Sunday, 19 April 2009

My Thesis: Section 5 (/end)


‘Something far away’

The GFP embodies a particular conception about the understanding of propositions, which can be revealed through analysis. All propositions are truth-functions of elementary propositions (TLP 5) which tell you what is the case if they are true. These express the thought that simple objects are concatenated in a certain way. However, “language disguises thought” which means that as the multiplicity of thought is hidden, we cannot see the connection between the proposition and reality. When completely analysed, however, “a thought can be expressed in such a way that elements of the propositional sign correspond to the objects of the thought” (TLP 3.2). In this way, the proposition manages to line up with the thought it is expressing. Given that “A logical picture of facts is a thought” (TLP 3), the proposition reveals itself as a picture of a situation in reality, where there is a one-to-one correspondence between the elements of the picture and the objects in the world.

For the Tractatus, then, language, thought and the world are all constructed according to a common logical pattern (TLP 4.014). If these are made to line up, there is no further question we can ask about the proposition’s logical relationship to reality. All we can do is see whether the proposition is true or not. This is the view criticised in the Investigations:

Thought, language, now appear to us as the unique correlate, picture, of the world. These concepts: proposition, language, thought, world, stand in line one behind the other, each equivalent to each. (But what are these words to be used for now? The language-game in which they are to be applied is missing?) (PI 96)

What is the complaint here? What he is pointing to as a weakness of the Tractatus is what we above highlighted as a (seeming) strength. On my interpretation, the strength and weakness derive from the same source: the presence or absence of the ability to elucidate the sense of our ordinary propositions. For the Tractatus there is no need to express it in this way as we could express the same proposition with any sign. Indeed, a propositional sign with the right multiplicity may have no use in our language (we wouldn’t know what to do with it). However, if the sort of analysis envisaged in the Tractatus is feasible, then it reveals the content of the proposition as the terminus of such an analysis (as envisaged by the GFP). On the other hand, if we can’t say how it applies to our propositions, then what is the use of accepting the GFP? What was positive is now negative: no further questions can be asked. It stops us saying anything about the relationship between the proposition and reality or what makes it true.

Indeed, it is the inability to see how such an analysis might proceed, that made Wittgenstein think his earlier position was empty. Consider the following:

I spoke as if there was a calculus in which such a dissection would be possible. I vaguely had in mind something like the definition that Russell had given for the definite article... At the root of all this was a false and idealized picture of the use of language. (PG p.211)

In PG he says that we can elucidate the sense of certain expressions through the use of definitions. In such instances it will help us see the connection between different concepts, see the logic of that language-game and remove misunderstandings. However, firstly, it would be a mistake to say that this could apply to all of language. Secondly, to the extent that one can dissect a proposition into logically more basic ones, it becomes a ‘problem of calculation’ as to whether the proposition is elementary or not. By this he means we must have a method of discovery whereby we could discern/calculate whether it is further analysable or not. It is precisely because we don’t have such a method for the majority of language, that it is misleading for the GFP to talk about thought being disguised or hidden. As the quote testifies, he thought something like Russell’s definition applied to the whole of language. In relation to this he says, “I saw something far away and in a very indefinite manner, and I wanted to elicit from it as much as possible”[1].

Something very close

Given what I have said above we have to ask why he was so confident of it earlier. Was he ignoring ordinary language and did he simply suppose that we could break down propositions into elementary ones? Would it have bothered him that we can’t see how such an analysis would go or would have merely stated it must be like that? Consider the following:

The strict and clear rules of the logical structure of propositions appear to us as something in the background- hidden in the medium of the understanding. I already see them (even through a medium): for I understand the propositional sign, I use it to say something. (PI 102)

He is referring to such passages as “the understanding of general proposition palpably depends on the understanding of elementary propositions” (TLP 4.411). We are able to understand all sorts of propositions, including ones we have heard for the first time, even though we can’t spell out its projective relation to reality. Equally, we didn’t have to have any new ‘logical experience’. As such, palpably the ingredients were there for understanding the proposition and I know how to put them together to form the thought. Here, my understanding can be brought to light but not in the sense of telling me something I didn’t already know. Instead, in terms of using the medium of language in such a way that logically makes clear what I already know.

In these passages we don’t see analysis as far off and distant but which we must say is there anyway. On the contrary, they seem directly relevant and they feel as if they are contained within my understanding of ordinary propositions. As I argued in the previous section, analysis is only possible because we already know the meanings of the parts of thought. In this way, at each stage of the analysis, the proposition will recognisably be the proposition being analysed. As such, it would certainly be a concern if there was a disconnect between analysis and our understanding, if there was no method of discovery, or if we couldn’t see how it would be applied in the situations in which we use the proposition. The logic of propositions are not ‘out of sight’ but seen through the medium of language, in its application to the world.

The argument then is that it wasn’t dogmatism, as such, about logical analysis or a focus on an ideal language that led him down the path to the GFP. Instead, it was caused by the very real way in which we explain the sense of a proposition to someone. That is, we either point to the situation, point to a picture of it, or explain how things are in that situation. Through this, the person being explained to manages to grasp the sense and is then able to use it appropriately. This requires the person to understand the parts and how they are put together in the sentence. As far as it goes, that account is fine. However, the philosopher then takes that picture, image of the situation or whatever, and says to himself “This is true”, “This is how things are”. Then s/he starts to believe in something like Russell’s theory of descriptions where either we know the elements of the picture by acquaintance or by description.

Now, I said that it was fine in as far as it goes because i) we do understand a proposition because of the words that make it up and ii) pointing to something (for instance) can help us grasp the sense of a sentence or the meaning of a word. However, this is where the Augustinian picture comes in with a philosophically naive conception of what it is to ‘grasp a sense’. We begin to feel that what is grasped is something given in the proposition, or by the explanation or through the pointing. However, we don’t grasp the meaning individually or exclusively through any of these things. These things only manage to do against the background of the rest of language. If we look at the wider context of language, it is harder to see how digging down below its surface helps us become clear about how we are using the propositions.


The GFP, in theory, is simply what is shown through the analysis of language and the uncovering of what we already know when we understand of a proposition. What we will find will differ with each proposition and can only be discovered as the end-result of a process of analysis. However, the kind of answer is given once-and-for-all in advance of such an elucidation. He later believes that if we look at the conditions under which our propositions make sense, we will no longer believe that all propositions can be elucidated in the same way. One reason he had earlier thought it could is because of a prior conception of what understanding a proposition consisted in, brought about through a particular way they are explained. Once we read his critique of the Augustinian picture of language, this motivation is undercut.

[1] Wittgenstein to Waissman as cited by (Monk, 1990) p. 183

Monday, 13 April 2009

My Thesis: Section 4, Part 2

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Leaving it to chance

What then if we reject the view that simple signs were elucidated via ostensive definition? One should certainly agree with Kenny that in the Tractatus “he is saying is that the understanding of names and the understanding of propositions stand or fall together.”[1] That is, you cannot have facts without things, or things without facts. This much I agree with but it doesn’t explain the import of elucidations. How do they explain the meanings of simple signs? Let us return to the dilemma from Philosophical Remarks where the elucidation “This is A” is either a proposition or a definition. Most commentators take Wittgenstein to be endorsing the first option only: elucidations are fully fledged, true-false propositions. For example, McGuiness says the following:

..teaching can only be carried out by means of complete propositions or complete thoughts. The learner has to grasp these as a whole, and, when he has done that, he will have an understanding of the primitive signs contained in the proposition.[2]

We cannot explain the meaning by pointing at the object, but have to provide ‘illustrative examples’ (White’s translation of Erlauterung[3]) of propositions with the name in. In taking this view of elucidations they firmly ‘bite Wittgenstein’s bullet’ in saying the following: “We must then leave it to chance whether the other catches onto the meanings of those sentences, which is something that can only be done by grasping the meaning of the name.”[4] [5]

This accords with my view in that 1) one can learn whole propositions without first learning the meanings of the simple signs and 2) in learning a proposition you will ‘grasp’ the objects involved in understanding it. As such, if there was already a perspicuous sign-language with the right logical multiplicity, and elucidations were there to help you to understand or speak that language, one is taught complete propositions and it is left to chance whether you catch on.

The meanings of the sign are already known

Everyone in the debate about elucidations has been focusing on a learning situation where we come to learn what a word or a proposition means. It is as if we were learning language for the first time and we had to ‘grasp’ what was being said. Given this, it has been seen as an obstacle to explaining the signs that “they can only be understood if the meanings of the signs are already known” (TLP 3.263). Either an ostensive definition is needed to connect language and reality or it is left to chance whether the learner catches on. However, this is to ignore the context of the passage about elucidations. What is of interest is not how we came to be acquainted with simple objects or have the ability to form elementary propositions in the first place. To the extent that we can speak language at all, we have those experiences and that ability. What is of interest is how we come to know what objects are involved in a proposition as the end result of analysis. We can see this from the fact that 3.263 is a commentary of “In a proposition a thought can be expressed in such a way that elements of the propositional sign correspond to the objects of thought” (TLP 3.2).

