Having mentioned it more than three or three and a half months ago, I re-read three or three and a half months ago Gustafsson's "Perfect Pitch" paper, and am just now getting around to posting something that occurred to me while reading it (I would like to say that the long brewing has resulted in a better post, but the truth is that it's being composed entirely afresh as I write). Gustafsson is talking about this passage from Cavell's "The availability of Wittgenstein's later philosophy", introduced at the beginning of the paper (minus some scene-setting, which is actually—I think—ultimately truer to the quotation than his final conclusions):
The paper ends thus:
We learn and teach words in certain contexts, and then we are expected, and expect others, to be able to project them into further contexts. Nothing insures that this projection will take place […], just as nothing insures that we will make, and understand, the same projections. That on the whole we do is a matter of our sharing routes of interest and feeling, modes of response, senses of humor and of significance and of fulfillment, of what is outrageous, of what is similar to what else, what a rebuke, what forgiveness, of when an utterance is an assertion, when an appeal, when an explanation—all the whirl of organism Wittgenstein calls 'forms of life'.
At the deepest level, what merits fear is our own inclination to disclaim responsibility for the maintenance of those human practices within which language has its life. And, again, Cavell's Wittgenstein offers no protection against that inclination. If Cavell is right, what Wittgenstein's vision should make us realize is this: we must learn to live with our fear of responsibility, with the associated inclination to disclaim that responsibility, and—if we are philosophically clear-sighted enough—with a fear of that very inclination.
This is certainly very Cavellian, and it may even be what Cavell thought terrifying about what he took to be Wittgenstein's vision of language. But it doesn't strike me as what is terrifying about it, or, at any rate, not the whole story.
The scene-setting at the beginning of the paper concerns an imagined community in which everyone has perfect pitch and in which no tuning forks (or more advanced technology) are necessary for settling the pitch of a note: indeed, the inclinations of the members of the community to call a note A would constitute a standard to which tuning forks would be beholden. We are then invited to imagine dischord: disagreement arises between the community members as to what note a particular sound is. There seems to be no recourse for settling the dispute, since (apparently) all that they ever had, and all that anything that could otherwise be used to settle a dispute was based on (so that recourse to such things would beg the question at issue), was "a strangely free-floating affair, based on nothing, and dependent on a consensus which just happens to be there." (We can easily imagine that the people in this situation wouldn't really know what to do if this happened, that it might seem to them as if they were going crazy.)
But—here's the trick—even we are no better off, or so it seems; even in the same domain, we seem to depend on a like tendency, to, say, agree that the note in question, and the note sounded by this tuning fork, are the same, or that the letter displayed on this device which identifies notes is an A, and there certainly seems to come a point at which we can't have recourse to further tools to sort out any disputes that might, and that conceivably could, arise. We just do accord with one another in these matters: we do share those aspects Cavell includes as a (partial) list of what is involved in the "whirl of organism", and for the most part things work out—as if we could extend the image of the overlapping of the strands of the rope by saying: and what's more, the rope isn't even tied to anything!—nevertheless, we can cling to it and not fall into nothingness. (I actually think that McDowell's characterization of what's terrifying about this, that it "induces a sort of vertigo", is apt, though what McDowell goes on to say immediately afterwards manages to diminish the seriousness while simultaneously missing the point of the characterization he himself just offered, as if it had been emitted in an inspired moment.)
