Sunday, March 21, 2021

Six Rounds with Wittgenstein (Part 6)

Max Ernst, Compendium of the History
of the Universe

Whoops. I was having so much fun earning a wage and having a panic attack over a glitch in the cover text of The Reunion that went completely undetected for months that I forgot to post the final entry to this series. So: final comments on Wittgenstein's Philosophical Investigations (1953):

579. This feeling of confidence. How is this manifested in behavior?

How is it manifested otherwise? It's a safe bet that someone who spends most of his day lying in bed and staring at the wall wouldn't report feeling very confident.

Confidence is not a cause of behavior, but a product of it.

Monday, March 15, 2021

witch hazel & kigo

Outside the main entrance of the art museum I used to work at stands billowing shrub of vernal witch hazel (Hamamelis vernalis).¹ In the last days of February it wakes up with the snow drops and crocuses, putting out tasseled yellow flowers, coolly aromatic—"spicy" is the word typically used to describe its scent, but like most olfactory adjectives, it fails to communicate the particularity and subtleties of the witch hazel's suffusive fragrance. If you're positioned upwind from the the plant, the scent can find your nostrils from a fair distance.

Last year, when I still had the luxury of talking half-hour lunch breaks, and when it was still Shirley's job to stand outside the museum entrance, herding visiting school children and getting into fights with presumptuous motorists who dared to park in the bus lane, I often stepped outside to chat with her for a while. During the last week of February and the first week of March, I'd loiter outside a few minutes every afternoon, chatting with Shirley and whoever else might be around (usually a security guard, a member of the custodial staff, or someone from the education department) about this "coronavirus" thing and speculating as to what might come of it. My memories of my final days at the art museum are redolent with the aroma of witch hazel that attended these conversations.

Last week, when Shirley and I had coinciding days off from our new jobs, we took a walk past the museum and I made us take a detour to visit the witch hazel. After only one year, it became for me as much a signal pleasure of spring's approach as red buds at the tips of maple branches, robins marching in the grass, and the creaking voices of migrating grackles.

Tuesday, March 9, 2021

Six Rounds with Wittgenstein (Part 5) ... and also a review of the Valiant megaWAD

watch it—my gf is a drooling supermutant

Today we're going to continue leapfrogging across Wittgenstein's Philosophical Investigations (1953). We're also going to go off on a big tangent about video games that will eventually turn into a review of a Doom mod. Because we can, and that is the spirit and joy of blogging.

547. Negation: 'a mental activity'. Negate something and observe what you are doing.——Do you perhaps inwardly shake your head? And if you do——is this process more deserving of our interest than, say, that of writing a sign of negation in a sentence? Do you now know the essence of negation?

549. "How can the word 'not' negate?"——"That sign 'not' indicates that you are to take what follows negatively." We should like to say: The sign of negation is our occasion for doing something——possibly very complicated. It is as if the negation-sign occasioned our doing something. But what? That is not said. It is as if it only needed to be hinted at; as if we already knew. As if no explanation were needed, for we are in any case already acquainted with the matter.

551."Does the same negation occur in: 'Iron does not melt at a hundred degrees Centigrade' and 'Twice two is not five'?" Is this to be decided by introspection; by trying to see what we are thinking as we utter the two sentences? 

First: negation is a feat of the verbal animal.

Consider the pigeon trained to peck at a button when it's colored red and not to peck at it when it's colored blue—even this description is a reification. Properly speaking, what "not pecking" means is "doing something other than pecking, but we don't specify what it is." The omission is expedient insofar as this is one of many occasions where we are solely concerned with whether X is or isn't Y.

"No I didn't read the email you sent me last night" is a more useful answer than "last night I watched YouTube, ate dinner, clipped my toenails, took five pisses, got drunk, jacked off, licked every doorknob in the house..." and so on until every act is accounted for, leading the patient inquirer to finally concludes that "read your email" didn't occur.

In verbal constructions of logic, which are often concerned with the relational frames in which any given entities or events might be situated, X is not Y is what we're left when we're restricted from specifying any characteristics of X and beyond their identities with regard to each other.

To dredge up the old aphorism "nature abhors a vacuum," nonbeing means nothing outside the context of the verbal animal's repertoire. Skinner writes:

Friday, February 26, 2021

Six Rounds with Wittgenstein (Part 4)

Mardsen Hartley, E (1915)

Wittgenstein. Philosophical Investigations (1953). Jibberjab. Back to it.

329. When I think in language, there aren't 'meanings' going through my mind in addition to the verbal expressions: the language is itself the vehicle of thought.

I don't have much to say about this, except that a recurring problem with traditional mentalistic treatments of behavior (verbal or otherwise) assume "thought" needs no definition nor explanation. Nor does "mind" or "meaning." The promiscuity and lability with which these terms are used accounts for much of the inconsistencies, quandaries, and errors Wittgenstein observes throughout the Philosophical Investigations—some of which he might have examined more effectively if he'd made more of an effort to interrogate some of the fundamental terms in his universe of discourse (and refine their definitions where necessary). A categorical prohibition on hypotheses in philosophy nips a lot of potential gibberish in the bud, true—but Wittgenstein's policy of not straying beyond "what we have always known" leaves him stuck with the reductionist descriptions of language and cognition that perpetuate a large portion of the mischief he describes. 

Not that traditional terms of language, intention, meaning, etc. aren't perfectly adequate for casual speech—we have to work with the language we're given, and take the assumptions and conventions baked into it.¹  But Wittgenstein is clearly interested in what's happening in the unexamined margins and interstices of common experience, and those assumptions and conventions hinder his examination.

