WITTGENSTEIN, THE PRACTICE OFETHICS, AND MORAL EDUCATION
Nicholas C. Burbules
University of Illinois
Whatdid Wittgenstein mean when he said ethics was a matter of which we could not(sensibly) speak? Such a claim seems implausible on its face, since people doin fact talk about ethical issues all the time, often to good purpose.Moreover, it is not clear what such a claim would mean for moral education: ifwe cannot speak about ethics, how can we teach young people about it?
Wewant to suggest a certain continuity of Wittgenstein’s views on ethics, fromhis early statements in the Tractatus (1921) to his Lecture on Ethics (1929), to his later work inPhilosophical Investigations (1953) and elsewhere. We believe that some of thecentral later Wittgensteinian ideas — language games, forms of life, how welearn to follow a rule, and family resemblance relations — can help to explainin what sense ethical understanding might be inexpressible. We will argue thatconceptualizing ethics as a shared practice builds upon these Wittgensteinianinsights, while providing a fruitful perspective on moral education.
Earlyin his career Wittgenstein says that ethics is like aesthetics and religion,and cannot be spoken about (Tractatus, 6.421). It belongs to that realm where, as he says,things cannot be said but only shown (Tractatus, 4.1212). His Lecture on Ethics reasserted this basic view ofinexpressibility, again linking ethics with religion: “Ethics, if it is anything,is supernatural and our words will only express facts” (Lecture on Ethics, pp. 40).
Yet his personal writings andcorrespondence with friends make it clear that he was highly concerned withbeing ethical himself. Indeed, as his friend Paul Engelmann put it,Wittgenstein believed that it was precisely those things about which one couldnot speak (within the strictly limited propositional discourse of the Tractatus) that were the most importantthings in life, including ethics.
Yet,as is well known, he changed his mind in his later career about how languageworks and what it can do. The strict dichotomy between what can be said(expressions about the logical structure of the world and about logic andmathematics) and what he called “nonsense” (everything else) was replaced by avariety of diverse “language games.” Considering the many uses he says thatlanguage can have, it seems odd for him not to have included ethical discourseas one type.
Onepossible answer for this omission is that he stayed faithful to his earlierphilosophical intuition, that nothing could be said about ethics. Certainly,for Wittgenstein throughout his life his views on ethics were closely alignedwith his religious beliefs, about which he was extremely private, and which do seemto pertain more to the transcendent and the ineffable.
Buthere we wish to explore an alternative answer. In our view, the crucial conceptin Wittgenstein’s later work is “practice.” He says that it “is not certainpropositions striking us immediately as true, i.e. it is not a kind of seeingon our part; it is our acting, which lies at the bottom of the language-game” (OnCertainty, #204). The concept of practice is given shape in this notion of language-games,with their interwovenness of utterances and actions and how they find theirhome within a “form of life.” Wittgenstein presses us to adopt the view that inthe end there is simply what we do; this does not mean that justificationscannot be given, but that justifications come to an end, and then he says, Ihave reached bedrock, then my spade is turned (Philosophical Investigations, # 217). In this respect, ourability to explain and justify ourselves ethically is limited.
Thereis moreover in the idea of a language game the importance of a particularlinguistic community, on the one hand, and the possibility of an individual whomay come to give a new meaning to particular phenomena, on the other. As hesays, sometimes we follow rules and sometimes we make up the rules as we goalong go (Philosophical Investigations, # 86). By making clear that both dimensions haveto be taken into account he avoids the danger of simple conservatism orconformism. Wittgenstein’s “theory” of meaning advocates neither a position ofpure subjectivity nor of pure objectivity. In order to be understood (i.e., tomake sense in what one says or does), the present use of language cannot beradically different from former ones. It is within this context of use that themeaning of a concept is determined. As there is no absolute point of reference,neither internal nor external, the community of language speakers (some community; in a pluralisticsociety there will naturally be more than one) forms the warrant for theconsistency of meaning.
Inthis epistemology, Wittgenstein made it clear that following a rule is not justa matter of mimicking a particular behavior from one situation to another.Though we follow rules, they cannot be fully made explicit; it is alwaysnecessary to take into account all the elements of the new situation one findsoneself in, which implies, among other things, communication, dialogue, andabove all commitment. One can only be “certain” of the frame of referenceitself; this is part of the life we have inherited, not the result ofsystematic (rational) teaching. When one has learned to follow a rule,Wittgenstein says, this is manifested only in the claim “Now I know how to goon,” which is a performative ability, not a rationally articulatable understanding (PhilosophicalInvestigations,#151 and 179).
Wittgenstein’sideas concerning particular epistemological positions and language havefar-reaching implications for the domain of ethics. To say that the meanings of“good” or “right” are not once and for all determined, does not imply that itdoes not matter what we do. But convincing someone on the ethical level is forWittgenstein not (simply) a matter of giving them reasons. It is more like apractice in which other people are interactively involved. Here again he drawsour attention to the importance of context and to how one has learned to use concepts like “good” and“right.” Because of the fact that every context is necessarily particular I amanswerable for what I do. There are no ultimate foundations.
