Wasn’t it the Austrian-Jewish-British philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein who said ‘whereof you cannot speak, thereof you must be silent’?
Well I never fully understood Wittgenstein beyond loving his idea that we can prove the existence of other people by the existence of language.
For those who didn’t do first year metaphysics like me, almost all that I garnered from the whole year was that Rene Descartes started it with this breakthrough: the plain fact that he thought proved that he was. He could not, however, prove the existence of anyone else except with an unsatisfactory (to me) appeal to God (who wouldn’t lie to him).
Humanity had to wait for the twentieth century for Wittgenstein to point out that language is in its nature social. Language therefore proves the existence of other people. The idea of a language spoken by one person is senseless, dying if not dead already. Language needs to be spoken between people or it is just grunting.
(Note: I might have got this wrong.)
A couple of blog posts I wrote a few months ago have come back to life and triggered some debate about limits.
There is discussion of what you can say and what you can’t say in a public space.
I had a dream, a naive belief really, that a poetry class was a place where anything and everything is up for discussion. And I suppose if you try to nail down the definitions of poetry – excellent speech, the best words in the best order, powerful words – then violent, anatomical and disgusting words are certainly not excluded.
But starting a discussion with challenging words may not lead to a productive outcome. It may just horrify the people you want to speak to. It may silence them or send them running from you.
A friend has a dog who finds other dogs frightening. So her dog goes on the attack. She’s been retraining the dog to approach other dogs politely, with a wagging tail and pricked up ears, to approach them, in other words, in a friendly, non-confrontational way.
I think I need to be retrained.
I think I have been if I’m honest. The experience I had in poetry class taught me once and for all that the social aspects of a situation cannot be neglected whatever the formal rules. Social stuff should perhaps be the focus, at least initially.
In other words the limits I experienced arose out of a social context, not out of the words per se. Or do I mean that it’s just futile to think that words can be divorced from their social context? And isn’t this where Wittgenstein comes in.
It’s all a bit hazy.
I don’t know if there’s a link here to the current furore about Guardian columnist Suzanne Moore’s remark about transgender Brazilian women. There is definitely something here about limits, though, and social contexts.
I feel for Suzanne. Whatever the rights and wrongs of what she said, I’ve definitely experienced many moments when for some people what I’ve said in all innocence has been offensive to them. Then they’ve used their superior knowledge or education to shut me down, to block me having any discussion of the issue at all. I’ve often wanted to say to them but I’m a good person, doesn’t that cut me any slack?
The hard left at university were the most aggressive about this, although the entitled rich kids could be just as silencing in subtler ways. And yes I have often felt like I was in a constant rerun of the Ronnie Corbett/John Cleese sketch about class.
The writer Stella Duffy wrote a wonderful blog post about what’s happened to Moore. I didn’t understand all of it as I haven’t either had first-hand experience of all the issues raised, or educated myself about them. But I think she was calling for reasonableness and speaking against easy harshness.
The fear that she expresses about contributing to the debate at all I found sobering. It’s as if the hatred that is now regularly thrown around social media, especially twitter, often at women, is like the hand of all the witch-burners reaching out from history to assert their malevolent continuance.
Her words put me in mind of John Rawls, an American philosopher, who called (among other things) for us as a society to accept that we have a basic concept fairness. He wanted philosophers to stop trying to define fairness to the nth degree in long and complicated (highly excluding) terms and get on with the business of making a fairer society.
I’m not going to paraphrase Stella Duffy, you can read her words for yourself, but a big part of what she’s saying seems to me to be that we know what Suzanne meant. It might be appropriate for some people say how her words hurt them, but not in terms of such hatred.
So yes we have to be careful of other people’s feelings. But we should be able to say what we want once we’ve established trust.
I think that’s where I am too, with limits. I think.