Monday, July 4, 2011

Another grammar, another interlocutor

I was thinking about a post of Jeff's, on the last entry in Wittgenstein's Zettel (since you're no doubt already a FB friend of his, you should be able to read it).  That last entry reads:
"You can’t hear God speak to someone else, you can hear him only if you are being addressed". — That is a grammatical remark.
It's of some, though only some, importance to note that the clauses in quotation marks belong to the intermittently changing person conventionally known as the interlocutor (the narratee, the person who says what a student might say, or a teacher).  Wittgenstein's interlocutor is of immense importance, not as a straw man or "idiot questioner" (Blake) but as a figure who experiences language and the world and other people as one does, as we do.  Where he goes wrong, sometimes more than other times, is when he starts philosophizing. He tries to systematize his experience, and the value of this attempt is always in the first step that he takes, the immediate experience that he offers as premise for what follows.  (As the minor premise, I am thinking: the major premise is some philosophical truism that will then lead to an equally truistic conclusion.  The minor premise becomes its confirmation.  The syllogistic form would probably be the one called Bocardo.)

So the interlocutor notices -- remarks (bemerkt), that is, observes -- that you can't hear God speaking to someone else. By this he means to show something like a conventional view of privacy.  God has access to the innermost reaches of the soul, and a fortiori those reaches, that innerness, exists, inaccessible to the outside world.  So thinks the interlocutor, and this is the idea that Wittgenstein is undercutting.

For Wittgenstein, God is not a mind-reader.  Or to put it more accurately, he's no different a mind-reader than human beings are (though he might be better, sure).  God can't know, any better than you can, how I'll follow a rule.  (Not that he can't know: he just can't know better than you can know it.)  As Kripke more or less gets right, not only can't we tell whether I'm adding or quadding until our results diverge, God can't tell either.  (I'll note in passing that this is related to some profound remarks of Wittgenstein on forced mates in chess: the only "proof" of a forced mate is playing out all the possible moves.) It's not that mind-reading is impossible. That's what the interlocutor thinks, with God as the name for that impossibility.  No, mind reading goes so deep into the mode of possibility as to come out on the other end, in necessity.  It's something we all do, and all must do, by virtue of being human.
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 drop of grammar.)
If we couldn't mind read we couldn't learn to speak. We learn to speak because we know what others are thinking.  That's the point of Wittgenstein's saying that the interlocutor's observation is grammatical. It's a remark about what we talk about when we talk about God.  And the point is that God is one of the things we talk about, and neither the origin nor privileged interpreter of our talk.

Which allows for a connection between this post and my previous. Jeff alludes to the great Abrahamic response to God: הנני (Hineni) "Here I am."  That's Abraham hearing God speak to him.  (And of course Isaac clearly hasn't heard God.) But Kafka imagines various Abrahams, including one who can't believe he's the one being summoned:
Aber ein anderer Abraham. Einer, der durchaus richtig opfern will und überhaupt die richtige Witterung für die ganze Sache hat, aber nicht glauben kann, dass er gemeint ist, er, der widerliche alte Mann und sein Kind, der schmutzige Junge. Ihm fehlt nicht der wahre Glaube, diesen Glauben hat er, er wurde in der richtigen Verfassung opfern, wenn er nur glauben könnte, dass er gemeint ist. Er fürchtet, er werde zwar als Abraham mit dem Sohne ausreiten, aber auf dem Weg sich in Don Quixote verwandeln. Über Abraham wäre die Welt damals entsetzt gewesen, wenn sie zugesehen hätte, dieser aber fürchtet, die Welt werde sich bei dem Anblick totlachen. Es ist aber nicht die Lächerlichkeit an sich, die er fürchtet - allerdings fürchtet er auch sie, vor allem sein Mitlachen - hauptsächlich aber fürchtet er, dass diese Lächerlichkeit ihn noch älter und widerlicher, seinen Sohn noch schmutziger machen wird, noch unwürdiger, wirklich gerufen zu werden. Ein Abraham, der ungerufen kommt! Es ist so wie wenn der beste Schüler feierlich am Schluß des Jahres eine Prämie bekommen soll und in der erwartungsvollen Stille der schlechteste Schüler infolge eines Hörfehlers aus seiner schmutzigen letzten Bank hervorkommt und die ganze Klasse losplatzt. Und es ist vielleicht gar kein Hörfehler, sein Name wurde wirklich genannt, die Belohnung des Besten soll nach der Absicht des Lehrers gleichzeitig eine Bestrafung des Schlechtesten sein.

Schreckliche Dinge - genug.
Terrifying things: enough indeed.  Another Abraham who always wants to do the right thing and has the right temperament for the situation, but can't believe that he's the one who's meant, he and his grubby young man.  He has true belief, but fears that on the way with his son he'll be transformed into Don Quixote, and that everyone will make fun of him, that the teacher is punishing him for being the class dunce by exposing him to his fellow-students' laughter.

The very idea of laughter is the social. There is no God without language, and no language without other people.  This Abraham knows that it's a grammatical, not an ontological, remark to say "You can’t hear God speak to someone else, you can hear him only if you are being addressed."  If he's a bad student he might not get the grammar right ("glamour," as in its original meaning of supernatural or magical powers, is a corruption of grammar, which the literate scholars know). God is a game in our language, and like many games, the one in which God calls on you can be cruel, with the punishment for grammatical error humiliation in front of the whole class.

He feels just like his "schmutzig" son, who risks becoming grubbier still, and so he imagines himself sitting at his schmutzig desk in at the back of the class.  This Abraham fears God and protects himself and his son by refusing to believe in his exceptional, his private importance.  Grammar is about how we speak to others.  He stays in the back of the class, with his son, with the others.

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