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In Media Res: Transcendence and Ethics: an Interview with Michael P. Hodges

D. Micah Hester: You have been doing most of your recent work in Wittgenstein--for example, your 1990 book entitled Transcendence and Wittgenstein's Tractatus. Philosophically you side more with the so-called "later" Wittgenstein of the Philosophical Investigations than with the "early" Wittgenstein from the Tractatus. Why did you write a book on the Tractatus? Do we learn about the later Wittgenstein in the Tractatus?

Michael P. Hodges: Well, the philosophical answer to your first question is that in the preface to the Philosophical Investigations Wittgenstein himself said you cannot understand my later philosophy except against the backdrop of my earlier philosophy. It was my purpose to immerse myself in the Tractatus to understand it as well as I could for the sake of coming to see the Philosophical Investigations against that backdrop.

The Tractatus is, you might say, Wittgenstein's attempt to complete the classical project of philosophy, to see the world as a whole, as a complete object available for description. He is engaged throughout in the attempt to come into the traditional philosophical relation of standing over against the world and articulating and describing it. Now, there is a radical failure of that project, as it produces silence. The project, once begun, continually displaces itself, continually makes itself impossible because everything that is said cannot be said. Therefore, even the rules by which it cannot be said cannot be said, and so it can be said and in the saying of it, it cannot be said, etc. It is the ultimate recognition of this that brought him to reject the very project itself, to think from the "outside," as it were.

The Philosophical Investigations is fascinating to look at because it begins from the "inside." It begins within human practices, talking about those practices in very mundane ways. It begins not as a solitary voice that says, "The world is a totality of facts," but it begins in a dialogue with multiple voices speaking already. And there is never any attempt to gather all those voices up. There is always a new voice. So there is a kind of gestalt shift between the Tractatus and the Investigations, where the Investigations substitutes for the totality of the Tractatus a multiplicity of language games.

Hester: The Tractatus lays out the structure of language and world. According to many interpreters, it says that science is all that can be said and, thus, aesthetics and ethics are just left out. Now, at least three chapters in your book on the Tractatus talk specifically about Wittgenstein's ethics. Explain that, if you would.

Hodges: Well, you are right; most interpreters have treated the ethical stuff as a sort of addendum that occurs in the last few pages of the Tractatus. It is a kind of a positivist reading, and it lends itself to that reading in some ways. But I think the great help for me on this was Paul Engelmann, a great friend of Wittgenstein. There are many letters back and forth between the two. In the introduction to the published letters, Engelmann wrote that Wittgenstein did have something in common with the positivist in that he wanted to delimit the sphere of the sayable, and if you think of the sayable as an island, for Wittgenstein, unlike the positivists, that delimitation was for the sake of what was not on the island. So Wittgenstein was really wanting to delimit this in a way to make the ethical safe from the scientific so that science simply could not be deployed in any way in this domain. I think that what he attempted to do falls prey to the same problem, again, because the very attempt cannot be said either.

Hester: There is, however, a radical division between science and ethics on both the Wittgenstinian and positivist accounts.

Hodges: Right. But there is a positive ethical stance in the early philosophy, and it is a fascinating one. It comes out very clearly if you read the Notebooks and the "Lecture on Ethics." He recommends that we take a kind of detached aesthetic view of the world, that we look at the world as though it were an object not available for acting upon or changing or modifying, but as that which presents itself for our appreciation aesthetically. If we take that view of it, then the world of the happy man will be a world suffused by beauty. With a painting or an object of art you do not think, "How do I modify it? What can I do with it?" There is a kind of distance between you and it, and it is there for your inspection but not for anything else. So I do think there is a positive ethical view there. It has stoic aspects.

Hester: How does the gestalt shift from early to late Wittgenstein shift the ethical?

Hodges: Well, I think that is very controversial. If you are looking at it from a positive ethical position--that is, what he recommends that one do or not do--that is very difficult. I think there are two possible interpretations. One is that what his later work does is deny the relevance of philosophy to ground our ethical discourse. Philosophy leaves everything alone. It simply describes the language games that we play. And you could take this in two ways. You can take this in a very conservative way to be saying, in effect, that everything is all right the way it is, that there are not any philosophical problems in ethics. There may be practical problems in ethics, but philosophers have nothing to contribute to that, at least not as philosophers or those who seek foundations. As reflective human beings, we have a great deal to contribute, but that is another matter. I am inclined to think that there are passages in Culture and Value that make that case.

There is a more positive alternative too, and it is a pragmatic one. It says, in effect, "We can look at these activities; we can describe their structure and see that these are nonfoundational in character, that these are not grounded in some meta-practice and that they do not need to be." That insight from the pragmatist is the occasion for saying, "Let's look at these and see how we might re-adjust how we do this and that. Let's examine the way that this practice interfaces with that practice," and so on. So, you can see that for someone like Dewey this particular insight by Wittgenstein becomes an invitation to a certain kind of project. Wittgenstein would have been himself very leery of such a project. He says that the very form of modern society is the idea of progress, change, and transformation. He would have seen Dewey very much as part of that, and he would have been very suspicious of it.

Hester: You have written several papers on professional ethics. How does your insight into Wittgenstein help you approach these things?

Hodges: Well, as you know, the first place to begin is a description of the language game--what is the practice? What is it that doctors, lawyers, engineers are doing? What is the living substance of that practice? How does it take shape? How does language work in it? From this insight you begin en media res, and ethical questions arise in and through those interactions. So, if you are going to have theory at all, it is going to emerge by reflecting on what it is that people do in their everyday lives.

