions made at the beginning of this chapter. Question (i) was about which propositions we should use as rungs in a ladder to be thrown away; given the analysis above, the answer seems to be: only Wittgenstein’s own self-conscious, self-subversive metaphysical claims – those which try to state, or to express (as opposed to make manifest) necessary truths about the world, language and thought; as to how we shall use those propositions as such rungs – question (ii) – the answer is: we can use them as tools which make us aware of the otherwise latent, hidden failure of our attempts to talk about things which are beyond the limits of what can be said; as to the result of this whole process – question (iii) – the answer is: freedom from the impulse to try to express those things, and, ultimately, the lesson presented in proposition 7: “What we cannot speak we must pass over in silence.” To “overcome these propositions”, and to “see


1 Solipsism and the limits of sense in the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus

the world aright”, is to become aware of the limits of our language, and, therefore, to “throw away the ladder” is to give up the hopeless attempt to pose problems where questions cannot be asked – in other words, to give up metaphysics, as traditionally pursued.⁵⁸

1.7 Back to the ladder: problematizing the solipsistic move The conclusions above seem to be consistent with many traditional readings of the Tractatus. However, I do not think the story should end at this point, for the simple reason that we would then still be firmly on the ladder. In order to show this, I will continue to use solipsism as my test case, only this time I will focus on an aspect which was left out in the reconstruction presented in the preceding section. Recall that a result of the reading offered above (see section 1.4) was that the “truth in solipsism”, however strictly ineffable, was already implicit from the beginning of the book’s examination of the conditions for representation: if we are to have propositions with a determinate sense, which represent particular and determinate facts, there must be a determinate projection, which in turn requires a subject who can make it – who can think the sense of the proposition in such a determinate way. As we saw, this view implies a prima facie problematic form of solipsism: the possibility of representational privacy. And yet, as we also saw, Wittgenstein doesn’t seem too concerned with that theoretical possibility, since he has also provided a tool for dissolving circumscribed representational disagreements – that being the role of his method of logical analysis. Provided that there is only one possible analysis of a (determinately projected) proposition, intersubjectivity becomes just a matter of logical calculation. He also readily reassures us, at the end of section 5.6, that this peculiar form of solipsism which comes out to have some “truth” in it is actually the purest form of realism, since it implies that no reality can possibly fall short of direct and determinate representation in this scheme – I mean, the one in which the limits of world and language coincide. I take it that this solipsistic move of making manifest the “necessary congruence” between the limits of my world (the extent of possible experience) and the limits of my language (the extent of possible expression, or representation) is designed to satisfy two deep-rooted philosophical needs, thus calming down two  Notice that, according to this reading, there is an important sense in which no “transcendence” is involved here at all – the idea is not to go to “the other side of the limit”, but rather the very opposite, i. e., to give up the attempt to do so; hence the problem with Pears and McGuinness’s translation (see fn. 47).

1.7 Back to the ladder: problematizing the solipsistic move


intimately connected philosophical fears, namely (i) the fear of metaphysical loneliness — i. e., of there being an unbridgeable gulf separating oneself from reality – and (ii) the fear of meaninglessness — i. e., of not being capable to represent that reality in a determinate and truthful manner. But since the “way out” of those philosophical predicaments presented thus far requires that, in an important sense, the world itself becomes part of the subject’s (private) experience, I would submit that no matter how well our intersubjective agreement may be ultimately backed up – by the availability of a logical method of analysis which can resolve our disputes – this solution does not seem that reassuring. In order to put some pressure on this point let us go back to the dispute enacted in section 1.6 between “Wittgenstein” (let us continue calling him Wittgenstein) and “the solipsist”. To begin with, remember that the solipsist was trying to express his own philosophical position by means of a determinate thesis when he employed the signs “The world is my world.” Wittgenstein, on the other side, was trying to convince us that the solipsist did not say anything with those signs, but only produced nonsense. Now, trivially enough, this dispute is an instance of a possible dialogue or conversation, an exchange which could take place in language; therefore, the set of claims that the author of the Tractatus has been busy to establish (about the nature of language and its connection to reality – call it his theory of meaning) ought to apply to this instance as well as to any other communicative exchange. But if this is the case – if, i. e., the theory of meaning presented in the book is to have such a reflective application, informing or conditioning the nature of this particular dialogue – there arises a problem. Recall that, according to that theory, no string of signs should be taken as intrinsically expressing a determinate proposition – a determinate symbol, with a determinate sense; in order to do so, the signs must be projected (i. e., applied) in a determinate way by a particular subject. The flip-side is that a string of signs also cannot be intrinsically nonsensical. Consequently, the target of Wittgenstein’s criticisms when arguing against the solipsist cannot be the mere string of signs employed by him – it must be rather something like his intended projection. If that is the case, then how could Wittgenstein be so sure that he got the solipsist’s intended projection right? Couldn’t the solipsist be (justly) dissatisfied with Wittgenstein’s dogmatic retort that he cannot say what he wants to say? It will not do as a way out of this difficulty just to say that this dispute is sui generis, in that no string of signs whatsoever could possibly play the role intended by the solipsist who claims that “the limits of my language are the limits of my world”; in other words (so the reply would go), there are some “things” which simply cannot be grasped by our signs, which have no corresponding symbol in our language – this being the case of “what the solipsist means”. – If this


1 Solipsism and the limits of sense in the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus

were true, then we should conclude that the limits of language and the limits of reality (of what there is) are not completely congruent after all. And if this were, in turn, true, then it would be of no help to say that the “world” (as this word is technically employed in the book) is just a part of a “greater reality” – the part which we can talk and think about. The moment we arrive at this kind of claim we are again forced to face the threat of meaninglessness, of there being insurmountable obstacles to what can be represented in our language and thought. In other words, we are back to our metaphysical bottle, still fluttering against its walls. Now I think this is exactly the result that Wittgenstein planned to achieve with his enactment of a dispute with his solipsistic interlocutor. In fact – although the justification for this claim goes beyond the scope of this chapter – I am inclined to think that this would apply to any other context in the book in which a tension is intentionally created between the drive to impose limits (to what can be said, thought, experienced, represented) and the invitation to transgress them, which is in turn triggered by (self-subversive) categorical denials of some possibilities (e. g., that the metaphysical subject, or absolute value, or God, could be found in the world) – denials which automatically prompt one to affirm their opposite (e. g., by conceiving that the metaphysical subject, or absolute value, or God, could be found outside the world). In contexts like these, the further move of saying that the “things” in question are neither inside nor outside the world, amounting rather to its limits, would be just another way of playing with our imagination, since we cannot really (can we?) conceive any limit which does not separate an inside from an outside, the result being again a feeling – in the back of our minds, so to speak – that there is “something” beyond those limits, only we cannot reach “it”. So, am I suggesting that there is no way out of this vertiginous situation? – I think there is one, but in order to see it, we have yet to understand how this whole story of projection is itself intended as a rung in the ladder that we are supposed to throw away.

1.8 Throwing the “picture theory of meaning” away Up until this point it looks as if what we should have learned from Wittgenstein’s contention against the solipsist is that the latter was incapable of expressing his own philosophical position, since his attempts to do so systematically produced mere nonsense – strings of signs which were not given a determinate meaning to, hence which do not amount to any symbol whatsoever. But a problem arises when we ask how exactly that kind of claim is supposed to be grounded – in par-

1.8 Throwing the “picture theory of meaning” away


ticular, what exactly are the supposed data it should take as a starting point. As we saw, it cannot be merely the signs offered by the solipsist, since, as Wittgenstein himself has warned us, “the sign, of course, is arbitrary” (3.322), in that it can be used to signify whatever one wants: “We cannot give a sign the wrong sense” (5.4732). The other candidate would be the symbol(s) employed by the solipsist in presenting his “thesis”; but this, in turn, will not do, since symbols are precisely strings of signs (e. g., words) which were already given a determinate sense, which were employed (projected) to represent a determinate (possible) fact. The problem we are facing affects any reading which takes the Tractatus as providing what I will call, borrowing from Cora Diamond, a wholesale criterion of nonsensicality⁵⁹ – a philosophical theory that expresses the rules of sense-making, enabling one to tell uses of signs that produce symbols from the ones that do not. The problem with any such reading is that it presupposes that we can specify, in some way or another, a purported use/projection for the aims of philosophical elucidation, distinguishing it from other possible uses. In doing so those readings end up producing the very conflation which, as we saw above, Wittgenstein regards as the origin of “the most fundamental confusions” of which “philosophy is full” (3.324), namely the conflation between signs and symbols. Now, if that is the case, then why would Wittgenstein tempt us to enact that confusion? I will argue that at least part of the reason is to allow us to enter the frame of mind in which philosophical “positions” such as solipsism will be seen as, at the very least, strong contenders in the attempt to express our plight as finite beings exposed to the threat of loneliness. In order to show this, let us follow Wittgenstein’s advice in proposition 3.1431, and try to get clear about the nature of the propositional sign by imagining it made up of spatial objects, instead of our (more) familiar written signs. We can start with Wittgenstein’s own alleged inspiration, the car accident in Paris, which – following a suggestion from McManus⁶⁰ – can be modeled with kitchen utensils, like this: folded napkins represent the road, cups represent the cars involved, and a pepper-pot represents the pedestrian who was run over. Any child with rudimentary language skills will be able to grasp that representation; and yet, in a certain frame of mind, the process involved might appear very mysterious. How does one know, for example, that the pepper-pot is supposed to represent a person, instead of, say, yet another car, or a spaceship, or a volcano?

 Diamond talks about a “wholesale method for criticizing philosophical propositions” (Diamond 2004, 202).  McManus 2006, 66.


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Moreover, how does one know it should be taken as a sign for some particular object (as a “name”), instead of, say, as a sign for the action of being-run-overby-a-car? Finally, and more generally, how can one distinguish legitimate from illegitimate movements (or moves) inside this representation? Suppose I put the pepper-pot under a napkin, and ask our proverbial child to describe what happened. Maybe she will say: “the man is under the road” (if I ask her to explain, she can say there was an earthquake). But a less “childish” (that is, less imaginative, more serious) answer may be: that does not make any sense. These considerations are meant to remind us of how much is already involved in the “simple” act of constructing models of reality, using particular objects as names of other particular objects. To understand how a name represents is to understand in what kinds of combinations it can (or cannot) be put. A whole system of representation needs to be in place and needs to be grasped simultaneously to the learning of the particular names. As McManus indicates, it would be of no use being told that this paper-pot is “Frank” followed by no additional explanation.⁶¹ This case is meant as an illustration of the general exegetical thesis according to which “the picture analogy makes clear that grasping how one particular name – one particular element of such a picture/model – represents involves grasping how other names represent, along with the propositions within which they figure”.⁶² That thesis is, in turn, the key to understanding how the picture analogy can be used for elucidatory purposes, allowing us to climb an additional rung in the ladder that is intended to be thrown away when we come to understand Wittgenstein. It does so precisely by exposing what McManus dubs “the myth of the independent life of names”⁶³ – a “myth”, N.B., that so far in our reading of the Tractatus was being accepted (however tacitly) as a truth about language.⁶⁴ Connected to that myth is the idea of nonsense as being prior to, independent of, and even conditioning upon, a particular method of projection (a particular assignment of meaning/use to a set of signs). Both confusions exert a strong influence upon our thinking when we start from our ordinary, familiar methods of representation, given that it is difficult to adopt a more detached perspective in order to become clear about their conditions of possibility. The

 McManus 2006, 66 – 67.  McManus 2006, 66.  McManus 2006, 69.  But were we not supposing that the life of names was imparted by the (metaphysical) subject who projected them? – Yet can we imagine the act of giving life to names as something other than a task of connecting “dead signs” with something else (simple objects conceived as components of simple states of affairs?) whose “life” was in turn independent of the subject?

1.8 Throwing the “picture theory of meaning” away


advantage of following Wittgenstein’s advice in 3.1431 is precisely to help in a process of defamiliarization, thus weakening that temptation. One can say in this vein that the picture analogy shows us why and how the picture theory presented in the book must be ultimately thrown away. It does so exactly in the way described by Wittgenstein in the 3.32n’s, namely, as a “signlanguage” which allows us to avoid the conflation of signs/symbols, which in turn gives rise to the “most fundamental confusions” of which “philosophy is full”. Again, this is a point which McManus clearly articulates in the conclusion of his analysis: Though it has often been remarked that the construction of a new notation does not seem to be the philosophical method that the Tractatus itself employs, the picture analogy itself works […] in a remarkably similar way to that in which the envisaged notation ought to work: it undermines philosophical illusions by “disenchanting” words. By asking us to think about models that are “made up of spatial objects (such as tables, chairs, books) instead of written signs”, Wittgenstein introduces a (short-lived) “notational reform” that breaks up the familiar sign/symbol associations upon which our philosophical confusions feed: the “expressions” used no longer even seem to carry their meanings outside the uses in which they represent in the particular systems of representation in which they figure, and the temptation to see confusing illusions of meaning in non-representing combinations – in “illogical combinations” – is dissipated. We no longer seek to understand the difference between “logical impossibilities” (such as “Seven is darker than your hat”) and sentences with sense (like “My coat is darker than your hat”) as that between “impermissible” and “permissible” combinations of objects or ideas. (McManus 2006, 72)

An important aspect of what is involved in throwing away the picture theory, in the way suggested above, has to do with the role of bipolarity as a criterion for “propositionality” (i. e., for some string of signs to count as a proposition, a symbol capable of truth and falsity). As it shall be clear at this point, I take it that insofar as bipolarity is offered as an external or wholesale criterion for a string of signs to symbolize, it constitutes part of the myth of an independent life of signs, and accordingly must be thrown away with it. In order to see this, let us pause to think about what exactly could lack bipolarity – and, therefore, sense – according to the standards presented in the Tractatus: again, is it a string of signs, or a complex of symbols? Here is Stephen Mulhall’s concise answer to that question: No mere string of signs could possibly either possess or lack bipolarity; but if we are in a position to treat some given string of signs as symbolizing, then we must have parsed it as symbolizing in a particular way, and hence assigned specific logical roles to its components. If so, then the question of whether or not it possesses bipolarity comes too late;


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and if not – if, that is, we haven’t yet settled on a particular parsing of it – then that question simply doesn’t arise. (Mulhall 2007a, 6)⁶⁵

Notice the close parallel between Mulhall’s move in the quotation above – aiming to show that there is no bipolarity/sense (since there is no no-bipolarity/nonsense) prior to and independent of our assignment of a determinate use to our signs – and the preceding lesson, according to which it is an illusion to think that our signs have an “independent life” of their own, prior to the applications to which we put them. The conclusion Mulhall extracts from this analysis serves to bring home a related point which will be valuable when we go back to our dialogue with the solipsist. It runs as follows: [B]efore any general doctrine about non-bipolar propositions can be brought to bear on a particular candidate, before we are even in a position to think of ourselves as having a candidate that might meet this proposed criterion for nonsensicality, we must already have made clear the particular use we are inclined to make of it such that we want to say of it that it expresses something non-bipolar (and that it is not a tautology, and so on). In other words, all the work is being done by that process of clarification of meaning, not by the attempted application of a general doctrine to whatever is thereby clarified; and if the proposition-like thing is philosophically problematic, then […] that will come out in the attempted process of clarification as a kind of failure to mean anything in particular by it, or a hovering between various ways of meaning something by it, rather than by its violating logical syntax. (Mulhall 2007a, 6)

 Again, an illustration can help to understand this general point. Although employed for a slightly different purpose (viz., to show the mistake involved in taking a sentence as intrinsically nonsensical, i. e., independently of the meaning which is assigned to its components), the following case shall do. Take the sentence “Chairman Mao is rare”, which, according to Mulhall, was originally presented by Michael Dummett as a piece of “substantial nonsense”, since it would (supposedly) conjoin a proper name, which can be used only as an argument for firstlevel functions, with a second-level function. The problem with Dummett’s rather quick categorization is that: “if it is essential to a symbol’s being a proper name that it [is used as an argument to first-level functions], then we can treat ‘Chairman Mao’ as a proper name in this context only if we treat ‘is rare’ as a first-level function rather than a second-level function (say, as meaning ‘tender’ or ‘sensitive’). And by the same token, if it is essential to a symbol’s being a secondlevel function that it take first-level functions as arguments, then we can treat ‘is rare’ as a second-level function in this context only if we treat ‘Chairman Mao’ as a first-level function rather than a proper name (perhaps on the model of ‘a brutal politician’). Either way of parsing the string of signs is perfectly feasible – we need only to determine a suitable meaning for the complementary component in each case; but each way presupposes an interpretation of the string as a whole which excludes the other. So treating it as substantial nonsense involves hovering between two feasible but incompatible ways of treating the string, without ever settling on either.” (Mulhall 2007a, 4; I modified the quotation in order to fix what seems to be a slip in the original.)

1.8 Throwing the “picture theory of meaning” away


In other (and more general) words, the lesson here is that contrary to what its readers might have been provisionally made to assume, the Tractatus ultimately does not offer a wholesale “theory of meaning”. In particular, as Diamond puts, there is “no special Tractatus sense of ‘nonsensical,’ only the ordinary idea of not meaning anything at all”.⁶⁶ Consequently, the only strategy available for a philosopher (or anyone else, for that matter) to show the confusion and emptiness of any purported sentence is the mobilization of (in Mulhall’s phrase) “a certain kind of practical knowledge, a know-how possessed by anyone capable of speech”.⁶⁷ And this means that instead of a top-down, dogmatic insistence that some signs are inherently or intrinsically nonsensical – as the one enacted by Wittgenstein in his purported criticism of the solipsist – philosophical (logical) clarity requires a rather more patient and sympathetic stance, a piecemeal effort to imagine what might be leading an interlocutor to employ certain signs, which will, in turn, involve imaginatively distinguishing the purported (yet empty) use from other possible uses which might be legitimate and (recognizably) meaningful. As Diamond concludes: [P]hilosophical clarification is an activity which we can and, indeed, must attempt to carry through if we want to criticize a thing that looks like a proposition, and claim that it is nonsense. It is, essentially, in the failure of the attempt at clarification of the particular proposition with which we are concerned that we are able to come to recognize that there was nothing there to clarify. There is no philosophical critique of propositions available on the basis of the Tractatus, separate from the Tractatus conception of clarification of genuine propositions. (Diamond 2004, 203 – 204; my emphasis)

Clarification without theory: that, I would submit, is the method actually intended by the Tractatus. ⁶⁸ At the very least, this is how I understand what is actually happening in the enacted dispute between Wittgenstein and his solipsistic interlocutor. With that suggestion in mind, let us go back to that dialogue in order to

 Diamond 2004, 205.  Mulhall 2007a, 7.  If only with partial success, as Wittgenstein himself later realized. As a number of “resolute readers” (such as the ones I already quoted, James Conant, Cora Diamond and Juliet Floyd) have been arguing, there is no incompatibility between Wittgenstein’s self-understanding at the time he wrote the Tractatus being that of an anti-metaphysical and anti-theoretical philosopher, and his having failed to live up to that ideal – hence a “later” Wittgenstein. My present purpose is to clarify some important early insights which I think deserve to be taken seriously on their own, notwithstanding Wittgenstein’s development. If anything, I take it that his later engagement with “the solipsist” (in writings such as Philosophical Remarks and The Blue Book) as well as with “the private linguist” (in Philosophical Investigations) can be seen as more refined versions of precisely these early insights. Or so, at any rate, I will argue in subsequent chapters.


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see if we can find a better end for our story – one which could be a little more satisfying to the solipsist himself, who was so harshly criticized in the previous round of the argument.

1.9 The “truth in solipsism”: a second pass As I said above (see section 1.7), the picture presented in TLP 5.6 as an inevitable conclusion of the book’s argument – the congruence which is there made manifest between the limits of (my) world and the limits of (my) language – is designed to satisfy two deep-rooted philosophical needs: those of overcoming metaphysical loneliness, or separateness from reality, and meaninglessness (in the sense of a lack of fit between one’s language and the facts one wants to represent). The reason why these needs may seem to be satisfied by the discovery of the “truth in solipsism” is that “when its implications are followed out strictly” solipsism results in “pure realism” (the view according to which we experience reality directly, as opposed to, say, ideas which “stand for” that reality). Having reached that conclusion, I highlighted a difficulty it engenders, namely that in order to obtain it Wittgenstein himself had to resort to an ultimately self-subverting strategy, based on the idea of drawing limits to the expressive capabilities of our language, and, therefore, to the reality (the set of possible facts) which can be expressed/thought by means of that language. We arrive at a kind of “realism” in this way, but only at the expense of making the world itself tailored for our cognitive capacities, becoming part of the subject’s (private) experience. Now, contrary to what Wittgenstein wants us to momentarily assume, I argued in the last section (1.8) that no wholesale theory of meaning can ever allow us to escape that kind of metaphysical isolation – in other words, no external determination as to how our words/sentences can or must be used will solve logical disputes about the sense of our purported projections. I then submitted that the way out of this problem depends on our seeing the “picture theory of meaning” traditionally ascribed to the Tractatus as itself an illusion, a rung in the ladder which we were supposed to throw away. The final lesson is that our signs have no life of their own, apart from the uses to which we put them in particular contexts, and that the only way to determine whether a (purported) use is legitimate is by mobilizing our practical knowledge or linguistic know-how (more on this in a moment). Supposing we are inoculated against the “myth of the independent life of signs”, what about those deep-rooted philosophical needs I mentioned above? The answer to this question will help us understand what is the real “truth in solipsism” – the truth, i. e., which is at the very basis of our search for some

1.9 The “truth in solipsism”: a second pass


kind of philosophical refuge against the threat of loneliness. Notice, first, that a consequence of there being no external determination to how our words should be used is that we also lack any kind of external guarantee that we are “mirroring” the world with our language, and, therefore, that we are making our experience of that world understood (or even understandable) by others, shared. The only ground we are left with is our contingent agreement itself – the fact that our words are, more often than not, projected in similar ways. But being contingent, and, as such, not metaphysically backed up by any kind of a priori theory of meaning, the possibility will always be open that this agreement should be lost, for one reason or another – e. g., we can always avoid accepting the world as it is, or deny that we inhabit the same world (some particular) others inhabit; we can also close ourselves to others, and them to us. For an enormous number of reasons – which are themselves not to be reduced to a definite set by any a priori theory – we and our fellow interlocutors can always start to project words in strange, unexpected, eccentric ways.⁶⁹ I now want to suggest that the truth in solipsism has to do precisely with this humbling realization concerning the fragility of meaning and mutual understanding. Acknowledging our responsibility in this continuous task is part of what it means to accept our finitude, and it is precisely because of the difficulty involved in that acknowledgment that some of us might prefer to seek for consolation in a metaphysical story, with which comes a “theory of meaning”. In a very different context, Stanley Cavell claims that Wittgenstein portraits skepticism “as the site in which we abdicate such responsibility as we have over words, unleashing them from our criteria, as if toward the world – unleashing our voices from them – coming to feel that our criteria limit rather than constitute our access to the world” (CHU 22). In the same vein, I think we can say that the portrait of solipsism that Wittgenstein offers in the Tractatus – as well as his portrait of the “pure realism”, with which the former is said to coincide – is that of a site where we (self‐)deceive ourselves, by assuming that the meaning of our words can be at the same time externally determined, as if deriving from the constitution of “reality itself”, and also be fully and directly within our grasp, since we made that reality a part of our own experience. In this sense, both solipsism and its flip-side, “pure realism”, can be seen as intellectualized attempts at reestablishing the link between the subject and the world (and other subjects, to the extent in which they are supposed to be part of that world), so as to escape  Although the topics I am here announcing – those of the contingent nature of our linguistic agreement, and its consequences for our responsibilities to create and sustain a linguistic community – will be tackled in the next paragraphs, a more detailed treatment can be found in chapter 4.


1 Solipsism and the limits of sense in the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus

metaphysical loneliness. To free us from this kind of evasive attitude, thus leading us to accept our finitude and its burdens (in particular, that of making sense of ourselves, the world and others) is part of what I take to be the “ethical point” of the Tractatus. ⁷⁰ In an essay to which I am much indebted, Juliet Floyd describes solipsism in a way which seems very congenial to the view I just presented. “Solipsism”, she says, “is one of the most persistent refuges of the a priori, a limiting attempt to impose a limit upon thinking and living”.⁷¹ Notwithstanding my agreement with that description, I think her account of the impulse which leads to solipsism, thus understood, is somewhat misleading – hence a comparison can be useful to clarify and further develop the analysis pursued so far. The following quotation summarizes her view on this point (I enumerate the sentences in order to assess them below): [1] The impulse to metaphysical solipsism arises naturally from the surrender of traditional ideas of necessity and reason, including traditional ideas of logic as a necessary framework governing thought and reality. [2] If logic and grammar cannot hold forms of thinking and speaking in place, if analysis cannot uncover definiteness of sense by specifying forms of objects in the world, and if ethics does not consist of true propositions or principles, then my consciousness, my experience, may seem to be all that is left in the way of an underlying bulwark for thought and reality. [3] The Tractatus depicts this as one route into solipsism, and [4] then shows how this idea of a mental limit is just another way to see with a captive eye. [5] Here too is an ethical dimension of his work. (Floyd 1998, 82)

I am in complete agreement with sentences (1), (4) and (5). But what I have been arguing seems to go in the opposite direction of what is stated in sentence (2): whereas Floyd there seems to be saying that solipsism is a kind of second best – in this sense, a “refuge” which is available when you lose your faith in the idea of an objective connection between language and world to be guaranteed by reason, or logic – what I have been trying to show is that, for Wittgenstein, solipsism is (at least prima facie) the best philosophical candidate to secure such a direct, objective and impersonal relation between subject (or his/ her language) and the world. (That this is only prima facie true must by now be clear, hence my agreement with Floyd on (4) and (5).) It is somewhat puzzling, to my mind, that Floyd should say what she says in (2), given the overall view presented in her essay. The apparent conflict I see as internal to her view can be made perspicuous by comparing the quotation above

 I am here alluding to Wittgenstein’s notorious claim, made in a letter to Ludwig von Ficker, that “the point of the [Tractatus] is ethical” (see Monk 1990, 178).  Floyd 1998, 82.

1.9 The “truth in solipsism”: a second pass


with another set of remarks presented at the end of her essay, with which I also entirely agree, and which I take as indeed very helpful to clarify the reading presented so far. These are the relevant remarks: [O]ne “deep need” Wittgenstein saw wrongly gratified in idealism and in solipsism was a wish for total absorption in the world and in life, in the feeling of there being no space, no gap, between the language I understand, the world I contemplate, and the life which I live. […] Solipsism is a metaphysical version of loneliness – or, perhaps better, a metaphysical attempt to overcome the possibility of loneliness. If solipsism were true, my all-embracing experience and my all-embracing world would be one. I would find myself reflected in all things. (Floyd 1998, 103 – 104)

It is, I think, precisely because of these apparent philosophical merits that solipsism ends up being the main focus of Wittgenstein’s reflections at the time he wrote the Tractatus. But solipsism, to the extent in which it can be taken as a “metaphysical attempt to overcome the possibility of loneliness”, is precisely what is untrue – or at any rate this is what I have been trying to show. – But in saying this, am I not being as dogmatic and unfair to the solipsist as I accused Wittgenstein (in his dogmatic persona) of being? In what sense is the view just stated supposed to be more “satisfying to the other person” – i. e., “the solipsist”? To begin with, I am not advancing a view according to which there is “something” the solipsist cannot say – he has all the room to use his words as he wants, provided that he tries to make himself understood. (Of course he has no obligation to do this – after all, it is characteristic of our life with words that we can simply decide to give up our responsibility to make ourselves understood, whenever we want, provided that we assume the consequences of that decision.) Now, assuming that he wants to make himself understood, the only possible way of continuing with our dialogue – i. e., after throwing away any philosophical temptation to appeal to a theory of meaning, such as the Tractatus’ “picture theory” – is as we normally do when we have a disagreement: by mobilizing our practical mastery, or know-how, of language, seeking to find a (set of) shared judgment(s) to use as a starting point. In this process, it may well turn out that the solipsist (this particular, fleshed and blooded, interlocutor I am now imagining) really had something interesting, important (or rather completely uninteresting and unimportant) to say. Or it may happen that I simply find myself unable to understand what he wants to say – what may in turn make me adopt a whole range of different attitudes, from feeling myself guilty (unprepared, unsophisticated, stupid, different), to blaming my interlocutor instead, treating him as strange, eccentric, mad, unintelligible, and so on. But notice that even if I adopt one of the latter attitudes, my reason, whether good or


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bad (I can be just tired, say, and try to pass my problem to the other) will not derive from any metaphysical story/theory of meaning this time – if, N.B., I am not to fall back to the evasive philosophical attitude described above. But I would like to go further: it is not that I just want to make room for a (possibly productive, possibly barren) dialogue with a (possibly real) solipsist – a room for his words to have legitimate use(s). My sympathy toward the solipsist goes further, in the sense that I also find myself, at least in some moods, thinking that there are many “good reasons” – which might actually amount to intellectualizations of so many concrete dissatisfactions with the human condition – which can lead one to be tempted to take refuge in some kind of solipsistic (theoretical) story, such as that one Wittgenstein presents in the Tractatus. If I see an error or misunderstanding in the solipsist’s attitude, it is rather a failure in self-knowledge or self-interpretation. If we inspect closely we may discover that underlying this intellectualized attitude are the real anxieties, or dissatisfactions, that we (or “the solipsist”) encounter in our life with words and other people. This, I submit, might turn out to be the real truth in solipsism – a truth that has nothing ineffable about itself, but which is difficult to take at face value, without philosophical (re)interpretation.

1.10 Throwing the ladder away: a second attempt The epigraph to this chapter has a Wittgenstein older than the author of the Tractatus saying that “[i]n philosophizing we may not cut off a disease of thought. It must run its natural course, and slow cure is all important” (Z §382; translation amended). The reading presented thus far has been trying to emphasize the shortcomings of attempts at cure that do not go slow enough. I take it that the author of the Tractatus himself was already pointing in that direction by warning us, in proposition 6.53, that saying to a confused interlocutor that he has not given meaning to his signs will very often not be “satisfying” to him. It might take time and much more imaginative effort than philosophers are used to spend in order to get inside the confused perspective of an interlocutor,⁷² but in-

 Since it is not exactly against a thesis or an opinion that one has to fight when dealing with a confused interlocutor (like the solipsist of the Tractatus), but rather against a kind of fantasy or illusion which shapes the (overt) theses and opinions of someone in their grip, the best strategy is not direct opposition, or contradiction – in fact, that would only generate resistance, and, consequently, reinforce the grip of the underlying illusion. Borrowing from Mulhall’s analysis of a different case, one may say that what is needed is analogous to what in psychoanalysis would be called “transference”: “the analyst suffers the analysand’s projection of her fantasies, but does

1.10 Throwing the ladder away: a second attempt


dicating that confusion might well be all there is for a philosopher (as imagined by Wittgenstein in the Tractatus) to do.⁷³ That said, I want to conclude this chapter by suggesting that even if the whole enterprise pursued in the Tractatus has to do with thus dissolving philosophical pseudo-problems, there still is room to think of a further therapeutic effect of the work of logical elucidation, namely that it can help us see (maybe for the first time, or at least for the first time in full light) the real facts that might be at the root of those pseudo-problems. One can say, as Wittgenstein himself does, that after this elucidatory process our pseudo-problems will “disappear”, meaning that our philosophically sublimated “questions” will be shown not to be questions at all (see 6.52); yet one could also say – as Wittgenstein precisely does not ⁷⁴ – that, in another important sense, our real problems have only just begun to show up at this point. And this is my primary reason to think, regarding the conclusions we reached at the end of the last section, that although they may correctly convey the Tractatus’s self-understanding of its own elucidatory aims, they are ultimately incomplete, because they do not go all the way toward the envisaged change of attitude that the book as a whole – and, in particular, its self-subversive enactment of a solipsistic position – is encouraging us to take. In other words, I think we still need to get clear about the full ethical significance of the sort of elucidation pursued in the Tractatus. I will start approaching this topic by echoing some of the insights reached in Michael Kremer’s analysis of the truth in solipsism in a paper to which I am much indebted.⁷⁵ One of Kremer’s main contentions in this paper is that solipsism is, at least in part, true because when it is strictly followed through it not only should lead one to abandon (what I would qualify as) the philosophical or theoretical illusion of “drawing limits to language and thought”, but, more importantly, it should also lead one to explode the “illusion of the godhead of

so precisely in order to put its mechanisms and motivations in question, to work with and upon the material rather than simply reiterating it” (Mulhall 2001a, 137).  It took me some effort to understand this, and I thank Jim Conant for finally triggering this new and unexpected Gestalt switch.  As Wittgenstein has famously put to his prospective publisher (see fn. 70): “I once wanted to give a few words in the foreword [of the Tractatus] which now actually are not in it, which, however, I’ll write to you now because they might be a key for you: I wanted to write that my work consists of two parts: of the one which is here, and of everything which I have not written. And precisely this second part is the important one. For the Ethical is delimited from within, as it were, by my book; and I’m convinced that, strictly speaking, it can ONLY be delimited in this way. In brief, I think: All of that which many are babbling today, I have defined in my book by remaining silent about it.” (Quoted in Monk, 1990, 178)  Kremer 2004.


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the independent ‘I’”⁷⁶ – an illusion which is not only philosophical and theoretical, but also ethical; hence the main lesson extracted by Kremer, according to which solipsism, if strictly followed through, amounts to “the self-humbling of pride”.⁷⁷ I take it that such a lesson is closely related to the “vanishing” of the “problem of life” alluded to by Wittgenstein in 6.521, which, in turn, connects to the idea of “seeing the world aright” after overcoming the propositions of the Tractatus (throwing away the ladder), thus coming to understand its author. Here is how I see these connections: to “see the world aright” – to have a clear, realistic perspective on the world – is to see, among many other things, the facts it presents to us as absolutely contingent happenings, which, as such, have nothing of (intrinsically) good or bad, fortunate or regrettable about them. To think (or to assume) the opposite – e. g., that at least some facts in the world are intrinsically connected to our (i. e., the metaphysical subject’s) will – is to fall prey of the most seductive, and hence most dangerous aspect of the solipsistic fantasy. This is because, as Wittgenstein would later put,⁷⁸ the issue at hand when one deals with solipsism (as with so many other philosophical fantasies) has more to do with our will than with our intellect. Hence it should come as no surprise that even the most engaged intellectual efforts to dissipate it might end up only deflecting the real difficulty behind the temptation of solipsism. What one needs in order to be freed from that temptation is precisely not more argument – hence Wittgenstein’s decision of remaining silent about it; rather, what one needs is to engage in an active effort to come to terms with – to become conscious of, and ultimately take control of – one’s own will, so as to become capable of taking a different stand toward the world. That, it seems to me, is at least part of what it means to confront (and to accept) our finitude – in particular, our real separateness from the world and its happenings. And I take it that this is exactly the kind of practical, existential change which is envisaged as the terminus of the whole therapeutic process of “throwing away the ladder”, thus leading one to abandon, maybe against one’s deepest expectations (philosophical and other) the search for “limits of sense”, for a “theory of meaning”, or for any (other) kind of metaphysical backing for a direct connection with the (whole) world. This conclusion is admittedly opaque; for the time being I would like to avoid one misunderstanding it may generate, which can be formulated by

 Kremer 2004, 66.  Kremer 2004, 66.  See, e. g., CV 17.

1.10 Throwing the ladder away: a second attempt


means of the following question: Am I, by calling attention to that kind of separateness, trying to say, or to imply, that one should, by the Tractatus’s lights, take a detached perspective with respect to the (whole) world? The (short) answer to that question is: No. And yet, the very fact that this question may appear so overwhelming at this juncture (as it does to me, in some moods anyway) shows something important about the nature of this particular philosophical temptation. For let us recall Floyd’s words: “one ‘deep need’ Wittgenstein saw wrongly gratified in […] solipsism was a wish for total absorption in the world and in life, in the feeling of there being no space, no gap, between the language I understand, the world I contemplate, and the life which I live”;⁷⁹ now of course, if that were the kind of “absorption” one had in mind when thinking about a non-detached relation to the world, there would be no doubt that by affirming separateness – thereby denying solipsism – one would be forced to accept the implication referred above. What is the alternative? And what exactly is the problem with the solipsistic model of attachment to the world? Starting with the latter question, I take it that one of the main problems with the solipsistic model – which is also supposed to be one of its main merits, if one is tempted to accept it – lies in the suppression it would promote of any kind of (not only epistemic but) existential risks. And yet, to feel threatened – or rather excited, or soberly unperturbed, or otherwise burdened – in the face of such risks seems to be a precondition of any realistic, non-detached stance toward the world;⁸⁰ and this seems to be exactly the opposite of the “pure realism” depicted in the Tractatus, promising a relation in which the whole of “reality” would be “coordinated” – with no rest – with the “self of solipsism” (see TLP 5.64). Consequently, I take it that an alternative, bona fide realistic model for a (or rather a number of) non-detached relation(s) to the world must involve the notion of a subject who is open to being challenged in her beliefs, convictions, or preconceptions – practical as well as theoretical – “in the teeth of the facts”.⁸¹ As it happens in so many situations of our ordinary lives, separation can be initially traumatic – it can even be a case for grief or mourning, as Emerson, followed by Cavell, would be willing to say⁸² – but precisely because of that it can also serve as a catalyst for a renewed, more realistic attitude toward life and toward the world, one in which, in Cavell’s terms, we would not try to “be-

 Floyd 1998, 103 – 104.  For an interesting and illuminating discussion of this point, see Dreyfus 2009, esp. chapter 2.  See Diamond 1995, 39.  Emerson presents that point most notably in his essay “Experience”, which Cavell discusses in many of his writings, the main context perhaps being the first chapter of CHU. I deal with this notion of mourning the world in more detail in Techio 2020.


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come near” the world “by grasping it, getting to it, but by letting its distance, its separateness, impress us” (PDAT 52). Now if I am right in finding a view like that at work in the Tractatus, then the next step would be to conclude that the silence recommend in its last proposition should not to be seen (as so many have) as an invitation to a passive contemplation – of “the mystical”, say – but rather as a call to stop talking (i. e., theorizing) about what should or must be the case, and to start acting in this contingent and unpredictable world.

1.11 Concluding methodological remarks: distinguishing cure and prevention Faced with the preceding reconstruction of Wittgenstein’s exchange with his solipsistic interlocutor in the Tractatus, and before transitioning to further iterations of that exchange in later works, some words seem to be in order concerning the following question, which I think can naturally arise at this point: in what sense can this exchange count as an instance of the “only strictly correct method” in philosophy that Wittgenstein himself recommends against someone who “wanted say something metaphysical” at the end of the book (TLP 6.53)? I think some clarity about this issue can be attained with the help of Denis McManus’s proposal of distinguishing two ways of dealing with logical misunderstandings, namely cure and prevention. McManus emphasizes that “[i]n our existing notations, one can substitute for one another similar-looking signs that express different symbols, producing strings of signs that have no sense but which look or sound as if they do”;⁸³ yet that kind of replacement would be impossible within the Begriffsschrift, and precisely because of that impossibility the project of developing a Begriffsschrift should be seen as the key measure at preventive medicine for early Wittgenstein. However, since our world is already populated by “the infected” (those who “discuss, and claim an understanding of, the problems of philosophy”⁸⁴), what we are most in need of is not prevention, but some sort of remedy, a strategy for philosophical cure. The analogy with psychoanalysis is once again helpful to understand this point: as I pointed out before, it will not do as an effective cure just to say to the analysand that she has a particular problem, whose causes are such-and-such – on the contrary, this could actually make the situation worse, generating resistance. Instead, what is needed is a different, more engaged and sympathetic, kind of involvement – in McManus’s

 McManus 2006, 130.  McManus 2006, 130.

1.11 Concluding methodological remarks: distinguishing cure and prevention


words, the psychoanalyst has to be able to maintain a kind of double vision: “as well as his own diagnostic vision, he needs to be able to make his own the patient’s distorted vision”; by seeing how things look from the latter’s perspective, he will (hopefully) be able to find a way to “begin to nudge the patient toward the point from which he will be able to see what the diagnostic perspective sees”.⁸⁵ And the same would apply to the philosopher: To help others out of nonsense, one needs to think through it, to uncover how that vulnerability “works”. This requires a certain sympathy with the confusions in question – what might seem to some Wittgensteinians a perverse or nostalgic love of the problems of philosophy. One needs to be able to see things as the confused see them, but also to be able to escape that addled perspective. To maintain that double vision is to be able to enter and then escape – which is to say, truly understand – this “chaos”. If one loses this double vision, one may either become captured by the confusions – losing one’s appreciation of how our talk here is mere nonsense – or lose one’s appreciation of their power – losing one’s grasp of how they can appear utterly real to those in their grip. (McManus 2006, 132)⁸⁶

The reason why I think it is important to go through these brief considerations at this point is that they will allow us to have a better understanding of the continuities and discontinuities in Wittgenstein’s view concerning the nature of philosophical elucidation as we transition to his later works. As I will argue in the next chapter, an important change in his thinking – undergone by the time he resumed philosophical work, around 1929 – was precisely the realization that even as preventive medicine a Begriffsschrift was not as efficient as he had initially supposed, after all it could not prevent the kind of nonsense involved in

 McManus 2006, 132.  One of the interesting results of employing this analogy with psychoanalysis is that, as McManus points out, it may “help us to see why it is quite natural for the Tractatus to mix nonsensical elucidations with ‘sensical’ observations, and, thus, why a reading that presents it so need not be guilty of an ad hoc cherry-picking”: “In conversation with a patient with delusions, some of the psychoanalyst’s remarks will be elaborations of the patient’s delusions; but others will be very obviously and straightforwardly ‘sensical’. The psychoanalyst may suggest how things would look to the patient were certain things to happen: for example, ‘If A was to do x, you would say it was because A would be seeking to bring about y, wouldn’t you?’ But the patient does not live on another planet, and in exploring their viewpoint on life, there is no reason why every such elucidatory remark need be expressive of delusion; some will be, and in the depths of their delusion the patient may react to these suggestions with an ‘Exactly!’ or with a ‘So you see it too!’; but the patient will have understood what the analyst’s point was in making these suggestions when he also comes to see that they were expressive of delusion. The patient may then look back over the conversation and recognize that parts – but only parts – of it were shaped in ways he hadn’t realized at the time by certain distorting confusions, including the analyst’s forays into, and elaborations on, the patient’s delusions.” (McManus 2006, 133 – 134)


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(pseudo‐)propositions like “white is darker than black” (i. e., a kind of nonsense which does not arise simply from confusion regarding logical relations among non-analyzed – and indeed unanalysable — elementary propositions). As to philosophical cure, although Wittgenstein will continue to maintain the need to engage with the interlocutor as a psychoanalyst engages with a patient, he will also come to see that the origins of philosophical confusions, including those grouped under the heading of “solipsism”, are way more various and more entangled than he had initially supposed, and, consequently, that the respective therapies would have to be administered more locally, so much so as to shatter any hope of solving (even “in essence”) all the problems of philosophy once and for all.

2 Solipsism and method in the Philosophical Remarks … solipsism teaches us a lesson: It is that thought which is on the way to destroy this error. For if the world is idea it isn’t any person’s idea. (Solipsism stops short of saying this and says that it is my idea.) But then how could I say what the world is if the realm of ideas has no neighbour? (Ludwig Wittgenstein⁸⁷)

2.1 Introduction Wittgenstein opens the Philosophical Remarks⁸⁸ with the following pair of entries: A proposition is completely logically analysed if its grammar is made completely clear: no matter what idiom it may be written or expressed in. I do not now have phenomenological language, or “primary language” as I used to call it, in mind as my goal. I no longer hold it to be necessary. All that is possible and necessary is to separate what is essential from what is inessential in our language. (PR 51, §1)

These entries express a change of mind in Wittgenstein’s thinking – a change which, one can speculate, he must have deemed rather important, so as to decide to open his manuscript by avowing it. This avowal raises a number of questions: When did Wittgenstein have a “phenomenological language” or “primary language” as his goal? For what purposes did he hold that language to be necessary? When exactly did he change his mind about that, and why? Finally, how does the alleged change relate to the claim made in the first entry, to the effect that it does not matter, for purposes of clarification, what “idiom” (Ausdruckswe-

 PO 255.  It may be worth mentioning at the outset that this “work” is largely an editorial invention consisting of a selection from a vast, relatively unexplored stratum of Wittgenstein’s Nachlass, from a period when his views were constantly changing, sometimes radically. According to Rush Rhees, the original text employed in the edition of the Philosophical Remarks was “a typescript that G. E. Moore gave […] soon after Wittgenstein’s death: evidently the one which Wittgenstein left with Bertrand Russell in May, 1930, and which Russell sent to the Council of Trinity College, Cambridge, with his report in favour of a renewal of Wittgenstein’s research grant. All the passages in it were written in manuscript volumes between February 2nd, 1929, and the last week of April, 1930” (PR 347, “Editor’s Note”).


2 Solipsism and method in the Philosophical Remarks

ise) is used to express a “completely logically analysed” proposition? Answering these questions would go a long way towards understanding the changes that occurred in Wittgenstein’s thinking around the years of 1929 – 30, marking his return to Cambridge and to philosophical research. Although that aim is beyond the scope of this chapter I will tackle those questions briefly in the remainder of this introduction, offering an initial sketch of this transitional moment in Wittgenstein’s development. This limited result will be useful in subsequent sections, where we will see Wittgenstein’s new method(s) at work in the service of trying to unveil some temptations related to solipsism. I suggest we start approaching these questions by taking a detour, examining another important record of Wittgenstein’s post-Tractarian reflections, namely the paper “Some Remarks on Logical Form”, written in July, 1929.⁸⁹ In its first paragraph Wittgenstein defines “syntax” as “the rules which tell us in which connection only a word give [sic.] sense, thus excluding nonsensical structures”, and claims that the “syntax of ordinary language […] is not quite adequate for this purpose”, since “[i]t does not in all cases prevent the construction of nonsensical pseudopropositions” (SRLF 29).⁹⁰ He then offers as examples of such pseudopropositions: “red is higher than green” and “the Real, though it is an in itself, must also be able to become a for myself” (SRLF 29). Given the inadequateness of the syntax of ordinary language to prevent such nonsense, Wittgenstein argues for the usefulness of employing logical analysis, and, in particular, a logical symbolism which would reflect syntax (more) perspicuously: If we try to analyze any given propositions we shall find in general that they are logical sums, products or other truthfunctions of simpler propositions. But our analysis, if carried far enough, must come to the point where it reaches propositional forms which are not themselves composed of simpler propositional forms. We must eventually reach the ultimate connection of the terms, the immediate connection which cannot be broken without destroying the propositional form as such. The propositions which represent this ultimate connexion of terms I call, after B. Russell, atomic propositions. They then, are the kernels of every proposition, they contain the material, and all the rest is only a development of this material. It is to them we have to look for the subject matter of propositions. It is the task of the theory of knowledge to find them and to understand their construction out of the words

 The paper was originally invited for the Joint Session of the Aristotelian Society and the Mind Association of that year; though published in the proceedings, it was not delivered at the occasion, apparently because of Wittgenstein’s dissatisfactions with it (see PR 349). Notwithstanding his reasons to dismiss it – or even to consider it “quite worthless” (see PO 28) – that paper stands as an important record (if only because of the lack of any other) to understand this transitional period in Wittgenstein’s thinking.  I quote from the reprinted version of the paper in PO, and the page numbers refer to that collection.

