Wednesday, December 5, 2012

Wittgenstein versus Pascal (Mona in the Desert, an excerpt)

Roberto leaned against a section of chain link fence, his book open and a cigarette in the corner of his mouth. He looked away from Ernesto even when Ernesto stood close enough that the shadow of his handsome head fell upon the pages of the Confessions. I have not missed your company, Sergeant Grassi. Nonetheless, Ernesto answered, I have come to speak to you. Does it concern the sister of Desdemona O’Hurleighy, Roberto asked. No, Ernesto said. Then I will hear your question, but I cannot guarantee I will answer it. Ernesto rubbed his mustache. It concerns, he said, the sister of Olive O’Hurleighy. And does she have many sisters, Roberto asked. Only one that I am aware of: the one called Desdemona. You know nothing about Desdemona, Roberto said. And as Mr Wittgenstein tells us, whereof you can say nothing, thereof you must be silent. I will tell you nothing, Sergeant Grassi, and you will be silent. Your reaction just now tells me a great deal, Ernesto said. I think I could propose a number of things concerning you and the sister of Olive. Roberto snapped his book shut. You can do no such thing, he said, for you are aware that speaking in the absence of absolute certainty is to speak non-sense, to say nothing. I do not, Ernesto answered, accept Mr Wittgenstein’s claim that provisional awareness is an illusion. Uncertainty is no better than another form of ignorance, Roberto said, and so you must remain silent regarding your inferences about Desdemona. Ernesto smiled. Surely you do not believe this? Mr Wittgenstein makes an elaborate joke of a self-referential semiotic nature, Roberto. He was not in earnest. Had he been sincere, his book would contain nothing but blank pages. If your proposition is true, then you cannot understand me when I tell you that your proposition is false. Preposterous, absurd, Roberto said. Mere air, these words, words, words. You are changing the subject, Ernesto said, and conflating two different plays. Why should I tell you anything, Roberto asked, since I cannot say anything that is not a tautology? Inability to speak absolute uncontradicted truth doesn’t rule out actual knowledge of things, Ernesto said. It only rules out ideal statements about those things. Language doesn’t create the world; the world exists despite our silences. No, Roberto said. Language is existence: in the beginning was the word. Ah, you presume to make true statements about God, do you? Where’s your Mr Wittgenstein now, Roberto? If he’s right, we can’t possibly believe anything we’ve been told about the divine revelation of God’s existence. Roberto nodded. That presents a problem. I am tempted to write to Mr Wittgenstein at Cambridge and put the question to him. He won’t be able to understand your letter, Ernesto said, or so Wittgenstein himself implies. No matter what you write, it will be nonsense. And yet the temptation remains, Roberto said, a slight smile briefly appearing on his face. I confess that I do not enjoy Mr Wittgenstein, Ernesto said. Many of his claims are objectionable. And I tell you in confidence that much of the time I simply cannot understand what he writes about. I become lost in his formulas and my head aches a great deal for hours afterward. He is no poet, Roberto agreed. He consigns to the realm of nonsense all culturally important utterances, such as literature, scripture and the whisperings of lovers. I do not find this sort of philosophy particularly appealing, Ernesto. His denial of causality and subsequent disregard of the ethical ramifications of that are what I find most disquieting, Ernesto said. I could not read beyond the claim that all propositions of logic say the same thing: nothing. This was the case for me as well, Roberto said. The logico-philosophicus is a parody, yes? I much prefer the self-contradictory but genuine philosophical poetry of Pascal. Ernesto raised a cigarette to his lips and Roberto lifted his brass lighter, letting Ernesto lean into the bright flame to puff the cigarette into life. I do not think Mr Wittgenstein would make Pascal’s bet, he said. But not betting, replied his friend, is to wager anyway, as Pascal saw it, yes? Yes, for Mr Wittgenstein says that proposing something in the negative admits the possibility of the affirmative case. I do not think Mr Wittgenstein would say that it is the case that to not wager is in fact to wager. Ah, there I think we must again ask Mr Wittgenstein to clarify his position. I think, Ernesto said after a moment, we can draw an illustrative point from his claim that while tautology and contradiction are without sense, they are however not senseless. What do you suppose he means by that? I have no idea, Roberto said. Nor do I, Ernesto replied. But I think perhaps that Mr Wittgenstein has somehow lost his sense of God, and as Pascal reminds us, a man who has lost his sense of God is capable of seeing it in anything, even in his own destruction. Did Pascal say this? I paraphrase, Ernesto said. But at least he admits the possibility of living with doubt. Indeed, Roberto said, do you know the one about seeing too much to deny and not enough to affirm, putting us all in that pitiful state of wishing Nature would either proclaim God absolutely or erase all signs of Him? It’s as if we are forced to live in a world only half awake. And so we have no choice but to wager, Ernesto said. Though Pascal’s computation of the odds is obscure and doubtful. He works not by arithmetic, but by rhetoric. And Wittgenstein works through arithmetic, Roberto said, not through rhetoric. As Polonius wisely noted, men are so unerringly mad that for them not to be mad would be another type of madness. Ernesto scratched his right cheek. I do not think Polonius said that, he offered. I paraphrase, Roberto said.

--from Chapter 11, Mona in the Desert, a work-in-progress