Sunday, June 19, 2005

Checkmate and Rushlight

As I noted in my previous post, the German word for "editing" is "redigieren"; an "editor" is a "redakteur". This comes from the Latin, "redigere" and "redactus", meaning simply to "lead back" and which gives us also "reduce". All this reminded me of the closing lines of Canto CXVI:

A little light, like a rushlight
to lead back to splendour.

There is a phrase in Latin "ad incitas redactus", which means "brought to a standstill", but also "to reduce to necessities" or "to reduce to extremities." In a note to Plautus' Trinummus: The Three Pieces of Money (at 2, 4, 136), Henry Thomas Riley notes that it

was a term borrowed from the game of 'Duodecim Scripta,' or 'twelve points,' and was applied when one of the parties got all his men on the twelfth point, and, being able to move no further, lost the game in consequence. Probably the game partook of the nature of both backgammon and chess.

He translates the phrase as being brought to a "backgammoned state", perhaps instead using "check mate".

Well, Ez found himself backgammoned at Pisa, didn't he? Always thereafter looking for a light "ad nitore redactus" (?).

There is here a gesture toward an interesting faultline in my ontology, which is, of course, a pun. Here's Lewis & Short's definition.

incitus, a, um, adj. [2. in-citus, unmoved; hence] , of a chessman that cannot be moved.

To be immobilized is to become extremely heavy, and the opposite of heaviness is light.

We pass from what Walter Benjamin called "dialectics at a standstill" (philosophical checkmate?) into the (rush)light of Eleusis.

Here, then, is the silhouette of an argument that I've been looking for for some time. Wittgenstein said that philosophy should be approached as an activity, not a doctrine. This activity, I have come to believe, looks less like writing than like editing. Indeed, the tiresome prose of philosophy is owed to understanding half of this insight--philosophy is not really a question of producing a text, a question of writing, and so is more akin to reading (the history of philosophy is full of "readers").

More concretely, Wittgenstein eschewed writing philosophical propositions or "theses"; the true method lay in the arrangement of factual material, i.e., of clarifying the content of scientific texts. Rather than producing more text, Wittgenstein's approach would result in less text, a more surveyable corpus. Indeed, even Heidegger's project of "leading our attention from beings back to being", which he called "phenomenological reduction" seems to resonate with this conception of philosophy.

Philosophy is a matter of reducing texts, of editing them.


Laura Carter said...

This is quite beautiful.

Thomas Basbøll said...

Thanks. You have made my day.

Phil said...

Enjoying your blog- alot!

...I see that perhaps what you are paring away at here is representative of what Wittgenstein's life became, and how he lived a life representative of that development as well; that as a "redakteur?"


Thomas Basbøll said...

Thanks, Phil. Yes, I think you're right about how all this follows from Wittgenstein. One example that comes to mind is the rather severe editing that Wittgenstein would have done on Frazer's Golden Bough.

But Wittgenstein is remembered as a kind of aphorist, which is to say, we search his "notes" for nuggets of positive wisdom.

I sometimes try to imagine what would have resulted if Wittgenstein had done for Heidegger what Pound did for Eliot.

That is, if someone had identified the part about which one should remain silent.

joel62585 said...

In chess... checkmate is where the game has ended in one person's favor... I think you may be referring to a stalemate where no person wins and it is somewhat to the dismay of the "winning" player.

Thomas Basbøll said...

Thanks, Joel. I'm not sure I agree though. First, I think Pound's situation at Pisa was checkmate, not stalemate. Second, I'm not sure there is a moral victor, as it were, in a stalemate. In twelve point (and I know no more about it than I posted here) it seems that the situation is a clear defeat for one of the players. When you are "backgammoned" you lose in triplicate because you've been caught out (I don't know much about that game actually).

All in all, I don't think the idea I'm looking for is playing to a draw. But I'm willing to discuss it.