2.1 Introduction


or symbols. This task is very difficult, and philosophy has hardly yet begun to tackle it at some points. What method have we for tackling it? The idea is to express in an appropriate symbolism what in ordinary language leads to endless misunderstandings. That is to say, where ordinary language disguises logical structure, where it allows the formation of pseudopropositions, where it uses one term in an infinity of different meanings, we must replace it by a symbolism which gives a clear picture of the logical structure, excludes pseudopropositions, and uses its terms unambiguously. (SRLF 29 – 30)

Nothing said in the passage above seems to imply any remarkable change in relation to Wittgenstein’s earlier conception of the philosophical task of clarification, and, in particular, of the role of a “richtige Begriffsschrift” for that end. However, a departure seems to be gestured at in the passage which immediately follows the one above: Now we can only substitute a clear symbolism for the unprecise one by inspecting the phenomena which we want to describe, thus trying to understand their logical multiplicity. That is to say, we can only arrive at a correct analysis by, what might be called, the logical investigation of the phenomena themselves, i. e., in a certain sense a posteriori, and not by conjecturing about a priori possibilities. One is often tempted to ask from an a priori standpoint: What, after all, can be the only forms of atomic propositions, and to answer, e. g., subject-predicate and relational propositions with two or more terms further, perhaps, propositions relating predicates and relations to one another, and so on. But this, I believe, is mere playing with words. An atomic form cannot be foreseen. And it would be surprising if the actual phenomena had nothing more to teach us about their structure. To such conjectures about the structure of atomic propositions, we are led by our ordinary language, which uses the subject-predicate and the relational form. But in this our language is misleading […] (SRLF 30)

Clearly, the very idea of pursuing a “logical investigation of the phenomena themselves” – something “in a certain sense a posteriori” – is a novelty with respect to the staunchly aprioristic stance taken in the Tractatus (in fact, it is arguably due to that novelty that Wittgenstein had come to be less dismissive about the task of the “theory of knowledge” by the time he wrote the paper under scrutiny). What triggered this change, if only partially, was of course the so-called “problem of synthetic incompatibilities”.⁹¹ That problem may be illustrated with the analysis of propositions stating color-exclusion. Take, e. g., the proposition “if A is red then A is not green” (where “A” stands for a point in my visual space); if true, that proposition implies that “A is red and A is green” must (by necessity) be false; now, if one assumes – as the author of

 This is Russell’s (not Wittgenstein’s) phrase. An informative account of the way this problem influenced Wittgenstein’s philosophical method was told by Faria 1989.


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the Tractatus did – that all necessity is logical, then, given the necessary falsehood of the latter proposition, one should conclude that it amounts to a logical (i. e., purely formal) contradiction; yet that is not the case, as one can clearly see by paraphrasing that proposition by means of the notational devices laid down in TLP (the “T-F notation”). The critical result is that there are logical relations among propositions that the Tractatus’s “general propositional form” is unable to capture, because they are not formal relations: nothing that accounts (only) for the behavior of the logical constants will be enough as an account of the relations of (synthetic) exclusion holding between, e. g., two propositions ascribing different colors to a point.⁹² This result ultimately leads Wittgenstein to abandon the thesis of the logical independence of elementary propositions, thus coming to acknowledge an important failure of his original, truth-functional analysis of the proposition. And this is the reason why an “investigation of the phenomena themselves” seems to be necessary – in particular, it is only upon pursuing such an investigation that one might become able to know what form the “elementary propositions” actually have. Now, in order to correctly mirror the logical multiplicity of phenomena, a symbolism more powerful than the Tractatus’s Begriffsschrift is needed, and this is precisely the role of what Wittgenstein would come to call a “phenomenological” or “primary” language. Hence, the project of constructing such a symbolism can be seen as, in an important respect, continuous with the Tractarian ideal of offering a “logically perspicuous notation”. In fact, Wittgenstein’s first attempts to lay bare “the logical structure of phenomena” by means of an investigation which is “in a sense a posteriori”, yet not exactly or fully empirical or scientific, can be seen as an effort to rescue what remains of the Tractarian edifice after one of its foundations – namely, the thesis of the logical independence among elementary propositions – is relinquished. There is, however, an important discontinuity folded within the continuity indicated above. As we know, Wittgenstein already held in the Tractatus that ordinary language is in “perfect logical order” – hence, that the usefulness of logical analysis and logically perspicuous notation(s) is to bring that (already exist-

 More specifically, what the author of the Philosophical Remarks came to believe was wrong with the T-F method was precisely that “[t]he methods for ‘and’, ‘or’, ‘not’ etc., which I represented by means of the T-F notation, are a part of the grammar of these words, but not the whole” (PR 111, §83). “Material validities” of inference, in other words, are not just a matter of the meanings of extra-logical vocabulary (“if it’s green all over, then it’s not red”): the very understanding of logical constants (hence of logical form) stands to be affected by the recognition that “these remarks [e. g. about color incompatibilities] do not express an experience but are in some sense tautologies” (SRLF 32).

2.1 Introduction


ing) order to full light, so as to prevent logical and philosophical confusion. And the same goes for the “phenomenological language”, as Wittgenstein came to think of it. But the main change leading to the Remarks has to do with the specific steps involved in this process of logical clarification. For one thing, Wittgenstein now distinguishes two kinds of “descriptions of reality”, namely: (i) propositions (properly so-called), which are the descriptions employed in what he dubs the “primary system” – the bearers of truth and falsity, which are verified or falsified by immediate experience – and (ii) hypotheses, which are employed in the “secondary system”, also dubbed “physics” (corresponding, roughly, to the ordinary talk about spatio-temporal objects supplemented by scientific language) and are not properly speaking descriptions of states of affairs, which would be either true or false, but rather rules or laws for the formation of genuine propositions. Thus, according to the view which was emerging by the time Wittgenstein proposed this distinction, hypotheses would relate only indirectly to the objects of immediate experience, thereby hiding an enormously complex symbolic structure under their (apparently) simple signs. And since hypotheses, in the sense just defined, would be the means of description characteristically employed in ordinary language that fact should account for its “misleading character”. By the same token, a logically perspicuous notation should be free of hypotheses, that being the role of a (phenomenological) language embodying in its very form (in the structure of its signs) all the otherwise hidden complexity of the underlying symbols, thus mirroring the complexity of the phenomena represented by it. This, as I have been warning, was Wittgenstein’s (emerging) view about the role of phenomenological language, if only for a short period of time, soon after having abandoned the (now seen as) oversimplified picture of the relation between ordinary descriptions and the “immediate objects of experience” presented in the Tractatus. Yet, as the opening entries of the Remarks indicate, at some point he changed his mind in an even more radical way, giving up the whole idea that logically perspicuous notations (of any sort) were necessary for the task of clarification, thus coming to acknowledge, probably for the first time, that the original Tractarian project of employing a Begriffsschrift in order to avoid philosophical confusions was misguided, and should accordingly be rejected. (Recall that Wittgenstein was initially willing to amend that project and push it forward, even in the face of the challenges created by the problem of synthetic incompatibilities.) This takes us back to the question of what exactly Wittgenstein proposed to put in place of that discarded Tractarian project. The first element to answer this question was given in the last sentence of the opening section of the Remarks quoted above – namely, that “[a]ll that is possible and necessary is to separate


2 Solipsism and method in the Philosophical Remarks

what is essential from what is inessential in our language”. Wittgenstein elaborates that point, describing the new method envisaged after his radical change of mind, in the next entries of that opening section, which go as follows: That is, if we so to speak describe the class of languages which serve their purpose, then in so doing we have shown what is essential to them and given an immediate representation of immediate experience. Each time I say that, instead of such and such a representation, you could also use this other one, we take a further step towards the goal of grasping the essence of what is represented. A recognition of what is essential and what inessential in our language if it is to represent, a recognition of which parts of our language are wheels turning idly, amounts to the construction of a phenomenological language.⁹³ (PR 51, §1)⁹⁴

As we are now in a position to acknowledge, the remarks above express Wittgenstein’s truly new methodology, i. e., the one adopted after his having finally abandoned the essentially Tractarian view that “logically perspicuous notations” (including the short-lived device of a “phenomenological language”) were necessary in order to clarify our propositions. Alva Noë (1994) offers an illuminating assessment of that methodological change, which gets summarized in the following passage: Philosophy must proceed by careful examination and comparison of different methods of representation (not only of our ordinary ones). This investigation of notations enables us to give “an immediate representation of immediate experience.” Whereas before Wittgenstein had believed that the surface forms of ordinary language conceal what is essential

 The original wording of the last sentence reads as follows: “[…] kommt auf die Konstruction einer phäenomenologischen Sprache hinaus”; that could well be translated as “comes down to the same thing as” (cf. Noë 1994, fn. 59). I will come back to the importance of this point below.  Wittgenstein makes precisely the same point to Waismann and Schlick, in December of 1929. Here is the relevant passage where that point is recorded in WWK: “I used to believe that there was the everyday language that we all usually spoke and a primary language that expressed what we really knew, namely phenomena. I also spoke of a first system and a second system. Now I wish to explain why I do not adhere to that conception any more. I think that essentially we have only one language, and that is our everyday language. We need not invent a new language or construct a new symbolism, but our everyday language already is the language, provided we rid it of the obscurities that lie hidden in it. Our language is completely in order, as long as we are clear about what it symbolizes. Languages other than the ordinary ones are also valuable in so far as they show us what they have in common. For certain purposes, e. g. for representing inferential relations, an artificial symbolism is very useful. Indeed, in the construction of symbolic logic Frege, Peano, and Russell paid attention solely to its application to mathematics and did not think of the representation of real states of affairs.” (WWK 45 – 46)

2.1 Introduction


to the method of representation, and that consequently it is necessary to construct a notation which perspicuously mirrors the form of experience, he now casts aside this enterprise as misguided. Since our ordinary language symbolizes just fine, we need only get clear about how it symbolizes. This, as stated, is accomplished not by constructing improved notations, nor by simply attending to the way we use our ordinary one. Rather, the correct method is that of careful comparison of different methods of representation. (Noë 1994, 18 – 19)

Faced with that assessment, one might wonder how exactly would the kind of comparison indicated in Noë’s last sentence – the consideration of a number of alternative “methods of representation” – allow us to get clear about the content of “immediate experience”, and thereby about the essence of what is represented. Noë starts answering that question claiming that such a comparison would compel us to “explore fully the question of what it makes sense to say about whatever the domain in which we are interested”.⁹⁵ As an illustration of how that method is supposed to work, Noë quotes the following passage from the Remarks, where Wittgenstein presents his notorious (although often misunderstood) proposal of eliminating the first person pronoun, “I”, from our “representational techniques”: One of the most misleading representational techniques in our language is the use of the word “I”, particularly when it is used in representing immediate experience, as in “I can see a red patch.” It would be instructive to replace this way of speaking by another in which immediate experience would be represented without using the personal pronoun; for then we’d be able to see that the previous representation wasn’t essential to the facts. Not that the representation would be in any sense more correct than the old one, but it would serve to show clearly what was logically essential in the representation. (PR 88, §57)

I will come back to the details of that specific proposal of representational change (i. e., the elimination of the “I”) in the next chapter. For the time being, let us only take notice of two general points that the passage is meant to illustrate: first, that Wittgenstein does in fact offer a different notation/method of representation which should enable us to get clear(er) about what is (and what isn’t) “essential to the facts” under analysis, thus allowing us to “explore fully the question of what it makes sense to say” in our own, familiar notation (i. e., ordinary language); second, that he explicitly acknowledges that the resulting clarification is not a function of our being offered a method of representation

 Noë 1994, 20.


2 Solipsism and method in the Philosophical Remarks

which would be “more correct than the old one” – say, by better mirroring the underlying structure of phenomena. The moral Noë draws from his analysis of Wittgenstein’s change of mind is twofold: first, the main reason why a phenomenological language – understood as the result of an investigation “into the possibilities of phenomena” – seemed (momentarily) important to him was that it promised to offer a way to “determine what could sensibly be said, and thus what the rules of syntax of the Begriffsschrift should permit”;⁹⁶ yet (second) at some point Wittgenstein came to recognize that “the phenomenological investigation just is a consideration of what it makes sense to say about phenomena, viz. a grammatical investigation of the words used to describe immediate experience”.⁹⁷ And that recognition, in turn, is what (ultimately) would explain the change of mind avowed in the opening section of the Remarks: For, clearly, on this picture the task of constructing a new notation becomes redundant, since what is difficult and important is to get clear about what it makes sense to say in our own familiar language. At first, then, the view that phenomenology is grammar seemed to Wittgenstein to provide an elucidation of what the inspection of the phenomenon really amounted to. But with changes in his understanding of the nature of grammar, this identification leads to his rejection of the need to construct a phenomenological language altogether, and, ultimately, to the rejection even of the possibility of such an accomplishment. (Noë 1994, 21)

There is, to my mind, much to agree with in Noë’s assessment. Yet I have some qualms concerning the claim about the redundancy of “constructing a new notation”, given that “what is difficult and important is to get clear about what it makes sense to say in our own familiar language”. Taken at face value the claim sounds true enough; however, I think it is misleading, in that it seems to carry the implication that there was a moment in Wittgenstein’s development (namely, before his radical change of mind) when constructing new notations was not seen as (in some sense) “redundant”, or when the “difficult and important” task was not seen as getting clear about “what it makes sense to say in our own familiar language”. Let me notice at the outset that it is somewhat puzzling to find such an implication in Noë’s analysis; after all he was explicit in acknowledging that (i) “the logically clarified notation of TLP recommends itself not because it has expressive powers above and beyond ordinary language, or because it is a better logical order, but only because it is less misleading and can serve as a more faithful guide to underlying structure”, and (ii) that “Witt Noë 1994, 21.  Noë 1994, 21.

2.1 Introduction


genstein was very clear that the value of a phenomenological language was not that it enabled us to say something, as it were, unsayable in ordinary language”.⁹⁸ Now, don’t (i) and (ii) alone already imply that logically perspicuous notations are redundant – relative, i. e., to the “expressive powers of” ordinary language? And yet, if Noë was not committed to the implication I mentioned – namely that there was a time when Wittgenstein thought that constructing new notations was not redundant – then what exactly would be the point of saying that new notations have become redundant after his radical change of mind? I take it that at least part of the reason for Noë’s (tacit) commitment to that implication lies in some misleading assumptions about the actual use of logical analysis in the Tractatus itself, particularly in his neglecting of the distinction, discussed at the end of the previous chapter, between the preventive and curative tasks that Wittgenstein devised to be accomplished by that book. Bearing that distinction in mind, one could say of both the Tractarian Begriffsschrift⁹⁹ and post-Tractarian phenomenological language that, notwithstanding their shortcomings as preventive devices (belatedly acknowledged by Wittgenstein himself), they were never meant as the only or even the primary means to cure (to solve or to dissolve) already existing philosophical confusions. To suppose that they were is, at least in part, a consequence of embracing the (all but unavoidable) view that the only way to attain philosophical clarity is by laying down the logico-grammatical Law, showing to a misguided interlocutor what it does (and what it doesn’t) “make sense to say” by pointing out which of her sentences violate a set of rules for the employment of signs.¹⁰⁰ Now if that assumption is discarded – as I have been trying to show it should¹⁰¹ – one is in a better position to understand why, for (early and late) Wittgenstein, logically perspicuous nota-

 Noë 1994, 10.  As opposed to, say, Fregean, Russellian or Ramseyan.  Precisely that assumption can be seen to be at work in some contexts of Noë’s argument – e. g., when he illustrates the general claim that “[a] phenomenological language […] aims to be what Wittgenstein calls a ‘correct’ representation of phenomena” with the case of the (“correct”) representation of colors, and says that it would amount to “a notation in which only what is possible is representable and in which the impossible – ‘reddish-green’ or ‘blackish-black’ – are ruled out by grammatical rules” (Noë 1994, 10; my emphasis).  The analysis of Wittgenstein’s dialogue with the solipsist in the preceding chapter was meant to support that general claim with respect to the Tractatus’s case, indicating that the “correct method in philosophy” stated in 6.53 (“whenever someone else wanted to say something metaphysical […] demonstrate him that he had failed to give a meaning to certain signs”) would not be “satisfying to the other person”, hence that the task of logical elucidation would require more sophisticated curative strategies, such as the self-subverting one enacted by the whole book and its process of “throwing away the ladder”.


2 Solipsism and method in the Philosophical Remarks

tions were neither intrinsically more nor intrinsically less capable of curing philosophical confusions than (the rest of?) ordinary language; and this is exactly the sense in which one can say that such notations were always seen by him as “redundant” – by comparison, i. e., with the expressive powers of ordinary language. But of course that does not make those notations useless, and, what is more important, it does not prevent Wittgenstein from seeing them as necessary for a particular and restricted aim – namely, the (preventive) task of avoiding logical confusions. To sum up, then, my disagreement with Noë, I take it that Wittgenstein’s avowal of a change of mind in the opening of the Remarks has to be reassessed in light of the distinction between philosophical cure and prevention, so as to make clear that it has more to do with the latter than the former. In other words, what changed was Wittgenstein’s belief in, or perhaps his hope for, the preventive capabilities of his variously envisaged “logically perspicuous notations”. By stating, then, at the opening of the Remarks, that he “do[es] not now have phenomenological language […] in [his] mind as [his] goal”, and that he “no longer hold[s] it to be necessary” in order to “separate what is essential from what is inessential” in our (ordinary) language, Wittgenstein is actually acknowledging, probably for the first time, that ordinary language already contains all the necessary means not only to cure but to prevent “logical misunderstandings”, and, hence, “philosophical confusions” – provided, i. e., that we try to “rid it of the obscurities that lie hidden in it”,¹⁰² e. g., by comparing the uses of the words and sentences which may be causing confusion with new, invented ones, thus coming to acknowledge when our (familiar) words and sentences become “wheels turning idly”.¹⁰³ This analysis enables us to understand why Wittgenstein decided to open the Remarks stating that “[a] proposition is completely logically analysed if its grammar is made completely clear: no matter what idiom it may be written or expressed in”. Bearing in mind that what Wittgenstein hoped to achieve with his method of (phenomeno‐)logical analysis was primarily prevention instead of cure of philosophical confusion, I would suggest that the main change recorded here lies in Wittgenstein’s recognition that logically perspicuous notations may be unnecessary even for prevention — although they remain useful means (among many others) for that task. That is undoubtedly an important change,

 Cf. quotation in fn. 94.  A method which, as we will see in the next chapter, would eventually develop into the construal of language-games, which might thus be seen as yet another successor (besides the phenomenological language) of the erstwhile “richtige Begriffsschrift”.

2.1 Introduction


which has many ramifications in Wittgenstein’s thinking. One of those ramifications – which Noë himself notes in his conclusion – is the adoption of new “leading metaphor” for describing philosophical activity, one which dispenses with “any sort of [talk about] digging beneath the surface and excavating, or a breaking down of the symbol”, focusing instead on the “horizontal plane” of our language.¹⁰⁴ A related change – which I mentioned at the end of the preceding chapter – is Wittgenstein’s realization that the origins of philosophical confusions are way more entangled and difficult to unveil than he initially supposed – and, consequently, that their disentanglement would have to be pursued in a much more piecemeal way, thus shattering his (initial) high hopes of definitively curing them. The analysis pursued so far should serve as a warning about the difficulties awaiting any prospective reader of the Remarks, in particular the difficulty of trying to extract a clear and final message from a text that was itself composed along such a constantly evolving process of thought. And yet, to a lesser or greater extent, I think that would apply to virtually any of Wittgenstein’s (post-Tractarian) texts. Faced with that challenge the best one can do in order to take Wittgenstein’s remarks seriously is to avoid the tendency of dropping his reflections too soon, before letting them challenge one’s most ingrained philosophical assumptions and prejudices, thus eliciting one’s deeper and most liberating responses. In what follows I pursue that aim by focusing on some key passages from the Remarks, particularly its “chapter V”¹⁰⁵ which (similarly to its predecessor section 5.6 of the Tractatus), is clearly and centrally devoted to an investigation of the nature and limits of experience. By means of a close reading of those remarks I will try to lay bare their self-subverting character: the fact that they amount to miniature dialectical exercises – small ladders to be thrown away – offering specific directions to pass from particular pieces of disguised nonsense to corresponding pieces of patent nonsense. Yet, in order to follow those directions one needs to allow oneself to become (simultaneously) tempted by and suspicious of their (all-too-evident) “metaphysical tone” – a tone which, as we shall see, is particularly manifest in those (rather abundant) claims purporting to state what can or cannot be the case, and, still more particularly, those purporting to state what can or cannot be done in language or thought, thus leading to the view that there are some (determinate) things which are ineffable or unthinkable.

 Noë 1994, 31.  The numbering and grouping of paragraphs under different chapters is Rush Rhees’s editorial decision, not Wittgenstein’s.


2 Solipsism and method in the Philosophical Remarks

2.2 “The world as idea”: solipsism and the limits of experience Chapter V of the Philosophical Remarks opens with the following passage: That it doesn’t strike us at all when we look around us, move about in space, feel our own bodies, etc., etc., shows how natural these things are to us. We do not notice that we see space perspectively or that our visual field is in some sense blurred towards the edges. It doesn’t strike us and never can strike us because it is the way we perceive. We never give it a thought and it’s impossible we should, since there is nothing that contrasts with the form of our world. What I wanted to say is it’s strange that those who ascribe reality only to things and not to our ideas [Vorstellungen] move about so unquestioningly in the world as idea [Vorstellungswelt] and never long to escape from it. (PR 80, §47)

Remarkably, the passage above purports to criticize the attitude of some philosophers, call them realists, who take the things they perceive as being metaphysically independent from the way they are perceived, i. e., from facts concerning and conditioning the “form of our world”. Does that criticism imply that Wittgenstein would be willing to support the opposite attitude, call it idealist or solipsist? It surely seems so – after all, Wittgenstein explicitly says that the philosopher we are calling realist is moving himself “unquestioningly” and against his own self-understanding “in the world as idea”; he also claims, apparently in the same vein, that “there is nothing that contrasts with the form of our world” (my emphasis) – a view which is reinforced when he concludes, a little further in PR §47: “That is, what we neither can nor want to go beyond would not be the world.” The upshot of those remarks seems to be that there is no world outside or beyond the limits imposed by our form of representing it. But this is only an apparent result, as it becomes evident when we start asking exactly how would Wittgenstein be entitled to state it, given his former claim that it is simply impossible to “give a thought” to the conditioned character of our experience, since there is no contrast available. This shows how complex the dialectical situation presented by Wittgenstein’s remarks can become. In the present case it can be portrayed as follows: on the one hand, Wittgenstein seems to be tempting us to assume that there is a perspective from which one might consider the dispute between the realist and the idealist/solipsist, and then judge that the former is wrong, since he is not taking into account the conditioned character of our experience (the fact that it is always perspectival); yet, as if the idea of such a “view from nowhere” was not puzzling enough, Wittgenstein also seems to be tempting us to accept, on the other hand, that such a view is itself impossible – a claim which now seems to be made from no perspective at all.

2.2 “The world as idea”: solipsism and the limits of experience


Confronted with that complicated dialectic, a reader acquainted with Wittgenstein’s earlier work can be reminded of a Tractarian device apparently introduced in order to relieve us from the same kind of difficulty in which we seem to be involved now: the distinction between saying and showing. Actually, Wittgenstein resorts to a very similar distinction in a number of contexts throughout the Remarks, one of them being §54, where we read that “What belongs to the essence of the world cannot be expressed by language”, and that “Language can only say those things that we can also imagine otherwise” (PR 84). A bit further Wittgenstein repeats that “what belongs to the essence of the world simply cannot be said”; to this, he adds the following, more positive consideration: And philosophy, if it were to say anything, would have to describe the essence of the world. But the essence of language is a picture of the essence of the world; and philosophy as custodian of grammar can in fact grasp the essence of the world, only not in the propositions of language, but in rules for this language which exclude nonsensical combinations of signs. (PR 85, §54)

Notice the smooth transition from the Tractarian view, according to which the essence of the world is indeed ineffable but would nonetheless be “made manifest” by logic/philosophy, to the newer one, according to which philosophy can “grasp” the (still ineffable) essence of the world by presenting grammatical rules, thus enabling one (the philosopher, say) to “exclude nonsensical combinations of signs”, just like the presentation of the “general form of proposition” would, according to the Tractatus’s official project.¹⁰⁶ Is Wittgenstein, then, resuming the Tractarian view that a line can be drawn separating sense from nonsense, thus enabling one to tell what can or cannot be said, and, consequently, what can or cannot be the case in the world, i. e., the totality of possible facts, the very form of the world? Or are we (rather unconsciously) projecting our own philosophical prejudices into the text, prompted by Wittgenstein’s (very self-conscious) use of “metaphysical language”? In the following passage Wittgenstein himself seems to support the latter, more self-questioning view about the possibility of telling sense from nonsense:

 An anonymous referee from the journal Manuscrito has called my attention to the fact the best candidate to the role of “showing the essence of reality” in PR is what Wittgenstein calls (e. g. in PR §54) “the application of language”, and that grammar presupposes that applicability of language to the world. Granted that thesis, it suffices for my purposes to indicate that grammar (and its rules) can still be seen as an indirect way of grasping the essence of reality, provided that the signs which comprise language are already connected to it through their application (i. e. the projection relation).


2 Solipsism and method in the Philosophical Remarks

If someone said: Very well, how do you know that the whole of reality can be represented by propositions?, the reply is: I only know that it can be represented by propositions in so far as it can be represented by propositions, and to draw a line between a part which can and a part which can’t be so represented is something I can’t do in language. Language means the totality of propositions. (PR 113, §85)

Does the categorical denial presented above allow us to settle the issue about the possibility of telling the representable from the non-representable, hence the thinkable from the unthinkable, sense from nonsense? I do not think so. In fact, I think we should not accept so easily and uncritically any of Wittgenstein’s overtly categorical denials of logico-metaphysical possibilities. Concerning the particular passage under analysis, the reason is not, N.B., that the opposite claim would be more plausible than its denial. The problem is, rather, that none of the alternative claims would have a clear sense; after all, what possibility would Wittgenstein be excluding by (categorically) denying that we can “draw a line” between what is and what is not representable “in language”? Does that denial imply that there is (a determinate, particular, specifiable) “something” that we cannot do, or talk or think about? How could we (possibly) give a determinate sense to such an ineffable and unthinkable “possibility”? And if we cannot, then what exactly are we saying, or thinking, when we read a “sentence” (a string of signs) like the one above – namely: “to draw a line between a part which can and a part which can’t be so represented is something I can’t do in language”? By suggesting that we try to answer the questions above I am not implying that we simply can’t give any sense to either of the alternative “claims”. On the contrary, I am trying to question precisely that kind of a priori, categorical denial of linguistic possibilities. What I am implying is, rather, that we should not take so quickly something that appears to be a (determinate) proposition (in that it is composed of familiar words, in a grammatically or syntactically correct order) as in fact being so. Now I take it that Wittgenstein’s text is precisely crafted to make us aware of that temptation, and ultimately overcome it. It does so by giving voice to some philosophical “theses” or “problems” so as to make their apparently incompatible demands perspicuous to the attentive reader, thus allowing one to use one’s own linguistic expertise to unveil the (ultimate) emptiness, pointlessness, or utter confusion behind the formulation of such “theses” and “problems”. Yet in order for that aim to be properly achieved (so as to really prevent one from falling back into a particular confusion) Wittgenstein first needs to tempt the reader to accept those (all-too-convenient) categorical “answers” to some (all-too-neatly formulated) philosophical “problems”. By self-consciously employing “propositions” without (as yet) any clear sense, and having us take

2.2 “The world as idea”: solipsism and the limits of experience


such philosophical baits, he is ultimately trying to make us aware (and suspicious) of our own eagerness to accept such categorical, “metaphysical” talk of (im)possibilities. Now how far should one go with this self-aware (even self-suspicious) attitude in relation to (one’s reactions to) Wittgenstein’s writings? How would one know when to stop the (therapeutic) process, taking a particular result as final, as not further questionable? Where exactly is the limit separating “metaphysical” (mis)uses of language from ordinary ones? As it happens with many questions raised by the reading of Wittgenstein’s writings, I think the answers can only be found in each particular enactment of the therapeutic process itself – not surprisingly, given my contention that the ultimate aim of the whole selfsubverting process is precisely to allow a reader to find her own way around, hence her own resolution of her own philosophical confusions, as they come to be mirrored by Wittgenstein’s text. Of course this puts a heavy burden upon the reader, who must, in a sense, alternately undertake the roles of analyst and analysand; yet I think Wittgenstein was indeed such a demanding author. With these considerations in mind, let us go back to §47, which closes as follows: Time and again the attempt is made to use language to limit the world and set it in relief – but it can’t be done. The self-evidence of the world expresses itself in the very fact that language can and does only refer to it. For since language only derives the way in which it means from its meaning, from the world, no language is conceivable which does not represent this world. (PR 80, §47)

What is this text stating? Again, a very natural and straightforward answer would be: a kind of (logico-metaphysical) impossibility – that of drawing the limits of the world in language. But let us stop for a moment in order to reflect about what exactly this impossibility would amount to. I think at least two competing and equally plausible interpretations are available, corresponding to two very different starting points from which that first, natural reading could be pursued, depending on the reader’s philosophical frame of mind. On the one hand – for a committed realist, say – the message would be that since “language can and does only refer to [the world]” (and so on), the world must be seen as more fundamental than our linguistic means of representing it (in the sense that the former would surpass, be independent from, even indifferent to, the latter). According to another philosophical frame of mind – that of a linguistic idealist, or even a solipsist – the message would be rather different, viz., that since “language can and does only refer to [the world]” (and so on), then there must be an internal relation between language and world, and, consequently, the very


2 Solipsism and method in the Philosophical Remarks

idea of a world “outside of” or “beyond” our linguistic means of representing it would be simply nonsensical, hence unthinkable – precisely the message (apparently) stated in the opening remarks of §47. Confronted with these competing interpretations, which one should we choose, and on what grounds? I think the strategy of trying to collect more passages dealing with the same or related issues in order to see which interpretation fits better the whole set would be hopelessly flawed. (This, by the way, is partially attested by the unending dispute between “realist” and “anti-realist” readings of virtually any piece of writing by Wittgenstein). In fact, I take it that it is precisely the ambivalence (or maybe polyvalence) of claims like the ones above which is of interest, given the therapeutic aims of the whole enterprise. By thus allowing both (or, more generally, any number of) interpretations to be equally defensible in principle, Wittgenstein’s text would resonate with severally-minded readers, eliciting different reactions according to their own philosophical prejudices or inclinations.¹⁰⁷ I will try to clarify these claims by means of another illustration, which will also throw some light on Wittgenstein’s view about the nature of philosophy as the “custodian of grammar” and support my contention that he should not be understood as being prone to either realism or anti-realism. The illustration I have in mind comes from PR §216, where Wittgenstein purports to criticize the use of the expression “sense-datum”. “A sense-datum”, he explains and exemplifies, “is the appearance of this tree, whether ‘there really is a tree standing there’ or a dummy, a mirror image, a hallucination, etc.” (PR 270). So far, nothing to worry about – after all, one is surely allowed to define and employ a technical phrase in the way one wants, provided that it fulfills any number of practical functions (such as enabling us to see more clearly a conceptual distinction, etc.). But confusion arises when one – e. g., a philosopher – forgets her initial, determinate theoretical purpose in introducing a new description and assumes that it is intrinsically more adequate than the alternatives, or even “essential” for representing reality (see PR 270). Now that seems to be precisely the attitude of the “idealists” mentioned in the remainder of §216:

 One could here be reminded of Kant’s treatment of the Antinomies, and surely there is at least a family resemblance – with the important difference that, as I have been arguing, in Wittgenstein’s case there is no privileged theoretical point of view (say, “Transcendental Idealism”) from which the dispute would be settled, or else shown to be hopeless; rather, the only resource available to deal with cases like these is our practical mastery of ordinary language, and the aim of presenting these “antinomic” claims is precisely to allow us to recover that momentarily lost, repressed, or forgotten mastery, i. e., to recover an awareness of how our words are used in concrete contexts, so as to overcome our own philosophical confusions.

2.2 “The world as idea”: solipsism and the limits of experience


Idealists would like to reproach language with presenting what is secondary as primary and what is primary as secondary. But that is only the case with these inessential valuations which are independent of cognition (“only” an appearance). Apart from that, ordinary language makes no decision as to what is primary or secondary. We have no reason to accept that the expression “the appearance of a tree” represents something which is secondary in relation to the expression “tree.” (PR 271, §216)

In case you are wondering where exactly one could find an example of such an “idealist”, we don’t need to look very far; after all, wasn’t the “reproach” mentioned above already enacted in §47, where Wittgenstein himself (?) purported to criticize those who “ascribe reality only to things and not to our ideas”? – But if Wittgenstein himself (?) is now criticizing his own previous criticism, isn’t he contradicting himself at this point? – Well, yes and no; he surely is contradicting a “position” which was illustrated before in (and by) his text; yet, as I have been arguing, that “position” was not so much defended in that earlier context as it was enacted or given voice to in order to tempt us to (momentarily) accept it, following its (apparent) consequences, so as to (finally) become aware of its emptiness or confusion, thus able to “overcome it” and “throw it away”. This, I repeat, is a very complex dialectical situation; and yet it seems an absolutely pervasive, structural feature of Wittgenstein’s remarks (which doesn’t mean, of course, that it is always visible from the mere inspection of their surface). The moral I want to extract by calling attention to this point is that one should not think of the personas being given a voice in these and other remarks (including “the idealist” of §216 and “the realist” of §47) so much as others, but rather as so many facets of one’s self, as echoes of one’s own inner, perhaps even repressed philosophical voices, which are unleashed, perhaps for the first time, by Wittgenstein’s own use of carefully crafted, tempting (metaphysical) claims.¹⁰⁸ Bearing that lesson in mind, let us see if we are in a better position to understand what exactly would be the problem of adopting the idealist’s reproaching attitude toward (ordinary) language. In order to start dealing with this issue, let us first try to get clear about the contrasting case presented in the passage above – namely, that of the “inessential valuations which are independent of cogni-

 BT §87 is composed of a set of clarifying descriptions of the philosophical task, all of them (I would submit) capable of offering further support to the description I just articulated. Let me highlight a couple of passages which may illustrate the point: “The philosopher strives to find the liberating word, and that is the word that finally permits us to grasp what until then had constantly and intangibly weighed on our consciousness”; “One of the most important tasks is to express all false thought processes so true to character that the reader says, ‘Yes, that’s exactly the way I meant it.’ To make a tracing of the physiognomy of every error”; “For only if he acknowledges it as such, is it the correct expression. (Psychoanalysis).”


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tion”, which, according to Wittgenstein, is the (only?) use of language correctly described as presenting “what is secondary as primary and what is primary as secondary”. In order to facilitate the analysis, let us first take note of the German wording of that description, which reads: “[…] diesen unwesentlichen, und mit der Erkenntnis nicht zusammenhängenden Wertungen der Fall”. What would be the reference of the description at hand? The only hint Wittgenstein gives us in this passage is (what appears to be meant as) an instance: “‘only’ an appearance [‘nur’ die Erscheinung]”; yet, that doesn’t get us very far. In fact, nothing in the context surrounding this passage in the Remarks does. I take it that the difficulty here has editorial causes – I mean, it is caused by Wittgenstein’s arrangement of his reflections to produce the Remarks. Some years later, when he once again takes up those reflections for (re)arrangement, the result is much clearer. That result is recorded in BT §101, which contains the full PR §216, only prefixed by a couple of reflections which were apparently suppressed in its first iteration. Among those reflections, we read that “the words ‘seem’ [scheinen], ‘error,’ etc., have a certain emotional emphasis that isn’t essential [nicht wesentlich ist] to phenomena. This emphasis is somehow connected to the will, and not merely to knowledge [nicht bloss mit der Erkenntnis zusammen]” (BT 347, §101). As an illustration of such (cognitively) “inessential”, “emotional” emphases, which would be embedded in our (philosophical) assessments of reality, Wittgenstein offers the following: “We say ‘We can only remember something.’ As if, in some primary sense, memory were a rather weak and uncertain image of what was originally before us with complete clarity” (BT 347, §101). Read against the backdrop provided by BT §101, the text of PR §216 seems to imply not only that it would be right to describe some particular uses of language – i. e., those expressing “inessential valuations which are independent of cognition”, and having more to do with the will (e. g., that “we can only remember something”, and so on) – as presenting “what is secondary as primary and what is primary as secondary”; it also implies that there is no problem in making such a “decision as to what is primary or secondary” in those particular cases. (Hence, to stick to the example of PR §216, that of “the appearance of a tree”, there would be no problem at all involved in the decision to employ, for a number of non-cognitive reasons – i. e., those having to do with the will – a phrase such as “this tree is only an appearance”; perhaps one feels like saying it to oneself, sotto voce, when faced with some particular tree placed among others in an artificial “forest” inside a big shopping center.) Yet – and this is the important point for which the cases analyzed thus far serve as a counterpoint – that is precisely not the sort of reason that we would expect an idealist to have in mind when making a “decision as to what is primary or secondary”, and, consequent-

2.2 “The world as idea”: solipsism and the limits of experience


ly, when “reproaching” (ordinary) language for making the wrong – indeed inverted – decision about that. The upshot of these considerations is that the main problem involved in the idealist’s position lies not so much in her “revisionary” proposal to reverse the order of what is to be considered primary/secondary, but rather in a misleading self-interpretation of that proposal, as if the mere use of a new notation would enable one to take note of something “essential” about “the nature of reality” – something, i. e., which would be hidden (or even reversed) in our familiar forms of description. To sum up: by asserting that “ordinary language makes no decision as to what is primary or secondary”, Wittgenstein is calling our attention to the fact that (as one might put it) our language is ontologically neutral,¹⁰⁹ hence, that it does not privilege either “realism” or “idealism”, as far as those expressions are supposed to name two (competing) metaphysical stances towards the “essence of the world”. As Wittgenstein himself asserts back in chapter V: “[f]rom the very outset ‘Realism,’ ‘Idealism,’ etc., are names which belong to metaphysics. That is, they indicate that their adherents believe they can say something specific about the essence of the world” (PR 86, §55). Yet, nothing specific is really said by means of their (revisionary) “theses” – let alone something specific about “the essence of the world” – as we are in a position to acknowledge as soon as we uncover what the utterer of those “theses” may possibly mean by uttering them, what purposes she would be trying to fulfill. Now let us compare, or confront, the results of this analysis with the methodological claims made in PR §54 – namely, that “what belongs to the essence of the world simply cannot be said”, yet can be “grasped” (by philosophy) “not in the propositions of language, but in rules for this language which exclude nonsensical combinations of signs”. Notice, first, that in the passages analyzed above, Wittgenstein is open to being read – i. e., has (on purpose) not armed himself against being read – as arguing that some combinations of signs, viz., those sentences employed by philosophers in general, and by realists and idealists in particular (involving notions such as those of “sense-datum”, “visual image”, “appearance”) may in fact be excluded in some particular contexts as nonsensical (i. e., as pointless or empty). But the reason he offers is not, as a de-contextualized reading of those methodological remarks would imply, that those combinations are so to speak intrinsically nonsensical – as if they were trying to  From the fact that our (ordinary) language is ontologically neutral and “makes no decision as to what is primary or secondary”, it does not follow (as I hope the preceding paragraph makes clear) that we (language users) are (or have to be) neutral in that sense – on the contrary, we make those decisions all the time, and lucidity lies not in relinquishing all such decisions, but in knowing that we are indeed making them, and for what purposes.


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express something that is simply ineffable, i. e., something outside or beyond the limits of language and sense. Rather, the reason to exclude those signs is, simply, the realization that when they are employed in some particular philosophical contexts – like the ones prepared by Wittgenstein’s text, which are reenacted each time a reader gets seriously engaged with their dialectic – they can be shown to be at best wheels turning idly, and, at worst, as resulting from philosophical (i. e., logical or grammatical) confusion (e. g., that of privileging a form of description as if it were saying “something specific about the essence of the world”). The main lesson I hope to extract from the analysis of this concrete application of the method of “grammatical investigation” in the Remarks is that we should be careful not to read too much into the idea of philosophy as the “custodian of grammar”, i. e., as an activity which would enable us to “grasp the essence of the world” as reflected in the “rules for excluding nonsensical combinations of signs”.¹¹⁰ To depict philosophy as being capable of some kind of “extraordinary feat” (viz., circumscribing the limits of sense) is yet another symptom – perhaps the ultimate symptom – that one has become a victim of the kind of temptation of evading our finite (and thus conditioned) condition. The implication, then, is that we should be particularly careful in reading those apparently dogmatic judgments about the nonsensicality of “the philosopher’s” (metaphysical) claims.¹¹¹ And this connects with another, more general view which I take to be at work in the context of the Remarks, namely that there is no external standard for the meaningfulness of our signs – in particular, no philosophical external standard, no book of rules waiting to be discovered by means of (phenomeno‐)logical or grammatical analysis. The only way to determine whether a (particular token of a) proposition really makes sense, and if so, what is that sense, is to ask what, if any, is its use and point in some concrete context. As Wittgenstein himself puts it: “If [someone] states that a certain string of words makes sense to him, and it makes none to me, I can only suppose that in this context he is using words with a different meaning from the one I give them, or else is speaking without thinking” (PR §7; see also PR §114). The whole difficulty of the task lies in trying to get clear about which of the options is true, in each particular case, with the (ordinary) means at our disposal. With that conclusion in mind, let us go back to the analysis of chapter V.

 A claim which, N.B., will still be echoed in PI §371.  In fact, Wittgenstein’s text itself sometimes becomes overtly (self‐)critical about such judgments, suggesting a more balanced view; this clearly applies to some of the opening remarks of the book (see esp. PR §6 – 9).

2.3 Time, memory, and sublimation


2.3 Time, memory, and sublimation Having given voice, in the opening passages of chapter V, to the logico-metaphysical problem of trying to go beyond the limits imposed by the “form of our world”, thereby prompting the reader to examine its sense (or senselessness), Wittgenstein’s reflections turn to a new set of questions involving a particular, although ubiquitous, condition of our experience, namely time. Among those questions we find the following: “If the world of data is timeless, how can we speak of it at all?” (PR §48); “If memory is no kind of seeing into the past, how do we know at all that it is to be taken as referring to the past?” (PR §50); “Can I conceive the time in which the experiences of visual space occur without experiences of sound?” (PR §50). As with the previous remarks of chapter V, Wittgenstein’s overt intentions in facing these questions are to unveil (at least some of) the logico-grammatical confusions behind the formulations of the “problems” they express – e. g., the “confusion of the time of the film strip with the time of the picture it projects” (PR §49) – and to offer a perspicuous view of the syntactical rules for employing the relevant concepts in their respective contexts – e. g., “we cannot use […] the syntactical rules that hold for the names of physical objects, in the world of the image” (PR §49). Notwithstanding those overt aims, a different, more self-questioning reading of Wittgenstein’s remarks is also available, suggesting a much more complex and subtle dialectic going on. In order to flesh out these claims I would like to focus the analysis on a rather limited subset of remarks, dealing with what may be called the problem of the flow of time, and the related problem of the metaphysico-epistemological status of memory. The following passage, which comprises the first half of PR §52, will serve as an entry point: It’s strange that in ordinary life we are not troubled by the feeling that the phenomenon is slipping away from us, the constant flux of appearance, but only when we philosophize. This indicates that what is in question here is an idea suggested by a misapplication of our language. The feeling we have is that the present disappears into the past without our being able to prevent it. And here we are obviously using the picture of a film strip remorselessly moving past us, that we are unable to stop. But it is of course just as clear that the picture is misapplied: that we cannot say “Time flows” if by time we mean the possibility of change. What we are looking at here is really the possibility of motion: and so the logical form of motion. (PR 83, §52)

The passage above strikes me as remarkable in many ways. For one thing, it is intriguing that Wittgenstein should introduce the problem of the flow of time


2 Solipsism and method in the Philosophical Remarks

by relating its appearance to a feeling (of not being able to prevent such flow) as well as by saying that it arises only “when we philosophize”, hence not “in ordinary life”. On the face of those claims, it seems even more remarkable that he should open the passage claiming that it is strange that “in ordinary life we are not troubled by [that] feeling”; and yet, it is precisely because such trouble would not arise in ordinary life that Wittgenstein seems so confident (maybe all-too-confident) in saying that some “misapplication of our language” would be the cause of the idea of there being such an unstoppable flow. – Now, can we really take in the claim that “in ordinary life we are not troubled by [that] feeling”? After all, don’t we commonly say such things as that “time is slipping away”, and “we are unable to stop it”? And, in employing such sentences, are we not purporting to express some feelings we are experiencing – say, e. g., disappointment at not being able to achieve some of our goals in (ordinary) life? Or is it the case that, by employing such sentences, we would be already involved (however involuntarily) in philosophizing? – But how can we tell the difference? How can we know when our sentences become “misapplications of language” – hence, when philosophy starts? In the second paragraph Wittgenstein adds, again quite characteristically, that when we are caught by that feeling “we are obviously using the picture of a film strip remorselessly moving past us [etc.]” (my emphasis). Now even if one grants that the application of some picture or other would “obviously” be involved when we are caught by the feeling of the “unstoppable flow of time”¹¹², what would be the rationale for saying that it is “just as clear that the picture is misapplied” in the context Wittgenstein describes (that, i. e., of a metaphysical investigation of time, taken as the “form of motion”, and so on)? For a picture to be misapplied, there must be something as a legitimate or bona fide application of it – hence, in the case under analysis, there must be some other context(s), e. g. ordinary life, where one could describe time-related phenomena by applying pictures such as that of the film strip. In fact, it is arguable that without resorting to such pictures our ordinary descriptions would almost certainly become less clear and perspicuous, or otherwise less powerful than they actually are: to say, e. g., that “time flows”, or “flies”, or “is passing by”, etc., may be effective (both economical and clear) ways of expressing lots of things in ordinary life – from one’s regret for not having taken all the opportunities life has offered in the past, to impatience with an overly long philosophical disquisition.