3.263 starts from the fact that we already understand how to use the propositional sign and that with it, we can already express that particular thought. Ex hypothesei, if we know the thought we know the objects of thought. Given that a thought is a picture of a state of affairs, we not only know the objects but how they are related in that state of affairs pictured. The objects are the ‘logical co-ordinates’ through which the situation is projected into the propositional sign (NB p.20). Given this, the last line of the passage is seen as an advantage: it is because we already know the meanings that 3.2 is possible. The point is that we do not need any extra information in order to lay out the sense in which a proposition is used. We fully understand a proposition if we use it correctly but the thought can be expressed in such a way that it is clear that it is a logical picture of a fact. In line with the argument throughout the essay, the Tractatus is looking at how we can display the logical features of a proposition in a way that is logically perspicuous.

In making the above argument I am making a distinction between knowing that a simple sign ‘A’ has [object] A as its meaning, and knowing the meaning itself (i.e. knowing A). Of course, if we understand an analysed proposition understanding the simple sign is to know its meaning. In such situations, it would be nonsense to ask which object is the meaning of ‘A’ (‘A’ is the same sign as ‘A’). However, the distinction needs to be drawn for the following reason. We can know the meaning of a sign (i.e. be acquainted with the object) without a) knowing that in a particular notation, ‘x’ has that object as its meaning b) having any sign in my notation (i.e. English) which specifically names it. It is this kind of implicit knowledge of objects and understanding of elementary propositions that I’m claiming are necessary for analysis. However, until the analysis (philosophical elucidation) itself is performed, I am unable to name the objects. Equally, I would be unable to use the analysed proposition without it being explained which object is named by the signs.

How the last stage of analysis is supposed to be achieved- where somehow we are brought to recognise the simple sign names an object we have grasped all along- is as mysterious as any other part of the analysis. That we are able to (at least theoretically) express the proposition so it lines up with the objects of thought was seen as a demand of logic.

A last look at Philosophical Remarks

As Hacker finds ostensive definitions of simple objects to be found in the Tractatus he believes that the Investigations’ criticisms of ostensive definition hit their target, and as Kenny doesn’t find it there he thinks the Tractatus has been misrepresented. However, why, in looking at the passage, must we take “This is A” an elucidation of a Tractarian simple? Would it not be more likely to be something like “This is red”, “This is a ball”, “This is Neil”? Nowhere in his earlier work does he talk about observation statement in relation to simple objects. Where he does talk about ‘pointing’ in the Notebooks, it is about the kind of things above which we are obviously acquainted with. These may indeed be the simple elements of representation, (i.e. simple signs in not further analysable propositions) if the later Wittgenstein is correct. However, whether such propositions are fully analysed is precisely what is up for dispute.

In both periods, ostensive explanation can help us grasp the way ‘red’ is used but for different reasons. Earlier he believed that ostensive explanation revealed our ability to pick out a state of affairs as being ‘red’. However, given that the state of affairs may not exist, the ability does not consist in ‘red’ being a simple element of representation that refers to something red. If, despite this, it helps me grasp the contribution of the word to the sense of a proposition saying that ‘something is red’, it must be analysable by other terms I understand. One is able to elucidate it in this way because the objects of thought are already latent in my understanding of such sentences. After all, I understand the meaning of the sign as I can use it in propositions to assert the truth and falsity of states of affairs.

Here ostensive explanation doesn’t provide the elucidation, it is what is in need of elucidation. It gives me an intuitive grasp of its meaning: it means just that. It needs to be elucidated to yield its objective content. The point of the GFP is, however, that whatever the rules of the logical structure of language are, we are already in command of them. I think this better explains the following: “Logical analysis and ostensive definition were unclear to me in the Tractatus. I thought at the time there is a “connection between language and reality”[6]. Ostension made it seem that there was a connection between language and reality but didn’t reveal what it was; logical analysis reveals that connection. Later he believed both were flawed. “This is ‘red’” is either a proposition or definition. If the former, we could pick it out because we already knew that to be red (because we know how red is used in language). If the latter, then it becomes is part of grammar rather than by revealing reality.

[1] (Kenny, 1974) p.5

[2] (McGuiness, 1981) p.70

[3] (White, 2006) p.61


[5] I’m not putting all three in the same boat except to say understanding the names come with understanding the proposition. McGuiness thinks it absurd that we could simply be acquainted with a singular object as we only ever sense a concatenation of objects. For Kenny and White it is possible that we can point to a thing.

[6] Wittgenstein in 1932 as cited in (Hacker, 1975) p.608

Saturday, 11 April 2009

My Thesis: Section 4, Part 1

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As I said on the introduction, the version I have here is not the one that I eventually handed in.  If I remember correctly, I changed this one more than most.  But it give you a good idea...

4- Elucidations and ostensive definitions

In the previous two sections we have looked at the questions to which Wittgenstein’s critique of the Augustinian picture of language and his earlier analysis are addressed. Broadly speaking, both look at how we make clear the contribution of a word to the sense of a particular utterance. The word in both cases played its role as part of something larger: for Augustine as signifying part of the thought and for the Tractatus as contributing to the sense of a proposition. However, there was a difference in the two cases. A main facet of the Augustinian picture- ostensive explanation- is aimed at explaining- or making known- the meaning of our words from one person to the other. How, as a matter of fact can the content of our thoughts be communicated in such a way that another person can grasp what we mean? The Tractatus, on the other hand, was interested in giving a philosophical elucidation in which we can make the sense of our utterances reveal their connection to reality. Whilst this is a matter of understanding, it is done in a way free of an individual’s psychology. My argument in this thesis, as I have intimated, is that a particular view of explanation misled the direction that he though elucidation must take. This section will advance this argument by exploring how the understanding of a proposition brought about by ostension provides the explandum for analysis.

As I have been emphasizing, understanding a proposition and using it with sense does not entail that I have an analysis of a proposition. Wittgenstein says, “Obviously propositions are possible which contain no simple signs… nor do the definitions of their component parts have to be attached to them” (NB p.46). On the other hand, he says that a proposition is “understood by anyone who understands its constituents” (TLP 4.024). Here then, understanding the proposition comes along with understanding the parts but, in analysis we can only come to the parts through what we understand about the proposition. This requires us to think about the proposition in some way to fix that as the object of investigation. We need an independent grip on the proposition in order to evaluate what role the parts contribute to the whole. This cannot be given through laying out its parts as that can only be investigated once we have the thought in focus. Luckily, he tells us that unlike simple signs, with propositions we can make ourselves understood (TLP 4.026). Maybe this involves pointing at a picture, or at the situation that makes it true etc. If through these we fully grasp the thought being analysed, we will automatically (but sub-consciously) be aware of the objects.

Here then is the position I have been putting forward that philosophical elucidation relies on what is ‘grasped’ in non-philosophical explanations of the sense of a proposition. What is grasped is something ‘given’ by the explanation such that it was an alternative way of presenting the same thing. This can be further seen from the passage we quoted from in section 2 about two ways of giving a sign meaning: ostension (which gets outside language) and definition (which relies on other signs with meaning we understand). On this view, both are equivalent in understanding the expression and our ability to use the sentence with sense. However, the distinct advantage of ostension is that it brings us to grasp the meaning of the term non-linguistically. It brings us to an intuitive awareness of what is being thought about in the first place and acquaints us with the objects of thought. The Tractatus is not concerned with ‘reaching outside language’ in this intuitive way but elucidates the state of affairs through analysis into its constituent parts. Consider this:

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. (TLP 3.263)

Here elucidation is made possible as we already know the meanings that the primitive signs will stand for. They were present in my intuitive conception of the proposition all along. We manage to reach parts that themselves reach out to reality. It makes clear what was already there in our notion of ‘how things stand’ given in our explanation of a proposition.