Thequestion is whether an ethical problem can be characterized in theWittgensteinian sense as a philosophical problem, that is, a problem of thesort “I don’t know my way about.” He also says that philosophy is a kind oftherapy, a kind of work on the self, that helps us get outside certain problemsand see them in a new light. Can we see ethics as similarly involving a kind ofwork on the self? But can we only change ourselves? Why can no more be said?
Wittgensteinseems to hold the position that though our actions are guided by rules andthough people generally act in consistent ways, the reasons for this cannot bespelled out fully. It cannot exhaustively be made explicit, it remainsinexpressible, yet art and evocative language may be able to touch upon it(this is what he tried to do in the Lecture on Ethics). It is about what one does, notabout the reasons that may be given, which seem to be superfluous. Therefore,on his view, a systematic moral philosophy will always and necessarily fail.
Wittgensteinoften compared philosophical problems with being lost, with being trapped in afly-bottle, with not knowing one’s way about. Rules, he says, are likesignposts suggesting a way to go, but the notion of rule-following for him wascomplex and subtle, because there is no one correct way to follow a rule; and,as noted, he also says that sometimes we have to make up the rules as we go. Atthe same time, it must be possible to make a mistake; making the rules up doesnot mean just acting in any way one likes. So when can one say one has understooda rule, or knows how to follow it? When one can say, “now I know how to go on.”His simple illustration here is a mathematical rule, like “add 2.” If you givesomeone the sequence, 2, 4, 6, 8... they understand the rule when they can “goon,” when they can continue with the sequence (...10, 12, and so on). But notall rule-following is this simple. First of all, there may be more than one wayto continue the sequence, or more than one rule that would generate it — it isthe doingthat matters for Wittgenstein, not the articulation of a rule.
Second,and following closely on this point, the person may not be able to articulate arule even if asked. Here rule-following is akin to Michael Polanyi’s idea of tacitknowledge:understandings that enable complex activity and decision making, but whichcannot be put exhaustively into words. Such performative abilities aretypically learned through observation and emulation, trial and error, makingand learning from mistakes, not through explicit instruction or explanation: novicesmust watch and participate in activities with experts as gradually over timethey begin to “get it,” until they reach a point where, again, they can “go on”on their own.
Hence,this Wittgensteinian argument suggests a different way, not based onspirituality or the transcendent, in which some ethical understandings may beinexpressible in words — namely, that they are matters of conduct, learned incontext through observation and emulation, and performed more or lessconsistently without being the result of conscious deliberation or rule-following in thestrict sense of that term. Again, in Wittgensteinian terms, there is simplywhat we do.
Ata home in which he was a guest, Wittgenstein was asked by one of his hostswhether he would like some tea. Her husband, overhearing, called to her, “Donot ask — give!” This comment “most favorably impressed” Wittgenstein (Malcolm,p. 61), and this anecdote suggests a flavor of what we are talking about. ForWittgenstein, one should be gracious and generous without thinking about it,without asking, just by knowing what the proper thing is to do. There seems tobe a touch here of Zen; somehow, without speaking or thinking, one simplyintuits in the instant what the proper course of action should be. ButPolanyi’s theory gives an alternative account of this process: that it has moreto do not with mystical intuitions, but with learned habits and responses thatarise from familiarity with a situation and a group of other people.
Whatdoes it mean to conceive of ethics as a practice? First of all, it means thatit is a constellation of learned activities, dispositions, and skills. We learnto engage in complex practices through observing and emulating others who aremore skilled than we; through our own practice, trial, and error; throughmaking mistakes, and learning from them; through deliberation and reflection onwhat we are doing and why; through creatively responding to new and unexpectedsituations; and so on. From the framework we are sketching here, ethics is nodifferent: we learn to be good and to do good; we are initiated into a form of life thatvalues these activities and that supports us in enacting them. This backgroundof conditions is true even when we seem to be deliberating and acting entirelyon our own; for however autonomous and self-directed our efforts might appearat that moment, we could not have been capable of such deliberation and actionwithout a substantial set of interactions with others from the earliest stagesof our lives. In this sense ethics always exists against the background of aform of life.
TheWittgensteinian analysis of understanding and following rules also pertainshere. Consider the following range of ethical situations, with simpleillustrations:
• what we do without thinking (e.g., spontaneously givingmoney to a beggar);
• what we do when we know howto go on (e.g.,filling one’s pocket with $5 in change in the morning, and giving 50¢ to eachbeggar one sees until the money runs out);
• what we do when we do notknow how to goon (e.g., encountering a beggarsitting outside a liquor store);
• what we do when we aretrying to teach someone else how to go on (e.g., encountering a beggar when we are with oneof our children).
