Thursday, 26 June 2008

Making vs. Having


One thing that I keep noticing and feeling as very significant is a certain vacillation in Wittgenstein's terminology.  Sometimes he talks about a proposition making sense  and other times about a proposition having a sense.  Sometimes he changes between the two in the course of a sentence as in the following quote from the Notebooks:

[I]f a proposition is to make sense then the syntactical employment of each of its parts must be settled in advance.. must be completely settled before that proposition can have a sense!

In his later work, he seems to overcome the view that a proposition has a definite sense that the proposition connects to.  Yet he never seems to diagnose or directly address this slip in terminology as a source of the problems in his earlier work.  In fact, the later Wittgenstein is also sometimes inconsistent with how he talks about 'sense'.  Yet when he is trying to highlight mistakes in this area, he is (and perhaps without realising) does stick to talking about making sense:

“You understand this expression, don’t you?  Well then- I am using it in the sense you are familiar with.”- As if the sense were an atmosphere accompanying the word, which it carried into every kind of application.// …he should ask himself in what special circumstances this sentence is actually used.  There it does make sense.

But why the temptation to slip from one to the other?  Why not only talk about a proposition making sense?  Even in the quote from PI above he seems to talk about 'the sense' of a sentence (or at least a sentence as used in that context).  And if we do need to talk about the sense a sentence makes,or the sense that the sentence 'has', wherein lies the false conception earlier?

In PG he writes:

On hearing the assertion “This sentence makes sense” you cannot really ask “what sense?”

Yet, of course this is a question he asks both early and late.  A word doesn't by right mean this, that or the other.  It is only because it used in this sense or that.  The precise philosophical task (which can be done in the right way or otherwise) depends on explicating in what sense the word is used, and that determines the meaning of the word.

I will write more on this and try to work out where the arguments meet.  I think it is exceptionally important as it gives a way into diagnosing where the earlier Wittgenstein went wrong, without simply assuming he was being dogmatic.  It is one that if he was wrong, it was at a specific point he did so and was a subtle and understandable mistake in the context of a shared goal.  Both were trying to elucidate the sense of a proposition, but something led the earlier Wittgenstein to look in the wrong place for such an elucidation.

Tuesday, 3 June 2008

General Form of the Proposition Part 1: Where the criticism is not


In the Philosophical Investigations, Wittgenstein argues against his earlier claim that there is a ‘general form of the proposition’. Instead he argues that language has a great variety of different uses and there is no one way that a proposition can be used to mean something, or one form of proposition (that of being a truth function of elementary propositions, which are truth functions of themselves) that can have sense. However, Roger White is of the impression that no solid case has been made against the general form of the proposition:

What he does in the Investigations is simply parade before us the extraordinary diversity of uses of language that there are, and invites us to ask whether it is credible that they should conform to a simple underlying pattern, such as he had envisaged in the Tractatus. Here it seems to me a strong case can be made out for saying that his first thought may be nearer the truth than his later one. This is not the place to argue this in full, but I will indicate two considerations to think about. Firstly, Wittgenstein makes no distinction between what a sentence means, and the use to which we put it, and much of the diversity he illustrates in §23 is diversity, in use not meaning. Secondly, it is more than arguable that unless there was a simple underlying system to the language, it would lack the flexibility necessary for it to be put to such diverse uses.
It might seem that the later Wittgenstein believed that in the Tractatus it was simply taken for granted that there was a general form of the proposition. This was assumed, so the thought goes, because there was one use of language and this could be dispelled by: “Don’t say ‘there must…’ but look and see whether there is anything common to all.” This clearly would not do. Firstly, the author of the Tractatus is most certainly aware that there are different uses of language. Secondly, as White argues, it ignores the argument (and not, assumption) of 4.5 that there couldn’t be a proposition whose form could not be foreseen. We can understand propositions that have never been heard before and produce entirely new ones. As such, the most general form of the proposition must tell us ‘This is how things stand’. White argues that translated in this way, it sounds rather banal. It would be better to say ‘This is how things are arranged’: this is what the world would be like if the proposition were true.

In 4.002 he says, “the outward form of the clothing is not designed to reveal the form of the body, but for entirely different purposes. // The tacit conventions on which the understanding of everyday language depends are enormously complicated”. In other words, of course there are different uses and different purposes to which our language is put. More than this, these uses affect our understanding of which thought is expressed. However, it is not this outer clothing that is important (not the way in which a thought is expressed) but the thought beneath it (what the thought is that is expressed). Moreover given that “all the propositions of our everyday language, just as they stand, are in perfect logical order”, there is something that underpins these diverse uses and allows them all to have sense. Whilst there are many forms of proposition, there is only one general form. As such it does no good to simply point out that there many uses of language, because whilst that is true, it doesn’t bear on his arguments for a general form of proposition. As Wittgenstein says in 4.5 “It is clear that only what is essential to the most general propositional form may be included in its description- for otherwise it would not be the most general form”.


First of all, it should be noted that, in a certain sense, Wittgenstein is happy to sanction that there is a ‘general form of a proposition’. That is, there are certain features of a sentence without which we wouldn’t say that it is a proposition. In Philosophical Grammar he asks “Why not?” to giving a general propositional form. He says, “of course, you can’t draw a boundary if you have decided in advance not to recognise one. But of course the question remains: how do you use the word ‘proposition’? In contrast to what?” In answer to this he tells us that “A general propositional form determines a proposition as part of a calculus.” At this stage, it is being part of a calculus that allows a sentence to connect with an extra-linguistic reality.

Even in the PI there are certain features of a proposition that Wittgenstein holds fast to. Indeed, I would go so far as to say, they are the very features that he believes to be part of a proposition in the Tractatus. One could say that “This is how things stand” is co-extensive with the totality of propositions; and part of the reason for doing so is that that is what, in English, it is to ‘sound like a proposition’. It, itself, is a proposition in English that may be alternatively expressed (see §134) “such and such is the case” or “this is the situation”. Any genuine proposition, once we know what it means, will tell us ‘what is the case’. A second feature that he maintains is that a proposition is that which we, in our language, can apply a calculus of truth-functions to i.e. those sentences that can be considered true or false. That is to say that the proposition says something about reality and if that obtains, the proposition is true; if not, it is false.

However, the point being made in the PI is that this is yet to say anything at all. In §134 he says, “To say [about ‘This is how things are’] proposition agrees (or does not agree) with reality would be obvious nonsense”. In other words, it is not itself a proposition, nor does it say what it is for a proposition to have a sense (just that if it is a proposition, it will have one). As for a proposition being something we can predicate true or false of, this is something that “belongs to our concept ‘proposition’ but does not ‘fit’ it.” (§136) We can predicate ‘true’ [in English] of any sentence that says something that agrees with reality but is not a property that engages with a sentence to make it a proposition. To say that a proposition is true, is nothing other than to say what the sentence says (‘p’ is true = p // ‘p’ is false = not-p). He is using a deflationary view of truth. To know what truth means in a particular case we have to find out what it is for that proposition to agree with reality:

The use of ‘true or false’ has something misleading about it, because it is like saying, ‘It agrees with the facts or it doesn’t’, and the very thing in question is what ‘agreement’ is in here. (OC 199)

However, these aren’t immediate criticisms of the Tractatus. The Tractatus never saw ‘This is how things stand’ as a bona fide proposition and in the Notebooks, he grapples with the same worries “But how am I to explain the general nature of the proposition now? We can indeed say: everything that is (or is not) the case can be pictured by means of a proposition. But here I have the expression ‘to be the case’… It is just as problematic.” Nor did he see ‘truth’ as a mechanism that gives a proposition sense. In fact the positions from the PI mentioned above are of the very essence for the early Wittgenstein (and as such, form part of the motivation for there being a general form of proposition). Consider proposition 4.06 and its commentary:

4.06 A proposition can be true or false only in virtue of being a picture of reality.

4.061 It must not be overlooked that a proposition has a sense that is independent of the facts: otherwise one can easily suppose that true or false are relations of equal status between signs and what they signify

4.063 [A proposition] does not designate a thing (a truth-value) which might have properties called ‘false’ or ‘true’.

