Wittgenstein, the Human Face, and the Expressive Content of Poetry: On Bernard Rhie and Magdalena Ostas
Editor's Note: In this article, Garry Hagberg responds to Bernard Rhie and Magdalena Ostas, whose essays can be found in Nonsite.org Issue #3
In his insightful article “Wittgenstein on the Face of a Work of Art,” Bernard Rhie begins by setting out an important distinction that is all too easily elided: that between the human face as a topic to think about, and the human face as something – a kind of conceptual tool – to think with. The latter allows us to reconsider human expressivity, and, importantly, to do so in a way that is not in the first instance committed to, or intrinsically supportive of, a dualistic conception of selfhood. That conception, as Donald Davidson (among others) has said, continues to exert a powerful influence on our thinking even after its worst faults are explicitly identified and expressly repudiated – like many simplifying conceptual templates or, in Wittgenstein’s sense, pictures, it goes underground. And from there, it drives us to struggle with the problem of explaining how it is that a great metaphysical divide has been crossed – how it is that an internal, private entity such as a human emotion has been made physically visible upon the surface of a material object. Rhie sees a deep connection – to my mind a connection of the first importance for gaining an understanding of the very possibility of artistic expressivity – between our natural capacity for discerning expressive content in faces and our equally human capacity for discerning expressive content in the arts. Physiognomic perception, rightly understood, is in truth not in the first instance dualistic; unlike the conceptual picture of dualistic selfhood, it does not place us at an inferential distance from the otherwise hidden expressive content. And in not introducing an inferential gap between the inner content of the expression and its (we think merely contingently) attached outward manifestation, it does not establish from the outset a philosophical problem asking for an explanation, a theory, of how that gap is crossed.
Rhie sees the strength and the power of a number of such theories – but he also sees that that strength and power is dependent upon first having implicitly subscribed to the dualistic sub-structure lying beneath the question. His project then, appropriately, is not one of criticizing the various available theories and then adding his own, but rather it is one of working to achieve insight into the presuppositions that motivate the problem to which the available theories are answers. It is a Wittgensteinian undertaking, and his conception of philosophical progress is internal to this methodology. Rhie shows, in short, that in writing about the human face, Wittgenstein is doing very much more than only writing about the human face. Indeed, Wittgenstein, as Rhie compellingly shows, is thinking with facial expressivity as a tool for more deeply understanding the physiognomy of embodied expression.
But the problem of artistic expressivity, the now-conventional one that is built upon a metaphysical substructure that takes as granted the inferential gap separating expressive content from that content’s manifest form, as Rhie indicates, calls for more than a brief description. It is a virtue of Rhie’s discussion that he sees the importance of differences on this score: Some works of art involve performances by living human beings where their persons constitute the materials of the artform, e.g. dance; some works are performed by persons but where the person is present but using an instrument, e.g. music; and some involve works that leave their personal creators behind (but keep their expressive traces), e.g. painting or drawing. The degree of presence of physiognomic expressivity is a result of the location of the artwork along this continuum from embodied to (what we might then call) disembodied work. Rhie helpfully shows that the problem of artistic expressivity will then be regarded as easiest on the one extreme, and hardest on the other, i.e. where the body is fully present, the expressivity is explained as natural human expression (although conceptually framed by artwork status); where the body is fully absent, and yet expressive content is unquestionably present, we face what, on these conceptual foundations, is then taken to be the hardest problem.