There is no reason to assume that our processes ofthought and action will always work in the same way, in ethics as in any othercomplex practice. Sometimes the situation is highly familiar and our responsesare well-rehearsed; sometimes it is a novel situation, but one in which we havean established repertoire of ways of coping with it; sometimes it is a highlyproblematic, confusing, or difficult situation, in which our ordinaryrepertoire either does seem to apply, or does not work in the way we expect;and sometimes we are consciously in a situation in which we are thinking notonly of our own processes of deliberation and action, but also of enactingthese in such a way that others might learn from us.
Thesegeneral characteristics of contexts of practice pertain equally to ethicalsituations, and they indicate something very important, which is that allethical situations may not elicit the same responses from us in every instance,or from others in similar circumstances. Theories of morality that suggest general processes of deliberation, evenof calculation (as in utilitarian theories), that lead to determinativeconclusions about what to do — or those that assume a single model of action,such as certain kinds of virtue theories — make the error of abstracting ethicaldeliberation and action from the quite varied contexts in which we actuallythink and act morally. The situations listed above have elements in common thatmake them all ethical situations; but this does not mean that they allnecessarily work in the same way. (Recall here also the notion that there mightbe different ways of following the same rule; or different rules that yieldsimilar courses of action.)
Inwhat sense, then, are these all ethical situations? Here another concept fromWittgenstein helps to clarify the matter, his idea of family resemblances. Unlike the Platonic model offinding a common form that underlies all instances of a concept, theWittgensteinian view is that, as with members of a family, there may be anumber of overlapping shared characteristics that create a fairly distinctcluster of associated instances, without any subset of these characteristicsbeing necessary and present in all cases: “a complicated network ofsimilarities, overlapping and criss-crossing: sometimes overall similarities,sometimes similarities of detail” (Philosophical Investigations, #66). In the same way, therange of situations we characterize as “ethical” do not necessarily share anysingle common feature: broadly they concern issues of human well-being, but indifferent senses of that term; they concern activities that express and developethical identities, but they do so in different ways; they involveresponsiveness to the demands of situations that call forth from us certain moral responses;they involve choices and actions in which we are aware that we are beingobserved, judged, or imitated by others, which expresses a responsibility forthe practice itself. This last point is worth emphasizing, because allpractices, insofar as they are practices, are never entirely personal and idiosyncratic;they are learned, they are taught, they are part of a shared legacy within aform of life. Hence enactments of those practices always exist against thebackground of implicit norms necessary for those practices to be exercised andmaintained within a particular context and time frame, and for them to becarried forward and passed on to others over time — even when practices change,this larger context of norms is necessary for the very continuation of circumstancesthat allow change. In this sense it is not an exaggeration to call ethics the practiceof practices.
Withinthis anthropologized account, the matter of justification must be addressed.Wittgenstein in his later work tended to reject general models and theories,emphasizing the particulars of context and purpose; one can givejustifications, he said, but they eventually reach an end, and he says at thisstage one can only describe: “this is what we do.” The form of life is thebedrock beyond which explanations cannot go — nor can a form of life be askedto justify itself, because it sets the conditions for any possiblejustification.
Theconditions that make a practice, any practice, possible, are not arbitrary:they provide a set of constraints and norms that are generalizable in the sensethat any alternative practice would need to rely on at least some of these sameconstraints and norms (for example, they must be replicable from generation togeneration of practitioners, and this entails nonrelative processes by whichsuch communication and teaching will be possible). Thus ethical justifications,while they must rely on the particulars of a moral situation, are not entirelyfree-floating. All the same, in this accounting there is a fundamentallydifferent character between the questions, “Why did you tell the truth toHarry,” and “Why do you tell the truth?” The second question may only beanswerable in certain situations with the reply, “because this is what I (orwe) do.”
Yeteven within the framework of a particular situation and context, the task ofmoral justification can be extremely complex — more so than is given credit insome moral theories. When ethics is viewed as a practice, more dimensions ofthe question are revealed than simply how one means for one’s action to affectanother. There is the crucial dimension of moral deliberation and the justification of one’sactions, to be sure. But alongside this, and inseparable from it, are otherframeworks of justification. Each act, even the most simple, also has thedimension of moral learning — how the act will affect the development of one’s ownmoral character and identity; the image we have of ourselves, and how wereconstitute it over time. While it might seem that this consideration alwaysfalls in line with acting to serve the interests of others, that may not be soin every instance. Similarly, there is the consideration of moralexemplification, or moral teaching, in which we consider the influence of our act uponothers who might observe or become aware of it. There is also the considerationof moral self-formation, different from the factor of moral learning, since it pertains tothe aspects of caring for one’s self that allow the maintenance of one’s moralagency and capacity to act morally. These are not just distinct moralconsiderations that, as in any moral case, might create conflicts of principleor priority and so be difficult to reconcile; they are moral considerations ofdecidedly different character, and so are not amenable to simple comparison.Yet they always coexist, for as in any complex practice, the influence of ourimmediate actions upon their end always also has effects on the continuationand maintenance of the practice itself. To act in such a way that one’s immediatepurposes are served, while the integrity and possibility of the practicegenerally are undermined, is self-defeating.
