Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Words About Words

[With writers such as Wittgenstein] positivism has now very largely taken possession of philosophy… this means that today both natural science and philosophy no longer seek truth, but only inquire about the correctness of the methods applied, and experiment in logic… quite independently of whether the starting point of this form of thinking corresponds to reality. In any case, reality seems to be inaccessible.
Faith and the Future, 17
Reflection – OK, so we’re back in territory that is a bit unfamiliar to most of you, right? And perhaps you’re thinking, ‘Well, I’ll come back tomorrow when Fr. Denis is writing about love or the Eucharist or the US presidential elections or something.’
Stop! Don’t touch that mouse pad! Yes, I’m talking to you! Hang in there.
While details of Wittgenstein’s thought are, indeed, a little beyond us all (I studied this stuff, but a looong time ago, and the details are hazy), the basic point is not beyond us at all. In fact, it’s quite a familiar refrain.
In the intellectual world, the academic business of philosophy, there is this strain that has abandoned metaphysics. We cannot know anything about ‘reality’ as such, so let’s forget all about it. Philosophy in this sense becomes a matter of words, ‘words about words’, making sure that we follow correct rules around the use of language. What ‘correct’ means in this form of philosophy, since we have no idea of truth or reality, is where I get lost, I must confess… how do we know our use of words is correct if we have no access to extra-lingual correctness? What standard do we apply to judge our use of language?
But here’s where all this admittedly rather abstruse philosophy actually has to do with us. We too can easily say ‘no, I don’t really care about the big picture, about what is true or not. All I care about is how things work, and getting them to work for me.’
While Wittgenstein-ian philosophers are a rare breed these days, people who say some variation on the above are common as dirt. But the same objection holds. How do you know things are ‘working for you’ if you don’t know what your life is about, what it’s for? If you manipulate and lie and cheat and steal and mess around because ‘that’s what works for me!’ you may find yourself burning in Hell for all eternity. Frankly. So I guess it didn’t work too well for you after all, eh?
So the big questions of life, death, God, sin, virtue, and judgment are not questions we can just bracket off as irrelevant to our daily business and getting the job done. The choices we make each day are either opening us up to Life or closing us off from Life, and hence killing us. Isn’t it just about the most practical concern in the world to figure all this out? To figure out which way is up, in other words?
I guess I’m still really worried about all these young people I read about the other day who just don’t bother their little heads about matters metaphysical, about deep questions of life. Don’t they ever stop and think that the car they’re driving merrily along down the highway of life might be heading for a cliff? And if there are large signs posted to that effect, and guard rails—well, isn’t it practical to take note of such things?
When we reject authority as any sort of guide to our choices, then the only teacher we have left to us is experience—and Experience is a mean, mean teacher. Experience teaches with a boxing glove to the face, a kick in the groin, a blow to the kidneys.  Experience sometimes kills its pupils.
Gee, it’s too bad there’s no other way to learn, isn’t it? Too bad God didn’t think of establishing an authority on earth to preserve and pass on moral wisdom to each generation! Oh wait… you say he did… well, where is it?

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