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


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