AsWittgenstein says, ethical teaching cannot simply be reduced to training (Cultureand Value, p.93). Here we wish to suggest an illustrative example: the broken cup. One ofthe present authors worked for a while in a kitchen run by an older woman whotold this anecdote. When she had been a young girl, she was helping her motherwash dishes, when she accidentally dropped a cup, which broke on the floor.“Without hesitation,” as she told the story, and before the young girl couldburst into tears, the mother had taken another cup, thrown it on the floor, andsaid, “See? It doesn’t matter.”
Thisis a nice, quaint story, and it seems simple in its outlines. But how manypeople would have had the wherewithal to respond similarly, and withouthesitation? In what ways is the mother’s response a moral act? First, there isthe immediate effect on assuaging an anxious child’s sense of remorse. There isthe reassurance that the mother is not angry. There is the message that theloss of a cup (or two) is no great tragedy. This is all at one level. Butbeyond this, there is the way the mother chooses to give this message; afterall, any of these things could simply have been said. By breaking a cup herself, sheis also showing,“I love you more than material things. I understand how mistakes can happen. Ibreak things too.” By performing this act, the mother also communicates anindelible message (it was recounted to this author when the woman was in hersixties, who had obviously remembered it, and he heard it twenty years beforenow). It was an enduring act of moral education, whether consciously or not.Moreover, and more subtly, there are the effects of this message, and choosingthis way of expressing it, on the mother herself; she is also reminding herself(or even perhaps just realizing) that material things don’t matter, that angeris rarely the proper response to a child’s innocent mistake, and so on. Perhapsshe reflected upon her own act, taken so spontaneously, and discoveredsomething new and unexpected about the essence of the moral situation at hand,or about herself as a person. Perhaps she became a better person for it, andbetter able to confront similar situations in the future.
Ifindeed she acted “without hesitation,” then it is inconceivable that sheconsidered all these dimensions with forethought before acting. Rather, thisexample shows how a range of prior moral experiences, a general set of moraldispositions, a situation that calls forth a certain emotional empathy, and asudden inspiration, can all combine to foster an act of moral genius. Certainlyan appreciation of the implications of the act not only for the immediate problem,but for its enduring effects on the parties concerned, including the agentherself, might often come only through hindsight. But our point here is alsothat the considerations that led to this act cannot be summarized in any simplemoral theory, or even less a calculus, that can either explain the act orjustify it. While it is only one kind of moral act, it does happen to be a realexample, and it illustrates nicely the point we are making about conceivingethics as a complex practice in which several moral dimensions can be simultaneouslypresent.
Despitethe importance we are placing here on the dimensions of moral deliberation,moral learning (one’s self), moral teaching or exemplification (with others inmind), and moral self-formation, from the perspective of the moral agent, thereis a crucial way in which each of these considerations involves other personsas well. Social interactions are also dimensions of a practice as it exists andevolves over time. In our view, it is very important to consider these in themost natural ways: we are born into a world we do not make; others treat usethically before we know how to act this way ourselves; our primaryintroduction to ethics is normally grounded in concern for the well-being ofothers; we often have ethical responses to others before we even have alanguage in which to describe them, let alone justify them. In all of thesecases, and others, a relational approach seems the only one that can accountfor how we actually acquire the capacity for ethical conduct.
First,moral deliberation often involves others in the process of how we reflect uponand decide what to do. Much of the time, this is social in an obvious way: wecommunicate with others as a way of reaching greater clarity or determinationabout what we should do. Both aspects are crucial here: clarity in the sense ofintersubjectively working through the moral considerations until we reach adecision about what course of action is best; and determination in the sensethat reaching this understanding in an intersubjective way can give us greaterconfidence that the course of action we have identified is a legitimate one.The support and encouragement of others may play a crucial role in animatingour capacities; sometimes we are inspired, and taught, by their ethicalexample. But here again these actual social interactions may also take theVygotskyan form of internalized deliberations that do not apparently involve others —our deliberations seem to be entirely personal and self-determined — yet whichobviously derive from previous conversations with others, in which their voicesand perspectives are represented in one’s own internal deliberations. Oftenthis dynamic is what we call “conscience.”
Therole of others in moral teaching or exemplification is fairly obvious and doesnot need to be belabored here. Examples such as the broken cup make this kindof involvement clear.
Morallearning and moral self-formation also involve others in the development andmaintenance of one’s moral identity and agency. As Arendt and others havepointed out, this begins from the time one is born into the world (a conditionshe calls “natality” (1958). Even if later one becomes primarily autonomous andself-directed in one’s moral choices, the capacity to be such, and itsparticular narrative character, are grounded in the relations one has had, andcontinues to have, with others. The moral experiences and narratives that onehas encountered personally, that one has heard about, and that one has shared withothers, all go into the complex narrative told to one’s self in which onefigures as a moral agent.
