Quotes & Commentary #46: Wittgenstein

Quotes & Commentary #46: Wittgenstein

If language is to be a means of communication there must be agreement not only in definitions but also (queer as this may sound) in judgments.

—Ludwig Wittgenstein, Philosophical Investigations

I often think about the relationship between the public and the private. As a naturally introverted person, I feel very keenly the separation of my own experience from the rest of reality. I make music, take pictures, and write this blog as a way of communicating this inner reality—of manifesting my private world in a publically consumable form.

Having an ‘inner world’ is one of the basic facts of life. Each of us is aware that there is a part of us—the most vital and most mysterious part, perhaps—that is inaccessible to others; we can keep secrets, we can make judgments without anyone else noticing, we can have private pleasures and pains. All of our experience takes place in this space; the only world we ever see, hear, or touch is in our heads.

And yet we are also aware that this reality is, in a sense, insubstantial and ultimately secondary. Our inner world exists in reference to the outer world, the world of objective facts, the world that is publically known. My senses are not just mental facts, but point outward; my thoughts, actions, and desires are oriented towards a world that does not exist in me. Rather, I exist in it, and my experience is just one interpretation of this world, and one vantage point from which to view it.

How are these two worlds related? How do they interact? Is one more important? What is the relationship of our private minds to our public bodies? These are classic philosophical conundrums, mysterious still after all these millennia.

Historical philosophers aside, most of us, in our more reflective moments, become acutely aware of the division between subjective and objective. When you are, for example, searching for a word—when a word is on the tip of your tongue—you feel as though you are rummaging through your own mind. The word is in you somewhere, and nobody but you can find it.

From this, and other experiences like it, we get the feeling that speaking (and by extension, writing) consists of taking something internal and externalizing it. Language is, in this view, an expression of thought; and words take their significance from cogitations. That is to say, our private mental world is the wellspring of significance; our minds imbue our language with meaning. The word “pizza,” for example, means pizza because I am thinking of pizza when I say it.

And yet, as Wittgenstein tried to show in his later philosophy, this is not how language really works. To the contrary, words are defined by their social use: what they accomplish in social situations. In other words, language is public. The meaning of words is determined, not by referring to any inner thought, nor by referring to any objective facts, but by convention, in a community of speakers. (I don’t have the space here to recapitulate his arguments; but you can see my review of his book here.) The word “pizza” means pizza because you can use it to order in a restaurant.

This may seem to be a merely academic matter; but when you begin to think of meaning as determined socially rather than psychologically, then you realize that your cognitive apparatus is not nearly as private as you are wont to believe. In order to communicate thought, you must transform it into something socially consumable: language. All of our vague notions must be put into boxes, whose dimensions are determined by the community, not by us.

But the social does not only intrude when we try to communicate with others; we also understand ourselves through these same social concepts. That is to say, insofar as we think in words, and we understand our own personalities through language, we are subjecting our deepest selves to public categories; even in our most private moments, we are seeing ourselves in the light of the community. We are social beings to our very core.

This does not only extend to the definitions of words. As Wittgenstein points out, to use language effectively, we must also judge like the community.

Any word, however well-defined, is ambiguous in its application. To apply the word “car” to a vehicle, for example, requires not only that I know the definition—whatever that may be—but that I learn how to differentiate between a car, a truck, a van, and an SUV. Every member of a community is involved in educating one another’s judgment, and keeping their opinions in tune. If I call an SUV a “car,” or a pickup truck a “van,” any fellow speakers will correct me, and in this way they will educate me to judge like a member of the community.

As I learn Spanish, I have firsthand experience of this. To pick a trivial example, English word “sausage” is more broad than any corresponding Spanish word. Here in Spain they differentiate between salchicha and salchichón, a difference that my American mind has a hard time understanding. Although Spaniards have tried to define this difference to me, I have found that the only way for me to learn it is by being corrected every time I apply the wrong word.

More significantly, in order to conjugate properly in Spanish, I must not only learn how to change the ending and so forth, but I must learn when it is appropriate to use each tense. To pick the most troubling example, in English we have only the simple past, whereas in Spanish there is both the imperfecto and the indefinido. I constantly use the wrong form, not because I don’t know their technical usage (it has been explained to me countless times, using various metaphors and examples, and I can recite this technical definition from memory), but because my judgment is out of alignment.

Whether an action is continuous, periodic, completed, ongoing, or occasional—this is not as self-apparent as every native-speaker likes to assume, but indeed requires a good deal of interpretation. My judgment has not yet been properly educated by the community, and so, despite my knowing the technical usage of these two forms, I still misuse them.

