Sunday, May 15, 2011

So you quote know unquote thoughts, or, Wittgenstein's inverted commas

With apologies to Stephin Merritt, for his great line: "So you quote love unquote me."*

Great because the line really describes, not how you love me, but how, even if you're quoting love, you unquote me, almost from th'nave to the chops. Merritt's alluding to the Paris is Burning, camp way that quotation is self-aware. It can't help mentioning words, even when trying to put them to good, clear, canonical, transparent use. Sontag says that camp puts everything in quotation marks: "not a lamp but a 'lamp,' not a woman but a 'woman'." So when you unquote me it's as though I've fallen out of the category of the mentionable, out of your frame of reference.

Thinking about this helped me understand an interesting moment in Wittgenstein's Philosophical Investigations, which makes a complementary point. Wittgenstein is worrying the grammar of the word "know", which seems to suggest a privileged relation between the knower and the known. His notoriously bracing summary of this issue runs:
     I can know what someone else is thinking, not what I am thinking.
     It is correct to say "I know what you are thinking", and wrong to say "I know what I am thinking."
     (A whole cloud of philosophy condensed into a single drop of grammar.)

I've always liked this passage. But one thing that might make it more plausible to you, if you don't, is to look at another moment, the one that recently struck me. Five pages earlier Wittgenstein has written:
That what someone else says to himself is hidden from me is part of the concept 'saying inwardly'. Only "hidden" is the wrong word here; for if it is hidden from me, it ought to be apparent to him, he would have to know it. But he does not 'know' it; only the doubt which exists for me does not exist for him.

I think the scare-quotes around 'know' here are the point. Imagine him saying something to himself, thinking something which he doesn't share, brooding or considering, or whatever. Now imagine a kind of campy expression of scorn: "just look at him, he's so cool, knowing what he's thinking." That's what LW means by quote know unquote here.

That he'd be struttin' about knowing what he's thinking. In a way the point is that the grammar of the word "know" (in the way that it's at issue here) means something like: having access to privileged information. It comes with a headshake or
By pronouncing of some doubtful phrase
As "Well, well, we know," or "We could an if we would,"
Or "If we list to speak," or "There be an if they might,"
Or such ambiguous giving-out...

But who would (ordinarily) do that about their own thoughts? That's LW's point. We don't ordinarily know our own thoughts, we don't prance around knowing them. When we do prance, it's usually because we know something that we oughtn't, or that those we're lording it over coherently (rationally) wish we didn't, and this kind of knowing-as-gallivanting just couldn't and doesn't apply to the things we're saying inwardly to ourselves.


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*I can't find a great version on-line, not one from I at all, but here:


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