 I take it that Wittgenstein doesn’t mean that it is obvious that we should employ that particular, cinematographic picture – rivers or infinite measuring tapes being unrolled in front of us would equally do.

2.3 Time, memory, and sublimation


This consideration goes some way toward answering the question of whether one should conclude, from the mere fact that a person is employing a picture like the ones under analysis that she would be philosophizing, however involuntarily. The answer, as it will become clear, is: No. But that doesn’t answer the further question of how to tell ordinary, legitimate applications from philosophical misapplications of the same pictures. Now Wittgenstein, as I said above, seems rather confident of having such a criterion at hand – after all, he all-too-quickly concludes that our “trouble” only arises because of a particular misapplication of the picture of the film strip in an extra-ordinary (philosophical¹¹³) context – namely, one in which we would like to speak (“metaphysically”) of time qua “possibility of change […] and so the logical form of motion”, and say of it that “is slipping away from us”, and so on. But again, why does he present this case as a misapplication – as opposed, say, to a legitimate application like the ones mentioned above? There is, clearly enough, an important difference in the (purported) applications, in that when the “metaphysical sense” of time is in view, a sentence like “time is slipping away” would hardly be used to hurry up someone or to regret something. But what, then, would be its point? One answer suggested by the text is that there is no point at all in the philosopher’s (purported) use of that sentence: if time is taken as a condition of possibility of change, and, in that sense, as “the form of motion” (which is just a philosophical jargon for referring to a very ordinary use of our concept of time, namely, as that dimension in which events, as opposed to things, extend themselves, and where change and motion can be measured), then there is no point in saying that “it is slipping away”; for something to slip away it must  But, what makes a context a philosophical one? Suppose someone – a child, perhaps – asks: “What happens to things when we are not looking at them?” Is she not “philosophizing”, in the above sense? And yet, might one not suppose her question being made in an (otherwise?) very ordinary context? What this shows is – as Cavell once put – that “one does not know, in advance, where philosophy might begin, when one’s mind may be stopped, to think” (NAT 264); or again that language can “go on holiday” anytime, in no special setting or frame of mind, that the “metaphysical” is our everyday predicament. There can be a number of causes inclining one to start questioning the (ordinary) ways of going on applying our words and pictures, or to imagine (even to crave for) different applications, and one cannot know in advance if those new applications will amount to (recognizably) legitimate extensions of a previous concept/picture, or become (recognizably) misapplications of it. To tell the difference is a burden that any member of a linguistic community faces from time to time, having as her only resource (ordinary) linguistic expertise. I take it that when Wittgenstein says that a particular use of a concept/picture is a (philosophical) misuse he too is deploying just that expertise, thus making a claim for his judgment to be acknowledged and assented by other language users. There is, in sum, no “sure-fire”, a priori way to tell the difference between ordinary and philosophical contexts.


2 Solipsism and method in the Philosophical Remarks

be possible for it to be grabbed, maybe to be stopped or accelerated, and so on (a grammatical triviality); now time as the very dimension where events occur and change can be measured cannot possibly undergo any such modifications; hence, one cannot (legitimately or sensibly) apply a picture such as that of a film strip (or any other moving or modifying thing – i. e., any other event) in order to describe it. – One might here say: time as a dimension and the events which occur in it are incommensurable, really incomparable phenomena. – And finally – if, i. e., one cannot apply any such picture to describe time-asthe-form-of-motion – the very feeling that we are unable to stop the “flow of time” should disappear; in other words, if there is no sense in the idea of such a “flow”, there is equally no sense in the idea of trying (or even willing) to stop it. At first sight these considerations offer a sound explanation of the claims made by Wittgenstein in the passage under analysis. Additionally, they seem to offer a good illustration of how one can be freed from a “philosophical trouble” by means of getting the application of language – of its words, its sentences, and, in particular, its pictures – right, which means, at least in part, bringing some descriptions (e. g., “time is slipping away”) back to the rough ground of ordinary life, where they would be employed for a number of different purposes (e. g., hurrying up people or regretting something)¹¹⁴ instead of becoming very complex but useless mechanisms, full of wheels turning idly (as one might say of the Augustinian set of queries about time). We may express that methodological lesson employing Wittgenstein’s favorite turn of phrase for making grammatical reminders in this context, saying that one should be careful not to confuse ordinary, “physical” descriptions with the “phenomenological” ones, i. e., those which would be fitted to describe the “immediately given”. Yet – if one was really tempted to take the trouble about the flow of time seriously from the beginning – there would seem to be something inherently unsatisfying about that kind of (dis)solution. Wittgenstein is aware of that apparent shortcoming, as we can see in the following passage: If, for instance, you ask, “Does the box still exist when I’m not looking at it?”, the only right answer would be “Of course, unless someone has taken it away or destroyed it.” Naturally,

 Of course the “rough ground of ordinary life” includes some theoretical purposes as well as (more) practical ones. Nowadays physicists do not speak of the “flow” of time – physical time is (as Wittgenstein already knew) space-like. I suppose that theoretical view could be expressed, if roughly, by a sentence like “time does not flow”; if that were the case, we would have another instance of purposeful use of a description, as opposed to a “philosophical” one, in the sense here in view.

2.3 Time, memory, and sublimation


a philosopher would be dissatisfied with this answer, but it would quite rightly reduce his way of formulating the question ad absurdum. (PR 88, §57)

Notice that the passage above is introduced as an illustration or instantiation of a philosophical exchange – one which, in fact, is recurrent and characteristic in Wittgenstein’s writings. Given that illustrative purpose, one might apply a kind of “universal generalization” to the passage, thus getting a useful model or blueprint for such exchanges, which would go as follows: If, for instance, you ask, “x” [a philosophical question], the only right answer would be “y” [a grammatical reminder¹¹⁵]. Naturally, a philosopher would be dissatisfied with y, but it would quite rightly reduce his way of formulating x ad absurdum.

Bearing that (generalized) version of the passage in mind, the question I would like to ask is how we are to understand Wittgenstein’s own assessment, as it gets expressed in its final sentence, of the results of applying his grammatical method (an assessment which, it is worth noticing, strikingly reminds one of proposition 6.53 of the Tractatus). There are, I take it, at least two ways of interpreting it. The first, and probably the more natural rendering, would have it that: (1) notwithstanding the philosopher’s dissatisfaction with y — a dissatisfaction which, given the purposes of logical clarification, would be ultimately negligible – his original “question” (x) was in fact “reduced ad absurdum” (i. e., shown to be just a pseudo-question) by means of the use of grammatical reminders, and that is the end of the matter. The philosophical, elucidative task would be over at that point. Yet a second interpretation is available, according to which (2) notwithstanding the logical correction of such a reductio — which, from the perspective of someone genuinely puzzled by the difficulty in view, would be ultimately negligible (in that it completely misses the point) – the use of grammatical reminders would leave the philosopher dissatisfied, and

 An anonymous referee to the journal Manuscrito has contended that the answer given in the original quote – namely “Of course, unless someone has taken it away or destroyed it” – would be a trivial answer, instead of a grammatical reminder (that is, a reminder as to how a word or sentence is ordinarily used in particular contexts). My sense is that at least on some occasions — but surely not in all of them – grammatical reminders can be given in the form of “trivial answers” like the one above. In other words: to be a grammatical reminder is to function as one – it is not a matter of form, but of role, and that role can only be evaluated or tested on particular contexts.


2 Solipsism and method in the Philosophical Remarks

(hence) that cannot be the end of the matter. More is necessary for a successful philosophical therapy. I find that many readers of Wittgenstein’s writings (myself included, at least in some moods) are often oblivious to the possibility of the second rendering of the exchanges between (say) Wittgenstein and his philosophical interlocutor(s), and accordingly are all too prone – even anxious – to stop their reflection when they reach a (rather dogmatic) result similar to the one depicted in the first rendering. Why is that? One possible reason is that we (at least in our dogmatic and self-indulgent moods) would be trying to repress something – a difficulty, say, that we would rather not face seriously; hence the convenience of accepting that our “trouble” (e. g., about the unstoppable flow of time, or, as in the original version of PR §57, the unperceived existence of objects) is mere nonsense after all – that our “questions” are actually just pseudo-questions. Bearing that (as yet abstract and speculative) possibility in mind, let us ask what motives could a philosopher genuinely puzzled by the problem of the flow of time have to be dissatisfied with the solution offered above. For starters, I take it that our philosopher would have an immediate reply to the charge that her (purported) use of a sentence like “time is slipping away” (made in an extra-ordinary context) is simply pointless: granted, its point is not exactly ordinary, but human beings have other purposes and interests in addition to the ordinary ones. And, however incoherent the attempt may ultimately be, it remains a fact that reflection about (e. g.) time might inexorably lead one to try to express, to describe, to call attention to, some extraordinary, peculiar, even astonishing (metaphysical) features of the phenomenon under analysis – e. g., that the past, which is no more, keeps becoming distanced from the present, which, in turn, has no extension, and keeps slipping into a future which is not yet. Faced with such an impulse, the claim that one is employing a picture which cannot (should not?) be employed, because it is “incommensurable” with the phenomenon one wants to describe, is very dissatisfying indeed, not exactly because it is wrong or false, but rather because it is beside the point, and leaves the real difficulty simply untouched, thus amounting to an attempt to change the subject completely. (Notice that our dissatisfied philosopher need not be characterized as ignorant of the grammatical rules of ordinary language; she would, as I said, happily accept the charge of not being able to express her trouble employing ordinary descriptions – but so much the worse for those descriptions!) Supposing the reply I just imagined (or another to the same effect) is plausible, how would the exchange continue? For the time being, I will let it stand – the philosopher having the last word – and turn to the analysis of some subsequent remarks which may help us to resume that exchange in a more productive

2.3 Time, memory, and sublimation


way. Accordingly, let us examine the second half of PR §52, in which Wittgenstein presents a related “trouble” arising in the philosophical investigation of time – namely, one having to do with the role of memory in our experience of the past: In this connection it appears to us as if memory were a somewhat secondary sort of experience, when compared with experience of the present. We say “We can only remember that.” As though in a primary sense memory were a somewhat faint and uncertain picture of what we originally had before us in full clarity. In the language of physical objects, that’s so: I say: “I only have a vague memory of this house.” (PR 84, §52)

The reason for presenting this new “trouble”, and relating it to the previous one, should be by now clear – after all, once one is caught by the feeling that the present inexorably “disappears into the past” it is only natural to think of the experience of the past itself (i. e., of the stretch of the “strip of time” which has already disappeared from view) as it is recorded in our memory, that it becomes only a “faint and uncertain picture” compared with the original (i. e., the experience of the present). Now, if read against the backdrop of the previous analysis, the last sentence of the passage above will have the following implications: (i) that there is no problem in putting the situation that way – applying that kind of picture – in “the language of physical objects” (hence, “in ordinary life”); but (ii) trouble may arise “when we philosophize” about those familiar facts, and start misapplying that familiar (kind of) picture. Actually the next set of remarks (PR §53) can be read as elaborating just those implications. Here is how it goes: And why not let matters rest there? For this way of talking surely says everything we want to say, and everything that can be said. But we wish to say that it can also be put differently; and that is important. It is as if the emphasis is placed elsewhere in this other way of speaking: for the words “seem”, “error”, etc., have a certain emotional overtone which doesn’t belong to the essence of the phenomena. In a way it’s connected with the will and not merely with cognition. We talk for instance of an optical illusion and associate this expression with the idea of a mistake, although of course it isn’t essential that there should be any mistake; and if appearance were normally more important in our lives than the results of measurement, then language would also show a different attitude to this phenomenon. (PR 84, §53).


2 Solipsism and method in the Philosophical Remarks

One can discern in these passages two characteristic voices running through Wittgenstein’s text, namely the voice of temptation and the voice of correction.¹¹⁶ The specific temptation here illustrated is that of making a leap from ordinary descriptions (e. g., “We can only remember that”), which can have many clear and legitimate uses in our common linguistic practices, to some (supposedly) substantial philosophical conclusions – here: the metaphysico-epistemological thesis that memory offers just a “faint image” of the reality originally experienced. Once again, what the voice of correction highlights is that this kind of temptation occurs only when one (“the philosopher”) starts employing some pictures which would be fine in their original context for some supposedly new (philosophical) purposes; thus, even though our current use of some descriptions may be from the beginning impregnated with certain “emotional overtones” – after all, we actually say that memory allows us only to remember facts, and we actually draw a contrast between that (mnemonic) access to the world and a more direct one, namely, present experience – the kind of trouble that the philosopher would like to indicate, concerning the epistemic limitations of memory, does not arise in the ordinary situations which are the original home of those descriptions. And this is what is shown by the very possibility of an unbiased (re)description of the situation, indicating that the “emotional overtones” associated with normative words like “error”, “mistake”, etc. are not essential to the phenomena described.¹¹⁷ What about the claim that the wish to “put [things] differently” is “connected with the will and not merely with cognition”? My sense is that the kind of trouble illustrated in the passage above arises only when those “emotional overtones” – which (N.B.) are characteristic of ordinary language, to the extent that language is to record our (natural and other) reactions to the world, including our experi-

 See the Introduction to this book for more details on this point.  I owe this point to an anonymous referee of the journal Manuscrito, who also remarked that one can see in the passage under analysis a straight application of the philosophical method outlined by Wittgenstein in PR §1 (namely, that of comparing modes of presentation of the immediate experience). Interestingly, in the last paragraph of PR §53 Wittgenstein describes a language which would be free of such “emotional overtones” – one which “would not permit any way of expressing a preference for certain phenomena over others”, and, hence, “would have to be, so to speak, absolutely impartial” – as “primary”; in so doing, he offers an important (and, to my mind, much overlooked) key to understand the role of a “phenomenological language” in freeing us from philosophical confusion: the idea is not to use that (“primary” or “phenomenological”) language to correct the ordinary one, or even to show that the latter is intrinsically misleading, but rather to use it as an object of comparison, which may show to “the philosopher” (in us) that some of the features that s/he takes as troublesome in the analysis of the phenomena are not essential to them, and have to do more with will than cognition in our ordinary life.

2.3 Time, memory, and sublimation


ences of time and its flow – are sublimated by philosophical reflection, so that instead of facing the real anxieties that are mirrored in those descriptions, attention gets redirected to some (supposedly) “cognitive” (i. e., logical, metaphysical, epistemological, etc.) “problems” like the one about the “limitations of memory” as a guide to reality. Yet memory, as far as the “essence” of this phenomenon is concerned, is not “a somewhat secondary sort of experience”, nor does it offer “a somewhat faint and uncertain picture of what we originally had before us”; those are descriptions we may feel inclined to make (and non-problematically so) in ordinary life — hence, “in the language of physical objects” – because of the emotional responses which we (naturally?) connect with, or superimpose upon, our mnemonic experiences of the past (experiences) – a matter which clearly has more to do with the will than with cognition. These considerations finally prompt me to resume the exchange between Wittgenstein and his interlocutor on the problem of the “flow of time”. I said above that one reason for our rather quick acceptance of some “reductions ad absurdum” of philosophical questions enacted in Wittgenstein’s writings would be our willingness to repress existential difficulties – what the Tractatus (6.52) called “problems of life” – behind those questions, to avoid facing them seriously; but, let’s face it: isn’t it the case that, at least for some of us, some of the time, it is really difficult to accept that the past has gone, inexorably – and that we cannot change it? ¹¹⁸ By the same token, don’t we sometimes feel burdened when facing the fact that the future is not yet — and, hence, that at least in part, it is our responsibility to bring it about? Little wonder, given this (doubly) difficult situation, that we should react toward the present as if it were, on the one hand, always already becoming past – as if escaping us, becoming unchangeable, together with our deeds (or lack of them) — and, on the other hand, as if it were always already pointing toward the future – as if accomplishing it, making it happen, thus reminding us of the burden of having to choose how to act (and to live) henceforth. But again, there is a clear sense in which none of those descriptions captures the “essence of time”; rather, they are ways of expressing our own (all-too-human) reactions toward (our experiences of) time and its flow, and, ultimately, toward the awareness of our own mortality; as in the case of memory analyzed above, these are all matters which have more to do with our will, yet it is all but impossible not to sublimate them in philo-

 Normally, that is a difficulty felt when one realizes that some specific event or deed one would like to change cannot be changed. As a (rather dramatic) illustration, think of the quest of Alexander Hartdegen (Guy Pearce) to rescue his girlfriend Emma (Sienna Guillory) from death, in the beginning of Simon Wells’s remake of The Time Machine (2002).


2 Solipsism and method in the Philosophical Remarks

sophical reflection, where they keep being presented as having to do merely with cognition. Going one further step back in our discussion: I asked above whether we were really supposed to take in Wittgenstein’s claim, in PR §52, that “in ordinary life we are not troubled by the feeling that [e. g.,] the phenomenon is slipping away from us […] but only when we philosophize”. Having reached this point in the analysis, I find I would like to answer that question by saying that it is only in their sublimated form that the “troubles” which Wittgenstein presents us do not arise in ordinary life; yet, it is precisely for that reason that the (dis) solution of the logical confusions behind (the sublimated versions of) those “troubles” would not solve or dissolve the life problems which get deflected, or displaced, by them. – Does that make logical clarification any less valuable? Well, yes and no: what it shows is that – against some self-indulgent expectations – there is a rationale behind the kind of “dissatisfaction” that Wittgenstein himself has diagnosed as an inevitable reaction of “the philosopher” faced with his grammatical reminders; only the real difficulty would end up being once again deflected if that rationale were presented (as my own dissatisfied philosopher’s reply presented it) in an intellectualized garb, as if the trouble were really derived from the analysis of the “phenomena”, or their essence, and our language should be blamed by not being capable of expressing it. The point I am trying to make, then, is that any effective and satisfying (to the philosopher, i. e.) use of clarification – hence, of the grammatical reminders employed to achieve a perspicuous view of the syntax of ordinary language – would have to be made in a larger therapeutic context, in which “the philosopher” were not only intellectually shown to be asking pseudo-questions, but, additionally, were enabled to become aware of the real difficulties which were getting unselfconsciously repressed, deflected or sublimated by her very attempts at expressing them.

2.4 Solipsism of the present moment To the extent that one is really puzzled by the difficulties examined in the last section – involving the flow of time and the experience of the past – one might be tempted to go one step further and hold, in Wittgenstein’s formulation, that “only the experience of the present moment has reality” (PR 85, §54). Let us call this thesis “S”, and the position expressed by it “solipsism of the present moment”.¹¹⁹ Immediately after presenting S, Wittgenstein says that “the first

 This is a phrase employed by Wittgenstein himself in another context – see WLC 25.

2.4 Solipsism of the present moment


reply must be: As opposed to what?” (PR 85, §54). Clearly, that question aims to bring the prospective solipsist “back to earth”, compelling her to think about the possible use(s) of S in concrete situations of ordinary life.¹²⁰ Again, that is a very characteristic textual move which fits the blueprint given above, in that we are presented, first, with an implicit philosophical question – say, “How would I know whether anything but the experience of the present moment has reality?” – and then a reply based on a grammatical reminder – namely, that in any concrete situation, to claim that something “has reality” implies distinguishing it from something else, which has no reality. One might reformulate this grammatical point by saying that in such cases, “real” and its derivatives are relational or comparative qualifications, hence that they do not have an absolute sense. Yet – so the reply would continue – what a solipsist would like to express using S depends on assuming the (supposed) absolute sense of those qualifications, and that explains why the resulting position would be incoherent (“reduced ad absurdum”). After all, if only (my) present experience has reality, and, consequently, if there is nothing with which I could possibly compare it, how would I be able to “pick it out” from the rest (?) of experience in order to confer on it some kind of “privilege”?¹²¹ Wittgenstein takes up that conclusion in the continuation of the text, claiming that: The proposition that only the present experience has reality appears to contain the last consequence of solipsism. And in a sense that is so; only what it is able to say amounts to just as little as can be said by solipsism. – For what belongs to the essence of the world simply cannot be said. And philosophy, if it were to say anything, would have to describe the essence of the world. (PR 85, §54)

Read against the backdrop of the preceding analysis, I take it that what Wittgenstein means by saying that solipsism – presented here as an instance of a philosophical position – cannot say what it purports to say by means of S – something belonging to the essence of the world – is not that there is something which cannot be said, but rather that the very idea of there being such an “essence” – some feature of our experience which could be “picked out” and presented as

 I suppose the same would apply to concrete situations of extraordinary life – in times of crisis, danger, catastrophe, and so on, words such as those comprising S could undoubtedly assume particular (albeit far from ordinary) meanings, and (hence) have many possible oppositions.  In order to indicate more clearly the incoherence involved in the solipsist’s attempt to express her “position” Wittgenstein presents (and immediately discards) two candidates for the role of counterpoint to S – see PR 85, §54.


2 Solipsism and method in the Philosophical Remarks

that which alone (or ultimately) “has reality” – is essentially misguided. To go back to a claim quoted above: “if appearance were normally more important in our lives than the results of measurement, then language would also show a different attitude to […] phenomen[a]” (PR 84, §53). Yet, I think that part of the point Wittgenstein is here trying to make is precisely that there is no such a thing as a/the “correct” attitude toward phenomena – as some philosophers, and, in particular, our solipsist, would have it. Language, as he would later say, is “the expression of our interests” (PI §570). (Now, as things are, it surely is in our interest to honor some aspects of our experience with qualifications such as “real”, “genuine”, “legitimate”, thus distinguishing them from aspects which we prefer to diminish as “unreal”, “illusory”, “mere appearance”, and so on. Only the impulse to make such distinctions has again more to do with our will — with our way of reacting to the contents of our experience – than with cognition.) Would our solipsist be satisfied with such a reductio ad absurdum of her position? The answer is, of course: “No”. After all, I imagine she (we) could grant the grammatical point about comparative and absolute senses of the words involved in the formulation of S, and still feel inclined to hold that, notwithstanding the incoherence of such an attempt to express her sense of “losing touch with reality” (in particular, at least in this context, with the past), there remains a (possibly ineffable, but nonetheless very real) experience or feeling of being isolated from, or out of attunement with, the world, particularly its (presently) unperceived aspects.¹²² In the face of such a condition, both the attempts at escaping our metaphysical loneliness by resorting to a philosophical fantasy (e. g., “solipsism of the present moment”, which takes reality as internal to our all-em-

 Similarly, there is such a thing as the experience, or feeling, of being separate and out of attunement with others, particularly their (externally) unperceived states. Cavell has argued that behind the (eminently epistemological) quests for justification of our claims to knowledge of the “external world” and “other minds” stand the prior issues of acceptance (of the world) and acknowledgment (of others). (More on these points in chapters 4 to 6). Supposing, as I am inclined to do, that his diagnosis is sound, an interesting question arises whether an analogous point might be made concerning skepticism about the past. Although I will not try to pursue that possibility further here, I think it would be worth considering a positive answer to that question, starting with the intuition that behind the (epistemological) troubles concerning “cognition” of the past, there may be the prior (existential) difficulties of acknowledging and accepting one’s own past – as part of the task of coming to terms with one’s own mortality and finitude. (Nietzsche’s notion of amor fati, as well as Heidegger’s attempt to unveil our own condition as “Beings-toward-Death” – which in turn should enable a more authentic attitude toward life, as opposed to a mere identification with the impersonal “one” – are instances of the kind of alternative, non-sublimated philosophical stances I imagine one might adopt in dealing with these issues.)

2.4 Solipsism of the present moment


bracing experience) and the dogmatic denials of the legitimacy of our troubles can be seen as repressions of our own humanity.¹²³ As I read Wittgenstein, his is a text where both kinds of repressions are (alternately) enacted, none of them to be simply taken in as the “final word” on the subject by his readers; little wonder, then, that one may find commentators willing to ascribe each of those attitudes to him, saying either that Wittgenstein was tempted by some form of solipsism, or that he refuted it by means of his grammatical clarifications.¹²⁴ Yet solipsism – as one among so many instances of our all-too-human philosophical attempts to evade the problems of life – is neither refuted nor defended in these texts. What is shown is that, contrary to what one would initially suppose, there is no such thing as a (meaningful, bona fide) formulation of that “philosophical position” – hence, that resorting to solipsism (among many other such “positions”) is not really a matter of presenting and defending “theses” or “theories” about the essence of the phenomena; rather, it is a matter of deflecting attention from the real difficulties faced by creatures endowed with such capacities (and burdens) as we have of taking up our experiences, our condition in the world, and give them sense – or fail to. Yet in order to accept that diagnosis one has to be prepared to counteract old philosophical habits, which may be deeply rooted; faced with that challenge, it is all but impossible not to fall back, taking those grammatical reminders presented by Wittgenstein as further paths, or excuses, for evasion, only reinforcing the repression of the real issues related to our human condition. Again, it is up to each of us to find a resolution to this situation – to take Wittgenstein’s reminders as laying down the (grammatical) Law, or as mere rungs in so many ladders to be thrown away once the whole therapeutic process is over. Having reached this point in the analysis of the Remarks, my own inclination would be to emphasize that, in writing the reflections we have been reading, Wittgenstein was still moved by the ethical project at work in the Tractatus,¹²⁵ which gets displayed in his reiterated attempts to cure the readers (and himself) from some of the temptations expressed by solipsism.

 I am here echoing Richard Eldridge’s very apt formulations of these points (see Eldridge 2001, 194).  See the Introduction to this book for a representative case.  I am here again alluding, as it should be clear, to Wittgenstein’s claim that “the point of the [Tractatus] is ethical” (see Monk 1990, 178) – a claim which I tried to illustrate and support with the reading offered in the preceding chapter.

3 Solipsism, privacy, and the grammar of the first person in The Blue Book What the solipsist wants is not a notation in which the ego has a monopoly, but one in which the ego vanishes. (Ludwig Wittgenstein¹²⁶)

3.1 Introduction As the preceding chapters indicate, concern with solipsism – with its nature, its sources and its cure – is central and recurrent in Wittgenstein’s writings. One constant topic of interest throughout his philosophical development is the connection between solipsism and the puzzles surrounding the grammar of the first person pronoun.¹²⁷ Eventually he came to believe that the joint treatment of those issues would be an effective – perhaps the most effective – way of blocking some of the major sources of philosophical confusion arising in the analysis of language, especially that portion of language used to express our personal experiences. One of the most sustained and detailed analyses of these issues occurs in The Blue Book. Among the claims advanced in this analysis we find some of the most surprisingly counter-intuitive as well as some of the most remarkably trivial in all of his writings. To the first category belongs the claim that the pronoun “I” does not refer to anything – be it a body, a soul or a person.¹²⁸ Regarding the second category, an example is the claim that “In ‘I have pain’, ‘I’ is not a demonstrative pronoun” (BB 68). As it often happens with Wittgenstein’s remarks, understanding the purpose of these claims is a difficult exegetical challenge. It will be part of my task here to show that an important source of that difficulty might lie in the reader’s own failure to take notice of the peculiar na-

 WLC 22.  That topic actually appears in Wittgenstein’s earliest recorded philosophical reflections; already in 1916, in the course of a continuous stream of remarks dealing with solipsism which would be later incorporated almost without change in section 5.6 of the Tractatus, Wittgenstein had written that “The I, the I is what is deeply mysterious!” (NB 80) See Sluga/Stern 1996, 320 for a helpful analysis of the development of Wittgenstein’s views on the grammar of the first person.  See e. g. BB 69 – 70: “We feel then that in the cases in which ‘I’ is used as subject, we don’t use it because we recognize a particular person by his bodily characteristics; and this creates the illusion that we use this word to refer to something bodiless […]” (my emphasis).

3.1 Introduction


ture of Wittgenstein’s philosophical prose, and accordingly to engage in the process of self-examination and self-criticism that he set up for them.¹²⁹ A striking illustration of the approach I am aiming at is the widespread opinion that Wittgenstein is one of the first philosophers willing to question a central assumption of the traditional view of subjectivity,¹³⁰ namely that the first person pronoun has a referential role in “self-ascriptive”¹³¹ statements employing psychological predicates in the present tense of the indicative mood.¹³² Let us call that view the “non-referential view”. Despite finding prima facie strong textual support, I take it that the non-referential view unduly simplifies Wittgenstein’s stance on the issue of the grammar of the first person, leading to a number of exegetical and philosophical misunderstandings whose culmination is the attempt to extract from his remarks a straightforward refutation of positions

 And, before them, for his students. As is well known, the work published as The Blue Book is a selection of notes dictated by Wittgenstein to some of his pupils at Cambridge in the intervals of the lectures delivered in the academic year 1933 – 34. Bouwsma (1961) offers a very helpful account of the context in which those notes originated, as well as an analysis of the methodology exemplified by them which I find congenial with my own reading.  I mean this phrase in a deliberately broad sense, so as to cover both the analysis of traditional metaphysical questions about “the nature of the self” as the analysis of the grammar of the pronoun “I” in first person statements. Echoing a claim made by Wittgenstein in The Blue Book, one might perhaps say that his treatment of the grammar of first person is one of the “heirs” of what used to be called “philosophy of the subject” (see BB 28).  That phrase is employed here due to its prominence in the philosophical literature; for the time being, I will set aside the question about whether it is legitimate to use it in the context of Wittgenstein’s philosophy – after all, one of his main contentions seems to be precisely that (presumptive) “self-ascriptive” statements have an expressive function, which is very different from the role of bona fide, third person statements describing actions, mental states, events and attitudes of other subjects. I will come back to that issue below.  In an essay which is seminal for this discussion, Elizabeth Anscombe (1994; originally published in 1975) explores some of Wittgenstein’s claims concerning the grammar of the first person (especially those presented in The Blue Book and in Philosophical Investigations §§398 – 411), and offers a series of connected arguments supporting the claim that “I” is not a referential expression, or else “Descartes was right about what the referent was” (Descartes’s view being, by Anscombe’s lights anyway, that the reference of “I” cannot be a person) – which implies that the following definition is incorrect: “‘I’ is the word that a person uses to talk about herself” (Anscombe 1994, 142). As one would expect Anscombe’s own stance on the matter is nuanced, and any attempt to summarize her position under a single banner (such as “non-referentialism”) runs the risk of failing to take into account the complex dialectic character of her prose. Suffice it to say that less nuanced accounts were offered subsequently by many other interpreters who were at least in part reacting to her seminal paper – see, for example, Kenny 1984, Hacker 1990, chapter 4, Malcolm 1995 and Hacker 1997, chapter VIII.


3 Solipsism, privacy, and the grammar of the first person in The Blue Book

such as dualism, behaviorism, idealism or solipsism¹³³ – i. e., some of the views which, precisely in Wittgenstein’s eyes, were to count among the most strongly tempting ones in philosophy. By taking Wittgenstein’s grammatical reminders concerning the ordinary use of the first person pronoun as direct attempts at blocking substantial metaphysical results, the supporters of the non-referential view miss the therapeutic character of his argumentative strategy. Or so I will argue. That is the main reason why I think it is (still) crucial to analyze those reminders in their proper contexts, as parts of a dialectical process of gradual overcoming of some philosophical temptations – particularly, for our current purposes, the solipsistic one. Accordingly, and with a view to supplying a more detailed picture of his treatment of the first person pronoun, as well as to laying bare some of the main problems faced by the non-referential view, the analysis below will follow as closely as possible the textual development of Wittgenstein’s argumentation in the particular context provided by The Blue Book. Starting in section 3.2, we will follow Wittgenstein’s diagnosis of an important source of the solipsistic temptation of trying to revise ordinary language, proposing new notations devised to satisfy certain metaphysical cravings – a temptation derived from a confused view of the nature of our personal experiences, particularly pains. Section 3.3 presents some further sources of that temptation, as well as Wittgenstein’s main corrective move, consisting in the assembling of grammatical reminders about the use of the phrase “the same person” as well as proper names. Section 3.4 deals with a picture which underlies the solipsistic temptations analyzed up to that point, namely that of a special object, “the mind”, as being the ultimate referent of the first person pronoun. Only then, I submit, we will be in a position to correctly understand Wittgenstein’s reminders about the peculiar grammar of the word “I”, and the sense in which it might be said that, about the sorts of usages which are central for the solipsistic argument, that “I” simply does not refer. Section 3.5 sums up the results of the analysis.

3.2 “I can’t feel his pain”: a first route to solipsism Wittgenstein begins to direct our attention to the questions which will lead to the analysis of solipsism presenting a “temptation” which, according to him, arises

 As I mentioned in the Introduction to this book, Peter Hacker offers a paradigmatic instance of such reading, ascribing a “detailed refutation of solipsism and idealism” to later Wittgenstein (1997, 81).

3.2 “I can’t feel his pain”: a first route to solipsism


“[w]hen we think about the relation of the objects surrounding us to our personal experiences of them” (BB 45); that temptation, he continues, might lead one to say that “personal experiences are the material of which reality consists”: When we think in this way we seem to lose our firm hold on the objects surrounding us. And instead we are left with a lot of separate personal experiences of different individuals. These personal experiences again seem vague and seem to be in constant flux. Our language seems not to have been made to describe them. We are tempted to think that in order to clear up such matters philosophically our ordinary language is too coarse, that we need a more subtle one. We seem to have made a discovery – which I could describe by saying that the ground on which we stood and which appeared to be firm and reliable was found to be boggy and unsafe. – That is, this happens when we philosophize; for as soon as we revert to the standpoint of common sense this general uncertainty disappears. (BB 45)

The central claim of this passage can be construed as a conditional whose antecedent contains (something like) a bound variable: if we assume a certain picture x of the relation between the “objects surrounding us” and “our personal experiences” – one which implies that our experiences would be “vague” and “in constant flux” – then our analysis would end up leading to a feeling of loss from the “firm hold” on those objects. That feeling, I take it, might in turn prompt a whole range of different attitudes, according to one’s philosophical frame of mind. Thus, to stick to the extremes of that range, if one has an idealistic or solipsistic bend, the inclination would be to conclude that our personal experiences simply are the only reality there is, hence that the very attempt to compare them with something “external” is nonsensical. On the other extreme – for someone committed to some form of metaphysical realism – that conclusion would be unacceptable, hence the inclination to take a different philosophical route, a way to secure our connection with “external” reality. What is common in both cases is of course the desire to escape or circumvent the threat of metaphysical loneliness, which seems to be always imminent, only waiting for us to “philosophize”. As a way to clear up and counteract this philosophical predicament Wittgenstein offers “a kind of parable” (BB 45) comparing it with the difficulty generated when “popular scientists” present their discoveries by claiming that the floor on which we stand is not solid, contrary to common sense beliefs, since it consists only of tiny particles in a mostly empty space. Now that claim is very likely to generate perplexity: on the one hand, as Wittgenstein puts, “of course we know that the floor is solid, or that, if it isn’t solid, this may be due to the wood being rotten but not to its being composed of electrons”; and on the other hand “even if the particles were as big as grains of sand, and as close to-


3 Solipsism, privacy, and the grammar of the first person in The Blue Book

gether as these are in a sandheap, the floor would not be solid if it were composed of them in the sense in which a sandheap is composed of grains” (BB 45). This perplexity, Wittgenstein then warns us, seems to be based on a misunderstanding created by a misapplication of the picture of the “thinly filled space” originally meant to “explain the very phenomenon of solidity” (BB 45). The problem, one might say, arises from the conflation of two kinds of descriptions – two different language-games – used to talk about the floor, only one of which (namely, ordinary language) has clear rules for the employment of the concept of “solidity”. The moral Wittgenstein extracts from this parable is that our original puzzle about the nature of personal experiences arises from an analogous mistake, amounting to a conflation between two different language-games, only one of which (namely “everyday use”) has clear rules for the employment of the words “flux”, “vagueness”, and so on – in particular, clear antitheses to them (see BB 45 – 46). As in the case of the “popular scientists”, the way out of such perplexity involves getting clear about the grammar of everyday statements in order to avoid such kind of conflation. In the remainder of the book Wittgenstein will point out a number of further, interconnected puzzles which arise in the investigation of “personal experience”, showing, in each case, that if we strictly follow through their implications, we will end up adopting one of the philosophical attitudes belonging to the range mentioned above. Also, for each detected puzzle, there will be an attempt to bring us (or, what comes to the same, the philosopher in each of us) back to the “standpoint of common sense”, thus (supposedly) dissolving the philosophical motivation to revise ordinary language, replacing a “subtler” one for it – which is how realists and idealists and solipsists alike would interpret their respective proposals. Let’s take a closer look at one example – a passage structured in a very characteristic way, enacting a dialectical exchange among Wittgenstein’s interlocutory voices, identified by bracketed numbers below: [i] There is a temptation for me to say that only my own experience is real: ‘I know that I see, hear, feel pains, etc., but not that anyone else does. I can’t know this, because I am I and they are they.’ [ii] On the other hand I feel ashamed to say to anyone that my experience is the only real one; and I know that he will reply that he could say exactly the same thing about his experience. This seems to lead to a silly quibble. [iii] Also I am told: ‘If you pity someone for having pains, surely you must at least believe that he has pains’. [iv] But how can I even believe this? How can these words make sense to me? How could I even have come by the idea of another’s experience if there is no possibility of any evidence for it? (BB 46)

3.2 “I can’t feel his pain”: a first route to solipsism


Here is an initial take on the dialectic of this passage: (i) Wittgenstein expresses a philosophical – in this case, solipsistic – temptation; (ii) he indicates the paradoxical situation which would arise if one – here: the philosopher under the spell of solipsistic inclinations – were to try to express his view to a non-philosophical interlocutor; (iii) he then presents a philosophical – in this case: realistic – reply (yet another temptation); finally, (iv) he, on the guise of his solipsistic interlocutory voice, reverts to the initial stance with renewed conviction, given that the realistic reply did not even seem to make sense to him. The next passage takes that conversation a little further, adding a new voice to the exchange: [v] But wasn’t this a queer question to ask? Can’t I believe that someone else has pains? Is it not quite easy to believe this? – [vi] Is it an answer to say that things are as they appear to common sense? – [vii] Again, needless to say, we don’t feel these difficulties in ordinary life. Nor is it true to say that we feel them when we scrutinize our experiences by introspection, or make scientific investigations about them. But somehow, when we look at them in a certain way, our expression is liable to get into a tangle. It seems to us as though we had either the wrong pieces, or not enough of them, to put together our jigsaw puzzle. But they are all there, only all mixed up; and there is a further analogy between the jig-saw puzzle and our case: It’s no use trying to apply force in fitting pieces together. All we should do is to look at them carefully and arrange them. (BB 46)

Step (v) in this imaginary conversation – amounting rather to a piece of internal monologue – might be described as a self-questioning moment in the philosopher’s reflection, one which is clearly motivated, as in the case of step (ii) above, by a confrontation with common sense beliefs (and is precisely not motivated by a realistic philosopher’s reply (iii)). Step (vi), coming after a pause for reflection marked by the use of the long dash, seems to be a question directly addressed to the reader, which is not exactly answered afterwards (more on this in a moment). Then finally, after another pause, we get to step (vii), whose originating voice does not seem to be any of the former ones, as if it came from above or beyond the dispute. (To say that the latter voice was Wittgenstein’s own – or anyway a more authentic one – would be misleadingly biased; after all, why should we suppose that the former voices are not, or not as characteristically, Wittgenstein’s? And if they are not, what is the point of the identification? That said, I shall continue using the name “Wittgenstein” to refer simply to the author of the book we are reading – someone who is all and none of the “interlocutors” he creates.¹³⁴)  Interestingly, on Cavell’s reading none of the voices in Wittgenstein’s writings is to be taken as expressing the writer’s own real or final views; instead, Cavell construes them as expressing


3 Solipsism, privacy, and the grammar of the first person in The Blue Book

What the latter “voice” in the passage recommends, in order to get us out of the trouble faced by the solipsistic philosopher, is a grammatical rearrangement. Wittgenstein’s first attempt at rearrangement in this context involves distinguishing two kinds of propositions, or descriptions, namely: (a) the ones referring to “facts in the material world”, in particular “physical objects” (BB 46), and (b) the ones “describing personal experiences” which would be “independent of both physical and physiological facts” (BB 47). The point of presenting such a distinction is to remind us that, provided that we keep employing each of the descriptions in their normal, everyday contexts – including, N.B., introspection and scientific investigations – no (special) difficulty should arise; the trouble only shows up in the peculiar context of philosophical investigation about the relation between the objects referred to by propositions of group (a), and the psychological experiences referred to by those of group (b). Now precisely because of the peculiarity of the context in which that trouble arises, it is of no use, in trying to (dis)solve it, to offer a list of “common sense beliefs”; from the perspective of the puzzled philosopher, the very fact that we should actually hold such beliefs is just part of the (presumptive) problem, not its solution. In fact, Wittgenstein’s opinion about the philosopher’s doubt – about, i. e., the very sense of ascribing “personal experiences” such as pains to other people – is even more radical: it is not only that recounting common sense beliefs would not (dis)solve it, but neither would it be (dis)solved by the (dogmatic) replies coming from a “realist” or “common sense philosopher” – not to be confused with “the common sense man”, who would be, according to Wittgenstein, “as far from realism as from idealism” (BB 48). The trouble with the realist is that he simply skips the (N.B.) real difficulties seen by adversaries such as the solipsist. There is, according to Wittgenstein, a “troublesome feature in our grammar which the realist does not notice”, but the solipsist does (BB 48). Such is the difference between (at least) two uses of propositions of the form “A has x”, illustrated as follows: “A has a gold tooth” means that the tooth is in A’s mouth. This may account for the fact that I am not able to see it. Now the case of his toothache, of which I say that I am not able to

opposing trains of argument, which form part of a larger dialectical exchange in which they ultimately (and hopefully) cancel each other out. On this reading, the aim of Wittgenstein’s enacted dialogues is not to lead the reader to accept any particular philosophical view, but rather to help us overcome the temptations originally leading us to seek – even crave – for them. Hence, I would add, to attain unassertiveness, the state in which one is (at last) able to refuse to take sides in the philosophical dispute, thus achieving Tractarian Befriedigung (cf. TLP 6.53): the state described in the Investigations as that in which “the philosophical problems should completely disappear” (PI §133).

3.2 “I can’t feel his pain”: a first route to solipsism


feel it because it is in his mouth, is not analogous to the case of the gold tooth. It is the apparent analogy, and again the lack of analogy, between these cases which causes our trouble. (BB 49)

The lack of analogy between the sentences “A has a gold tooth” and “A has a toothache” shows itself more clearly when we compare them with two different, yet related sentences, viz.: (i) “We can’t have (haven’t as a rule) pains in another person’s tooth” and (ii) “I can’t feel his pain” (BB 49). The latter sentence, Wittgenstein has it, is meant to express a metaphysical impossibility, which should not be confused with the (merely) empirical impossibility expressed by the former one, in which “the word ‘can’t’ is used in the same way as in the proposition ‘An iron nail can’t scratch glass’” (BB 49). In other words, (i) describes only a contingent fact about the way our pains are experienced, and it is conceivable that such a description, similarly to the empirical law forbidding nail scratches in the glass, could be revised if empirical conditions changed; as Wittgenstein himself puts: “We could write this in the form ‘experience teaches that an iron nail doesn’t scratch glass’, thus doing away with the ‘can’t’” (BB 49). And in fact, Wittgenstein strategy in the sequence consists precisely in arguing that we can easily imagine some such changes, so that at the end of the process the opposite possibility – namely, having pains in another’s tooth (or body) – will show itself to be as intelligible as the one from which we started.¹³⁵ The main point of this imaginative exercise, we must recall, is to indicate the empirical status of proposition (i), thus allowing us to better understand the solipsist’s motivation to emphasize – against his realist interlocutor – the special, i. e., metaphysical status of the impossibility described by proposition (ii), a status which (apparently) no possible or imaginable situation would make one feel inclined to revise. That is precisely what Wittgenstein emphasizes by reminding us that the

 To accomplish such results, Wittgenstein presents a finely detailed analysis of the criteria for pain location (see BB 49 – 57), which I shall not reconstruct here. As I read it, the main contention of that analysis is the following: generally, when one has a pain in some part of one’s body, there is a coincidence or correlation among certain sensory experiences, i. e., visual, tactile, kinaesthetic, audible, and so on. So, for example, when a sharp object hurts my arm, I can (simultaneously) see my arm being pricked, feel the prick, determine (by means of kinaesthetic awareness) which is the position of my pricked arm, and so on. However, in some special cases those experiences do not coincide – the most radical case perhaps being that of so-called “phantom pains”, in which one can feel (e. g.) pain in one’s (phantom) leg, thus having all the tactile and kinaesthetic experiences normally associated with that feeling, but without the corresponding visual data. What cases like these show is that our concept of “pain” (or, to stick to Wittgenstein’s specific example, “toothache”) is sufficiently complex and indeterminate so that we can imagine, with no great difficulties, extended uses, or projections.


3 Solipsism, privacy, and the grammar of the first person in The Blue Book

solipsist could say: “I may have toothache in another man’s tooth, but not his toothache” (BB 53). The upshot of this analysis is that, against the “commonsense philosopher’s” assumptions, the propositions “A has a gold tooth” and “A has toothache” are not used analogously. Therefore, up to this point in the exchange, the achievement of grammatical (re)arrangement has favored the solipsistic interlocutory voice. But this is just the beginning of the path which will eventually lead to some radical implications of the solipsistic position. The real trouble has to do with the revisionary attitude that a solipsist might be inclined to take concerning the kind of “metaphysical impossibility” just identified. Given that, in complete agreement with ordinary language, he perceives that there is a profound difference in the status of the propositions mentioned above, and given that their (superficial) grammatical form sometimes conceals that difference – leading to the kind of innocuous and pointless claims made by the “commonsense philosopher” – the solipsist would like to propose a “new notation”, capable of presenting in its very form the difference of content between those propositions – so that, for example, it would only make sense to say of my experience that it is real. The ultimate motivation for proposing that (or any other) “new notation” is, according to Wittgenstein, a sort of “craving of the metaphysician which our ordinary language does not fulfil” (BB 55)¹³⁶ – in this case: expressing more conspicuously the differences which the solipsist deems relevant. Now, however multiple the philosophical motivations may be to tempt one to embrace a “solipsistic notation”, it is important not to confuse that revisionary proposal with a disagreement about the facts described by each notation (see BB 59). But the problem is that the solipsist, or the revisionist philosopher in general, “is not aware that he is objecting to a convention” (BB 57). Wittgenstein clarifies that claim by means of a new metaphor, comparing the solipsist’s attitude with that of a person who “sees a way of dividing the country different from the one used on the ordinary map”: He feels tempted, say, to use the name “Devonshire” not for the county with its conventional boundary, but for a region differently bounded. He could express this by saying: “Isn’t it absurd to make this a county, to draw the boundaries here?” But what he says is: “The real Devonshire is this.” We could answer: “What you want is only a new notation, and by a new notation no facts of geography are changed.” It is true, however, that we may be irresistibly attracted or repelled by a notation. (BB 57)

 See also BB 59.

