Sunday, February 22, 2015

Writing That Wears a White Coat

Ray Monk:

The search for explanations and theories in philosophy, Wittgenstein believed, was linked with this worship of science. Intoxicated by the success of science, philosophers had forgotten that there was another kind of understanding. 'People nowadays think that scientists exist to instruct them', he once wrote in a notebook, 'poets, musicians etc. to give them pleasure. The idea that these have something to teach them — that does not occur to them.'

Russell, of course, was horrified by this attitude. 'The later Wittgenstein', he wrote, 'seems to have gotten tired of serious thinking and to have invented a doctrine which would make such an activity unnecessary.' If one thinks that 'serious thinking' and 'science' are the same thing, then this remark is precisely right.

In a recent series of emails, Arthur unknowingly, almost eerily in his precision, echoed this very stance:

What applies to Dante applies, on a lower level of course, to the writers cited by Watson. Kafka’s work is not “robbed of its meaning” by the obsolescence of Freudianism, it is far too weird and original, pre-Freudian and post-Freudian, for that. What galls me here is that uncomprehending and condescending assumption that artists are just wayward students of intellectuals—as if they were not themselves intellectuals, and highly independent and original ones, at that. (Inside every artist is an intellectual, the saying goes—but not vice-versa.) What bites my butt is the assumption that the kind of writing that wears a white coat or talks about wages and surplus value is the model of knowledge and adult thinking, while art is just what happens when the kids are let out into the playground at recess.

Now, if you're like me, you may have had an "A-ha!" moment when confronted with such clear and elegant imagery. Even though there is no argument being put forth, technically speaking, the limitations of a scientistic approach become suddenly and vividly apparent. It becomes obvious why, for example, looking at fMRI images of someone's brain as they look at pieces of art will tell us nothing useful about the nature or meaning of art. The parallel lines of artistic and scientific understanding will never meet. Wittgenstein seems to have had something like this in mind. Monk again:

Analogously, in his later work, Wittgenstein treats all philosophical doctrines as confusions, though now he thinks the confusion has arisen because, as he puts it, 'a picture held us captive'. His task is to free us from that picture. Because the picture that held us captive and that gave rise to the philosophical problem is assumed in everything we say, it cannot usually be dislodged by argument. It is, as it were, too deep for that. What is required to free us from the picture that holds us captive is an enriched imagination, and this cannot be given to us through argument, it must be acquired through, as it were, therapy. Wittgenstein's later work, then is aimed at the pre-philosophical, rather than the philosophical, level. It addresses, not our argumentative faculties, but our imagination.