Onanother level, the very capacity to act morally is tied up in many ways, onlysome of which the agent may realize, with a set of relations to others. Crucialmoral qualities such as courage, determination, reflection, patience,integrity, and so on, even when they are at some stage internalized as drivingforces of personal character, are in fundamental respects other-regarding aswell. Moral theorists like to say that ethics is what you do when no one elseis watching you; and at the moment of action this may be true. But theemergence of these capabilities, the examples from which they derive theirimportance to us, their imaginary force as if we were being seen and judged byothers, all enter in subtle ways to moral deliberation and action even whenthey do not seem to be primary considerations. If ethics is a social practicethis must be so, because it is only through experiences of participation andexemplification involving others that we master the capacities and dispositionsof moral agency in the first place.
Finally,other people engage us in many moral situations as the people whom we seeconcretely affected by our actions. Their presence to us often constitutes acalling-forth that draws from us sentiments and motivations that we hadpreviously not experienced. This relational quality runs throughout theconsiderations just discussed here, but they are especially salient, webelieve, in the simple moment when a look, an appeal, a moment of vulnerabilityin others suddenly opens a moral horizon, or a feeling, that in some sensecomes to us;it is not a response we impose on the situation as much as an effect it hasupon us that makes us, in a real sense, more capable of a moral response thanwe had been before.
Theproposed framework here, illuminating some of the dimensions of conceivingethics as a practice, is indebted to key elements of Wittgenstein’s philosophy,especially his later philosophy, but is not exclusively Wittgensteinian. It isindebted as much to theorists who have also tried to decenter the ethicalsubject, particularly Foucault, and who have tried to problematize the idea ofa stable, ethical self. In the view outlined here, there is no “method” toethical deliberation and no single way in which the ethical agent arrives at aproper course of action. Elements of self-formation and learning interact withelements of emulating others and responding to their conceptions of us, whichinteract in turn with elements emphasizing our role as ethical exemplars orteachers for others. In the context of practices, when one is teaching, whenone is learning, and when one is working on improving one’s own practice,cannot be easily separated. This is true of the practice of ethics also.Because the dimensions of this complex practice work themselves out differentlyin every concrete instance, any efforts at justification beyond an accountingof the considerations in this case, are highly artificial. Some people are generallyhonest, or generous, etc. But if you were to ask them why they were so, you would probablyget something more like a personal narrative or an autobiography than whatphilosophers think of as a justification. Or you might simply hear, “This isjust the way I am” (or this is just what we do, where the “we” refers to aparticular family or community).
Whatemerges from this map is a picture of a network of relations, present, past,and future, of which the ethical agent is, has been, or anticipates being apart. Our ethical identity is formed in the dynamic of how we treat others, howthey treat us, and how we see them treating each other. This dynamic informs,influences, and sustains us as ethical subjects; in our responses we are oftencapable of more than we know or can articulate. This network of relations,“overlapping and criss-crossing,” represents the inseparability of questions ofethical conduct and questions of ethical teaching and learning. As Wittgensteinargues is the case for language, so we argue here for ethics: the essence ofunderstanding a human practice is in understanding how it is learned.
Hannah Arendt, The Human Condition (Chicago: University of ChicagoPress, 1958).
NormanMalcolm, Ludwig Wittgenstein: A Memoir (New York: Oxford University Press, 1958).
Ludwig Wittgenstein, Culture and Value (Chicago: University of ChicagoPress, 1980).
LudwigWittgenstein, ”A Lecture on Ethics” in J. Klaage and A, Nordman (eds.) LudwigWittgenstein: PhilosophicalOccasions (1912-1951) (Indianapolis: Hackett, 1993): 115-155.
LudwigWittgenstein, On Certainty (New York: Harper, 1969).
Ludwig Wittgenstein, Philosophical Investigations (Oxford, Basil Blackwell, 1953).
Ludwig Wittgenstein, Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus (New York: Routledge and KeganPaul, 1921).
The previously unpublished papers collected in this volume reflect two of Cora Diamond's major philosophical ambitions. Lest anyone suppose the book is about Wittgenstein on the moral life, despite some intersection of themes, the book is eponymously divided into two main parts, the first substantially longer than the second, respectively, on 'Wittgenstein' and 'The Moral Life'. Diamond is known for challenging readers especially of Wittgenstein's Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus not to 'chicken out' when it comes to interpreting the force of the penultimate passage of the text, 6.54, where Wittgenstein maintains 'My propositions are … senseless [unsinnig]'. Diamond has spearheaded unflinching efforts to interpret Wittgenstein's treatise holistically, with particular emphasis on this troublesome sentence. Diamond is also admired for her sustained ethical stance concerning the (mis-) treatment of animals -- the inhuman use, to morph Norbert Weiner's phrase, of nonhuman beings.
