July 1, 2012

"I had my tonsils out and was in the Evelyn Nursing Home feeling sorry for myself. Wittgenstein called."

Wrote Fania Pascal, back in the 1930:
I croaked: “I feel just like a dog that has been run over.” He was disgusted: “You don’t know what a dog that has been run over feels like.”
That's quoted in Harry G. Frankfurt's book "On Bullshit." Frankfurt aptly wonders if that really happened like that:
It seems extraordinary, almost unbelievable, that anyone could object seriously to what Pascal reports herself as having said. That characterization of her feelings — so innocently close to the utterly commonplace “sick as a dog” — is simply not provocative enough to arouse any response as lively or intense as disgust. If Pascal’s simile is offensive, then what figurative or allusive uses of language would not be?

So perhaps it did not really happen quite as Pascal says. Perhaps Wittgenstein was trying to make a small joke, and it misfired. He was only pretending to bawl Pascal out, just for the fun of a little hyperbole; and she got the tone and the intention wrong. She thought he was disgusted by her remark, when in fact he was only trying to cheer her up with some playfully exaggerated mock criticism or joshing. In that case the incident is not incredible or bizarre after all. 
Pascal needs to be more appreciative of having a friend like Wittgenstein. I'd say. But Frankfurt credits her with having this friendship and therefore with an aptitude for discerning whether Wittgenstein is cranky or nice. He decides to take her report as "sufficiently true to her idea of Wittgenstein to have made sense to her" and to "accept Pascal’s report at face value, supposing that when it came to the use of allusive or figurative language, Wittgenstein was indeed as preposterous as she makes him out to be." That is, Pascal — who might lack a sense of humor — now gets credit for having portrayed Wittgenstein as ridiculous, as if she'd made a joke rather than not getting the joke.

But Frankfurt's agenda is talking about bullshit, not analyzing the quality of a joke. She was bullshitting about how she felt by carelessly likening it to something overly specific — how a run-over dog feels. So Wittgenstein was essentially saying: That's bullshit. The key point — for "On Bullshit" purposes — is that Pascal doesn't care about the truth with respect to how the dog feels. So then Wittgenstein could be disgusted because of the way she didn't care about how the dog felt.

But it's not as though there were any real dog that had been run over. Pascal wasn't being callous toward an actual suffering being. The suffering being was Pascal, and the callousness, if any, was Wittgenstein's. On this theory, which hurt Pascal's feelings, he was saying, essentially, let's not talk about your mundane little tonsil surgery and its predictable after-effects. Let's talk about something philosophical, and the first thing that springs to mind is that dog you just mentioned. And he introduces the new topic. Ironically, the distraction into the random issue of animal feelings was much more likely to alleviate Pascal's pain that going on about the details of the surgery.

In Frankfurt's view — the context of bullshit — Wittgenstein is disgusted by bullshit, the laxity about what is true. I sidetracked the discussion into the question of concern about suffering. But the original topic — and the theme of the day here on the blog — is joking.

Joking has a lax connection to truth and to suffering.

27 comments:

Tarkwell Robotico said...

If you just read the quick anecdote, it seems like Wittgenstein is telling a joke and, in re-telling the joke, Pascal is making a joke.

Wittgenstein's joke:

You don't know what a dog feels like.

It is a joke because, as we all know, Wittgenstein's whole life's work is about words, meaning and how they can and cannot point to "ultimate reality". So, from his and his friends perspectives, him reacting like he did is very funny.

Pascal's joke: He was disgusted.

See, to me, that's just as likely Pascal torquing up Wittgenstein's punch line - the way any good joke-teller who knows her material would do.

Her joke is "you all know Wittgenstein - how inhuman and mechanically he thinks - how dogmatically wedded to this own thinking he is - how he can't let go of his philosophies even when consoling a friend". So he says to me.... rim shot!

cubanbob said...

