Monday, September 08, 2008

Form and Error

Wittgenstein, knowing no financial necessity, had no such creative dialogue between form and error.

Richard Sennett
The Craftsman (p. 258)

Much research today is done with the support of a grant and is expected to be completed within a specific period. These projects are subject to external constraints that do much to establish the "form" of today's research practices and their written expression. An important effect of these constraints has to do with how you react to error.

Sennett devotes part of The Craftsman to a comparison of two houses in Vienna: the house Ludwig Wittgenstein built for his sister in Kundmanngasse and the Villa Moller, built by Adolf Loos. "When the foundations were not laid as specified, [Loos] could not afford to dig them up and start again; instead, Loos thickened the form of one side wall to accomodate the mistake, making the thickened wall an emphatic side frame for the front" (p. 258). Wittgenstein, by contrast, was not just building a house: "I am not interested in erecting a building, but in ... presenting to myself the foundations of all possible buildings" (p. 254)*. (Yes, that looks a lot like Wittgenstein's early philosophical project, but more on that some other time.)* So, as Sennett notes, he found himself having to rebuild a part of the house in order to raise the ceiling about an inch. He was working without constraints because his client was his sister and both of them werehad been heirs* to one of the largest fortunes in Europe at the time.

Loos had no such luxury, and it is his example, not Wittgenstein's, that we are therefore bound to follow. (In philosophy, I sometimes think, we are likewise bound to follow Heidegger's example rather than Wittgenstein's for the same reason. Again, more on that later.) Once the foundations of your project have been laid, you can't just tear them up if they don't give you what you need—or rather, what you thought you needed. You have to rethink the building on the foundations you happen to have; you can't keep tearing them up and starting over. You must establish a "creative dialogue between form and error".

*Do read Presskorn's very illuminating comments and corrections below.


Presskorn said...

As you probably know (?) Wittgenstein was indeed explicitly talking of his philosophy and not of building Gretl's house when he wrote "I am not interested in constructing a building, so much as having a perspicuous view of the foundations of possible buildings".

The sentence is part of a sketch for the foreword to "Philosophical Remarks" – it was omitted from the final draft foreword to "Philosophical Remarks" reprinted in that book, but it is found in the scattered remarks collected by Winch in Culture&Value, p.7.

I am not at all sure that this sentence is significant for the method of the ‘early’ Wittgenstein – In fact, I tend to read it (given its proper context) as one first indications of his ‘later’ method. But that is a highly exegetical matter, and here I’ll just take note of an interesting (translation) technicality that your post made me look into:

Note that Sennett is using an un-authorized (or at least unknown to me) translation of the sentence ("I am not interested in erecting a building, but in ... presenting to myself the foundations of all possible buildings") instead of the given Winch-translation ("I am not interested in constructing a building, so much as having a perspicuous view of the foundations of possible buildings").
The original German is: Es interessiert mich nicht, ein Gebäude aufzuführen, sodern die Grundlagen der möglichen Gebaude durchsichtig vor mir zu haben.

Sennett uses ‘erecting’ instead of ‘constructing’ in rendering ‘aufzuführen’, which actually seems more correct, and uses ‘but’ instead of ‘so much as’ in rendering ‘sondern’ - but the interesting thing is the difference between a ‘presenting a view’ and ‘having a perspicuous view’.

The Winch-translation is quite obviously projecting the later method of ‘Ubersichtliche Darstellung’ into this early remark form 1930 by rendering ‘durchsichtig’ as ‘perspicuous view’, which is of course is one of the translations of ‘Ubersichtliche Darstellung’.

On the other hand the Sennett-translation seems plainly incorrect in rendering ‘durchsichtig’ as ‘presenting’ – for one thing; ‘durchsicht’ is an adjective primarily meaning ‘transparent’. Strangely enough, this use of ‘presenting’ also seems to carry the projection of the method of ‘Ubersichtliche Darstellung’ into this early remark given the representation/presentation-ambiguity of ‘Darstellung’.

I am not sure what would be a better translation, though:
And yet, just now, I like the slightly more literal one:
“To erect a building does not interest me as much as having the foundations of possible buildings transparent to me.”

PS: On a biographical note; It’s highly incorrect to say that Ludwig and Gretl were both heirs to one of Europe’s largest fortunes, when Ludwig designed her house in Kundmanngasse – Gretl asked Ludwig to work on her house in December 1925 and this work commenced in the summer of 1926. At that time, they were not heirs to anything; Karl Wittgenstein died in January 1913 and had made his both children and his wife, Leopoldine, heirs to his estate. Ludwig, however, transferred the entirety of his heritage to his siblings (actually except Gretl, who was deemed ‘allready too rich’ by Ludwig) as of September 1919. But his employer, Gretl, was of course immensely rich.

Thomas Basbøll said...

As always, I defer to your exegetical (and biographical) scholarship.

Perhaps: " much as to have the foundations of possible buildings transparently before me."

I've corrected the biographical blunder in the post. But I will insist that Wittgenstein, even when not working for his sister, was beyond financial constraints (in a way that Heidegger was not). Giving away his fortune did not change affect his lifestyle. He lived exactly as he chose; had everything he wanted. (BTW, it was inheritance, not his heritage, that he transferred, though I like a pun as much as the next guy, of course. And I guess I'm saying that, in practical terms, he could transfer his inheritance—i.e., his wealth—as little as he could transfer his heritage—i.e., his culture.)