The book opens with an insightful and beautifully succinct Introduction by Crary, followed by these eleven contributions: Part I Wittgenstein -- James Conant, 'Mild Mono-Wittgensteinianism'; Michael Kremer, 'The Cardinal Problem of Philosophy'; Juliet Floyd, 'Wittgenstein and the Inexpressible'; Hilary Putnam, 'Wittgenstein and the Real Numbers'; David H. Finkelstein, 'Holism and Animal Minds'. Part II The Moral Life -- Stanley Cavell, 'Companionable Thinking'; John McDowell, 'Comments on Stanley Cavell's "Companionable Thinking"'; Sabina Lovibond, '"In Spite of the Misery of the World": Ethics, Contemplation, and the Source of Value'; Martha Nussbaum, 'A Novel in Which Nothing Happens: Fontane's Der Stechlin and Literary Friendship'; Stephen Mulhall, 'The Mortality of the Soul: Bernard Williams's Character(s)'; Alice Crary, 'Humans, Animals, Right and Wrong'. Notes to the individual essays are immediately attached to each as they appear, and the volume concludes with a combined name and subject index.
All of the essays are valuable in their own right as worthwhile philosophical discussions of their particular topics. I nevertheless found myself disappointed by the fact that the essays taught me relatively little in-depth about Diamond's philosophy. There are many ways of honoring a highly-regarded thinker, and certainly bringing together essays by persons who have been influenced by the individual's work is one tried and true method. From my perspective, however, previously knowing something but not very much about Diamond's thought, I had hoped that the present volume would provide a window on her ideas, as the title seemed to promise, an introduction to be pursued thereafter, turning more assiduously to original writings after being prepared to understand Diamond's philosophy in perspective. I expected a roadmap to point out places of interest in Diamond's work, with solid sharply-focused critical interaction to make the philosopher's opus come alive, calling attention to attractions and hazards en route, to wonders and difficulties that might otherwise go unnoticed or under-appreciated. Crary's Introduction goes some distance toward this goal, but the essays by and large do not. The authors in virtually every instance pay lip service at some point to Diamond as someone whose seminal writings on this or that exegetical or philosophical problem have had an impact on their own thinking, or with whom they have discussed related ideas in the past, and then proceed to ride their own hobbyhorses to the end of the essay on whatever subject other than Diamond (Bernard Williams, Donald Davidson, Fontane, etc.) they prefer to discuss.
Here, as befits a review of such a diverse collection of philosophical essays, are some (highly impressionistic) impressions that cannot pretend to do justice to any of the individual essays. The usual reasons of space forbid my discussing all of the papers individually, by which I mean no disapproval by neglect. I concentrate instead on those that I think bear the most criticism, rather than squandering my word allotment in paltry synopsis. Thus, I pass over with little or no comment some of my favorite papers in the collection, especially those of Floyd, Lovibond, and Mulhall.
Part I Wittgenstein. Conant, taking inspiration years ago from Diamond's groundbreaking essay, 'Throwing Away the Ladder', has led the charge of 'resolute' interpreters of Wittgenstein's early philosophy in the Tractatus. The term 'resolute' in this application in turn derives from Thomas Rickett's essay, 'Pictures, Logic, and the Limits of Sense in Wittgenstein's Tractatus', in the (1996) Cambridge Companion to Wittgenstein, edited by Hans Sluga and David G. Stern. Conant's essay, which we can take with due disclaimers as representative of this section, weighs in at 112 pages including extensive notes. The paper, in somewhat grandstanding fashion, occupies a disproportionate 28% of the book's entire mass. Conant frames religious analogies of the Tractatus (Old Testament) and Philosophical Investigations and other posthumata (New Testament) with fabricated quotations from a fictional Johannes Climacus, pirating Kierkegaard's pseudonym, in order to talk about the positions developed in his own essay from an ironic, third-person perspective.
Within this quasi-literary format, Conant repackages 'New Wittgensteinian' ideas about the Tractatus with which he is affiliated. Interesting new twists are nevertheless woven into the mix as Conant considers a succession of lists of theses that might be attributed to Wittgenstein in the Tractatus, together with what Conant extrapolates as Wittgenstein's imagined later reactions to them. The issue, or one of them anyway, in trying to understand the relation between the two main periods of Wittgenstein's lifework, is that if the later Wittgenstein rejects what the early Wittgenstein wrote, especially about meaning and the constellation of associated topics, as he certainly seems to do in Philosophical Investigations, Philosophical Grammar and Philosophical Remarks (from The Big Typescript), then it would appear that either the early Wittgenstein was trying after all to advance meaningful theses capable of being denied anon, or else at least that the later Wittgenstein takes himself to have previously done so. Since both possibilities argue against resolute readings of the Tractatus as Wittgenstein's effort to do away with all attempts at philosophical discourse as irredeemably meaningless, as certain critics of the New Wittgensteinians have argued, the topic has special urgency for their approach.