3.2 “I can’t feel his pain”: a first route to solipsism


As a new cartographic notation does not alter geographical facts, so a new notation to describe personal experiences (such as pain) does not alter any facts concerning those experiences. Hence, notwithstanding the solipsist’s self-interpretation, his disagreement with the ordinary language speaker “is not founded on a more subtle knowledge of fact” (BB 59). What then is the true motivation for his revisionary proposals? That is not a simple question to answer. There is an enormous variety of apparent analogies and disanalogies, of pictures and associations underlying our linguistic practices, and many of them can mislead us – or “the philosopher” – in the task of getting clear about a determined region of ordinary language. That makes the investigation of the sources of philosophical confusion a matter of creativity (for imagining recognizable ways in which one might feel “irresistibly attracted or repelled by a notation”), together with a careful comparison with our ordinary practices in order to evaluate the point of those “new notations” (by putting them under stress tests, so to speak). As Wittgenstein himself warns: it is important that you should understand that the idea of an analogy being misleading is nothing sharply defined. […] It is, in most cases, impossible to show an exact point where an analogy begins to mislead us. […] The cases in which particularly we wish to say that someone is misled by a form of expression are those in which we would say: “he wouldn’t talk as he does if he were aware of this difference in the grammar of such-and-such words, or if he were aware of this other possibility of expression” and so on. (BB 28)

Read against the backdrop of the preceding analysis, the methodological lesson presented in this passage might be formulated like this: let us take note of grammatical differences; if we do that well, our remaining problems – including our inclination to misuse analogies, to misapply pictures, and to revise ordinary language – will take care of themselves. But there is no simple recipe for that procedure, no predetermined limit for its terminus, and nothing can guarantee a priori that it has gone far enough – resulting, e. g., in a definitive cure for the solipsist’s confusions. In a well-known passage from another context Wittgenstein describes his own procedure as that of “erect[ing] signposts” in order to help people avoid “wrong turnings” in the “immense network” which is our language (CV 18). In what follows I will present some additional “signposts” erected by him in order to prevent the wrong turnings that might lead the solipsist to feel dissatisfied with ordinary language – and, consequently, to feel inclined to revise it, proposing notations devised to satisfy his “metaphysical cravings”.


3 Solipsism, privacy, and the grammar of the first person in The Blue Book

3.3 When language goes on holiday: some further routes to solipsism According to Wittgenstein, “[s]ometimes the most satisfying expression of our solipsism seems to be this: ‘When anything is seen (really seen), it is always I who see it’” (BB 61). Wittgenstein’s line of criticism against this rather puzzling formulation turns to the conditions for the use of the pronoun “I”: “What should strike us about this expression is the phrase ‘always I’. Always who? – For, queer enough, I don’t mean: ‘always L. W.’” (BB 61). In reply to that question, Wittgenstein reminds us that our use of the phrase “the same person”, as well as our use of proper names, are “based on the fact that many characteristics which we use as the criteria for identity coincide in the vast majority of cases” (BB 61). Amongst such characteristics are, e. g., physical appearance, behavior and memories. It is because these and other facts concerning people are relatively persistent that we use names to refer to them.¹³⁷ In order to underline this point, Wittgenstein suggests another conceptual stress test, consisting in a set of three language-games presenting “different ‘geometries’ we would be inclined to use if facts were different” (BB 61). Since I believe the cases speak for themselves, I will only describe them briefly and indicate what seems to their respective “grammatical upshot”: – Case 1: imagine that all human bodies look alike, but different sets of psychological characteristics seem to “change their habitation among these bodies” (BB 61). Grammatical upshot: in such a scenario we would probably be more inclined to give names to the sets of characteristics themselves rather than to the bodies that give them expression.¹³⁸ – Case 2: imagine that all human beings have “two characters”, and that their shape, size and behavior “periodically undergo a complete change” (BB 61). Upshot: in this scenario we would be inclined to give two names to each individual, perhaps talking of a pair of persons inhabiting each body.

 Compare PI §415: “What we are supplying are really remarks on the natural history of human beings….”  The “Clone Army” portrayed in the Star Wars franchise offers an interesting further case for comparison: since there is no difference in physical or psychological characteristics among the clones, there is no need to use proper names for distinguishing among them – their commanders live well simply calling them “clones”, “soldiers”, or whatever. That might bring home the point, explicitly made by Wittgenstein in some contexts, that our concepts – including that of personal identity – are expressions of our interests, hence, that they can be simply dropped out if those interests suitably change.

3.3 When language goes on holiday: some further routes to solipsism


Case 3: imagine that all human beings have two (non-overlapping) sets of memories, one activated on even days and the other activated on odd days (as an aid to our imagination Wittgenstein further suggests that we could think of alternating appearances on odd and even days¹³⁹). Upshot: to talk of “two persons inhabiting the same body” would be neither right nor wrong in this case – the ordinary use of the concept of a person depends on ordinary circumstances, and if these change enough we are free to choose among different new projections, based on different kinds of analogies with the old use.

The main purpose of assembling these grammatical reminders concerning different uses of the concept of personal identity is to indicate a certain problem with the solipsist’s thesis: namely the fact that none of the characteristics listed so far – constancy in physical appearance, behavior or memories – seems to be relevant to determine the kind of identity envisaged when he tries to state his position by saying that “When anything is seen (really seen), it is always I who see it” – after all, I do not always see parts of my body when I see something else, and it does not matter for determining the content of my visual experience if my memories and/or behavior are the same as before. In fact, the pronoun “I” seems completely superfluous and even alien to that formulation. Given that result, if the solipsist still wants to defend his position, he has to find a better suited expression for his main thesis. Wittgenstein offers a further candidate in the following passage: When I think about it a little longer I see that what I wished to say was: “Always when anything is seen, something is seen.” I.e., that of which I said it continued during all the experiences of seeing was not any particular entity “I,” but the experience of seeing itself. (BB 63)

The passage above presents the motivation which may lead the solipsist to (ultimately) exclude “the I”, or the subject of experience completely from consideration, focusing instead on the contents of experience – a move which is reminiscent of David Hume’s (so-called) “bundle theory of the self”, as well as of Lichtenberg’s proposal that we should write “It thinks” (Es denkt) as in “It rains.” The reasoning behind that reformulation seems to go like this: given the grammatical (or, if you will, metaphysical) constraints imposed by the solipsist for expressing the peculiarity of first person experience, there is no possible way of doing that while satisfying ordinary conditions for personal identity;  See BB 62.


3 Solipsism, privacy, and the grammar of the first person in The Blue Book

therefore one should either give up the initial task or drop the “I”/self; now, given who he is, our solipsist would be rather inclined to choose the latter; however, he still needs to present some element or other which would be shared by all cases of visual experience, because otherwise there would be no point in treating them homogeneously as cases of that kind of (peculiar) first person experience he wants to express; but all that remains to play that role is the experience itself – to employ Peter Hacker’s apt (and concise) Schopenhauerian formulation: “What is unique is experience; the world is idea.”¹⁴⁰ The problem with that position – as Hume himself perhaps realized¹⁴¹ – is that it entails an inversion of priorities relative to our actual use of language, generating a conception which is ultimately unsustainable; after all the region of our ordinary language used to talk about “personal experiences” seems to be structured in such a way that the identity of those experiences depends on the identity of the subjects who “have” them;¹⁴² now, if the subject is to be dropped, what could the alternative criterion for that identity be? At the end of this analysis our solipsist is depicted as someone who borrows concepts from their native home, i. e., ordinary language, smuggling some of their conditions of use yet ultimately making them impossible to satisfy, thus ending up unable to give any clear sense to the signs he employs in order to (try to) express his position. The main result of this exchange is to remove a number of prima facie motivations for our solipsistic interlocutory voice’s proposal of “new notations”.¹⁴³ Importantly, however, by reaching this conclusion Wittgenstein emphasizes once more that there is no problem at all, at least in principle, with the mere attempt to offer such alternative notations: There is […] no objection to adopting a symbolism in which [e. g.] a certain person always or temporarily holds an exceptional place. And therefore, if I utter the sentence “Only I really see”, it is conceivable that my fellow creatures thereupon will arrange their notation so as to fall in with me by saying “so-and-so is really seen” instead of “L. W. sees so-and-so”, etc., etc. What, however, is wrong, is to think that I can justify this choice of notation. When I said, from my heart, that only I see, I was also inclined to say that by “I” I didn’t really mean L. W. […]. I could almost say that by “I” I mean something which just now inhabits L. W., something which the others can’t see. (I meant my mind, but could only point to it via my body.) There is nothing wrong in suggesting that the others should give me an excep-

 Hacker 1997, 241.  See Hume 2000, Appendix i.  That is precisely the point of Peter Strawson’s argument in chapter 3 of Individuals (see Strawson 1959, chapter 1). I will come back to this argument in chapter 5.  A number of further such attempts receive Wittgenstein’s attention in the sequence of the text (see BB 66 ff.), yet I shall leave them aside, hoping that the preceding reconstruction is representative enough.

3.4 “‘I’ does not refer”: the peculiar grammar of the first person pronoun


tional place in their notation; but the justification which I wish to give for it: that this body is now the seat of that which really lives – is senseless. For admittedly this is not to state anything which in the ordinary sense is a matter of experience. (And don’t think that it is an experiential proposition which only I can know because only I am in the position to have the particular experience.) (BB 66)

Besides recalling that there is no a priori problem involved in the proposal of new notations, the passage above also presents the general picture which seems to underlie all the solipsistic maneuvers analyzed up to this point – that of a special object, “the mind”, as being the real or ultimate referent of the first person pronoun. In Wittgenstein’s own words: “the idea that the real I lives in my body is connected with the peculiar grammar of the word ‘I’, and the misunderstandings this grammar is liable to give rise to” (BB 66). In order to indicate such misunderstandings he proceeds to a detailed analysis of the grammar of the first person pronoun, which will be the subject of the next section.

3.4 “‘I’ does not refer”: the peculiar grammar of the first person pronoun The first step in Wittgenstein’s new attempt at grammatical rearrangement is calling attention to a distinction which became well known – and, in fact, I will suggest, got a bit overstressed – in secondary literature, namely between two uses of the word “I”. The distinction is introduced in the following passage: There are two different cases in the use of the word “I” (or “my”) which I might call “the use as object” and “the use as subject”. Examples of the first kind of use are these: “My arm is broken”, “I have grown six inches”, “I have a bump on my forehead”, “The wind blows my hair about”. Examples of the second kind are: “I see so-and-so”, “I hear so-and-so”, “I try to lift my arm”, “I think it will rain”, “I have toothache”. One can point to the difference between these two categories by saying: The cases of the first category involve the recognition of a particular person, and there is in these cases the possibility of an error, or as I should rather put it: The possibility of an error has been provided for. […] It is possible that, say in an accident, I should feel a pain in my arm, see a broken arm at my side, and think it is mine, when really it is my neighbour’s. […] On the other hand, there is no question of recognizing a person when I say I have toothache. To ask “are you sure that it’s you who have pains?” would be nonsensical. Now, when in this case no error is possible, it is because the move which we might be inclined to think of as an error, a “bad move”, is no move of the game at all. (BB 66 – 67)


3 Solipsism, privacy, and the grammar of the first person in The Blue Book

For obvious reasons, it is the last use of the word “I” – its “use as subject” – which will be the focus of Wittgenstein’s analysis in the remainder of the book. In pursuing that analysis he makes four main claims: 1. “To say ‘I have pain’ is no more a statement about a particular person than moaning is” (BB 67); 2. “The word ‘I’ does not mean the same as ‘L.W.’, even if I am L.W.” (BB 67); 3. “[The word ‘I’ does not] mean the same as the expression ‘the person who is now speaking’” (BB 67); 4. “In [propositions such as] ‘I have pain’, ‘I’ is not a demonstrative pronoun” (BB 68). The four claims above, as well as the arguments supporting each of them, are intimately connected in the text. Note that in none of them Wittgenstein offers a positive characterization of the use of first person pronoun, limiting himself instead to describing analogies and disanalogies between some uses of that pronoun and the uses of other words in our language, thus helping us achieve a perspicuous view of the grammar of those words in some more or less interconnected language-games. The central aim of that process is, once again, to indicate grammatical differences, which in turn can be used to make conspicuous the confusions involved in the characterizations offered by his imagined interlocutor, thus hopefully helping to set him free of certain pictures which are commonly assumed in the philosophical treatment of the first person pronoun. In this sense, Wittgenstein’s aims are rather modest, and one shall be careful not to leap too quickly from his essentially negative results to the rather substantial conclusion that he would be offering an alternative account or definition of the use of “I” – say, a non-referential one. (I shall return to the point of this warning below.) In order to achieve such aims, Wittgenstein’s analysis will again be structured dialectically, alternately presenting some theses about the use of the pronoun “I” that naturally (if tacitly) suggest themselves when we reflect about the grammar of the statements in which it is employed, and diagnosing the problems involved in each of those theses. In justifying claim (1) Wittgenstein indicates some grammatical differences between propositions ascribing pains in the first and in the third person, as they are normally employed in ordinary language. According to Wittgenstein, “[t]he difference between the propositions ‘I have pain’ and ‘he has pain’ is not that of ‘L. W. has pain’ and ‘Smith has pain’. Rather, it corresponds to the difference between moaning and saying that someone moans” (BB 68). Some light can be shed upon the latter claim by reminding ourselves of the role of language-games in Wittgenstein analysis – in particular the fact that

3.4 “‘I’ does not refer”: the peculiar grammar of the first person pronoun


[w]hen we look at such simple forms of language the mental mist which seems to enshroud our ordinary use of language disappears. We see activities, reactions, which are clear-cut and transparent. On the other hand we recognize in these simple processes forms of language not separated by a break from our more complicated ones. We see that we can build up the complicated forms from the primitive ones by gradually adding new forms. (BB 17)

Now, by indicating the proximity between propositions expressing pain in the first person and instinctive pain behavior such as moaning, Wittgenstein is precisely moving along the lines presented in the passage above, indicating a “primitive form of language” from which we can “build up” our own, more complicated vocabulary for the expression of pains.¹⁴⁴ In the “primitive” level of reactive behavior, it is manifest that the expression of pain does not involve recognizing a person as its condition. The person moaning in pain is (of course!) not stating something about herself – she is not describing her own state, in the sense in which another person could do it.¹⁴⁵ Again, in normal conditions, she obviously does not need to observe her own behavior, or to make any kind of inference, or to gather any kind of evidence in order to moan: she simply reacts, in an instinctive and natural way, to whatever has hurt her. By the same token, and given that the more complicated forms of language that we use to express pains can be recognized as belonging to the same family to which that kind of instinctive behavior belongs, in that they are “not separated by a break”, the conclusion seems to be that, even in the case of ordinary language (of our actual language-games), expressions of pain in the first person are not statements about a person; they belong in different grammatical shelves.  One has to be careful not to take that too literally, as if Wittgenstein was proposing (or assuming) a genetic or evolutionary account of the development of human language. As a matter of empirical or scientific fact, it may seem indeed very likely that such an account would prove true; yet, as I read Wittgenstein, that would be simply beside his (methodological) point, which is defending the philosophical relevance of paying attention to natural or instinctive human reactions, as they show up in real or invented language-games, in order to get clear about our own, actually more complex and sophisticated linguistic practices; those reactions, to borrow from Joachim Schulte’s apt formulation, are “the point of intersection of acting and speaking, of conduct and use of language” (Schulte 1995, 18). One might say: to indicate such an intersection is to go as deep as philosophical analysis can get – only that would be misleading, since it suggests a picture of layers to be dug; what it means is that it would be pointless, from the perspective of someone seeking grammatical elucidation, to try to get beyond that point by finding some (empirical) justification(s) for our language-games; as Wittgenstein reminds us in On Certainty, “[a] language-game […] is not based on grounds. It is not reasonable (or unreasonable). / It is there – like our life” (OC §559). (See also RPPI §916 and RPPII §453 – “The primitive language game we originally learned needs no justification.”)  See PI §407.


3 Solipsism, privacy, and the grammar of the first person in The Blue Book

Now, it is precisely because of that grammatical peculiarity that the analysis of the “use as subject” of the first person pronoun (in expressive sentences) becomes so important in reckoning with the solipsistic temptation. Given that such use does without the satisfaction of any conditions for the use of names, or for the recognition of a person as being such-and-such, the solipsist – and not only him – may feel inclined to imagine a set of somewhat analogous conditions, e. g., some kind of introspective access to the content of personal experiences, such as pain. Wittgenstein presents that point as follows: We feel then that in the cases in which “I” is used as subject, we don’t use it because we recognize a particular person by his bodily characteristics; and this creates the illusion that we use this word to refer to something bodiless, which, however, has its seat in our body. In fact this seems to be the real ego, the one of which it was said, “Cogito, ergo sum”. (BB 69)

Against the illusion presented above, Wittgenstein attempts to dissipate the “mental mist” surrounding the use of our actual expressive language-games by inventing a more primitive form of expressive language-game in which individuals simply react to pain with natural and instinctive behavior, thus presenting us “activities, reactions, which are clear-cut and transparent” and diverting our (the solipsist’s) attention from the picture of “internal processes”.¹⁴⁶ Of course the strategy illustrated above – that of comparing linguistic expressions of pain with instinctive behavior, such as moaning – is open to many criticisms, and it is a source of much controversy even among Wittgenstein’s followers, some of whom are willing (while others are not) to grant that such an analysis would show that the use of “I” is not intended to refer to the person who says “I am in pain.” Interestingly, Wittgenstein has anticipated those reactions. Having presented this first defense of claim (1), he immediately points out, in the voice of an interlocutor, an objection that runs along these lines: “‘But surely the word “I” in the mouth of a man refers to the man who says it; it points to himself; and very often a man who says it actually points to himself with his finger’” (BB 67). As a reply he observes that:

 Of course, one should not expect that such a procedure would at once eliminate the appeal of the picture under analysis; after all, people can be tempted to apply it even in the case of moans emitted by non-human animals (which, N.B., have been traditionally used as paradigmatic examples of creatures guided by instinctive – and, at least by some philosophical lights, nonexpressive – behavior), by imagining those animals “internally” having the same (or similar) experiences we humans have. This is again to remind that Wittgenstein’s aims here are rather modest, in that he is attacking (only) one of the sources of that picture – the one which departs from the analysis of the first-person pronoun in its use “as subject”.

3.4 “‘I’ does not refer”: the peculiar grammar of the first person pronoun


it was quite superfluous to point to himself. He might just as well only have raised his hand. It would be wrong to say that when someone points to the sun with his hand, he is pointing both to the sun and himself because it is he who points; on the other hand, he may by pointing attract attention both to the sun and to himself. (BB 67)

What is the point of this reply? In order to answer this question we need to first get clear about the parallel Wittgenstein draws between the case of the subject employing “I” in the situation presented before by his interlocutor and the subject who, in the passage above, points to the sun. As I understand that parallel, its purpose is to show that as the former subject can point to himself when saying “I …”, so can the latter call attention to himself when pointing to the sun – only that is generally not the case, i. e., that is neither the primary function of the pronoun “I”, nor of the ostensive gesture of pointing to an object. In fact, one might say that the primary function of the ostensive gesture is precisely the opposite, namely, to call attention to the object; now, if that gesture is to succeed, of course other persons involved in this piece of communication have to react appropriately, which means, among other things, that they must take the speaker as the (provisional) center or point of origin of an (ad hoc) indexical system. Consequently, it would be simply wrong, in the vast majority of ordinary cases, to take the speaker’s ostensive gesture as an attempt to call attention to himself – e. g., by looking at his hand instead of looking where his hand is pointing to. Yet none of this prevents that, in some specific (if extraordinary) cases, a speaker should use the ostensive gesture also to call attention to himself – e. g., when he points toward the sun, but, given that all his interlocutors are looking at a different direction (i. e., away from where he stands), he has to shout something (maybe something about the sun), thus calling their attention first to himself and then to that star. By the same token, in some specific cases – say, that of a student shouting “I!” in a classroom, answering a call – a referential analysis would seem correct. However, as indicated previously, in most cases, particularly in the case of the subject shouting “I am in pain!”, that analysis would be simply false, in that there is no need at all for the subject to recognize himself as being such-andsuch a person in order to cry that out. It is worth noting that Wittgenstein does not need to deny that there are similarities between, say, the self-referential and the expressive uses of “I”; his aim is simply to indicate one essential difference between the language-games in which that pronoun occurs, so as to prevent a hasty assimilation of all sorts of use to the narrow paradigm of reference. Our


3 Solipsism, privacy, and the grammar of the first person in The Blue Book

challenge is not to lose track of such differences, as we are prone to when in the grip of the philosophical “craving for generality”.¹⁴⁷ Now the main problem with the assimilation to the paradigm of reference is not so much its falsity, but rather the fact that such an assimilation might be the tip of an iceberg of serious philosophical confusions. When we are dealing with statements in which “I” is used “as object”, the referential analysis seems to work seamlessly, in that the subject who utters/thinks such statements intends to refer to a particular object that we too can perceive, recognize, and so on. However, if one tries to generalize, applying it to all first person statements, including the ones in which the “I” is used “as subject”, one may (correctly) notice that in such cases the intended object of reference is not necessarily the body of the subject; hence, the temptation may arise to seek for some other kind of referent, such as the mind, soul, and so on.¹⁴⁸ It is, therefore, with the ultimate aim of loosening the grip of that kind of picture upon the reader that Wittgenstein finds it important to highlight the grammatical differences we have been tracking so far. Having criticized the thesis contained in claim (1) Wittgenstein turns to the theses contained in claims (2) and (3) – namely, that “I” means the same as “L. W.”, or as “the person who is now speaking”. Against those assimilations his main contention will be that the first person pronoun (in its “use as subject”) and the words “L. W.”, and “the person who is now speaking” are “different in-

 See BB 17. It may help comparing that with Wittgenstein’s claims in the following passage, where the philosophical “craving for generality” is illustrated by the search of a single definition for the concept of “number”: “If, e. g., someone tries to explain the concept of number and tells us that such and such a definition will not do or is clumsy because it only applies to, say, finite cardinals I should answer that the mere fact that he could have given such a limited definition makes this definition extremely important to us. (Elegance is not what we are trying for.) For why should what finite and transfinite numbers have in common be more interesting to us than what distinguishes them? Or rather, I should not have said ‘why should it be more interesting to us?’ – it isn’t; and this characterizes our way of thinking.” (BB 18 – 19) Read the passage above replacing the reference to the “I” for the reference to numbers, and – I submit – you shall get the essence of what Wittgenstein has to say about the use of that pronoun: the “referential view” (or analysis) of the “I” may be “more elegant”, but it is not elegance that we (should) seek; rather, what we are most in need of, in order to free ourselves from grammatical and philosophical confusions, is a subtler and more nuanced understanding of the various forms and circumstances in which we employ the first person pronoun in our ordinary language.  Strawson’s strategy of taking the notion of “person” as primitive (relatively to “body” and “mind”) is designed to avoid just that kind of move (see Strawson 1959, chapter 3). Yet I would argue that, provided that one is aware of the variety of different roles that first person statements play in our language-games, the very motivation for that kind of (a bit strained) solution might fade away.

3.4 “‘I’ does not refer”: the peculiar grammar of the first person pronoun


struments in our language” (BB 67). Again, that does not mean that the latter phrases simply cannot be used in similar ways to the first person pronoun in some contexts: it is conceivable that in special circumstances someone could shout, e. g., “N. N. is in pain!” (think of a little child still learning how to use names and pronouns, or a Tarzan-like adult human being) or even “the person who is now speaking is in pain!” (think of a character in Saramago’s Blindness), behaving as people normally do when they feel pain; yet, if we were to react to those utterances similarly to the way we react to people shouting “I am in pain!” in ordinary circumstances, we would precisely not be understanding them according to the paradigm of reference – as if they were intending to refer to a particular person, speaking about him or her – but rather as if listening to something akin to a moan. In this sense, the same rule would apply to such a speaker as the one applying to a person who cries out in pain – namely, that he or she “doesn’t choose the mouth which says it” (BB 68).¹⁴⁹ As the preceding considerations suggest, I take it that Wittgenstein’s purpose in presenting claims (2) and (3) is simply to show that, in their primary uses, sentences employing the first person pronoun “as subject” are the ones we (normally) take, even in the absence of any particular accompanying circumstances, as genuine expressions of “personal experiences”; in other words, they are (fallible) criteria for such ascriptions.¹⁵⁰ Yet there is no indication that such an analysis should be extended to the totality of “language-games” for the use of “I”.¹⁵¹

 That remark may sound enigmatic; its point is, I take it, to call our attention once again to the expressive character of natural human behavior, including linguistic behavior. Intuitively, it seems clear that if we were to realize from the behavior of a person saying that she is in pain – regardless of using “I”, “N. N.”, or “the person that is now speaking” as a prefix to her utterance – a deliberate attempt to “choose the mouth which says it”, that is, some kind of artificiality in the formulation or even in the tone of her exclamation, we would be rather inclined to distrust her, to think she is dissimulating. Accordingly, in such a case we would probably not react to that person’s utterance as we normally do when faced with bona fide pain behavior, i. e., pitying her, trying to assist her, etc.  In order to bring that point home, it may help to think about the case of a subject suffering from retrograde amnesia – someone like Leonard Shelby (Guy Pearce), the main character of the film Memento (2000) – who by no means possesses the capacity to use a proper name or a description to identify him/herself as such-and-such a person, but still can use the first person pronoun to express (e. g.) pain, thus enabling other persons to understand his/her situation and react appropriately.  It is well known that Wittgenstein recurrently reminds his reader, especially in The Blue Book, that when faced with questions about whether it makes sense to say that a term “x” has the meaning y (e. g., whether “I” can be used referentially or not), the only sensible attitude is to imagine concrete contexts of the proposed or intended use – stress test situations, as I have been calling them. The suggestion behind that reminder is that there is no intrinsic characteristic


3 Solipsism, privacy, and the grammar of the first person in The Blue Book

As I noted, Wittgenstein is not trying to achieve a definition of the use of “I”, in the sense of a set of necessary and sufficient conditions for the use (or the “use as subject”) of that pronoun. He is, rather, describing some uses which are particularly relevant for his therapeutic purposes, e. g. loosening the grip of certain pictures which underlie (and forcefully suggest) narrow views of the grammar of the first person pronoun, such as assimilation to the paradigm of reference. Moreover, let me recall that Wittgenstein introduced the distinction between the two uses of “I” by listing examples: of a set of sentences concerning physical characteristics of the speaker (the “use as object”), and another set of sentences concerning his/her psychological characteristics (the “use as subject”). Yet one might wonder whether that dichotomy was really supposed to exhaust the uses of “I”, with no space being left for intermediate or composite cases. Is it not surprising that cases such as that of personal identity and the use of proper names – “I am such-and-such a person”, “I am N. N.” – both of which had been mentioned previously in the analysis, should be left out precisely at the juncture where Wittgenstein lists his examples of the two uses of “I”? Would not those cases be recalcitrant to the dichotomy “as object”/“as subject”? And if they are, wouldn’t they provide us with enough reasons to reject Wittgenstein’s whole analysis? The answer, I submit, is negative. According to the reading here proposed the dichotomy he presents is by no means intended to exhaust the description of the uses of the first person pronoun; it amounts, rather, to a presentation of two extremities of a range of uses, between which there may lie an indefinite number of intermediate cases, such as, e. g., that of a student shouting “I!” in response to the calling of her name in a classroom, or the cases of personal identity and the use of proper names (“I am such-and-such a person”, “I am N. N.”) mentioned above. Nowhere Wittgenstein denies the possibility or legitimacy of such uses: they are simply not relevant for his immediate, therapeutic aims. Paradigmatic cases of the “use as subject”, on the contrary, are of interest, because they are responsible for some of the most serious philosophical distortions in the analysis of the grammar of the first person pronoun, ultimately capable of leading one to feel inclined toward some form of solipsism; and paradigmatic cases of the “use as object” are equally of interest, because they provide a clear counterpoint, and also serve to indicate the fundamental flaw in analyses which intend to assimilate all the uses of “I” to the referential model.

to the use of words that would hinder (or legitimize) a priori certain uses (or senses). It is only in view of concrete language-games, inherited or invented, that we can hope to arrive at such conclusions.

3.4 “‘I’ does not refer”: the peculiar grammar of the first person pronoun


With these considerations in mind, let us go back to the attempt to elucidate the differences between pain utterances in first and third person. In the sequence of the passages we have been analyzing Wittgenstein remarks the following, regarding that difference: All this comes to saying that the person of whom we say “he has pain” is, by the rules of the game, the person who cries, contorts his face, etc. The place of the pain – as we have said – may be in another person’s body. If, in saying “I”, I point to my own body, I model the use of the word “I” on that of the demonstrative “this person” or “he”. […] In “I have pain”, “I” is not a demonstrative pronoun. (BB 67– 68)

The last sentence above presents our claim (4): that the pronoun “I”, in sentences such as “I have pain”, does not function as a demonstrative. To understand the point of that thesis, it will be useful to investigate in more detail what Wittgenstein means when he talks about modeling the use of “I” on that of demonstrative expressions. Let’s start thinking about the analogy presented in the suppressed part of the passage just quoted – the case of a mathematical proof concerning the sum of the internal angles of a triangle. Look at the following diagram:

Figure 2

The notion which is relevant to draw the intended analogy with the case of firstperson pronoun is “equality”. According to Wittgenstein, that notion is employed in one way when we say, regarding the diagram above, that α = α’ and β = β’, and in another way when we say that γ = γ. Now, to assimilate the pronoun “I” to a demonstrative, such as “this person” or “he”, would be “somewhat analogous” to assimilate these two equalities. The point of the analogy seems to be as follows: in the case of the equalities α = α’ and β = β’ we actually compare two things – namely, two angles – and say they are equal; yet in the case of γ = γ, one might say that we are facing a sort of degenerated equality (i. e., self-identity), since no two elements are being compared. Something analogous would apply to the case of someone using “I” while pointing to her own body: in their primary and strict (i. e., non-anaphoric) uses, indexicals like “he”/“she” and “this/that person” need to be supplemented with ostensive gestures in order to be correctly understood; but, as we noticed above, understanding ostensive gestures involves, in its turn, looking at the person who makes a (demon-


3 Solipsism, privacy, and the grammar of the first person in The Blue Book

strative) statement, taking he or she as the center in an ad hoc coordinate system. Given such conditions, in the case of a subject employing “I” while pointing to him/herself, what we have is (at best) a degenerate kind of ostension – one in which the center points to itself, so to speak. In such a case, it may be correct to say that the pronoun “I” is being used as a (degenerated) demonstrative, but only to the extent in which one might say that γ = γ is a (degenerated) case of equality. There is no problem in principle with that possibility; on the contrary: as degenerated equality is useful for the construction of a mathematical proof, so the use of degenerate ostension may be useful (and legitimate) in some cases. (Think of the following situation: I want to draw the attention of a friend to myself, in a context where there is too much noise and people talking everywhere, say at a party; I then shout my friend’s name; she hears my scream, yet is unable to determine where – hence, whom – it comes from; in such a case, shouting “I!” – or, more likely, “Hey, it’s me!” – while pointing to my own body would seem to be the best way of achieving my initial aim.) Once again the lesson I draw from these considerations is negative: Wittgenstein is not defending that “I” is simply not a demonstrative: stones may well serve as hammers from time to time; words have the uses we put them to in concrete situations, for certain specific purposes. Wittgenstein’s suggestion seems to be rather simpler, even trivial, namely that in some of its primary uses, such as the one paradigmatically represented by cases in which someone says “I am in pain”, the first-person pronoun does not, as a matter of (grammatical) fact, function as a demonstrative. Yet that triviality is not useless; in its original context, it has a particular (dialectical) purpose, which is that of avoiding the hasty assimilation to a rather narrow grammatical paradigm, motivated by a lack of attention to grammatical differences, and it is in order to avoid that mistake that it becomes useful to present cases in which the move would be conspicuously inappropriate. Unsurprisingly, the interlocutory voice expresses dissatisfaction with that negative result, claiming that “surely the word ‘I’ in ‘I have pain’ serves to distinguish me from other people, because it is by the sign ‘I’ that I distinguish saying that I have pain from saying that one of the others has” (BB 68 – 69). In reply to that claim Wittgenstein proposes the following (rather remarkable) languagegame: Imagine a language in which, instead of “I found nobody in the room”, one said “I found Mr. Nobody in the room”. Imagine the philosophical problems which would arise out of such a convention. Some philosophers brought up in this language would probably feel that they didn’t like the similarity of the expressions “Mr. Nobody” and “Mr. Smith”. When we feel that we wish to abolish the “I” in “I have pain”, one may say that we tend to make the verbal expression of pain similar to the expression by moaning. – We are in-

3.5 Teaching differences


clined to forget that it is the particular use of a word only which gives the word its meaning. (BB 69)

It is difficult to understand the point of that analogy unless one reads it against the broader backdrop of the criticism against solipsism. Read that way, what the analogy seems to indicate is that in our ordinary language there is a similarity between the use of “I” in sentences such as “I am in pain” (the “use as subject”), and the use of “I” in cases in which we actually identify a person, or even a particular body, in order to make our utterance (the “use as object”); that similarity, in turn, can either tempt one to assimilate both cases to the latter model and, accordingly, to seek for a referent for the term “I”, or to simply drop the (supposedly) problematic use of “I”, thus proposing a new notation, in which, e. g., one would simply say “there is pain”. This would be a revisionist proposal similar to the one made by the philosopher who grew up in the language presented in the passage above, who would probably argue that we should simply drop the phrase “Mr. Nobody” in order not to conflate it with the phrase “Mr. Smith”, thus (supposedly) escaping the temptation to imagine that there is some hidden entity in the room when we say “Mr. Nobody is in the room.” Similarly – so thinks the interlocutor – if we went on saying simply “there is pain” instead of “I’m in pain”, we would stop thinking that there is some kind of hidden referent of the pronoun “I”. And here we arrive at an opposite (but congenial) attitude to the ones presented earlier. Both the proposal to assimilate all the uses of “I” to grammatical paradigms primarily applicable to the “use as object” and the proposal to drop that pronoun from our language – in order to stick to what is supposedly peculiar in our personal experiences, thereby removing the surface similarities with expressions used to talk about the experiences of other subjects – stem from the same deep philosophical roots, among which are the craving for a single explanation which would account for all uses of certain concept and the assumption that if there is a noun there must be a referent.

3.5 Teaching differences The (negative) results of this analysis seem to me quite straightforward: first, Wittgenstein does not advocate a “non-referential view” of the grammar of the first person in The Blue Book; to defend that would be like saying that stones do not serve to nail because they are not hammers (a conclusion which some philosophers could perhaps draw from their armchairs, while examining the conditions of possibility of carpentry). Second, Wittgenstein also does not


3 Solipsism, privacy, and the grammar of the first person in The Blue Book

argue that the first-person pronoun has two uses — one “as object” and other “as subject”; those are only two extremities of a range of uses – two rather different members of a family, if you like¹⁵² – the indication of which was useful for diagnosing the congenial errors of several monolithic accounts of the role of that pronoun. Between those two extremities there is an enormous variety of other possible and more or less overlapping uses, whose “identity” depends on the requirements of the concrete linguistic context in which they are employed, and, in particular, on our concrete interests and purposes in each case. Finally (and more positively), the fundamental lesson of this whole analysis is methodological, namely that one must strive to pay attention to the differences between the various uses of certain concepts – such as the pronoun “I” – rather than try to fit them all in a single, narrow bin, whatever that be – e. g., reference, demonstration, description, expression, etc. That, by the way, is precisely the lesson drawn by Wittgenstein in an earlier passage of the book, with which I would like to bring this reading to a close: [S]ome of the greatest achievements in philosophy could only be compared with taking up some books which seemed to belong together, and putting them on different shelves; nothing more being final about their positions than that they no longer lie side by side. The onlooker who doesn’t know the difficulty of the task might well think in such a case that nothing at all had been achieved. – The difficulty in philosophy is to say no more than we know. E. g., to see that when we have put two books together in their right order we have not thereby put them in their final places. (BB 44– 45)

Philosophy, or at least the activity carried on in Wittgenstein’s texts, is always provisional. That should explain, at least in part, why his (post-Tractarian) writings never end up – and, as far as I know, were never intended to end up – with a proper, structurally distinguishable conclusion, as if to mark that the “last word” is only contingently so, and that the invitation is always open to keep the conversation going.

 See BB 17.

4 The threat of privacy in the Philosophical Investigations: Cavell and Kripke on skepticism about meaning 4.1 Introduction The majority of readers of the Philosophical Investigations take skepticism about meaning as one of the central targets of Wittgenstein’s grammatical remarks, something to be refuted (or perhaps dissolved) by means of a clear grasp of our ordinary grammatical criteria. Against that prevalent view, Stanley Cavell was the pioneer among Wittgenstein’s interpreters who was willing to assign a central and positive role to skepticism in his reading of the Investigations. He did this by arguing that disappointment with what Wittgenstein calls criteria is not exactly unjustified since criteria cannot ensure, as it were impersonally, that agreement and hence meaning will be forthcoming.¹⁵³ Given his view on the reach of criteria, Cavell is constantly driven to emphasize that Wittgenstein does not exactly want to deny the possibility of a private language;¹⁵⁴ rather, what he wants to show is that privacy is a standing human possibility, in that our criteria, being grounded in our interests and needs, and in our sharing of a common “natural history” and “form of life”,¹⁵⁵ are always open to the kind of repudiation indulged in by the skeptic. The implication, contrary to the Wittgensteinian orthodoxy, is that recounting our criteria cannot be a way to refute skepticism; in fact, this can actually reinforce it, by showing how fragile and alltoo-human our grounds for agreement and meaning really are. Some elements of Cavell’s position will certainly sound familiar to the readers of Saul Kripke’s Wittgenstein on Rules and Private Language. ¹⁵⁶ In that book, Kripke not only sees a “skeptical paradox” concerning the conditions of meaning – or, more generally, the possibility of following rules¹⁵⁷ – as the central problem of the Investigations, but also claims that Wittgenstein offers a “skeptical solu-

 That reading was initially developed in Cavell’s early essay “The Availability of Wittgenstein’s Later Philosophy” (Cavell 1962), which was later included in MWM, and was presented in its most systematic form in Cavell’s masterpiece, The Claim of Reason, from 1979.  See, e. g., CR 329 and 344.  See PI 415 and MWM 52.  Kripke 1982; hereafter “K”.  The relevance of that paradox would lie in its absolute generality, which is clearly indicated in Kripke’s (interim) conclusion that “Wittgenstein’s main problem is that it appears that he has shown that all language, all concept formation, to be impossible, indeed unintelligible” (K 62).


4 The threat of privacy in the Philosophical Investigations

tion” to that paradox. (Kripke describes a “skeptical solution” to a skeptical philosophical problem as one which “begins […] by conceding that the skeptic’s negative assertions are unanswerable” [K 66]; to that he opposes to a “straight solution”, which would show that “on closer examination the skepticism proves to be unwarranted” [K 66].) In what follows I would like to compare these two readings more closely, arguing that the superficial similarities that were just noted conceal important disagreements. As we will see, unlike Cavell, Kripke not only does not see privacy as a standing possibility for finite beings like us but shares with the Wittgensteinian orthodoxy a fundamental assumption concerning the role of grammatical rules as external impositions conditioning participation in a linguistic community. Cavell, on the other hand, in his eagerness to avoid that assumption, tends to downplay the importance of the skeptical temptation concerning the possibility of multiple interpretations of rules in his own reconstruction of Wittgenstein’s text. But, as Wittgenstein himself has taught us, in order to expose and overcome a certain picture it is fundamental to think it through, and for that one needs to give it full force, following its implicit assumptions to the point of incoherence and paradox. I suggest that this is precisely the virtue of Kripke’s exposition of the so-called “skeptical paradox” of meaning. Downplaying either the skeptical temptation or the diagnosis of the confusions underlying it can lead to a onesided view of Wittgenstein’s dialectic in the rule-following remarks, and I hope this comparative assessment might pave the way for a more accurate and nuanced reconstruction of his text. Fundamental to my assessment is a point made by James Conant¹⁵⁸ to the effect that Wittgenstein’s philosophical practice alternately seeks to execute two complementary tasks, by means of two distinct but connected movements: a prospective movement, leading from a piece of disguised nonsense to a piece of undisguised nonsense (see PI 464) and a retrospective movement, which consists in bringing words back from their metaphysical to their everyday use (see PI 116). In a nutshell, and inspired by Conant’s diagnosis,¹⁵⁹ I will argue that Kripke’s reading of the rule-following considerations has the virtue of perspicuously and compellingly presenting their prospective trajectory towards undisguised

 Conant 2012, 64– 65.  Given the scope of his text, Conant’s assessment of the relation between these two readings was by necessity very condensed, as an illustration (among others) of differences in approach motivated by their respective concerns with one of the two main varieties of skepticism distinguished in his paper: Cartesian and Kantian. Although I will not take up that diagnosis explicitly in what follows, I am happy to acknowledge my debt to it, and I hope my own considerations can be seen as complementary to it.

4.1 Introduction


nonsense, yet stop short of taking the retrospective route back to the ordinary; Cavell’s reading on the other hand, though not completely blind to the prospective movement, tends to underestimate its therapeutic role, thus risking a kind of methodological short-circuiting that Wittgenstein exhorted us to avoid in his later philosophy.¹⁶⁰ Besides paving the way for a more complex reconstruction of Wittgenstein’s text, I hope this assessment of the respective virtues and shortcomings of each of the readings under consideration will help to delineate an alternative, richer understanding of human language that is free from the kind of evasion that an impersonal view of rules implies, and that is also open to acknowledging the seriousness of the threat of privacy, hence the seriousness of skepticism. Such an understanding will, in turn, enable us to see agreement and meaning as continual tasks, the avoidance of which is always possible, yet imbued with costs that are not simply epistemic and theoretical, but rather practical or existential.¹⁶¹ With those aims in mind, this chapter will be structured as follows: in section 4.2 I offer a brief reconstruction of Kripke’s skeptical reading of the rule-following considerations, highlighting its prospective character; that reading is then taken up and critically assessed in sections 4.3 and 4.4, by means of a confron As Wittgenstein once warned his students in Cambridge: “You must not try to avoid a philosophical problem by appealing to common sense; instead, present it as it arises with most power. You must allow yourself to be dragged into the mire, and then get out of it. Philosophy can be said to consist of three activities: to see the commonsense answer, to get yourself so deeply into the problem that the commonsense answer is unbearable, and to get from that situation back to the commonsense answer. But the commonsense answer in itself is no solution; everyone knows it. One must not in philosophy attempt to short-circuit problems.” (WLC 108 – 109)  An anonymous referee from the journal Wittgenstein-Studien voiced strong disagreement with this last claim. Alluding to some well-known passages from On Certainty (OC 257, 261, 369 and 370), the referee argued that “in basic cases, disagreement and doubt are not logically possible – they smack of the pathological” (my emphasis). I am not sure I agree with the claim I italicized (in part because there are different construals of “logical impossibility”), though I am happy to accept the suggestion that follows it. This is not a place to discuss On Certainty in any detail, but I want at least to indicate that none of the passages referred to explicitly invokes a “logical impossibility” of disagreement concerning “basic cases”; that, of course, does not mean they cannot be read that way. However, I would submit, those passages can equally be read in a way that is more congenial to the understanding of skepticism’s existential costs to be elaborated in what follows. Granted, the “deviant person” is described by Wittgenstein in those passages as “a half-wit” (OC 257), their doubt is said to be unreasonable (OC 261) and, more importantly, to have as an effect dragging us “out the language-game” or doing away with it (OC 370). Nothing that I say in what follows intends to deny any of those descriptions – on the contrary, what I say about the practical or existential threat of privacy is precisely an attempt to flesh them out. But I am afraid if this chapter as a whole does not make good on that promise, nothing I can say in a shorter space will.


4 The threat of privacy in the Philosophical Investigations

tation with Cavell’s more retrospective approach; section 4.5 takes a step back, and exposes a central source of dissatisfaction underlying the skeptical attitude towards ordinary language that is given voice in Wittgenstein’s remarks, having to do with our desire for “firmer foundations” for meaning and agreement seemingly found in the “sublime” rules of logic or mathematics; section 4.6 wraps up the analysis, delineating an alternative to both skeptical despair and dogmatic avoidance of the real risks involved in the human task of achieving and maintaining meaning.