Ostensive definitions and Tractarian objects

I will have a look at another interpretation both of the role of ostensive definitions and its connection with the passage about elucidations. This position is one that is very much connected with what I called the ‘orthodox view’ of the Augustinian picture that I laid out in a previous section. We know how to use language, on this view, because words are ostensively correlated with objects. Hacker advocates the position that this view is present in Wittgenstein’s earlier thinking claiming that “the Tractatus contains a tacit and confused doctrine of ostension”[1]. Nowhere in the text does it talk about ostension or ostensive definition but this may simply be due to the fact that it didn’t exist as a technical term when the Tractatus was written. Hacker believes the passage about elucidations provides a clue that the view was indeed there. Discussing this view is not only worthwhile because it is differs from my take on ostensive definitions and elucidations, but for two further reasons:

1. If this view is to be found in the Tractatus, then the Investigations is aiming at a clear target and is meeting it head on. As such, the Tractatus and the GFP would be undermined to the extent that Wittgenstein’s criticisms of a view of ostensive definition linking language to reality are correct. This, if it could be substantiated, would be a more clear-cut refutation than my criticism. For me, a) ostensive definition remains pre-theoretical and b) the criticisms wouldn’t show the GFP to be false but would just say that it doesn’t meet the real need of elucidating the sense of our propositions.

2. Secondly, those who think the passage about elucidations does not contain a doctrine of ostensive definition, think that the Investigations misrepresent the Tractatus. For example, Kenny agrees that 3.263 is the closest thing you will find to ostensive definition in the Tractatus, but concludes that it isn’t about that after all. As such, he is led to conclude that “The criticism of the role assigned to ostensive definition quite passes by the account briefly given in the Tractatus.[2]

As such, both the view put forward by Hacker, and its critics share the premise that the Investigations aims to criticise the Tractarian view that names and signs are connected by ostensive definition. This shared premise is one that my answer avoids. However, let’s start by examining Hacker’s view.

Wittgenstein says that “Elucidations are propositions that contain the primitive sign”[3] (TLP 3.263). Hacker contests that the type of proposition Wittgenstein envisaged fulfilling this elucidatory role is one of the form “This is A”. The simple signs to be elucidated are names (TLP 3.202) and “A name means an object. The object is its meaning” (TLP 3.203). As such, pointing to an object and naming it helps convey the meaning of a simple sign. In recognising what the person is pointing to, I form a mental connection between the sign and that object. Therefore, on the view that Hacker ascribes to Wittgenstein, the elucidation helps form a connection between language and reality. In this way we learn all the internal properties of an object and so how to use it in propositions. This view would help explain a comment that Wittgenstein later made to Waissman, “Logical analysis and ostensive definition were unclear to me in the Tractatus. I thought at the time there is a “connection between language and reality”[4].

Hacker draws in support of the view that the Tractatus used “This is A” as an ostensive definition the following passage:

When I explain to someone the meaning of a word A by saying ‘This is A’ and pointing at something, this expression can be meant in two ways. Either it itself is a proposition and then can only be understood if the meaning of ‘A’ is already known, i.e. I have to leave it to fate whether the hearer will grasp the proposition as I meant it or not. Or the proposition is a definition.[5]

Hacker notes how similar the second sentence is to 3.263, which shows that he did take his elucidations to be true-false proposition. However, if this is all an elucidation is it would leave it to chance whether people grasped the meaning of the sign, and as such would fail to explain it. It would no more be a elucidation than the use of any proposition. Thus, he takes it that Wittgenstein also took it as a definition. As such, Hacker believes ‘This is A’ in the Tractatus is “an ostensive definition ‘seen through a glass darkly’, misconstrued as a bipolar proposition”[6]. Propositions tell us about reality (i.e. does a state of affairs obtain in reality or not) whilst definitions tell us about the meaning of a term. In confusing these two functions, Wittgenstein believed that the meaning of name (including its possible combination with other names in propositions) was determined by a feature of reality (the internal properties of an object).

The context principle: a prima facie case against ostensive definitions

At 3.3 Wittgenstein states his version of the context principle: “Only propositions have sense; only in the nexus of a proposition does have a name have meaning”. I will primarily focus on the logical question that the context principle is seeking to address. In doing so, we will see that there is no explanatory need for ostensive definitions of simple objects in the Tractatus. As such, whilst dubious, I will not demonstrate that one’s attention cannot be brought to bear on a particular object or that (empirically speaking) a connection could be set up between a word and a thing by pointing at it and uttering a name. However, these questions will remain firmly in the domain of psychology and not of interest to the author of the Tractatus.

The logical import of the context principle can be taken in a weak or strong way. It could be saying that for a sign to be a name, we must know how it combines with other signs in a proposition in order to be able to state a fact. However, if this was all that the context principle was saying, then it would just be reiterating what had already been established. That is, the sign by itself is of no logical interest and wouldn’t be called a name. A sign only has the logical status of a ‘name’ in being an abstraction from a semantic fact. The key role of language, according to Wittgenstein, is that it is able to state facts. Through his picture theory, he says that for a proposition to represent a state of affairs, its elements must be arranged in a determinate way. The simplest elements ‘stand in’ for objects, and the way they are arranged show what is the case if the proposition is true. Here a name just is the simplest element in the representation of a picture.

This makes it implausible that we could come to know that a sign meant an object simply by pointing. That is because, in order to know that it is the meaning, I would have to know that the object can enter into all the states of affairs that the sign can. Thus, it could be argued that to know the internal properties of an object, I have to know how to use it in senseful propositions. However, an argument can be made out that this is backwards. That is, we know what senseful elementary propositions are because we know the combinatorial possibilities of objects. This is something that we learn by being acquainted with the objects in question. It can be pointed out kennen, the German word Wittgenstein uses for ‘know’, has a strong sensory connotation. Malcolm compares this to Russell’s objects of acquaintance.[7] As such, when he says “If I know an object I also know all its possible occurrences in states of affairs” (TLP 2.0123) he may be saying we learn the meaning from being acquainted with the object. If someone draws attention to it when saying a name, we will know what propositions it can take part in, because we know the combinatorial possibilities of the object it denotes.

However, the (logical) claim that is being made by the context principle is stronger than the one mentioned above. Firstly, it doesn’t just say that we have to consider a name as being capable of being in a proposition but that it actually has to be considered in one. Secondly, it talks about a ‘name’ and not simply a sign. Thus, consider a bona fide name: a sign that in a logically perspicuous language can combine with others to form a proposition. In standing in such a relationship to other names, it has a meaning and refers to an object. However, taken by itself and considered in isolation, it doesn’t refer to an object. This gains support from the commentary on the context principle:

TLP 3.31- I call any part of a proposition that characterizes its sense an expression (or a symbol)... An expression is the mark of a form and a content.

TLP 3.341- An expression has meaning only in a proposition.

Here it can be seen that a name is one such (or even the fundamental) expression. Wittgenstein says in relation to simple objects “It is form and content” (TLP 2.025). As such, a name contributes to the sense of an expression by standing for, or symbolizing an object. Given 3.341, a ‘name’ doesn’t mark a form and content when used by itself, as it doesn’t contribute towards the sense of a proposition.

[1] (Hacker, 1975) p.607

[2] (Kenny, 1974) p.6

[3] This presumably doesn’t mean all elucidations contain the primitive signs, but the ones that are concerned with explaining the primitive signs (the final stage of analysis). If all philosophy consists of elucidations (4.112) he can’t be suggesting that we reach the end of analysis straight away. Presumably there will be stages of analysis where each elucidation is less logically complex than the previous one.

[4] Wittgenstein in 1932 as cited in (Hacker, 1975) p.608

[5] (Wittgenstein, Philosophical Remarks, 1975), section 6

[6] Hacker (1986) p.77

[7] (Malcolm, 1986) pp. 8-10


Tuesday, 7 April 2009

My Thesis: Section 3, part 2

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The target of the criticisms

Given what I have said above, a criticism of the GFP must recognise that it aims to uncover the logical form of thought. However, on my interpretation, not only do the criticisms in the Investigations recognise it but they depend on it. It is its very inability to uncover the depth grammar of our propositions that render the GFP empty. When we are implored to look, we are not being asked to look at the surface of language but we are being asked to assess whether analysis, as conceived in the Tractatus, can help us understand the logic of our language. What we need to remember is that the depth grammar, or the body of thought, resides in understanding how we use the proposition with sense. For a philosophical elucidation to uncover the meaning of a proposition, what is uncovered must already be there in its application. As we learnt from TLP 4.112, philosophy cannot discover facts about reality or produce true propositions which justify what sense something expresses. Instead, it can only logically clarify the thoughts that are already expressed/ expressible.

When he highlights that “‘p’ is true = p”, he is pointing out that unless we are able to discover the way in which ‘p’ is used then all we have done is enunciate a rule for signs. That is to say, we have remained on the surface of language rather than looking at how propositions symbolize. This is important to point out in order to guard against two potential errors. The first is that the later Wittgenstein held a purely deflationary or redundancy theory of truth, if by that we mean “that the sole explanation that can be given of the notion of truth consists precisely in the direct stipulation of the equivalence thesis”[1]. On the contrary, coming to know the sense of a sentence comes along with knowing how to assert its truth. In fact, his earlier work comes under criticism for ignoring how truth is used in relation to actual cases in our language. The point being made is simply that “’p’ is true = p” is all that can be said advance. As Winch says, “the real work is done by a detailed examination of how it is applied in particular cases.”[2] We can’t start with a notion of truth and then say something is a proposition only if it fits that mould.