4.064 Every proposition must already have a sense: it cannot be given a sense by affirmation. Indeed its sense is just what is affirmed. And the same applies to negation, etc.

Here, truth and falsity do not add anything to the proposition; otherwise a statement would have a different sense depending on whether it was true or false. Instead, ‘p’ has the one and the same sense whether it is affirmed or denied (does or does not obtain). Of course, the important question, which the quote from On Certainty stresses, is for us to understand what ‘agreement’ consists in, in the proposition. It is precisely because a proposition must ‘already have a sense’ that we cannot say that the proposition tells us “This is how things stand”. Instead, we need to analyse the proposition in order to find out what it says about reality (what the agreement with reality consists in; what situation is shown by the proposition).

2.22 What a picture represents it represents independently of its truth and falsity, by means of its pictorial form

If the pictorial form shows us the sense of the proposition, independently of its truth and falsity, we must be able to foresee the form of all propositions (i.e. all sentences with sense). As such nothing Wittgenstein says in §134 or 136 undermines the Tractatus argument directly and even helps us see the motivation for it.


It might very well be denied that we have thus far found nothing to argue with about the Tractatus. How about that our propositions must be analysable into elementary propositions? How come the proposition must show its sense by means of its pictorial form or by its form at all? Such requirements were derided in the Philosophical Grammar as a form of chemical analysis trying to reveal what is hidden, where our normal propositions are fine as they are. However, we have not yet found reason for such complaint. It cannot be that we should ‘analyse’ (construed broadly) our language in order to find which propositions make sense. Consider the following:

4.023 A proposition constructs a world with the help of a logical scaffolding, so that one can see from the proposition how everything stands logically if it is true. One can draw inferences from a false proposition

Is this not the point of language-games in his later philosophy? Do we not want to see the internal relations between concepts? Do we not want to see the inferences that can be drawn from various propositions with sense? Cannot this be done even when the proposition is not true?

Secondly, we cannot say that the propositions in such an analysis are not meant to show us what is the case if true, that there are certain forms that can do this and certain ones that are used illicitly and lead to nonsense. Of course, the form is not decided independently of how we use our propositions. Despite this, it must be noted that Tractarian Wittgenstein isn’t saying that the sense of a proposition can be decided without any knowledge of how we use propositions to describe ‘reality’. For example he says, “The application of logic decides what elementary propositions there are. // What belongs to its application, logic cannot anticipate” (5.557). The general form of the proposition tells us that with a perspicuous sign-language we would be able to see what sense is being expressed from the form alone (without knowledge of truth/falsity), and that our propositions can be analysed as expressing one of these senses. However, we would not necessarily be able to construct such a sign language without knowing that certain situations have existed in reality (have been ‘true’).

This is why in theory the ‘general form of the proposition’ can survive his later criticism of the logical independence of elementary propositions. He says in Notes on Logical Form: “It is, of course; a deficiency of our notation that it does not prevent the formation of such nonsensical constructions, and a perfect notation will have to exclude such structures by definite rules of syntax… Such rules, however, cannot be laid down until we have actually achieved the ultimate analysis of the phenomena in question. This, as we all know, has not yet been achieved”. Analysis is not something magical and form does not do anything by itself. The final product should help us see how we actually do use our propositions. The point of analysis is just to tease out the way in which the proposition relates to reality, as this is sometimes obscured by our words.

Tuesday, 27 May 2008

Back to school

[This is a bit rough and repetitive. I'll tidy it up. Please add thoughts]

“Any explanation has its foundation in training. (Educators ought to remember this).” (RPP II)


Why is it important for Wittgenstein to start the PI with a learning situation? I think that it is quite simply this: it is where there is the biggest gap between the intentional and contingent; between meaning and use; between grammar and the connection between words and the world. More specifically, it is where there is the largest gap that is also a linguistically normative situation (where ‘meaning’ is in play).

In the learning situation, the focus of our attention is the child: how do they use words in a particular way? How do they have to use the words to mean what we do by our words? In that way, by focusing on their use in simple situations, we will get a clearer focus on our use of the words. However, whilst they are the focus of our attention, it is the parents who are the guardians of meaning. It is they and their actions in which meaning is grounded, their use of words that give rise to the rules by which a word is meant correctly, and they who create a normatively structured situation. The children’s behaviour isn’t essentially normative; neither does it hook onto linguistically salient features of reality. Instead, it is just primitive behaviour that is, in itself, of psychological interest only.

“Am I doing child psychology? – I am making a connection between the concept of teaching and the concept of meaning.” (RRP II 337). In focusing on how a child learns a word, we are not looking at their psychological reactions for the purpose of studying psychological reactions. Instead, it is a conceptual investigation as to what our words mean; and a word’s meaning does not vary if on two occasions of use there is a psychological difference. Yet, it is certain psychological reactions to objects or situations that underpin our ability to mean this or that. It is these psychological phenomena (that cause the child to utter a word on a particular occasion), which are shaped by teaching and training. In considering childhood learning: a) the meaning is held constant as it is independent of the child’s use and only in relation to this is the child’s use relevant b) the connection between word and reality is purely psychological and it is only through these connections that a word can be meant in the relevant way.


We can look at the importance of the learning situation from a discussion of Wittgenstein’s in Remarks on the Philosophy of Psychology II. In discussing the meaning of “I dread it”, he talks about a child who first uses the word ‘dread’ having heard it from adults. When would we say he meant it? What would be the circumstances? How would we recognise it in his face? He then comments (171), “I chose the case of a child because what is happening in him is stranger to us than it would be with an adult. What do I know- I’m inclined to say- about a background for the words “I dread…”? Does the child suddenly let me look into him?” The answer to the last question is obviously a resounding ‘no’. In a situation where the people in question already have the concept of ‘meaning’, we are tempted to talk about some inner process that is the condition for using the term ‘dread’. But in the case of a child, where we don’t know what goes on inside of him, we are forced to look at external conditions and surface phenomena for the background for the use of the word.

Note that in talking about the child, the external conditions, when the word is uttered etc, I am talking about the background of meaning and not meaning itself. It is still the adults who judge “He meant it” from their perspective as fully-fledged language-users. From the point of view of what is going on in the situation, the child’s use of the word is empirical and contingent. Nothing of a different order happened to what would have happened if he had uttered the word whilst smiling and stroking the dog. In fact, it is the very point that there is nothing a child is doing that is comparable to ‘understanding a meaning’ or ‘following a rule’. It is simply that there is a rule (as held by the parents) that child is following, and that the child’s actions are in accordance with the meaning of ‘dread’ (as given by the adults evaluation of the child’s actions).


The difference between ‘a rule being followed’ and ‘following a rule’ and between ‘a word being meant’ and ‘meaning a word’ is almost imperceptible in adult life. That is because we are both the people whose words are ‘meant’ in the everyday flow of life and those judging what others mean a word as we do. The difficulty then is trebly hard for philosophers who not only do both of these but also have to get a perspicuous representation of what it is to mean that word. However, even in the learning situation, itself it seems that I am guilty of sophistry. After all, the moment the adult says of the child “He meant it” we are (it would appear) saying he is doing something different from before when he merely contingently used the word here or there.

Appearances aside, reflecting on the learning situation should help us see that the child’s use of the word is no different to others, other than that it is the one that will be reinforced by the adults. In a different context Wittgenstein says, “I can teach him to continue a series (basic series) without using any expression of the ‘law of a series’; rather I am forming a substratum for the meaning of algebraic rules, or what is like them.” (RPP II 403). In the same way, in teaching a child to follow a rule, there is no ‘rule for the word’ that is given. Instead, they are taught and trained to mean this or that. This teaching and training forms the substratum out of which the rules for a word can be described.

In adults, although it is harder to see, a similar situation exists to that with the child. Our everyday use of words is entirely ‘normal’ and no more miraculous than walking. As I said in a previous post, we are simply operating with signs. The use of particular signs in particular situations could be explained purely psychologically. Of course, we are not per se ‘interested’ in what we happen to do, but whether we meant a word ‘correctly’. This stands ‘outside’ our actions and we are judged, corrected or even trained in response to them. However, ‘meaning’ does not exist apart from our use of words which act as its substratum. Meaning doesn’t literally ‘stand outside’ use in the way it stands outside the child. It is just that particular uses are held constant or particular uses are the ones that people hold to be ‘correct’. When our words can be judged to be ‘meant correctly’, we are not doing anything different to using them ‘incorrectly’, other than one is judged to be ‘correct’ and the other not.