4.2 Kripke’s Wittgenstein on rules and private language Kripke’s presentation of the skeptical paradox starts with a thought-experiment in which a “bizarre skeptic” questions my right to claim that my past usage of the word “plus” (and of the symbol “+”) denoted the function plus rather than the function quus (see K 7– 9).¹⁶² The function quus (symbolized by “⊕”) is defined as follows: x ⊕ y = x + y, if x, y < 57 [x ⊕ y] = 5 otherwise Suppose I am asked to compute the result of 68 + 57 – a computation which, by stipulation, I face for the first time in my life; suppose further that all the computations I did in the past involved numbers smaller than 57, and, consequently, whether I knew it or not, they all resulted in answers which simultaneously agreed with the functions plus and quus. That being the case, there seems to be no reason to prefer the claim that I have been making additions rather than (say) quadditions. In Kripke’s own parlance, I cannot “give an account of what fact it is […] that constitutes my meaning plus, not quus”, and that “show[s] how I am justified in giving the answer ‘125’ to ‘68 + 57’ [rather than ‘5’]” (K 11). The conclusion, stated in its epistemological guise, is that apparently I never know – in that I could never justify my belief about – what I mean with any term I use. Kripke formulates that conclusion in a more radical and paradoxical way,¹⁶³ asserting that:

 It is important to emphasize, as Kripke himself does at the outset, that although he is following Wittgenstein in “develop[ing] the problem initially with respect to a mathematical example, […] the relevant sceptical problem applies to all meaningful uses of language” (K 7). I will come back to this point in section 4.5.  As Conant points out in his analysis, Kripke’s initial, “Cartesian” way of presenting the problem serves him “only as a provisional expository device”, one that should ultimately lead

4.2 Kripke’s Wittgenstein on rules and private language


There can be no such thing as meaning anything by any word. Each new application we make is a leap in the dark; any present intention could be interpreted so as to accord with anything we may choose to do. So there can be neither accord, nor conflict. This is what Wittgenstein said in [PI] §201. (K 55)

With this reconstruction of Kripke’s skeptical paradox in mind, let us now turn to his proposed skeptical solution. According to Kripke, Wittgenstein agrees with the skeptic “that there is no ‘superlative fact’ ([PI] §192) about my mind that constitutes my meaning addition by ‘plus’ and determines in advance what I should do to accord with this meaning” (K 65; my italics). It seems to me that this last statement might easily lead to misunderstanding, due to the use of the phrase “about my mind” to characterize the “superlative fact” that both Wittgenstein and the skeptic would reject as a candidate for securing the possibility of meaning. That is a rather restrictive formulation if compared to descriptions given elsewhere by Kripke himself – e. g., “fact[s] about my past history – nothing that was ever in my mind, or in my external behavior” (K 13; my italics). Actually, sometimes Kripke uses an even more general formulation to describe those “facts” – e. g., when he asserts that “Wittgenstein’s skeptical solution concedes to the sceptic that no ‘truth conditions’ or ‘corresponding facts’ in the world exist that make a statement like ‘Jones […] means addition by ‘+’ true’” (K 86). I propose we take the last, more general formulation as the more fundamental in Kripke’s argument. An initial justification for this comes from the importance Kripke confers, in his presentation of the skeptical solution, to the new “picture of language” that Wittgenstein would have proposed in the Investigations, one whose innovation lies precisely in the abandonment of the analysis in terms of truth conditions (supposedly pursued in Tractatus), on behalf of an analysis in terms of “assertability conditions or justification conditions” – i. e., conditions which specify “under what circumstances are we allowed to make a given assertion”, or, “more generally, of the conditions when a move (a form of linguistic expression) is to be made in the ‘language-game’” (K 74). What these considerations show, I take it, is that Kripke’s skeptical solution for the problem of meaning essentially requires us to abandon an analysis in terms of “facts in the world” corresponding to our assertions, looking instead “at how such assertions are used” and “under what circumstances attributions of meaning are made and what role these attributions play in our lives” (K 86).

us into “a skeptical paradox of an altogether different and more fundamental variety” (one that Conant characterizes as “Kantian” – see Conant 2012, 24, fn. 21).


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Kripke’s analysis of that role is presented in two phases: initially, he examines the case of an individual taken in isolation and then goes on to investigate the case of an individual inside a wider linguistic community. The conclusions obtained in the first phase are precisely the ones that were relevant for presenting the skeptical paradox in chapter 2. I enumerate some passages where those conclusions are most clearly expressed: 1. “one person considered in isolation […] act[s] unhesitatingly but blindly.” (K 87) 2. “It is part of our language game of speaking of rules that a speaker may, without ultimately giving any justification, follow his own confident inclination that this […] is the right way to respond.” (K 87– 88) 3. “if we confine ourselves to looking at one person alone, his psychological states and his external behavior, this is as far as we can go. We can say that he acts confidently at each application of a rule; that he says – without further justification – that the way he acts, rather than some quus-like alternative, is the way to respond.” (K 88) 4. “All we can say, if we consider a single person in isolation, is that our ordinary practice licenses him to apply the rule in the way it strikes him.” (K 88) 5. “if one person is considered in isolation, the notion of a rule as guiding the person who adopts it can have no substantive content.” (K 89) On at least one occasion Kripke himself identifies the conclusions above with the previous results of the skeptical argument of chapter 2, in particular with its systematic attempt to show that no fact can justify a subject in saying that he is following one rule rather than another. That identification occurs in the claim that “the whole point of the skeptical argument was that there can be no facts about him [i. e., the subject who, in chapter 3, has been repeatedly described as taken in isolation] in virtue of which he accords with his intentions or not” (K 88). The second phase of Kripke’s analysis is introduced with the following consideration: The situation is very different if we widen our gaze from consideration of the rule follower alone and allow ourselves to consider him as interacting with a wider community. Others will then have justification conditions for attributing correct or incorrect rule following to the subject, and these will not be simply that the subject’s own authority is unconditionally to be accepted. (K 89)

Having presented these general remarks, Kripke offers an example aiming to clarify them – that of “a small child learning addition” (K 89). His first comment on that example is that “[i]t is obvious that his teacher will not accept just any response from the child. On the contrary, the child must fulfill various conditions

4.2 Kripke’s Wittgenstein on rules and private language


if the teacher is to ascribe to him mastery of the concept of addition” (K 89); Kripke then goes on listing some of those conditions, yet I shall put them aside, since I am more interested in something he says soon afterwards, when contemplating the results one might extract from the analysis of that particular example for the conditions of attributions of meaning in general: Now, what do I mean when I say that the teacher judges that, for certain cases, the pupil must give the “right” answer? I mean that the teacher judges that the child has given the same answer that he himself would give. Similarly, when I said that the teacher, in order to judge that the child is adding, must judge that […] he is applying the “right” procedure even if he comes out with a mistaken result, I mean that he judges that the child is applying the procedure he himself is inclined to apply. Something similar is true for adults. If someone whom I judge to have been computing a normal addition function (that is, someone whom I judge to give, when he adds, the same answer I would give), suddenly gives answers according to procedures that differ bizarrely from my own, then I will judge that something must have happened to him, and that he is no longer following the rule he previously followed. If this happens to him generally, and his responses seem to me to display little discernible pattern, I will judge him probably to have gone insane. (K 90).

Generalizing the analysis of the conditions for the “attribution of meaning” expressed in the passages above, we obtain the following result: my statement that a subject S means x rather than y by using the term “x” (e. g., plus rather than quus by using the term “plus”) is assertable if and only if the use S is inclined to do of the term “x” agrees with the use that I have been inclined to do of that term up to now (see K 90 – 91). Notice, however, that my license to make such an “attribution of meaning” expires if S starts using “x” in a deviant way – case in which I should conclude that S does not mean x by “x” (see K 91– 93). That result can be schematized as follows:¹⁶⁴ Attributing meaning x to S’s use of “x” ↔ Checking whether S is inclined to use “x” as I have been inclined to use it up to now

It is important to notice, concerning the scheme above, that even in those cases where I am able to check whether S’s procedures when using “x” have system-

 Notice that the scheme to follow does not present, strictly speaking, a bi-conditional – i. e., a relation of logical (or semantic) equivalence, expressing the truth conditions of the propositions involved. Precisely in order to avoid such a misunderstanding I decided not to present the relata in propositional terms, but rather in terms of descriptions of actions – “moves” in a languagegame.


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atically matched mine, there is an important respect in which I do not have any ground (of the sort that an “anti-skeptic” would like to obtain) to eliminate the possibility of a (still) undetected disagreement – i. e., the possibility that, in all the cases observed up to now, S was following yet another rule (say, z) that accidentally has generated the same (behavioristic) results rule x has generated in my own case. Now, since that skeptical possibility (of an undetected, and, what is more important, a potentially undetectable disagreement) would, in Kripke’s own view, be unavoidable, I take it that, in that sense, his solution to the skeptical paradox is still skeptical, in that it does not aim at refuting skepticism about normativity once and for all – what does not prevent us from making “attributions of meaning” which simply register our (hopefully) shared inclinations. Notice also, and finally, that if the role that those attributions have in our lives is picked out correctly by the scheme above, then clearly there is no place for such attributions except in a community, i. e., in a context in which individuals are able to compare their respective inclinations (to use some terms), thus becoming able to mutually correct each other¹⁶⁵ – that being the reason why Kripke finds himself to be justified in claiming that the skeptical solution encompasses Wittgenstein’s famous argument against the possibility of a private language, in that it “does not allow us to speak of a single individual, considered by himself and in isolation, as ever meaning anything” (K 68 – 69).

4.3 Kripke’s Wittgenstein vs. Cavell’s Wittgenstein on rules and private language Cavell’s essay “The Argument of the Ordinary: Scenes of Instruction in Wittgenstein and in Kripke”¹⁶⁶ offers a direct confrontation with Kripke’s skeptical reading of the Investigations. Against Kripke’s reconstruction, Cavell will argue that apart from a peculiar appeal to rules which Wittgenstein himself repudiates

 As Espen Hammer clarifies in his summary of Kripke’s “skeptical solution”: “Kripke does not claim that we continually check the assertibility of our own and each other’s utterances: predominantly, we rely on practical capacities that have been internalized through training. His point is rather that without the possibility of mutual control, we would never know in cases of doubt what the right use of a concept might be. For an individual regarded in social isolation, however, no such possible check on right and wrong uses of expressions would exist; thus, in such a case assertibility conditions and therefore also meaning and language would collapse.” (Hammer 2002, 25)  In CHU.

4.3 Kripke’s Wittgenstein vs. Cavell’s Wittgenstein on rules and private language


there would be no skeptical crisis of meaning of the kind Kripke develops (see CHU 24). According to Cavell, a telling indication that Kripke is committed to a mistaken view of the nature of rules lies in his initial requirement that the subject, when challenged by a skeptic, should (at least in principle) be able to justify a particular interpretation of a rule – i. e., to resume the notation used in the preceding section, the subject should be able to present the fact justifying (or consisting in that) a linguistic statement of a rule (“x”) denotes one rule (x) rather than another (y). Yet, Cavell claims, Wittgenstein himself does not assign such a heavy weight to the role of rules – let alone to the (skeptical) possibility of “multiple interpretations” of rules – in his original argument.¹⁶⁷ In order to start comparing Kripke’s and Cavell’s respective takes on Wittgenstein’s rule-following considerations, let us recall Wittgenstein’s own formulation of his “paradox” in PI §201, as well as the “answer” immediately alluded to in the same passage (I enumerate each of those distinct moments below for further analysis): [i] This was our paradox: no course of action could be determined by a rule, because every course of action can be brought into accord with the rule. [ii] The answer was: if every course of action can be brought into accord with the rule, then it can also be brought into conflict with it. And so there would be neither accord nor conflict here. (PI §201; my italics)

Commenting on the answer indicated in (ii), Cavell asserts the following:

 One terminological clarification seems in order here, before proceeding to the comparative analysis of Kripke’s and Cavell’s readings. It has to do with the use of the word “rule” (and kindred ones), in their respective texts. Starting with the publication of Cavell 1962, and continuing in MWM, CR and beyond, Cavell has systematically avoided using that term, preferring instead “criteria”. The reason for that seems to be that in Cavell’s mind the word “rule” is already “metaphysical” beyond repair; in fact, as we shall see, Cavell repeatedly uses the picture of a “book of rules” as a target of his criticisms, and this suggests that the paradigms of “rules” he has in mind are written or at any rate explicit formulations that codify what one ought to do. Yet (as Kripke was better at acknowledging) by “following a rule” Wittgenstein is concerned not in the first instance with what can be formulated explicitly, but simply with our going on in the same way in light of our understanding of something – e. g., a signpost (see PI §85). In this sense of “following rules”, pace Cavell, one might say that Wittgenstein does assign a heavy weight to this phenomenon, namely by treating it as what first needs to be understood in this area of philosophy. And that understanding is precisely what one would expect from the application of both the prospective and the retrospective steps of Wittgenstein’s philosophical practice, the second of which should be precisely aimed at bringing words – e. g., this particular word, “rule” – back from it’s metaphysical to its ordinary use.


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This [answer] seems to me equally readable as suggesting not that this paradox is “central” [as Kripke would have it (JT)] but that it is no sooner named than its significance is undermined. Wittgenstein’s tone is: What our so-called paradox came to was no more than this so-called answer can completely tame. The facts about possible interpretations of a rule are not sufficient to cause skepticism (though they may play into a skeptical hand, one that has already portrayed rules and their role in language in a particular way). The Wittgensteinian issue is, as elsewhere, why we imagine otherwise. (CHU 68)

Setting aside for the moment the suggestion that the paradox in question can be seen as either central or easily tamable, depending on one’s understanding of the dialectic surrounding PI §201 – a point to which I will come back – the first question I want to raise concerns Cavell’s claim that “facts about possible interpretations of a rule are not sufficient to cause skepticism”. How should we understand that claim? I believe it is in the answer to this question that we can get clear about the main differences and respective virtues and vices of Cavell’s and Kripke’s readings. In order to start answering that question, let us recall that the basic tenet of Wittgenstein’s considerations at this juncture is that taking the interpretation of rules to be the ground of agreement creates an infinite regress. Let us also briefly rehearse the steps leading to that regress: the starting point is the assumption that acting according to a rule (rather than another¹⁶⁸) implies interpreting it in a particular way. We look at different possible interpretations, each compatible with a piece of behavior (say adding or quadding) and there is a problem about telling one from the other; how can we be sure which one is really guiding the person’s behavior? We then look at our candidate grounds for telling (dispositions, different introspective mental items, objects in a Platonic realm, etc.) and realize that this only pushes the problem one step further, so that, again, multiple interpretations can be made out in accordance with each proposed ground, no one being final. In Kripke’s favorite turn of phrase, “there is no fact of the matter” about which interpretation is correct – any fact one can come up with can itself become the target of the skeptical challenge. Now, although both Cavell and Kripke are of course aware of the regress just stated, it seems to me that each of them underplays important aspects of the dialectic surrounding it in the text. Briefly, I take it that the argument just rehearsed would be recognized by the author of the Investigations as one that correctly presents his (still confused) interlocutor’s frame of mind. Yet, precisely because of its conclusion (because, i. e., it creates an infinite regress), Wittgen-

 The “rather than another” qualification is not relevant, as both Cavell and Kripke acknowledge – the main point has to do with acting in accordance with rules simpliciter, with the very possibility of rule-governed behavior.

4.3 Kripke’s Wittgenstein vs. Cavell’s Wittgenstein on rules and private language


stein will later use the understanding of the nature of rules by which that argument is prefixed to present a new argument which, simplifying for the purpose of perspicuity, perhaps can be stated in the form of modus tollens, as follows: (1) To act according to a rule (rather than another) implies interpreting it in a particular way; (2) Interpretation requires a ground; (3) Any ground we can offer is compatible with multiple interpretations (OR: there is no “fact of the matter” grounding a particular interpretation of a rule as final); (4) (1) & (2) & (3) → infinite regress; (5) Therefore, the initial assumption (1) is false. The problem with Cavell’s reading, as I see it, is that he is too eager to arrive at (5), at the expense of not giving the deserved weight to the skeptical phase in Wittgenstein’s dialectic; Kripke’s reading, on the other hand, is very good at motivating steps 1– 4 above, yet he (to my mind mistakenly) refrains from drawing the conclusion (5). For according to him premise (1) is not to be taken as an assumption introduced in order to construct a modus tollens, but rather as a truth concerning the nature of rules – that being the reason why he will be driven to defend another argument, which has something like the following form: (1) To act according to a rule (rather than another) implies interpreting it in a particular way; (2) Interpretation requires a ground; (3) Any ground we can offer is compatible with multiple interpretations (OR: there is no “fact of the matter” grounding a particular interpretation of a rule as final); (4’) Therefore, in order to act according to a rule (rather than another), one shall eventually give up interpreting it at all, following instead one’s inclination – in other words, one shall eventually act blindly [skeptical conclusion]. We should now ask why it is so natural to read PI §201 (and adjacent passages) as Kripke does, taking the possibility of “multiple interpretations” of rules as a basis to draw a skeptical conclusion like (4’). Briefly, I think Kripke’s portrayal of agreement – as if it were always a matter of a community deciding to accept or reject a “beginner” – betrays a commitment to the ideal of an external or impersonal ground for judging the extent of that agreement. Although Kripke emphatically denies that such a ground would consist in a set of truth conditions (hence, in a set of “facts in the world” corresponding to normative propositions), his argument does rely on another set of factors, namely the ones concerning assert-


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ability conditions, and, to that extent, the pre-existent “conventions” of a linguistic community (i. e., the set of rules expressing the shared inclinations of the members of that community to act under certain circumstances, which in turn allows them to mutually correct each other concerning the “moves” taken in particular language-games). As I understand him, Cavell would not want to deny that the kind of situation portrayed by Kripke is possible – in effect, I believe he could easily grant that sometimes the problem of agreement will take place precisely along those lines, and, consequently, might be “solved” as Kripke proposes. However, he would want to add that such a portrayal falls short of presenting the most common – let alone the main or the only – kind of risk involved in our ordinary linguistic exchanges. Aiming at counteracting Kripke’s reductionist approach, it is important to pay attention to another aspect of the problem, indicating the costs involved in the abandonment of the kind of agreement (“Übereinstimmung”, see PI §§201, 224, 241– 242) that is already in place when someone has inherited a language. In The Claim of Reason Cavell describes that kind of agreement by means of the following comparisons: The idea of agreement here is not that of coming to or arriving at an agreement on a given occasion, but of being in agreement throughout, being in harmony, like pitches or tones, or clocks, or weighing scales, or columns of figures. That a group of human beings stimmen in their language überein says, so to speak, that they are mutually voiced with respect to it, mutually attuned top to bottom. (CR 32)

Cavell’s main point here is that, more often than not, there is no need to come to agreement (partaking in any kind of previous “discussion”) about the use of our words, or about the judgments we make using them; instead we will simply find ourselves “in agreement” (or out of it) in a way which is closer to what happens with certain natural and cultural reactions. Thus, for example, “[w]e may laugh and cry at the same things, or not; some experience may throw us out of, or into, agreement here, but the idea of achieving agreement in our senses of comedy or tragedy seems out of place” (CHU 94).¹⁶⁹ More specifically, this would suggest “a

 Note that the very example Cavell uses in this context – “our senses of comedy or tragedy” – already indicates that his appeal to our “natural reactions” should be understood broadly, so as to include the most sophisticated reactions that are developed with cultivation. Cavell clarifies that point in another context, accusing the “over-conventionalized interpretations of Wittgenstein’s notion of life forms” of wishing “to deny human beings their natural history, in its perpetual intersection with human cultivation (a vision linking Wittgenstein with Freud)” (WE 14). (One might feel inclined to say that those “natural reactions” would be better described as belonging to our second nature – yet are we sure of what we mean by human being’s first nature?

4.3 Kripke’s Wittgenstein vs. Cavell’s Wittgenstein on rules and private language


contractualizing or conventionalizing” reading of Wittgenstein’s idea of agreement, hence a rejection of it (see CHU 94). Since at this basic level agreement in judgments reflects attunement in our natural reactions – in our form of life – Cavell draws the conclusion that “nothing is deeper than the fact, or the extent, of agreement itself” (CR 32). Now, is not this conclusion rather similar to Kripke’s “skeptical solution”? For if nothing is more fundamental than the fact of agreement itself, does that not imply that agreement is, after all, (ultimately) ungrounded – hence, that at some point we really have to act blindly, as Kripke’s skeptic would have it? We do have cause to feel like we are “acting blindly” sometimes. Suppose I felt strongly inclined to call those two big cardboard boxes that used to lie one upon the other in the middle of my living room a table – after all, I did place a lot of things on it, and I even had dinner on it from time to time. Yet, I can think of many friends finding the very idea of calling (let alone using!) such a thing (as) a “table” funny or eccentric or simply outraging. Faced with that disagreement, I might feel tempted to conclude that there is nothing about the world (or its facts) that determines what concept or rule one must apply here – hence, that nothing I can point to can possibly put an end to the disagreement; and that feeling can, in turn, lead me to conclude that sometimes I have to (ultimately) act blindly, merely following my inclinations.¹⁷⁰ Of course, disagreements can get much

“What”, asks Pascal in his Pensées, “are our natural principles but habitual principles?”; and he adds, a little later: “Habit is a second nature that destroys the first. But what is nature? Why is habit not natural? I am very much afraid that nature itself is only a first habit, just as habit is a second nature.” (Pascal 1966, 61)) Peg O’Connor (2008) offers an insightful treatment of the kind of intersection mentioned in Cavell’s last quote (and one which seems consistent with Pascal’s suspicions). That treatment is condensed in her useful notions of “felted world” and “felted contextualism”, which can (hopefully) get an initial purchase from the following pair of passages: “The deep agreement of community in the sense of natural history is not untethered and freefloating. It is very much a product and a producer of our world, in all its givenness and contingency. Our natural history is part of, responsive to, shaped by, and shaper of the physical world we inhabit. The actions, practices, rules, regularities, reactions, and givens of nature overlap, crisscross, and tangle with one another. This is the felted world.” (O’Connor 2008, 85) “[F] elted contextualism does not presume a world/language divide, but rather maintains that practices have a depth that goes all the way down into what most people simply call the natural world. My position is that our world is not one part natural and one part social, but rather is a shared world where these are intermingled and tangled, resulting in ways of acting and conventions that are inescapably bound together.” (O’Connor 2008, 102)  An anonymous referee from Wittgenstein-Studien suggested that I should distinguish basic cases of language use from non-basic ones. According to the referee, “calling two cardboard boxes a table is not blind – it’s derivative, in some reflected way (however minimal) of our default or basic use of ‘table’, which is blind (at least as fluent users of English)”. In the same vein,


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more serious. For example, people do sometimes feel outraged regarding common practices – including linguistic ones – from other cultures, or even from one’s own. Think about how inclinations may differ with respect to the practice of eating meat, and, consequently, of applying the concept “food” and adjacent ones to (some) animals. At such crossroads, one might well feel tempted to conclude that the cause of one’s inability to find a final and universal justification for one’s actions is something about the world, or about the human condition as such – something that perhaps theology or metaphysics or anthropology or biology should explain. The question is how to tell when such a conclusion is warranted, and when an attempt to evade one’s own responsibility. That no general answer to this question is to be found in Wittgenstein’s text is part of what Cavell, against someone like Kripke, is trying to highlight – which means challenging the necessity and generality of Kripke’s “skeptical solution”. True, there might be nothing about the world and its facts that alone could elicit our agreement in these cases; yet that does not imply that agreement is (necessarily) ungrounded – it only implies that we (each of us) must strive to provide such a ground, in each particular context, by trying to find or create or nurture conditions for attunement; it implies, in other words, that the burden of discovering and maintaining meaning and agreement is upon our capacities to invest our interest on the world and on others – to single out some facts or aspects as important and worthy of sharing, for particular purposes. Now, when no universally accepted parameters are available for one to lean on – say those offered by theology, metaphysics or ideology – the task of finding and maintaining agreement might understandably feel difficult, even hopeless; accordingly, one might (again understandably) feel tempted to avoid the issue, either by accepting some form of relativism or skepticism, or by assuming some form of (theological or metaphysical or logical or grammatical) dogmatism. Returning now to my assessment of the two readings under scrutiny in this section, although Kripke’s has the merit of reminding us that linguistic agree“[a] child acquiring English may think about whether ‘table’ is the right word to use in basic cases, but not an adult fluent in the language. There is no room for justification or grounding (and thus for skepticism) in such cases.” Once again, I beg to differ. As the remarks in the remainder of the paragraph are meant to start suggesting, and as I hope will become more evident as we progress, my sense is that no such clear cut and fixed distinction between “standard” and “deviant” language uses is available, no matter how “basic” (whatever that means) the concepts involved. Moreover (and this goes back to my reply in footnote 161), it is precisely my intent in what follows to agree with Cavell that our criteria are constantly open to skeptical repudiation, if at high practical or existential costs. Finally, the very idea of distinguishing “basic” concepts or uses is to my mind reminiscent of a Strawsonian reading of Wittgenstein that I associate mainly with Peter Hacker and (unfavorably) contrast with Cavell’s reading in Techio 2019.

4.3 Kripke’s Wittgenstein vs. Cavell’s Wittgenstein on rules and private language


ment cannot be grounded on any set of “objective” facts about the world (and/or about ourselves), its failure is to stop at that realization, assuming that the skeptic should have the last word, instead of looking at the other side of the coin – namely, the discovery that the burden of linguistic agreement is (at least partially) mine, i. e., is upon each of us, and, to that extent, has at least one irreducibly personal aspect.¹⁷¹ This, I take it, is the aspect of Wittgenstein’s text to which Cavell’s reading is more attuned to. In other words, returning to a point made in the introduction to this chapter, I take it that Kripke’s reconstruction of the “skeptical paradox” puts us in a better position to understand the prospective aspect of Wittgenstein’s dialectic, while Cavell is better at motivating Wittgenstein’s retrospective attempt to bring us (and our words) back to the ordinary, to the rough ground of our finite condition. From this perspective, Kripke’s “skeptical solution” might be seen as one of those understandable (if somewhat desperate) reactions to the discovery that there is no external, impersonal ground to our agreement; while Cavell’s refusal to simply side with the skeptic¹⁷² shows his interest in making room for our permanent and personal responsibility in keeping our words and the world aligned.

 Of course there is a number of (contingent and changeable) constraints over what each of us can personally do in order to discover and maintain agreement in any particular context – including, e. g., attention to empirical regularities (to the way the world and humans behave), to social practices, to the traditions and customs of a community, and so on. Yet the reason why I have been emphasizing – and will continue to emphasize – our personal role in that task is precisely my wish to counteract a rather strong temptation to evade that responsibility. I grant that this biased strategy can lead to some (different) misunderstandings; yet the difficulty of combining all the important aspects of a philosophical subject under a single analysis increasingly convinces me of the correction of Strawson’s claim that “truth in philosophy […] is so complex and many-sided, so multi-faced, that any individual philosopher’s work, if it is to have any unity and coherence, must at best emphasize some aspects of the truth, to the neglect of others which may strike another philosopher with greater force” (Strawson 1985, viii).  In trying to explain what is the difference between his own stance concerning the “absence of foundation” for our human agreement and Kripke’s skeptical position, Cavell says the following: “One reason I resist a skeptical moral here is perhaps that I do not know, as it were, whether or how meaning something requires there to be a fact about me that constitutes meaning it: What is not there when there is not this fact? In terms more or less from The Claim of Reason, I might express my resistance this way: Kripke takes the discovery of the absence of his fact [e. g., as to whether I mean plus rather than quus] to be itself a fact, to have (eventually) that stability. Whereas I take this ‘absence of the fact’ not as a (skeptical) discovery but as the skeptic’s requirement.” (CHU 76 – 77)


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4.4 Kripke’s Wittgenstein vs. Cavell’s Wittgenstein on inheriting language: two readings of the “scene of instruction” Kripke’s commitment to that impersonal picture is even more conspicuous in his interpretation of what we may call the “scene of instruction” in PI §217. As we saw, Kripke construes the teacher’s role in judging a child’s answer as a matter of determining whether she “has given the same answer that he himself would give”, or whether she “is applying the procedure he himself is inclined to apply” (K 90). In examining that view, Cavell accuses Kripke of perverting Wittgenstein’s appeal to the teacher’s “inclinations” in §217. To show that, Cavell starts by comparing Wittgenstein’s original formulation – describing what happens when the teacher “reaches bedrock” – with the paraphrase he ascribes to Kripke. The formulations are, respectively, the following (I emphasize their differences): [Wittgenstein’s original formulation:] Once I have exhausted the justifications, I have reached bedrock, and my spade is turned. Then I am inclined to say: “This is simply what I do.” (PI §217; my italics) [Cavell’s paraphrase of Kripke’s formulation:] Once I have exhausted the justifications, I have reached bedrock, and my spade is turned. Then I am licensed to say: “This is simply what I am inclined to do.” (CHU 70)

The difference between the formulations above is subtle but full of implications. Cavell notices, first, that “[w]hat I am inclined to say is precisely not something I necessarily go on to say: I may be inclined to say yes to an invitation, but there are considerations against it, and I hesitate to give an answer on the spot” (CHU 71). Thus, there might be some hesitation or openness in the behavior of Wittgenstein’s teacher that Kripke’s paraphrase completely fails to register. Yet that hesitation is crucial to understand the teacher’s role in the scene of instruction – particularly the moment when his instruction comes to an impasse. Here is Cavell’s assessment: I conceive that the good teacher will not say, “This is simply what I do” as a threat to discontinue his or her instruction, as if to say: “I am right; do it my way or leave my sight”. The teacher’s expression of inclination in what is to be said shows readiness – (unconditional) willingness – to continue presenting himself as an example, as the representative of the community into which the child is being, let me say, invited and initiated. (CHU 72)

Kripke conceives his teacher as a kind of judge of her linguistic community’s practices, and, consistently, identifies “normality” (and, therefore, normativity) with blind obedience on the part of the beginner in that community. Cavell, on

Kripke’s Wittgenstein vs. Cavell’s Wittgenstein on inheriting language


the other hand, emphasizes the teacher’s hesitation and openness: in a moment of impasse, she does not take the (possibly easier) path of evading her responsibility in the pursuit of instruction (as Kripke’s rather authoritarian teacher does), but instead finds herself facing her own limitations, accepting and even sharing them with the child, by presenting herself as (after all) only another human being striving to bequeath (what she takes as) the normal practices of the community in which the child is being initiated. Interpreted along the lines suggested by Cavell, the scene of instruction illustrates the human quest for finding or creating (genuine) attunement between individuals – a quest that is open to all sorts of difficulties and failures, and which would never be satisfied by enforcing blind obedience or conformity. The main lesson here is again that we do not need to assume that the only way out of the “skeptical paradox” of meaning would be finding an impersonal foundation for agreement. Instead of despairing of the lack of that sort of foundation, as Kripke’s skeptic does, one can accept that for finite beings like us there is no metaphysical or epistemological “shortcut” to each other’s thoughts, meanings, intentions, and inclinations, making it our constant responsibility to discover and maintain some shared ground – something that might well feel like a burden sometimes. Cavell expresses that feeling by claiming that “placing confidence in the other – waiting – means letting my confidence be challenged, anyway become hesitant in, thoughtful about, expressing itself” (CHU 76). It is that kind of challenge that we try to avoid, or to deflect, by subscribing to an impersonal picture of meaning, on the pretext of ensuring an “external”, and, consequently, (more) “objective” foundation for our agreement. Now, if agreement is to be construed as a constant, risky task for finite beings, how exactly can we manage to find it and maintain it? This question has been central in Cavell’s work, at least from the time of his first engagement with Wittgenstein’s philosophy. In the chapter we have been analyzing Cavell goes on to quote a well-known passage of his own “early philosophical self” (see CHU 82), in which he summarizes his view about the role of Wittgensteinian criteria, and in particular their role in registering agreement. The passage goes as follows: We learn and teach words in certain contexts, and then we are expected, and expect others, to be able to project them into further contexts. Nothing insures that this projection will take place (in particular, not the grasping of universals nor the grasping of books of rules), just as nothing insures that we will make, and understand, the same projections. That on the whole we do is a matter of our sharing routes of interest and feeling, modes of response, senses of humor and of significance and of fulfilment, of what is outrageous, of what is similar to what else, what a rebuke, what forgiveness, of when an utterance is an assertion, when an appeal, when an explanation – all the whirl of organism Wittgenstein


4 The threat of privacy in the Philosophical Investigations

calls “forms of life.” Human speech and activity, sanity and community, rest upon nothing more, but nothing less, than this. It is a vision as simple as it is difficult, and as difficult as it is (and because it is) terrifying. (MWM 52)

Do we doubt that it may be terrifying to discover that there is nothing beyond our own sense of what is interesting, humorous, significant, outrageous, etc., grounding human speech and activity, sanity and community? And again, how exactly does this conclusion differ from Kripke’s appeal to our shared inclinations? Commenting on the passage just quoted, motivated by the confrontation with Kripke, Cavell adds that “if I am inclined to present myself as such a ground (or thin reed) – when, that is, I am inclined to say ‘This is simply what I do’ – I had better be prepared to say more about my representativeness for this role” (CHU 82). Take the challenge of teaching a pupil to add again as a test case: in concrete situations, we may or may not be inclined to act as the teacher of PI §217, presenting ourselves as examples of our linguistic (say scientific or mathematical) community; if we do, and if our sense of what is similar to what is not in tune with the pupil’s (we think 1002 is “similar” to the steps taken so far in the series n + 2, not 1004; he disagrees), we can then react in several different ways, ranging from simply giving up the conversation (by treating the pupil as a “lunatic”¹⁷³), or presenting other candidates to ground our judgment (a “book of rules”, the “community’s conventions”, a set of “objective facts”, etc.), up to presenting ourselves as (omniscient?) judges, demanding nothing less than “blind obedience”. None of those reactions is intrinsically better, more appropriate, or more correct – it all depends on the particular context in which we find ourselves.¹⁷⁴ There is no way to decide a priori which reaction should be adopted in each case; yet, pace Kripke, one can perhaps say a priori that none of those reactions will suit all contexts. The important thing to notice here is that in a case of impasse – when we feel we are losing our attunement, or discover that there is not (enough) attunement to begin with – there seems to be no “firmer ground” for us to lean on; and that can make us anxious, not only for showing that our mutual understanding has limits, but because we feel that we must draw those limits when we hit the “bedrock” of our differences (see CR 115). Faced with that realization, we might

 See BB 93.  Even the Swiftian attitude suggested by Wittgenstein in The Brown Book (i.e., to treat the pupil presenting a “deviant behaviour” when adding as a “lunatic”, excluding him of certain activities) might, in some contexts, be justified. In his analysis of that passage in The Claim of Reason, Cavell elaborates precisely on what such a context could be (see CR 112).

4.5 Skepticism and our aspiration for the sublime


understandably prefer to avoid the real issue, projecting our own predicament upon the world or upon the other or upon language, implying that there is nothing for us (for me) to do about it, other than blindly following our (my) inclinations.

4.5 Skepticism and our aspiration for the sublime As I have been arguing, Kripke’s “skeptical solution” emblematizes one way of evading responsibility in the face of recalcitrant disagreement. I now wish to explore another such route, embodied in the philosophical willingness to condemn ordinary language for falling short of the “sublime” standard supposedly provided by the rules of logic or mathematics (see PI §89). Commenting on the passages surrounding PI §89 and the way they relate to the rule-following considerations, Cavell writes: The idea of ordinary language as lacking something in its rules is bound up with – is no more nor less necessary than – this aspiration [for the sublime]. This is the place at which Wittgenstein characterizes logic (and I assume the rule for addition is included here) as “normative,” as something to which we compare the use of the words ([PI] §81) – to the discredit of words; he takes this further a few sections later in posing the question, “In what sense is logic something sublime?” ([PI] §89). In this role of the normative, the mathematical is not a special case of a problem that arises for the ordinary; without the mathematical this problem of the ordinary would not arise. (CHU 92)

How are we to understand that last claim – viz., that “without the mathematical this problem of the ordinary would not arise”? As a kind of preparation for taking in Cavell’s answer to that question, let us pause to reflect about a related “sublimating temptation” expressed in the rule-following sections by the picture of “rails invisibly laid to infinity” (PI §218). This picture is introduced in the middle of Wittgenstein’s considerations about what could count as a “final interpretation” of a rule – the stamp of a “particular meaning” in face of which we would “no longer have any choice” except obeying it “blindly” (PI §219). Notice that despite the absolute generality of the requirement for a “final interpretation” presented in these remarks (applying to rules as such), the picture chosen for expressing it symbolically (see PI §§220 – 222) is carefully designed to satisfy a craving that is (more?) natural specifically in a mathematical context, namely that a rule shall “bring on its face” the indication of all the steps required for its complete projection. The fascination of this “symbolical” or “mythological” understanding of rules helps explain why it is so common to conflate and treat as homogeneous


4 The threat of privacy in the Philosophical Investigations

concepts as distinct as mathematical and non-mathematical ones. Cavell takes up this point in the following passage: I suppose that something that makes a mathematical rule mathematical – anyway that makes adding adding – is that what counts as an instance of it […] is, intuitively, settled in advance, that it tells what its first instance is, and what the interval is to successive instances, and what the order of instances is. The rule for addition extends to all its possible applications. (As does the rule for quadition – otherwise […] it would not be known to us as a mathematical function.) But our ordinary concepts – for instance that of a table – are not thus mathematical in their application: we do not know, intuitively, […] a right first instance, or the correct order of instances, or the set interval of their succession. And sometimes we will not know whether to say that an instance counts as falling under a concept, or to say that it does not count […] (CHU 89 – 90)

As we saw in section 4.2, Kripke originally sets up his skeptical paradox using a mathematical concept – namely, addition; and so does Wittgenstein. And we readily assume that whatever holds of that concept will also hold, mutatis mutandis, of the totality of our conceptual repertoire. However, as Stephen Mulhall suggests when commenting the passage above, the very fact that we should assume that this kind of skeptical problem could be “equally well (if less smoothly) developed from nonmathematical examples” may be a sign of a failure in appreciating the specificity of mathematical concepts, due precisely to our inclination to “treat[…] mathematical concepts as normative for the nonmathematical”.¹⁷⁵ One might think that, exegetically speaking, this maneuver is legitimate, or even required – after all, it is Wittgenstein himself who is using mathematical rules as paradigms for rules as such in this context. However, if we recall that this move is being presented as part of a prospective strategy that aims at leading us from disguised to undisguised nonsense, then we should expect that Wittgenstein would have done that purposefully, so as to tempt the reader to indulge in her own aspiration for the sublime model of mathematics.¹⁷⁶ And this, in turn, should lead us to ask why it is so natural, almost irresistible, to fall for that temptation (something that applies not only to Kripke, but also to the vast majority of readers of the Investigations), and why it is important for Wittgenstein to expose (and ultimately counteract) our willingness for doing so. Cavell starts answering these questions in the following passage, which will take us back to the anxiety I was describing at the end of the preceding section:

 Mulhall 2003, 103 – 104.  Additional considerations supporting this suggestion are given in Mulhall 2001, 87 ff.

4.5 Skepticism and our aspiration for the sublime


We understandably do not like our concepts to be based on what matters to us […]; it makes our language seem unstable and the instability seems to mean what I have expressed as my being responsible for whatever stability our criteria may have, and I do not want this responsibility; it mars my wish for sublimity. (CHU 92)

The notion of stability alluded to in this passage is crucial here. Among the numerous sources of one’s dissatisfaction with criteria is the assumption that only “firm foundations” can provide the desired stability for our language. In a rather different context,¹⁷⁷ the Wittgensteinian philosopher Peg O’Connor proposes an alternative to that assumption which is as simple in its formulation as it is fruitful in its consequences – namely, to try and change the dominant metaphor¹⁷⁸ for dealing with normativity, so that instead of seeking to locate (and/or replace) its foundations, one should try to understand (and/or change) the conditions enabling stability to be created and maintained among numerous aspects of our practices (linguistic and otherwise).¹⁷⁹ Stability, as O’Connor defines it, “is a matter of balanced relationships among a whole set of factors, and [it] comes with a constant recognition of limitations and location”.¹⁸⁰ That notion has its original home in architecture, which has among its aims to combine heterogeneous elements so as to achieve a balance between immobility and flexibility: “Concrete can only bend so much, steel can only hold so much weight, glass can only take so much pressure”; by combining those materials and properties, an architect can create a structure which stands up due to both balance and tension: “just consider the importance of movement in a tall building or bridge”.¹⁸¹ Now, according to O’Connor, something analogous holds of normativity in general – be it ethical or linguistic. The following passage – which takes up a metaphor from Wittgenstein’s “Lecture on Ethics” – summarizes her view on this point: In seeking meaning and value, we humans hurl ourselves against the bars of our cage, seeking transcendent meaning and value and objective absolutes beyond the bounds of our finitude and limitations. Instead, I argue that our moral frameworks and language-games pro-

 O’Connor 2008.  We are, of course, speaking metaphorically, perhaps “mythologically” here (as was Wittgenstein in PI §218); the usefulness of this kind of description can only be measured against its therapeutic results, as ways of detecting “the decisive movement in the conjuring trick” that we normally take as “quite innocent” (PI §308).  O’Connor’s book focuses on our moral practices, and the change she is primarily concerned to defend is in metaethics; yet, as herself indicates in many contexts, the general strategy she proposes can be applied to different philosophical corners – in particular, to the study of the sources of normativity as such.  O’Connor 2008, 14.  O’Connor 2008, 14.


4 The threat of privacy in the Philosophical Investigations

vide everything we need just because – and not despite the fact that – they are all pervasive, inescapable, and ineliminable. They are embedded, connected, and overlapping with other frameworks that are part of the felted stability but yet are flexible and dynamic. (O’Connor 2008, 141)

The proposal I want to make in bringing this section to a close is that it may be useful to combine Cavell’s insights about the sources of dissatisfaction with ordinary language and its criteria with O’Connor’s call for us to come back to the “rough ground” of our moral frameworks and language-games, thus reminding us of their embeddedness and flexibility, hence of the kind of stability they allow – namely, a stability which is non-sublimated and non-foundational.¹⁸² The result of this combination is a middle ground between utter skeptical despair, on the one hand, and dogmatic (“metaphysical”) appeals to absolute meanings and values, on the other, thus making room for a more accurate assessment of our human predicament, and of the responsibilities each of us has to take up in order to create and maintain real (non-transcendent) meaning and agreement in our judgments and forms of life.

4.6 Meaning and its risks Important as it is to expose the human wish for a sublime kind of normativity, and to replace the dominant metaphors for understanding its conditions – instead of contracts, books of rules, blind conformity or any other fixed foundations, to turn our attention to attunement and stability – I take it that this is only the beginning of wisdom in this area. The remaining (and more difficult) task is to genuinely come to terms with the “terrifying” realization that our concepts might be based on what matters to us. As Cavell has argued, to my mind convincingly, no easy way out of this difficulty is forthcoming in Wittgenstein’s Investigations – in particular, no final refutation of skepticism or proof of the impossibility of privacy is to be found there. Pace Kripke and the Wittgensteinian orthodoxy, our criteria are simply not designed to “answer the skeptic” so as to ensure meaning and agreement in our uses of words. (A fortiori, they are not designed to offer a “skeptical solution” to that kind of skepticism either.)

 I find a lesson along those lines getting perspicuously formulated in the following passage by Mulhall: “Philosophy’s impulse to regard logic as normative for the normativity of words is emblematic of a broader human impulse to regard such normativity solely as something to which we must impersonally and inflexibly respond rather than as something for which we are also individually and unforeseeably responsible.” (Mulhall 2003, 105)

4.6 Meaning and its risks


Rather, their role is simply to record similarities and dissimilarities that matter to us, to the extent in which there is an “us”, i. e., to the extent in which we share those “routes of interest and feeling, modes of response, senses of humor and of significance and of fulfilment, of what is outrageous, of what is similar to what else”, and so on – in sum, “all the whirl of organism Wittgenstein calls ‘forms of life’” (CHU 81). But the only way to measure the extent of our attunement in those responses is to put it to test, staking one’s claims in search of acknowledgment, and thus exposing oneself precisely to the kind of repudiation whose standing possibility so impresses the skeptic. Kripke’s “skeptical solution” tries precisely to avoid this kind of exposure, at the cost of assuming a problematic picture of normativity, in which the burden of linguistic correction lies upon some kind of “external” factor, thus implying a systematic weakening or even suppression of the individual’s responsibility in finding and maintaining linguistic agreement. One way to express what I take to be problematic in that picture is to say that it portrays the issue of agreement upside-down – or, at best, from a rather limited perspective – as if the only (or main) risk involved in our communicative exchanges were the possibility of repudiation, on the part of “the community” or “the world”,¹⁸³ of what I mean with what I say, and never the contrary, i. e., the possibility of discovering that what matters to me is not what matters to others, that I am out of attunement with their practices, their values and ultimately their world, so that I may feel forced to withdraw from it, with all the existential costs that this response may bring.¹⁸⁴

 The idea of a repudiation (of what we say) on the part of the world might cause some estrangement; yet that formulation correctly picks out the consequence of the reversal of the burden for linguistic correction that I have described – particularly in those cases in which a kind of metaphysical realistic assumption is made regarding the formation of concepts. An obvious example is Plato’s thesis, presented in Phaedrus 265e, that we should “cut up each kind according to its species along its natural joints, and to try not to splinter any part, as a bad butcher might do” – otherwise we would end up with concepts that, in one way or another, the world should repudiate. McManus (2003) presents some instances of concepts that would be thus “repudiated by the world”, including (i) concepts historically proved empty (e. g., Phlogiston), (ii) “unprojectible” predicates (e. g., grue), and (iii) contra natura taxonomies (e. g., Borges’ Chinese encyclopedia). (Thanks to Paulo Faria for indicating those examples, and helping with the reference to Plato.)  In The Lives of Animals, J. M. Coetzee presents a concrete (fictional) example of that kind of estrangement, caused by his central character’s (Elizabeth Costello) growing difficulty in accepting and continuing living in a world where human beings seem to be “participants in a crime of stupefying proportions” (Coetzee 1999, 69). Cora Diamond meditates on that and other interesting literary examples of “losses of attunement” in Diamond 2006.


4 The threat of privacy in the Philosophical Investigations

The upshot of these considerations is that applying concepts – hence: giving meaning to what we say, and reaching mutual understanding – are often “risky activities”,¹⁸⁵ but the risks involved here are neither simply unavoidable nor simply avoidable – as the skeptic and the dogmatist would assume, respectively, in their eagerness to evade the issue. Those risks are just as avoidable or unavoidable as the ordinary difficulties presented in any relationship among finite human beings, and thus come with the same existential costs, and negotiating them is a responsibility each of us inherits by entering and becoming a representative of a linguistic community, and a form of life.

 I borrow that notion of a “risky activity” from Faria 2006, 119.