The second error to be avoided is the mirror-image of the first, although it is slightly more complicated. It would be to say that in the Tractatus he had a specific notion of truth that a proposition must fit. In the Notebooks he said ““p” is true, says nothing else but p”. There is nothing further to know about what it is for a proposition to be true once one knows its sense. Here, one could only add ‘is true’ to a legitimately constructed proposition and all propositions are so constructed because they have a sense (TLP 5.4733). To see the sense clearly one has to see in what way it is a logical fact and this means uncovering its ‘logical scaffolding’ (TLP 4.023). After this, the only thing left to find out is whether the proposition is true and to do that one must compare it against reality (TLP 2.223). Either what is shown by its sense obtains or its negation does. Now I said it is more complicated. That is because he does have a substantial view of what it is for a proposition to be true or false. This is because of a particular pre-philosophical conception of what it is for a proposition to tell us ‘how things stand’- that there must be an agreement between something in the propositional sign and something in the situation. However, in the GFP this finds expression, not in a theory of truth but in how we can lay out the sense of any proposition in such a way that it can be compared to reality for truth and falsity.

Logic and understanding

I am claiming that, the Tractarian position that there is a GFP amounts to the view that the sense of our sentences is manifest in how we use them and that logical analysis can uncover what the sense is. It is then vulnerable if we are not given a method for uncovering the logic of our everyday propositions in this way. If so, the GFP fails by its own lights. Such an analysis might be surprising if we take it to tell us something substantial, a priori, about the nature of propositions. As Wittgenstein says, “The general propositional form is the essence of a proposition” (TLP 5.471). Moreover, it is something abstracted from the particular content of a proposition or its internal structure. This is because, in giving the ‘essence’ of a proposition, the GFP informs us what it is in virtue of which a sign can be regarded as a propositional-sign in the first place. In other words, it gives us a necessary feature by which our words have content (are about something) rather than being gibberish. For Wittgenstein, this investigation is directed towards looking at the logical syntax of our language, the status of logical constants, and how propositions are formed, one from the other. This is due to the contention that “logic covers everything that is necessarily true, and so can be said in advance of experience; or to put this in the old terminology, everything that is a priori[3]. As such, in claiming that the GFP is all that can be said in advance about a proposition having sense, it is the ‘sole logical constant’ (TLP 5.47).

The view that meaningful language depends on its logical form is a view that bears the impress of his predecessors, Frege and Russell. Consider that it seems necessary but not sufficient, in understanding the sense of “The ball is red”, to understand its constituent expressions. We also need to understand how, in the sentence, the expressions are put together; and this depends on certain semantic rules. These rules embodied in ‘logical syntax’ will show why we understand “The sandals are red” but not “The sandals are red and green” or “The good is red”.

In what way though does having a thought then depend on logical laws? Consider this quote from Frege:

In this way it is shown that our eight primitive names have denotation, and thereby the same holds good for all names correctly compounded out of these. However, not only a denotation, but also a sense, appertains to all names correctly formed from our signs. Every such name of a truth-value expresses a sense, a thought[4]

It looks like first we could have signs with denotation, and then if they are correctly conjoined, they have a sense. However, if at first we only knew the denotation, we would only know it and not know anything about it (e.g. its present conjunction with other objects in a fact; the logical role its name plays in any true proposition). How then can we use them in a proposition to state a fact? After all, a proposition is not just a blend of names and only a [propositional] fact can express a sense. As such, we would also have to be in possession of logical laws that tell us how we can put the names together in such a way that they can match the way things in reality in combine. Sandals are the kind of thing that can combine with redness whilst good isn’t.

In this regard, there is a tension between Wittgenstein and his predecessors. Consider that for Frege, logic has “the task of discovering the laws of truth, not the laws of taking things to be true or of thinking”[5]. Here logic is prescriptive: if one wants to think logically, one should put the signs together according to certain rules such that it expresses a thought. However, as Wittgenstein points out, one cannot think illogically (TLP 3.03-3.032). If logical form defines the limits of sense, it delineates what can be said and thought. To think illogically would require us to transgress that limit (i.e. to think what cannot be thought). Thus, the logical laws cannot be merely prescriptive but present in our ability to think and use language in the first place.

This leads Wittgenstein to believe that we couldn’t know the denotation of signs independently of their role in a proposition. The reason is that we our understanding of the components and how they are conjoined would not be enough for the proposition to have a sense, but also the fact that it is a legitimate combination. However, whether a proposition makes sense cannot depend on whether another (the one about whether they can combined in this way) is true. If it were otherwise 1) it could turn out we were thinking illogically if the proposition of logic turns out to be false and 2) we could only be said to know the sense to the extent that we became acquainted with the logical constants through logical analysis. This, as I said, is unacceptable because we can’t think illogically and we don’t need a logical analysis to use our propositions with sense.

Given this, we can only look at the logic of our language by seeing analysing how we use propositions with sense. We start with thoughts- propositions we understand- and then see what role the parts play in that rather than vice versa. To cut a long story short, the propositions at the end of analysis must be of the sort where there is no question whether they express a sense. That is, they don’t depend on any external logical glue that says that the simple signs can be in that combination. These elementary propositions show their sense (how things stand if it is true) through their components parts; and to know the meanings of the component parts is just to know the propositions it is possible for them to take part in. We can’t know their denotation independently of the possibilities of logical form. Given that through repeated negations on sets of elementary propositions we can derive the other logical constants, and because negation is an operation (something that we do) rather than representing anything there is no external logical glue needed for language to represent at all.

Here it is clear that in the Tractatus “’p’ is true”, doesn’t give us any more information than ‘p’ and nothing tells us what it is in virtue of which language makes sense, that is separate from our ability to use and understand language. The GFP doesn’t rely on any logical glue that allows our propositions reach out to reality. As McGinn says, the GFP “is given as soon as language in which we express judgements about the world is given. In acquiring language we have already grasped the general form of the proposition, that is, we have already grasped the whole of logic”[6]. This is something that Wittgenstein realises in the Investigations and is re-iterating. “This is how things are” and other formulations of the GFP are pseudo-propositions which give us nothing other than what is given in the individual sense of elementary propositions. They are not something stated but only shown in how we use our propositions with sense. If the GFP isn’t what is revealed by the elucidation of language it reveals nothing at all.

[1] Dummett as cited in (Winch, 1981) p.164

[2] (Winch, 1981) p.161

[3] (Pears, 1971) p.46

[4] Frege, Grundgesetze der Arithmetik, section 32 cited in (McGinn, 2006) p.242

[5](Frege, 1997) p.326

[6] (McGinn, 2006) p. 240


Monday, 6 April 2009

My Thesis: Section 3, part 1

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So far we have shown that there is a certain intuitive conception of what the content of the language is, that this is a plausible candidate for his criticisms of the Augustinian picture and that it bears similarity to his pre-Tractarian conception of how to use language with sense. This section will develop the argument by asking two further questions. How far can this conception be seen as influencing the arguments for the GFP? Secondly, in what way does Wittgenstein’s criticism of the Augustinian picture relate to his explicit critique of GFP in the Investigations?

The answer to this will be started in this section and continued in section 4. The criticisms will point out that phrases such as ‘This is how things are’ and ‘This is true’ are only informative in relation to a proposition, given a conception of what the understanding of that proposition entails. That the Tractatus thought that “This is how things are” was the GFP, meant that he had held a particular conception of what it is to understand a proposition that held regardless of a propositions specific content. It finds expression in the Tractatus in terms of us being able to say in advance what the final form of elucidation of any proposition will take.

The explicit criticisms in the Investigations

There are many passages in the Investigations that are relevant to understanding why Wittgenstein later repudiated the GFP, but I will stick to three in which the GFP is specifically mentioned.

1. It ignores the diversity of language (§65, §66)

Wittgenstein believed that philosophical confusion often arose as a result of “an unbalanced diet: nourishing one’s thinking with only one kind of example” (PI 593). In §65 he criticises the GFP by casting his net over a rather wide net of examples. Perhaps it could be considered too wide given that he focuses on linguistic phenomena that prima facie have nothing to do with propositionhood. He refers back to the various sorts of language-games set up in §23. These not only include ones we recognise as propositions (e.g. describing an appearance), or borderline cases (e.g. requesting) but also making jokes and guessing riddles. In focusing on language-games in general he is implicitly arguing against his earlier claim that “The totality of propositions is language” (TLP 4.001). Discovering the essence of a proposition was designed to meet the challenge of finding something common to all language. In the hands of his interlocutor it is reneging on this task that makes him exclaim “You take the easy way out!” Yet, in parading such a variety of language-games in which our words make sense, he bids us “don’t think, but look!” (PI 66): can we see some common element to language? On the one hand, it is hard to see what this has to do with how a word contributes to the sense of a proposition; or whether they share a general form or not. On the other, it makes us question the relevance of finding a general form of propositions for how we use our words with sense.