Stephen Davies’ neat term for one approach to this problem, “appearance emotionalism,” holds, as Rhie reminds us, that it is a relation of resemblance that lies at the heart of art’s expressive content. That resemblance, on this view, is discernible between the expressive comportment of a human body (I’ll return to the implicit danger of using the term “body” in this context in a moment) and the contours of, e.g., melody and rhythm. A close relative of this view, advanced by Peter Kivy, is similar in emphasizing contour, but differs in that, in this case, the viewer is thought to project animate qualities onto the otherwise inert surface of the work. We give (in the case of music) sound patterns expressive life by projecting onto them expressive traits that we would perceive in the naturally expressive comportment of truly animate creatures, i.e. human beings. The important distinction here, as Rhie captures it, is between (1) perception on the one hand – where we see the resemblance that is already there between animate comportment and the contours of expressive work, and (2) projection on the other hand – where we take what we know from our perception of natural human expressivity and then, turning it around, project it onto what we then perceive as the expressive content of the work. There is significant insight in Rhie’s observation that one needs to see some of the problems of the classical expression theories (e.g., Tolstoy, Croce, and Collingwood) in order to understand how we arrived at the strong emphasis on appearances or on the surfaces of works of art in recent theories of expression. The assumption beneath those classical theories, i.e. that any emotional content of a work must record or refer back to an initial emotional experience of the artist, led straight to insuperable difficulties: how do we identify the originating emotion with any specificity; how do we distinguish between right and wrong determinations of expressive content; why should originating emotional experience circumscribe all future work-meaning; how do we get past the fundamental other-minds problem of knowing another’s emotional state in the first place; why should we reduce the function of the work singly to that of an inner-content delivery system; etc. All those philosophical troubles were left behind by changing the focus to the surface – on the first view, we just see resemblances between the appearances of two kinds of things as a fact of perception; on the second view, we see expressive content through a natural or hard-wired perceptual habit of animating by projecting onto the otherwise inanimate art object. Neither requires the placement of an originating emotion on the part of the artist at the center of the theory; neither requires a revivification of the Romantic myth of the deep and profound emotional experience of the creative genius fueling the external manifestation of that inner content in outward form; neither requires that the correct interpretation of a work is, and only is, the receiving of that emotional message as packaged and sent. But the two types of view – the classical expressionist and the more recent appearance-emotionalist – have something in common that Rhie intimates but perhaps does not state as forcefully as his lucid discussion has earned the right to do.
In saying that it is the body that exhibits naturally expressive contours – gait, stance, posture, position, speed of movement, grace or its absence, and so forth – one is already insinuating, consciously or not, at the deepest level of our thinking on these matters a dualistic conception of selfhood. (Rhie does, very much to his credit, point this out, but given its profound importance for thinking our way clear of misleading conceptual pictures that have shaped aesthetic thought for generations, I rather want him to shout it from the rooftops in direct and forceful language and then articulate the implications fully). To say that it is the body – rather than a person – that exhibits expressively behavior is to think in accordance with dualistic dictates (precisely the ones from which Wittgenstein’s philosophical observations on naturally expressive action will deliver us); the body has its expressive contours, which themselves are taken to be the external packaging, the outward manifestation in material form of prior immaterial content. In short, this is the Romantic myth’s true, if submerged, origin. And it is the true origin of both much theorizing about artistic expression and of the very structuring of the problem that motivates and (from beneath) shapes that theorizing. It is this – precisely, a dualistic conception of the self, where (1) expressive content is believed to be wholly contained internally, and (2) expressive action is believed to be posterior to and separable from that prior internal emotive content – that the classical and the more recent problem-formulations have in common. Schematically stated, the situation is this: the Cartesian points to the source in the inner world; the behaviorist points to the embodied movements of the outer world; the classical expressionist points with the Cartesian to the inner determinants of content; the appearance emotionalist points with the behaviorist to the outward determinants of content. Simply put, both pairs of theorists have buried in their conceptual substrates a picture that they share in common beneath their more visible differences.
That picture is subtly and exactingly taken apart by Wittgenstein. It is not repudiated with a large-scale counter-proposal, nor is it refuted in a manner internal to its own terms (which would end, as much philosophy has in fact done, with arguing ultimately for the priority of one side or the other, thus staying within the dualistic categories that framed the problem in the first place). And once the overarching picture is taken apart, the pieces are shown not to fit together into a whole as we initially thought, so the progress is very unlike that of reductive analysis. This progress, by contrast, is measured by a deep change in vision, a change in the way of seeing what is now exposed as the shaping influences, influences considerably more powerful than we might have realized, the entire problem-field. It is precisely here that Rhie’s contribution is of such value: it brings into sharp focus the widely dispersed remarks Wittgenstein made on the recognition of facial expressivity, and he shows why these remarks are of the first importance in understanding not only the character of, but indeed the very possibility of, artistic expressivity over and against the problems generated by a misleading conceptual model of selfhood. (It is a mark of Rhie’s intellectual generosity that he also considers the position claiming that the person has been eradicated in some recent theory, where this concept is shown to have been illusory all along. I will not pause to consider this view’s interesting and instructive lack of plausibility here, other than to say that it refutes itself in its first articulation, since to speak with intelligible content of the “we” in the sentence “We have come to see the person as an illusory mirage-construct” one has to refer to a set of selves who allegedly discovered the fact. It would take another full discussion and some time to explain this properly. Rhie rightly says that this view, in any case, would leave us with more difficulty about artistic expression than we started with.)
