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Reading? No such thing!

August 4, 2014

[For context, read this post.]Ludwig Wittgenstein (photo by Ben Richards)

[Alternate title: “Why read Ludwig Wittgenstein’s Philosophical Investigations?”[1]. A philosophical dialogue[2] hand-written between 12 and 2 A.M. GMT, July 13th, at London Heathrow Airport, waiting to catch an early-morning flight[3], and transcribed with minimal corrections this very morning. The speed of composition[4] may or may not be due to sleep deprivation. Read at your own risk.]

–My God, Alice, what are you doing?

–Reading Ludwig Wittgenstein. See: Philosophical Investigations.

–What is that, a book? Don’t tell me you buy into all this reading nonsense.

–Nonsense how, Bob?

–Well everyone nowadays knows there’s no such thing.

–I don’t get it. No such thing? What is this I’m holding then?

–It’s a “book,” sure, whatever that means, but this thing you say you’re doing with it, “reading”: no such thing! I mean, back in the day, maybe, but they didn’t know we’re descended from apes.

–I admit I don’t quite see what you mean. Look, here, I’ll reading something out for you…

–Ha! You’ll make up some nonsense, you mean, and say it was the book told it to you. As if the book were whispering silently in your ear.

–Well, it does feel like that sometimes…

–That’s schizophrenia right there. You should go to a doctor, not a library. The voices aren’t real just because you hear them.

–But it’s not just random. There’s rules, ways to tell what it says where.

–I’ve heard this line before. But you just make it say what you want. Look, here, this funny picture:


Sometimes you say it “bow,” sometimes “bow.” How can the same picture say two different things? Admit it: you’re making it up as you go along.

–No, see, there’s ways to tell which it is… but I can’t… look, just let me teach you how to read, and then you’ll be convinced it’s possible! It will open up a whole new world for you.

–Why would I want to stop seeing the world as it really is? What has “reading” ever done for anyone? I can tell you what it’s done to them. I’ve met readers before. You spend all your time looking at little black squiggles when you should be living life. Then you go forth obsessed with getting everyone else to read as well–to listen to silent whispers from pieces of processed wood. It’s a cancer on society!

–Well… no, it doesn’t make me not see the world, it makes me see more of it. I admit it’s sometimes distracting, and when I do see something written, I can’t help but read it; and yes, people write too much; but, it’s part of the world we live in! And an important part! Now reading, that would be like… like not believing in God!

–On no, it’s not at all like. Look, reading and writing, these are just things people do. Human beings. Like monkeys, except monkeys only talk to each other, and don’t pretend that funny ink blots talk to anyone. How would that even work? It’s not as if books have faces! Admit it: it’s all a big game of pretend. You made up some rules and mostly follow them, but in the end you say whatever you want, then pretend the book said it instead.

–That’s not completely false, but… look, the rules all fit together. We couldn’t just make up a new game tomorrow, even if we wanted to. There’s lots of different ways of writing, but they all have certain things in common; we can talk about how to move from one to another. So what do you mean by real? This sounds real enough to me.

–That’s not real, that’s just good teamwork. What you’re saying is, you’ve found a way to have shared hallucinations. But they’re still hallucinations. Things can’t talk! Not silently anyway.

–No, of course not, and there’s not actually a voice in my head when I read. It’s a metaphor. When I talk to you, do you hear a voice inside your head?

–No, I hear your voice, from over there.

–Right. The same with the book. I see it’s voice, here on the page.

–I can’t see any voice there.

–That’s because you haven’t learned how.

–Learning isn’t about seeing, it’s about doing. Someone taught me once how to count with tally marks. That’s useful. It lets me do things. But why do I want to see new things? Even if that were possible! Maybe reading is useful, though I don’t see how; but don’t pretend you’re reading something. You’re just reading.

–With the help of the book!

–If marked-up paper helps you read, fine, but I don’t see why you need it. I usually count things in my head.


–When you want to know what’s in someone else’s head, how do you do it?

–Well there’s a brain in his head, everyone knows that.

–Oh, so when you count things in your head, you just count your brain over and over?

–What? No?

–Or maybe count things in your brain: how many neural nets do you have, and so on?

–No, I mean I count things with my head, or at least not with anything else; I don’t know, it’s just an expression.


–What’s your point?

–When you count things with your head, it would be nice if I could count them with your head too, instead of mine (which would be a waste of energy); but I’m not quite sure how to do so; but if you could count it with paper, instead of with your head, then I could count it with that paper too. That’s reading. Or we can count it with your voice, and that’s talking.