2. ‘This is how things are’ sounds like a proposition (§114, §134)

“This is how things are”, §114 tells us “is the kind of proposition that one repeats to oneself countless times”. In doing so we come to believe that we come to grasp the essence of a proposition but “one is merely tracing the frame through which we look at it”. Given that it is a phrase that we can use in relation to any proposition, we are misled into thinking that it illustrates a feature they all share. We try to extract from it what a proposition is when abstracted from any particular content. By itself, however, it is just shorthand for the state of affairs in question or a placeholder where a proposition would be. The example Wittgenstein uses is “He explained his position to me, said that this were how things were, and that therefore he needed an advance” (PI 134). Indeed, this can be considered a propositional variable but it does not have any content of its own. It plays no more of a role as a propositional variable than ‘p’ or ‘This is how the cookie crumbles’ and no one would call those the general form of the proposition. The reason we are misled by “This is how things are” because it sounds like a proposition having a subject-predicate form.

3. ‘Truth’ belongs to but doesn’t fit a proposition (§136, §137)

PI 136 affirms certain basic continuities with the Tractatus and yet downplays their relevance for insisting there must be a GFP. The continuity is the idea of the bipolarity of the proposition: it must be capable of being true or false. PI 136 thinks it perfectly apt to say that truth belongs to our concept ‘proposition’. However, he seems to believe that his initial conception of truth was too inflated. Wittgenstein invokes the metaphor of truth as engaging with a proposition, in the way one cogwheel engages with another. If you add ‘is true’ after a sentence and it fits, then it is a proposition. It seems that he took this metaphor as being inherent in the Tractatus, and now renounced it as misleading. The only way ‘true/false’ could fit a proposition is in the way L fits the sequence H, I, J, K....(PI 137) It so happens that in our language L comes after K; likewise we happen to predicate true/false of propositions. Far from illuminating the nature of a proposition, it (as a relevant passage in Philosophical Grammar says) “merely enunciates a rule for signs” (PG p.161) in the following way:

‘p’ is true = p

‘p’ is false= not-p

It is correct to say that the way in which a proposition represents reality must leave it open whether what is asserted obtains or does not obtain. That is, the proposition must have a sense independently of whether it is true or false. However,

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.

The criticism in the Investigations means to point out that, in merely being part of the concept of a proposition, it gives us no information as to how it represents reality. Nor does it help indicate that a proposition could only agree or fail to agree with reality in virtue of a single form.

Looking at the use?

The above criticisms seem to charge the early Wittgenstein both with some fundamental oversights and of building his positions on the basis of a few catchphrases, definitions and pseudo-propositions. The Investigations seems to suggest that had he followed the maxim “don’t think, but look!” (PI 66) he wouldn’t have made those mistakes. In seeing the diversity of language, he would have seen the many contexts in which language makes sense, the different ways propositions can be viewed, and the variety of propositions we can predicate truth and falsity of. Thinking about the questions “What is language?”; “How can we state something about the world?”; “What is the nature of the truth-relation?” may provoke the philosophers’ ‘craving for generality’. Looking should avert this craving and lead us to focus on the particular case. The object of investigation should be the temporal and spatial phenomenon of language and not some non-temporal, non-spatial phantasm.

The problem with the above invocation is that if we are to look, what are we looking for? Seeing the diversity of language does not automatically invalidate the view that there is a GFP. It depends on how it bears on the questions that the Tractatus was looking to answer and how it went about answering them. What is it about ordinary language that is relevant in rebutting the answers given? This is especially pertinent given that Wittgenstein was fully aware that language had diverse uses but decided this wasn’t relevant to the question at hand. He drew the line between meaning and use at a particular point. While we may indeed use language to make a joke, the words must already have a meaning for us to be able to do this. In the Tractatus, it is only a word’s contribution in a propositional context in which its meaning (what it is about) is determined.[1] Even if this last point is incorrect, we cannot show that there is no ‘essence of language’ simply by drawing our attention to different uses without discussing its relevance to a word’s meaning.

The same issue arrives even if we restrict our focus to the variable forms that our propositions seem to take. What are the relevant features of our actual use? Wittgenstein, in the Tractatus, realises that propositions have various (external) forms and this may depend on the circumstances in which it is used. In 4.002 he says, “Language disguises thought... the outward form of the clothing is not designed to reveal the form of the body, but for entirely different purposes.” What matters is the thought expressed by the proposition and not the external form of clothing. Logical analysis will reveal the logical form of the thought- and so, how the proposition is used with sense. He may be- and as I will argue in this essay, is- wrong that analysis will reveal propositions to have the same form. However, the mistake is not that ordinary doesn’t seem to have the form he earlier proposed. He later made a similar distinction between ‘surface grammar’ and ‘depth grammar’ (PI 664). The surface grammar is how the word is used in the construction of the sentence (the part ‘that can be taken in by the ear’); the depth grammar is what, when revealed, makes the meaning clear. It is the purpose of philosophical elucidation to reveal this depth grammar. In both periods this meant removing or ignoring the accidental features of the proposition and only looking at the parts that contribute towards the sense.

[1] He doesn’t later reject the distinction between meaning and use e.g. PG p.189. However, a word’s meaning can only be ascertained in terms of its contribution to the wider context of life and language, and not just propositions.


Sunday, 5 April 2009

My Thesis: Section 2, Part 2

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Textual evidence


There are many passages in the Notebooks where we see the meaning of a word or sentence being explained by ostension. One conspicuous passage is an imagined situation is where someone tries to press Wittgenstein to give an account of what “The watch is lying in the table” means. Which situations count as the watch lying on the table and which don’t?

If someone were to drive me into a corner in this way in order to shew that I did not know what I meant, I should say: “I know what I mean, I mean just THIS”, pointing to the appropriate complex with my finger. And in this complex I do actually have the two objects in a relation.- all this really means is: The fact can SOMEHOW be portrayed by means of this form too (NB p. 70)

Here we know what we mean by the proposition but to explain the sense of the sentence we may have to resort to pointing to the fact in question. That is, we point to a situation where it is ‘true’ that the watch is lying on the table. Not too much should be read into the passage as ostension does not take the place of philosophical analysis. Understanding the sense of the sentence does not consist in a relation between a sentence and a fact, set up by ostension. Indeed, the fact can only ‘somehow’ be portrayed by pointing and doesn’t give a philosophical elucidation of what this consists in. However, for all practical purposes ostension serves to adequately explain what is meant by bringing us to understand the content of the proposition (whatever that consists in).

Returning to the view that, in our language, single words get their meaning from the information they help convey; we see that much the same applies. We can see this from his perplexity, in the Notebooks, as to how to account for the meaning of word like “knife”. We not only use the word meaningfully in propositions such as “the knife is in the kitchen” but also understand the specific contribution the meaning of ‘knife’ makes to it. This can be shown by our understanding that the above proposition differs from “the cat is in the kitchen”, by it being the knife and not the cat in that position. Now, it seems that the most unambiguous way to say what it is that ‘knife’ means is to gesture to a knife itself. That this is so, influenced how Wittgenstein thought an elucidation of the meaning should go. It led to his initial temptation to think of the object of acquaintance as the reference of the term:

When I say “’x’ has a reference” do I have the feeling: it is impossible that “x” should stand for, say, this knife or this letter? Not at all. On the contrary.// A complex just is a thing! (NB p.49)

This is a view he came to reject.[1] This is because “the knife is in the kitchen” may fail to be true, not only because the knife isn’t in the kitchen but because there is no knife. If the ‘knife’ refers to the knife, then in the second case the proposition would be nonsense. There would be nothing of which we were stating that it was in the kitchen! The Tractatus correctly says that such a proposition wouldn’t be nonsensical, but simply false (TLP 3.24).

