Wittgenstein in Mexico

Next week I’m attending the 5th meeting of Wittgenstein en Español–a Latin American wide conference on Wittgenstein, which will be held in Puebla. Although it is not about Mexican philosophy, and although I’m not translating from Spanish to English, it is keeping me humble about the difficulty of translating in general. Here are my introductory remarks, which I’m not sure how I’m going to translate. Comments are more than welcome.

“I’ll begin with some preliminary remarks about wisdom and the difficulty of philosophy.

Philosophy, we say, is the love of wisdom. But it’s not clear that we actually believe this, or if we believe it, that we practice it. To pursue wisdom demands inquiring into the nature of wisdom, or more specifically, into the nature of loving it. Without a definite idea of what counts as loving wisdom, all philosophy is in some way metaphilosophy. But we too often are willing to put aside metaphilosophical problems, taking for granted that we know what philosophy is and moving on to solve the problems of philosophy, for that is where we believe we will make advances, not to mention our mark in the world.

When Socrates qualifies his understanding of wisdom in the Apology by calling it “human wisdom,” he is ironically distinguishing human wisdom, which he believes he possesses, from superhuman wisdom, which, by its very name, he seems to assume he’ll never possess. His wisdom, he says, consists in knowing that he doesn’t know what he in fact doesn’t know. On the surface, we might read this as Socrates recognizing the limits of his own knowledge. However, if wisdom is distinct from knowledge, it’s perhaps better to say that human wisdom is a matter of learning how to live with limited knowledge—that is, of learning how to navigate through the course of life with the profound sense that you don’t know what you’re doing or what you’re talking about, and worse, with the growing suspicion, which is always only a suspicion, that you will never know. Thus, it’s not hard to understand the temptation of pretending to know things one doesn’t know, as Socrates’ interlocutors and students had done. For we can even do it tentatively and, we believe, safely, which preemptively saves us from the future guilt of what Socrates called “blameworthy ignorance,” which was not just thinking you know what you don’t know but acting on it. Plato called it the practice of knowing tentatively “hypothesizing.”

If I had to venture a guess, which would always only be a guess, I would say that wisdom is the human skill of not-knowing well. It is not just a kind of confidence that allows one to say “I don’t know,” but a kind of confidence that allows one to live “I don’t know.” Human wisdom is the wisdom not to flee toward the pretense of knowing, which we do by explaining, criticizing, or venturing guesses about the nature of wisdom.

If philosophy is the love of wisdom, understood as above, then it’s not clear what it is to write philosophy—for the academic or British essay, as well as the German dissertation, are both forms of asserting, proclaiming, defending, venturing, or, to play on the French, essaying. And this challenge is compounded when one chooses to write about Wittgenstein, since if we can say anything positively about his philosophy without betraying him, it’s that the struggle not to say more than he could was a constant refrain across his text. What made Wittgenstein a “difficult thinker” was not the surface difficulty of his writing. He was not “a bad writer”; he was an honest writer, and as Stanley Cavell puts it, the concept of “the difficulty of philosophizing, and especially of the fruitful criticism of philosophy, is one of Wittgenstein’s great themes” (45). The strength of Wittgenstein’s writing, and of his philosophy more generally, is that he is capable of provoking, challenging, questioning—inviting us to do something we might not do, as he put it—without making philosophy appear any easier than it is or without making himself look better at it than he was.

Where does that leave me? At the very least, I hope not to say more about Wittgenstein’s philosophy than he was willing to say about it himself. If Wittgenstein’s philosophy is characterized by a kind of silence, as many, including me, have argued, then commentary about Wittgenstein’s philosophy that is truly about Wittgenstein and not just about oneself, is a kind of silence about silence, whatever that is. This is not an excuse to write poorly about Wittgenstein; instead, it is a call to rethink what counts as fruitful criticism of Wittgenstein or of his critics—the theme of this conference. In my own case, it is only an occasion for me to reflect on the philosophy of a great admirer of Wittgenstein, P. F. Strawson, who didn’t quite agree that philosophy needs to be therapeutic or deflationary. I have chosen Strawson in part because of the care and tentativeness of his “criticism” of Wittgenstein which is more of a divergence than a criticism. Nevertheless, we might learn something by comparing their two conceptions of grammar, language, and philosophy. At the very least, and despite my inability and growing unwillingness to try to write a coherent essay about Wittgenstein, we will keep the conversation going. I offer this “essay,” then, as one more occasion to practice the love of wisdom.

Wish me luck!

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