Pros and cons of resolute or non-chickening-out readings of the Tractatus notwithstanding, I am troubled by the fact that in 6.54 Wittgenstein does not merely say that his propositions up to 6.54 are literally nonsensical, but that his propositions (period, full stop) are such. To my way of thinking, this does not merely suggest but fully implies that it is literally nonsensical for Wittgenstein also to have written that his propositions are literally nonsensical. It is hard for me accordingly to understand how anyone could intelligibly adopt a resolute reading of 6.54. For the passage also pulls the rug out from under itself as equally unsinnig as the rest of the text. A resolute, non-chickening-out reading of 6.54 would have us be firm in treating the Tractatus as totally and thoroughly inexpressible, even non-showable, nonsense, on the basis of a Scheinsatz, a pseudo-proposition that Wittgenstein himself declares is nonsensical. Must not a resolutist, then, trying to be resolute in particular about the implications of passage 6.54, choose which propositions in the text not to chicken out about, while chickening out on the literal meaninglessness of the one key sentence that is supposed to justify their resoluteness? These are mysteries that the resolutists, at least in the present venue, do not venture to resolve.
Still, the New Wittgensteinians, following Diamond, and with Conant among others manifestly at the helm, have done an invaluable service in calling attention to previously unremarked difficulties in understanding the real message of Wittgenstein's Tractatus, and of the too frequently underestimated pitfalls of reading the text without keeping 6.54 along with all the other putative nonsense of the text doggedly if not quite resolutely in mind. Ultimately, though, I find Conant's distinctions and range of alternative approaches to the text far too limiting, despite his efforts to work out a variety of resolutist heterodoxies, including mild, severe, and zealous mono-Wittgensteinianisms (like different versions of monotheism, following the religious conceit Conant playfully develops throughout the essay). The distinction between resolute and irresolute readings of the Tractatus strikes me as especially cartoonish, a set of false alternatives. Wittgenstein's early treatise presents itself as something more like a work of medieval mysticism, describing a course of thought or way of life that the sage or saint has had to work through over time and finally surpassed or triumphed against, arriving at ineffable insights amounting to a revelation. The ladder metaphor in 6.54, adapted from Arthur Schopenhauer's The World as Will and Representation, resonates also with iconic imagery of the Middle Ages as an evocation of Wittgenstein's lifelong spiritual preoccupations. Bertrand Russell asked a pacing young Wittgenstein in his room whether he was thinking about logic or his sins, to which Wittgenstein characteristically answered, 'Both' (Russell, Autobiography, Chapter 9). If Conant's fundamental distinction among interpretations is correct, however, then categorizing Wittgenstein's early philosophy as ineffable belongs exclusively to the irresolute, chickening-out approach to reading the thornier passages of the Tractatus.
I am amazed, finally, to discover that resolutists who want to be faithful to Wittgenstein's conclusions in Tractatus 6.54 and, especially, 7, seem to have spilled more ink in commentary, polemics, and in-fighting than all of what they consider to be the naïve irresolute writing on Wittgenstein's early philosophy put together and squared. It appears that in order to be resolute, to avoid chickening out in the effort to be consistently loyal to Wittgenstein's insight that 'Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent', a philosophical commentator must be inexhaustibly prolix. To understand Wittgenstein, one cannot practice what one preaches; the resolute interpreter of Wittgenstein cannot be a consistent committed Wittgensteinian by his or her own lights, but must enter the fray as an outsider, a non- or even anti-Wittgensteinian. If we are convinced that Wittgenstein advocates silence instead of meaningless prattle about philosophical problems, should we not be silent about the need to be silent? Is that not what Wittgenstein did when he abandoned philosophy for primary school teaching in the Alps? Should we not in all consistency then at least acknowledge that loyal Wittgensteinians trying to think and talk resolutely about Wittgenstein's counseling philosophers to be silent are equally engaging in pseudo-propositional nonsense?
For a parting topic of criticism in the first part of Crary's edition, I turn to Putnam's paper, in which he argues that the reason why Wittgenstein offers puzzling pronouncements about Cantor's diagonalization argument for the existence of transfinite cardinalities (which Wittgenstein in Remarks on the Foundations of Mathematics disparages as a 'prahlerischen Beweis'), and the ontic status of real numbers, is that Wittgenstein simply did not know enough about mathematics and its applications in physics to understand the indispensability of real numbers in the sciences. I hope I am not alone in finding Putnam's abductive explanation of Wittgenstein's antagonism to transfinitary mathematics not only uncharitable and inadequately motivated, but historically implausible, given Wittgenstein's education and demonstrated practical familiarity with cutting-edge developments in logic, mathematics, and engineering. Putnam, furthermore, overlooks Wittgenstein's reliance on real-numbered continua as entering into the logical analysis of propositions in his solution to the color incompatibility problem in the subsequently disowned 1929 essay, 'Some Remarks on Logical Form'. Could it be instead that Wittgenstein takes a radical conceptually austere approach to the foundations of mathematics and consequently to all its conventional superstructure? There is precedent aplenty for such an attitude in the strict finitist philosophies of mathematics of George Berkeley, David Hume, and L.E.J. Brouwer, among others, all of whom are prepared to topple higher mathematics and its applications as philosophically ill-founded if their conceptual reservations cannot be satisfactorily resolved.
