Saturday, 14 January 2017

The Inner and the Outer

Approaching the Private Language Argument

As a prelude to discussing what is generally called “the private language argument” (§§243-315), I want to consider some general questions about its role in the book's over-arching strategy. What is its significance? What is it actually about? And why is it there at all? More specifically, I want to suggest that the private language “chapter” can helpfully be seen as a continuation of Wittgenstein's on-going struggle against what might be called “the mythology of the inner”. It is a struggle that begins in earnest at §138 with the discussion of understanding, and continues more or less uninterrupted for the rest of the book. It mostly concerns our psychological concepts (“thinking”, “knowing”, “intending”, etc), but in the private language chapter the focus shifts to our sensation language. So in one way the private language chapter is a special case with its own peculiar traps and pit-falls. But it can also be seen as the beating heart of the struggle itself, since it is in the area of sensation-language that Wittgenstein's claims about meaning and use come up against their most forceful challenge. As a result, certain fundamental elements of his philosophy (most notably, the nature of grammar and the significance of living beings) are brought much closer to the surface than has previously been the case.

Inner and Outer Language

I'll begin with an outline of “the inner” and how it relates to the rest of our language.

First, we use language with regard to the world: buttons, cars, snowflakes, and so on. This, we might say, is talk about the physical world. We talk about where things are, how they stand in relation to each other, and in numerous other ways. Much of the time people are included in this talk in a more or less straightforward manner: Jones is next to me in the car and the button is on her coat. In this respect, people are physical objects like buttons and cars. Not all our talk about people, however, is interchangeable with our talk about things. A person can run down to the sea and a river can run down to the sea, but a person can try to run down to the sea, whereas it would be an anthropomorphism to say that a river tried to do that. Rain can act upon limestone, but it can't act stupidly; people, on the other hand, most certainly can. So can dogs and many other types of animal (but not all – I'm not sure what it would mean, for example, to say that an ant made a mistake). Here, then, we have a clear distinction between human beings (together with certain other living creatures) and inanimate objects. And this distinction is carried forward into the language we use to express how things are with ourselves: people have opinions, buttons don't. Such talk stands in contrast to that about the physical world and can be very roughly divided into two groups:
  1. Psychological language. This includes talk about knowing, understanding, believing, thinking, imagining, wanting and intending.
  2. Sensation language. This includes moods, feelings (eg, happy, sad, angry, bored) and bodily sensations such as pain, giddiness, twinges, etc. It can also include certain vivid impressions made by the physical world: a glorious sunset, perhaps, or cold water running over your fingers on a scorchingly hot day. Most of the time, however, we would not count experience of the world as a sensation. I am now looking at my laptop screen, but it would be odd to say that I am having a sensation of seeing the screen. I'm just looking at the screen.
As I say, this is only a very rough division; there are all kinds of exceptions and overlaps, both between the two groups and within them. “Desire”, for example, might easily be placed in either group as it is closely bound up with both wanting and feeling. And how alike are the items within each group? How far is knowing like intending? To what extent is feeling happy similar to feeling a twinge in your foot? Our language in this area is both ragged and extremely subtle. Nonetheless, the above account helps give shape to a striking distinction we make between physical objects on the one hand, and our thoughts and feelings on the other. We often talk about these latter items as being part of our inner world, and this way of putting things forms an immensely rich and varied vernacular. We have “inner lives” and “inner selves”; we feel joy welling up inside us and thoughts pop into our heads; we feel things in our bones and we know things in our hearts. The lexicon of the inner comes very readily to us; we learn it without difficulty as children, and use it constantly throughout our lives in ways that are (for the most part) easily understood.

So in terms of its everyday use our talk of the inner is unproblematic. Why then did Wittgenstein consider it such a key source of philosophical error? Well, we should notice first of all that its grammar is similar to our talk of the physical world in certain crucial respects. For example, we talk of having a pain just as we talk about having a button. Moreover, if I don't want you to know that I'm in pain I might be able to fool you by acting as if everything was fine. In such a case we could say I was hiding my pain, which seems straightforwardly analogous to hiding a button (and here you can see the aptness of the “inner” vernacular; my pain is hidden inside me like a button in a locked drawer). At the same time, however, the grammar of the inner frequently diverges from the grammar of physical objects. For example, we don't say “I have jealousy”, but “I am jealous” or “I feel jealous”. Does this just reflect different ways of saying the same thing, or does it betoken a substantive difference in kind? Consider also that if I have a button I can specify where it is, but if I say I'm jealous, what do I reply when someone asks where my jealousy is located? The very idea of jealousy having a spatial location seems ridiculous, like saying that time has a colour. So although the inner is in some ways analogous to the physical world, it is also curiously different.