So what does Rhie see in Wittgenstein in connection with artistic expression, exactly? Rhie is not only reminding us that Wittgenstein returned to the topic of facial recognition hundreds of times throughout his writings; any close reader of Wittgenstein knows that. What Rhie is doing is assembling a number of Wittgenstein’s observations in order to loosen the grip of a picture that holds us captive (to use Wittgenstein’s famous phrase). A familiar word can strike us as having a face; meaning itself is a kind of physiognomy; the lack of a musical ear stands parallel to an inability to recognize facial expressions; observations that are instructive run crisscross over distinctions that (given a prior subscription to the underlying picture) we would expect to be hard and fast, i.e. the distinction between the nuanced recognition of facial expressivity in an animate human being and the nuanced recognition of expressive content in an inanimate artwork; blindness to one aspect of a work can be akin to the kind of moral insensitivity that would turn a blind eye to subtle expressions of human suffering or difficulty. What this cluster of interrelated themes sounds like, so far, is a set of analogies between abilities to recognize expressive content in faces and parallel abilities to recognize expressive content in art. What the traditional (from the present point of view, picture-bound) expression theorists will say at this point is that all analogies break down, and that our philosophical task is to provide a convincing explanation of how the perception of expressive content is possible on the inanimate side. But Rhie’s point is deeper, and that point cannot be captured in these terms or properly acknowledged within any such response. His point is that, if we are sufficiently mindful of and attentive to our actual human practices, we will see that these are not analogies, and they do not naturally divide, on the level of practice, into animate and inanimate sides. It is the underlying picture that leads us to see the matter in that polarized way. The truth, Rhie is suggesting, following Wittgenstein, is far more interesting.
The explanations offered by the expression theorists (both classical and more recent) involve the perception of pre-existent contour-resemblances on the one side, and the projection of animate content onto those contours on the other. It is at this juncture easy to say that what the Wittgensteinian observations show is that the perception of expressive content on the animate side is unproblematic. That is, the perception of expressive content on the inanimate side is, again, the problem (and what Wittgenstein is doing is simply trying to attach what is philosophically problematic to what is philosophically unproblematic and so remove, or at least significantly dilute, the problem – a kind of innocence by association). This way of taking the Wittgensteinian contribution, Rhie is suggesting, is easy to grasp, and it is – instructively and deeply – wrong. To focus on the inanimate side (which in truth, on the level of actual recognitional phenomenology, is a side that, as a pre-demarcated area, does not exist) as a methodological desideratum is to blind ourselves to aspects of the phenomena in question that will help us see the entire problem-field anew. The issue – here Rhie’s initial distinction comes into play forcefully – is that we need to think with the experience of facial recognition when thinking about artistic expressive content. And to do that requires our meticulously thinking through the nature of, the character of, animate faces. (It can be instructive to note that, at just this juncture, we might be tempted to classify all such cases under the heading “animated faces.” This itself would be an initial wrong step: we use the expression “animated face” to describe one kind or category of facial expressivity, often, but not always, in contrast to flat, dull, immobile, motionless, inexpressive, poker-faced, or other kinds of faces. To run them all together under a generic term is to prejudice the investigation against subtlety from the outset.)
One thing of central importance that we can learn from the part of our natural history concerning expressive content recognition in faces is that the process, as Wittgenstein observes, is not like – in truth not anything like – the model of facial recognition that a dualistic conception of selfhood would encourage. That is to say, it is not like a medical doctor framing a diagnosis from symptoms as an inferential process. Now, it is true that mediation between evidence and emotive-content attribution can take place, but in the vast range of ordinary cases it does not. “Joy” and “grief” are not words waiting at the end of an inferential chain. Nor do we deduce the presence of emotional states: All persons exhibiting facial contours C have emotion E; this person is exhibiting facial contour C; etc. The face, Wittgenstein is showing, does not in the ordinary case mediate its own expressive content.
