Friday, 2 August 2013
Wittgenstein's notion of "Private Language" and fear of dependence
Many have written about Ludwig Wittgenstein's efforts, in his posthumously published work "Philosophical Investigations", to invalidate, or dispel, what he called "private language". I get the impression that those esteeming Wittgenstein, or who identify with "analytical" philosophy, take a pride in this kind of thing, elimintaion. I am interested to learn of some people in psycho-analytical community who draw on Wittgenstein's work, as it gives ways to identify (and evolve out of) "narcissistic" psychopathology. I have become aware of Wittgenstein's work and concerns indirectly, taking up philosophy to combat a particular kind of thinking and mental space which in my view is the space that Wittgenstein occupiedand out of which he fought his way. Thus, coming to grasp what might have motivated Wittgenstein in his early work, Tractatus Logico Philosophicus, I did not wish to read it! In a small way, philosophy arose for me as both a path to some sort of self-hood and the means to defend myself against the kind of thinking that could cause someone to neeed to write a work like the Tractatus. Wittgenstein concluded with silence before the ethical. Kierkegaard, whose writing activated my mind, attempts to communicate things about aesthetic, ethical and Christian disctinctions to life, getting to these things indirectly. It was significant for me to discover his (pseudonymous) writing on an ironic stance towards life, because this is like seeing both sides of a limit: how can one be ironic without some awareness of what one is not being? But my trajectory through philosophy also brought me to appreciate the place of pasychopathology, and narcissitic psychopathology, which can not only give rise to the kinds of dilemmas that caught Kierkegaard (between those modes of existence), but also also generate thinking that is geared to avoid dependence on the world/other, which is close to what, I think, Wittgenstein is getting at with his notion of a private language. I can reflect on deeply felt responses to the possibility of architecture in the world, and the possibility of having that role. It was a very troubling thing for me to allow “Architecture” to be, the idea being accompanied by a strong feeling of indignation towards “Architects” (in general) that “they” should seek to “impose” their creations on “us”. The situation in which I found myself was such that pressed this response out of me, as I was putting myself forward as a person who would be an architect. I seemed to want to say “Everyone has ideas, what’s so special about yours that gives you to feel entitled to foist it on us?” Now this way of putting my response, back then, has been with me for many years. It set up a very deep paradox for me, who put himself forward as one who would be an architect. I could also see that the response called up the idea that there is a measure or a standard according to which “Architecture” (and “Architects”) should conform. I seemed to need to rely on there being an objective correctness of form, or an objective power that is deciding what and what is not to be allowed as Architecture. Now in some respects, this supported a sense of there being justice, or fairness, in the world and a rationality that can order things. But underneath the supposed measure of correctness or standard, was another notion: that one would recognise when the measure had been applied, or when the lack of correctness had been demonstrated. In this was contained a kind of omniscience and a double standard. On the one hand it appealed to a measure to which “we” should all submit, and then it arrogated to itself the power to judge when the measure has been met. "Are you getting better? How do you know if you're getting better?" is a question that might be put to an artist by someone who takes it that the question can be answered. But the question arises from having the wrong model of what is going on. The question may come from an unsympathetic stance towards what is being asked about. The one who tries to answer it (perhaps because he very much needs the other's support and understanding) inevitably finds himself trying to express in words, make a demonstration of, what can't be expressed in words. This calls up what I take to be Wittgenstein's project: to state what can and cannot be demonstrated to be true in language. This insistent voice, demanding justification, was ruthlessly applied to my self, so that all forms of life that I might take were ruled out in advance, all ways of being were taken to be in-correct, so that no position could be occupied, without seeming to be at fault. And it was the finding fault which maintained the source of that voice in its authority. I’m so glad that I could break this voice down by pressing on, firstly by attempting to make art in a committed way. (It was the commitment to a life which exloded the distancing from life contained in that omnipotence). This brought out painful paradoxes. Making art was good because it took work explicitly out of the domain of correct measurement. But also, inevitably, the question of language of painting or style, had to be broached. A language of painting had emerged with the thing that painting was making sense of, or, in other words, with the painting practice, and with a sense of identity. But then the problem had to be faced that the language one has