Reflecting on these kind of examples might easily lead us to conclude that we are dealing here with two distinct realms: the “outer” realm of physical space, populated by physical objects interacting in various ways, and the “inner” realm, which is like physical space only non-spatial (the mind, or perhaps the soul), and is populated by inner objects, which are like physical objects only non-physical. But what on earth do we mean by a non-spatial space? And how can an inner object be like a physical object if it is non-physical? And since they are so utterly different, how do the inner and the outer realms ever make contact? Is such a thing even possible? As soon as we start to reflect on it, our talk of the inner ceases to be unproblematic and starts to look distinctly mysterious. Like Augustine (§89), we want to say “when nobody asks me I know what it is, but if I am asked what it is and try to explain, I am baffled”.

Here we might reflect that there is something metaphorical or figurative about all this talk of the inner. After all, when I refer to my “inner self” I don't mean that it is literally inside my body – as if you might find it by cutting me open. Likewise, if I say “I have a picture in my mind” this is clearly not like having a photo in my wallet. A photo is a certain size; we can look at it close to or from a distance; it was taken on a specific day; it doesn't change just because we want it to; and we can copy it to produce a drawing. None of this applies to my mental image. Picture the house you grew up in. Which day does this picture refer to? Now try copying a photo and then copying a mental image; you will see how different the two activities are. So we might say that having a mental image is, at best, analogous to having a picture. It is a turn of phrase which is more or less apt but shouldn't be taken literally.

This notion of metaphorical language, however, is itself problematic. In normal circumstances if I use a metaphor (eg, “that man is a mountain come to life”) I am prepared to explain it in more sober, objective terms (eg, “I meant that he is unusually large, imposing and rugged”). But what is the more sober account of “I have a picture in my mind”? Isn't that perfectly straightforward?

So our talk of the inner borrows selectively from the language of the physical world in ways we find apt – yet it does not do so in lieu of a more objective way of talking. And now we can feel caught on the horns of a dilemma: either we take this talk at face value, in which case we get tangled up in the mysteries and absurdities of the “inner realm”, or else we see it as mere colourful language with nothing substantial behind it, in which case we are drawn towards denying the very existence of thoughts and feelings in anything like their normal form.

This, I think, gives an outline of the dispute between what I am going to call Idealist and Materialist philosophies. By “Idealist” here I mean philosophies which give credence to the notion of the inner realm in some form or other. This includes vast swathes of modern western philosophy: the inner is evinced in the notion of “ideas” as used by Descartes, Locke and Berkeley; it is there in Hume's “impressions” and Kant's phenomenal world of raw “intuitions” arranged into experience by a priori laws of thought; it is there in the post-Kantian idealism of Hegel, Schopenhauer, Bradley and McTaggart; it is there in phenomenologists such as Husserl, the existentialism of Sartre and Russell's notion of sense data; and it is there in present-day cognitive philosophy with its talk of qualia and aspect dualism. We might say of all these philosophies that they start from a first-person perspective (which is viewed as a privileged, uniquely certain vantage point), and then muster various theories in an attempt to argue their way out into the third-person world of physical objects and (as a kind of cherry on the cake) other minds.

By “Materialist”, on the other hand, I mean philosophies which attempt to write off the inner realm as a type of fiction. This group is considerably smaller, and has probably only come to genuine prominence from the middle of the 20th Century onwards. Today, however, it more or less represents an intellectual orthodoxy (you can see this from the fact that much of modern cognitive philosophy reacts against it, whilst at the same time taking as read the basic world-view upon which it is founded). It is committed to a form of Realism, and to science as the only legitimate method of describing the real world. In other words, it starts from a doggedly third-person (“objective”) perspective and, as such, it is almost honour-bound to look askance at something as mysterious and incorporeal as the so-called inner realm. Typically it seeks to define the inner out of existence, reducing it to either behaviour or brain-states (or sometimes a combination of the two). So to say “I am heart-broken” is either a disguised description of how I am behaving, or a theoretical statement about what I suspect is happening in my brain. Understandably, many have felt that such accounts do scant justice to the human condition. They don't so much throw out the baby with the bath water as chuck away the baby while carefully ensuring that not a drop of water is spilt.

