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?

Thursday, 24 April 2008

A working definition of psychology?

'Psychology', I'm sure the later Wittgenstein would suggest is a family resemblance term. But then so is 'use' or 'explanation' or 'proposition' and we would not hesitate to (cautiously) use these words to explicate his position. Yet psychology may be a dirty word for Wittgenstein, one that leads to a lot of confusion, and so given little shrift. It does, however, play a big part in his critcisms of his earlier work and so a healthier conception of psychology (one would imagine) in a positive account of his later work. As such, I need a working definition that the later W would be happy enough with to discuss this important topic- and this is where help is needed! Perhaps it will be decided psychology isn't even the right word- it may be better to stick to talking about 'methods of projection', 'the contribution of the learning situation to meaning' or 'how meaning is related to our form of life' the like which is closely connected. However, psychology (maybe wrongly, depending on what people say) is a way to encompass all of these which are equally vital but only swiftly dealt with.

I want to suggest- in ways as yet unspecified- that the change in Wittgenstien's philosophy is due to a difference in his view of the role of psychology. I'm not talking here just in terms of how he describes psychological concepts or in terms of a negative critique of how meaning is given in terms of what goes on in the 'mysterious gaseous medium' of mind. Of course, these are both relevant to W's philosophy in terms of both methodology and outcome. NO... instead, I think psychology does play a positive role in giving signs meaning, in forging a connection between proposition and reality.

This is not to say that in either the Tractaus or PI that some or other psychological mechanism EXPLAINS the ability for this particular sign to attach to this particular object, fact, complex; whatever i.e. there is no psychological element that acts as an intermediary between a sign and a thing that accounts for the connection between the two. When a sign is meant it 'reaches right out to reality'. This is to say that the subject 'psychology' can't discover a meaning fact. It cannot disect the brain, see nerves fire and go "aha, that's the real meaning of anger; that's what anger after all is" .

BUT.. in general if there was no willing subject there would be no 'meaning one thing by another'. Just as no man depicts his portrait and no facts depict anything, signs by themselves don't mean anything (no matter their logical multiplicity). It is only through use/application/thought or whatever it is that I/WE do with the signs that turn them into a proposition. And whatever names we may give for different purposes ('metaphysical self', 'empirical self', willing self etc) it is the one and the same concrete, situated person doing the willing, the representing, the understanding and the empirically investigating. (This is indeed the person that is the subject of psychology). Now whilst psychology cannot tell us what meaning something, in essence 'is'; it can tell us how we came to mean this or that.

The point, of course, may be conceded and yet considered unimportant. Indeed this what Tractarian Wittgenstein does i.e. psychology may be how we connect this sign to this 'thought' but plays no part in explicating what is meant by a word. This is what I will be out to convince people otherwise. Wittgenstein had in mind a very specific kind of psychological connection assumed in the Tractaus (as part of the Augustinian picture). That is, a particular method of projection. Half of the battle is just showing that the connection (as I have said the earlier Wittgenstein might not wish to deny) is a psychological one; a particular empirical connection formed between subject and environment. This is because, when he later criticises the Tractatus, and talks about the different 'uses' of language, he is not criticising one or other theory (even Hacker's proto-theory). Instead, it is a picture (as illustrated by Augustine's learning situation) of how 'reality is caught in the net of language' that is being criticised. When learnng to use different words or speak different sentences, different kinds of psychological connection will be set up between the subject and his environment. These different connections no more become part of the meaning of the words as how it was learnt defined the meaning of the sentence on the Tractarian view. However, it does form the background for us being able to mean anything at all, and will influence the method of projection.

Anyway... that all needs to be clarified. I'm not clear on it myself. The point is that my views do in some sense relate to psychology, or at least that is the word that suggests itself to me when thinking about the issue. But... psychology is perhaps not the best words. I can't find a suitable definition of psychology that cuts across both works and is informative. Is it (or better: does W use it as)....

  • that which is studied in academic psychology?
  • the subject of folk psychology?
  • mental states and processes (or those generally considered as such)?
  • that which is concerned with the objects of our intensional attitudes: expecting, ordering etc?
  • the development and behaviour of individuals within their environment? (i.e. how nature and nurture make people do what they do)

Obv. these aren't mutually exclusive. In fact, they generally cover the same things. Yet it is a bit hard to give any positive elucidation of later Wittgenstein's view of what counts as psychological. In a lot of his writing about the philosophy of psychology he is just looking at the clarification of the meaning of certain terms used or studied by psychology like pain. He is looking at the grammar whilst I'm looking at the processes. Secondly, a lot of the things we might traditionally call psychological are by him 'taken out of the mind'. Thirdly, he is overly cautious so as to avoid misunderstanding; only giving critique of particular psychological theories and never stating that it does play a role. He wouldn't be comfortable with me saying that meaning results from psychological processes as these are contingent and empirical. They do not form part of the grammar of meaning x. It is no part of the meaning that we were taught with this or that object in front of me, or had this image in my mind. As such, no time or space is given over to discussing what it means for there to be a method of projection or ever expanding on 'form of life' or 'natural history of humans' or the importance of the learning situation. That is, even though it is these that, whilst meaning may be internal to grammar, connect it to the world.

Ummmm..... any suggestions welcome