Now whilst he didn’t think the knife was the reference of term, I think it significant that he was tempted. This is because “even if the name “N” vanishes on further analysis [because it doesn’t signify by itself], still it indicates a single common thing.” (NB p.60) It is something specific in the ostensible situation that “N” manages to pick out. Wittgenstein talks about the fact that any particular watch that we ostensively define may have different constituents but there is something the same in all instances. This fits well with the earlier suggestion that understanding a term involves a thought-process that picks the common element out. Of course, its ability to do so has nothing logically to do with any particular act of ostensive definition. We know that in the end, Wittgenstein thought a sign signifying a complex was defined (TLP 3.24) and it signified via the signs that served to define it (TLP 3.261). However, why should one take the meaning of ‘watch’ to be the sense of a sentence asserting that a watch exists, in the first place?

Philosophical Grammar

The key points that I have been making also find support in the Philosophical Grammar. This will help to illustrate that not only were these issues relevant to the Tractatus but the very ones that he began to believe led him into trouble. Wittgenstein says ““That’s him” (this picture represents him)- that contains the whole problem of representation... What is the connection between ‘N’ and N himself?” (PG p.102) The ingredients we have here are the following:

a) a single sign [‘N’]- used as a picture or representation of a state of affairs (i.e. a sign considered as a symbol and not just a set of marks )

b) the state of affairs [N]- that which is so pictured

c) a situation where someone:

             i) can [purportedly] switch his attention between a) and b) above.

             ii) understands that ‘N’ means N

             iii) Considers the connection that allows this to be the case

It is with iii) that the philosophers’ elucidatory task begins. However, ‘the decisive step in the conjuring trick’ has already taken place. Why assume that the meaning of ‘N’ lies in the connection between the sign and a particular state of affairs in which it can be used? This arises from our being able to explain the meaning of ‘N’ by pointing at N itself. Where Wittgenstein italicises something (‘him’) it often means that it is (at least potentially) ostensible. It seems that our thought can reveal/ mentally point at the very state of affairs itself without our thought being determined by our prior use of the sign. The content of ‘what is thought about’ is then considered the meaning of ‘N’ and thus, its contribution to the sense of a sentence of which it is part.

The position outlined above, is the one that in Philosophical Grammar he comes to believe as a core problem. He asks “Doesn’t the misunderstanding consist in taking the meaning of the word “red” as being the sense of a sentence saying something that is red?” (PG p.135) In order to be used in a proposition, it must already have a meaning. This depends on the contexts in which it is used and its interconnections with other concepts. Later he asks, “can’t we represent it [red] in painting by painting something red?” (PG p.209) and answers, “No, that isn’t a representation in painting of the meaning of the word ‘red’ (there’s no such thing)”. The next line gives us a valuable cautionary note, “Still, it’s no accident that in order to define the meaning of the word “red” the natural thing is to point as a red object”. Part of explaining the meaning of red is in pointing to a red object but the meaning doesn’t consist in being a picture of a state of affairs.

[1] Suggesting he did think this would undermine my take on the Augustinian picture that purpose of ostension isn’t to correlate words with objects.


Friday, 3 April 2009

My Thesis: Section 2, part 1

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OK.... Perhaps my worst part of the dissertation (Hacker fans jump on and maul me now).  I know what I'm trying to say but I don't quite manage it.  So much so, that I actually want to write a note on it.  But I'm rushing now and won't return to a computer until after the Sabbath.  Feel free to talk about me behind my back!!!


Grasping and Intention

At the beginning of the Investigations (PI 1), Wittgenstein presents a quote from Augustine trying to recall how he learnt language as a child. We see him trying to work out what his ‘elders’ meant by a word by attending to the ‘natural language of all peoples’. That is, by paying attention to the parents’ actions, movements and tone of voice, the child comes to learn what is being signified by a word and how it is used in language. Attending to these reveals the parent’s ‘state of mind’; for example, what they are intending to point out. This account suggests to Wittgenstein a picture of the essence of language which he finds misleading. Examining this picture will enable me to better illuminate the intersection between the Tractatus and the Investigations. In later sections, we will see how this helps us better understand the criticisms that Wittgenstein makes of his earlier doctrine that there is a general form of the proposition. It is against this criterion that my interpretation should be judged and not whether it has ruled out all competing interpretations or applications of the Augustinian picture. In fact, it would be impossible to do so if we take it seriously as a picture, and not as laying out a recognizable philosophical theory. However, I will bring textual evidence to make it plausible, will align it with the questions Wittgenstein was trying to answer in both periods and will bring to light these answers.

The orthodox view, which I will lay out below, sees the Augustinian picture to be primarily concerned with affecting a correlation between a name and an object. If all words are names (as the picture seems to imply) then they are simply labels for existent features of reality. The interpretation of this picture that I will be presenting, on the other hand, places it firmly within the question of how language manages to communicate a sense or express a thought. This is not only a question of fundamental importance for the Tractatus but also for Augustine:

And undoubtedly, words were instituted among men... so that anyone might bring his thoughts to another’s notice by means of them.[1]

We have a picture here whereby words communicate thoughts. When a child learns a language they have to ‘grasp’ what is being expressed by a particular word or phrase. In the context of teaching, parents have to ‘make known’ to the child the thought being expressed through non-verbal means. According to the Augustinian quote, this is partly done via pointing to something and naming an object. However, the important point to bear in mind is that it is not about naming objects. It is about grasping the elders’ intention and, once the child has ‘heard words repeatedly used in their proper places in various sentence’, about ‘us[ing] them to express my own desires’.

In terms of describing a learning situation, Wittgenstein thinks it unremarkable. Indeed, he thought ostensive teaching (via pointing to objects) was an important part of the child’s training in learning to speak a language (c.f. PI 6). It is part of the process whereby a child comes to understand how a piece of language is used. However, to see why he did think the quote was misleading, consider the fact that there are three characters:

1. The elders- who understand the meaning of ‘x’ and its contribution to the expression of thought. They help the child to grasp that meaning

2. Augustine as child- who comes to understand its meaning.


3. Adult (philosopher) Augustine- Commentating on what was going on when his earlier incarnation observed the pointing.

It is this third character is problematic as, in talking about what the elder’s meant to point out, he is led to have a misleading conception about what is involved in a term having meaning. However, before we get on to this, it should be said that the points that are being made are not confined to (or specifically about) a child learning language. The characters could equally be 1) any fully competent language user who understands a particular expression who explains it to someone else 2) a fully-competent language user who is the recipient of the explanation 3) the philosopher who has a particular (pre-philosophical but misleading) conception of what understanding the expression consists in.

The Augustinian picture leads us to misconstrue the meaning of a word (e.g. ‘red’) as signifying a state of affairs (or something about a state of affairs). We get the impression that ‘red’ is about what is pointed to when we learn the word. This view of what explaining the meaning consists in (encouraged through ostensive teaching) is illustrated by the following quote:

By means of ostensions. In this case we explain the use of a word in statements by constructing various propositions by means of that word and each time pointing to the fact in question. In that way we become aware of the meaning of the word (Ostension really consists in two acts- in an external action, pointing to various facts, and a thought-operation, namely learning what they have in common).[2]

In the case of the child, the parent may not vocalise a proposition but they will point to the fact that corresponds to the thought “This [whatever is pointed to] is red”. So for example, they will point at that which corresponds to the thought “The chair is red”, if there is indeed a red chair in the vicinity. The child will learn the meaning of ‘red’ once many red things pointed to and has heard the word ‘red’ in many sentences. They will do so by learning the comment element in the various facts “The lamp is red”, “The block is red”, “This blood is red” i.e. that given by the propositional function “ζ is red”. On this picture then the meaning of ‘red’ is the sense of the sentence saying that something is red.

Following on from the passage quoted above, he compares explaining the meaning by ostension as opposed to by definition. Whilst definition remains within language, “[o]stension steps outside language and connects signs with reality”[3]. As such, the child manages to grasp the meaning non-linguistically by realising the reality that is pointed to. This is “as if the child could already think, only not yet speak” (PI 32). Wittgenstein’s critique of the Augustinian picture of language suggests one cannot grasp the colour, for instance, simply from pointing and/or naming. The elders may perform precisely the same action is they meant to point out the shape (PI 33). Only when accompanied by training cans ostensive teaching lead to the word being used in the same way as the rest of the linguistic community. It is training, and not the queer power of the mind (‘grasping’), that allows us to learn the meaning of a word.

However, one shouldn’t see Wittgenstein’s main target as a form of mentalism. As Kenny points out[4], the way Augustine sees a child learning language (e.g. through shaping natural reactions) is similar to Wittgenstein’s own views. The problem is more that it leads the philosopher (the third character) to misconstrue what is involved in understanding what a word means (e.g. for first character). It is fair enough to say that the elders intend to point out something red, given that they know the meaning of red. However, as Goldfarb notes, “The trouble comes when we segment the description, i.e., when we take “naming”, “wishing to point”, and so on, as if they pick out isolatable phenomena, whose character can be given independently of any surrounding structure.”[5] Just as a child can only point out something red given training, the adult can only name it given the rest of language. Kirwan[6] points out that Augustine, in this passage, is interested in how language is learnt and not what is learnt. However, it is precisely the lack of focus on what is learnt which causes confusion. It tears the learning away from the contexts in which it is used and the roles it has.