It may have seemed odd that I started by saying that the learning situation separates meaning from use, and grammar from the connection between word and thing. Yet I think is important to separate these things, and this is part of what Wittgenstein is trying to show us but cannot articulate. He can’t articulate it as in practice, meaning and use are so closely intertwined that, from the point of view of the rules of meaning, the use ceases to be contingent. The ‘meaning’ constrains which use is the correct one. However, this means that use itself is ‘ontologically’ prior to meaning, such that one use rather than another can be judged as correct. Equally, the only way we can talk about the ‘connection’ between word and reality is by laying out its grammar. However, while the grammar tells us which connection we have, the connection itself is psychological. We respond to reality because certain we are ‘caused’ to in particular situations. This psychological connection constitutes the method of projection by which words are ‘related’ to reality in the way the grammar says it is.

In other words, the ‘constraint’ is non-contingent but the ‘constrained’ is. Use, by itself, is unconstrained and is only turned into the ‘use in language’ in a normatively structured situation. Surely then, in considering meaning we should only be concerned with existent normative situations where ‘use’ is ‘use in language’. Quite so. BUT…. If we have a false picture of meaning it is probably because forget that the substratum of meaning is empirical and is only because we are trained to use a word one way rather than another that they can be considered normative at all. In training certain pre-existent psychological connections between signs and reality are reinforced whilst others aren’t. And as with the Augustinian picture, meaning is built on a view of what the method of projection must be: that of responding to presented objects with names. Once we recognise that the methods of projection involved in meaning are built upon pre-existing psychological connections, we will see the hidden and mistaken psychological picture hidden at the base of the Augustinian picture. Many different types of connections underlie our ability to mean different words.

Looking at the learning situation allows us to look at the non-normative in a way that is relevant to what is normative.

Tuesday, 20 May 2008

The head of a 'red herring'


This post is about the ‘red herring’ that is Representational Theory of Mind. It appears that the Tractatus is deficient because it accepts such a theory whilst the later works is at pains to reject this psychological account. I think it is misleading to equate the Tractatus with RTOM where it makes clear that it is up to psychology (and not philosophy) to find out how we come to mean what we do by our signs. It also obscures the explanatory debt psychology has which is later criticised by PI. Secondly, while PI does argue against some of the ontological implications that RTOM may mislead us into taking, this doesn’t mean that RTOM is necessarily a bad psychological theory.

Given the length of what I have to say, and the time it may take me to complete it, I will write it in three separate posts. This post very long by blog standards as it is! This one deals with my motivations for dealing with the questions, what questions are being addressed, and what answers I will be giving. The next post on this topic will specifically deal with the Tractatus and the third with PI.


I am writing this post about the ‘representational theory of mind’ in relation Wittgenstein’s philosophy for two reasons. First, because of a view of Roger White’s (that he has mentioned in passing) that he quite sympathetic to a large point of the Philosophical Investigations, that the Representational Theory of Mind (RTOM from hereon) is false, but that that is quite compatible with a Tractarian theory of meaning. I don’t know whether by this he means:

i) The Tractatus does support a RTOM but whilst that is wrong, it does not mean the whole edifice of the Tractatus crumbles or…

ii) RTOM (or at least, anything that reasonably looks like RTOM) was no part of the Tractatus to begin with. Whilst a) there may be features that resemble the approach of RTOM theorists and b) RTOM is compatible with the Tractatus; it is not a position that the Tractatus endorsed.

Because of this, none of what I write should be taken as outlining his position. However, I will say this much. If he is thinking of i) above, then I believe him to be wrong and will do so on two grounds. First, the Tractatus position does not bear close relationship to anything that is ‘currently on the market’ in psychology. In other words, I will be arguing that ii) is correct. However, the second ground will be the difficulties, the ones that have lead people to assume (incorrectly) that he does accept RTOM, are not escaped by that very denial. That meaning must represent an object and that this must be effected by the mind a) is part of the Tractatus b) is essentially so and c) it is this which is the subject of his later criticisms. In other words, you cannot divorce these problematic features from the Tractatus itself.

What I am doing here may seem very odd indeed. I am/ will be saying that the Tractatus does not endorse a RTOM but does imply a theory of mind whereby the mind is responsible for the representation of states of affairs. Now, the first thing to note is my qualification “(or at least, anything that reasonably looks like RTOM)”. Here the RTOM theories are not any that might be labelled as such for whatever reason, but the theories that actually do go by that name. Now, whilst one might say that a theory of mind that supports a Tractarian theory of meaning as belonging to that category, we have good reason not to. Firstly, such a conflation would lead us to assume that the Tractatus makes philosophical mistakes that it does not, in fact, make. Secondly, there are important differences between W and RTOM theorists in their approach to answering questions about meaning. Sometimes the questions themselves are different. Thirdly, it obscures where the real mistake of the Tractatus qua psychology lies; and thus the target of criticisms in the PI. As such, my approach allows me to accept ii) (above) and yet, retain the feature that is subject to later criticism


The second reason for writing this post (and again this may ‘seem very odd indeed’ given what I have written above) is the way that Wittgenstein scholars ride ‘rough shod’ over RTOM or at least its motivations. That the Philosophical Investigations rules out any sort of RTOM is a bit rash. This may just be a misguided sentimental attachment to (something-resembling) RTOM. My BSc was in Psychology-Philosophy and many of my upper-year modules were in cognitive neuro/science and my dissertation grew out the theoretical backwaters of just such an approach (based on a suggestion I read by Carruthers). However, it is not just sentiment…. there are massive motivations for modularity and for there being innate constraints on the mind’s processing. For example, the evidence that Pinker presents in The Language Instinct for ‘innate language’ is overwhelming and just cannot be accounted for by rival psychological theories like those of connectionism. If mentalese or language of thought is needed to account for psychological thought then so be it. What the philosophical implications of it are, or whatever the wisdom of calling it language; it can help psychologically explain certain elements of language acquisition.

Where people like Norman Malcolm make it seem ‘primitive’ to accept RTOM, I find myself cringing. People like Fodor are far from the psychological dogmatists that they are made out to be. In The Mind Doesn’t Work that Way he basically says that whilst it would be very nice if the brain were fully computational, that just isn’t the case. Certain modules or operations can be defined in terms of their computational structure, the overall working of the brain (e.g. in terms of which information is considered relevant, and where processing stops) cannot be.

Even back then, I was wary of some of the philosophical commitments that RTOM theorists tended to have. For example, in my dissertation I wrote:

Carruthers (2002) disagrees, as he is a realist about animal thought, taking animals to be capable of discrete, structured, semantically evaluable, causally effective states. He argues that the evidence of animal thought above would not be possible without structured propositional thought involving relationships of individuals, properties and relations. Whilst he is probably not correct, philosophically speaking, this does not matter for the purposes of this study, which is empirically based. The problem with the anti-realist models is that, because there is no shared representation between animals and humans, it is far harder to frame empirical hypotheses about how human thought evolved from animal thought. This study did not require that logical structures actually do supervene on neurons or that a computational theory of mind is correct. All it requires is a plausible theoretical framework that can be used to investigate the role of language in human cognition.

In the end I asserted, “A theoretical assumption of this paper then, is that all minds including those of animals and pre-linguistic infants are modular.” The theoretical assumption about modules was intentionally free from Fodor’s philosophy as I talked about modules that differ from each other phylogenetically, ontogenetically and functionally. Here (as I wrote in another essay) “many of the above explanations for massive modularity were biological and do not necessarily rely on a strict computational theory of mind”. However, in calling them modules we do have to accept what Fodor posits as a basic claim of modularity: the presence of “functionally individuated cognitive mechanisms”.