How might one capture this point further to amplify Rhie’s clarifying use of these passages for gaining a clearer view of the character of artistic expression? For one thing, a musical arranger might take the original piece as composed at the piano, and then, through an extended creative process involving trial and error, thought about timbres, thought about registers, thought about harmonizations, and so forth, begin to piece together an arrangement of that original piece. That is an intelligible example of mediation between content and its later expression. Or one might transcribe a cello suite for the guitar, involving similar mediating cognition along the way from original score to completed transcription. In another domain, a forensic accountant might look for, then see part of, a pattern of misreported accounts, and then, on that basis, predict the appearance of the next one, look for it, and find it, further confirming the inferential chain. The kind of recognition that Rhie is putting to work here is not at all of this kind – it is, in the ordinary case, not mediated. And if we do have occasion for mediated reflection of facial expressivity, it will likely be a case in which the person in question is attempting to hide an emotion under, as we say in such cases (but not always), the surface. (“Oh yes; now that I think of it, I saw him turn away for a moment and touch the corner of his eye when she was mentioned – and that fits with what you are saying about how upset he must actually be”). The emotion, to put it one way (and Wittgenstein is suggesting this as one way of speaking among others) is personified in the face. What these contrasts bring into focus is that the idea of immediacy need not just be a truncated version of the hidden facts of inferential or mediated perception where everything outward is in truth evidence for the inner. What they bring into focus – and this is Rhie’s extraordinarily helpful contribution here – is that we will cling to such pictures only so long as we leave undisturbed a Cartesian or dualistic conception of selfhood as the foundational architecture upon which everything else concerning expressive content must be built. If the human self is thought to be composed of (in the first instance) metaphysically inaccessible emotive content, content that is then (in the second instance) contingently signaled through facial movements, then we will forever be saddled with a problem concerning how those intangible inner contents cross the ontological divide into the inanimate realm. And where the surfaces, the external appearances, are conceived in the first instance to be always expressively inert or in their primary state without expressive content of any kind, then the question will invariably concern the relation between two kinds of things. The modern problem of expression in the arts has been formulated in precisely these terms.
An attitude towards a soul, in Wittgenstein’s phrase, is not reducible into component parts: it is not an amalgam of a perceived body and an inferentially justified claim concerning its soul-habitation. If, as Rhie correctly says, we speak of a person’s body or a person’s mind, we are not speaking about two ontologically distinct elements contingently brought together in this amalgam before us. And I want to add to this: if we speak of evidence for a person still having a soul, still being alive, still being animate (we think we might have seen a finger very slightly twitch), the person of whom we are speaking is in very serious medical condition. That language game, against the dictates of the picture, is not the one actually hidden beneath our ordinary discourse that would only misleadingly appear non-dualistic. And if that is true, then the model that generates the problem of the relation between the two kinds of things is (1) falsely applied to other (i.e. artistic) cases, and worse (2) false to the nature of human beings in the first place. We see human mental states, emotions, nuanced expression (of a kind and with variations far more subtle than philosophy often acknowledges) in persons, not in bodies that provide evidence for hidden ghostly mental entities. And if we get clear on that, we then have at least a chance of clarifying, in a way true to the wondrously complex and intricate phenomenology of facial recognition, just what it is we see in works of art and how it is that we see it. What has been said here, following Rhie following Wittgenstein, by no means offers a full account (nor does Rhie intend his discussion as one), but it opens a door to a new way of seeing the entire issue, a way free of the conceptual picture that generates a problem-template that, once established, has proven very difficult to dislodge.