Relationship to the orthodox view

Many of the elements in this picture seem to fit into a fairly standard interpretation of the picture: meaning as a mental phenomenon, reaching out to reality, the meaning of a word becoming its contribution to the sentence, being able to isolate what is being pointed out etc. Perhaps I have worded it oddly talking about the philosopher’s mistake about what is grasped but it is much the same- “Well, of course it is his mistake!” However, one thing I have been very deliberate about is not to talk about the reference of a name or about the method of signification or about a ‘correlation’ between language and reality. Instead, I was simply talking about ‘thoughts’ and how philosophers will view someone grasping the sense in independence from the content of the thought and its contexts of use. There is no attribution of a theoretical error or false philosophical thesis about meaning. This is prior to philosophical theorizing.

The orthodox view, on the other hand, seems to associate the Augustinian picture of language with the following three theses: “Every word has a meaning. This meaning is correlated with the word. It is the object for which the word stands” (PI 1). The suggestion seems to be that Augustine is saying that the function of all words is to name an object, and that a word only has a meaning if it fulfils that function. That this is how Wittgenstein interpreted the passage seems to be supported when he comments, “Augustine does not speak of there being any difference between kinds of word” (PI 1). Whereas Wittgenstein compares the diverse function of words to different tools in a toolbox (PI 11), Augustine insists that “no one uses words except for the purpose of signifying something”[7]. Signification here is just a correlation between language and reality. The problem then is that Augustine treats all words on the model of nouns where, so to speak, there is a thing which we label with a sign.

This problem is not conceived of as one particular to Augustine but is meant to be applicable to a wide range of philosophical theories. Baker and Hacker are of this view when they claims that “[n]umerous sophisticated accounts of meaning are unconsciously rooted in the Augustinian picture, and this manifests a disease of the intellect.”[8] Now whilst we can see a definite tendency for philosophers to see meaningful terms as referring to objects, we can also see that no theory fully conforms to this conception of this version of the Augustinian picture. For example:

  • As Kirwan[9] points out in the passage Wittgenstein quotes, Augustine is concerned with the learning of language and not what is learnt. Elsewhere he has a relatively sophisticated account of different modes of signification, and doesn’t treat them all like nouns.
  • Frege took all sorts of words to have a reference e.g. truth-values and numbers. However, he was also keenly aware of the different logical roles of words in sentences, and made us aware of the different roles of concepts and objects.
  • Whilst the three theses above bear a strong resemblance to Wittgenstein’s view of a fully analysed language in the Tractatus, no meaningful words in everyday language refer to objects in the Tractarian sense.

In what way then is the Augustinian picture a criticism of past philosophers? Hacker himself admits:

Wittgenstein did not intimate that Frege cleaved to the Augustinian picture in its naive, pre-theoretical form- indeed, it is not clear that anyone has. Certainly Augustine himself did not do so in his philosophical writings. But that does not... show that Wittgenstein was ill advised to begin his masterwork with that quotation.[10]

The solution is to say that they did hold the Augustinian picture but not in its naive form, but a suitably refined and qualified version of it. According to Hacker, the Augustinian picture gains its importance from being an Urbild or proto-theory that lies at the root of all philosophical theories of meaning. Though they do not square in all respects with the Augustinian picture; that is not because they abandoned it, but because they are refinements of it. For example, it is true that Frege did not hold that ‘Some man’ in ‘Some man is rich’ named an object. However, his theory did hold that any significant word that contributed to its truth-value must have a referent.

Hacker’s interpretation throws up many queries regarding the relationship between the pre-theoretical form of the Augustinian picture and the theories that supposedly follow. Firstly, if a theory is significantly different from the proto-theory, on what basis do we judge whether a theory is a refinement of it rather than an abandonment? Secondly, in what way does criticism of the proto-theory affect the full-blown theory? One has to agree with Goldfarb that “it surely does not do to use the label “Augustinian conception” at will, and then take any considerations against its crude features as directly refuting or undermining the philosophers so labelled”[11].

Another look

My position avoids these difficulties by denying that the problem is specifically one about objects being the references of names and the reason I will say the GFP is misguided is not specifically because the bearer is the meaning of the name. Instead, it is a misleading view about the nature of intending, grasping and understanding that leads to a mistake in the elucidation of the sense of the sentence. If, for the moment, we accept that my interpretation fits the quote. How does it avoid the three theses that explicitly talk about objects being the bearers of a name? The three theses laid out above are not the Augustinian picture of language according to the Investigations! It is indeed from the picture of language that the meaning of a word is its bearer. Indeed, we will see in this essay how the Augustinian picture led to the GFP where all names in an analysed language stand for objects. However, something following from the Augustinian picture is not the same as being that picture and to say that something follows from the picture doesn’t tell us why it does.

The actual picture is: “the individual words in language name objects- sentences are combinations of such names” (PI 1). Here there is no claim that the object is the meaning of the word or that the purpose of uttering a word is to refer to that object. The claim is a philosophical thesis of sorts but it is rather otiose on its own. On this point, there is no reason to think Wittgenstein attributed Augustine a view any stronger than the following from Russell: “Words all have meaning, in the simple sense that they are symbols which stand for something other than themselves”[12]. Again, in terms of the thing named, neither the picture nor Wittgenstein’s interpretation of it demand any more of natural language than that a “thing is whatever is sensed or understood or is hidden”[13]. There is no need to conceive of all things as the kind of object we could encounter and correlate with a name.

To say that each word signifies is to say that it makes a specific contribution to the expression of a thought. The suggestion I am making then, is that when Augustine is talking about naming an object (e.g. red), he is not talking about the bearer of a name but the object of thought. By talking about the ‘object’ of thought, I am not saying anything about the vehicle of thought, but the content of the thought- what the thought is about. A good way to explain this is with the following quote:

The Stoics said that three things are linked to one another, the thing signified, the thing that signifies, and the thing come upon. Of these the thing that signifies is an utterance… the thing signified is the very state of affairs revealed by an utterance…. and the thing come upon is the external subject[14]

Here, ‘the thing come upon’ is the bearer of the name and as such, it is that which we can point to if the thing exists. However, it is not the bearer that is the thing signified but the very state of affairs revealed by an utterance. Thus to learn the meaning of an expression of language, is to understand what it signifies. It is this which is taught to the child when learning the use of a word and explained to a language-user who doesn’t understand the sense of an expression. The philosopher tries to elucidate what is involved in such an understanding.

[1] (Kirwan, 2001) p. 190

[2] Wittgenstein (WWK p.246) as cited in (Hacker, 1986) p. 77

[3] ibid

[4] (Kenny, 1974)

[5] (Goldfarb, 1983) p.272

[6] (Kirwan, 2001)

[7] Augustine, as cited by (Kirwan, 2001) p.191

[8] (Baker & Hacker, 1980) p. 32

[9] (Kirwan, 2001)

[10] (Hacker, 2001) p.240

[11] (Goldfarb, 1983) p.267

[12] As cited in (Baker & Hacker, 1980) p. 52

[13] Augustine as cited by (Kirwan, 2001) p.193

[14] Sextus Empiricus as cited by (Kirwan, 2001) p. 196


Thursday, 2 April 2009

My Thesis: Section 1, Part 2

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Unearthing the sense

In neither period is the sense something to be discovered or unearthed by philosophy. It is not some timeless, abstract thought that has to be grasped in a ‘non-psychological sense’. Nor to know the sense of a sentence do we have to have to have some ‘logical experience’ in order to grasp the indefinables of logic. Some of the negative arguments leading to the postulation that there is a GFP are targeted at just those assumptions. There are no representatives of the logic of facts (TLP 4.0312) with the only indefinables being the simple signs that stand for objects. These do not need to be discovered in order for us to express a sense because as far as they are the ‘logical co-ordinates’ of a proposition, any proposition we understand already involves them. Knowing how our signs symbolize means logical syntax can ‘go without saying’ (TLP 3.334). Philosophy can only be said to ‘find’ or ‘discover’ these things in terms of a process leading to them, by analysing what is already there.