However, as my large quote above indicates I was taking a stronger line than just this. That line was my only theoretical assumption; however, I did take on the theoretical machinery of a full-blown RTOM for the purpose of an empirical investigation. That is, whilst I wasn’t too concerned with the ontological implications of this, that or the other view; I was concerned with predicting and analysing brain function (and in my case, the purpose of language in cognition). I felt a) Fodor’s strict modularity stopped us making empirical investigations about central brain function (which includes language) because of a philosophical quandary b) people who are anti-RTOM for whatever philosophical reason also hamper empirical investigation. RTOM, for good or bad, gives us a framework for understanding the mind which connectionism (or whatever) lacks etc.

Back to the topic of Wittgenstein. I think the later Wittgenstein could accept RTOM minus philosophical confusion. That is, so long as we sort out what the direction of explanation is, get rid of a certain mythology of mind, debunk notions of a mentalese that explains our connection to the world or explains meaning etc. Maybe this is over-stated in that the philosophical assumptions of RTOM theorists are so tied up with their view, that you could not get rid of these and still be called RTOM. Indeed, Wittgenstein would not like it called a ‘theory’ of mind. We could as such call it by a different name. However, what I will seek to show is that the research carried out by psychologists who currently agree with RTOM is certainly compatible with the later Wittgenstein.

Indeed, I would go so far as to say (and this is radical I know and would certainly upset White’s notion of PI’s benefit) that PI is MORE FRIENDLY to RTOM than the Tractatus!!! The very things that I will argue show that the Tractatus is not committed to RTOM, added to the theoretical commitments that psychology must account for in its theory of meaning, will disallow current RTOM research looking anything like a final psychology. It will not furnish the Theory of Knowledge which is required. Where PI removes the explanatory debt of theoretical psychology, it is freer to carry out the research it does. This is especially so, given that the subjects of psychology include things like the subject-predicate form which is part of our ordinary language as conceived by PI.

NEXT TIME (The Body of the Red Herring)… sections IV dealing with ontological claims of RTOM and the claims of the Tractatus that seem similar, V showing where the Tractatus is importantly dissimilar to RTOM, VI showing the troubling ‘representational’ claims of the Tractatus that remain over.

Monday, 19 May 2008

The signs, the whole signs and nothing but the signs, so help me Wittgenstein

Now it seems that it is just common-sense that words have meaning, or at least words are used in such a way that they do. We are not simply uttering sounds, writing marks on paper or rearranging napkins and sugar pots (e.g. when talking about the offside rule in football). It is not enough that I vocalise ‘red’ but that this word has a particular extension, refers to particular objects, is this-or-that idea, has ‘a sense’, or ‘has’ a use. It is not that red is vocalised that is of interest, but that “‘red’ means red”. It is not the words qua sign but the meaning behind the sign.

This, according to Wittgenstein, is a philosophical confusion. To say that we simply do this, or that is not enough, lead us to expound philosophical nonsense. There is no need to look behind the words as “nothing is hidden”. Commentators on Wittgenstein will find nothing new in what I have said so far. Everyone knows that in PI the ‘bearer of a name’ is not its meaning, nor is a particular idea, or sensation, or a sense that surrounds the word like a halo etc. However, this may lead people to conclude that if the meaning is not hidden, then it is on the surface. Rather than being obscure and difficult to grasp hold of, it is simple to see what meaning is. Instead of a substantive notion of what makes something mean red, it is enough to note that “‘red’ means red”.

I think this is a mistake. In a previous post, I have castigated certain commentators for not giving any indication about what they mean by meaning being on the surface. They just seem to repeat the negative critique of particular (substantive) conceptions of a word having a meaning; sometimes with the proviso that no such substantive account may be given. However, as I said there, that whilst I agree on the whole, I have felt no therapeutic effect of this. [My agreement includes denying that ‘meaning is use’ as a substantive notion of meaning:- I will come onto this in a different post]. The reason I feel is this: saying that meaning is on the surface obscures the fact that SIGNS ARE ENOUGH and that there is nothing that we are per se doing other than SIMPLY UTTERING SOUNDS (etc.)

Consider the following:

If I give someone an order, it is for me quite enough to give him signs. And I would never say: this is only words, and I must get behind the words. Equally, when I have asked someone something and he gives me an answer (that is a sign) I am satisfied- that was what I expected- and I don’t object: That’s a mere answer.

Now this at first seems simply absurd for the very reasons I talked about in the first paragraph. Malcolm’s gloss is as follows: “What worries us philosophically is the feeling that the language cannot be enough. You utter some words; I utter some words. Surely there must be more to conversation than just that! Something must be added to words, namely meaning.” But it doesn’t just seem absurd for that reason, but also because it doesn’t seem to square with Wittgenstein’s approach to meaning or what he is up to in PI. a) He wants to see where a word is ‘idling’ (and thus some words don’t idle) b) He wants to distinguish sense from nonsense (thus there is something for words to ‘have a sense’ rather than just being a word or string of words). Etcetera.

Yet the view that signs are enough is that of Wittgenstein. This is not to ignore the two points listed above (or many other related points). However, those questions (questions about meaning) only make sense, or appear to make sense, from a particular perspective. However, this is not a perspective that has much relevance to how we use words in our life. Most of the time when we are conversing, we are simply exchanging signs and not exchanging ‘meanings’. Wittgenstein addresses his opponents: “You say: the point isn’t the word, but its meaning, and you think of the meaning as a thing of the same kind as the word, though also different from the word” Yet there is nothing of this type; there is no word-like thing- only the word. The point may not be the word but that is all one can discover. It is not that the ‘meaning’ is the word, or is on the surface of the word, or just obvious that “red” means red. NO- there is only the sign and no meaning. Of course, there are other things going on in the world (and this is important to remember) apart from using signs: you will see people eating, walking, pulling faces, getting hurt etc etc. The sign is employed in the midst of this life. However, one thing you will not in the world is meaning and this is something W insists on early and late.

Wittgenstein does say: “What interests us in the sign, the meaning which matters for us is what is embodied in the grammar of the sign.” However, the ‘us’ refers to philosophers/ those engaged in a philosophical investigation about meaning and not the ordinary-folk! In such an investigation “We are not interested in any empirical facts about language considered as empirical facts… [but] considered as a game”. That is the point of a linguistic investigations is not about simply what is there, but about a particular way of examining what is there. This particular way is what must be given when a philosopher asks what the meaning, when not in context that the word is usually used (i.e. philosophy seminar). A consideration of the ‘rules of the game’ (looking at words in this way) are not necessary in the flux and flow of life, where words are used without confusion. Words are enough. However, even in a philosophical context it is necessary to get the facts straight- they might not be considered as empirical facts- but nonetheless, the facts are as they are. In this respect: “We are talking about the spatial and temporal phenomenon of language, not about some non-spatial, non-temporal phantasm”. Here there is no phantasmic meaning- only concrete words. Words that are as much a part of our natural history as walking, talking and eating.

The discomfort we experienced in relation to Wittgenstein’s builders (here and here) was that there was no opportunity to express “How d’ya mean?” There was no opportunity to take a particular perspective on the language whereby they could consider its meaning. That is true- there would be no concept of meaning in that situation (at least, they would not have a concept of meaning). Yet that is not a problem as for them- orders are given and the orders are carried out. They expected signs and that is what they got. Our question as philosophers was: given our concept of meaning, did they mean what they said? In order to motivate an affirmative response it wasn’t enough to point to the signs but crucially, we didn’t have to point to meanings either. Instead, we looked at non-linguistic features like looks of puzzlement or a confident smirk in ‘knowing how to go on’. This helps us understand why we would say that something has meaning. Consider the following:

"Is meaning then really only the use of the word? Isn’t it the way this use meshes with our life?”…”So isn’t it something else that constitutes understanding- the feeling “in one’s own breast”, the living experience of the expressions?- They must mesh with my own life.”

“familiarity lies in the fact that I immediately grasp a particular rhythm of the picture and stay with it, feel at home with it, so to speak” .

In other words, signs must have a certain physiogonomy for us. Our use of the words is bound up with images, feelings, dispositions, processes, and states of physical arousal. Certain signs have no sense if they are just signs- they do not mean anything. These psychological connections help us ‘connect up’ the words with reality; with the other elements of our life in which signs are employed. They determine the method of projection. Yet, as we are aware from PI these cannot be ‘meanings’. They are not things that words refer to or accompany them or form part of their content. They are not things like the word but different at the same time. As I said in the previous posts, these are non-linguistic and these contingent, empirical things are not part of meaning. They do however form the background against which words ‘make sense’ in our lives.