In a way, this aspect of language learning is somewhat chilling. In order to speak effectively, not only must I use communal vessels to contain my thoughts, but I must learn to judge along the same lines as other members of the community—to interpret, analyze, and distinguish like them. What is left of our private selves when we subtract everything shaped and put there by the community? Am I a self-existent person, or just a reflection of my social milieu?

Yet I do not think that all this is something to dread. Having communally defined categories, and a communally shaped judgment, gives permanence and exactitude to communication. Left on our own, thinking without symbols, communicating with no one but ourselves, there is nothing that grants stability to our reflections; they constantly slip through our fingers, an ever-changing flux tied to nothing. With no fixed points, our judgment flounders in a torrent of ideas, thrashing ineffectually.

When we learn a language, and learn to use it well, we learn how to pour the ambiguous stuff of thought into stable vessels, how to cast the molten metal of our mental life into solid forms. This way, not only can we understand the world better, but we can learn to understand ourselves better. This, I think, is the very purpose of culture itself: to partition reality into sections, to impose structure on ambiguous reality.

Let me give you a common example.

A relationship is a naturally ambiguous thing. The affection and commitment that two people feel for one another exists on a spectrum. And often we do not really know how committed we are to somebody until we examine the relationship in retrospect. And yet, relationships must be defined, and defined early-on, for the sake of the community.

Every culture on earth has rituals and categories associated with courtship, for the simple fact that somebody’s relationship status is a big part of their social identity. Ambiguities in social identity are not tolerated, because they impede normal social life; to deal with somebody effectively, you need them to have a recognizable social status, a status they tells you what to expect from them and what you can ask of them and a million other things.

In modern culture, as we delay marriage ever-more into the distant horizon, we have developed the need for new relationship categories. Now we are “dating,” and then “in a relationship.” The status of being “boyfriend” or “girlfriend” is now socially understood and approved as one level of commitment.

The interesting thing, to me, is that the decision to be in a relationship, to become boyfriend and girlfriend (or whatever the case may be), seems like a private decision, affecting only two people. And yet, it is really a decision for the benefit of the community. To be in a relationship defines where you stand in relation to everyone else: whether it is appropriate to flirt with you, to ask you out, to dance with you, to ask about your significant other, and so forth.

Now, this is not to say that the decision is solely for the benefit for the community. To put this another way, this also benefits you and your partner, because you are also part of the community. It puts a publicly understood category, indicating a certain level of commitment, on your naturally ambiguous and shifting feelings. In other words, by applying a public category to a private feeling, you are, in effect, imposing a certain level of stability on the feeling.

Look what happens next. This level of commitment, being publically labeled, is also bolstered. Friends, family, and coworkers treat you differently. You are now in a different category. And this response of the community helps to form and reinforce your private feelings of commitment. Relationships are never wholly private affairs between two people. It takes a village to make a couple.

Again, I am not suggesting that this is a bad thing. To the contrary, I think that having communal definitions is what allows us to understand our own selves at all. This is also why I write these quotes and commentary. By forcing myself to take my ambiguous thoughts and put them into words, into public vessels, not only do I communicate with others, but I find out what I myself think.

Review: Philosophical Investigations

Review: Philosophical Investigations

Philosophical InvestigationsPhilosophical Investigations by Ludwig Wittgenstein

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

If you read first Wittgenstein’s Tractatus, and then follow it with his Philosophical Investigations, you will treat yourself to perhaps the most fascinating intellectual development in the history of philosophy. Wittgenstein has the distinct merit of producing, not one, but two enormously influential systems of philosophy—systems, moreover, that are at loggerheads with one another.

In fact, I wouldn’t recommend attempting to tackle this work without first reading the Tractatus, as the Investigations is essentially one long refutation and critique of his earlier, somewhat more conventional, views. But because I wish to give a short summary of some of Wittgenstein’s later views here, I will first give a little précise of the earlier work.

In the Tractatus, Wittgenstein argues that language has one primary function: to state facts. Language is a logical picture of the world. A given proposition mirrors a given state of affairs. This leads Wittgenstein to regard a great many types of utterances as strictly nonsense. For example, since ethics is not any given state of affairs, language couldn’t possible picture it; therefore, all propositions in the form of “action X is morally good” are nonsense.

Wittgenstein honestly believed that this solved all the problems of philosophy. Long-standing problems about causation, truth, the mind, goodness, beauty, etc., were all attempts to use language to picture something which it could not—because beauty, truth, etc., are not states of affairs. Philosophers only need stop the attempt to transcend the limits of language, and the problems would disappear. In his words: “The solution of the problem of life is seen in the vanishing of this problem.”