Here there is no such thing as the sense of the sentence- they are not part of the totality of facts. The ‘sense’ just is what is given as answer to a request for the sense of sentence and philosophy is characterized by the kind of answer it gives. He says in PI 108:

We are talking about the spatial and temporal phenomenon of language, not about some non-spatial, non-temporal chimera [...Only it is possible to be interested in a phenomenon in a variety of ways]

For the Investigations it means looking at language as part of a language-game. However, this is perfectly apt for the Tractatus as well (or at least what it aims at). There is no ‘non-psychological sense’ to be grasped- there is only language in use- but we lay the sense out in a non-psychological way. Whilst we understand a proposition individually, philosophy clarifies the thought from the perspective of the ‘metaphysical subject’ (the non-psychological self) (TLP 5.641). As such, early and late, philosophy is marked by the how and not by the what. What then marks out his view of laying out language-games as better is that it is a better how for revealing the what (the sense of our ordinary propositions).

This is important to note as McGinn[1] talks about a change in the ‘object of investigation’ between Wittgenstein’s earlier and later works. She correctly points out Russell’s mistake in the introduction to the Tractatus when he says “he is concerned with the conditions which would have to be fulfilled by a logically perfect language”[2]. However, she then goes on to say that whilst the earlier Wittgenstein was investigating the properties of an idealized language or construct, he was later interested in the spatial and temporal phenomenon of language. He goes from looking at a system of representation simpliciter, to concrete, language-in-use. I find this misleading. If she simply means that he had earlier held an idealized view of language, and that he was mistaken that this view held good of ordinary language, I agree. However, what she actually says is that this was the ‘object’ of investigation. He laid out the rules of an idealized language and only held that ordinary language works this way because it somehow must do. However, I think we misunderstand the arguments against the GFP if we say the Tractatus takes this line. It is because he earlier aimed at elucidating the logic involved in understanding concrete language-in-use, but misinterpreted what this involved, that his earlier view was rejected.

The Tractatus doesn’t look at the logic of an ideal language or any language at all. It looks at what can be said about logic in advance before one looks at the logic of a language. It does tell us that we can analyse any proposition into logically innocent propositions with no logical constants and ‘names’ in immediate combination. However, that is all that can be said a priori (TLP 5.55) and as such we are not given any examples of objects or elementary propositions. An ‘object’, for example, is a ‘formal concept’ and so we don’t know what one is until we are shown what it is used to symbolize (c.f. TLP 4.1272), and thus we don’t have an idea what would be in an ideal language. Finding out information like this would belong to the application of logic (TLP 5.557) and thus observing how signs are used with sense (TLP 3.326). For this, we have to look to ordinary language.

As such, even if the interest was in an idealized language the following is true: “He was working inside the structure of actual language... [in] trying to establish the limits of any possible language.”[3] However, a so-called ideal language is only ideal as an end-point and clarification of how we use our words with sense. Now of course, he doesn’t deal with ordinary language in the Tractatus itself and is just dealing with the logic of any representation whatsoever. However, the point being that logic doesn’t have any content of its own and we need to see the logic inherent in ordinary language.

Misdirection or mistake?
If philosophy is an activity, and is designed to fulfil a particular purpose, then the worst can be said is that it fails to meet that purpose. It cannot be shown to be ‘false’ because it didn’t state a ‘truth’ in the first place. It is at worst, useless. The GFP was meant to be shown in how we our propositions with sense but if we follow Wittgenstein’s advice to look at the varied contexts of their use, it is hard to see how their meaning could be made perspicuous in the way he envisaged. As such, in one sense my criticism will amount to no more than that. On the other hand, something more informative can be said about why he went wrong. We can see why Wittgenstein’s investigation took the turn it did from a misleading account- the Augustinian picture- of how we learn in what sense an expression is being used. By looking at how language is learned without first paying attention to the kind of thing communicated, led him to have a particular pre-theoretical conception of what a particular thought having content consists in. In the end, this conception plays no formal role in a philosophical elucidation of how sentences have sense or in what sense a particular sentence is used. However, i) it is this very way of looking at ‘how things stand’ that the GFP is meant to justify and ii) makes us think that an analysis as proposed in the Tractatus is possible. This is so because it gives us an idea of the ‘what’ (what is understood when we use the sentence with sense) that the ‘how’ of the GFP (the way it can elucidate that sense) is addressed.

[1] (McGinn, 2006)

[2] (Russell, 1922/2001) pp. ix-x

[3] (Pears, Wittgenstein, 1971) p.49


Wednesday, 1 April 2009

My thesis: Section 1, Part 1

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I have split my first section in to two for the purpose of the blog so that each post is not to lengthy

1- Explanation and Elucidation

‘What’s the sense?’: Two kinds of answer

On my interpretation, the question which the Augustinian picture invites us to consider is, in itself, is a very simple one about how we use language with sense. For Wittgenstein, “The sense of a proposition (or a thought)… [is] what is given as an answer to a request for an explanation of the sense” (PG p.131). The question then simply looks at what kind of answer is appropriate to just such a request. I shall distinguish in this essay between a pre-theoretical, everyday-sort of explanation and a philosophical elucidation. As I will present it, the Augustinian picture gives us the view that ostension is the fundamental form of explanation (of the first sort) which will, as a matter of fact, bring us to an understanding of the sense in which an expression is being used. The Tractatus, on the other hand, tells us the termination point of a philosophical elucidation. In espousing the GFP, Wittgenstein believes elucidate the sense of any proposition in such a way that we can see how it is derived from truth-operations on elementary propositions. I will argue that the particular view of explanation contained in the Augustinian picture misled Wittgenstein as to the direction a philosophical elucidation must take. Before substantiating this, I must highlight the distinction explanation and elucidation, and the link between them.

In an everyday context, we ask for a clarification of the sense of a particular sentence if we don’t understand how it is being used. This may be due to us not understanding a technical terms in a proposition or a word-play in a joke; we may pick up on someone using a word ambiguously in an order; or a sentence may seem out of place in a particular context. The purpose of explanation, then, is to bring the confused person to a new-found understanding of what is being said: “Aha! Now I understand what you mean!” How an explanation proceeds doesn’t matter but will involve highlighting how the words are being used in their sentential and/or situational context. All that matters is the person now understands what the words are being used to say. Specifically in relation to proposition, it means being able to understand what has been asserted.

The philosopher looks at the question differently and in the question emphasizes ‘what sense’. S/he does not care for the fact that a particular explanation happened to be effective but wonders what it is that is now understood. The philosopher is looking for the objective content of the sense that will provide us with criteria for assessing what is involved in understanding the utterance and what its implications are. According to Frege, “What is objective in it is what is subject to laws, what can be conceived and judged, what is expressible in words. What is merely intuitable is not communicable”[1]. According to this conception, the mark of objectivity is that it excludes any contingent phenomena that may be associated with it on any particular occasion, or in the mind of any particular speaker. As such, philosophical elucidation as traditionally conceived by analytic philosophers involves laying the content of a proposition out in such a way that it subject to logic and the ‘laws of truth’. To do this, the sense is expressed in language where the words have a clear use and a precise reference.

Elucidation as activity

For Wittgenstein, these two types of explanation are closely related. The sense, as delineated by philosophy, is precisely what is explained, communicated and understood in our ordinary use of language. This is because unlike Frege and Russell, who thought that the sense could only be properly laid out in ideal language, Wittgenstein believed that ordinary language is in ‘perfect logical order’ (TLP 5.5563). On this picture, not being able to give a philosophical analysis is no obstacle to a full and complete understanding. We can express a sense “without having any idea how each word has meaning or what its meaning is” (TLP 4.002). Our understanding is manifest in our ability to use that proposition to assert truly or falsely that a state of affairs obtains. However, he still believed that philosophical analysis had the role laid out above: seeing clearly what the sense of a sentence consists in means seeing how it is subject to universal logical laws. The difference being, and this is crucial, that philosophical elucidation denotes the activity clarifying something that, in some sense, is already known. In the Tractatus this finds expression in 4.112 where he says “Philosophy aims at the logical clarification of thoughts... A philosophical work consists essentially of elucidations... [it results in] the clarification of propositions.”

We have in TLP 4.112 that philosophy is an activity and not a body of doctrine. It is what philosophers do and defines the way they see things. The philosopher tries to get a clear view of things and how language is used with sense. This conception of philosophy is one that survives into his later work:

The concept of a perspicuous representation is of fundamental significance for us. It earmarks the form of the account we give, the way we look at things. (Is this a ‘Weltanschauung’? ) (PI 121)

The account that the philosopher gives- a philosophical elucidation- enables us to see the logic of our language, solve philosophical difficulties, look what is involved in the truth and falsity of our proposition and look at interrelationships between concepts. This is done through laying out language-games and ‘assembling reminders’ about how a section of language is used. As before, there is no need for an average person to be in command of such an elucidation in order to use language. For example, they may never have consciously considered the difference between first and third person pronouncements of pain. However, it is the understanding embodied in ordinary usage that is what is being clarified.

[1] (Frege, 1980)p.26