Metaphysical dualism leads us to assume that the content of an expression is both prior to and separable from what we then construe as its embodiment. And Wittgenstein, as Rhie reminds us, called attention to the often-concealed power of the verb “to have” in such contents: to say that a drawing of a face has this particular expression suggests that what it has is taken on by it, that what it has was separate from and prior to it. And here again, then, the question of the relation arises: how exactly are the face and its expression related? But if we look to the close details of our actual language, we see that it does not conform whatsoever to what a misplaced scientism might dictate, i.e. that extended matter is the only kind of thing unproblematically real, and that matter is in the first instance value-neutral and expressively inert. How, we then ask, could we arrive at a perception of extended matter that includes those metaphysically less stable, indeed metaphysically less real, things? Rhie does not go into this here – one cannot do everything at once – but the dualistic view, conjoined to a misplaced scientism, also generates a conception of language. That conception parallels the view of persons as body-plus-soul amalgams; it is the picture of inert signs-plus-meanings. And that in turn quickly gives rise to a question concerning the relation of signs to meanings, and we are embarked before we know it – that is, before the underlying picture has been identified and subjected to independent scrutiny — on the project of relation-specifying theory formulation. Expressive content, so we think under the influence of this picture, is not really out there in the way the materials that carry that content are, and meanings are not really out there in the way that the physical signs and sounds that carry them are. Thus, as Rhie succinctly capture it, seeing expressive content either as animating fiction or as interpretive projection removes what is actually central to human physiognomic perception and recognition to the ontological periphery, just as (taking the discussion into the linguistic field) what we say, what we intimate, what we imply, what we enact in speech, how we remake the world with metaphor — in short, what we do with our words – is removed to the periphery of any investigation into the reality within which we live.
Magdalena Ostas, in her fine and linguistically nuanced contribution, shows on the other hand that the closest scrutiny of our language is anything but secondary to, or merely prefatory for, philosophical progress. The incorporation of what we say, of real language, into poetry is, as she shows, one way of integrating philosophy into poetry. Here the sides clearly are those of the ancient quarrel, poetry and philosophy; what philosophy might learn, or learn better, from poetry is just how to pay the closest attention to language, to linguistic practice and to linguistic nuance and complexity. Ostas begins with the excavation of a deep affinity: Wordsworth saying in the Preface to Lyrical Ballads that poetry should be written in “language really used by men,” and Wittgenstein’s wide ranging efforts to “bring words back from their metaphysical to their everyday use.” As Ostas shows, what they both want to avoid, in Wordsworth’s wonderful phrase (anything but self-exemplification), is “inane phraseology.” Phraseology, as we already have reason to believe given Rhie’s project above, is I truth hardly a small matter in philosophy (I take it as evident that phraseology is of the essence in poetry): if we can overcome the dualism that would separate soul from body, expressive content from its expression, animate significance from brute materiality, and – now here – meaning from saying, then we will arrive at a vantage point from which, in philosophy too, how we say what we say is of the essence. We have seen that how we say it – our phraseology – can unwittingly shape expectations concerning how an answer to a problem will be developed, what will and will not be accepted as an answer to that problem, what is and is not regarded as relevant to the settling of that problem, and, perhaps most importantly, what is in the first place so much as taken as a problem. In poetic expression, as Ostas beautifully shows, the content of the expression is instructively not separable from the expression; saying and meaning are not two things metaphysically rent asunder in a manner that requires theoretical explanations of verbal reunions.
Ostas discusses the way of seeing exemplified in Michael Fried’s recent reading of the photographer Jeff Wall’s work. Fried finds there the remaking of the everyday, the commonplace, the ordinary; he finds objects portrayed anew, revitalized, and – as Fried brings in Wittgenstein – revivifying of “life itself.” One aspect of this photography-induced reawakening of what we might call real-setting vitality comes through grasping, against the embedded conceptual pictures and their corresponding expectations, that those objects, persons, places, and settings of our quotidian world, newly arranged, newly juxtaposed, newly positioned, and seen (in Wittgenstein’s sense) in a new light (in photography’s case this phrase functions both metaphorically and literally simultaneously) are anything but inert. They are not like the brute materiality of extended substance that comes in the first instance without a sense of animated expressivity – at least they need not do so. Words – the real words of women and men – like the things and places in Wall’s photographs as Fried sees them (a critical vision that is itself re-enlivening), are not in the first instance mere dead signs awaiting the embodiment of the linguistic analogue of prior and separable spirit-content. Ostas is directing our attention to the creative processes of the reassembly, the re-composition, the re-sounding of our ordinary language in a way directly parallel to Fried viewing Wall; that is, in such a way that our language becomes, through poetic transformation, philosophical.