With all of the bullshit Obama, Pelosi and Reid have laid on us in the last 3 1/2 years its too bad Penn & Teller aren't running for Prez and VP this year. At least we would have pros and Teller unlike Slow Joe at least is silent.

edutcher said...

At Least President Choom knows what a dog chews like.

rhhardin said...

Vicki Hearne, Wittgenstein's Lion in Animal Happines, which may be here (can't check without DSL bandwidth), says that when Wittgenstein says that if a lion could talk, we could not understand him, he's wrong on the facts; and more interestingly the lion is himself.

Ignore horrible book cover blurb by some absolute asshole, trying to get women to buy the book. It's a book for men. Hearne takes no prisoners.

rhhardin said...

Frankfurt's analysis seems wrong to me, both on what bullshit is and what the scene meant.

I'd say his analysis of the scene is bullshit, and you can see he cares about the truth.

If you want to tie bullshit to caring about the truth, you'd do better to assuming caring and follow what effect the caring has on framing, of for example yourself.

The Crack Emcee said...

One of my favorite books - check my profile.

Study it and a lot of bullshit won't easily pass you by,...

Pogo said...

The audio version of On Bullshit is hilarious. You can't tune it out, unlike most nonfiction audiobooks, owing to the frequent appearance of the word "bullshit".

It draws the listener in; a very funny joke, hearing "bullshit" intoned in all seriousness over and over.

Jim in St Louis said...

Gracie : You know... My Dog does not have a nose.

George : Really! How does he smell?

Gracie : Oh Just Terrible !!


Pascal stole this bit from Burns & Allen.

Ann Althouse said...

"Vicki Hearne, Wittgenstein's Lion in Animal Happines, which may be here (can't check without DSL bandwidth), says that when Wittgenstein says that if a lion could talk, we could not understand him, he's wrong on the facts; and more interestingly the lion is himself."

There's a great Ricky Gervais podcast on that quote about the lion.

It's in here -- Episode 11.

Quayle said...

Whenever we go against what we know is right we immediately, simultaneously, lie to ourselves to alter the world in our minds to justify it.

I hear the baby fussing in the middle of the night and I know I should get up but I choose pretend I'm asleep and leave it for my wife.

In that act, I immediately tell myself all kinds of lies to enable me to not do what I know is right and get up.

I say that the fact that I have to get up in the morning for work is more important than my wife's burdens.

I say that she didn't something that pissed me off that day, so she can bloody well get up.

Most of these things are filled with enmity toward others.

That's how strong our inability to live with conflict is.

And that is the place where most bull lives - in our minds as counter weight for our knowing bad acts.

Jim in St Louis said...

Miss Minnie Pearl is walking on a beautiful Sunday morning (like today) and she passes the cutest little Catholic Chapel and this man is coming down the steps, and Minnie (being the gregarious and friendly person that she is) calls out;
"Mornin', Is mass out?"

The man pauses, and looks at her and says, "No, But your hat is on crooked."

Jim in St Louis said...

Q: What do you call a Law Professor with an IQ of 50?


A: Your Honor.

John M Auston said...

Hummm. W's method may have been clumsy and perhaps insensitive, but I took it on first reading as him trying to help.

When one is feeling sorry for oneself, it often helps to force a little perspective into your thoughts.

Hyperbola is a form of bullshit. And we probably bullshit ourselves more than we do others.

I've become much more unpleasant to be around, ever since, about a year ago, I decided to make an effort to engage in, and press on from others, rather much more "plain, straight-forward talk". Which is another way of saying, I guess, "less bullshit".

Lack of perspective, euphemisms, political correctness - they are killing discourse, and obscuring the way to improvement and solutions.

The revolution against this starts with each of us, in our daily personal interactions. Less bullshit.

Or so it seems to me.

Paul Kirchner said...

I couldn't resist buying "On Bullshit" after Ann mentioned it. On Amazon it looked like a regular hard-cover book so I was surprised that it is the size of a greeting card and only 63 pages. I've read most of it and so far haven't found any stunning insights. Mostly it makes a good gag gift.

