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Monday, December 12, 2005

Wittgenstein’s queer problem
take-home exam for Dr. Burke

Really the only thing wrong with what you say is the expression “in a queer way.”
                        - Ludwig Wittgenstein

What happens after therapy, Wittgenstein? If we follow you and eschew philosophy, and not just certain philosophical conclusions but philosophy as a whole project, as a whole way of asking questions and a way of queering the world, what are we left with?

I understand how this is supposed to work, this act of analysis leading to dissolution, but let’s take an example. Take the realism vs. anti-realism debate. A man is standing looking at a tree and wondering how we know it is indeed a tree. While you are sympathetic, at least somewhat and at least as an impulse, to realism’s position that this man is wrong, you are uncomfortable with the way that to engage the man’s problem realism has to grant him the possibility that he’s right. You want to move the man’s thinking back, considering not just why this is or is not a tree before him but why he would even ask the question. When the analysis gets moved back like that, it takes in what you think is the anti-realist’s original misconception but it also points out that the realist has to take seriously that misconception and the possibility of that misconception. You want to get rid of not just the wrong belief, but the possibility of that wrong belief, which is a move that also sweeps away the objections to the wrong belief too.

There is a particular move bothers you, this move that both sides of every philosophical debate must always make at the beginning. The move, you say, is the move of assuming we’re lost. “A philosophical proposition has the form: ‘I don’t know my way about.’”

Philosophy, you say, is always lost. Not lost because of it’s conclusions, per se, but because of it’s beginnings. Philosophy always starts in error, always by thinking something’s below or behind, something’s secret, something’s queer. Even when you agree with a conclusion, like you sort of agree with realism, you still have a problem with the way the question’s posed. “Really,” you write, “the only thing wrong with what you say is the expression ‘in a queer way.’ The rest is all right; and the sentence only seems queer when one imagines a different language-game for it from the one in which we actually use it.”

You use that word – queer. It’s a word that, honestly, surprised me. It took me a moment to realize that you maybe hadn’t heard it used as an offensive slang term for homosexuals. You were probably using it in a context where it didn’t have those connotations and meant, strictly, something “deviating from the expected or normal; strange.” So while it’s weird to hear, recontextualized as it is, I understand how you use it. To the realist, to stick with the example, you’re saying you agree with the conclusion but think something’s wrong with the argument and that the argument contains it’s opposite argument and you want to get us away from this whole mode of thinking things are queer.

Your point is well taken. But then, thinking about it, it bothers me. Look: the anti-realist said there’s something queer about reality, then the realist said that that’s a queer way to answer the question and said that reality is exactly like we thought it was, then you said that to answer the question was as queer as ask it. What we have here is a regress of queer. The more I read your works and the more I think about them, I think that your idea of philosophical therapy can be stated really clearly as the proposition “it is queer to think that things are queer.”

Forgive me for being cheeky. Honestly, I’m kind of frustrated. I mean, the idea of therapy that would let the world go back to being as it always was, that would allow us to stop all of this weirdness we’ve been engaged in since Socrates, that idea really excited me. I thought, when I first heard of you and when I first read you, that this was it. I had felt an unease all the way through philosophy, that uncanny feeling that something’s wrong but you can’t see it, and then there you were pointing it out directly. It was like you were the first one who thought to call foul. I imagined it like a big long table stretching all the way back with all the philosophers sitting there all talking at once and there you were way down at the end saying “wait a minute. Why? Why do I have to ask that question?” and when you said that the whole table froze. It seemed like a breakthrough.

Now listen, I’m not saying that’s a bad question. Neither is anyone else. All the way back along that table that’s been the most profitable question to ask. More than epistemology, more than ontology, more than any debate any of these guys has ever had, the most profitable field of philosophical thought has been this philosophology. Everybody who’s famous, back there, from Socrates to Hegel, from Aristotle to Nietzsche, from Descartes to the Logical Positivists, started with the question of why we’re asking the questions we’re asking. I’m not saying that’s a bad question and they’re not saying it’s a bad question – you are.

Maybe you could have done everything else, with natural languages and everything, that you wanted to do if you hadn’t made that move. But at least the way I read you that’s the move you’re really getting to. I could see a philosophy of natural language. But what you want is a philosophy of natural language that gets rid of philosophy. How could that even work? How could we philosophize our way out of philosophy? A scaffold, yeah. A ladder, yeah. But really what those metaphors tell me is that I ought, if I buy them, to walk away.

Imagine a black man who drives up to a restaurant in a blue Cadillac, orders a soy burger, and tells me he’s Elvis Presley. What would I say to such a man? Where could I start? Would I tell him that Elvis is white or that he drove a pink Cadillac or that he ate deep fried banana and peanut butter sandwiches? Maybe I’d just say, “hey man, you’re not Elvis. Elvis is dead.” The thing of it is that I wouldn’t know how to disagree with him because to disagree with him is to assume that he might be right, would be to assume that we can even have an argument about whether this guy is or isn’t Elvis. The guy’d have to be crazy and to argue with a crazy man I’d have to be crazy too. If I talked to him it’d just be because I was fascinated by this man’s craziness. I wouldn’t argue with him, I’d stare. And then I’d walk away without raising that question of how queer it is to call yourself Elvis.

Essentially, this is what you say’s the problem with philosophical problems. They’re just crazy, just queer. I understand how that works. What I don’t understand is how you can argue about it. What I don’t understand is why you don’t walk away. If this whole conversation going back all the way to Socrates is queer, then you’re queer for explaining to the queers how they’re queer. Why don’t you walk away, just shaking your head and going, “wow man, those guys are crazy”?

You tried to do that once too, didn’t you? You said philosophy was nonsense, madness, queer. You said we had to get out and as you looked at that statement I get the feeling that you got the feeling, that uneasy feeling where you began to think that maybe you were crazy for talking to crazy people. You said, “the right method in philosophy would be to say nothing… except…[what] has nothing to do with philosophy.” And then you took that to apply to your own work, getting all the craziness over with at once you said,
My sentences are illuminating in the following way: to understand me you must recognize my sentences – once you have climbed out through them, on them, over them – as senseless. (You must, so to speak, throw away the ladder after you have climbed on it.)
You must climb out through my sentences; then you will see the world correctly.
Of what we cannot speak we must remain silent.

I guess what I’m saying here is that if I hear you, if I believe you, then I’m going to have to get out of this regress of the queer. It’s not good enough to comment about how queer it is to think things are queer. I got to walk away. It’s weird that the only way I know to read you rightly is to abandon your project, to walk away from you shaking my head at you shaking your head at all those other guys. It’s weird, but the only thing you say I can say to you now is this: You’re queer, man.

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