Given this non-linguistic background the signs do what they are intended to do. There is no room in our temporal and spatial phenomenon of language there is no space for ‘meanings’ and there is no need for such a perspective to be formed. The builders are fine with their signs. “We regard understanding as the essential thing, and signs as something inessential.- But in that case, why have the signs at all?”

All (emprically-speaking) we are doing is uttering sounds, or writing marks and this isn't a source for worry. Of course, the qualification 'empirically speaking' turns into one of those theses which everyone will agree with. Maybe however it should serve as a reminder of what one already knows. Where does meaning reside? Nowhere. Not even on the surface of the signs.

Friday, 9 May 2008

Elucidation, elucidation, wherefore art thou elucidation?

"When's a door not a door? When it's ajar!"
"When's an elucidation not an elucidation? When its a proposition!"

Okay.... so it's with a sense of puzzlement and a lack of (even philosophical) humour that I write this post. The 'joke' above (or at least it has that ring about it) is about the only criticism I could properly discern from an article of Hacker's about ostensive definition in the Tractatus. Apparently, we elucidate the meaning of an object via ostensive definition. To do this is to balance two contradictory elements: the true-false feature of an ordinary proposition and the supposed feature of an ostensive definition that it can link language to reality.

My attention was drawn to this article by N.N. He is 'inclined to disagree' with my view that "It is no part of the Tractatus account that names get their meaning (the object which is their meaning) via ostensive definition." Now I certainly think that what I put is the orthodox view but not only that, one that seems cogent in light of what else Wittgenstein says/ shows in the Tractatus. As N.N. rightly said, Kenny shares my view (or to be more precise, I share his! He wrote it before me). And I found this quote from Hodges (after I had made the suggestions responding to N.N.'s comment):

One might be tempted to treat elucidation as a kind of ostensive definition, but that would to seriously misread Wittgenstein... it totally ignore his view that only in a proposition does a name have meaning.. Hence, what the referent of a given primitive term is, is necessarily tied up with the meaningful occurrence of that term in propositions. The relation here is internal, and the notion of ostensive definition simply ignores that. it makes no sense to suppose that we can first be acquainted with a simple object and then discover in which facts it is a possible constituent"

N.N. kindly pointed me in the direction of this Hacker article where it is claimed that in the Tractatus there is an 'opaque discussion of (what was later called) 'ostensive definition'. Before reading the article I put down suggestions as to why I would be dubious about this claim. Nevertheless, I was very interested at how such a suggestion would go. It might help an understanding of what in the Tractatus, the PI was arguing against.

Now what caused my sense of puzzlement was that I couldn't find anything much wrong with what Hacker claims that Wittgenstein says; yet I have still not quite sure why he believes that we connect names to objects via ostensive definitions. He even mentioned the positive suggestion that I made in the comments section and which I believe is entirely relevant. That is, there is a kind of mental or intentional ostension between name and object. For example, he says and I agree that "the correlation is mental (intentional) and meaning is conveyed by [elucidations]." But this is not something achieved by ostensive definition in the PI sense of standing in front of the object and saying "This is x" Instead... it is... well... mental. Now if this is wrong, we need an argument to that effect and to show it is that doctrine which is refuted. I could not discern any such criticism, but then again, he probably deals with it elsewhere. However, he argues that the Tractatus is wrong because it has a confused notion of ostensive definition.

This arises (apparently) from proposition 3.263 of the Tractatus:

The meanings of primitive signs can be explained by elucidations. Elucidations are propositions that contain the primitive signs. So they can be understood only if the meanings of those signs are already known

So, they are elucidations in that they ostensively define the objects, they help us explain what is meant by the primitive signs. "This is red" i.e. this is what is meant by red. And... they are also propositions. "This is red" as in the statement that it is not-blue, not-green (someone may have falsely uttered that it is green because they were in bad light and I have corrected them by saying what is true.)

Now, as I said, this is the only direct and spelt out criticism of the Tractatus that the (admittedly quick preousal through) Hacker's article I could find. Whilst ostension in the Tractatus connects language to reality; in PI it simply provides a sample that becomes 'part of the grammar'. As such, if one accepts Hacker's analysis of 3.263 and the PI's arguments about the role of ostensive definition, one can show that the Tractatus is mistaken. Yet, as seen in the context of Tractarian arguments, his analysis of 3.263 is wrong. If Hacker thinks Wittgenstein explicitly held this view, then he has (in my humble opinion) misread the Tractatus. If, on the other hand, and this might be more likely given other comments, that this is only implicit in the Tractatus; then I question the wisdom of his methodology and the charitableness of his interpretation of the Tractatus.

Yes the elucidations are sentences that can act as propositions. It is in virtue of a proposition being able to say that something that is the case (have a sense), that it can show what sense it has (and thus, which objects are involved). Yet, when elucidating they are neither used as a proposition to assert something or to ostensively define something. They are used, as Hacker rightly says to convey the meaning of a sign: "the correlation is mental (intentional) and meaning is conveyed by [elucidations]." In other words, names are mentally correlated with objects (because of which we can say anything at all), but if we want to know which object a name stands for we can elucidate this using propositions in which this sign occurs. Yet there is a simple reason why an elucidation is neither a proposition or ostenisve definition (as opposed to Hacker who thinks its both) is two-fold: 1) we already know how to use senseful propositions 2) we already know the meaning that the sign stands for.

As for number 1, I have already said that is the only in this way know what the internal properties of the objects are. If the sense of the proposition isn't already known, then one indeed may point to the situation and say "This situation"/ "This is x" etc. Indeed, as I said in my comment in the previous post, that one may call this ostensive definition. But it is not ostensive definition of a (Tractarian) object or how a sign is able to stand for an object. When you are saying "This is x" in the Tractatus, you are pointing to a complex or a state of affairs i.e. the very stuff that makes up the sense of a proposition. One may indeed define this complex or state of affairs as being represente by this sign if you want but that is not of philosophical relevance to the issue at hand. The aim is simply to point out which sense it is that we are using for the purpose of elucidation. Granted we understand the sense of the proposition, and are not confused about the logic of our language, we can analyse the proposition into its constituent parts and thus, find out what objects are involved.

As for number 2, the very quote Hacker uses "So they can be understood only if the meanings of those signs are already known". And indeed they are... that is a precondition of using a proposition with sense. However, this needs clarification. The meanings of the signs are known, but not which meaning a particular sign has (the signs in themselves, are abitrary). That is, we are already mentally correlated with all the simple objects. It is they that form the substance of the world. It is the psychic components standing for these objects, 'concatenating' in various ways that allow us to speak with sense (and as said above, we use a proposition with sesne for an elucidation). So Wittgenstein concludes, to be able to elucidate propositions at all, we must already know the meanings that correspond to the signs in its analysed form. Therefore, all that is left to find out is which object a signs stands for and that is done by looking at it as a symbol- the sign in its logical-syntactical role. In other words, we look at the sign as used in a proposition or propositions that have sense. That is the context principle in action and has nothing to do with ostensive definition.

If it be objected that we cannot use a proposition and not know the meanings of its parts, then Wittgenstein explicitly says otherwise in 4.002 "Man possesses the ability to construct languages capable of expressing every sense, without having any idea how each word has meaning or what its meaning is". Hacker presents us with a stark choice that either the two people (elucidator and person being elucidated to) both know the meaning of a sign or their understandings have to meet halfway. In other words, the person elucidating has to 'leave it to fate' whether they understand at all. Yet, this is just not the case. We start from the premise that we can both use a particular proposition with sense but that doesn't mean we know which menaing a sign has. Then, we can both, intersubjectively, and without leaving it to fate, analyse a proposition to see what the logico-syntactical role of the sign is.

