“What’s So Ordinary About Poetry?: An Argument in Seven Scenes”: New Essay by Larry Jackson

A new essay by Larry Jackson is out now in the latest issue of Diacritics. It begins:

Philosophy ought really to be written only as a poetic composition.

—Ludwig Wittgenstein, Culture and Value

But can philosophy become literature and still know itself?

—Stanley Cavell, The Claim of Reason

Scene One: This Is Simply What I Do in which a spade is turned and a mystery is unearthed

Poor Ludwig Wittgenstein. How many times as a schoolteacher had he turned a student’s chair so that it faced the wall as punishment for not understanding a lesson?1 And now, here he was, the greatest philosopher of the twentieth century, staring at the wall like a surly child. Only this punishment was self-imposed.

Misunderstood by his audience—the philosophers who would later be known as the Vienna Circle—Wittgenstein turned his back on them to read poetry aloud to the cobwebs and shadows that clung to the corners of the room, as though he were staging one of those enigmatic scenes found in his Philosophical Investigations.2 Like so many of the images in that work, this moment might also raise knotty questions about how we understand one another and why we often fail to do so. “Once I have exhausted the justifications, I have reached bedrock, and my spade is turned,” writes Wittgenstein, drawing on another of his short-lived professions, that of monastery gardener, to convey the exasperation of the educator.3 “Then I am inclined to say: ‘This is simply what I do.’” But when Wittgenstein turned his spade and his back on this group of prominent philosophers in the 1920s, he also raised a far more basic question. Just why was he acting this way?

No one among the group of intellectuals that comprised the Vienna Circle had treated Wittgenstein with contempt. On the contrary: they had invited him to speak in depth about the ideas that he had developed in the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, many of which their own school of thought, logical positivism, attempted to amplify and refine. However much they erred in their interpretations of Wittgenstein’s ideas, surely they deserved a thoughtful response, not a puzzling poetic protest. Why did Wittgenstein not try harder to persuade them? And if that could not be done, then why accept their invitations in the first place? Obviously, he was making a point. But was this a profound philosophical point or a petty, personal one? And if it was philosophical, then why not present it the usual way, in the form of an argument?

Go back to that passage quoted a moment ago about exhausting justifications and reaching bedrock. You will see that there is, in fact, a striking difference between Wittgenstein’s real-life café contretemps and his parabolic turned spade in the Investigations. When Wittgenstein could not make himself understood to the philosophers of the Vienna Circle, he read poetry, whereas his fictional teacher, the one who hits rock bottom, confesses only that he is inclined to say something.4 We can interpret that silent inclination as prologue to any number of words or actions on the part of the teacher. Wittgenstein himself offers one such possibility in an early study for the Investigations, when he writes, “If a child does not respond to the suggestive gesture [to go on counting correctly], it is separated from the others and treated as a lunatic.”5 But we can just as easily imagine the teacher instead repeating the lesson or offering new examples, berating the student or collapsing in agony.

We can also interpret the silence not as mere prelude to some grand pedagogical strategy or personal meltdown, but as the action or lesson itself. Teaching is not just about talking. There are many scenarios in which silence might be the best, or even the only, way to educate (or be educated). Here is one of them:

If the child, little or big, asks me: Why do we eat animals? or Why are some people poor and others rich? or What is God? or Why do I have to go to school? or Do you love…

You can access the complete essay here



“Must We Measure What We Mean?”: New Paper by Nat Hansen

This paper excavates a debate concerning the claims of ordinary language philosophers that took place during the middle of the last century. The debate centers on the status of statements about ‘what we say’. On one side of the debate, critics of ordinary language philosophy argued that statements about ‘what we say’ should be evaluated as empirical observations about how people do in fact speak, on a par with claims made in the language sciences. By that standard, ordinary language philosophers were not entitled to the claims that they made about what we would say about various topics. On the other side of the debate, defenders of the methods of ordinary language philosophy sought to explain how philosophers can be entitled to statements about what we would say without engaging in extensive observations of how people do in fact use language. In this paper, I defend the idea that entitlement to claims about what we say can be had in a way that doesn’t require empirical observation, and I argue that ordinary language philosophers are (at least sometimes) engaged in a different project than linguists or empirically minded philosophers of language, which is subject to different conditions of success.

You can read Hansen’s paper, published in Inquiry here and here.

