Outside & subterranean poetry (64): Ludwig Wittgenstein, 'Philosophy As Poetry' or 'Thinking While Talking'

[The following is yet another excerpt from the forthcoming Barbaric Vast & Wild: A Gathering of Outside & Subterranean Poetry from Origins to Present, edited with commentaries by myself & John Bloomberg-Rissman, & published by Black Widow Press as the fifth volume of Poems for the Millennium.  Earlier excerpts have been posted on Poems and Poetics over the last several years, referring to the work as “a mini-anthology in progress,” but the completed work will now appear as a 450 page assemblage to join the other volumes in the Poems for the Millennium series.  Wittgenstein’s presence here points to a sub-theme of the assemblage, to reconsider the rift between poetry and philosophy from the time that Plato broke the two asunder. (J.R.)]


Ludwig Wittgenstein (Austrian, 1889–1951)                                                                                                   
from PHILOSOPHICAL INVESTIGATIONS                                                                      


257. “What would it be like if human beings did not manifest their pains (did not groan, grimace, etc.)? Then it would be impossible to teach a child the use of the word ‘tooth-ache’.” – Well, let’s assume the child is a genius and invents a name for the sensation by himself! – But then, of course, he couldn’t make himself understood when he used the word. – So does he understand the name, without being able to explain its meaning to anyone? – But what does it mean to say that he has ‘named his pain’? – How has he managed this naming of pain? And whatever he did, what was its purpose? – When one says “He gave a name to his sensation,” one forgets that much must be prepared in the language for mere naming to make sense. And if we speak of someone’s giving a name to a pain, the grammar of the word “pain” is what has been prepared here; it indicates the post where the new word is stationed.




284. Look at a stone and imagine it having sensations. – One says to oneself: How could one so much as get the idea of ascribing a sensation to a thing? One might as well ascribe it to a number! – And now look at a wriggling fly, and at once these difficulties vanish, and pain seems able to get a foothold here, where before everything was, so to speak, too smooth for it.

            And so, too, a corpse seems to us quite inaccessible to pain. – Our attitude to what is alive and to what is dead is not the same. All our reactions are different. – If someone says: “That cannot simply come from the fact that living beings move in such-and-such ways and dead ones don’t”, then I want to suggest to him that this is a case of the transition ‘from quantity to quality.’


285. Think of the recognition of facial expressions. Or of the description of facial expressions – which does not consist in giving the measurements of the face! Think, too, how one can imitate a man’s face without seeing one’s own in a mirror.


286. But isn’t it absurd to say of a body that it has pain? – And why does one feel an absurdity in that? In what sense does my hand not feel pain, but I in my hand?

            What sort of issue is: Is it the body that feels pain? – How is it to be decided? How does it become clear that it is not the body? – Well, something like this: if someone has a pain in his hand, then the hand does not say so (unless it writes it) and one does not comfort the hand, but the sufferer: one looks into his eyes.


287. How am I filled with pity for this human being? How does it come out what the object of my pity is? (Pity, one may say, is one form of being convinced that someone else is in pain.)


288. I turn to stone, and my pain goes on. – What if I were mistaken, and it was no longer pain? – But surely I can’t be mistaken here; it means nothing to doubt whether I am in pain! – That is: if someone said “I don’t know if what I have is a pain or something else”, we should think, perhaps, that he does not know what the English word “pain” means; and we’d explain it to him. – How? Perhaps by means of gestures, or by pricking him with a pin and saying: “See, that’s pain!” This explanation of a word, like any other, he might understand rightly, wrongly, or not at all. And he will show which by his use of the word, in this as in other cases.

            If he now said, for example: “Oh, I know what ‘pain’ means; what I don’t know is whether this, that I have now, is pain” – we’d merely shake our heads and have to regard his words as a strange reaction which we can’t make anything of. (It would be rather as if we heard someone say seriously: “I distinctly remember that sometime before I was born I believed. ...”)

            That expression of doubt has no place in the language-game; but if expressions of sensation – human behavior – are excluded, it looks as if I might then legitimately begin to doubt. My temptation to say that one might take a sensation for something other than what it is arises from this: if I assume the abrogation of the normal language-game with the expression of a sensation, I need a criterion of identity for the sensation; and then the possibility of error also exists.


289. “When I say ‘I am in pain’ I am at any rate justified before myself – What does that mean? Does it mean: “If someone else could know what I am calling ‘pain,’ he would admit that I was using the word correctly”?

            To use a word without a justification does not mean to use it wrongfully.


290. It is not, of course, that I identify my sensation by means of criteria: it is, rather, that I use the same expression. But it is not as if the language-game ends with this: it begins with it.




Translation from German by G.E.M. Anscombe, P.M.S. Hacker and Joachim Schulte




SOURCE: Ludwig Wittgenstein, Philosophical Investigations, Revised 4th edition, Wiley-Blackwell, 2009.


I think I summed up my position on philosophy when I said: One should really only do philosophy as poetry. From this it seems to me it must be clear to what extent my thought belongs to the present, to the future, or to the past. For with this I have also revealed myself to be someone who cannot quite do what he wishes he could do. (L.W.)


(1)  It is with this self-declaration & with the force of his own “investigations” that Wittgenstein brings us back to a situation before the divide in thought that pulled poetry & philosophy asunder.  Still working outside of poetry he followed a path like that of a range of practitioners who would put poetry & art “once more at the service of mind” (M. Duchamp), enlarging in that sense the territory in which poetry could be an operating force.  The division of so much of his work into short prose blocks, often numbered in what seems at first an erratic (non)system & the curious, sometimes unexpected movement therein of thought to thought may now be read as a form-of-meditation that bears many of the marks of a form-of-poetry.  Writes Marjorie Perloff of Wittgenstein’s mode of writing & thinking: “Perhaps it is this curious mix of mysticism and common-sense, of radical thought to which the ‘egg-shells’ of one’s old views continue to ‘stick,’ that has made Wittgenstein, who had no interest at all in the ‘poetry’ of his own time, paradoxically a kind of patron saint for poets and artists.”  But it is the poet David Antin who most clearly captures for some of us the improvisational & experimental nature of Wittgenstein’s practice of philosophy as a form of poetry outside of poetry that Antin cites & himself practices as “thinking while talking.”  Or as Antin writes further in appraisal: “Wittgenstein is not a poet of the German language or the English language; he is a poet of thinking through language … a poet of nearly pure cognition.”

            For this, what Wittgenstein writes of philosophy might also hold for poetry in the work of a range of contemporary poets: “Philosophy, as we use the word, is a fight against the fascination which forms of expression exert on us” (Wittgenstein, Blue Book, 27).


(2) Additionally, as Elaine Scarry notes, in her The Body in Pain, “Whatever pain achieves, it achieves through its unsharability, and it ensures this unsharability through its resistance to language.” To a significant extent, then, in the passage above, Wittgenstein chews on the same problematic that confronts a tremendous number of twentieth- and twenty-first-century poets: how to make language go beyond itself, how to make it express / represent / etc. what it was not made to express or represent. This, in contrast to an Alexander Pope, say, for whom poetry (“True Wit”), is that which is “Nature to advantage dress’d, / What oft was thought, but ne'er so well express'd” (“Essay on Criticism”). In that sense, then, Wittgenstein not only engages in the “fight against the fascination which forms of expression exert on us”, he engages in the fight against their limitations, in perhaps unwitting solidarity with much of what is called here the outside & the subterranean.