Saturday, February 20, 2021

Six Rounds with Wittgenstein (Part 3)

Arthur Dove, The Critic (1925)

Before we pull more commentary on Ludwig Wittgenstein's Philosophical Investigations (1953) from the oven, I've got some notes and mea culpas.

Tuesday, February 16, 2021

Six rounds with Wittgenstein (part 2)

Arthur Dove, Nature Symbolized (1911)

Picking up from where we left off...

 101. We want to say that there can't be any vagueness in logic. The idea now absorbs us, that the ideal 'must' be found in reality. Meanwhile we do not as yet see how it occurs there, nor do we understand the nature of this "must". We think it must be in reality; for we think we already see it there.

102. The strict and clear rules of the logical structure of propositions appear to us as something in the background——hidden in the medium of the understanding. I already see them (even though through a medium): for I understand the propositional sign, I use it to say something. 

105. When we believe that that we must find that order, must find the ideal, in our actual language, we become dissatisfied with what are ordinarily called "propositions", "words", "signs".

The proposition and the word that logic deals with are supposed to be something pure and clear-cut. And we rack our brains over the nature of the real sign.——Is it perhaps the idea of the sign? or the idea of the present moment?

All right. I'm going to level with you here.

I wrote four or five paragraphs about the reification of concepts, and then stopped because I wasn't sure how any of it answered what Wittgenstein seemed to be saying.

Then I started over. I composed seven paragraphs (and transcribed a two-paragraph block quote from Hayes, Barnes-Holmes, and Roche's Relational Frame Theory: A Post-Skinnerian Account of Human Language and Cognition (2001) and then scratched it again. Not only was I unsure how any of it addressed Wittgenstein's points, I realized I have no idea what Wittgenstein is trying to get across—and I'm increasingly confident that he wasn't really sure, either. 

Wednesday, February 10, 2021

Six rounds with Wittgenstein (part 1)

Charles Sheeler, Flower Forms (1917)*

Not long ago, the incomparable Taras T. showed me a couple of critical essays he wrote about Scott McCloud, which drew from the Philosophical Investigations (1953) of Ludwig Wittgenstein.¹ The very day after he recommended I read the book for myself, a coworker happened to mention Wittgenstein in conversation, and I asked him if he had a copy of Philosophical Investigations he'd be willing to lend me for a while.

And so now here we are.

Until now I've known next to nothing about Wittgenstein or his work. I seem to recall Apostolos Doxiadis portraying him as a temperamental clown in his graphic novel Logicomix (2008), and the impression I got from any number of times Wittgenstein's name fizzed up out of the ether is of a polarizing figure. Depending on who you ask, he's either the most important philosopher of the twentieth century or a pompous hack.

Come to think of it, these propositions are not mutually exclusive.

Friday, January 29, 2021

Notes: the Jersey Pine Barrens

I don't manage to get out of Philadelphia often, but when I do I like to visit the New Jersey Pine Barrens. Here are some (elaborated) notes taken during and after my most recent visit.

Unique, but seldom photogenic.

🞄 The Pine Barrens have fascinated me ever since my first visit some fifteen years ago. Having spent most of my hiking-and-rambling time in deciduous temperate forests of some variety or other, I found in the Pine Barrens a veritably alien landscape. But until fairly recently, I wasn't aware of how unusual an ecosystem it is. As a matter of fact, the Pine Barrens are unique.

The native range of its defining flora (Pinus rigida, the pitch pine) extends longitudinally from central Kentucky to the Atlantic, and latitudinally from northern Georgia to southeastern Ontario. Pitch pine forests don't occur anywhere else. Their reliance on poor and/or depleted soil makes their distribution spotty, and human activity has winnowed them down and boxed them in even further. Encompassing 1.1 million acres, the New Jersey Pine Barrens are by far the world's largest extant pitch pine forest.

Understanding the Pine Barrens as an ecosystem requires getting acquainted with the pitch pine and some of its special properties.

Thursday, January 7, 2021

Spiritual cramps

Orion; photo (cropped) by Adam Block, via Apod

In late December, I sent individual season's greetings-type texts to some friends during a lull at work. James replied with a message alluding to the great conjunction of Jupiter and Saturn. He knows me well, and assumed I'd been watching for it.

I'm sorry to say that I missed it.

The benefits of my situation in Philadelphia are manifold (though most of them boil down to being able to bike and walk almost everywhere I need to be), but the costs sometimes prompt me to browse housing and job listings from towns out in the sticks, or in smaller cities famously protective of their green belts. Not being able to see many stars was one of the many privations and inconveniences I complained about when I lived on the fringes of Washington, DC (2014). Having relocated to Silver Spring after living my entire life in some suburb or other, a practically empty night sky affected me acutely. If we wanted to dredge up posts from Beyond Easy's first few years (big if, there), we'd find no small abundance of entries about stargazing and astronomy. The places I lived then weren't altogether devoid of light pollution, true, but you could still make out the Milky Way on clear, moonless summer nights. It was easy to notice the stars, especially if, say, you'd fallen into the habit of taking midnight walks with friends to get high in the woods. Once I started noticing the stars, paying attention to them and taking a deepening interest in them followed naturally.

After a couple of years, objects in the night sky took on a significance beyond their interest as mere aesthetic and intellectual wonders as I came to associate them with terrestrial events. When I think of craning my neck to look directly up Vega, I seem to feel the air of a warm summer evening on my skin. Conversely, thinking about Orion gives me a mnemonic chill.¹ Cassiopeia, Perseus, and Pegasus torquing up over the eastern horizon means summer is on its way out; glimpsing Arcturus in the early evening indicates it's finally on its way. And of course there are all the other stellar objects that keep a more precise time or are simply a pleasure to gaze at: Corona Berenices, Draco, Gemini, Lacerta, the Pleiades, Delphinus, Hercules, Scorpius, and so on.