Tuesday, November 08, 2005

"Whereof we cannot speak"

As much as I've disliked the phrase "the external world" (see below), I've long admired that last proposition of Wittgenstein's Tractatus, often translated (a bit sententiously perhaps) as, "Whereof we cannot speak, thereof we must be silent" -- followed by nothing. It has a teasing, mysterious, Zen-like quality to it, that may at least partly be due to the fact that it's paradoxical, or self-contradictory -- since the subject clause itself, brief though it be, speaks of that "whereof we cannot speak". And I don't think this is a mere quibble -- that very paradox illustrates an important understanding of both the limitations and the power of thought and its medium, language. There are some things which, by their nature, are beyond, or at least outside of, thought as such, but which at the same time, owing to the recursive, object-making nature of language, are "containable" by thought -- thought can hold them, in a fashion, even if it cannot reach them. And a very simple, mundane example of this is simply phenomenal experience itself, the stuff out of which thought is made.

But, speaking of what we cannot speak of, what about that "environment" mentioned parenthetically in the previous post as something altogether outside of knowledge, properly speaking -- should or can anything be said about it? The problem is that, once we're at the level of "saying" anything, we're immediately above the level of the foundation and into the social/cultural realm -- there is no way, in other words, of using abstractions like words that could ever get us "below" or beyond, in any sense, the basic level of phenomenal experience. But there is the word "environment" itself, after all (we could call it the "noumenon", or "external world" even, were it not for the representationalist baggage those terms bring with them) -- what can be meant by that? Suppose that we think in terms of two distinct contextual levels, an epistemological level and an explanatory (scientific) level. Then, on the epistemological level, given the epistemological inversion referred to in earlier posts, the "environment" simply names the principle that the world of conscious experience is a given, independent of conscious agency -- it isn't really a "thing" or "realm" at all, in other words. Within the explanatory level, on the other hand, when we're trying to formulate one of those efficacious "myths" that Quine speaks of (as, for example, in this blog generally), then it can be useful to think of the environment as an externality that stands in a determinate but possibly complex relationship to phenomenal experience. In this sense, and in this context, we could retain three different levels involved in language-based consciousness -- knowledge/belief (i.e., the cultural imprint), phenomenal experience, and environment, all of which are physical, all of which knowledge can embrace, but not all of which knowledge can be.


At 11:18 PM, January 26, 2007, Anonymous John Hewitt said...

This comment may seem a little obscure at first, but bear with me as we consider Wittgenstein's words. I was watching a video on the internet the other day of Richard Dawkins' talk at Randolph Macon College in (of all places) Lynchburg, Virginia. Naturally he was speaking about his most recent book, "The God Delusion". In the question time it was very clear that the place had been infiltrated by staff and students of Liberty University, keen to espouse their fundamentalist Christian ideas and challenge the world's most prominent atheist. Dawkins was more than able, of course, to rebut their arguments. Nevertheless I was struck by the fact that what Dawkins and non-religious atheists lack is a theological dimension. By this I mean a fundamental critique of metaphysics.

This is where philosophers of religion like Don Cupitt or Lloyd Geering have a real strength. It takes more than merely making rational arguments as to why God very likely does not exist - the "God of the philosophers". This is actually quite easy, but will never convince a theist. What is required more than ever, it seems to me, is a thorough-going theological critique - a deconstruction of the theistic images of God as idolatry. Only a theological argument can achieve this. It is not an accident that a number of the early 20th century theologian Karl Barth's prominent students turned out to be "Death of God" theologians. I believe it was an inevitable and logical step once one accepted his central premise to "let God be God". Barth of course, could never make this step and I believe he fell back into a dangerous fideism - a theological positivism when negative theology was required.

This is indeed relevant to the way Wittgenstein put it at the end of the Tractatus: "Whereof we cannot speak, thereof we must be silent." If humans must eschew all anthropomorphic views of God, then silence in the face of mystery is required (See one example in Kaufman's constructive theology "In Face of Mystery" (1992)). The convergence of Zen ideas with radical Christian theology is a very promising development it seems to me.

I was glad to see you recognise this.


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