Finkelstein's essay, the last in this first main part, though primarily a criticism of Donald Davidson's thesis that propositional linguistic competence is a requirement for the possibility of having beliefs that appears unavailable outside our own species, bridges especially the later Wittgenstein's remarks about the intentionality of thought and requirements of philosophical grammar of discourse about belief, doubt, and other psychological states, with Diamond's moral concerns about conduct toward nonhuman animals.
Part II The Moral Life. Originally written for another occasion, as the final endnote (n. 1, 351) reveals, a conference on literature and ethics at the University of Helsinki, Nussbaum's essay typifies the inclusion of essays in the volume that have virtually nothing to say about Diamond. Nussbaum writes, after a five page foray into a blow-by-blow narration of a novel she curiously enough characterizes as a work in which nothing happens, at the conclusion of her section I:
Thinking about Der Stechlin seems to me a good way to honor Cora Diamond. So often, like Fontane, she asked us all to question assumptions about structure, "plot," and sequence that hobble philosophy as surely as they hobble the novel, asking ourselves what revolutions in style and structure, as well as content, a due attention to life's complexities might require of us. Perhaps, too, Fontane's praise of conversation is an appropriate way of indicating how deeply I value our years of conversation about these and other topics. (331)
A tenuous connection, to say the least. Thereafter, Diamond's name does not appear even once again in the essay. If a classical analogy for this sort of paste-in tribute is appropriate, I am reminded of nothing so much as the statues of a later decadent antiquity, frugally made in two parts -- a full-length body in flowing tunic with an open socket at the neck to be completed by cementing-in any choice of interchangeable sculpted heads. One easily imagines hauling out the same philosophical paper and tacking on a different homage for an entirely different Festschrift, acknowledging the work of any almost any other philosopher, or, potentially, in this case, comparative literary critic.
We see this even in the collection's concluding essay by Crary, whose Introduction to the volume provides a much-appreciated overview of Diamond's philosophy in thirteen pages before proceeding to gloss the edited essays. Crary in her own contribution to Part II writes: 'In describing this view, I am influenced by the work of Cora Diamond -- in even more ways than are explicitly acknowledged in the pages that follow' (382). Explicit references to Diamond in the body of the essay are indeed conspicuous by their absence, although Crary, much to her credit, does at least bring in an interesting argument of Diamond's concerning the treatment of living animals versus dead human bodies, in connection with the view that there may be something intrinsically morally valuable about the fact of being human. Even Crary, however, outside of her Introduction, does not focus or concentrate in detail on any of Diamond's work, examining the arguments and outlook thoroughly, to help shed light on Diamond's views about the ethics of our conduct toward nonhuman animals.
What I would have liked to have seen in the book is at least a handful of essays that discuss and criticize Diamond's philosophy at length, perhaps a single one of her significant papers, tracing connections to the development of her thought over the years and separating the gold from the dross. Cavell in my opinion does about the best job of integrating discussion of Diamond's own work with interests of his own, while staying on track for much of his paper on Diamond. McDowell's contribution is exceptional also in that he responds to Cavell's preceding essay with almost exclusive concern for its connection to Diamond's work. I may have learned more about Diamond's philosophical outlook from Crary's Introduction and McDowell's response to Cavell than from all the other papers combined. McDowell's paper remains an oddity nonetheless. Crary's editorial apparatus does not explain how McDowell came to read Cavell's paper, or how it is that his paper answers Cavell as another contributor to the book, nor does McDowell offer a clue to this anomaly that none of the other essays in the book features.I was puzzled when I first paged through the essays and examined the table of contents, to observe that, contrary to custom, there was no reply to contributing authors or concluding expository essay by Diamond herself. This strikes me still as something missing, something that would have rounded off the discussions and have offered Diamond a platform from which to look back on what she thinks she has accomplished and who, if any, of her well-wishers have properly understood what she has been about. After reading the papers, it was clear in any case that there was scant discussion devoted specifically to Diamond's work to which she could have responded. My personal sense of a missed opportunity to learn something more concrete about Diamond's thought aside, the innocent reader should be advised that the otherwise independently interesting essays in this volume will absolutely not satisfy their desire to be much enlightened about Diamond's philosophy. For that, we shall have to read or re-read Diamond's books and essays, and undertake to formulate on our own what might have been provided here as a starting place toward working out a retrospective critical appraisal of Diamond's interpretation of Wittgenstein and philosophy of the moral life.