5 Seeing souls: Wittgenstein and Cavell on skepticism about other minds … not to believe there is such a thing as the human soul is not to know what the human body is … (Stanley Cavell¹⁸⁶)

5.1 Introduction One central concern of Wittgenstein’s later work is to elucidate the grammar of psychological predicates. That task is carried out in the Philosophical Investigations in close connection with the examination of questions traditionally associated with the problem of other minds, such as these: What are the conditions for ascribing mental states to others, and to myself? Can I really know that others have minds? Can I know that I have one? What is the relation between minds and bodies? In exploring these questions Wittgenstein presents a series of remarks whose content have led many readers to burden him with some kind of externalist account of the mind, or at the very least to propose externalist accounts inspired by them.¹⁸⁷ The following are among the most discussed and also most representative such remarks: “only of a living human being and what resembles (behaves like) a living human being can one say: it has sensations; it sees; is blind; hears; is deaf; is conscious or unconscious” (PI §281); “An ‘inner process’ stands in need of outward criteria” (PI §580); “The human body is the best picture of the human soul” (PI II §iv, 19). Earlier proposals for how to understand the point of these and kindred remarks had a reductionist or eliminativist bent:¹⁸⁸ the suggestion was that we should replace, in the philosophical analysis of psychological predicates, any reference to presumptively troublesome inner entities (private mental contents or experiences, souls, etc.) for a reference to ontologically more well-behaved ones (such as, say, overt behavior, the movements of our bodies in space). Although this sort of proposal has fallen out of fashion, at least from an exegetical

 CR 400.  I mean this in a very broad sense, so as to cover different attempts of including in the analysis of the content of (presumably) “inner” mental states some features of the subject’s larger, “external” environment, such as her behavior, her community’s standards, the constitution of the objects with which she relates, and so on.  I am thinking particularly of Ryle 1949.


5 Seeing souls: Wittgenstein and Cavell on skepticism about other minds

point of view, it is useful to compare it to a much more widespread interpretation, according to which the cumulative effect of Wittgenstein’s remarks would be to remind the reader that, contrary to what she might be tempted to think when guided by certain (distorted) pictures of the relationship between “inner” and “outer”, our ordinary practices of ascribing mental states to others are actually based on external criteria. From this perspective, the work of elucidation should focus exclusively on the deleterious influence of those pictures, leaving intact the very category of the mental or the inner: the way out of philosophical confusion is not to eliminate or reduce that category to any other, but rather to understand its distinctive grammar, thus learning to avoid the false analogies that it naturally gives rise to. And this result, in turn, could serve as evidence for a kind of grammatical refutation of skepticism concerning other minds, which would ultimately be shown to be based on a confusing picture of the inner as hidden and inaccessible. The motto of this received view could be that “nothing is hidden” (PI §435).¹⁸⁹ The main goal of this chapter is to pave the way for an alternative view of Wittgenstein’s remarks concerning the grammar of psychological predicates, one which is inspired by Stanley Cavell’s seminal interpretation of the Investigations. I will do that first by offering a close reading of a number of key passages in sections 5.2 and 5.3, aimed at highlighting some under-appreciated connections between what Wittgenstein has to say about human behavior and the human soul in (what was once called) Part I of the Investigations and his later treatment of those topics in the discussion about aspect-seeing in (what was

 The expression “the received view” is used by J. Temkin, who concisely characterizes its main contention in the idea that “Wittgenstein has solved, or at least provided the conceptual machinery required to solve, the epistemological problem of other minds. He has done this, the received view continues, with his concept of criteria” (Temkin 1990, 561). One of the first and most influential exponents of this view is Norman Malcolm (see esp. Malcolm 1954, 1958 and 1995), but perhaps it is not an exaggeration to say, again with Temkin, that it is “almost universally held by those writing on Wittgenstein and the problem of other minds” (Temkin 1990, 561). In particular, I think it is fair to ascribe it to Peter Hacker, whose interpretation is well synthesized in the claim that criteria are “logically good evidence, which is, in certain circumstances, defeasible. But if not defeated, the criteria confer certainty” (Hacker 1997, 38). So, for example, “to see another writhing and groaning after being injured is to know ‘directly’ that he is in pain – it is not an inference from the fact that he has a prescription for analgesics” (Hacker 1997, 41); or again: “when one observes someone writhing in agony, one does not infer that he is in pain from his movements – one sees that he is suffering. Pain-behaviour is a criterion of being in pain, as joyous behaviour is a criterion of being joyful.” (Hacker 1997, 43).

5.2 The problem of other minds in PI I


once called) Part II.¹⁹⁰ The remainder of the chapter is more polemical in nature, and offers two additional lines of argument: Section 5.4 supports the claim that Cavell (and Cavell’s Wittgenstein) would be willing to run with the idea of continuous aspect perception in the context of discussing the problem of other minds. Section 5.5 contends that Peter Strawson’s argument against skepticism about other minds, although correct in emphasizing the role played by a “nondetached” attitude toward others in his account of the conditions for achieving a “non-solipsistic consciousness” of the world, can be criticized from the Cavellian-Wittgensteinian position established before for not taking seriously enough the possibility of avoiding the acknowledgment of the humanity of others, and, as a consequence, of our own.¹⁹¹ I will assess this claim in the conclusion of the chapter, arguing that Strawson’s own detached perspective is what ultimately prevents him to engage with the real, existential issue posed by skepticism about other minds, namely the fact that it is up to us (as a challenge which may be resolutely faced as much as quietly denied) to acknowledge the humanity of others. I close the chapter by suggesting that in order to avoid that kind of evasion we need a methodology even more sensitive to the practices in which our conceptual structure is immersed, in particular, to the real burdens put upon its practitioners given their finite condition.

5.2 The problem of other minds in PI I At the beginning of PI §283 Wittgenstein raises a question which seems to underlie quite a big deal of what goes on under the label of “philosophy of mind”, namely: “What gives us so much as the idea that beings, things, can feel?” As it often happens with Wittgenstein’s writings – or so I have been arguing – I believe that question was carefully crafted in order to elicit certain sorts of philosophical responses from the readers; in this particular instance, the intended responses would range from a sense of astonishment to a kind of anxiety or restlessness. The first response would come from the realization of a remarkable although normally unnoticed feature of our linguistic practices, namely that we

 For the sake of brevity, I will still employ the old division as well as the usual abbreviations “PI I” and “PI II” to refer to what were once called the “parts” of the book. The editorial problems of dividing the work that way are explained in Hacker and Schulte’s preface to the new edition (see PI ix–xi), which drops those titles.  A stance that is epitomized in Strawson’s claim that our attitudes of involvement and participation would not be suppressed “even if some general truth were a theoretical ground for it” (Strawson 2008, 12).


5 Seeing souls: Wittgenstein and Cavell on skepticism about other minds

do ascribe feelings (or, more generally, psychological predicates) to mere things, i. e., mere bunches of matter, which as such are not intrinsically different from other such bunches – stones, plants, tables, computers, etc.¹⁹² As to the second response – i. e., anxiety or restlessness – perhaps the best way to express it is by means of some further questions that PI §283 may naturally elicit, such as these: If this is how our ascriptions of psychological predicates work, how could they possibly be justified? On which grounds? Are we not being victims of a systematic and universal illusion – call it animism – when we ascribe psychological predicates to mere things? Should we not give up those psychological descriptions in favor of some more objective or scientific – say physicalist – ones? These are only a few examples of the kinds of skeptical doubts which one would naturally face when trying to understand the logic of our psychological ascriptions from a particular perspective (more on this in a moment). Having prompted those doubts by means of his initial question in PI §283, Wittgenstein immediately offers a pair of hypothetical answers, as if to be tested: Is it that my education has led me to it [i. e., “the idea that beings, things, can feel”] by drawing my attention to feelings in myself, and now I transfer the idea to objects outside myself? That I recognize that there is something there (in me) which I can call “pain” without getting into conflict with other people’s usage? (PI §283)

What we have in this passage is the raw material for what is known in philosophy as “the argument from analogy” for the ascription of “inner” (psychological) states to “external objects” (such as other persons). A very common charge raised against this argument is that it is question-begging, in that the correlation between mind and behavior that it assumes is precisely what needs to be proved. However common, that is not a charge Wittgenstein himself will consider in this context. Instead, what he seems to be aiming at is an idea – or, more precisely, a picture ¹⁹³ – which not only underpins the whole argument, but also (and more importantly) prompts the initial question which puts it in motion, namely the picture of the privacy of the mental, which is indeed a central target of this region of the Investigations. (Wittgenstein hinted at it at least as early as in PI §246,  There are, of course, lots of extrinsic differences among living and non-living things, such as the degree of organizational complexity and behavior, and we shall soon explore those differences at some length. Right now I will only advance that far from quenching our astonishment, those differences are rather apt to increase it – after all, how could such subtleties possibly account for a (presumptively) absolute metaphysical difference between living and non-living beings?  See esp. PI §115 and its surroundings and PI II §xi for the precise, quasi-technical use of this term.

5.2 The problem of other minds in PI I


which reads: “In what sense are my sensations private? – Well, only I can know whether I am really in pain; another person can only surmise it.”) As I said, this picture is apt to present itself very naturally when we think about the difficulties we often face in understanding what happens to others around us, be it because they are unable to express their true feelings, or because they intentionally hide them from us. Moreover, each of us has probably experienced that same (in)capacity in one’s own case. Fixation on those (real, N.B.) difficulties can make it seem as if all well-succeeded interpersonal communication were a matter of mere chance, as if there was a metaphysical and epistemological gulf between myself and my own (private) experiences, on the one hand, and other (so-called) “people” and their (so-called) “experiences”, on the other.¹⁹⁴ For some philosophical sensibilities that possibility would be relatively easy to dismiss: the fact that our communication works (most of the time, anyway) would be more than enough for practical purposes. Yet Wittgenstein characteristically does not take such an easy way out of a philosophical difficulty. What he does instead is to press it further, drawing attention to some possible consequences of the picture under analysis which would affect much more directly our relations with others, if only we gave it the attention it deserves. One such consequence is brought to the fore again through a pair of those carefully crafted questions: “Are we perhaps over-hasty in our assumption that the smile of a baby is not pretence? – And on what experience is our assumption based?” (PI §249). Given the lack of an unassailable ground implied by the latter question, the insistence on the need to make assumptions – i. e., to infer from one’s own case how things really are with others (see the argument above) – would ultimately lead to doubt whether (other) people really have minds at all: “If I say of myself that it is only from my own case that I know what the word ‘pain’ means – must I not say that of other people too? And how can I generalize the one case so irresponsibly?” (PI §293). The lesson here seems to be: I cannot (or should not) generalize it so irresponsibly. This, I would submit, is the core of the problem of other minds.

 That is precisely the sort of description a solipsist would use to formulate his position. As we saw previously, Wittgenstein himself has put variations of that description in a solipsist’s mouth in the Tractatus, in the Philosophical Remarks and in The Blue Book.


5 Seeing souls: Wittgenstein and Cavell on skepticism about other minds

5.3 Outward criteria, and their limits Does Wittgenstein have an answer to this problem, and, if so, what is it? I assume most readers of the Investigations would want to answer “yes” to the first part of my question; as to its second part I take it that the traditional answer would go roughly as follows: (i) as it happens with most, if not all of the issues dealt with by philosophers, skepticism about other minds is just another instance of a pseudo-problem, a “disease of the intellect”¹⁹⁵ which Wittgenstein wants to cure by means of grammatical or logical elucidation; (ii) the general strategy he employs to that end is basically that of turning our attention away from a set of pictures underlying the formulation of those (so-called) questions, ultimately showing their emptiness or senselessness; finally, (iii) in the particular case under analysis, that result would be achieved by a battery of methodological devices designed to emphasize the internal or criterial relation between overt behavior and the sensations or states of mind it expresses.¹⁹⁶ A very clear example of that strategy is apparently offered just after the passage analyzed above (“What gives us so much as the idea …”), where Wittgenstein claims that: I do not transfer my idea to stones, plants, and so on. Couldn’t I imagine having frightful pains and, while they were going on, turning to stone. Indeed, how do I know, if I shut my eyes, whether I have not turned into a stone? – And if that has happened, in what sense will the stone have pains? In what sense will they be ascribable to the stone? Why indeed should the pain have a bearer at all?! And can one say of the stone that it has a soul [Seele], and that is what has the pain? What has a soul [Seele], or pain, to do with a stone?¹⁹⁷

 See Hacker 1986, 215.  This is not the only kind of therapeutic device he employs to that end. Another well-known strategy is the deconstruction of the model of sensations as private entities (see esp. PI §§293 – 294 – the passages presenting the thought-experiment of the “beetle in the box”); the point of that strategy, as the traditional reading would have it, is quite simple: if sensations are construed as private somethings, i. e., as entities which are accessible only by the ones who have them, they become as useless in our language-game(s) as the (supposed) “thing” named by the word “beetle” in the case imagined by Wittgenstein. That is precisely the situation of the defender of the “argument from analogy” who accepts the picture of privacy, including the model of sensations as private entities, but insists on doing that “irresponsible generalization”, ascribing sensations thus construed to other persons.  I have here decided to keep Anscombe’s original choice of the word “soul” to translate “Seele”, instead of Hacker and Schulte’s “mind”. The latter justify their change in the Preface to the new edition of PI, claiming that in §283 “what is at issue is mind, not soul, and the problems of mind and body, not of the soul and the body” (PI xiv). I simply do not share their sense

5.3 Outward criteria, and their limits


Only of what behaves like a human being can one say that it has pains. (PI §283)

To most readers convinced of the general view I presented above the moral of this passage has seemed very clear: the reason why we do not transfer our idea to stones, plants, etc. is that these things do not behave like a human being. Behaving like a human being, therefore, is a necessary condition for the ascription of pain – or, more generally, “souls” – to things. But is it also a sufficient condition? If it were, then we would be automatically justified, even compelled, to ascribe sensations or souls to beings such as androids or replicants.¹⁹⁸ – Well, are we not? Apparently the Wittgensteinian answer would be: yes, we are. Take, for example, the following passage: Look at a stone and imagine it having sensations. – One says to oneself: How could one so much as get the idea of ascribing a sensation to a thing? One might as well ascribe it to a number! – And now look at a wriggling fly, and at once these difficulties vanish, and pain seems able to get a foothold here, where before everything was, so to speak, too smooth for it. (PI §284)

The final part of this passage seems to license a reasoning along the following lines: well, if one can ascribe sensations such as pains even to flies, what about beings as complex as androids or replicants? Do we have any reason to deny that those beings have souls which would not amount to a reason to deny the same of our paradigmatic cases, i. e., (other) human beings? These considerations call attention to an important feature of our practices for ascribing souls to things: even in hypothetical scenarios where the behavioral criteria indicated above are fully met (think again of Blade Runner), one can still avoid treating the things which display that behavior as human. In fact – and this is the most important point – apparently one can even avoid treating other human beings as humans, if only at a great practical cost. This is what I gather from passages such as the following: But can’t I imagine that the people around me are automata, lack consciousness, even though they behave in the same way as usual? – If I imagine it now – alone in my room

of obviousness about this point; in fact, I take it that this might be yet another symptom of a reading which does not pay due attention to the connections between Wittgenstein’s treatment of the conditions to ascribe psychological predicates in this context and in “Part II” (a point to which we will come back in section 5.4).  A replicant is a (fictional) bioengineered being created in the universe of the movie Blade Runner (Rydley Scott, 1982).


5 Seeing souls: Wittgenstein and Cavell on skepticism about other minds

– I see people with fixed looks (as in a trance) going about their business – the idea is perhaps a little uncanny. But just try to hang on to this idea in the midst of your ordinary intercourse with others – in the street, say! Say to yourself, for example: “The children over there are mere automata; all their liveliness is mere automatism.” And you will either find these words becoming quite empty; or you will produce in yourself some kind of uncanny feeling, or something of the sort. Seeing a living human being as an automaton is analogous to seeing one figure as a limiting case or variant of another; the cross-pieces of a window as a swastika, for example. (PI §420)

In analyzing this passage I would like to emphasize three points: (i) it offers an explicit parallel between the experience of seeing aspects in figures and the experience of seeing aspects of living beings (i. e., seeing them as automatons/as humans); (ii) it also indicates that the change in our perception depends on a larger context (the change is easier “alone in my room”, but more difficult “in the street”, in the midst of my “ordinary intercourse” with others); (iii) finally, it shows that this change comes, if at all, only at a great cost – that of risking emptiness, or the production of “uncanny feelings”. I will have more to say about points (i) and (ii) below. Right now I would like to highlight a connection between the point (iii) and a rather more familiar Wittgensteinian contention – namely, that our perception of living beings as “ensouled” is a matter of attitude, not of opinion or belief. That contention is expressed in passages such as the following (among many others): [1] Our attitude to what is alive and to what is dead is not the same. All our reactions are different. (PI §284) [2] “I can only believe that someone else is in pain, but I know it if I am.” […] Just try – in a real case – to doubt someone else’s fear or pain. (PI §303) [3] “I believe that he is suffering.” – Do I also believe that he isn’t an automaton? […] Suppose I say of a friend: “He isn’t an automaton”. – What information is conveyed by this, and to whom would it be information? To a human being who meets him in ordinary circumstances? What information could it give him? (At the very most, that this man always behaves like a human being, and not occasionally like a machine.) “I believe that he is not an automaton”, just like that, so far makes no sense. My attitude towards him is an attitude towards a soul. I am not of the opinion that he has a soul. (PI II §iv)¹⁹⁹

 §§20 – 22 in Hacker and Schulte’s edition. Appearances notwithstanding, I do not think Wittgenstein’s purpose in these and related passages is to draw a quasi-technical distinction between “attitude” on the one hand, and “belief” or “opinion” on the other (see Winch 1980 – 81). What Wittgenstein is willing to criticize is a certain understanding of the (supposed) “belief” or

5.3 Outward criteria, and their limits


The emphasis conveyed by these passages on our attitudes or reactions (as opposed to opinions or beliefs) brings to the fore a central aspect of Cavell’s thinking about the problem of other minds – namely, that it should not be reduced to a matter of (mere) knowledge, but that it is rather a matter of acknowledgment. Cavell introduces the latter concept as follows: “your suffering makes a claim upon me. It is not enough that I know (am certain) that you suffer – I must do or reveal something (whatever can be done). In a word, I must acknowledge it, otherwise I do not know what ‘(your or his) being in pain’ means. Is.” (MWM 263)²⁰⁰ Whence the view that “the alternative to my acknowledgment of the other is not my ignorance of him but my avoidance of him, call it my denial of him” (CR 389). These formulations are meant to emphasize that we – that is, each of us – have an active role and an irreducible (although all-too-easily evadable) responsibility in adopting a certain attitude in the face of others. This, I take it, is an important first step toward explaining why, even when all the behavioral criteria for the ascription of “humanity” are met, one can still avoid adopting that “attitude towards a soul” of which Wittgenstein speaks, treating those living beings instead as mere automata. Cavell calls that possibil-

“opinion” – namely one that would cover both the acts of (i) taking certain beings as human and (ii) believing that a particular human being is (e. g.) suffering. To take (or to avoid taking) a being as one that has a “soul” is much more fundamental, in the sense that it is a condition of possibility so that, on particular occasions in a language-game, one can be certain or in doubt about whether another human being is suffering or not. In other words: if, at any particular time, one has good reasons to question whether another being is human or an automaton, then, on that particular occasion, it would not make sense to argue over whether, say, the other is really suffering or is faking it, because we would simply lack the background against which that kind of “empirical” doubt could arise. Descartes, in a famous passage of Meditations, argues that it is strictly incorrect to say that we see men through the window, because what we do is in fact a judgment – we judge, that is, that those spectra we see through the window are real men. I think that statement perfectly exemplifies the kind of opinion against which Wittgenstein is arguing in passages such as PI II §iv. To respond to other beings as beings endowed with “souls”, and not as “mere automatons”, is not to make a kind of inference from observation of something more “basic” or “immediate” (such as the perception of the behavior of certain “spectra or fictitious men who move only by springs”). The logical priority is being inverted on the Cartesian analysis. – Only against the background of certain attitudes toward the world and toward others can (empirical) doubt or certainty arise.  As Mulhall clarifies: “acknowledgement is not something other than knowledge but an inflection of it – a way of emphasizing the fact that another’s pain makes a claim upon me” (Mulhall 1996, 47).


5 Seeing souls: Wittgenstein and Cavell on skepticism about other minds

ity “soul-blindness”.²⁰¹ In the next section I will try to clarify that possibility by presenting a more detailed comparison with the case of aspect perception.

5.4 Aspect perception and the problem of other minds In part IV of The Claim of Reason Cavell sums up his reading of PI II §xi as follows: To know another mind is to interpret a physiognomy, and the message of this region of the Investigations is that this is not a matter of “mere knowing”. I have to read the physiognomy, and see the creature according to my reading, and treat it according to my seeing. The human body is the best picture of the human soul – not, I feel like adding, primarily because it represents the soul but because it expresses it. The body is the field of expression of the soul. (CR 356)

Now, if knowing other minds involves interpreting – or better: reading²⁰² – a physiognomy, and thus seeing a human body in a certain way, then of course it must be possible not to do so. That attestation might lead one to conclude that there is, after all, a perfect parallel between the experience of seeing aspects in ambiguous pictures and the experience of seeing aspects in human (or, more generally, animated) bodies, in that in both cases one can fail to see the “thing” in question as x (as a rabbit, as an animated/ensouled/human being, etc.). An important concern of Cavell in the final part of The Claim of Reason (and also

 See CR 378 ff. Cavell intends that notion to be parallel to Wittgenstein’s notions of “aspect-” and “meaning-blindness”. The first is introduced in PI II §xi as follows: “Could there be human beings lacking the ability to see something as something – and what would that be like? What sort of consequences would it have? – Would this defect be comparable to colour-blindness, or to not having absolute pitch? – We will call it ‘aspect-blindness’” (PI II §xi, 257). Roughly: an aspect-blind person is one who cannot experience the switch between two or more aspects of an ambiguous picture; similarly, a meaning-blind person is one who would be unable to experience the switch between two or more meanings of a word, such as the German “Bank” (PI II §xi, 262– 263).  Mulhall has criticized Cavell’s use of the word “interpreting” in this context on the grounds of its misleading connotations – as if aspects were less immediately presented to us than the objects perceived (see Mulhall 1990, 79 ff.). Espen Hammer defends Cavell against that criticism, to my mind convincingly, by indicating that the latter’s usage of the notion of “interpretation” must be itself interpreted in a different light, given Cavell’s explicitly stated view that “my relation to the other’s soul is as immediate as to an object of sight” (CR 368) (see Hammer 2002, 70 – 72).

5.4 Aspect perception and the problem of other minds


in more recent writings²⁰³) is to explore the limits of that parallel, thus aiming at identifying the real difficulty underlying the “problem of other minds” (the real obstacle to our acknowledgment of others). I suggested above that it is natural, or, in any case, not wholly unnatural for us to express a discomfort with (what we take as) the limits of our knowledge of other minds as if it were a result of their being hidden, inaccessible by our naked eye. In PI II §xi Wittgenstein characterizes that feeling – “I can’t know what is going on in him” – as “above all, a picture”, which is further identified as “the convincing expression of a conviction”. Taking that description as his starting point, Cavell invites us to develop Wittgenstein’s thinking a step further, by asking what exactly is the conviction at stake – “[w]hat does the picture of internality, or of unreachable hiddenness, express?” (CR 368). His own answer is “[t] hat the body is a veil, or a blind, a dead end. […] The myth of the body as a veil expresses our sense that there is something we cannot see, not merely something we cannot know” (CR 368). Implicit in Cavell’s analysis at this point²⁰⁴ is the suggestion that the human body can actually be seen as a veil by other human beings in particular contexts – that this is a real, however uncommon and uncanny possibility in our lived experience, and not merely a “philosophical invention” devised to put forward skeptical arguments. Yet by entering that suggestion Cavell does not mean to imply that when one raises skeptical doubts concerning the existence of other minds one is (or should be) actually seeing others as automatons. But calling attention to this fact will not impress our skeptical philosopher, who is already impressed by the sheer possibility of that kind of aspect-change, which in her view brings to the fore the fragility or groundlessness of her ordinary attitude toward the other, thus understandably prompting anxiety.²⁰⁵ It was just that kind of

 See his essays “Companionable Thinking”, in Cavell et al. 2008, and “The Touch of Words” in Day/Krebs 2010.  Explicit elsewhere – e. g., in his reading of Othello at the end of CR.  As Cavell says in another connection, “[t]he anxiety lies not just in the fact that my understanding has limits, but that I must draw them, on apparently no more ground than my own” (CR 115). To have to draw those limits in the case of our relation to one another is what Cavell calls our “exposure” – “To accept my exposure in the case of others seems to imply an acceptance of the possibility that my knowledge of others may be overthrown, even that it ought to be.” (CR 439; see also CR 432 and 435) A further projection of that useful concept has been provided by Cora Diamond, thus extending its application to the case of our relationship with nonhuman animals: “Our ‘exposure’ in the case of animals lies in there being nothing but our own responsibility, our own making the best of it. We are not, here too, in what we might take to be the ‘ideal’ position. We want to be able to see that, given what animals are, and given also our properties, what we are like (given our ‘marks and features’ and theirs), there


5 Seeing souls: Wittgenstein and Cavell on skepticism about other minds

anxiety that Wittgenstein was tempting the reader to experiment in PI §283, and he did that precisely by facilitating or precipitating a series of aspect-changes – “what I perceive in the lighting up of an aspect is not a property of the object, but an internal relation between it and other objects” (PI II §xi) – first by comparing animated beings with inanimate ones (stones, plants), and then back again (recall that “wriggling fly” of PI §284). But can we really take in the suggestion that human beings are somewhat analogous to ambiguous pictures? Cavell himself reminds us in this connection of Wittgenstein’s claim that “[o]ne doesn’t ‘take’ what one knows as the cutlery at a meal for cutlery” (PI II §xi, 123), and asks accordingly whether it would not go “against the Wittgensteinian grain to say, for example, that I see a person as angry who just is obviously angry, with no two ways about it?” (CR 370). The objection raised by this question brings to the fore the need to distinguish more precisely between two different manifestations of the phenomenon of aspect perception which interest Wittgenstein in PI II §xi, namely the dawning of aspects and continuous aspect perception. As Mulhall explains the difference: The former is a very specific visual experience with characteristic forms of verbal expression (or Äusserungen); the latter is an attitude whose presence is sometimes revealed in an individual’s susceptibility to aspect-dawning experiences, but which also finds expression in a variety of other fine shades of verbal and non-verbal behavior. This attitude is certainly not a continuous sequence of aspect-dawning experiences – not a continuous trying or aiming at something; and neither is it a matter of taking something to be the thing it is – a turn of phrase which implies the availability of an alternative way of taking it, which is precisely what the attitude of continuous seeing as is defined as excluding. (Mulhall 2001b, 264– 265)

In sum: continuous aspect perception is “a further species of our ‘regarding-as’ response to pictures”²⁰⁶ – one might say it is our default response ²⁰⁷ to them; the

are general principles that establish the moral significance of their suffering compared to ours, of their needs compared to ours, and we could then see what treatment of them was and what was not morally justified. We would be given the presence or absence of moral community (or thus-and-such degree or kind of moral community) with animals. But we are exposed – that is, we are thrown into finding something we can live with, and it may at best be a kind of bitter-tasting compromise. There is here only what we make of our exposure, and it leaves us endless room for double-dealing and deceit.” (Cavell et al. 2008, 72) The reason for calling attention to this passage here is to register another discussion which I believe could be clarified by means of an exploration of its connections with Wittgenstein’s treatment of aspect-seeing. But that discussion will have to be left for another opportunity.  Mulhall 2010, 265.

5.4 Aspect perception and the problem of other minds


experience of aspect-dawning, on the contrary, is an exception which proves the rule. With that distinction in mind, we can formulate more precisely the analogy between the possibility of aspect-change involved in our experience of other (living) bodies and the experience of seeing aspects more generally. Clearly, we (that is, most of us, most of the time) do not ordinarily take what we know as human beings for human beings, as it would happen in an experience of aspect-dawning. (Human beings are not, in this sense, analogous to ambiguous pictures.²⁰⁸) Yet, as PI §420 illustrates, in very special circumstances we can stop (avoid, fail) to see human beings as human, and this would be analogous to the similarly uncanny experience of making familiar words lose their meanings after much repetition.²⁰⁹ What that (exceptional) possibility of aspect-change shows, therefore, is that we continuously see human beings as human, and in this sense one can say (as Wittgenstein did in PI §420) that “[s]eeing a living human being as an automaton is analogous to seeing one figure as a limiting case or variant of another”.

 Mulhall says that “our general relation to pictures is one of continuous aspect perception” (Mulhall 2010, 265), meaning (I take it) that this is the kind of relation that we normally (i. e., except in extraordinary contexts – such as those of aspect-dawning) take toward them. One of the main tenets of Mulhall’s analysis is to show that the paradoxicality involved in the experience of aspect-dawning stems precisely from that general tendency: we take it entirely for granted that pictures depict something or someone, and relate to them as we do to the thing/person depicted, “to the point at which we naturally transfer responses appropriate to what is depicted to their depictions” (Mulhall 2010, 265); thus: “when it suddenly dawns on us that this particular picture-rabbit is also a picture-duck, when we express our experience quite as if it registers the picture-rabbit’s actually becoming a picture-duck, our sense that everything about it has changed (despite our knowledge that nothing has changed) can be seen as an unusually extreme expression of our general tendency to regard a picture of a rabbit as being as different from a picture of a duck as a rabbit is from a duck.” (Mulhall 2010, 265)  In this sense, too, one might say with Gould that: “It makes no sense for me to think of myself as deciding – in each case of a possible ‘other’, as the other presents itself to my capacity for apprehension – whether or not the other’s words (and gestures and actions) are ‘expressive’ of something, call it a mind or a soul.” (Gould 2010, 74) And yet, as I shall soon try to show (apparently contra Gould), that does not imply that soul-blindness is not a real possibility for beings like us.  What Wittgenstein seems to be aiming at by reminding us of that possibility is just how remarkable is the fact that words (normally) have meanings, as it were on their own faces; that seems to be the effect of the language-game of PI §1, where some (extra) degree of mechanization is employed in the description precisely in order to remind us of what is going on in our ordinary life with words. (I am here echoing a point made by Steven Affeldt in his contribution to Day/Krebs 2010.)


5 Seeing souls: Wittgenstein and Cavell on skepticism about other minds

Given these preliminaries, let us finally turn to the question of what can be the obstacle preventing one to see the human body as a “picture of the human soul”. As Cavell was possibly the first to state clearly, what prevents one of seeing a given aspect in an ambiguous figure is precisely another aspect of it. Now I think that point, together with Wittgenstein’s claim that “what I perceive in the lighting up of an aspect is not a property of the object, but an internal relation between it and other objects” (PI II §xi, 247), might help us get a clearer understanding of the issues under analysis. One implication I would like to emphasize is that changing the background against which one looks at something (a picture, a living body) can help one to see a previously hidden aspect of it, precisely by helping one to draw different connections between it and other objects. At least figuratively, that is precisely what Wittgenstein tries to do when dealing with philosophical pictures, such as that of the body as a veil. This is what happens when he, in Cavell’s words, reinterprets or replaces that “myth”, keeping some fragments of the original picture – namely, the idea that the soul is something that can, at least in principle, be seen – while attempting to shift the location of the “block” to our vision. The expected result is to show that the body does not hide the mind, but rather expresses or depicts it. It is in the (human) body that the (human) ensouled aspect can be seen, if only one draws the right connections. By the same token: The block to my vision of the other is not the other’s body but my incapacity or unwillingness to interpret or to judge it accurately, to draw the right connections. The suggestion is: I suffer a kind of blindness, but I avoid the issue by projecting this darkness upon the other. The mythology according to which the body is a picture implies that the soul may be hidden not because the body essentially conceals it but because it essentially reveals it. The soul may be invisible to us the way something absolutely present may be invisible to us. […] We may say that the rabbit-aspect is hidden from us when we fail to see it. But what hides it is then obviously not the picture (that reveals it), but our (prior) way of taking it, namely in its duck-aspect. What hides one aspect is another aspect, something at the same level. So we might say: What hides the mind is not the body but the mind itself – his his, or mine his, and contrariwise. (CR 368 – 369)

Recall once again that passage about seeing others as automatons (PI §420). There Wittgenstein distinguishes two contexts: in the first we are invited to imagine ourselves “alone in our rooms”, and in the second “in the midst of our ordinary intercourse with others”. Now suppose we agree with Wittgenstein’s judgment to the effect that in the latter context it would be much more difficult to imagine others as automatons. Why would that be so? Is it not the reason that in the second context the ensouled (animated) aspect of the bodies we perceive would be, so to speak, on display in such a (live) situation? Notice, however, that even under such circumstances the possibility of seeing others as automatons re-

5.5 Soul-blindness (or: “living our skepticism”)


mains open; what that indicates is that whether or not an aspect will be hidden depends not only on the context or background against which the perceived object stands, but also on something about the person who is looking at it – it has to do with the connections she draws, or fails to draw. Now, when the skeptic about other minds presents her problem as one of knowledge – as if what we needed was more evidence of some kind, something that (per impossibile) would allow us to go beyond the other’s (mere) body, or maybe through it, thus reaching a “naked soul” – what she is tacitly repressing or avoiding is precisely the burden of trying to draw those connections. A metaphysical puzzle thus arises from the sublimation of a practical or existential difficulty.²¹⁰

5.5 Soul-blindness (or: “living our skepticism”) I hope the preceding considerations are enough to suggest that discrete occurrences of soul-blindness are real (if uncommon and uncanny) possibilities for beings like us. A further question which can be raised in this connection is whether one can make sense of the possibility of systematic soul-blindness. I take it that Cavell’s answer to that question would also be positive, much against the grain of analytical dogmatism, including orthodox Wittgensteinianism; only the cost of that attitude would be even higher: instead of uncanny feelings, the result would be the brutalization of individuals suffering from that kind of blindness, which is precisely the stuff of tragedy.²¹¹ In order to underlie the radicalism of Cavell’s proposal I would like to bring this chapter to a close comparing it briefly with the influential (and, I take it, representative) account offered by Peter Strawson in his essay “Freedom and Resentment”.²¹² The argument presented in that essay is framed by the dispute between Determinists and Libertarians on the issue of free-will. It might, accordingly, seem very distant from the topics examined thus far. But in order to see the connections which are relevant for our purposes I propose to set the “frame” of the argument aside, looking directly at the center of the picture.

 “In making the knowledge of others a metaphysical difficulty, philosophers deny how real the practical difficulty is of coming to know another person, and how little we can reveal of ourselves to another’s gaze, or bear of it. Doubtless such denials are part of the motive which sustains metaphysical difficulties.” (CR 90)  A striking illustration that comes to mind is the way John Merrick (John Hurt) is treated in the movie The Elephant Man (David Lynch, 1980) by some of the main characters, particularly by the manager of a Victorian freak show called Bytes (Freddie Jones).  Strawson 2008.


5 Seeing souls: Wittgenstein and Cavell on skepticism about other minds

What we then find is an investigation of the conditions of human action grounded on the analysis of some particular instances of interpersonal relations and attitudes – most notably those of gratitude, resentment, and forgiveness. One of the central features Strawson highlights about those attitudes is that they are apt to be radically modified according to the way the actions which bring them about are qualified. The following case illustrates this point: If someone treads on my hand accidentally, while trying to help me, the pain may be no less acute than if he treads on it in contemptuous disregard of my existence or with a malevolent wish to injure me. But I shall generally feel in the second case a kind and degree of resentment that I shall not feel in the first. If someone’s actions help me to some benefit I desire, then I am benefited in any case; but if he intended them so to benefit me because of his general goodwill toward me, I shall reasonably feel a gratitude which I should not feel at all if the benefit was an incidental consequence, unintended or even regretted by him, of some plan of action with a different aim. (Strawson 2008, 6)

Modifications like these can be brought about in a large number of common situations in our human relationships; but there are also some less common situations in which our ordinary reactions would not only be modified but rather altogether suppressed. This would happen, for instance, in those occasions in which we would be willing to describe an agent who performed an action that harmed us by using phrases such as: “He wasn’t himself”, “He has been under very great strain recently”, “He’s only a child”, “He’s a hopeless schizophrenic”, “His mind has been systematically perverted”, “That’s purely compulsive behavior on his part”, etc.²¹³ By drawing our attention to the sort of excuses expressed by those phrases, Strawson wants to make us aware of situations in which someone’s actions would invite us “to suspend our ordinary reactive attitudes toward the agent”, seeing him “in a different light from the light in which we should normally view one who has acted as he has acted”.²¹⁴ With a view to simplify the analysis of such cases, Strawson presents (what he himself describes as) “crude dichotomies”²¹⁵ separating the kinds of attitudes that we can have in relation to other human beings. For our present purposes the most important such dichotomy is that which distinguishes “the attitude (or range of attitudes) of involvement or participation in a human relationship”, on the one hand, and the “objective” or “detached” attitude (or range of atti-

 Strawson 2008, 8.  Strawson 2008, 9.  Strawson 2008, 9.

5.5 Soul-blindness (or: “living our skepticism”)


tudes), on the other hand.²¹⁶ About the latter sort of attitude Strawson has the following to say: To adopt the objective attitude to another human being is to see him, perhaps, as an object of social policy; as a subject for what, in a wide range of sense, might be called treatment; as something certainly to be taken account, perhaps precautionary account, of; to be managed or handled or cured or trained; perhaps simply to be avoided […]. (Strawson 2008, 9)

Usually, there is no problem about adopting such an attitude – on the contrary, as Strawson himself acknowledges, we can sometimes use it “as a resource”, e. g., “as a refuge […] from the strains of involvement; or as an aid to policy; or simply out of intellectual curiosity”.²¹⁷ A problem would appear, however, if that attitude took complete precedence over that of involvement or participation in human relationships – if, i. e., we systematically stopped seeing others (and ourselves) as persons, as human beings, and started seeing them (ourselves) as mere “objects of social policy”, or “mechanisms”. The problem posed by such an extreme change is, in short, that it would require a radical change in our normal interpersonal relationships, and with them our very human nature; and the price of such change, as Strawson has it in another context, “would be higher than we are willing, or able, to pay”.²¹⁸ I take it that Cavell would sharply disagree with that view, insisting that where knowledge of “other minds” is concerned, I cannot but “live my skepticism” (CR 437), in that I simply cannot wait for (absolute) certainty or (complete) justification in order to act,²¹⁹ and I equally cannot allow myself to become “accommodated” with my doubts since “the surmise that I have not acknowledged about others, hence about myself, the thing there is to acknowledge, that each of us is human, is not, first of all, the recognition of a universal human condition, but first of all a surmise about myself” (CR 438). As a consequence, becoming

 See Strawson 2008, 9.  Strawson 2008, 10.  Strawson 1985, 34. Strawson also describes this change in “Freedom and Resentment” as one which “does not seem to be something of which human beings would be capable, even if some general truth were a theoretical ground for it” (Strawson 2008, 12). The main candidate to such a ground examined (and dismissed) by Strawson in this paper is, of course, the “theoretical conviction of the truth of determinism” (Strawson 2008, 14).  In fact, to wait for that kind of justification is one of the possible causes of tragedy; that is precisely Othello’s problem: no “evidence” of Desdemona’s faithfulness is really lacking, yet acknowledgment is not forthcoming; that is the horror of his situation. This is what Ted Cohen calls “the true currency of skepticism” (Cohen 1993, 394). Thanks to Paulo Faria for reminding me of that paper.


5 Seeing souls: Wittgenstein and Cavell on skepticism about other minds

“accommodated” or “permitting myself distraction” from my limitations concerning acknowledgment would amount to compromising my own integrity as a human being (see CR 438). But what precisely is the alternative (to accommodation, i. e.) concerning doubts about “other minds”? What does it mean to “live my skepticism” in this case? It means, first and foremost, to recognize – and, if one is to avoid tragedy, to accept – one’s real separateness from others – the fact, i. e., that there is no “metaphysical shortcut” to other’s minds, or souls, or “inner lives” – thus realizing that it is always up to me to acknowledge the humanity in the other, and (thus) in myself. Of course acknowledgment might not be forthcoming, and that might incline one to think (or to fantasize) that this is because “the inner” is metaphysically and/or epistemologically hidden, perhaps hidden by the other’s body, by the human body as such. As I hope the considerations above shall suffice to suggest, Cavell would not exactly deny that in those cases the inner is hidden – surely Desdemona’s faithfulness is hidden from Othello, in a limited but very real sense; yet, as we saw, he would (following Wittgenstein) disagree as to the source of one’s blindness, placing it on the side of the perceiver, internalizing it, making it one’s own responsibility. Part of what I am trying to get at here is that, pace Strawson – for whom “in order for self-conscious thought and experience to be possible, we must take it, or believe, that we have knowledge of external physical objects or other minds”²²⁰ – it is not, or not simply, knowledge or (ordinary) belief or (natural) inclination that really matters wherever the “ascription” of “human status” is concerned. Recall Cavell’s saying: “the alternative to my acknowledgement of the other is not my ignorance of him but my avoidance of him, call it my denial of him” (CR 389). What might be lacking when acknowledgment is not forthcoming is attunement – and again this is not, or not simply, a matter of belief or natural inclination, but rather something that, as Anthony Rudd has put it, “may depend on one’s willingness to be attuned; or to acknowledge one’s attunement or to acknowledge the other”.²²¹ – One might say: where acknowledgment (or its denial) is concerned, knowledge or belief come always too late – notwithstanding our self-indulgent rationalizations to the contrary. Let me try to be clear about one point: I think we should grant Strawson that there would be something rather unwelcome or even untenable involved in the generalized adoption of an “objective” or “detached” attitude toward others – many of us would certainly prefer not to live in a world where that attitude be-

 Strawson 1985, 21.  Rudd 2003, 155.

5.5 Soul-blindness (or: “living our skepticism”)


came standard; yet that is very different from saying that such a change would be “practically impossible”, or unnatural, or inhuman. – And let us not go astray about the latter qualification: granted, we often do describe attitudes that we would rather not see other human beings taking as “inhuman”; yet, as Cavell correctly reminds us, “only a human being can behave inhumanly” (CR 438). In other words, we cannot but acknowledge that such (outrageous) acts and attitudes are as human as any other – if, i. e., we are sincere in our assessment, and do not try to repress our knowledge about which possibilities are open to beings like us.²²² Having called attention to these shortcomings in Strawson’s position, I think we are better positioned to evaluate what I take to be wrong with the kind of response to skepticism that his work illustrates – i. e., one of quick dismissal, and refusal to pay attention to what Cavell would call its truth.²²³ Sticking with the case of skepticism about other minds: does not the fact that it is possible to abandon completely the non-detached attitude toward (some) others show that the ground for acknowledgment is as weak or as strong as our capacities to take or relinquish interest on others and on ourselves, on that which is shared by us – hence that it is only human after all? And does not that realization show that some instability, hence some doubt, hence the possibility of skepticism, are so to speak internal or intrinsic to our finite epistemic condition? Yet, if our attitudes – both detached and non-detached – toward others are not grounded in anything beyond ourselves, then the burden and the responsibility for creating and maintaining interpersonal relationships, hence a community, lies at least partially on me, on each of us. And that kind of burden can understandably make one anxious, and that anxiety might well incline one to avoid the real

 Again, this is a point that Cavell himself made clear in a passage where he comments on the nature of slavery and Nazism: “The anxiety in the image of slavery – not confined to it, but most openly dramatized by it – is that it really is a way in which certain human beings can treat certain others whom they know, or all but know, to be human beings. Rather than admit this we say that the ones do not regard the others as human beings at all. (To understand Nazism, whatever that will mean, will be to understand it as a human possibility; monstrous, unforgivable, but not therefore the conduct of monsters. Monsters are not unforgivable, and not forgivable. We do not bear the right internal relation to them for forgiveness to apply.) To admit that the slaveowner regards the slave as a kind of human being bases slavery on nothing more than some indefinite claim of difference, some inexpressible ground of exclusion of others from existence in our realm of justice. It is too close to something we might at any time discover.” (CR 377– 378)  Epitomized in the claim that “the human creature’s basis in the world as a whole, its relation to the world as such, is not that of knowing, anyway not what we think of as knowing” (CR 241). More on this point in the next chapter.


5 Seeing souls: Wittgenstein and Cavell on skepticism about other minds

issue, by denying or repressing it – as Strawson the “Humean naturalist” seems inclined to do – or else by sublimating or rationalizing it – preferring, as Cavell would say, to transfigure “a metaphysical finitude into an intellectual lack” (MWM 263), which is precisely what I take (some versions of) skepticism as doing. (And yet notice that, as I see this dispute, a skeptic would have a clear advantage against her dismissive opponents, in that the former would at least recognize that there is a real difficulty, and one that simply cannot be solved by acquiring more knowledge – since there is no reason to suppose that we know something that the skeptic ignores – let alone by simply adducing our ordinary beliefs, or natural facts about us, or by describing our conceptual scheme.) The upshot is that, contrary to what Strawson (as well as many Wittgensteinians) seems to suggest, personhood and humanity are not just predicates that one “ascribes” or refrains to “ascribe” to others based on the evidence at one’s disposal, but rather something that one acknowledges or refuses to acknowledge. ²²⁴ Human souls are there to be seen – all it takes is to keep our eyes (and minds) open to them. Yet, the very fact that we can fail to do so shows something important about our condition – something we should not try to repress in our philosophizing, nor elsewhere.

 And as Mulhall says, the humanity “of all human beings is in the hands of their fellows; their accession to human status involves their being acknowledged as human by others. They can fulfil all the criteria, but they cannot force an acknowledgement from those around them”. (I quote from a paper originally published on the Internet: “Picturing the Human (Body and Soul): A Reading of Blade Runner”. Online at ing_the_Human.htm, accessed 03/03/2020. The paper undergone important changes and was published as a section of the book On Film (Mulhall 2002). The revised version of the passage quoted above is on p. 35 of that book.) The film Bicentennial Man (1999), which is based on a novella of the same name by Isaac Asimov, provides another good case (besides Blade Runner) to reflect on these issues. Its robot (?) protagonist adapts it(?)self to various criteria to become a person – including the criterion of being mortal – and yet that right is denied him. Why is that so? I do not have a short answer to that question, but I hope the preceding considerations may offer a good starting for reflecting on it.