After publishing this work and taking leave of professional philosophy (as he thought it had been dealt with) Wittgenstein began to have some doubts. Certain everyday uses of language seemed hard to account for if you regarded language as purely a truth-stating tool. These doubts eventually culminated in a return to Cambridge, and to philosophy. His posthumously published Investigations represents the fullest expression of his later views.

So what are these views? Well, first let us compare the styles of the two works. The writing in both the Tractatus and the Investigations is extraordinary. Wittgenstein is one of the very finest writers of philosophy, in a league with Nietzsche and Plato. He uses almost no technical terms, and very simple sentence-structures; yet his phrases can stick in the mind for months, years, after first reading them. Just the other day, I was having a conversation with my German tutor about learning a foreign language. To something I said, she responded, “Die Grenzen meiner Spracher bedeuten die Grenzen meiner Welt.” (“The limits of my language are the limits of my world”—a quote from the Tractatus.)

Although the the writing in both works is equally compelling, the structures are quite different. In the Tractatus, Wittgenstein’s argument is unified, complete; he even numbers his sentences as primary, secondary, and tertiary in terms of their importance to the argument. In that work, we can clearly see the influence of Bertrand Russell’s logicism: language is reduced to logical propositions, and the argument is organized along logical grounds.

The reader of the Investigations will encounter something quite different. Wittgenstein writes in similarly terse aphorisms; he even retains a numbering-system for his points—each individual point getting its own numbered paragraph. The numbering of these paragraphs, however, is cumulative, and does not express anything about their significance to his larger design. It is almost as if Wittgenstein wrote down his thoughts on numbered flash cards, and simply constructed the book by moving the flash cards around. Unlike the Tractatus, which resolves itself into a unified whole, the Investigations is fragmentary.

I begin with style because the contrast in writing is a clue to the differences in thought between the earlier and later works. Unlike the Tractatus, the Investigations is rather a collection of observations and ideas. The spirit of Wittgenstein’s later enterprise is anti-systematic, rather than systematic. Wittgenstein aims not at erecting a whole edifice of thought, but at destroying other edifices. Thus, the text jumps from topic to topic, without any explicit connections or transitions, now attacking one common philosophical idea, now another. The experience can often be exasperating, since Wittgenstein is being intentionally oblique rather than direct. In the words of John Searle, reading the Investigations is “like getting a kit for a model airplane without any explanation for how to put it together.”

Let me attempt to put some of these pieces together—at least the pieces that were especially useful to me.

Wittgenstein replaces his old picture metaphor with a new tool metaphor. Instead of a word being meaningful because it pictures a fact, the meaning of a word is—at least most of the time—synonymous with the social use of that word. For example, the word “pizza” does not mean pizza because it names the food; rather, it means pizza because you can use the word to order the food at a restaurant. So instead of the reference to a type of object being primary, the social use is primary.

This example reveals a general quality of Wittgenstein’s later thought: the replacement of the objective/subjective dichotomy with the notion of public, social behavior.

Philosophers have traditionally posited theories of meaning that are either internal or external. For example, pizza can mean the particular food either because the word points to the food, or because the word points to our idea, or sensation, of the food. Either language is reporting objective states of affairs, or subjective internal experiences.

Wittgenstein destroys the external argument with a very simple observation. Take the word “game.” If the external theory of meaning is correct, the word game must mean what it does because it points to something essential about games. But what is the essential quality that makes games games? Is there any? Some games are not social (think of solitaire), some games are not trivial (think of the Olympic Games), some games are not consequence-free (think of compulsive gambling), and some games are social, trivial, and consequence-free. Is a game something that you play? But you also play records and trombones. So what is the essential, single quality of “game” that our word refers to?

Wittgenstein says there isn’t any. Rather, the word “game” takes on different meanings in different social contexts, or modes of discourse. Wittgenstein calls these different modes of discourse “language-games.” Some examples of language games are that of mimicking, of joking, of mourning, of philosophizing, of religious discourse. Every language game has its own rules; therefore, any proposed all-encompassing theory of language (like Wittgenstein’s own Tractatus) will fail, because it attempts to reduce the irreducible. You cannot reduce chess, soccer, solitaire, black-jack, and tag to one set of rules; the same is true (says Wittgenstein) of language.