You certainly hear in engineering ethics and medical ethics and other places the idea that, "Let me get all the technical questions done, let me get all the medical problems straightened out, and then we will ask the ethical question." If you ask the ethical question that way, you foreclose its answer every time because you have treated it as though it were another body of expertise that can be brought to bear on something that was already constituted, and you make yourself irrelevant by doing that. The ethical question arises in the interstices of the issues.

Hester: Speaking of en media res, many of your writings focus on the issue of "transcendence," which seems opposed to en media res in a certain sense. Again, this issue of transcendence stems from your work and study in Wittgenstein and an interest in Soren Kierkegaard. So why the interest in "transcendence"?

Hodges: I was interested in it first because it is the structure and concept of the Tractatus. It is the idea of a possibility of transcending and describing the world. I think, in some ways, this is the defect of the classical metaphysical tradition, the idea of transcendence as standing over against and describing the world.

Also, one of the ways you come to philosophy is out of an interest in religious questions. As Kant said, the three big questions are God, freedom, and immortality. And it turns out that Wittgenstein has some very interesting things to say about religion and religious truth, particularly in Culture and Value. Also, I have done much work with Kierkegaard, whom I find to be a fascinating phenomenologist of religious experience. When he talks about who Abraham is, Kierkegaard has the deepest respect for that. I myself struggled to make sense of Abraham, and of course, Kierkegaard's thesis is that you cannot make sense of him. And that is right. I think Abraham's experience is sui generis. It is not reducible to ethical or practical experience. It is not reducible to prudence either. You cannot say, "Well, it was in Abraham's self-interest to sacrifice Isaac." If it is, he is a son of a bitch then because he is willing to sacrifice his own son to get ahead.

This takes form in Wittgenstein's work as arguing that the language game in which religion expresses itself is a distinct and sui generis language game. It may not be understood in terms of other language games, and in that language game there is a form of transcendence that is constitutive of it. It is transcendent in the sense that it is set over against the practical and the ethical. In a certain way it takes you out of the practical and the ethical. But it does not necessarily involve transcendence in the classical metaphysical sense--that is, a coming into contact with another world. Certainly the religious tradition has understood the felt transcendence of the religious experience in terms of a transcending metaphysics. I am very interested in coming to grips with that experience without committing myself to a transcending metaphysics. I am influenced here by Paul Tillich, among others, and by Dewey's little book, A Common Faith.

It is interesting, though, that Dewey is no phenomenologist. Dewey's descriptions and discussion are clearly from the point of view of someone who is outside of it. I do not think there is much distinction between Tillich and Dewey as to where they stand on the matter, but Tillich writes from within faith, whereas Dewey, in his usual kind of way, is very laconic.

I am writing a paper now that is essentially my own view on the idea of transcendence, experiential transcendence specifically.

Hester: In the Philosophy Department you have been working with Professor John Lachs on an NEH-funded project concerning the philosophical connections between Wittgenstein and Santayana. Both Santayana and Wittgenstein have been characterized as pragmatic at times yet not quite pragmatists, but certainly it is rare that they have been characterized as coming out together. Talk about that a bit.

Hodges: Well, they are strange bedfellows obviously. Part of what brought us to this was the sense that both Wittgenstein and Santayana emerge out of the ruins of the First World War with some fascinating similarities. We call this project "Thinking in the Ruins." They both recognize the futility of the classical philosophical project of seeking foundations. The first place where you find them very much alike is in terms of their account of knowledge, even down to the point that Santayana's famous work, Skepticism and Animal Faith, stresses the animal nature of believing--a nonreflective, engaged activity. It is fascinating that when Wittgenstein gets pushed on these matters in On Certainty, he reverts to animal metaphors. He talks about animal certainty as a kind of certainty. And so there were just these interesting points of similarity.

I have recently written a paper on the status of ethical judgments in the Philosophical Investigations, and I was fascinated by the parallels to the way Santayana treats ethics and ethical considerations. Santayana, who is at least metaphysically speaking, a veritable atheist--an epiphenomenalist--has a tremendous and deep respect for the religious aspect of life, again, separated off from metaphysical nonsense and the pretensions of it. And we have already noted that Wittgenstein does too.

Here we have three points in which these philosophers look much alike, although of course they have utterly different approaches to philosophical development. For one, Santayana always stresses the continuity of tradition, and he is always taking over, modifying, and reshaping that tradition; whereas Wittgenstein, at least according to his traditional interpreters, sees himself as a revolutionary somewhat, doing something new, something different.

Hester: Can you think of any particularly important philosophical differences between the two which you can foresee as possible stumbling blocks?

Hodges: Oh, yes. The obvious and important stumbling block is over the nature of ontology. Santayana puts his science into an ontological structure of matter, spirit, truth, essence--sort of fundamental ontological categories; whereas Wittgenstein rejects all that, systematically. One of the questions that needs to be confronted, then, is what the nature and role of ontology is in the articulation of philosophical insight. Because you have somebody on the one hand who certainly revels in it and someone else for whom it is anathema. One of the things we hope to do by expressing the similarities is to show that here are these guys with very similar views, and yet the way these views get expressed is quite different.

In the preface to Skepticism and Animal Faith, Santayana says that these are the categories he uses to "clean the windows of my soul." If they do not suit you, pick others. These are just useful to him. And so in a certain way he seems to be diminishing the value of basic categories. On the other hand, he writes a whole series of books, The Realm of Essence, The Realm of Truth, etc., where he takes these very seriously and uses them to articulate a vision of philosophy. We live in, philosophically, an anti-ontological age, and in some ways I think that is why Santayana's writing seems a bit out of tune with the age, and yet his insights are all the contemporary insights. There is a deep irony in Santayana's writing, too, where he always diminishes and belittles human articulation and human attempts. That is true of his own writing too. It is peppered with poetry. I think it is going to be a fascinating project that we have not yet come to the end of.