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May 17, 2005

Silences Noises Voices (excerpt).

"The silence in which philosophy begins is the recognition of my lostness to myself, something Wittgenstein's text [Philosophical Investigations] figures as the emptiness of my words, my craving or insistence upon their emptiness, upon wanting them to do what human words cannot do. I read this disappointment with words as a function of the human wish to deny responsibility for speech. The silence in which philosophy ends is the acceptance of the human life of words, that I am revealed and concealed in every word I utter, that when I have found the word I had lost, that is, displaced from myself, it is up to me to acknowledge my reorientation (Wittgenstein describes the work of philosophy as having to turn our search around, as if reality is behind us), that I have said what there is for me to say, that this ground gained from discontent is all the ground I have, that I am exposed in my finitude, without justification. ('Justifications come to an end' is a way Wittgenstein says it.) That the end of philosophy here occurs as a punctuation within philosophy, that it is dictated neither by the conclusion of a proof nor of a system, that philosophy is brought so inconsequential a form of peace (to bring which to philosophy Wittgenstein pronounces with pride) is the hardest news for Wittgenstein's readers to accept. The news is expressed by his announcing that philosophy has no place to advance theses."

--Stanley Cavell, "Silences Noises Voices", in Future Pasts: The Analytic Tradition in Twentieth-Century Philosophy, ed. Juliet Floyd and Sanford Shieh, New York: Oxford University Press, 2001. (p 353)

When I asked my epistemology professor why we wouldn't be reading any Wittgenstein, he replied that it would be best to ignore Wittgenstein's criticism for the class. Of course, I immediately asked why that was so. He replied that, in the aftermath of Wittgenstein's criticism of philosophy, it isn't at all clear what is left for philosophers to do.

Ever since that class, I have absolutely hated this response (though I should mention that the professor who spoke it is very intelligent). Cavell's discussion of the difficulty we have accepting the real end of philosophy--"that I am exposed in my finitude, without justification"--is, I think, a wonderful description of the confusion that lies behind such responses.

Again, I am reminded of Hume: philosophical problems obsess us for a time, while we sit alone by the fire (as Descartes), but they are inevitably pushed away when we rejoin the company of friends and go out into the world.

Posted by tiet0024 at May 17, 2005 12:51 PM | Investigations


My eye was caught by the searching behind us--in Hebrew (which of course creates issues for Biblical Scholars, hence my awareness), the concepts of what lies before us and behind us (a complicated statement in English, as "before" has both spatial and chronological meaning which seem to be distinct and confusing) are somewhat different from the way we view them. In the mindset of the Biblical writer, what was before us was both in front of our eyes and chronologically before us, and these were the same thing--the past--, as we walk through life backwards. The past is always before us (in both senses), as it's the only thing we can see--the future lies at our backs, out of sight until we have stumbled through it and can finally see it. So the idea of twisting around to be able to see things as they are or will be always strikes me as particularily fitting, linguistically--it eliminates an apparent contradiction in the way we use those phrases.

Posted by: Lisa at May 17, 2005 2:57 PM

My instructor for the last semester of Italian was confused by this as well. She spoke English as a second language, and so had imperfect knowledge of our idioms. At any rate, she was surprised and confused when we explained that "what lies before us" is not that which has occurred before now, i.e., history. It was actually the first time I had considered the point.

I'll see if I can find and post the passage(s) to which Cavell is referring.

Posted by: tiet0024 at May 17, 2005 3:19 PM

lisa, your discussion of the past and its (re)construction reminds me of Benjamin's Angel of History from Theses on the Philosophy of History... often I see these connections between aspects of the Frankfurt skool (esp. Adorno) and W, but I'm sure that both camps would be flabbergasted (and a bit insulted, no doubt) by the comparison.

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Posted by: mgxsrgowkm at August 5, 2007 5:29 PM

"... it isn't at all clear what is left for philosophers to do."

The barber pole still presents the swirling image of bloodletting in progress. This even though there is little left for barbers to do but cut hair.

Can we install outside the door of each philosophy department a totem memorializing metaphysics, etc.? Or must the pointless bloodletting continue, the bending of shovels on bedrock?

Posted by: Tim at September 29, 2010 11:26 AM