Now, as I have pointed out, I agree with Hacker that there are certain similarities between Tractatus and PI. In both we can point to something and say "This is x". In theTtractatus, there are psychic constituents that have the same rolse ostension does in PI etc etc. However, in the context of the Tractatus, ostensive definition itself does not play the role of connecting a sign to reality. Given his talk of mental ostension, Hacker doesn't necessarily attribute the incorrect position to Wittgenstein explicitly. But if this is the case, then Hacker's real sin, is to read the Tractatus as a precursor to PI rather than as a work in and of itself, that is later criticised by PI. As I said, his article says lots of things I agree with plus the occassional comment like "the Tractatus contains a tacit and confused doctrine of ostension". Now you can't simply read a tacit and confused doctrine back into the Tractatus, when there is nothing there that is intended to play that role. If you want to claim something about the Tractatus you have to look at it on its own terms.

one can say that there is something that bears similarity to ostension (i.e. mental ostension), this is a natural consequence of the tractarian view, and the PI shows that anything bearing this role is confused. [Although again, you can't just say that, it has to be argued for.] But one can't say that Tractarian Wittgenstein actually held such a view (confused or otherwise) about signs getting there meaning via ostensive definition. EVEN IMPLICITLY

Tuesday, 6 May 2008

Getting to the bottom of it

If we are to make sense of the PI's criticisms of the Tractatus, it doesn't seem that we can always take it at face-value. Roger White is very much of the opinion that by the time he came back to Cambridge to philosophise, he merely misunderstands the Tractatus positions. Now I don't think that; but it is at least true that what he is attacking are not the final positions of the Tractatus.

Just to name two. It is no part of the Tractatus account that names get their meaning (the object which is their meaning) via ostensive definition. The objects are simple and we cannot say anything about it other than via the state of affairs it enters into. He says that we can talk about objects but cannot put them into words (or something similar). We cannot simply go round naming simple objects whether that be via ostensive definition or otherwise. The context principle states that a name only has a meaning in the context of a proposition. In other words, a name only gets to be a name of an object, in virtue of its being part of a fact. That is, the object named is one which in combination with other objects, constitute the state of affairs pictured. Okay, this could be clearer and I don't have the Tractatus in front of me. But the point is, before analysing a proposition into a concatenation of names, we must first be able to use proposition with sense (as picturing a state of affairs). In order to see which state of affairs is pictured, we have to see how the propositions of everyday language are used.

The second misunderstanding might be that of the nature of the objects themselves. The Augustinian picture has the parent pointing at objects. But these are everyday kind of objects like tables and chairs. Wittgenstein's criticisms of the Tractatus also talk about the objects like excalibur. Now, it is nothing if not clear, that these aren't the objects of the Tractatus. He doesn't talk about tables as objects that would have its own sign in a perpiscuous notation. It might be thought, however, that the criticisms that hold for everyday objects (i.e. criticisms of the contention that we name them and talk about them in combination with other objects) holds for Tractatrian objects too. Maybe. Maybe not. 'Object' is a very deflated notion, and quite frankly we don't know what an object is, other than it serves a particular role in the account. "It makes no sense to ask whether the objects are thing like, whether they are something that stands in a subject place, or are something like a property, or are relations or so on" Moreover, in the final analysis, these wouldn't be talked about as objects at all. In fact, they just wouldn't be talked about. There would simply be signs that are used in elementary propositions. So any compunctions we have about calling names representatives of objects (because of how we do/do not use signs as names for everyday options) may just disappaear.

Of course these may not be misunderstandings. But it is clear we need to ask why critcisms of the Augustinian picture go over wholesale to the Tractatus when the Tractatus doesn't explicitly support the positions being attacked (e.g. that '3' refers to an object). It very much depends on what the target of PI is and I suspect it is one that has little to do with the specifics of Tractatus positions. If it is interested in those specifics, it is in trouble.

Fustration, rudeness and petulant schoolboys

Often reading about Wittgenstein’s later philosophy is incredibly frustrating. We are bombarded with all the things that meaning isn’t and then left in the lurch. Supposedly, the negative critique of ‘theories of language’ are meant to have a therapeutic effect on us. Once we realise that the questions we are asking have no answer, we will no longer be tempted to ask these questions. Indeed, we will not realise them to be bona fide questions at all. Forgive me for saying, but the approach as it stands seems to fail in this objective.

Wittgenstein (let us assume) convinces us that there is no general answer to what meaning is. There is no ‘meaning-body’ of any sort that is grasped. There is no ‘meaning’ in addition to the (sign used as a) symbol. However, even if there is no question about what meaning essentially is, there is a question as to what Wittgenstein’s approach to meaning is. “Okay so we know what we should be against, but how does Wittgenstein deal with questions of meaning?” Now we are not here asking for a definition of meaning but instead this is an exegetical question. What should we say of Wittgenstein’s approach to meaning, and as such what should be ours? It doesn’t seem we can just ignore the question, as we are not discarding the concept of ‘meaning’. Wittgenstein doesn’t abandon meaning and say there are ‘just signs’.

Simply repeating that his approach is to be against account x, y and z seems to smack of being a petulant schoolboy. “We know that! But what are we saying then? [Schoolkid gives no response]” The schoolboy simply rejects every all attempts thrown at him without himself saying anything valuable. He is being a spoilt brat ‘doing down’ all those more nobler than he who are at least trying to give an account. Indeed that is precisely how Wittgenstein appears to many/ most analytic philosophers. The point is perhaps is that we are coming to the conclusion inductively that no sensible exploration of meaning can be given, on the basis of many failed attempts; but without giving any reason why all future ones should fail. To achieve this we would have to say that all such attempts misunderstand meaning but this would suppose there is a way in which we should understand it (as given by W’s approach). So once again, what is it?

Some say he is being a quietist, and thus there is no story to tell about what meaning is. Maybe there is a reason to be a quietist and a reason why all attempts should fail to explicate what meaning is. In this respect it may be better than the previous position but only at the expense of leaving meaning just as queer a thing before (and maybe essentially queer if that is the reason no account can be given). Wittgenstein explicitly says that ‘meaning something’ is not queer.

To account for this, one can go for the not a theory approach of someone like Daniel Hutto (if I remember him correctly). It only appears that Wittgenstein is a quietist because one is still working with the assumptions that we should have rejected. It looked as if there was an answer to be given but also that none could be and hence why it was queer. Give up that framework and no mystery remains. However just saying that is so, doesn’t make it so! This is like being patronizingly told “Don’t worry” when you feel you have something to feel very worried about. This is less the petulant schoolboy and more the stoned university student.

Another approach, along similar lines is the minimalist approach (as in a book I have read by Tim Thornton). Yes in some way “dog” means dog, but let’s get rid of inflated notions of what meaning is. It is perfectly apparent on the surface of language what the meaning is. “Nothing is hidden”. This is like the previous approach we can hang on to meaning if we get onto our false preconceptions and take a minimalist approach. But once again, it seems that the minimalist approach tells us/ shows us nothing at all. Just saying that meaning is on the surface doesn't give any clues as to what that (in a positive sense) means. Wittgenstein talks about the philosopher of language who stares at an object, traces its contours and repeats to himself that it is this that he means. It seems like the same with minimalist: he just stares at the word 'dog' and repeats to himself the word dog, and says to himself over and over 'it means dog'. Now if I say "What is it for me to mean dog" it is less than helpful to be continually told "Can't you see? It just means dog. That's it". If I ever did have a problem, it wouldn't be solved here.

Also, you can't get over the fact that all three accounts (as presented by the authors I've mentioned), when asked to explain their position, still always seem to yield the answer: meaning isn't x, we don't mean y, we can't give an account like z. None of the so-called positions seem to put anything forward. If there is just an underlying faith that once we have had the negative critique we will 'see the world aright' it seems just that: faith.

Now this all shouldn't be taken as me being against Wittgenstein's view or even of the authors/ positions that I have mentioned. No doubt it is true that Wittgenstein held a minimalist account and said that it was the wrong approach to look for a theoretical account. I was just indicating my frustration with the way the account is elucidated. It is like the New Wittgenstineans who says that all nonsense (in the Tractatus) is of the common-or-garden sort. Fair enough. But then they can't just wave everything else away, they need an account of why the Tractatus propositions give an illusion of sense, and of what remains once the ladder has been thrown away. What then can we say about the distinction between sense and nonsense?