Peter said...

It's sort of like when someone exclaims with disgust "this food tastes like sh*t!"
Unless the speaker is into the whole coprophagia scene, it is a pointless comparison.

Alex Ignatiev said...

Wittgenstein is an asshole. Film at eleven.

David R. Graham said...

"Joking has a lax connection to truth and to suffering."

Such Wittgenstein-ische aphorisms populate here of late.

The hearty jokes expose truth as sweet and pain to calm.

David R. Graham said...

"The revolution against this starts with each of us, in our daily personal interactions. Less bullshit."

Strong concur.

Note to myself: What you talk about, do. What you cannot do, do not talk about.

The Crack Emcee said...

Paul Kirchner,

I couldn't resist buying "On Bullshit" after Ann mentioned it. On Amazon it looked like a regular hard-cover book so I was surprised that it is the size of a greeting card and only 63 pages. I've read most of it and so far haven't found any stunning insights,...

Someone is failing to appreciate the value of not being bullshitted. It's why I like Thomas Sowell - and consider him the smartest thinker we have - no stunning insights, no attempts a cleverness - just straightforward, clearheaded observations.

To say we don't have enough like him is a massive understatement,...

wef said...

"A serious and good philosophical work could be written consisting entirely of jokes."


(Who says Wittgenstein didn't have a gay old time?)

leslyn said...

thhardin said... Frankfurt's analysis seems wrong to me, both on what bullshit is and what the scene meant. I'd say his analysis of the scene is bullshit

Thank you, rhhardin!

Are we going to have to see yet another example of whole-cloth speculative "analysis"--more like anal shit--just so Althouse can cry "bullshit?"

Synova said...

I don't find it hard at all to imagine someone with a bee in his/her bonnet about precise speech, who would be disgusted by hyperbole.

Particularly in 1930.

The only reason I can see to doubt the literal meaning of Pascal's story is if there is other evidence that her friend was not one of those people.

Being fanciful was not *pushed* the way it is now. Reading novels was considered suspect, slothful, and indulgent.

Certainly there were a great number of people who disagreed, who enjoyed fanciful things, but the more serious minded (and there are always those who like to think of themselves as serious minded, only with different ways of showing it) would be entirely likely to both dislike feeling sorry for one's self, with hyperbole, and possibly with sloppy colloquialisms.

Ignorance is Bliss said...

Synova said...

I don't find it hard at all to imagine someone with a bee in his/her bonnet...

You don’t know what a person with a bee in his/her bonnet would be like.

I'm disgusted.

Astro said...

I croaked: “I feel just like a dog that has been run over.”
He was disgusted: “You don’t know what a dog that has been run over feels like.”


Of course, one has to wonder: How does Wittgenstein know that Pascal doesn't know what a run-over dog feels like. His implied claim that she can't know a dog's pain invalidates his claim to know what she is capable of feeling.

William said...

Wittgenstein ranks high among those authors whose books I am least motivated to read. He claimed that Bertrand Russell and G.E. Moore were incapable of understanding his thought. So why should I bother?.....The facts of his life are such that it's impossible to say if he was lovable, crazy, or cranky. He was one of the richest men in Europe but gave his money away (albeit to his relatives). He worked as a primary school teacher and lived solely on the money he made teaching. The brightest students spoke well of him, but he was physically abusive towards the duller kids. He got in trouble for smacking around the female students. It was ok to hit the male students, but considered an affront to hit the girls. Was he a proto-feminist by thus abusing all students equally?....Interesting little known fact about Wittgenstein: according to Wiki, he and Hitler attended the same primary school at the same time.

veni vidi vici said...

There was some graffiti in "Breakfast of Champions" somewhere to the following effect:


Wittgenstein is a pederast


A fantastic-sounding and fun-to-say-aloud sentence if ever there was one.

amba said...

Despite his sense of the inadequacy of language, it evidently caused Wittgenstein pain to hear it used carelessly.