Ostas reminds us of Wittgenstein’s remark, one of fundamental importance to grasping what is original and conceptually reorienting about his philosophical methodology (and what sets that methodology in striking contrast to the scientific model prevalent in the methodological mainstream): “It is … essential to our investigation that we do not seek to learn anything new by it. We want to understand something that is already in plain view. For this is what we seem in some sense not to understand.” That is the contrast between a contribution to knowledge and a contribution to human understanding, and it is of deep importance for Ostas’ project precisely because the question concerning poetic truth can hereby be helpfully reformulated. Rather than asking what knowledge, or what kind of knowledge, poetry delivers, and, once that is settled, whether that knowledge is new or a kind of knowledge not available elsewhere, one can instead ask what contribution poetry makes to human understanding, and whether that kind of contribution is unique to this art-form. And with the preceding two thoughts (the special life ordinary language shows when reassembled and recomposed within poetry, and the methodological point concerning human understanding) behind her, Ostas is well positioned to shed a good deal of light in succinct form on the kind of poetry she is examining.
It has been said that, if you are a politician trying to hide something, you should hide it in plain sight. Nobody will look for it there – they will be looking in, and closely attending to, concealed, dark, underground places. And thus they will not see what is right in front of them for what it is. Ostas identifies this aspect of Lyrical Ballads (and one could add here a much longer list of poetry that has this special quality since that stylistically foundational work), this sense of the plainness of word-presentation that carries in its undercurrent a sense of something else, a sense of not-yet-fathomed content. That under-content, hidden in plain sight, we come to understand through what Ostas rightly sees as the dialogic structure of many of the passages in Lyrical Ballads (as is also true, she rightly observes, of Philosophical Investigations.) The way we satisfy the need for fuller understanding aroused by that sense of hiddenness-in-plain-view is to gain a full grasp of the way the words and phrases interact, the larger interconnections between words, phrases, and passages, the resonances these words sound with and against each other. (Philosophical Investigations demands precisely this kind of reading as well.) To read for the interactive work of words is what it takes to see how, when juxtaposed in ever-new ways, when re-enlivened, when recomposed, when re-sounded, our words have life.
Ostas observes that, in Wordsworth, “poems are investigations into the act of speaking or telling itself – something that importantly distinguishes the “lyrical” ballad from the traditional ballad grounded in the rehearsal of plot or event.” To the extent that we truly understand the act of speaking or telling therein represented, I want to say, we must first understand the dialogic-interactive functions of those words down to an extremely minute level (a degree of attentiveness to meaning-constitutive minutiae that philosophy could well learn from poetry). And this is a way of saying that words, when taken only by themselves (actually it is, I think, impossible to take them in isolation and genuinely understand them for what they are), hide content in plain sight. On any such atomistic or scientifically modeled approach to words, we take them as if they were inert signs that had isolated meaning-units attached; or (to connect back to the underlying picture, the half-buried architectural foundation discussed above) as though they were merely the linguistic analogues of mind-soul amalgams. Ostas’s sensitive approach functions as a corrective to this conceptual misdirection: “both Wordsworth and Wittgenstein also resist uses of language unanchored to or ungrounded in the specificity, tangibility, and one might say wholeness or completeness of a total speech situation. Both in Philosophical Investigations and Lyrical Ballads, language is emphatically placed.” But in following out these remarkably helpful thoughts, there is one place where I think Ostas should go farther – significantly farther – than she does. It looks initially like a rather small matter.
In writing of the distinctively lyrical ballad, Ostas observes that it is the feeling that gives importance, and she adds that, “the action alone or in itself is frequently unimportant.” Given all that she has said to cast light both on the relations between Wordsworth’s poetic language and Wittgenstein’s conception of language in Philosophical Investigations, as well as what she has said about the distinctive philosophical character and function of Wordsworth’s language, Ostas is perfectly positioned to say that, in truth (i.e. against dominant underlying conceptual pictures), there is no such thing as action alone, no such thing as action in itself. It is, to use a well-worn philosophical phrase, always already placed, and this shows – because linguistic usage is always already “placed” in just the sense she has so lucidly described – the full extent to which words and deeds, action and language, are in reality proximate and complexly interwoven. And so, actions as actually performed (i.e., real action like Wordsworth’s real language) by human beings, and events as experienced by human beings, are always already intertwined within the fabric of a life-narrative with previous actions and events, within trajectories throughout a life of such engagements, with actions considered but not performed, with events anticipated or imagined but not had, and countless other variations on this theme. And the language that captures the nuances of these complexly interacting actions and events in a human life, i.e. poetry, mimetically has its words within its structure interacting in complex and unpredictable ways as well. Once we see this issue in its larger frame, it becomes clear that this is not a small matter: just as Rhie said of the understanding of the very possibility of expressive content in the arts (and its connections to conceptions of selfhood), this issue goes to the heart of human self-understanding, of how we make sense of experience. But then here as well, one cannot do everything at once (and my fundamental purpose here is to help articulate some of the implications stemming from two pieces with which I happily find myself in very considerable agreement).