6 Taking skepticism seriously: Stroud and Cavell 6.1 Introduction Investigating the nature of human knowledge has been an important task of philosophy since its very beginning. But it was only with the advent of modernity – say around the time of Galileo and Descartes²²⁵ – that epistemology became an autonomous philosophical discipline, ultimately earning the status of a First Philosophy responsible for the evaluation of all other areas of human inquiry. A distinctive concern of this new discipline is to provide a theory of the conditions of knowledge capable of meeting or circumventing the challenges posed by philosophical skepticism, particularly about the existence of the external world, thus clearing the path for the development of science and offering secure foundations for its whole edifice. For many contemporary sensibilities, both the foundational claims of modern epistemology and its fixation with skepticism might seem excessive, even “scandalous”²²⁶ – or at best parts of an “intellectual game designed to introduce technical problems”.²²⁷ That is not an opinion shared by the two philosophers who will be the heroes of this chapter, Stanley Cavell and Barry Stroud. Among the many characteristics shared by their philosophical outlooks, both authors have been engaged in the task of counteracting the more or less widespread disdain of skepticism exhibited in contemporary philosophy, trying instead to convince us of its seriousness or significance, or even its truth. This, as we will see, does not mean that they are willing to accept the skeptical conclusions, at least not in the way both the skeptic and her traditional critics interpret them – which means that an important part of their task is to provide a reassessment of the whole debate. The crux of disagreement has to do with what both

 “Modernity” is here used as a shorthand to describe a rather wide set of historical factors – ranging from 15th-century’s Renaissance Humanism, going through the Protestant Reformation, the rediscovery of Pyrrhonian skepticism and the “discovery of the New World” in the 16th century, culminating with the scientific revolution in the 17th century – all of which concurred to undermine traditional beliefs previously supported by the narrowing of the cultural horizon and religious authority in Europe.  Alluding to Kant’s famous statement that it would be a “scandal” for philosophy not to have a definitive proof of “the existence of things outside us” (Kant 1998, Bxi, 121), Heidegger declared that what is really outrageous is “that such proofs are expected and attempted again and again” (Heidegger 2010, §6, 197). As it happens with most analytic philosophers who use Heidegger’s passage, P. F. Strawson quotes it with approval but out of context, interpreting it as congenial to his own “naturalistic refusal” of the skeptical challenge (see Strawson 1985, 24).  Mulhall 1996, 89.


6 Taking skepticism seriously: Stroud and Cavell

Cavell and Stroud see as attempts to short-circuit the diagnosis of the real problems underlying skepticism, thus allowing its critics to extract (negative) conclusions prematurely, therefore missing the chance of learning what skepticism, if correctly understood, has to teach about our condition. In proposing a methodology which is more open to hear what the skeptic has at heart to say Cavell and Stroud exhibit another shared feature, namely their professed inheritance from (late) Wittgenstein and from Thompson Clarke.²²⁸ From the former they learned to see ordinary language as being capable both of generating and of curing the metaphysical impulse (or of its skeptical counterpart) in philosophy – a lesson encapsulated in the methodological advice “to bring words back from their metaphysical to their everyday use” (PI §116). From the latter they learned that the procedures of traditional epistemology (including paradigmatic skeptical arguments such as the ones stated in Descartes’s first Meditation) are continuous with those that characterize ordinary epistemic inquiries, hence that it will not do as an effective criticism simply to try showing to the skeptic, say, that she has changed the meanings of the words employed in her statements (words such as “know”, “see”, “directly”, “object”, etc.). In Cavell’s own words, the lesson is that everything that could be said “in defense of the appeal to ordinary language could also be said in defense, rather than in criticism, of the claims of traditional philosophy” (MWM xii–xiii). Finally, and as a kind of extrapolation from the similarities indicated above, I would risk claiming that both Cavell and Stroud want to make room for a new kind of epistemology, less concerned with establishing certainties and foundations, or even with providing a general theory of the conditions of knowledge able to meet skeptical challenges,²²⁹ instead focusing on understanding the real limits that define finite cognition – limits that we cannot fail to know, and yet try with all our intellectual might to avoid acknowledging. Hence the need for careful (Wittgensteinian) grammatical reminders, accompanied by an openness to the all-too-human disappointments which any person seriously engaged in an epistemological investigation will have to face. Given those affinities, what about the differences? As I will argue in the next section, Stroud suspects that Cavell’s own engagement with skepticism failed to live up to the methodological requirements just mentioned, leading him to offer a diagnosis (particularly in Part II of The Claim of Reason) which amounts to yet another attempt to short-circuit the skeptical stance, not taking it seriously  See Stroud 1984, xiv and CR xvi.  As Stroud himself has indicated, he and Cavell are among the “very few who acknowledge […] that the worst thing to do with the traditional question about our knowledge of the world is to try to answer it. If you get that far, it’s already too late” (Stroud 2000, 56).

6.1 Introduction


enough. There are two main lines of criticism supporting Stroud’s suspicion which I intend to assess in some detail in what follows: – First line of criticism: Cavell wants to show that some of the skeptic’s “claims” are nonsensical, or at the very least that the skeptic cannot mean what she wants them to mean; but in order to achieve that verdict Cavell must be assuming some kind of theory or story about the conditions of making claims. However, he fails to present such a story in any clear way and, what is more important, even if he could offer it one could still try to restate the skeptical challenges in terms of any number of alternative propositional attitudes (other than claiming), such as surmising, for example. Hence the skeptic would have an easy way out of that difficulty. – Second line of criticism: Cavell seems willing to present an alternative view of our relation with the world (as well as with other minds) which he thinks (or rather assumes) is immune to skeptical threats, since it is not a cognitive relation of the kind that could possibly be doubted. Cavell dubs that kind of relation “acceptance” or “acknowledgment”, but other than naming it, he again fails to offer a fully developed account of its nature, in particular he fails to demonstrate its fundamental difference from knowing. And in the absence of such an account one can very well wonder whether that relation could not be equally available to skeptical criticism. In the remainder of this chapter I will reconstruct those lines of criticism in more detail, arguing that both are ultimately misdirected, and predicated upon narrow (if natural) construals of two distinctive Cavellian strategies. First (section 6.2), his use of “nonsense” as a term of philosophical criticism: basically, in Cavell’s view, to think that one can only call something “nonsense” if one has a background story (a theory of sense or meaning) is already to give the traditional epistemologist what she most desires. Second (section 6.3), concerning Cavell’s appeal to acknowledgment and acceptance, I shall argue that Stroud has not fully taken into account Cavell’s point about skepticism being not exactly a cognitive problem in need of a theoretical solution, but rather an intellectualization of our disappointment with our finite condition and its consequences for the way we relate to others and to the world. In other words, I take it that for Cavell philosophical skepticism (as traditionally construed at least since Descartes) is a symptom of a more fundamental malady which, if I am not mistaken, he does not think is amenable to be cured by means of philosophical argument, but can at least be shown in its real, non-intellectualized form by a philosophy sufficiently open to its truth, that being part of what the notions of acknowledgment and acceptance are intended to indicate, or remind.


6 Taking skepticism seriously: Stroud and Cavell

6.2 Cavell and Stroud on skepticism and meaning Cavell (1979) and Stroud (1984) both offer detailed assessments of global forms of skepticism about the external world taking Descartes’s argument in the first meditation as a paradigmatic case. As is well known, the first step in that argument is the observation that some false opinions are commonly accepted as true, indicating that our subjective conviction is at best an unreliable arbiter in cognitive matters. Based on that consideration Descartes establishes a kind of skeptical test designed to tell dubitable from indubitable knowledge, with the ultimate aim of using the latter as the basis for rebuilding our entire cognitive edifice. This initial move is the aspect of Descartes’s procedure that most interests both Cavell and Stroud in their reconstructions. Leaving aside some details, we can summarize the main stages of that procedure as follows: 1) Descartes construes a scenario in which a generic object (more on this notion shortly) presents itself to the senses of a subject S in normal epistemic conditions, so that we would ordinarily think that S is entitled to believe in the existence of that object; this type of scenario is described by Cavell as a “best case” of knowledge,²³⁰ while Stroud’s preferred terminology is “representative case”;²³¹ 2) Descartes then argues that if one can raise a reasonable doubt ²³² about such a best or representative case, it follows that the validity of our knowledge of the external world as a whole does not have a safe ground; 3) Finally, Descartes offers a skeptical hypothesis such that, if one cannot show its falsity or outrageousness, provides a reasonable doubt concerning the knowledge we claim to have in a best or representative case. The use of the expression “generic object” (as opposed to “specific object”) in step (1) is Cavell’s, but I take it that Stroud would be in agreement with the underlying distinction Cavell wants to draw using those expressions. The reason why the starting point of the argument must be the presentation of a generic ob-

 See CR 145.  See Stroud 1984, 10.  About the reasonableness of the grounds for doubt, compare Cavell and Stroud: “the reasonableness of the philosopher’s considerations was a function of their being just those ordinary and everyday considerations that any person who can talk and can know anything at all will recognize as relevant to the claim (‘belief’) under scrutiny.” (CR 131) “The question before us is to what extent Descartes’s investigation of his knowledge that he is sitting by the fire with a piece of paper in his hand follows these recognized everyday procedures for assessing claims to know.” (Stroud 1984, 26).

6.2 Cavell and Stroud on skepticism and meaning


ject (e. g., a generic bird that can stand for any bird, or a generic table that can stand for any table) is that the failure to identify a specific object (e. g., this particular Goldfinch I see in my garden or this particular piece of Louis XIV furniture in my room) would only have implications for assessing (i) S’s competence (her vision acuity, her knowledge of birds and furniture, etc.), and (ii) the nature of her epistemic circumstances (lighting conditions, distance from the object, etc.), but would not illuminate (iii) knowledge as a whole, i. e., the very project of getting knowledge. As Stroud puts the point: “[Descartes] starts his investigation […] in what would seem to be the most favourable conditions for the reliable operation of the senses as a source of knowledge”,²³³ or again: “[w]hat is true of a representative case, if it is truly representative and does not depend on special peculiarities of its own, can legitimately support a general conclusion”.²³⁴ In his assessment of the procedure just reconstructed, Cavell identifies three formal components which would constitute the conditions for a Cartesian-like skeptical argument: a) Submitting a cognitive claim about a generic object (any bird or table – but not this Goldfinch or this piece of Louis XIV furniture); b) Requiring a ground for that claim (“But how do you know?” – “Because I see” or “Through the senses”); c) Providing a reason or ground for doubting the claim (“But you might be dreaming”) which shows that S does not have good reasons to think he knows anything (and not this bird or that table). Epistemologists interested in pointing out the failure of the skeptical argument have traditionally attacked (c), and in fewer cases (b). Cavell and Stroud, on the other hand, are both more interested in assessing (a) – the very notion of cognitive claims involving generic objects. If that kind of claim can be made, they both argue, then skeptical doubts will seem both relevant and fatal, and no (Austinian) appeal to what we ordinarily say will be able to bar the radical skeptical conclusion;²³⁵ their disagreement, as we will see, has to do with the obtaining of

 Stroud 1984, 9.  Stroud 1984, 10. It is precisely because Austin proceeds by appealing to the conditions of identification of specific objects in his analysis (e. g. in Austin 1961) that both Cavell and Stroud see a methodological limitation in his philosophy – one which would render it ineffective against a Cartesian-like skeptical argument.  Cavell is quite explicit about this at many points in part II of The Claim of Reason; here is a representative statement: “What ‘best case’ turns out to mean can be expressed in a major premiss: If I know anything, I know this. Then it turns out that, as a matter of eternal fact, we do not know this. As a minor premiss, that discovery precipitates the right devastation.


6 Taking skepticism seriously: Stroud and Cavell

its antecedent. Cavell’s argument to deny it amounts to the presentation of a dilemma to the skeptic: although only generic objects allow skepticism to be generalized (i. e., applied to the whole of our cognitive claims, and thus to the very existence of the external world), no (clear or full) meaning can be provided for claims that purport to refer to generic objects. Even if those claims contain words which are perfectly meaningful and grammatically well-ordered, they ultimately show themselves to be empty or devoid of a clear point, and hence incoherent or imaginary, used “outside [their] ordinary language game”.²³⁶ It is important to emphasize that Cavell’s diagnosis does not rest on a dogmatic appeal to “what we ordinarily say”; it is true (as Descartes himself noticed, followed by Hume) that the skeptical conclusions bring little or no conviction in our everyday lives; yet, given the absence of universal rules that would ensure certain word projections and prevent others,²³⁷ determining what is a legitimate linguistic move becomes a matter of investigating what a competent user of a language would be inclined to take as such. Now, if we grant that point, what reason would we have to think that the skeptic is not a competent user of language, or that she has less legitimacy in these matters than her critic? From Cavell’s point of view, a different, more subtle approach is needed in order to indicate the real problem with the skeptical conclusion. His suggestion is that instead of focusing on the lack of (complete) naturalness of the skeptic’s claims, we should ask whether her words really can mean what she thinks, wishes, or believes they mean.²³⁸

To draw the conclusion then requires no proneness to argument, merely the capability of it.” (CR 145) As to Stroud I am here grounding my hypothesis in claims such as this: “[Descartes] considers his knowledge of the world around him in general by considering the particular case of his sitting by the fire with a piece of paper in his hand. That single case is chosen to serve as a representative of all of our knowledge of the world. It could sustain a quite general conclusion about all of our knowledge of the world only if it were a perfectly normal case, without special features.” (Stroud 1984, 54; my italics)  As Cavell explains: “What is left out of an expression if it is used ‘outside its ordinary language game’ is not necessarily what the words mean (they may mean what they always did, what a good dictionary says they mean), but what we mean in using them when and where we do. The point of saying them is lost. […] What we lose is not the meaning of our words – hence, definitions to secure or explain their meaning will not replace our loss. What we lose is a full realization of what we are saying; we no longer know what we mean.” (CR 207)  The argument for this conclusion was provided in its most sustained form in part I of The Claim of Reason. I offered a critical reconstruction of that argument in chapter 4, while also marshaling more recent texts from Cavell and his controversy with Kripke 1982.  Here it is worth noting the connection, indicated by Cavell himself, with the kind of terms of criticism with which we are constantly confronted in Wittgenstein’s writings: “I have related the initiating experience of the philosopher, and his ensuing progress, to Wittgenstein’s notion

6.2 Cavell and Stroud on skepticism and meaning


Let’s see how this applies to a concrete case. Suppose our skeptical epistemologist argues to the effect that we can never see the whole object in front of us, say this whole vase, since all we can “directly see” is that part which is facing us (or which appears to us), roughly its front half, and seeing this is compatible with its lacking a back half, or an interior – it could be merely a façade, for example. From considerations like these our epistemologist might conclude that we can never see objects “as they are in themselves”, since to perceive them as such would imply perceiving all their parts. – Now what exactly would be the problem with that line of argument? It is true, of course, that the formulation used in the conclusion projects the verb “to see” in a way that seems to be in conflict with our everyday uses of that verb, and this in turn seems to make that projection unacceptable – we feel it must be somehow mistaken. And yet, it is not obvious that it would be (always) false (let alone senseless) to claim that we do not see the whole object, if only because, under suitable circumstances, very similar formulations would make perfect sense – e. g., “You can’t see the back half, so you don’t know it’s red all over”, said in a context where it is of practical importance to make sure we know whether the object is red all over.²³⁹ Or again, think about what would happen if I were to be challenged by a friend who loves to play practical jokes, and who I know in the past has replaced an object for a façade in order to have fun at the expense of his interlocutor, to answer how does the back half of this vase looks like; in that case it would be natural to reply that I do not know, because I do not see that part right now. I hope this brief illustration is sufficient to show that the real problem with the epistemologist’s projection can only be seen through a more sophisticated analysis – one that does not simply state that “The skeptic uses a form of words that makes perfect sense in certain contexts and then applies it to a case in which it makes no sense”; as Cavell reminds us: That these words are not ordinarily used in such contexts doesn’t mean they can’t naturally be given application in them. (Using language depends on this ability to give application in new contexts.) Whether his words mean what they say here, or only produce in him the im-

of ‘speaking outside language games’ (or […] that, in philosophizing, ‘language goes on holiday’ ([PI] §38), that it is ‘like an engine idling’ ([PI] §132) […]), suggesting that what happens to the philosopher’s concepts is that they are deprived of their ordinary criteria of employment (which does not mean that his words are deprived of meaning – one could say that such words have nothing but their meanings) and, collecting no new ones, leave his concepts without relation to the world (which does not mean that what he says is false), or in terms I used earlier, remove them from their position among our system of concepts.” (CR 226)  See MWM 250.


6 Taking skepticism seriously: Stroud and Cavell

pression of a meaning, depends on whether they have been given application. And it doesn’t seem obvious that an object can’t (and even oughtn’t to) be taken to be something whose front ineluctably conceals its back. This is, of course, not all the skeptic wants. He wants us to see the rightness, the inevitability of his application; and given that, his conclusion comes fast. But it is no argument against his application to say that if he is allowed it an unwelcome conclusion follows. (MWM 250 – 251)

A more satisfying diagnosis of what is problematic with the skeptic’s preferred way of formulating his “discovery” would have to make an effort to understand the real motivation behind that formulation, refraining from dogmatic appeals to “what we ordinarily say” while trying to challenge the sense of “inevitability” of that discovery. Here is a very brief outline of such a diagnosis: ordinarily, when we say that we can see only a part of an object, there is an implication that we cannot see it as a whole on this particular instance (since the part we cannot see might be hidden, etc.) But that is precisely not the conclusion drawn by our epistemologist – what he wants to say is (more or less) that (the whole of) a generic object might be simply excluded from our vision in all cases, “as a matter of eternal fact”, to go back to Cavell’s suggestive formulation.²⁴⁰ What is the rationale underlying that claim? Cavell suggests it is a particular picture, one in which our position vis-à-vis all objects would be geometrically fixed, “rooted”, as if we were the planet from which (at best) only the visible part of the surface of the moon could be seen at any particular time (see CR 202). Put like that, the picture should seem obviously wrong, in that in any concrete situation our position would not be thus fixed; and it suffices to imagine ourselves moving around the object for the feeling that there are “parts” of it that we cannot see to inevitably and immediately cease to exert fascination upon us. Assuming that a diagnosis along those lines is correct, the important question to raise here is how could such a flagrantly misguided picture underlie so much of our epistemological investigations at least since modernity, and what would be the consequences of its rebuke. Answering those questions has been a central aim of Cavell’s work, and I will only be able to highlight some aspects of that answer here. For starters it is important to notice how the preceding analysis can help explain the instability of the skeptical conclusion – the fact that it evaporates as soon as the philosopher’s imaginary context is replaced by a fuller and more realistic one, which takes into account other important features of our actual interaction with objects. At least part of the motivation that leads the skeptic to distort that interaction is the “Cartesian” tendency to separate the senses from the body, or to repress the internal relation between perceiving

 See fn. 235 above.

6.2 Cavell and Stroud on skepticism and meaning


and acting, favoring instead a fictional “set-up which positions us before objects in a manner analogous to cameras or microscopes”.²⁴¹ (It is in this sense that one can say, as Cavell does, that the skeptic has invented something about our cognitive situation, instead of having discovered something about it – which is what he imagines to have done.) This diagnosis also allows us to go back and clarify Cavell’s dilemma, which can now be recast it in the following, more general terms: either the skeptic employs a model that distorts our interaction with objects, thereby preventing any claim to be made about something in our world (but what other world is there?), or his model fits our actual situation, but then it fails to produce a general conclusion, applicable to the totality of knowledge. Cavell is well aware that none of this amounts to a refutation of skepticism – on the contrary, what this diagnosis shows is that the skeptic is (at least partially) right, namely to the extent in which he insists against the dogmatist that our ordinary criteria (e. g., for the use of the verb “to see”) do not provide the kind of certainty sought by traditional epistemologists. In fact, as I will try to show in the next section, instead of trying to refute skepticism, Cavell’s goal is rather to make explicit the existential costs involved in the standing human possibility of repudiating our criteria – ultimately, the radical privacy it would imply. Nothing I have said so far would be exactly news to Stroud,²⁴² although I think I have been emphasizing important aspects of Cavell’s argument that do not receive their due attention in Stroud’s reconstruction. As it often happens, I take it that this modification of emphasis makes all the difference when it comes to an assessment of the upshot of Cavell’s argument. In his own assessment, Stroud confesses a disappointment, claiming that the argument is anti-climatic.²⁴³ But what did he miss exactly? One thing he seems to miss, as I ex-

 See Hammer 2002, 53.  Here is Stroud’s summary of Cavell’s criticism: “Cavell contributes the idea that, in the concrete case that the philosopher offers as the ‘best’ kind of case by which the adequacy of the sensory basis of our knowledge can be tested, no actual claim is being made. ‘The philosopher’s context is non-claim’, Cavell says; ‘no concrete claim is ever entered as part of the traditional investigation’ ([CR] p. 217). The philosopher imagines a claim to have been made in a context he specifies (e. g. sitting by the fire with a piece of paper in his hand) and he then goes on to examine the grounds for that imagined claim in that context. But that is not to imagine a real situation in which a real knowledge-claim is made. Since the examples considered and subjected to assessment as best cases of knowledge are not really examples in which a claim is made, there is nothing for the philosopher’s bases to be the bases of. So the philosopher has not discovered anything when he thinks he has discovered that sense-experience is an inadequate basis for knowledge as a whole.” (Stroud 2000, 59)  See Stroud 2000, 59.


6 Taking skepticism seriously: Stroud and Cavell

pressed above, is a general theory of the conditions for claiming something. Instead of a detailed theory, all that Cavell offers according to Stroud is “the general point, insisted on again and again by Austin and ordinary language philosophers, that saying something, stating something, asking something, claiming something, and so on, all have their conditions”,²⁴⁴ yet Cavell never identifies those conditions in a systematic and detailed way.²⁴⁵ Besides, even if he could provide such a story, one could still argue that claiming is too strong a requirement, in that all the Cartesian skeptic really needs is to believe, surmise, assume, think or have any other “attitude” relative to a state of affairs such that he could later assess or review its reliability.²⁴⁶ Both objections, in my view, miss the target, and are based on misconstruals of Cavell’s philosophical enterprise. Concerning the latter, I do not think anything of importance depends on the supposedly stronger requirement for claims instead of any other attitudes. As I understand it, Cavell’s interest is much more general, and has to do with the Wittgensteinian question of whether or not a particular move in our language-games (be it a claim, a surmise, a thought, or any other propositional attitude) has a point, or else becomes an “idle gear”. I will illustrate this point briefly by taking Moore’s well-know “practical example” of showing an envelope to his audience as a test case,²⁴⁷ and then I will come back to the first, more general objection. In his Some Main Problems of Philosophy, Moore investigates what we should say when we see a specific, concrete material object, such as the envelope he is holding, in good light, before his audience; his initial proposal is that in such

 See Stroud 2000, 60.  Or again: “But is it true that ‘no concrete claim is ever entered’ in, say, Descartes’s assessment of his knowledge? The thing to do would be to look carefully at Descartes’s reflections and see whether there is a claim to know something there or not. The quite general fact that asserting, remarking, claiming, offering a basis for a claim, and so on, all have their own special conditions is not enough to establish the point. We would have to know what the conditions of claiming something are, and why they must be fulfilled in order for a claim to be made, before going on to show that not all those conditions could be present in the kind of examples the philosopher considers. And an account of claiming alone, as opposed to judging or believing or asserting or assuming, and so on, would not be enough. It would have to be shown that the conditions of none of the ways of saying something or thinking something that could serve the philosopher’s purposes could be fulfilled in the kind of example he must rely on. But what are all the ways of saying something or thinking something that could serve the philosopher’s purposes? That is what a diagnosis along these lines would have to concentrate on – what the philosopher aspires to, and why he cannot reach it.” (Stroud 1984, 261– 262)  See Stroud 1984, 263 and 2000, 61.  See Moore 1953, 29. This case is analyzed by both Cavell (CR 219) and Stroud (2000, 62– 63).

6.2 Cavell and Stroud on skepticism and meaning


cases “[w]e should certainly say (if you have looked at it) that we all saw that envelope”.²⁴⁸ In examining such a seemingly trivial (and trivially true) assertion, Cavell compares it to Descartes’s equally (and equally deceptive) “simple request”, at the beginning of the Meditations, for his reader to imagine herself seated by the fire, attired in a dressing gown, having a paper in her hands, etc., and concludes that both Moore and Descartes fall short of presenting bona fide claims to knowledge, given that the scenarios they and other traditional epistemologists ask us to imagine are actually “non-claim contexts” (CR 218). In support of that view Cavell reminds us that “to ask us to imagine a situation in which we are seated before the fire is not to ask us to imagine that we have claimed (to know or believe) that we are seated before the fire” (CR 217– 218), or again, in the case of Moore, “‘should say’ here only means: there are occasions on which we would in fact say this, claim it. But this is not one of them” (CR 219); actually, as Cavell indicates, taken literally Moore’s suggestion that we should certainly claim, if we looked at the envelope, that we all saw it is simply mad: “it suggests that whenever any of us sees anything we claim to see it, e. g., that flower, its shadow, this sheet of paper, the piano as I look up, etc. – everything catches our attention, every moment” (CR 219; my italics). In his assessment of Cavell’s criticism, Stroud protests against him that Moore is not making the “mad” suggestion that in a case like that we would all claim to be seeing an envelope; according to Stroud Moore’s purpose is only to make explicit the “uncontroversial fact that [this] is a case of everyone’s seeing the envelope”, or again that “Moore was simply getting his audience to see the envelope, and to agree that it is a case of seeing an envelope.”²⁴⁹ Hence his criticism: If the case does not have to be imagined from the outset as one in which a claim is made or is in the offing, then I do not see how Cavell’s point that the philosopher’s context is “nonclaim” can itself stop the philosophical investigation from getting off the ground. His point in the case of knowledge is that since no concrete claim is entered in the philosophical case, it is not really a case of knowing. But would he say the same thing about this case of seeing? Is it at all plausible to say that since no concrete claim is entered, it is not really a case of seeing? I think we are all strongly inclined to say, as I am, that if that’s not seeing an envelope then I don’t know what is, and if I want to understand seeing, that is just the sort of thing I want to understand. (Stroud 2000, 63)

 Moore 1953, 30.  Stroud 2000, 63.


6 Taking skepticism seriously: Stroud and Cavell

In this context Stroud is making a Clarkian point about “twin-sentences”,²⁵⁰ namely that it is quite possible to assert perfectly legitimately and unproblematically in everyday situations sentences that “sound like” the general propositions philosophers are concerned to assert or to deny in their (extra-ordinary) treatment.²⁵¹ Now, given that (i) those are sentences that can be legitimately made/ claimed in (some) ordinary situations, and (ii) they are general, Cavell’s thesis that the philosopher’s context is non-claim must be wrong, according to Stroud. That does not mean, as Stroud himself emphasizes, that Cavell’s diagnosis fails, but it would imply that a further step is necessary, showing that even if a “mundane assertion of philosophical-sounding general remarks” is legitimate “what was true of that claim in that context could not possibly be taken as a conclusion that is representative of our knowledge as a whole in the way the philosopher intends”.²⁵² I think Cavell would not need to accept this challenge; the crucial question here is whether Moore is really making a “mundane assertion of philosophicalsounding general remarks” when he, in that particular context, utters (or writes, or thinks, or surmises) those particular words about seeing the envelope in his hands. Cavell’s effort is to show, at the very least, that it is not clear that this is the case (or, in Clarke’s terms, that it is not clear whether Moore is using his words as “plain” or as “philosophical common-sense”;²⁵³ if the latter, Cavell might be right; if the former, then a fuller story has to be told, justifying the use by Moore of those words in that situation, and it will not do as such a story simply to say: “I am here doing philosophy”,²⁵⁴ since what is at stake is precisely the legitimacy of a particular way of “doing philosophy”²⁵⁵). Now since Stroud has obviously read Cavell’s analysis of Moore’s case very carefully, and yet was not convinced by his assessment of the situation, I propose we turn our attention to another, analogous case, also designed by Cavell to help us see what the commitments are that serious speech exacts upon us – call it the

 See Clarke 1972, 756.  See Stroud 2000, 64.  Stroud 2000, 66.  Clarke 1972, 759.  I am here thinking of Wittgenstein’s anecdote in On Certainty: “I am sitting with a philosopher in the garden; he says again and again ‘I know that that’s a tree’, pointing to a tree that is near us. Someone else arrives and hears this, and I tell him: ‘This fellow isn’t insane. We are only doing philosophy.’” (OC §467)  I myself would side with Clarke, for whom Moore is an inveterate “philosopher’s plain man: he drags us down from our ivory towers, we reflective, ethereal beings, back to our earthly selves, and confronts us with the plainness of what we do believe as plain men” (Clarke 1972, 758).

6.2 Cavell and Stroud on skepticism and meaning


parable of the green jar. The parable begins with Cavell asking precisely “when are we ‘knowing something’?”; it then goes on like this: Do I know (now) (am I, as it were knowing) that there is a green jar of pencils on the desk (though I am not now looking at it)? If I do know now, did I not know before I asked the question? I had not, before then, said that or thought it; but that is perhaps not relevant. If someone had asked me whether the jar was on the desk I could have said Yes without looking. So I did know. But what does it mean to say “I did know”? Of course no one will say that I did not know (that I wasn’t knowing). On the other hand, no one would have said of me, seeing me sitting at my desk with the green jar out of my range of vision, “He knows there is a green jar of pencils on the desk”, nor would anyone say of me now, “He (you) knew there was a green jar …”, apart from some special reason which makes that description of my “knowledge” relevant to something I did or said or am doing or saying (e. g., I told someone that I never keep pencils on my desk; I knew that Mrs. Greenjar was coming to tea and that she takes it as a personal affront if there is a green jar visible in the room …). Perhaps one feels: “What difference does it make that no one would have said, without a special reason for saying it, that you knew the green jar was on the desk? You did know it; it’s true to say that you knew it. Are you suggesting that one sometimes cannot say what is true?” What I am suggesting is that “Because it is true” is not a reason or basis for saying anything, it does not constitute the point of your saying something; and I am suggesting that there must, in grammar, be reasons for what you say, or be point in your saying of something, if what you say is to be comprehensible. We can understand what the words mean apart from understanding why you say them; but apart from understanding the point of your saying them we cannot understand what you mean. (CR 205 – 206)

Since the last part of this passage has been often misunderstood,²⁵⁶ and since it is quoted by Stroud in a somewhat decontextualized way, I would like to start my analysis by making some general points of clarification. First, what I take Cavell to be saying when he distinguishes the meaning of “words themselves” and the point of saying them is, basically, that “words themselves” have meaning (the meaning a good dictionary gives) to the extent that we can imagine any number of situations or contexts in which those words with those meanings could be put into use by particular speakers, for particular purposes. Meaning in that (dictionary) sense is therefore an abstraction, but meaning in a more robust sense is the use made in concrete situations. (I take this to be one of the main lessons Cavell inherited from both Wittgenstein and from Clarke.) Hence, and this is my second clarification, one should be careful not to take Cavell to be claiming (as some commentators did) that there are (determinate, specifiable) things we are not allowed to say, although we know exactly what the words employed in the purported claim mean. No such separation between semantics and pragmatics is forth-

 About the misunderstanding, see Conant 2005.


6 Taking skepticism seriously: Stroud and Cavell

coming in Cavell’s (and, I take it, Wittgenstein’s) work. On the contrary, the problem with the interlocutor’s suggestion that Cavell “knows there is a green jar in front of him” is precisely that we don’t know what is meant/said there (in particular what the word “know” is supposed to mean there). To grasp the grammar of his words is precisely to grasp the point of his saying them here and now, to grasp their role or contribution given the set of commitments and interests that constitutes our shared form of life. Hence Cavell’s siding with Wittgenstein’s way of appealing to “what we ordinarily say”, and not with Moore’s (or Austin’s).²⁵⁷ The tempting picture to be counteracted here is one in which our language or grammar could accomplish (shared) meaning without our contribution. The problem of the interlocutor in the parable above is precisely this kind of evasion: he wants his words to have a meaning independently of what he means by them in that particular context. His failure has less to do with “breaking grammatical rules” or deviating from the “dictionary meaning” of the words he employs; the problem is that those words, as uttered in that imaginary context, are completely severed from the practices and forms of life that could give them any purchase, and thus lack any clear purpose. Having that in mind, let us go back to Moore’s envelope one last time, as well as to Stroud’s objection that any attitude weaker than claiming would suffice for a (Cartesian) skeptic. Here is Cavell’s preemptive defense: “But”, someone will still feel, “all these statements are true, and it is outrageous to say that they ‘cannot’ be said. Surely you can simply remark something without that being something the person may not have known.” This just means: for an utterance to be a “remark” (for it to remark something) is an alternative way of its achieving competence as an assertion (alternative to its being intended to tell someone something). And to remark something equally has its conditions. Of course you may “simply remark” or note or register the pres-

 “[…] the emphasis [in Wittgenstein’s work] is less on the ordinariness of an expression (which seems mostly to mean, from Moore to Austin, an expression not used solely by philosophers) than on the fact that they are said (or, of course, written) by human beings, to human beings, in definite contexts, in a language they share: hence the obsession with the use of expressions. ‘The meaning is the use’ calls attention to the fact that what an expression means is a function of what it is used to mean or to say on specific occasions by human beings. That such an obvious fact should assume the importance it does is itself surprising. And to trace the intellectual history of philosophy’s concentration on the meaning of particular words and sentences, in isolation from a systematic attention to their concrete uses would be a worthwhile undertaking. It is a concentration one of whose consequences is the traditional search for the meaning of a word in various realms of objects, another of which is the idea of perfect understanding as being achievable only through the construction of a perfect language. A fitting title for this history would be: Philosophy and the Rejection of the Human.” (CR 206 – 207)

6.2 Cavell and Stroud on skepticism and meaning


ence of something, or that something is so. But that does not mean that just anything, just any time, can (grammatically, comprehensibly) be remarked […]. That in certain contexts “anything and everything” can be remarked or contemplated […] may be true (though we might try imagining what it would be like to remark the relation of two grains of sand on a beach, or to contemplate a crumpled handkerchief, or to become absorbed in a pin – I don’t say you can’t). My point is only that where some special context is required, it must be supplied, imagined. (CR 210 – 211)

The same goes for surmising, thinking, assuming, believing …, all of which have their conditions of (full) intelligibility. So, going back to the green jar and the envelope cases, no matter what attitude one is dealing with, the right question to ask is whether we can supply or imagine special contexts in which their linguistic expression would have a point. Cavell is of course not arguing we cannot do so.²⁵⁸ The problem is to think we do not even need to try – a thought connected with the (Clarkian) picture of “the philosopher as Recording Angel, outside the world, neither affecting it nor affected by it, taking stock” (CR 210 – 211). I hope these considerations are sufficient to show that nothing in Cavell’s argument relies in any fundamental way on his emphasis on the conditions for claiming, as opposed to any other number of propositional attitudes. His is a vision about the conditions of making sense, or making legitimate moves in our language-games, and it stands or falls according to how accurate one takes that vision to be. Let us now go back to Stroud’s first, more general objection, which had to do with the alleged absence of a theory of the conditions of claiming. Given what I just said, I hope I am entitled to the suggestion that it would be fairer to revise it, targeting not that specific absence but rather the absence of a theory for the conditions of making sense. Thus revised, I take it that what the objection would say is true: no such theory is forthcoming in Cavell’s work. Only that will not seem problematic for someone convinced of the fecundity of philosophical procedures which are not parasitic on anything like a theory of meaning, but rather on the

 “[…] of course it needn’t at all be odd to say, ‘He knows there is a green jar on the desk.’ It may, e. g., be a way of saying ‘That’s all he knows’ (I haven’t told him about Mrs. Greenjar’s sensitivity; or, he’s too stupid, or callous, to care about the implications of his actions). And here ‘know’ contrasts with something he does not know or realize, as it does normally. Or it might be an exasperated way of saying ‘He ought to know better’ (than to put a green jar in the same room with my pet bull). And here ‘know’ contrasts with something he might be expected to know or remember. To take a statement to be competently made is to provide for it a context (‘fix reality’ if necessary) in which it would make good sense (not be ‘odd’) to say it. The philosopher’s progress then appears to be this: first to deprive a statement of such a context, then to fix reality, or construct a theory, which provides this sense another way.” (CR 211– 212)


6 Taking skepticism seriously: Stroud and Cavell

authority that any competent user of ordinary language can claim to possess (a point that is connected to the “Wittgensteinian vision of language” that Cavell articulates in the first part of The Claim of Reason). About this kind of authority, this is what Cavell has to say: The philosopher appealing to everyday language turns to the reader not to convince him without proof but to get him to prove something, test something, against himself. He is saying: Look and find out whether you can see what I see, wish to say what I wish to say. Of course he often seems to answer or beg his own question by posing it in plural form: “We say …; We want to say …; We can imagine …; […] We are dissatisfied ….” But this plural is still first person: it does not, to use Kant’s word, “postulate” that “we”, you and I and he, say and want and imagine and feel and suffer together. If we do not, then the philosopher’s remarks are irrelevant to us. Of course he doesn’t think they are irrelevant, but the implication is that philosophy, like art, is, and should be, powerless to prove its relevance; and that says something about the kind of relevance it wishes to have. All the philosopher, this kind of philosopher, can do is to express, as fully as he can, his world, and attract our undivided attention to our own. (MWM 96)

Now I see no better way of defending those procedures than showing their results when applied to particular cases, which in turn might hopefully serve as models to be applied to further cases, but not because of a supporting general theory. The application is precisely not wholesale but retail, piecemeal. Hence my emphasis on the details of his analysis of one particular case of skeptical argument, having to do with our supposed incapacity to see “the whole object”. Nothing in that diagnosis (for example, the indication of a picture of objects as moons and subjects as fixed geometrical points, the separation of action and perception, etc.) can be directly applied to Descartes claim that “I am here seated by the fire …”, but noticing that such a claim sounds a lot like Moore’s “I have an envelope in my hand”, which in turn sounds a lot like the “I know there is a green jar on the table” might as well suffice to encourage further investigation. Or so I hope.

6.3 Cavell and Stroud on the truth in skepticism Around this juncture we need to turn to one of the most difficult and controversial but also more fundamental aspects of Cavell’s philosophy: his view about the truth in skepticism. Stroud summarizes that view (quoting a passage from CR 241) as follows: For Cavell, what we learn from a demonstration of the traditional sceptical philosopher’s failure to give sense, or the right kind of sense, to his words, is that “the human creature’s

6.3 Cavell and Stroud on the truth in skepticism


basis in the world as a whole, its relation to the world as such, is not that of knowing, anyway not what we think of as knowing.” (Stroud 2000, 66)

Having summarized that view, Stroud’s first concern is to identify the Cavellian alternative for a human creature’s “relation to the world as such”: if knowing is not the ground for that relation, what is it? Stroud points out that The Claim of Reason does not answer that question directly, but that in an earlier essay (“The Avoidance of Love”, reprinted in MWM), Cavell names that relation acceptance. ²⁵⁹ From then on Stroud presents a series of questions designed to problematize this notion, pressing Cavell to give a more detailed characterization of that relation. The following passage is illustrative in this connection: First, I do not see how any such “thesis” or “moral” can avoid being “sceptical” in just that sense of the term in which Cavell rightly applied it to all those views which make good sense only on the basis of ideas that are invented and sustained by scepticism itself. What is “the world as a whole” or “the world as such”, and what is a creature’s “basis” in that world, or its “relation” to it? And why is there thought to be only one such “relation”, or anyway one basic “relation”? These ideas can perhaps be given content with the help of Descartes’s First Meditation or some other traditional investigation of our relation to what comes to be called “the world around us.” But if I agree that that investigation cannot get off the ground, and for the reasons that Cavell has in mind, then I am no longer sure that I can fill those ideas with the sense they must have if the “moral” Cavell wants to draw from scepticism is to be intelligible. So one question I would ask Cavell is: why is his “moral” not still “sceptical” in that sense? (Stroud 2000, 67– 68)

What Stroud is asking in this passage, in short, is whether one can give a nonskeptical meaning to the central notions involved in Cavell’s alternative story about our relation to the world and others – that is, a meaning that does not lead one to indulge in the traditional (skeptical) craving for a general, wholesale and infallible justification for our claims to know those “things”. To my mind this is a formidable challenge, and it is my hope that in trying to meet it, taking my bearings from other parts of Cavell’s work, we may arrive at a better understanding of what exactly is the truth in skepticism. Stroud’s own assessment of Cavell’s stance is of course negative – it “remains too close to traditional philosophy” and hence it should be discarded by Cavell’s own lights, after all: [i]t implies that, although the traditional philosopher was wrong, he was not very far wrong. He had the right conception of “us”, and of “the world as a whole”, and of there being one, or one basic, “relation” between them, but he happened to pick on the wrong

 See Stroud 2000, 67.


6 Taking skepticism seriously: Stroud and Cavell

“relation.” He thought it was knowledge, but it isn’t – it is “acceptance.” And he thought we knew other minds in general; but we don’t, we “acknowledge” them. But it appears that the traditional philosopher was right about everything else. (Stroud 2000, 68)

In order to begin counteracting that assessment, I would like to call attention to two fundamental disanalogies between what Stroud calls “the traditional picture” regarding the central notions under analysis and Cavell’s picture, which I will then clarify in what follows: – First, acceptance (of the world) and acknowledgment (of other minds) should not be construed as merely epistemic relations. This becomes clear when we realize that although their respective “failures” (namely, the failures to accept the world or to acknowledge other minds) might result in an absence of knowledge of those “objects”, they amount first and foremost to existential or practical stances one might take toward them. – Second, “the world” referred to by Cavell when formulating his alternative view is also not to be construed as something like a (Cartesian) “Big Object” to be accessed in some way by a (Cartesian) “Subject”; when Cavell says, in an earlier context of The Claim of Reason, that the skeptical conclusion that “we do not know with certainty of the existence of the external world (or of other minds)” is true and undeniable (see CR 45), it is worth recalling that what is true and undeniable is precisely that our relationship with the world as a whole and with others in general should not be interpreted as the possession of certainty about those “entities”. If we are to take Cavell’s aim of presenting a fundamentally different picture of our relation to the world seriously, then we should expect our understanding of the relata themselves to be transformed. This is the most Heideggerian strand in The Claim of Reason, and I take it that it has not impressed Stroud sufficiently as such.²⁶⁰ That said, I take it that Stroud’s question – as to whether one can offer a more positive account of the nature of our relationship to “the world as a whole” – is quite fair. At the very least it expresses a concern that I myself cannot help raising when reflecting about these matters. I will start moving in the direction of offering such an account by drawing a parallel exploring Cavell’s respective di-

 Interestingly, Stroud acknowledges the bond with Heidegger in a footnote added in 1999 to the version of “Reasonable Claims” reprinted in Stroud 2000, 67, fn. 41; yet that recognition does not seem to be taken to heart in the content of his critical analysis, which remains, as far as I can see, fundamentally unchanged.

6.3 Cavell and Stroud on the truth in skepticism


agnoses of skepticism about the external world and skepticism about other minds side by side. Notice, first, that both skeptical problems have been traditionally presented as concerning the justification for certain cognitive claims or beliefs – in the former case, those referring to external objects, in the latter the mental contents of other persons. In both cases Cavell’s diagnostic procedure amounts to showing that there is confusion in the very formulation of these “problems”. The diagnosis and subsequent reinterpretation he proposes calls our attention to the practical or existential difficulties, albeit repressed or sublimated, underlying the theoretical puzzles with which epistemology has been traditionally concerned. Taking skepticism about other minds as a starting point,²⁶¹ Cavell’s main move is to show that underlying the formulation of that problem is a distorted conception of the concepts of “inner” and “outer”, on the one hand, and of human behavior, on the other. According to that distorted picture, the “outer” would be identified with (mere) behavior, i. e., with (mere) mechanical movement of our bodies, which would thus be placed in the category of physical or material things; the “inner”, on the other hand, would be characterized as private and hidden, or, at best, as indirectly observable, something, therefore, that would be beyond, behind or inside our bodies. Given that picture, the problem of other minds can be easily identified, as it has traditionally been, with the (metaphysical and epistemological) difficulty to get into the mind of others, hence going beyond what the perception of their bodies and their behavior make (directly) available. Following Wittgenstein’s footsteps, Cavell radically challenges that picture of the relationship between the “inner”/“outer” and human behavior. For starters, the “ontological cut” proposed by these authors is not between body and mind, but between living (animated) bodies and non-living (inanimate) ones. As a result, the vision of the relationship between body (the “outer”) and mind (the “inner”) also undergoes a fundamental change: animated bodies are not to be seen as something that stands between me and the minds of others, but rather as that which gives expression to those minds. (Analogously, meaningful words do not stand between me and their meaning – meaning just is what gets expressed by words used by competent speakers in suitable contexts.) The problem of other minds is not exactly solved (or even dissolved) in this way, but only reinterpreted: instead of a theoretical (metaphysical and/or epistemological) problem, it is now seen as a difficulty that is essentially practical: what can hide the

 What follows is a condensed version of the analysis presented in more detail in chapter 5.