CFP: Issue 5 of Conversations: The Journal of Cavellian Studies, “The Aesthetics of Politics and the Politics of Aesthetics In and After Cavell”

Amir Khan, co-editor (with Sérgio Dias Branco) of Conversations: The Journal of Cavellian Studies, has let us know of a call for papers for the journal’s fifth issue. It reads as follows:

Stanley Cavell has described the “new, yet unapproachable America.” These days, America seems as unapproachable as ever. Cavell’s reprise of Thoreau for the twentieth century, where American sins of slavery and the Mexican-American War are trumped by the Civil Rights Movement and the Vietnam War, was either “politically” effective or it was not.

While Cavell has been open about his desire to address politics questions in a philosophical manner, it remains a matter of some dispute how, if at all, he does so. One reason for this is that Cavell does not outline a political platform or recommend specific action of any kind; another is that–from his late sixties Lear essay on–the political moment in Cavell is regularly entangled with aesthetic and epistemological questions.

In what ways, then, are Cavell’s political writings efficacious?  How might Cavell’s reading of King Lear help us make headway of the peculiar political challenges America faces in the twenty-first century, if one extends a critique of America begun by Thoreau to the Black Lives Matter movement, or to the War in Iraq? And how might Cavell’s writings avoid falling into the aestheticization of politics criticized by thinkers such as Benjamin, Schmitt, and Habermas?

For the fifth issue of Conversations, we invite essays that address these questions as they emerge either in Cavell’s own work or in the evident political crises of our time as seen in light of that work. Topics might include:

  • Cavell and Romanticism
  • Politics as poetics and poetics as politics
  • Cavell and Hannah Arendt
  • Cavell and Pragmatism
  • Cavell and political resistance
  • Cavell and Black Lives Matter
  • Cavell and democracy
  • Cavell and the republican tradition
  • Cavell and Communitarianism
  • Cavell and perfectionism
  • Cavell and the politics of cinema

Papers should be no more than 6000 words, including footnotes, and must follow the notes and bibliography citation system described in The Chicago Manual of Style. We also welcome shorter, more intimate pieces addressing specific questions (800-1200 words).

Please send complete articles to Amir Khan at amirazizkhan@missouristate.edu no later than September 15th, 2017. If you submit your article through the website, please send a follow-up query to one of the managing editors as well.

New Book: Wittgenstein and Modernism

Karen Zumhagen-Yekplé and Michael Lemahieu have written to us to announce their new co-edited volume, Wittgenstein and Modernism (University of Chicago Press). You can access the book’s page on the University of Chicago Press website here.

Here is the book description:

Ludwig Wittgenstein famously declared that philosophy “ought really to be written only as a form of poetry,” and he even described the Tractatus as “philosophical and, at the same time, literary.” But few books have really followed up on these claims, and fewer still have focused on their relation to the special literary and artistic period in which Wittgenstein worked. This book offers the first collection to address the rich, vexed, and often contradictory relationship between modernism—the twentieth century’s predominant cultural and artistic movement—and Wittgenstein, one of its preeminent and most enduring philosophers. In doing so it offers rich new understandings of both.

Michael LeMahieu Karen Zumhagen-Yekplé bring together scholars in both twentieth-century philosophy and modern literary studies to put Wittgenstein into dialogue with some of modernism’s most iconic figures, including Samuel Beckett, Saul Bellow, Walter Benjamin, Henry James, James Joyce, Franz Kafka, Adolf Loos, Robert Musil, Wallace Stevens, and Virginia Woolf. The contributors touch on two important aspects of Wittgenstein’s work and modernism itself: form and medium. They discuss issues ranging from Wittgenstein and poetics to his use of numbered propositions in the Tractatus as a virtuoso performance of modernist form; from Wittgenstein’s persistence metaphoric use of religion, music, and photography to an exploration of how he and Henry James both negotiated the relationship between the aesthetic and the ethical.

Covering many other fascinating intersections of the philosopher and the arts, this book offers an important bridge across the disciplinary divides that have kept us from a fuller picture of both Wittgenstein and the larger intellectual and cultural movement of which he was a part.