–Let’s say you’re right. Still, what’s the point?

–Simple: it makes my world bigger, becuase it makes your world mine. Or the world of whoever wrote the book I read.

–But what if no one wrote it? What, do you just assume? Look at these scuff marks on the floor. Someone made them here accidentally. They look like they might be those things you call “letters.” But who wrote them? Whose world do they give you?

–Well, sure, like looks a bit like “AT”. But it isn’t, and so, sure, I could read it, but I don’t , or, at least, don’t pay attention to it.

–But how do you know? Maybe someone put them there on purpose. Or maybe your book was an accident. Or a lie!

–Yes, it’s possible, but how often do books happen by accident? If someone’s lying, on the other hand, I might be tricked for a while, but they’ll be found out eventually.

–Who says?

–Well, if they’re lying, it must be for a reason. Either they’ll decide it was a bad reason, and ‘fess up; or they’ll achieve their goal, and we’ll see what their motives were, and realize they were lying. This won’t catch every lie, but it’ll catch all the lies that matter.

–What if they lie for no real reason?

–Why would they do that?

–Well, right. But they might do it just for fun, just because they want to have no reason; they want to be free.

–So we’re back to the book happening by accident.

–Well… I suppose so.

–Such a book could not be very long.

–Probably not, but how long is long, anyway?

–Fair point. The problem isn’t with reaching any particular length, I suppose: it’s that the accident couldn’t go on. Nothing would count. The writer would have to write as if each word had nothing to do with what came before, or was to come after, since even internal consistency isn’t actually internal: the words would be borrowed from outside. So the result wouldn’t be deceptive, it would be nonsense. Dust in the wind.

–All very interesting, but accidents do happen. So say one does. Lo and behold, a book formed out of the dust.

–But why call it an accident, if it doesn’t look like one?

–If it’s not an accident, who did it?

–The dust.

–But the dust isn’t alive!

–If it were able to make a book, why wouldn’t we call it alive?

–But it’s not as if the dust knows how to talk!

–Not a problem. Clearly, after writing the book, it died.

–But this is absurd!

–You posed the hypothetical, I’m just filling in the blanks. If it helps, imagine that it took a few billion years for the dust to write the book, and that it did some other stuff in the meantime (accidentally, of course) and it should sound less odd.

–Huh? You’d almost convinced me there were reading, and now you say there’s not even living, it’s all just one big accident!

–No, you said that. I said the dust lived, and read. Because on the hypothetical, that’s all just true.

–What do you mean by true? I can see, I guess, how calling it that is useful…

–It’s useful because it’s true. Or close to it, perhaps. We use words to affect the world, or to affect other words, and their use is how they get their meaning. We also say how we use them, and if what they mean and what we say match up, they’re true, or at least truthful. True if the use holds up. But I’m getting ahead of myself; I hadn’t meant to spin a grand theory of meaning.

–Let’s go back to the hypothetical them. Of what use in the hypothetical is a word like “alive”?

–Well, I suppose I should say that, if I ever encountered dust that wrote, I should treat it as alive, not as an accident. Alive is what I am, you are, the dog is, the scuff marks are not.

–So whether you’re speaking truly or not depends on whether this is how the hypothetical plays out? So how can we know?

–Well, sure, we can only check if it actually comes to pass.

–Who’s this we?

–Everyone, I suppose: you, me, everyone who reads (or talks), past, present, future.

–And hypothetical? Shouldn’t they get a say?

–Hypothetically, I suppose… but not actually. Actually, you and I are having ours now, the past has already had its, the future will have its soon enough. So nothing is quite true, yet, since we’re not done using the words, yet. They can be at least truthful if they at least fit with what I use them for; but I can’t know just yet if they’ll stand the test of time.

–This all sounds very vague and mystical. But I don’t think it’s even coherent. I can count with your voice because I can make you show me how you did it. But the dust is completely different. Once the dust is, as you called it, “dead,” it can’t tell me how to read its book. And the same with all the other books. It’s absurd to say that the dust is still counting with the book, so I can still borrow its counting, if there’s no longer any dust there to count with it.

–Why does it have to still be counting? The point is that it counted. Sure, there’s a difference between a live speaker and a dead one. But sometimes living speakers refuse to answer the questions we put to them, especially if we put too many. So I still have to make it count myself. Even if it’s your voice, I can’t make you do it for me. I can make you do the easy work, marking a tally for each crumb you see, but I still have to mean these tallies together with these crumbs: I have to use them, and say how I use them, and hope they work. I can do this as long as the tally marks last; or, if I’m worried about it, I can let them echo into my head, or into a book of my own. But they’d still be yours, even if they were the last thing you made your own.