The contrast Ostas draws between Wordsworth and Keats is a profound one, and it casts into high relief one distinctive mode of aesthetic experience. One approaches, she says, Wordsworth (at least in his early work) as a listener; Keats, by contrast, leads one in as a reader “of written language that is unmoored to a human voice.” Listening to Wordsworth in one’s mind’s ear brings to prominence the connection between this kind of poetic language and the place we normally listen to words-in-action, i.e. human dialogue. And as we have seen, it is within those dialogues (and I want here to say only within) such dialogues that we are able to discern the sense-making, meaning-constitutive interrelations that make those linguistic actions what they are. Thus what is to my mind of central importance in what Ostas is saying at this point is that it is decidedly not the case that words-as-signs are stationed in a holding repository with fixed meanings attached and ready to be deployed as individual operatives of a collective team (a sentence) when called for. On the contrary, poetic usage, as I intimated above, is also itself an instance, and exemplification, of what poetic language represents: it involves the creative and context-specific interaction of words, phrases, sentences – the makings of language games – that, through the linguistic analogue of chemical reactions, circumscribe their own limits and give rise to possibilities of expression which a highly sensitive ear – the ear of the poet – will “hear.” (There is a direct parallel in philosophy to work in the Austinian tradition.) And what poets can hear, in this sense, gives rise to what they can say; the content of the one is dependent upon the other. All of this is what lies beneath Ostas’s radiant sentence: “Wordsworth, like Wittgenstein, anchors his voice in the world.”
That world is one in which we live and which we cannot reduce: words are far too complex a set of instruments to assign to each a fixed and single employment. To learn a word is thus dependent upon a form of life, a way of living, an irreducible set of complex interrelations between elements – persons, hopes, fears, aspirations, affections, past experience, developmental narratives and their teleologies, things, categories of things, layered and embedded practices, modes of attention and of responsive attentiveness, patterns of avoidance, aesthetic sensibilities, interactive preferences — in short, life. Ostas offers a brilliant reading of Wordsworth’s 1798 “We Are Seven” in precisely these terms, and she shows how much more than the isolated meaning of a word (the word “are” in the sentence “We are seven”) one would have to teach the girl who insists on counting two of the dead among her seven tallied persons. In the lines, “You run about, my little maid,/Your limbs they are alive;/If two are in the church-yard laid,/Then ye are only five,” the meaning of what we might initially assume to be among the most unproblematic of all words – a word right before us in plain sight – quickly becomes overwhelmingly complex, when we think about it in terms of what the girl needs to understand in order to come into alignment with the “are” in “ye are only five.” And this connects directly back to the issues we considered above in connection with Rhie’s deeply engaging contribution: the simple, schematic dualistic conception of the word, when drawn from a dualistic conception of selfhood that also generated the dualistic conception of the problem of artistic expression, is hopeless when brought up against the difference of vision between the two worlds invoked by the two employments of “are” (again, as employed in the sentences “We are seven” and “Ye are only five.”) The two “are” usages, as Ostas rightly puts it, “don’t share a world.”
The way of seeing awakened by the girl’s insistence, that special way in which we show our allegiance to an expanded, indeed poetic, ontology within which the deceased are countable with us, or loyally remain here, in an extended sense, among us, is a function of the re-enlivening of a word — the re-assembly, the re-composition, the re-sounding. One misreads Wittgenstein if one insufficiently attends to what is herein discussed as the poetic interaction, the meaning-constitutive dialogical interweave, of the words he puts to work. Just as one misses what is hidden in plain sight if one insufficiently attends to the philosophical dimension of the ever-new poetic re-employments of our language. The ancient quarrel can safely be left behind.