Another popular theory of meaning is the internal theory. This theory holds that propositions mean things by referring to thoughts or sensations. When I refer to pain, I am referring to an internal object; when I refer to a bunny, I am referring to a set of visual sensations that I have learned to call ‘bunny’.

Wittgenstein makes short work of this argument too. Let’s start with the argument about sensations. Wittgenstein points out that our ‘sensations’ of an object—say, a bunny—are not something that we experience, as it were, purely. Rather, our interpretations alter the sensations themselves. To illustrate this, Wittgenstein uses perhaps the funiest example in all of philosophy, the duck-rabbit:

duckrabbit

As you can see, whether you interpret this conglomeration of shapes, lines, and spaces as a rabbit or a duck depends on your interpretation; and, if you had never seen a duck or a rabbit in your life, the picture would look rather strange. Ernst Gombrich summed up this point quite nicely in his Story of Art: “If we look out of the window we can see the view in a thousand different ways. Which of them is our sense impression?”

The point of all this is that trying to make propositions about sense-impressions is like trying to hit a moving target—since you only see something a certain way because of certain beliefs or experiences you already hold.

The argument about inner feelings is equally weak. For example, when we learned the word pain, did someone somehow point to the feeling and name it? Clearly, that’s impossible. What actually happens is that we (or someone else) exhibited normal behavioral manifestations of pain—crying, moaning, tearing, clutching the afflicted area. The word pain then is used (at least originally) to refer to pain-behavior, and we later use the word ‘pain’ as a replacement for our infantile pain-behavior—instead of moaning and clutching our arm, we tell someone we have a pain, and that it’s in our arm. This shows that the internal referent of the word ‘pain’ is not fundamental to its meaning, but is derivative of its more fundamental, public use.

This may seem trivial, but this line of argument is a powerful attack on the entire Cartesian tradition. Let me give you an example.

René Descartes famously sat in his room, and then tried to doubt the whole world. He then got down to his own ego, and tried to build the work back up from there. This line of thought places the individual at the center of the epistemological question, and makes all other phenomena derivative of the fundamental, subjective experience of certainty.

But let us, as Wittgenstein advises, examine the normal use of the word “to know.” You say, “I know Tom,” or “I know American history.” If someone asked you, “What makes you say you know Tom and American history?” you might say something like “I can pick Tom’s face out of a crowd,” or “I could pass a history test.” Already, you are giving social criteria for what it means to know. In fact, the word “to know” presupposes the ability to verify something with something that is not yourself. You would never verify something you remember by pointing to another thing you remember—that would be absurd, since your memory is the thing being tested. Instead, you indicate an independent criterion for determining whether or not you know something. (The social test of knowledge is also explicit in science, since experiments must be repeatable and communicable; if a scientist said “I know this but I my can’t prove it once more,” that would not be science.)

So because knowing anything apparently requires some kind of social confirmation, the Cartesian project of founding knowledge on subjective experience is doomed from the start. Knowing anything requires at least two people—since you couldn’t know if you were right or wrong without some kind of social confirmation.

Wittgenstein brings this home with his discussion of private language. Let’s say you had a feeling that nobody has told you how to name. As a result, you suspect that this feeling is unique to yourself, and so you create your own name for it. Every time you have the feeling, you apply this made-up name to it. But how do you know if you’re using the name correctly? How do you know that every time you use your private name you are referring to the same feeling? You can’t check it against your memory, since your memory is the very thing being doubted. You can’t ask somebody else, because nobody else knows this name or has this sensation. Therefore, merely thinking you’re using the name consistently and actually using the name consistently would be indistinguishable experiences. You could never really know.

Although Wittgenstein’s views changed dramatically from the early to the late phase of his career, you can see some intriguing similarities. One main current of Wittgenstein’s thought is that all philosophical problems result from the misuse of language. Compare this statement from the Tractatus, “All philosophy is ‘Critique of language’,” with this, from the Investigations: “Philosophy is a battle against the bewitchment of our intelligence by means of language.” In both works, Wittgenstein is convinced that philosophical problems only arise because of the misuses of language; that philosophers either attempt to say the unsayable, or confuse the rules of one language-game with another—producing nonsense.

I cannot say I’ve thought-through Wittgenstein’s points fully enough to say whether I agree or disagree with them. But, whether wrong or right, Wittgenstein already has the ultimate merit of any philosopher—provoking thought about fundamental questions. And even if he was wrong about everything, his books would be worth reading for the writing alone. Reading Wittgenstein can be very much like taking straight shots of vodka—it burns on the way down, it addles your brain, it is forceful and overwhelming; but after all the pain and toil, the end-result is pleasant elation.

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