As I said, the way they are presented, they don't get far beyond saying anything negative. Yet Wittgenstein does have things to say about how we can find about meaning. First, let me note that I agree with the following point from Kenny that "common to both [philosophies] are two theses of fundamental importance: first, that introspectionist psychology can never explain meaning; secondly, that the ultimate creation of meaning is indescribable". Okay we can never give any superlative fact why this sentence or word means anything at all, or why a particular sign is 'able' to mean a particular thing. Yet, we can say what the sense of the words are. We know who to ask and by what standards we can judge. We know what to be able to do to alleviate worries we have. We know how (empirically speaking) we come attach this label to this object. We know how to find out if something makes sense. We know the arena in which someone means something or other by a sign. We can explicate the concepts and use them to advance our knowledge in various areas of enquiry etc etc etc

Or if we don't know, then these are the things to talk about. If it is not entirely clear how Wittgenstein approaches all these question, then these are the things that need to be discussed. If don't know how to talk about psychology or religion without leading to conceptual confusion, then we need to know how to be able to talk about them without confusion.

For Wittgenstein, the solutions get their background from the problems of philosophy. If so, we must see the original situations in which these questions arose and learn to ask the right questions and give the right answers. Not just to ignore the questions.

Monday, 5 May 2008

Wittgenstein got there first

This is a follow-up to the post about the “silent movie” and Wittgenstein’s building.

In Norman Malcolm’s article “Language game (2)” which I have just read, I have found some quotes from the ‘Zettel’* that would seem to back up a large part of my interpretation. I was showing that the language-game doesn’t, from what Wittgenstein tells us, seem much like a ‘complete language’. However, we could imagine a situation in which we would call it a language. This derives from the ‘pre-linguistic behaviour’ that forms the background of understanding and which is similar in many ways to our behaviour when we ‘understand’. This much we can get from the quotes below. I may have gone beyond that in saying understanding itself is non-linguistic (and not just the background to understanding) and/or that what is understood/ grasped is non-linguistic. I’ll talk more about that another time.

The following is the main one that caught my eye:

(On language game no.2) ‘You are just tacitly assuming that these people think; that they are like people as we know them in that respect; that they do not carry on that language game merely mechanically. For if you imagined them doing that, you yourself would not call it the use of rudimentary language’.

What am I to reply to this? Of course it is true that the life of those human beings must be like ours in many respects, and I said nothing about this similarity. But the important thing is that their language, and their thinking too, may be rudimentary, that there is such a thing as ‘primitive thinking’ which is described via primitive behaviour. The surrounding are not the ‘thinking accompaniment’ of speech.

“I said nothing about this similarity”. Malcolm: “In language game (2) there is nothing that excludes the possibility that those people will sometimes whistle or hum while they work, or nod at one another in good humour, or occasionally make cheerful dancing movements as they come or go”. Once we consider this similarity (which he said nothing about) there is no requirement that ‘we picture them as behaving stolidly or mechanically’. Presumably there is no requirement the other way either, just that we could describe it as a complete language.

One could describe the situation without reference to ‘meaning’ or ‘language’ at all. One might consider the situation as a scientific phenomenon. The only reason we would consider them as thinking is because their behaviour shares certain similarities with ours when we are said to be thinking. In my post I didn’t really mention thinking as such (or any particular assumptions about thinking), but concerned with intentionality in whatever guise that comes. However, the point was similar, that we would only consider it a linguistic phenomenon because of its relationship to our life and language.

“is such a thing as ‘primitive thinking’ which is to be described via primitive behaviour” Here thinking, in my post understanding, is to be described via or in relation to non-linguistic behaviour. It is only via something that is not part of the thought itself (or part of what is understood) that we could say that they are thinking or understanding at all. By noting this behaviour, into which language is woven, can we say the intentional concepts apply (even if primitively)

'The surroundings are not the ‘thinking accompaniment’ of speech'. The surroundings do not accompany the words showing that they are ‘thought’, ‘understood’, ‘meant’. There is nothing super-added to the thought or sentence that makes it any more the ‘secure’ that this or that situation is what the thought is of.

These I just added to make clearer what I had said previously. There were some other ideas that were potentially more controversial (or at least unconventional-sounding) that I slipped. Those, however are for another time.

*As will be already clear from my previous posts, I am not yet overly conversant on books aside from the Tractatus, Philsoophical Grammar and Philosophical Investigations. Whilst I have skimmed many of the others (e.g. Notebooks, Remarks on Philosophy of Psychology etc) it is sometimes hard to know what to concentrate from, as they all appear to the uninitiated like me, rather ‘samey’. It is only now that I am starting this blog, and putting forward arguments, that the dis/continuities and the original context seem more relevant. As such, if there are relevant bits from other books that I don’t mention, please inform me and excuse my ignorance

And in the number 1 spot today... the Augustinian picture of language! Since when?

The quote of Augustine's gets prominence from being the first proposition in the Philosophical Investigations. As such, Baker + Hacker make a lot of it. All theories of meaning thus far (including the Tractatus) are refinements on such a picture. Indeed, I too (I think) make a (big?) deal of it. Yet how much of this was intentional on the part of Wittgenstein and how much was a mere accident of the particular organisation?

After all, it doesn't get this privileged position in other of Wittgenstein's posthumous works. In Philosophical Grammar we don't hear of Augustine until point number 19; then only briefly; and after a few points not at all. In PI itself, there is not much revisiting or further explanation of the relevance of Augustinian much later. Maybe some people with more biographical knowledge of Wittgenstein might be able to say if there was ever a consciously articulated reason why it was moved to the front.

Was it something that was meant to inform the rest of the work, or was it one point among others and simply a convenient place to get going from? If it was intentional, is it the Augustinian picture itself that is the main source of confusion (as B + H might suggest) or is there some deeper problem that manifests itself in the Augustinian picture as well as the other positions that W argues against?

One thing I might suggest at this point derives from the different starting point of PG. That starts by trying to explicate the notion of understanding a proposition. How is it that these signs can be a 'code' to say something about the world? What brings these signs to life? Now these question themselves tempt us to give an account of what is involved in a proposition that is understood compared to one that is not. Here Wittgenstein does talk about language-learning but he says this: "Learning a language brings about the understanding of it". But what is it that is brought about; what is there when the statement is understood to when it is not? W later says "Augustine does describe a calculus of our language, only not everything that we call language is this calculus". Here, as later, W is railing against the view that words and propositions only have one use: to name. However, this seems to piggy-back on a prior, and potentially misleading view on the nature of understanding: that of following or being able to apply a calculus.

In the PI, however, there is no need first to explicate understanding. We are already in a linguistic situation where the words are meant and understood by Augustine's elders. The question is then how the learner can be guided to mean and understand as they do. These will be illuminated by first seeing the situations in which the words are used. In PG, the difference lay in how the words were applied, and what was understood (as he also believed later); there also seemed to be an underlying notion of understanding. Later, in PI, the concept of 'understanding' itself is reliant on what we are brought to understand. The notion of 'understanding' that arrives from Augustine cannot be carried through to all linguistic phenomena.

As such, I find it interesting (how historically compelling, I don't know) that rather than saying Augustine describes a 'calculus', he describes a 'system of communication' in PI. A system of communication does not involve any specific claims about meaning/understanding but that, if it is looked at as a linguistic phenomena (as a language), then we must already consider the sentences as having those features (No need for a piror justificaiton or account). As such, putting Augustine at the beginning allows the least possible assumptions about meaning/understanding and that even so will lead to philosophical confusion.

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Previewing "Wittgenstein's Builders": The hilarious new silent movie

On a train from London to Leeds, I was pondering Wittgenstein’s example. It suddenly hit me that imagining the scenario in a ‘silent movie’ may help us see how the builder’s words could be used with meaning.

Is Wittgenstein right that his example with the builders giving orders could be a complete language? Isn’t Rush Rhees right that there must be learning, discourse and understanding for language ‘to hang together’? Otherwise, isn’t it merely something we are trained to do like monkeys? They just become signals and calls. Much like the ‘rhesus monkeys’ (or at least that is what they are called if I remember correctly) that have something like 39 distinct calls (much more than the amount of words in Wittgenstein’s language game). Each call designates a different predator such a snake or an eagle. When the lookout monkey sees the predator, the monkey makes his call to warn the others.