And here is the table of contents:

Part 1 Wittgenstein’s Modernist Context
1          Wittgenstein and Modernism in Literature: Between the Tractatus and the Philosophical Investigations
Anthony J. Cascardi
2          “To Become a Different Person”: Wittgenstein, Christianity, and the Modernist Ethos
Marjorie Perloff
3          The Concept of Expression in the Arts from a Wittgensteinian Perspective
Charles Altieri
4          Wittgenstein, Loos, and Critical Modernism: Style and Idea in Architecture and Philosophy
Allan Janik

Part 2 Wittgenstein’s Modernist Cultures
5          Loos, Musil, Wittgenstein, and the Recovery of Human Life
Piergiorgio Donatelli
6          Wittgenstein, Benjamin, and Pure Realism
Eli Friedlander
7          What Makes a Poem Philosophical?
John Gibson

Part 3 Wittgenstein and Literary Modernism
8          In the Condition of Modernism: Philosophy, Literature, and The Sacred Fount
Kristin Boyce
9          The World as Bloom Found It: “Ithaca,” the Tractatus, and “Looking More than Once for the Solution of Difficult Problems in Imaginary or Real Life”
Karen Zumhagen-Yekplé
10        Lectures on Ethics: Wittgenstein and Kafka
Yi-Ping Ong
11        Bellow’s Private Language
Michael LeMahieu

CFP: 21st-Century Theories of Literature: Ethics, Tropes, Attunement

NB: the deadline for the call for papers has been extended until 25/1. We particularly welcome new proposals on the themes of “tropes” and “attunement”.

Confirmed keynote speakers: Derek Attridge (York); Claudia Brodsky (Princeton); Maximilian de Gaynesford (Reading); Anthony Ossa-Richardson (Southampton); Constantine Sandis (Hertfordshire); Catherine Wearing (Wellesley College).

Following the success of the 2014 conference “21st-Century Theories of Literature: Essence, Fiction and Value”, which drew over eighty participants from across the globe and several of whose papers are about to be published as essays in Andrea Selleri and Philip Gaydon (eds.), Literary Studies and the Philosophy of Literature: New Interdisciplinary Directions (Palgrave Macmillan, 2016 – forthcoming), this conference seeks to broaden the avenues of conversation between aesthetics and literary studies that were opened on that occasion by prompting scholars from both fields to engage with each other in an actively interdisciplinary study of topics shared by literature and philosophy.

This time, too, there will be three overarching themes: (1) Ethics; (2) Tropes; (3) Attunement. The main questions to be explored are, respectively: (1) whether and how literature and ethics can provide reciprocal illumination, and how each field’s established lines of enquiry can help the other; (2) how literary studies and the philosophy of literature negotiate non-literal meaning, and the linguistic models which the respective practices imply; (3) how the theories and practices of the two fields can be brought to bear on one another. For each of these themes there will be parallel sessions with papers by scholars at all stages of their careers, and a double keynote session that will feature established scholars from each field.

Abstracts of 400-500 words for 20-minute presentations should be sent to the organisers at fveconference@live.warwick.ac.uk by 25/1/2017. We would particularly appreciate an engagement with both philosophical and literary-critical literature, but this is not a requirement as long as your argument is broad enough to be of interest to a large interdisciplinary audience. We welcome case studies and historical analyses, as long as there is an explicit theoretical dimension to the discussion. Possible themes may include but are not limited to:



  • Illustrations of ethical themes in fiction
  • Illumination of ethical themes through fiction
  • Doing, deeds and actions and consequences in fiction
  • Narrative and the formation of character
  • Fiction as experimentation with situation and response
  • Narration and judgement
  • Fiction and habitus
  • Implied attitudes in literature
  • The ethics of reading


  • Literary vs figurative meaning
  • Tropes as conveyors of philosophical meaning
  • Tropes and genre
  • Tropes across and between cultures
  • The evolution of tropes in history
  • Tropes and quantitative literary theory
  • Reading protocols and figurative language
  • Tropes and the history of hermeneutics
  • Tropes in expository vs non-expository prose



  • Generality and particularity in literature and philosophy
  • Literary affect and hermeneutic interpretation
  • Literary immediacy and concept generation
  • Modes of argument: what could each field take from the other
  • Literary plots: cases/examples for philosophers?
  • Literary works as case studies to illustrate philosophical issues: enrichment or appropriation?
  • The limits of language and how to tackle them
  • Philosophical contributions of “literary” writers
  • Philosophers and style

This conference is organised by Andrea Selleri (Warwick), Marianna Ginocchietti (Trieste), Alex Underwood (Warwick), Giulia Zanfabro (Trieste), and it is made possible by the generous funding of the British Society of Aesthetics and of Warwick’s Centre for Research in Philosophy, Literature and the Arts. We are able to provide travel bursaries of £700, so please let us know if you would like to be considered for one.

Johns Hopkins Humanities Center Under Threat of Closure

Dear Readers—

As many of you know, Johns Hopkins University has recently threatened to close its acclaimed Humanities Center.  A thorough account of the threat (including a play-by-play, possible rationales, and the resultant outcry) can be found [here].  (Kudos to Colleen Flaherty for her exhaustive reporting.)

