NY #7: Ethics and Aesthetics

I'm in New York with two other Open School East Associates to take part in a conference called Composing Differences at MOMA PS1.

Before we left for New York, we asked a few practitioners to share some material with us that we might be able to draw on for our presentation at the conference. Dexter Sinister sent us some bulletins from The Serving Library.
I just read Why Bother by Angie Keefer, it had a promising start about mistaking convergence for meaning, and then it mentioned Wittgenstein and I was hooked.

I love reading about Wittgenstein. I've read two biographies - one about his family (his brother was the most famous one armed pianist that ever lived), and one focusing on his infamous meeting with Karl Popper (where Wittgenstein apparently "brandished" a poker at the Viennese philosopher of science). I've also read Correction by Thomas Bernhard in which a Wittgenstein-esque philosopher builds a perfectly conical house for his sister before killing himself. And Wittgenstein's Mistress by David Markson in which an unnamed narrator experiences a literal version of the problem of solipsism.

As for his philosophy... I own both the Tractacus and Philosophical Investigations, but I bought them a long time ago before I had the necessary patience and understanding to fully engage with them. I get the general vibe of each book (they are almost totally contradictory as to what is the vital quality of language), but I don't know the text.

In Why Bother, Keefer describes the process of reading Wittgenstein and understanding why you would be interested in reading Wittgenstein. And she does an amazing job.


One section of the essay really struck me, and it's where she mentions A Lecture on Ethics, given by Wittgenstein in 1929.

Last year I listened to a lecture by Timothy Morton and he mentioned something about aesthetics being central to ethics. I liked the idea but I couldn't work out why. I googled the phrase and not much came up - or at least the stuff that came up didn't seem to be about the same idea that I understood when I heard Morton speaking.

It turns out that Wittgenstein understood me perfectly. Here is Angie Keefer explaining the main argument of A Lecture on Ethics.

'In the trivial sense, a word like ‘good’ accords with a pre-determined standard. i.e. Something is ‘good’ if it meets a quantifiable mark. Think of a good athlete or a good chess player or a good canoe. We know how to tell good from bad in each case because we have certain agreed upon metrics. That’s relative good. That’s the trivial sense. This trivial sense is, in turn, the basis of a metaphor we use to say something is good in the ethical sense. e.g. When I say, “Wittgenstein is a good person,” my meaning is conveyed because we understand ‘good’ in the relative sense and can draw on that sense of goodness as a metaphor for something that can’t be measured—an absolute good, a good “beyond” facts.

One way to detect whether a word is being used in the trivial or in the ethical sense is to try replacing it with other terms. If I say a canoe is good, and I mean the canoe is sea-worthy and will hold three people without
sinking, that is a defensible use of the word ‘good’. But if I say Wittgenstein is good, I can’t replace ‘good’ in the same way, with a standard measure. I have to rely on ethical arguments to substantiate my description. I am not dealing in facts. My meaning is ultimately indefensible.

In the first case—the canoe—I’ve made a logical proposition. It involves facts that can be vetted.

In the second case, I’ve issued an aesthetic statement. It can’t be verified.'

And then, Keefer carries on with Wittgenstein's words,

'Ethics, so far as it springs from the desire to say something about the ultimate meaning of life, the absolute good, the absolute valuable, can be no science.

What it says does not add to our knowledge in any sense.

But it is a document of a tendency in the human mind which I personally cannot help respecting deeply and I would not for my life ridicule it.'

Then, back to Keefer,

'The most meaningful (absolute) form eludes meaningful (relative) articulation, but the process of attempting
articulation is, itself, the practice of giving form to ethics. And that is what artists do.'