Now one may call this communication, one may say that this call ‘refers’ to that animal, one may say that one monkey is trying to warn the other animals etc. However, this is only by analogy to language. One would not actually call it language; one would not say that they are saying anything, and if they make the ‘wrong’ call, they haven’t said anything false. It seems they are just following their natural instincts, and if they have learnt what to do (here chimps may be a better example than these monkeys), these themselves follow a preordained pattern. Their calls lack the requisite intentionality; they are not about the objects or aimed at them, in the way that our words are. They are just following certain natural laws and following pre-ordained patterns. Mastering a technique in this sense cannot give us what we want from an account of language. Now I take that to be Rhee’s point… language isn’t like learning a set of rules “See how I talked about snakes, now you talk like me”. Learning language is learning how to say things, not just use sounds at the right time.

Wittgenstein talks of language-games as not only language but also the actions with which they are woven. This could just be a reiteration of the point that when the foreman shouts “Slab!” the builder brings the slab. OR… it could be about the other actions, which help us learn that a word is ‘about’ an object, but which are not themselves part of its ‘meaning’. Through training, we come to understand how are words are applied and in what situations. And it is this understanding (and the corresponding opportunity to misunderstand) that is vital to words being part of a language and not mere calls or part of a calculus.

So there are two equally important points to note. First… understanding is non-linguistic; we can show understanding non-linguistically, correct applications of words non-linguistically, make gestures to indicate our not understanding etc. Second… the flip side of the coin is that for something to have meaning, it (the meaning) has to be completely intra-linguistic. It cannot be ‘tied’ to reality or any particular application, image etc etc etc. I stress ‘particular’, because we wouldn’t get to mean anything without using it and applying it at all or if we didn’t ‘follow rules or going against them in actual cases’. In other words, there must be some application to ‘give life’ to the signs. However, there is no natural/ supernatural ‘meaning-connection’ to reality. The meaning of red is well… ummm… just those objects that are (believe it or not) red! {This is merely a grammatical comment and not a specification of any particular application}

In fact, it is this lack of connection to reality that allows us to use the words to be about this or that at all. We intend to use it in this way (accompanied by non-linguistic action). There is no mindless super/natural pointing to reality; no mindless following of rules. We have to grasp what is meant by the term i.e. what applications are intended, what a word is about. Ummm… not explained well. Let’s say this: the meaning of the word is linguistic, but we don’t want to grasp a ‘meaning’ (which is trivial: just ask!). Instead, we want to grasp what is meant (and this is non-linguistic). Thus, what is meant (the content) is non-linguistic (i.e. we mean something about the world such as about the sky being blue). Of course any specification of what is meant is given by words and thus becomes part of the grammar. But this is why we have to recognise that understanding (grasping) itself is non-linguistic.

Now, given this, we can see how ‘Wittgenstein’s Builders’ isn’t just a learnt response, or a system of calls etc. The words are meant and form a ‘language’. And this is where the example of the silent movie comes in. This is one of the old-fashioned Charlie Chaplin type films in black and white with someone playing the piano in the cinema. Most of the time you just see people and their actions: what they are doing. However, you may occasionally get a black screen with white writing on it. I suppose in presentation it is just like you used to get with the old batman series where you would get a ‘kapow’ on screen (or some similar onomatopoeia). However, the effect is quite different. The words on the screen in the silent movie are the only way to get dialogue across and are used sparingly. So rather than ‘kapow’ you would get ‘Slab!’ Now you can imagine all sorts of (dare I say it) amusing scenarios:

· The foreman shouts ‘Slab!’ pointing at the slab and the trainee builder excitedly (with a look of ‘getting it’ points at something random at shouts slab.

· The foreman then picks up the (heavy) slab and then the builder picks up a different heavy object mimicking the (weary, gritted teeth) look of the builder.

· Once more the foreman demonstrates picking up a slab and moving it to the desired place (x marks the spot), and then the builder starts walking in the right way (the foreman looks hopeful) but walks past it (he had taken exactly the same amount of steps but had a bigger stride.

· The foreman looks exasperated; the builder confused.

· When the builder finely gets it, the foreman does a merry jig (presumably then there would be a suitably funny/ ironic ending to the film such as tripping up over the slab and impaling himself on something sharp, G-d forbid!)

Now, it is of course the case that ‘looking confused’ for example, is something that only makes ‘sense’ from the point of our language and these concepts play no part in theirs. We only say it is ‘confusion’ because it is analogous to what we would call ‘confusion’ in our case. However, this is not a problem for three reasons: 1) calling it a ‘language’ at all is only because of certain analogies with our own (i.e. contains orders) 2) there is no other way to talk about situations involving primitive people or certain animals without representing them in language that has meaning for us 3) If there is a difference, and we(in our language) need concepts such as confusion; then this is the point Wittgenstein is trying to show. In our language the meanings of words aren’t exhausted by things that we can point to!

We are alright so long as we don’t say that the thought ‘I am confused’ crossed their mind. The only words that have meaning are the ones like ‘Slab!’ which appeared in the film. However, this is precisely the point! The other things weren’t signs or symbols and they played no part in what the meaning of the words were. Yet, they are the non-linguistic behaviours on which understanding is based. It shows that the words weren’t primitive reactions to stimuli, but were based on a ‘form of life’ in which words could be used in an intentional way. To call something language, we need understanding and meaning and the builders example plausibly helps to illuminate those concepts.

Sunday, 27 April 2008

Confusion or mistake?

I have, the last couple days, re-read a lot of Philosophical Grammar and the Philosophical Investigations and found may quotes that would prima facie count against thinking that 'understanding' or 'meaning' are in any way psychological phenomena. Yet, and as one would expect from Wittgenstein, you also find quotes that support such an assertion. For example,

To understand is to grasp, to receive a particular impression from an object, to let it work on one. To let the proposition work on one; to consider consequences of the proposition, to imagine them, etc.

What we call "understanding" is a psychological phenomenon that has a special connection with the phenomena of learning and using our human language.

Now a major problem with Wittgenstein is understanding which 'voices' are his own and which are those of an interlocutor, opponenent or 'intermediate self' (one where W is putting forward an instinctive view of his own ['I would like to say'] to be later refined.) I find that this is easier to work out in the Philosophical Investigations where his opponents views are more often than not put in quotation marks. In Philosophical Grammar, I am constantly wondering whether views in the regular flow of the text are his or not. However, that may be an artifact due to his thought being in a transitional phase.

Despite this, I have no reason to doubt that the above quotations are his views. Perhaps others may care to disagree. He here links psychology to 'learning' and 'use' which, as I said in the previous post, are crucial to understand later W's views. And the 'use' in 'using our human language' is not denoting what he sometimes calls 'use in language' or at least I think not. That is the use that is internal to the grammar of the language. Instead, it is looking at 'use' as part of 'what happens' in using our language. And these connections don't seem to place 'psychology' as some mysterious mental process. I approve!

However, my excitement at this quote slightly abated as I read on. He goes on with a long paragraph detailing why we shouldn't consider 'remembering' a meaning as 'seeing it in the mind's eye' (the usual stuff!) and then says the following:

The psychological process of understanding is in the same case as the aritmetical object Three. The word 'process' in the one case, and the word "object" in the other produce a false grammatical attitude to the word

Now this is the question as is often the case with Wittgenstein: is it wrong to call some concept x, or can it just have misleading consequences? It seems here that it is not wrong to call understand a psychological matter; it is just that we may take the false grammatical attitude (the emphasis on attitude is his, not mine). It is not necessarily wrong when used in connection with 'use'; it is only misleading when we misunderstand the grammar of 'understanding'.

If it does have misleading or confusing consequences, is there a way to use the same word without those misleading consequences? This is especially pertinent with regard to 'understanding and psychology': we are much more likely in every day language to call understanding a matter of psychology than we are to call 'three' an object. Whilst Wittgenstein will completely avoid using a term that he believes leads to confusion, this could be seen as overstatement on his part. Language that is confusing in one context can be perfectly clear in another.

The everpresent question: can we talk psychology without creating a myth of symbolism or psychology?