6 Taking skepticism seriously: Stroud and Cavell

mind of the other is not her body as such, but my attitude towards it, my refusal to let its expressivity impress me, make a claim upon me. In Cavell’s own words: The block to my vision of the other is not the other’s body but my incapacity or unwillingness to interpret or to judge it accurately, to draw the right connections. The suggestion is: I suffer a kind of blindness, but I avoid the issue by projecting this darkness upon the other. (CR 368)

This consideration raises the question of what exactly could motivate someone to “avoid the issue” – the responsibility of interpreting human behavior accurately, acknowledging its meaning and significance – preferring instead to intellectualize it, as if it were a (mere) problem of knowledge. As Cavell argued in his insightful reading of Shakespeare’s King Lear (referred to by Stroud), one possible motivation is that “recognizing a person depends upon allowing oneself to be recognized by him” (MWM 279); in other words, acknowledgment implicates oneself, even exposes oneself – so, for example, your suffering makes a claim upon me. It is not enough that I know (am certain) that you suffer – I must do or reveal something (whatever can be done). In a word, I must acknowledge it, otherwise I do not know what “(your or his) being in pain” means. Is. (MWM 263)

Of course sympathy is not the only way of acknowledging suffering – indifference and sadistic pleasure are equally possible, among many other (all-toohuman) responses. But the point is, whatever the response, it will implicate and expose oneself (one’s values, one’s character, one’s identity) to the gaze of the other, and that might (understandably) make one anxious. In order to avoid that burden one can always close oneself to the claims of others, and an effective, “wholesale” way of doing that is to reinterpret the entire situation in theoretical terms, transforming concrete, singular, practical difficulties of acknowledgment into one (Big) problem of knowledge. (Another, less theoretical and more tragic way of avoiding those difficulties by reinterpreting them in epistemological terms was shared, according to Cavell, by Lear, Othello, Macbeth and Hamlet, “one crazed by knowledge he can neither test nor reject, one haunted by knowledge whose authority he cannot impeach, one cursed by knowledge he cannot share” (MWM 325).) Let us now compare this diagnosis with Cavell’s analysis of the distorted picture of our relationship with objects that lies at the basis of skepticism about the external world (see section 6.2 above). There too an attempt was made to convince us of the need to overcome a picture underlying traditional epistemology, including skepticism’s own self-interpretation, according to which our primary contact with the world would be that of a motionless spectator passively looking

6.3 Cavell and Stroud on the truth in skepticism


at (surfaces or parts of) objects; the alternative is to remind us that we are embodied minds (or animated bodies) who can (must?) seize the world practically as a world of things that are useful and accessible for human projects (“ready-tohand”, to use a Heideggerian phrase). Hence the need for a completely redesigned picture not only of our own nature – as embodied perceivers and agents instead of “Cartesian minds” – but also of “the world”, which becomes the name for the set of aspects of our experience that are highlighted by a particular sort of interaction, given particular purposes and interests. In this sense one could perhaps say that the (lived, real) world also makes claims upon ourselves, and it is our responsibility to interpret those claims accurately, imbuing the things with which we interact with adequate human value – i. e., whatever value is due to them given their role in our shared practices, in our form(s) of life. But again, analogously to the case of other minds, community (finding that we share a set of values and practices) is not always forthcoming: I might always discover that I am different, hence that my world is different (in this or that particular aspect), and that also can make me anxious, so much so that I might prefer to avoid the issue by projecting my confusion and disappointment upon the world, or upon the human capacity to know the world (as such). Perhaps one simple illustration might help understand this general point. We sometimes talk of “the world of ”, where “ ” can be replaced by the name of a particular set of human practices, such as the world of academia, the world of fashion, the world of politics, the world of business, etc. Take the former as a test case: living in the world of academia (feeling at home within it) involves being able to interact in different ways with different people (students, faculty, staff …), as well as being capable of using different “tools of the trade” (books, blackboards, chalk, projectors …). Now think of what refusing or avoiding such a world would look like: clearly it would not amount merely to getting outside a place (although it might include something like that) but rather to a rebuke or renouncement of a set of practices and commitments which previously gave meaning and purpose to our actions, perhaps in favor of another one. If “world” is understood along these lines (roughly as a horizon of meaning), then “denying its existence” (which is the intellectualized understanding of its abandonment, better suiting the skeptic’s own self-interpretation), although always possible, will imply adopting a particular attitude towards one’s own experience, practices, commitments and fellow human beings, an attitude which ultimately may isolate oneself from the world and others. But again, this isolation, which is something one is at least partially responsible to create, is always apt to be intellectualized, becoming a “discovery” about the existence of a (metaphysical and epistemological) gap between oneself and the “external world”. This


6 Taking skepticism seriously: Stroud and Cavell

does not mean the gap itself is an illusion – it might be very real; only this intellectualized understanding will deflect its real causes. Given the considerations above I hope it will become clear that, contrary to what Stroud seems to suggest, acknowledgment and acceptance are not to be seen as alternative relations to the world and to others, but rather as inflections of a relation (call it “at–homeness”) that might in many occasions be experienced as one of knowledge (or its absence, say ignorance).²⁶² The advantage of reinterpreting our stance toward the world and others as Cavell does is to show that “what stands in the way of further knowledge is knowledge itself, as it stands, as it conceives of itself”.²⁶³ In other words, it is by adopting a cognitive stance in which I relate to the world and to others as if they were mere sources of evidence, which as such might or might not give me certainty, that I isolate myself, avoiding my own responsibility in establishing other sorts of relationships. Knowledge of the external world and of other minds can in this way be prevented, only not by ignorance, but by “a refusal of knowledge, a denial, or a repression of knowledge, say even a killing of it”.²⁶⁴ What I deny or repress this way is something I cannot (simply) fail to know, namely that my very being in the world and among other people comes with responsibilities for how to respond to the claims they make upon me. Trying to avoid that responsibility, as Cavell never tires of reminding us, is part of what it means being a human being, and to preserve the truth in skepticism is to prevent that realization from getting repressed or displaced. Skepticism is thus seen as “the central secular place, in which the human wish to deny the condition of human existence is expressed; and so long  This is a point Cavell explicitly presents in the Introduction to IQO, in what impresses me as an almost direct response to Stroud’s criticisms.  “But I do not propose the idea of acknowledging as an alternative to knowing but rather as an interpretation of it, as I take the word ‘acknowledge’, containing ‘knowledge’, itself to suggest (or perhaps it suggests that knowing is an interpretation of acknowledging). In an essay on the tragedy of King Lear I say, ‘For the point of forgoing knowledge is, of course, to know’ (‘The Avoidance of Love’, p. 325), as if what stands in the way of further knowledge is knowledge itself, as it stands, as it conceives of itself; something not unfamiliar in the history of knowledge as expressed in the history of science. Otherwise the concept of acknowledgment would not have its role in the progress of tragedy.” (IQO 8)  “In incorporating, or inflecting, the concept of knowledge, the concept of acknowledgment is meant, in my use, to declare that what there is to be known philosophically remains unknown not through ignorance (for we cannot just not know what there is to be known philosophically, for example, that there is a world and I and others in it) but through a refusal of knowledge, a denial, or a repression of knowledge, say even a killing of it. The beginning of skepticism is the insinuation of absence, of a line, or limitation, hence the creation of want, or desire; the creation, as I have put it, of the interpretation of metaphysical finitude as intellectual lack. (So speaks serpentine infinity.)” (IQO 51)

6.4 Coda


as the denial is essential to what we think of as the human, skepticism cannot, or must not, be denied” (IQO 5). The intended upshot of these considerations is that it would be mistaken to interpret the thesis of the “truth of skepticism” (the view that the presence of the world for us is not a function of knowledge, but of acceptance) as an (alternative) solution to the “skeptical problem”. If that were the case, Stroud would be right in pointing out that such a thesis would simply beg the real question. What Cavell wants to show instead is “not only that there is no such a solution, [but] that to think otherwise is skepticism’s own self-interpretation” (CHU 35). As Espen Hammer clarifies: What the skeptic seeks is a relation to the world for which the individual is no longer accountable – an absolute presence beyond the vicissitudes of having to establish a connection between what I say and the object before me. So to think there is a solution to skepticism is to give in to it – accept the skeptic’s vision of our predicament. (Hammer 2002, 57)

Does that mean skepticism is simply “irrefutable”? I assume Cavell’s considered view on the matter is that there might be provisional and topical ways to overcome skepticism, only those will not occur within (what we presently think of as) philosophy.²⁶⁵

6.4 Coda In the Preface of The Significance of Philosophical Scepticism, Stroud points out different senses of the word “significance” in his book’s title, one of which would be to indicate something about our nature: We can also speak of the significance of something in the sense of what it signifies or what it indicates or what it shows. In that way too, perhaps above all, I am interested in the significance of philosophical scepticism. Even if the thesis means nothing, or not what it seems to mean, can the study of scepticism about the world around us nevertheless reveal something deep or important about human knowledge or human nature or the urge to understand them philosophically? I am pretty sure that the answer is “Yes”, but I do not get as far as I would like towards showing why that is so. (Stroud 1984, ix)

 Things would be different if philosophy could itself become literature and still know itself – or so Cavell suggests in the final paragraph of The Claim of Reason (CR 496).


6 Taking skepticism seriously: Stroud and Cavell

It is my hope that the comparison pursued in this chapter, between the two philosophers who have done most to show skepticism’s seriousness in our time, can make a small contribution to that end.

7 Skepticism, perfectionism, and the limits of morality 7.1 Introduction In this final chapter we will explore some skeptical difficulties concerning the very possibility of sharing moral standards, and of reaching agreement in moral evaluations and arguments. The immediate provocation for this chapter was a shocking claim made by Cavell when commenting on a sequence from the movie Mr. Deeds Goes to Town. ²⁶⁶ The protagonist of this movie is Longfellow Deeds (Gary Cooper), a simple countryside man who made a living by writing poems for postcards until he unexpectedly inherited a fortune from a millionaire uncle and moved to his mansion in New York. Deed’s story draws a lot of attention from the local press, which ends up nicknaming him “Cinderella Man”. In the sequence that interests me Deeds goes out to dinner at a restaurant which advertises that there you can “eat with the literati”. Inside the restaurant we find a group of poets and writers who had read about Deeds, and that when informed of his presence invite him to join them. Knowing that Deeds writes poems, the intellectuals begin to ask questions about his writing methods in a condescending and mocking tone. After a while Deeds realizes their true intentions, and leaves the table shouting: “I guess I found out that all famous people aren’t big people.” Two writers protest trying to prevent his departure, causing Deeds to knock them both down by punching them. With that sequence in mind, the first question I want to raise and address in what follows is this: morally speaking, how are we supposed to assess Deeds’s reaction? There seems to be no doubt that the writers acted wrongly, thus deserving some kind of rebuke; but what about the specific rebuke offered by Deeds, namely knocking them down? Was it appropriate? In an abstract and decontextualized analysis of the episode, it is likely that many of us would feel inclined to condemn Deeds’s attitude; but if I may speak for those of us who recall the details surrounding this sequence, I think it will be all but inevitable to conclude that at the very least Deeds was right and justified in expressing his indignation, in one way or another. ²⁶⁷ Of course punching someone is a rather radical way to do that, but then again we must remember that this was not Deeds’s first reac-

 Frank Capra, USA/Columbia, 1936.  I describe here an impression shared by many other viewers who saw the film with me in class.


7 Skepticism, perfectionism, and the limits of morality

tion, in that it was called for only after his ineffective attempt at verbally expressing indignation. But even leaving aside, at least for the moment, the question concerning what are acceptable degrees of reaction, the more general point I would like to explore in what follows is this: are there situations in our moral discussions in which the morally and rationally proper attitude is to show indignation (say), as opposed to continuing the dialogue? One of the reasons why this question interests me is that it can help us articulate some reminders about the nature and purpose of a moral discussion, hence about the very nature of our practical rationality. Many philosophers seem committed to a conception of moral reasoning that takes as its end rational agreement among agents. Such a conception, taken literally, excludes (almost by definition) the kind of outcome presented above from the scope of morality; from that perspective, expressing indignation would just amount to an irrational way of trying to get rid of the burdens put upon the agent’s shoulders in the context of a moral argument. As we will see, however, the requirement of rational agreement seems to be part of an unrealistic picture of our moral practices – a picture which, if strictly thought through, would lead to skepticism concerning their very possibility. In a passage that alludes to the sequence I just described Cavell takes the opposite stance, arguing that “to discover our community a few will have to be punched out, made speechless in their efforts to usurp or devalue the speech of others” (CW 207). In the remainder of this chapter I would like to explore some of the main motivations behind that shocking claim, trying to clarify and defend, if in a limited way, Cavell’s alternative conception of morality, which gets articulated in some of his later works under the heading of “Emersonian perfectionism”.

7.2 What is the point of a moral argument? In Part III of The Claim of Reason Cavell starts an investigation of the nature of moral arguments by citing and commenting on the following passage from Plato’s Euthyphro: Socrates: But what kind of disagreement, my friend, causes hatred and anger? Let us look at the matter thus. If you and I were to disagree as to whether one number were more than another, would that make us angry and enemies? Should we not settle such a dispute at once by counting? Euthyphro: Of course.

7.2 What is the point of a moral argument?


Socrates: And if we were to disagree as to the relative size of two things, we should measure them and put an end to the disagreement at once, should we not? Euthyphro: Yes. […] Socrates: Then what is the question which would make us angry and enemies if we disagreed about it, and could not come to a settlement? […] Is it not the question of the just and unjust, of the honorable and the dishonorable, of the good and the bad? Is it not questions about these matters which make you and me and everyone else quarrel, when we do quarrel, if we differ about them and can reach no satisfactory agreement? (apud CR 253)

In this excerpt of the dialogue Socrates points to a difference between mathematical and scientific discussions, on the one hand, and moral discussions on the other. The crux of the difference has to do with the conditions for reaching agreement in each case. Thus, if I and my interlocutor were in the midst of a dispute concerning a certain magnitude, for example, and if we were both competent in the practices of counting and measuring, we could overcome a disagreement fairly easily. In most cases, however, disagreement about the best course of action to be taken does not seem so simple to overcome. What is the reason for this difference? Is it due to some peculiar difficulty in becoming morally competent? But exactly what kind of competence would that be? Would it be similar to expertise in mathematics or in some empirical science, and if so, in what respects? In particular, would it be a matter of acquiring more knowledge – say knowledge of moral principles, rules or facts, or again about the meaning of moral notions? These issues have divided philosophers throughout history. Socrates himself (at any rate, Plato’s Socrates) notoriously argued that knowledge is indeed the basis of virtue, which implies that, at least in an ideal situation (in which two agents were in the same cognitive level regarding the conditions for acting well), rational disagreement would simply not be possible. Closer to our day G. E. Moore may be cited as another example of moral cognitivist, and for very similar reasons: according to his “intuitionist” position moral judgments about “the good” (or any other moral notion) should, at least in principle, agree as much as empirical judgments concerning the size of two objects.²⁶⁸ On the other side of this dispute are the non-cognitivist positions, such as those advocated by the leading exponents of logical positivism in the early

 See Moore 1960.


7 Skepticism, perfectionism, and the limits of morality

20th century. A. J. Ayer can be taken as a representative. In Language, Truth and Logic, Ayer argued that: […] ethical philosophy consists simply in saying that ethical concepts are pseudo-concepts and therefore unanalysable. […] There cannot be such a thing as ethical science, if by ethical science one means the elaboration of a “true” system of morals. For we have seen that, as ethical judgments are mere expressions of feeling, there can be no way of determining the validity of any ethical system. And, indeed, no sense in asking whether any such system is true. (Ayer 1936, 168)

The dispute between cognitivism and non-cognitivism in ethics and metaethics leads to what Stanley Bates has usefully characterized as an antinomy: cognitivism implies a requirement for agreement among agents that seems absolutely unrealistic; yet non-cognitivism seems completely inconsistent with our moral practices. As Bates summarizes: “if the emotive theory were correct, then a person’s use of ethical language would be either an act of bad faith or of alienation, depending on whether he or she did believe that theory or did not.”²⁶⁹ As we know, the standard “solution” to antinomies amounts to showing that there is a problematic assumption shared by both sides of the dispute, and this is precisely the strategy adopted by Cavell in this particular case. The assumption in question, although not always explicitly formulated in these terms, is that “logic and, more particularly, science, provide the models for the rationality of argument” (CR 260 – 261); or, in other words, the problematic assumption is that a moral argument could only be considered rational if it had a structure similar or analogous to deductive reasoning, “leading from premisses all parties accept, in steps all can follow, to an agreement upon a conclusion which all must accept” (CR 254). Cognitivists like Moore (and before him Plato) make that assumption and desperately try to show that moral reasoning can meet those requirements, if at the cost of having to postulate a special, intuitive moral faculty; non-cognitivists such as Ayer, on the other hand, also tacitly make that assumption, but because they perceive that ordinary moral arguments fall short of the standards of rationality employed in the context of scientific disputes, they end up simply excluding morality from the realm of rational assessment, relegating it to the mere “expression of feelings”. In agreement with Ayer and other non-cognitivists, Cavell thinks it is unrealistic to expect that moral arguments should lead to conclusions that everyone must accept; but failure in reaching agreement about those conclusions does not need to be taken as an index of a general failure of (practical) rationality, any

 Bates 2003, 22– 23.

7.2 What is the point of a moral argument?


more than a failure in ordinary epistemic claims to know would show that knowledge as such is impossible (a point established in parts I and II of CR, and explored in the preceding chapters). Although the hope of reaching agreement is an essential motivation in moral discussions – otherwise we would not be taking seriously the views of our interlocutor – Cavell defends the legitimacy and value of rational disagreement about a course of action. This is possible because, in his view, what distinguishes rationality from irrationality in any domain is not adherence to a specific set of procedures of justification (for example, induction or deduction or whatever procedures are considered correct in logic, mathematics and other sciences), but rather a commitment to follow the standards considered appropriate in their respective domains, seeking to provide support and justification for what we say or for how we act on the basis of that commitment. One of the distinctive features of scientific rationality is precisely the expectation that competent users of its patterns of argument must agree in their conclusions; in other words, the agreement itself is, in these cases, an index of competence, and hence of rationality. But there are other types of rationality, such as those enacted in aesthetic and in moral discussions. In general, it can be said that a discussion is rational to the extent that the judgments made by the interlocutors involved in it are supported by reasons (a grammatical triviality); but nothing, short of a tacit commitment to an intellectualist or scientificist conception of rationality forces us to think that the ability to provide reasons should be reduced to the ability to apply general principles to particular cases, or with the ability to extract general rules from the experience of multiple instances. Kant himself, who is usually considered a paradigmatic exponent of this intellectualist conception of practical rationality, had already noticed the peculiarity of aesthetic judgments, whose operation does not follow inductive or deductive logic; yet Kant by no means excluded those judgments from the scope of rationality, or put into question their claim of objectivity or even universality.²⁷⁰ The kind of competence that matters in the case of aesthetic judgments is a subject’s highly developed ability to detect what we may call aesthetic saliences, i. e., objective aspects or features of the phenomena that are grounding one’s experience, but that may nonetheless go unnoticed for someone with a sensibility less attuned to such aspects of reality. Cavell summarizes this point by saying that “[t]he problem of the critic, as of the artist, is not to discount his subjectivity but to include it; not to overcome it in agreement but to master it in exemplary ways” (MWM 94). In this sense an aesthetic judgment can be seen as a critic’s

 See Kant 2007, especially §§7– 8 and §19.


7 Skepticism, perfectionism, and the limits of morality

invitation for others to share her experience of (e. g.) a work of art, and it is for this reason that Cavell argues that: It is essential to making an aesthetic judgment that at some point we be prepared to say in its support: don’t you see, don’t you hear, don’t you dig? The best critic will know the best points. Because if you do not see something, without explanation, then there is nothing further to discuss. (MWM 93)

That last sentence is critical for my purposes; as Wittgenstein asserted in a different context “[e]xplanations come to an end somewhere” (PI §1), and knowing when and how to stop in a specific context is also an important indication of a subject’s competence in a particular domain of discussion.²⁷¹ I want to argue that something similar applies to moral arguments, that being the reason why they may end up abruptly, without this being a sign of irrationality. But in order to arrive at this conclusion I first need to emphasize this important difference between the kinds of agreement expected in the respective fields of aesthetics and of science: in the latter case agreement is ensured precisely by the exclusion of subjectivity, while in the former agreement depends essentially on a controlled or exemplar use of it. It is because of this difference that aesthetic and moral arguments, unlike scientific ones, will allow their participants to unveil, for themselves and for others, intimate aspects of themselves, by articulating and making intelligible the positions they are adopting and by which they are taking responsibility. Herein lies the interest, but also the risk which is peculiar to aesthetic and moral discussions: they provide an important opportunity for participants to develop their individuality and their identity, stimulating an increase in self-knowledge as well as the construction or discovery of a community; but agreement in those matters is not always forthcoming,²⁷² failure is always possible and it might result in the subject’s discovery of her own confusion and opacity, which can in turn lead to rejection and ultimately to isolation. Leaving aside the parallel with aesthetics for a moment, let us try to get clearer about what kind of reasons are morally relevant, that is, what kinds of considerations are legitimate and called for according to the standards of practical rationality. Cavell gives us a clue to answer that question in a passage in which he criticizes Charles Stevenson’s metaethical position, precisely because it does not provide a satisfying criterion for moral legitimacy, as it assumes that the use of any statement is legitimate to the extent that it may change the

 It might go without saying, but clearly competence in mathematics and in other sciences shares the same feature.  As is agreement about the meaning of our words (see chapter 4).

7.2 What is the point of a moral argument?


interlocutor’s attitudes in a moral discussion. The main problem with this position, according to Cavell, is that its adoption involves treating the interlocutor as a mere object to be manipulated, rather than as a person, “a creature with commitments and cares” (CR 283). As Stephen Mulhall further clarifies: for Cavell, a person’s commitments are not more or less external to her wants, positions, or modes of conduct, but are rather implications of what she does and who she is. If, for example, someone makes a promise then she is committed to performing a course of action; should she fail to perform that action, then, in order to retain credibility as a moral agent, she must explain why the circumstances in which she found herself justified her failure to honour that commitment, why she could not have given advance warning to those relying upon her promise, and so on. (Mulhall 1994, 37)

As an agent cannot simply fail to take seriously her own previous commitments, on pain of being exiled from the moral realm, neither can a person be considered morally responsible who seeks to criticize the behavior of another agent without taking into account (or at least without making an effort to try to understand) the commitments and concerns of that agent. In other words, competent moral evaluations should not focus excessively, let alone exclusively, on the set of actions and choices of an agent at a given time, but should be made against the background of her previous cares and commitments. The mistake to be avoided is taking the identity of a moral being as a mere sum of (right or wrong) discrete actions or choices, and the alternative is to focus on their narrative identity, which, although subject to continual change, is usually far from being completely unstable. If the description of the logic of moral reasoning presented thus far is on the right track, then we can conclude that competency in moral arguments should involve an appeal to at least two kinds of reasons, which Cavell dubs, respectively, “basis of care” and “grounds of commitment”: the first “provides whatever sense there will be in your confronting someone with what he ‘ought’ to do”, while the second “grounds what you say ‘must’ be done in that person’s commitments, both his explicit undertakings and the implications of what he does and where he is, for which he is responsible” (CR 325). An important implication of this analysis is that if an interlocutor challenges a certain behavior of mine by appealing to the sort of reasons we have just described – taking into account my cares and commitments – then I cannot simply ignore her challenge on pain of manifesting moral incompetence and, to that extent, irrationality in a moral context. But that does not mean that a (competent) moral challenge will always demand my acceptance of it; I can recognize the relevance of the “basis of care” and of the “grounds of commitment” presented by my interlocutor without agreeing with the weight or importance she gives to them.


7 Skepticism, perfectionism, and the limits of morality

These considerations allow us to see another important difference between moral and scientific discussions: the latter seek to determine whether a certain cognitive claim is to be accepted based on the evidence presented by someone, as well as on her general competence in the field; but in the case of a moral discussion, what is really at stake is to determine whether we can understand and respect (but not necessarily agree with) positions or attitudes assumed by others. Instead of a claim’s adequacy to certain universal and impersonally established principles, moral reasoning is constructed in terms of responsiveness between agents, and puts to the test the quality and, ultimately, the very possibility of creating or maintaining a relationship based on shared cares and commitments. This difference is presented by Cavell as follows: Questioning a claim to knowledge takes the form of asking “How do you know?” or “Why do you believe that?”, and assessing the claim is, we could say, a matter of assessing whether your position […] [is] adequate to the claim. Questioning a claim to moral rightness […] takes the form of asking “Why are you doing that?”, “How can you do that?”, “What are you doing?”, “Have you really considered what you’re saying?”, “Do you know what this means?”; and assessing the claim is […] to determine what your position is, and to challenge the position itself […]. The point of the assessment is not to determine whether it is adequate […] [but] to determine […] what position you are taking responsibility for – and whether it is one I can respect. What is at stake in such discussions is not, or not exactly, whether you know our world, but whether, or to what extent, we are to live in the same moral universe. What is at stake […] is not the validity of morality as a whole, but the nature or quality of our relationship to one another. (CR 268)

The ability to maintain a moral relationship depends essentially on the cares and commitments at stake – and one will be willing to require or to tolerate more or less from one’s interlocutors according to the weight one ascribes to those factors. Let us see how this works by analyzing a concrete case of moral discussion imagined by Cavell (see CR 266): A: I’ve Decided against offering him the job. B: But he’s counting on it. You most explicitly promised it to him. A: I know, but it has suddenly become very inconvenient to have him around, and there is someone else really better qualified anyway. B: If you do this to him, I’ll never speak to you again. A: Don’t make such an issue out of it. I’ll see that he gets a job, and I’ll give him some money to see him through. B: Goodbye.

7.3 Perfectionism and the limits of morality


In this little dialogue B criticizes A’s intention of breaking a promise made to a third party. Note that B is not evaluating whether A’s attitude is right or wrong, good or bad as such (it is not a matter of determining, for example, whether it expresses a “universally valid principle”, such as “one shall keep one’s promises, no matter what”); what is at stake is whether A really is in a position to assume that attitude responsibly, in this particular context, given her own previous commitments. In summary, B is accusing A of being a hypocrite, and given that in her reply A does nothing more than to confirm that accusation, B ends up concluding that they live in a different moral universe, and that she may have been wrong in her assessment of A’s character up to now. It is in this sense that one can say (as does Mulhall) that “moral discussion is an arena for the revelation of one self to another”.²⁷³

7.3 Perfectionism and the limits of morality In the dialogue just analyzed we were presented with a momentary disagreement between agents that could, at least in principle, find new grounds to carry on the discussion (one should not overlook the importance of time and patience in mundane affairs). But there are cases where a conflict could end up putting morality as a whole into question, and that, according to Cavell, simply indicates that morality should be seen as limited in its potential, leaving room for ideas like the “salvation of the self through the repudiation of morality” (CR 269) – a claim which, as we shall see, already points to the theme of “moral perfectionism” which will be explored more systematically in Cavell’s later work. Here is a crucial passage from The Claim of Reason that offers further support to that suggestion: Morality must leave itself open to repudiation; it provides one possibility of settling conflict, a way of encompassing conflict which allows the continuance of personal relationships against the hard and apparently inevitable fact of misunderstanding, mutually incompatible wishes, commitments, loyalties, interests and needs […]. Other ways of settling or encompassing conflict are provided by politics, religion, love and forgiveness, rebellion, and withdrawal. Morality is a valuable way because the others are so often inaccessible or brutal; but it is not everything; it provides a door through which someone, alienated or in danger of alienation from another through his action, can return by the offering and the acceptance of explanation, excuses and justifications, or by the respect one human being will show another who sees and can accept the responsibility for a position which he

 Mulhall 1994, 41.


7 Skepticism, perfectionism, and the limits of morality

himself would not adopt. We do not have to agree with one another in order to live in the same moral world, but we do have to know and respect one another’s differences. (CR 269)

Recall that, according to our previous analysis, the hallmark of moral reasoning is that it must meet the requirement of intelligibility²⁷⁴ (as opposed to the requirement of agreement, say). But, as Cavell suggests in another context, this still leaves many questions unanswered, such as, for example: whether there are limits to the obligation to be intelligible, whether everyone isn’t entitled to a certain obscurity or sense of confusion, and at some times more than others. Maybe there isn’t always something to say; and there is the question of what one is to do about persisting disagreement, how far you must go in trying to resolve it […] (CW 25)

Let’s stop and meditate about this last question for a while: how far are we actually willing to go on a moral discussion characterized by persisting disagreement? Indefinitely? Speaking for myself and based on my own past experiences, I would not think so. And what does this show? That I am not perfect and, particularly, that I am not completely rational? But again, why exactly would it always be irrational to give up a discussion if I am convinced (rationally, let me add) that it will not lead anywhere, that the possibility of providing additional reasons has run out (at least momentarily)? – Returning to the case of Mr. Deeds, described in the beginning of this chapter: would he have been wiser if he had tried to rationally persuade those literati that, say, they should not go around making fun of people? Or would that just seem pathetic?²⁷⁵ Commenting on these issues in more general terms, Cavell claims the following: […] hatred and anger are not essentially irrational, but may clearly be called for. To live a moral life should not require that we become Socrateses or Buddhas or Christs, all but unprovokable. But we are asked to make even justified anger and hatred intelligible, and to be responsible for their expression in our lives, and sometimes, not always and everywhere, to put them aside. (CW 25 – 26)

I want to emphasize three points from this passage: first, it suggests that it is possible to distinguish between justified and unjustified anger and hatred,

 An indication of the centrality of this feature, Cavell argues, is the fact that it permeates the most different traditional conceptions of morality – for example, the utilitarian “calculation of consequences” and the Kantian “interpretation of motives and principles” (see CW 25).  Here I would like to urge the reader to consider another injunction made by Wittgenstein for different purposes: “Do not think, but look!” (PI §66).

7.3 Perfectionism and the limits of morality


and, second, it also states that even in the cases where those feelings (and their consequences) are justified, we are still required to make them intelligible and (to that extent) take responsibility for them. Clearly we should not here be thinking of cases in which, say, an agent regrets an assault of anger immediately after the fact; the interesting case would be one in which, all things considered, the agent would remain convinced, at least partially, that her attitude was appropriate to the situation (think of B after saying goodbye to her friend A in our little dialogue above). I say “partially” because in real life (but also in good literature and in good movies) things are not so simple, and it is often difficult to be clear about our own motivations. That’s why – and here’s the third point I want to emphasize – Cavell closes the passage calling attention to the fact that, at least on some occasions, the demand for intelligibility will make us reconsider the situation, “putting aside” our first reaction. Consider again the abrupt conclusion of the discussion between Deeds and the literati, due to the former’s feeling of indignation. In that case, to whom exactly would Deeds owe justifications and explanations? It does not seem plausible to think that he owes them to the literati themselves – at least not immediately. That discussion is momentarily closed, and the best one can hope for is that, after both parties had time to coolly reconsider their attitudes and motivations, against the background of their own cares and commitments, a plea for excuses can be made, allowing them to resume their relationship.²⁷⁶ But what are the conditions for such a reconsideration in the first person? If the agent is confused, would it really be possible for her to find intelligibility on her own, providing reasons and explanations to herself? It is because of this difficulty that many philosophers have emphasized the role of the figure of a friend in the pursuit of intelligibility and moral education. But in no other moral perspective does that role receive as much attention as in perfectionism, as understood by Cavell. Cavell describes perfectionism as “a dimension or tradition of the moral life that spans the course of Western thought and concerns what used to be called the state of one’s soul, a dimension that places tremendous burdens on personal relationships and on the possibility or necessity of the transforming of oneself and of one’s society” (CHU 2). This dimension is expressed in a rather diverse set of texts, including canons of the Western philosophical tradition (by authors  I register for possible future treatment that the dynamics of the attempts at reconciliation and the importance of maintaining a moral community are themes dear to Cavell. The key concept employed in the analysis of this dynamic, inherited from J. L. Austin, is that of “elaboratives” – “those excuses, explanations, justifications […] which make up the bulk of moral defense” (CR 296, see also MWM 26 – 30 and CR 324– 325).


7 Skepticism, perfectionism, and the limits of morality

such as Plato, Aristotle, Locke, Kant, Mill, Nietzsche and Rawls), literature (by Shakespeare, Ibsen and George Bernard Shaw) and also “texts by writers not usually considered by professional philosophers to be moral thinkers” (particularly by Emerson and Freud, see CW ix).²⁷⁷ Such texts are seen as variations on the theme of “human nature as divided or double”, hanging between the acceptance of the present state of the world as the stage of our activities and prospects and the desire for its reform or transfiguration (see CW 1– 2). It is important to distinguish the kind of perfectionism that interests Cavell from a version he sometimes calls religious perfectionism, i. e., one which would be committed to the idea of a final or ultimate human perfection. In my experience when trying to introduce Cavell’s views on perfectionism it has been common to notice an aversion caused by the use of that very term, precisely because of this connotation of “ultimate perfection” that it more or less inevitably carries. Add to this a certain (superficial) reading of Nietzsche and Emerson as elitist and undemocratic philosophers and the stage is set for this position not to be taken seriously by more than a few interlocutors. It is not my intention here to try to undo these misunderstandings.²⁷⁸ Instead, I will only indicate that an alternative reading is possible; Cavell himself denounces an elitist perfectionism, centrally concerned with individual cultivation, as “debased” (CW 18). In its place he proposes a collective, democratic and continual search for what Emerson describes as “an unattained but attainable self”:²⁷⁹ “a self that is always and never ours – a step that turns us not from bad to good, or wrong to right, but from confusion and constriction toward self-knowledge and sociability” (CW 13). In addressing these issues Cavell proposes a very instructive contrast with Plato: Plato’s idea of a path to one goal (the one sought by the sage) does not exactly fit Emerson’s idea of how to live. In both, the idea of philosophy as a way of life plays a role in assessing your life now, but Emerson is less interested in holding up the life of the sage as a model for ours than in reminding us that the power of questioning our lives, in, say, our judgment of what we call their necessities, and their rights and goods, is within the scope of every human being (of those, at any rate, free to talk about their lives and to modify them). (CW 13)

 Not to mention films “from the so-called Golden Age of Hollywood talkie” (CW ix). More about the relationship between cinema and perfectionism in the final remarks of this chapter.  James Conant sought to do this with respect to Nietzsche’s text in Conant 2000b, and Cavell has been trying to do the same in relation to Nietzsche and Emerson in several of his later works, particularly CHU.  The sentence comes from the essay “History” (Essays, First Series [1841]), available online at:, accessed 06/06/2020.

7.3 Perfectionism and the limits of morality


What would Emerson suggest, then, in place of Plato’s sage? The answer to this question brings us back to a point raised earlier, namely the role of the friend, that exemplar or model of an “unattained but attainable self”. If I’m confused and have trouble making my own actions and attitudes transparent and understandable, it is difficult to take the next step toward that ideal, the “further self”, so I may need some kind of external attraction. A friend may provide such an attraction, as she can reveal our own flaws – make ourselves confront our confusion – in a way that will generate minimal resistance, given her specific moral stance in relation to our cares and commitments. (The friend does not confront me providing impersonal reasons, but from a position which she occupies in relation to those cares and commitments.) Now if some willingness to understand and to be understood is necessary in a moral argument, then it is easy to see how a context of friendship and mutual respect is particularly suitable for that purpose. It is especially in this kind of context that we can move forward in our moral education – an education which, according to Cavell, is not primarily intended “to provide an increase of learning but a transformation of existence” (CW 325).²⁸⁰ But to say that a context of friendship is particularly suited to advance our moral education is not to say that we can only move forward in such contexts. As a friend warned, “enemies and strangers can also teach us something about the morality of our conduct. We learn definitive lessons listening to what we do not want to, from those we barely know”.²⁸¹ Indeed; however, it seems to me that this will only be possible in those cases in which even enemies or strangers share at least some of our own commitments and cares.²⁸² The only scenario which is being excluded as conducive to moral argument is one in which the interlocutors, to use Cavell’s apt words, live in completely distinct moral worlds. Having this in mind, consider one last time what happened between Deeds and the literati: the latter have not shown any genuine interest in Deeds’s cares and commitments, treating them from the beginning as pointless or laughable (remember how they laughed at the fact that Deeds was a postcard poet, for ex-

 The passage continues addressing the importance of “marriage”: “those who cannot inspire one another to such an education are not married; they do not have the right interest for one another.” Unfortunately, this is an issue that I could not address in this chapter. I tackle it in part in Techio 2020.  I am indebted to Eduardo Vicentini de Medeiros for this consideration, made in an e-mail exchange.  Recall the great (albeit limited) mutual respect that arch-enemies invariably show in fiction.


7 Skepticism, perfectionism, and the limits of morality

ample).²⁸³ But Deeds came from an opposite perspective, of admiration and respect, hence his painful frustration upon realizing what was truly going on. He was humiliated and found himself isolated, and so decided to do the same with the literati, restoring the terms of their relationship. By doing so, I believe he provided a great opportunity for the literati to rethink their attitudes and learn from their mistakes. He himself learned an important lesson: “all famous people aren’t big people.” Confrontational moments like this are in fact crucial in our moral education. But, as I hope I have indicated, this finding does not seem to contradict the Cavellian point about the importance of conversation for mutual revelation of moral agents – on the contrary, I believe it is reinforced.

7.4 Final remarks Throughout this chapter I kept returning to a single scene from a Hollywood comedy of the 1930s. This procedure is familiar to Cavell’s readers, especially to readers of those of his works explicitly concerned with the subject of perfectionism. The conviction behind this procedure is that the themes, motifs and concerns expressed in some films – particularly those which Cavell groups under the genres of “remarriage comedies” and “melodramas of the unknown woman” – justify their inclusion in that same tradition of Western thought that “concerns what used to be called the state of one’s soul”.²⁸⁴ Because these films are themselves “perfectionist studies” in which the protagonists engage in a journey toward a “further self”, marked by countless conversations with friends²⁸⁵ – figures that “may occur as the goal of the journey but also as its instigation and accompaniment” (CW 27)²⁸⁶ – they serve, according to Cavell, as: a small laboratory for studying moral conversation not as the attempt to persuade someone to a course of action, or as the evaluation of a social institution, but of something I think sometimes as prior and preparatory to these familiar goals of moral reasoning, sometimes as subsequent and supplementary, namely the responsiveness to and examination of one soul by another. It is prior because it provides us with studies of the standing a moral agent claims in confronting another with his/her judgment; it is subsequent because it provides

 Thanks to Nykolas Friedrich Correia Motta for calling my attention to this point.  Passage quoted in full above.  Cavell describes them as “films whose conversations are among the glories of world cinema” (PDAT 338).  Still on this point: “The presence of friendship in the films we will consider (including the sometimes drastic lack of this relation in the melodramas) is of the most specific importance in establishing them as perfectionist narratives.” (CW 27)

7.4 Final remarks


the space for evaluating the moral framework within which you are reasoning. […] Perfectionism may be said to concentrate itself on the demand to make ourselves, and to become, intelligible to one another. And I suppose no outlook would count as moral which did not make place for such a demand. (Cavell 2005a, 339)

The films with which Cavell is concerned portray the protagonists’s effort (but not necessarily their success) to become better people, choosing a better way of life.²⁸⁷ By insisting on the relevance of including these films in the set of texts that explore perfectionist themes Cavell does not want to give the impression that “philosophy left to itself requires compensation by the revelations within the medium of film” (CW 5 – 6), but, on the contrary, he wants to indicate that these films can be thought of as differently configuring intellectual and emotional avenues that philosophy is already in exploration of, but which, perhaps, it has cause sometimes to turn from prematurely, particularly in its forms since its professionalization, or academization […]. The implied claim is that film, the latest of the great arts, shows philosophy to be the often invisible accompaniment of the ordinary lives that film is so apt to capture (even, perhaps particularly, when the lives depicted are historical or elevated or comic or hunted or haunted). (CW 5 – 6)

With these two ideas – namely, that we should resist the temptation of abandoning prematurely the complexities of our ordinary lives, and that films are particularly suitable for capturing those complexities – I think we have reached an appropriate point to stop, for now.²⁸⁸

 In the specific case of “remarriage comedies” this quest is presented as an alternative to the threat of “moral cynicism”: “the temptation to give up on a life more coherent and admirable than seems affordable after the compromises of adulthood come to obscure the promise and the dreams of youth. The fact that the principal pair in these comedies is somewhat older than the young pairs of classic comedy provides a context in which certain ways of fulfilling earlier dreams have collapsed and a new regime must be formed to which consent can now, on reflection, be won, or wagered.” (CW 23 – 24)  I further develop these two ideas in Techio 2018 and Techio 2020.

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Index of subjects acknowledgment 11, 92, 145, 151, 159 – 161, 182 acknowledgment (and acceptance) 6, 165, 180, 184 aesthetic judgments 191 androids 149 argument from analogy 146 aspect-blindness 152 aspect-change 153, 155 aspect-seeing 15, 144, 150, 152, 154 attitude – involved vs. detached 158 – vs. opinion or belief 150 attunement 11, 130, 133, 136, 140 Äusserungen 154 automata 150 f., 153, 156 bedrock 134, 136 Begriffsschrift 58 f., 63 – 65, 68 – 70 behaviorism 96, 143 Big Typescript 78 bipolarity 35, 48 Blade Runner 149, 162

finitude – acceptance of 6, 52, 56, 135, 142 – disappointment with 2, 4 f., 80, 89, 93, 132 forms of life 7, 10, 119, 136, 140 f., 176 friendship 199 general form of propositions generic object 166 f., 170 God 44 – death of 5 Hamlet

deflection 2, 184 dialectical reading 71, 77, 96, 98, 116 – vs. substantial reading 12 dualism 96 elementary propositions 23, 27 f., 34, 60, 62, 64 eliminativism 143 Emersonian perfectionism 188 Euthyphro 188 existential difficulties 2 f., 10, 89, 181 exposure 153 felted contextualism 131 film (and philosophy) 201


“I” used as object 112, 114, 117 “I” used as subject 110 “I” used as subject 110, 113 f., 117 idealism 72, 75 – 77, 79, 96 f., 100 – German 3 indexicals 115 ineffability 14, 25, 36 f., 42, 54, 71, 73 f., 79 f., 92 King Lear

criteria 10, 113, 119, 135, 171 – for pain location 101 – outward 143, 148

23 f., 64

182, 184

language-games 108 f., 111, 116, 168 Lecture on Ethics 139 logical syntax 13, 24, 30, 62 loneliness 5 f., 40, 43, 50, 53 Macbeth 182 Memento 113 memory 81, 87 – 89 minds (grammar of) ; See souls (grammar of) moral cognitivism 190 moral education 199 moral intuitionism 189 moral perfectionism 195, 197 mortality 5, 89, 92 Mr. Deeds Goes to Town 17, 187 mystical 24 f., 27, 58 Nazism


Index of subjects

non-claim context 173 non-referential view 95 f., 117 number (grammar of) 112 On Certainty 109, 121, 174 Othello 153, 159 f., 182 pains (grammar of) 101, 109 f., 117, 146, 148 perfectionism 17 personal identity (grammar of) 104 f. phenomenological language 61, 65 f., 68 – 70, 88 Philosophical Investigations 9, 14, 49, 95, 100, 119, 140, 143 f., 148 Philosophical Remarks 65, 68, 70 f., 73, 78, 80, 93 Philosophical Remarks 8 f., 13, 49, 61, 64, 72, 147 picture theory of meaning 47, 50, 53 practical rationality 17, 188, 191 f. privacy 9 – 11, 34, 42, 119 – 121, 140, 146, 148, 171 private language 8 – 10, 119, 126 problem of other minds 15, 143 – 145, 147, 151, 153, 181 problem of the external world 163, 180, 182 projection (method of) 29 – 32, 43, 46 psychological predicates 95, 143 f., 146 realism 6, 40, 51, 57, 76, 79, 97, 100 remarriage comedies 200 replicants 149 resentment 158 resolute reading (of the Tractatus) 7, 49 rule-following; See skeptical paradox of meaning scene of instruction 134 f. sense-datum 76, 79


sign/symbol 30, 43 f., 47, 73 skeptical paradox of meaning 122, 127 skeptical solution to the paradox of meaning 123, 126, 131 skepticism 2, 11, 16, 146, 160, 167, 170 – truth in 10, 16, 161, 163, 178 f., 184 f. slavery 161 solipsism 2 f., 5, 7 f., 35, 51, 62, 72, 91, 93 f., 96, 99 – of the present moment 90, 92 – self of 40, 57 – truth in 9 f., 33, 35 f., 40, 42, 50, 54 f. solipsistic notation 102, 106 soul-blindness 152, 155 – 157, 182 souls (grammar of) 148 – 150, 152, 156, 183 Star Wars 104 sublimation 90, 137 f. T-F notation 64 The Blue Book 8 f., 14, 49, 94 – 96, 113, 117, 147 The Brown Book 136 The Claim of Reason 119, 130, 133, 136, 152, 164, 167 f., 178 – 180, 185, 188, 195 The Elephant Man 157 The Significance of Philosophical Scepticism 185 The Time Machine 89 therapy 9 f., 54, 75, 86 time (grammar of) 4, 81 f., 84 Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus 9, 12 – 13, 18, 20, 37, 49, 54 f., 64, 71, 73, 85, 93, 100 tragedy 159 f. Übereinstimmung voice of correctness voice of temptation

130 12, 88, 100 12, 77, 88, 96, 98

Index of names Affeldt, S. 155 Anscombe, G. E. M. 95 Austin, J. L. 167, 172, 197 Ayer, A. J. 190

King Lear 182, 184 Kremer, M. 55 Kripke, S. 11, 14, 119 f., 122 – 124, 126, 128, 130, 132, 134, 136, 138, 140

Bates, S. 190 Berkeley, G. 3 Bouwsma, O. K.

Locke, J. 95

Cavell, S. 2, 6, 10 – 12, 14, 16, 20, 51, 57, 83, 99, 119 f., 126 – 128, 130, 132, 134, 137 f., 140, 144, 151 f., 156 f., 159, 161, 163 f., 166, 170, 173 – 175, 177, 182, 184, 187 f., 191, 194 f., 197, 200 Clarke, T. 164, 174 f., 177 Coetzee, J. M. 141 Cohen, T. 159 Conant, J. 7, 19, 120, 123, 198 Descartes, R. 3, 95, 151, 163 – 168, 172 f., 178 f. Diamond, C. 7, 29, 45, 49, 141, 153 Dreyfus, H. 57 Eldridge, R. 93 Emerson, R. W. 20, 57, 198 f. Faria, P. F. E. 63, 142 Floyd, J. 26, 40, 52 Freud, S. 1, 130, 198 Goldfarb, W. 26 Gould, T. 155 Hacker, P. M. S. 7 f., 15, 31, 36, 39, 95, 106, 132, 144, 148 Hamlet 182 Hammer, E. 126, 152, 185 Heidegger, M. 92, 163, 180, 183 Hume, D. 3, 39, 105 f., 162, 168 Kant, I. 3, 76, 163, 178, 191 Kenny, A. 95 Kierkegaard, S. 1


Macbeth 182 Malcolm, N. 95, 144 McManus, D. 45, 47, 58, 141 Moore, G. E. 172, 174, 189 Mounce, H. O. 36 Mulhall, S. 27, 47, 49, 54, 138, 140, 151 f., 154 f., 162 f., 193 Nietzsche, F. 92, 198 Noë, A. 66, 68 f., 71 O’Connor, P. 131, 139 Othello 153, 159 f., 182 Pascal, B. 131 Plato 141 Rhees, R. 32, 61, 71 Rudd, A. 160 Ryle, G. 143 Schulte, J. 109 Shakespeare 182, 198 Socrates 188 f. Strawson, P. F. 4, 11, 15, 106, 112, 133, 145, 157 – 163 Stroud, B. 16, 163 f., 166, 171, 174 f., 179, 185 Temkin, J. 144 Thornton, S. P. 2 Winch, P. 150 Wittgenstein, L. 2, 6, 8 – 10, 18, 22, 25 f., 41, 43, 54 – 56, 61 f., 68, 70, 72 – 75, 77, 79, 81, 86, 89, 93 f., 99, 103, 108, 114, 116 – 119, 138, 143, 147 f., 153, 164, 176