arrived at must draw on what is already out there. It does not make sense to hear an artist say that he cannot borrow from another artist’s work because, in effect, “stealing is wrong”, because any language he has already acquired can only have been acquired by taking from others. The anxiety of influence is well known to artists. These were excrutiating problems. But ones that can be understood in terms of kinds of self disorder, or personality disorder, that is kinds of pathologies of “narcissism”. No texts gave me greater insight and ammunition for getting beyond that voice than J S Mill’s essays “Bentham” (1838) and “Coleridge”. It seems to me that the voice which strives for this justice or fairness, the submission of all things to a measure (and the assumption of a position of omniscience), is really a demand that all things be intelligible to “me”, and that this voice emerges because things are not intelligible. In particular, things in the world that are calling up feeling reponses may be unsettling because they provoke awareness of lack of range of feeling, a sort of sickness, of groundlessness, of lack of being. The omiscience is a defence against the destructive emotion of envy, which itself is a terror of being dependent and incorporate things that appear threatening to the self. It’s very hard to grasp. It’s a dangerous business. ********** October 2013 On the shelves of an academic library (Birkbeck, University of London) there are one or a few books from the mid 20th century given over to Wittgenstein's "private language" idea. As I passed them the other day, I remember having had a deep concern with language, that is, with visual language. How is it that someone can address himself to painting and yet continue, even a very long way, under the impression that one is not "entitled" to "borrow" elements of visual "style" (i.e. language) from other artists because one does not "understand" "their" language, and yet simultaneously work towards attaining a language? At the most acute level there is an apprehension here that others' visual language seeks to attain a kind of precision, a correspondence with... something, while a simultaneous urge for a final authenticity. This notion of authenticity strikes me as close to the idea of a "private language"? And yet, in a state of acute self-consciousness, this visual artist is immediately aware that such an apprehension has no place in that context (the making of art) because it pre-supposes that whatever language one already has has been acquired through some sort of pre-assessment of the intelligibility of others' statements (paintings). It is as if (visual) statements have been met and compared to something already known, a kind of measure or standard, and by that "understood". [It has been said often by philosophers that a drive towards a philosophically, conceptually "pure" language, composed of "atomic" or "verifiable" propositions, seems always to overlook that there must already be language to have any notion of in what its conceptual purity might consist]. This marks a kind of detachment from others (if not the world), and an effort always to make of the other nothing different, to keep things familiar and safe, to render all things reducible to something intelligible to "us". This is, to my mind, the very essence of the cristicism that Mill makes of Bentham. Wittgenstein seems to have attained his self-criticism (if "Philosophical Investigations" is taken to be a kind of rebuttal of his earlier logical atomism of the "tractatus") in a way that parallels the perspective Mill gained on his former mentor. Another idea occurs with that mention of "authenticity". In the ambitious artist was a drive for authenticity, and the ambition was precisely to move away from some place of in-authenticity through a way of making paintings that was its own project. One was in effect composing a person, building a self. I am quite sure this process of engagement with painting is the way open to acquire "self", through a sort of recognition or being-known or looked-back-at, which - for whatever reason - was not possible through human relations. It's interesting and bears a lot of consideration... Kierkegaard's work can be seen to dwell a good deal on the authenticity of a life. I can't help suspecting that Kierkegaard has been driven to his incredible depth-psychologies for much the same need to quell a kind of omniscience, a way that is all-knowing and yet out of contact with life. Wasn't it Hegelian thought he reacted against? The Hegelian system. (I'm laughing remembering that moment in Jarman's film "Wittgenstein" where W says that were he to read Hegel he would "go stark raving mad"). I can't help but suspect that Kierkegaard was appalled at a terrible dread completeness in the Hegelian mode of thought [in spite of its insistence on becoming and ceaseless change, there is a notion of Mind and my-attaining-it-after-all-again which seems to make it limitless] reinforced by his father's instilling dread feelings in him through his childhood. The reality of choice breaks that completeness open and down. Has my reader read the autobiography of Bryan Magee "Confessions of a Philosopher"? I came to this book after having had the serious experience of registering Leavis's criticism of C P Snow, so at once being able to recognise not only the "learned ignorance" residing in me, but also the nigh-on-senselessness of "analytical philosophy".