Should you wish to join in protesting the closure, there is a petition circulating on Change.org which you can access [here].  Of course you may also contact JHU President, Ronald J. Daniels, or JHU Krieger School of Arts & Sciences Dean, Beverly Wendland, directly.  Their addresses, emails, and phone numbers are available at jhu.edu.

All best—


New Volume of Interest: Commonplace Commitments

Thanks to Peter Fosl for passing along the following:

Richard Fleming has just published a new piece in this volume: Peter S. Fosl, Michael McGandy, and Mark Moorman, eds., Commonplace Commitments: Thinking Through the Legacy of Joseph P. Fell (Lewisburg: Bucknell University Press, 2016). Fleming’s contribution is called “Ordinary Studies: Conceptual Brackets—Textual Moments” (pp. 153-65 in the book). It “seeks to both disquiet and still the matters of the ordinary” by, among other practices, melding John Cage’s use of “time brackets” with more traditional etude aims and forms. The text’s conceptual brackets are selected from collected data descriptions of the ordinary first given in the afterword of part 1 of Fleming’s Threads of Philosophy. Click [here] for more information. And enjoy!


Thinking with Tolstoy and Wittgenstein: New Book by Henry W. Pickford

thinking-with-tolstoy-and-wittgensteinI’m afraid I’m a bit late to the party: Out last year from Northwestern UP, Thinking with Tolstoy and Wittgenstein: Expression, Emotion, and Art by Henry W. Pickford. From the publisher:


In this highly original interdisciplinary study incorporating close readings of literary texts and philosophical argumentation, Henry W. Pickford develops a theory of meaning and expression in art intended to counter the meaning skepticism most commonly associated with the theories of Jacques Derrida.

Pickford arrives at his theory by drawing on the writings of Wittgenstein to develop and modify the insights of Tolstoy’s philosophy of art. Pickford shows how Tolstoy’s encounter with Schopenhauer’s thought on the one hand provided support for his ethical views but on the other hand presented a problem, exemplified in the case of music, for his aesthetic theory, a problem that Tolstoy did not successfully resolve. Wittgenstein’s critical appreciation of Tolstoy’s thinking, however, not only recovers its viability but also constructs a formidable position within contemporary debates concerning theories of emotion, ethics, and aesthetic expression.


“This book is original, ambitious, and extremely well informed. Henry Pickford has managed to say an important new word in a vast intellectual field.” Boris Gasparov, author of Five Operas and a Symphony: Word and Music in Russian Culture
Thinking with Tolstoy and Wittgenstein is a beautifully written, philosophically sophisticated, and important work that should be of considerable interest to lterary theorists as well as to philosophers concerned with emotion.” Stanley Bates, Middlebury College

Images of History: New Book by Richard Eldridge

Richard Eldridge‘s most recent book, Images of History: Kant, Benjamin, Freedom, and the Human Subject, is sure to be of interest to those of us invested in questions of historicity, morality, and political community. See below for the publisher’s description. Click the image to be forwarded to the book’s Amazon page.



Developing work in the theories of action and explanation, Eldridge argues that moral and political philosophers require accounts of what is historically possible, while historians require rough philosophical understandings of ideals that merit reasonable endorsement.

Both Immanuel Kant and Walter Benjamin recognize this fact. Each sees a special place for religious consciousness and critical practice in the articulation and revision of ideals that are to have cultural effect, but they differ sharply in the forms of religious-philosophical understanding, cultural criticism, and political practice that they favor.

Kant defends a liberal, reformist, Protestant stance, emphasizing the importance of liberty, individual rights, and democratic institutions. His fullest picture of movement toward a moral culture appears inReligion within the Bounds of Mere Reason, where he describes conjecturally the emergence of an ethical commonwealth.

Benjamin defends a politics of improvisatory alertness and consciousness-raising that is suspicious of progress and liberal reform. He practices a form of modernist, materialist criticism that is strongly rooted in his encounters with Kant, Hölderlin, and Goethe. His fullest, finished picture of this critical practice appears in One-Way Street, where he traces the continuing force of unsatisfied desires.

By drawing on both Kant and Benjamin, Eldridge hopes to avoid both moralism (standing on sharply specified normative commitments at all costs) and waywardness (rejecting all settled commitments). And in doing so, he seeks to make better sense of the commitment-forming, commitment-revising, anxious, reflective and sometimes grownup acculturated human subjects we are.