–Sounds like more mysticism. So am I dead whenever I don’t count? Then I’ve only rarely been alive!

–You’ve never counted with a book, but you’ve counted with your head, and my voice! You’ve just refused to admit it. Admit it: you don’t like reading because it reminds you of yourself.

–I don’t like reading because it destroys people’s lives. They’re perfectly good people, have a job, their health, they eat, drink, are merry; then they learn to read, and next thing you know they’re depressed, emaciated, frail and sickly, and spend all day in the library conversing with voices in their head, with their head, whatever.

–But why is that worse?

–It’s a kind of death! And they rarely even make books that will bring in money. As you would say, no one will even use their voice after they die, so they won’t live on.

–Oh no, me reading the dust’s book is not the dust living on. The dust is dead. It’s words live on, but it’s no longer using them. Using words: that’s life! What we’re doing right now. Much better than eating or drinking. Though of course without those things we’d die.

–But we talk about things! That’s what we carea about, not words!

–Certainly; by using words you don’t think I meant making noises and funny pictures and strange sensations, do you? Without things to use words on there’s no such thing as using them; and no use, no life.

–But if my words last after my death…

–And the things I used them on last too, remember…

–Then in what sense am I dead?

–Well, I can put my words to no real uses. The words are still there, and the things I did with them, but the doing is over and done with. Though there can be echoes. Other people can use my words. But they’re not me.

–Why not?

–Well… hm… because, I suppose, it’s impossible for me to use my words in union with everyone else. In harmony, maybe, but not in union. There’s always dissonance. Though I suppose there’s also always dissonance in how I use my words myself… I might be more than one speaker myself… but “I” names one bundle of speakers, “we” another. All the parts of “I” agree they’re part of “I,” however little else they agree on. But no one knows quite who’s included in “we.”

–Uh… huh. That’s very cryptic. But it sounds as if you’re saying that I, we, whatever, are a divided substance, not different objects.


–That’s crazy! Whatever I am, I have to be this body here, not that one there, or the space between. And I have to be alive the way a dog is alive, not the way a piece of a paper is: because a piece of paper isn’t!

–But the link between our words and our deeds is immaterial. Sure, the things and words linked will tend to cluster around your body, or mine, or wherever, but we’re like adjacent mountains: distinct, but how to tell where one ends and one begins?

–So we’re just peaks on the surface of world-world-using Us, a conglomeration of word-deed associations. Facets of the world soul?


–I don’t think I buy it. But as long as the reading can be at the service of eating and drinking…

–Servant sounds wrong. Language is a grand, royal enterprise, it uses food and drink to give itself a subject matter, not for food or drink’s own sake. But food and drink are elevated by it, and we too; and though we will never see it, from the view of eternity, we will always have been but the words that language speaks…!

[…to be continued…]

* * *

[1]: The question is not explicitly addressed within the dialogue. But, in essence, you should read Wittgenstein because these are the kinds of thoughts, and the forms of thinking, that Wittgenstein makes possible. Without abandoning true rigor, he reveals the failures of methodological rigidity, and lays bare the dialogical, grammatical underpinnings of our world.

[2]: I am not Alice, nor am I Bob, nor am I Wittgenstein, nor are any of these persons any other but themselves. If the dialogue goes a bit off the rails near the end, I attribute that to the dialogue becoming less a dialogue, and more a pair of overlapping monologues: Bob is something of an atheist, Alice a pantheist, and at a certain point, they begin speaking past each other, agreeing with only the most incoherent parts of one another’s thought. Wittgenstein, I think it safe to say, was neither; he opposed reductionism and mysticism both. He does consider the “us” to be of vital importance, but unfortunately has little to say about what constitutes it.

[2]: For the previous week I had been in Oxford for a John Henry Newman seminar. Hence much of this dlalogue is Newmanian as well as Wittgensteinian; but the two have much in common. On the whole, I would call it Wittgensteinian, especially since I did not get around to talking about Christianity at all.

[4]: Approx. 2600 words over approx. 2 hours is approx. 20 words per minute, which is approx. the average speed at which the average person can write longhand when copying from a text in front of them. In other words, I was not thinking so much as writing out loud. I would not call this inspiration, but rather a failure to self-edit.


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