Mute inglorious Miltons

Colin Burrow seems to be an English literature specialist, but he is no slouch when it comes to the apparently drier terrain of philosophy. The landscape is interesting because its stony eminence matters in the moister glens below this bare mountain that overlooks them, where sheep and people dwell. To put it less colourfully, he has a nose for what is at stake in the material:

Wittgenstein suggested that we could only say someone had grasped the rules of chess when they could offer a ‘criterion’ of having done so, by being able to make the right moves. In lectures I heard that claim developed into an argument to the effect that there were no mute inglorious Miltons out there, because the only criterion of having a beautifully complex thought was the ability to write in a beautiful and complex way. This great denial that the inarticulate could occupy the same world of experience as the articulate struck me as a pernicious falsehood, though it took me some time to realise that if one restricted the concept of a ‘criterion’ of having an emotion to a verbal expression that was the kind of nasty knot in which one might well end up.

Burrow, LRB 44:11,

In philosophy, one cannot cut the cloth of argument to suit qualms such as these; assuming that is that the discipline of philosophy is one whose claims to reflect and sustain ontological truths about how the world works are taken seriously, and not relativised as a mere ideological superstructure; nonetheless the point is telling, and it seems counterintuitive as well as rebarbative that cultivation should change the essence of a person. This can perhaps be seen more clearly by reflecting on one’s own childhood, and children one may know, as an adult.

Nonetheless, there is an elective affinity between intellectual confusion and moral failure, and the latter may be corrected by reason; the view Burrow mentions, and rejects, is a case in point.

Coming then to the question of the redemptive possibility of mutual knowledge, or what might impede it, here is Cavell, from the Lear essay:

If the failure to recognise others is a failure to let others recognise you, a fear of what is revealed to them, an avoidance of their eyes, then it is exactly shame which is the cause of [Lear’s] withholding of recognition.


This is spot on, both as a reading of Shakespeare’s play, and in an emblematic sense, as typical of the failure of mutual knowledge, at times, to fulfil Burrow’s own more optimistic promise:

What I miss from his descriptions of human encounters is the most surprising but best feature of human beings: that in some respects we can know more about another than they know about themselves. […] when teaching you rapidly learn that someone can have a skill or a charm that they don’t know they had, and the main pleasure of talking to others in the key of instruction (when it works), or indeed in the key of friendship or affection, is gently persuading someone else to recognise in themselves what you can see in them: the good, hidden things, the skills denied or the resources suppressed. In this respect, teaching is similar to being in love, when people are often able to see more in the object of love than they can see in themselves, and in a long-term process of understanding another a lover or a beloved can come to see or recognise in themselves the things that initially only the other could see.


Perhaps Cavell would agree it is sometimes possible. I can’t quite decide whether the idea of hostile mutual knowledge is incoherent (as Burrow almost suggests, with all his examples underpinned by good faith) or just morally wrong: that is, is a kindly attitude inherent in the idea of mutual acknowledgement or recognition, and is that the merit of those terms as against “knowledge”, which for Cavell remains behind the veil? That limitation of vision — like the limitation imposed by the materiality of language — would then be a constitutively salutary feature of our human (and humane) intercourse. Sometimes students lack ability or application, children are tiresome, and our friends let us down; but then these would just be situations that need to be got back on track, dysfunctions rather than perversions of mutual human regard. I would like to think so.


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