It seems ot me that what is at stake here is illustrated in, for instance, the plight of Elizabeth Costello, who alternates between thinking that she herself must be crazy or that she is surrounded by absolutely hideous moral monsters (those are the two options) without being able to settle into either option: it seems too obviously right that what nearly everyone else does is unacceptable beyond measure, but to nearly everyone else it seems the most natural thing in the world (and they aren't otherwise awful), so perhaps the conviction she feels so deeply is a sign of her, rather than their, disorderedness. Or, in a much more trivial way, at least if I am remembering correctly, something like the possibility Ted Cohen thinks one enacts whenever one tells a joke: namely, the putting on the line of oneself and one's sense of humor, the facing of the possibility that what one oneself finds funny (and often does so brutely) will just fall flat before one's audience in a way that leaves one questioning oneself. There doesn't seem to be any higher court of appeal, any adjudicator of humor, and if there were a dispute, the dispute would extend to the validity of any adjudicator that might be brought in. It's not that these things are possible because nothing but shared sensibilities can keep us in line with each other—disagreement would be possible without that being the case, certainly—it's that they're troubling for that reason: because one wouldn't know how to go on if such possibilities were realized, because doubt would be cast simultaneously on one's own sense of what is inevitable or appropriate or right and, because those senses would nevertheless be intact, on the validity of the sources of the doubt itself. (I'm positive I've read, or heard perhaps as part of a monologue on a Joe Frank show, a description that would fit right in here, involving deceit in the aftermath of a romantic relationship, but I can't recall it any more specifically at all, alas.) (On further reflection other candidates for the thing I'm vaguely recalling in the previous parenthetical are: a quotation Frankfurt gives and discusses a bit in, I think, "The Faintest Passion" (I know he does this somewhere, but perhaps not there); a remark somewhere in the "Excursus" in The Claim of Reason which I may only seem to remember, i.e., perhaps there is no such remark.)
But if that's what's terrifying, what has this to do with my responsibility? I can't maintain the human practices within which language has its life—not by myself. Given the way the second part of the paper goes, with its concerns about how one might confront the epistemologist with ordinary examples, and the status and methodology of ordinary language philosophy, it seems that my responsibilities might involve: in the first place being attentive to my own uses of language, and in the second place interacting with, and trying to talk back from the ledge, those who seem inclined to take language in what seem to me to be troubling, worldless, inhuman directions:
Even though "the reminders themselves do not determine how the interlocutor will respond. Nor do they determine how he should respond. In a sense, no response is wrong, as long as it tells us something about how the interlocutor wants his words to function." (Somewhat oddly Gustafsson seems confident that we eventually will be able to get the epistemologist to realize that his position is philosophical nonsense: rather than, for instance, ourselves being shaken in our beliefs precisely by his unshakenness.) Or, stated in a way that's applicable also to those who do not engage in theoretical philosophy (surely they too can feel this vertigo), it is incumbent on us to speak with care, and to take others' words carefully; or, to be dialectical rather than dogmatic. This strikes me, though, as the beginning of an articulation of what is ethical about Wittgenstein's vision of language. It is a response to a terrible prospect, but not what's terrifying about the vision of language itself. (Which is not to say that one hasn't here the makings of some awful-to-contemplate ethical dicta.) If something is terrifying in this neighborhood, it's precisely that dispositive demonstrations are out of the question here, that one's own efforts can't keep things on the rails, and that nothing else—nothing outside—can do so either. (I think one might also be able to say this: Wittgenstein says "forms of life", but Cavell says "whirl of organism": maybe this is not really justified, but there seems to be an extra element of arbitrariness when one thinks not of "a congruence of subjectivities" but of the animality of the subjectivities. "Whirl", too, rather than the more structured "form". I mean—it's just a bunch of meat!) And we get enough small-scale intimations of the sort of radical breakdown that seems, therefore, to threaten, with small-scale feelings of disorientation, isolation and self-doubt, that it's possible to feel real vertigo.
The disagreement between the ordinary language philosopher and his more traditional interlocutor is not resolvable by reference to rules or definitions. On the other hand, this disagreement is different from a disintegration like that described at the beginning of this paper, of the practice where all participants have perfect pitch. With respect to such disintegration, it makes little sense to try to revive the practice by entering a dialogue with oneself or with one's peers. If our perfect pitch is gone, then it is gone; verbal exchange will not make it come back. By contrast, practicing the method of ordinary language philosophy, as Cavell conceives it, means keeping the hope for agreement alive. In this sort of case, entering a dialogue is meaningful. Even if there is no guarantee that a resolution will be found, it makes sense to strive for it, and it is the ordinary language philosopher's job to do so.