Wittgenstein and the Inner

Wittgenstein refuses to throw in his lot with either camp. So, on one side, he seeks to expose the deep incoherence of the inner realm as constructed by Idealists. They have (he claims) taken our ordinary talk of thoughts, feelings and sensations and turned it into a bewitching fantasy land. As an alternative, he invites us to look at the actual role played in our lives by talk of the inner. In which contexts does it take place? What are its consequences? If we do this, he suggests, we will see that, despite certain superficial similarities, the language-games we play in relation to the inner are importantly different from the ones we play when talking about physical objects and processes. They simply do not amount to the same thing.

So far this just sounds like an argument in favour of some form Materialism – most likely Behaviourism. But that is to misunderstand the depth of the distinction Wittgenstein wants us to draw between talk of the inner and talk of physical objects. And actually Wittgenstein accuses Idealists and Materialists of making the same basic error in this regard: they both work from a mistakenly narrow view of how language functions. More specifically, they both tacitly assume that the essence of language is to describe states of affairs (“The general form of a proposition is: This is how things stand”, TLP, 4.5). So the Idealist assumes that when we talk about (eg) our feelings we are describing how things stand in a way that's directly analogous to describing a physical situation; the latter deals with physical objects while the former deals with non-physical (“mental”, “phenomenal”, “logical”) ones. The Materialist (rightly) disputes the coherence of positing such non-physical entities, but is then drawn to ask “So what are we describing here?” – since it is taken for granted that we must be describing something. And now the only plausible candidate seems to be: more physical objects. Hence our talk of the inner is really talk of the physical world in disguise, and the common belief in feelings, etc, is a kind of superstition (“folk-psychology”) which ought to be translated into physical language (behaviour, brain-states, etc) in the interests of objectivity. But this is an absurd outcome, and we are likely to have some sympathy with the interlocutor's impassioned retort at §296:
[…] but there is a Something there all the same, which accompanies my cry of pain! And it is on account of this that I utter it. And this Something is what is important – and frightful.”
And now we're back where we started.

How do we escape from this impasse? At §304 Wittgenstein offers us this:
The paradox disappears only if we make a radical break with the idea that language always functions in one way, always serves the same purpose: to convey thoughts – which may be about houses, pains, good and evil, or whatever.
In other words, language is not always and forever about describing (our thoughts about) states of affairs. This I think is a crucial comment in the private language “chapter”, and it is important to keep it in mind throughout the discussion. (It actually draws upon points made way back in §§23-27, and §24 explicitly flags up solipsism as a danger inherent in pointlessly assimilating types of sentence so that language always seems to work in one particular way. Now we start to see what Wittgenstein was getting at.)

Wittgenstein and Sensation-Language

I think we can get a deeper appreciation of Wittgenstein's position, and why the question of the inner is so central to his later work, if we consider his philosophical development. And the first thing to mention here is that his early philosophy is thoroughly Idealist (in the sense outlined above). In the Tractatus a proposition makes a thought perceptible (3.1). A thought is a (logical) picture of a possible fact (3), and it is therefore itself a fact (2.141). In other words, a thought, like any other fact, is a combination of simple objects. Notoriously, Wittgenstein says nothing about what simple objects actually are, either as they occur in thoughts or in the world, but it hardly seems a stretch to conclude that we are being presented here with two realms – the inner and the outer – both populated by sets of objects which mirror each other in their combinational possibilities.

But actually the situation is rather stranger than that, for the “outer” realm, as presented in the Tractatus, has more than a whiff of the “inner” about it. Wittgenstein’s simple objects seem equivocal. For one thing, they are not physical objects in a straightforward sense – they are not atoms or anything like that. They are logical objects, and their simplicity is a logical simplicity. As such, they represent the given: what has to exist if language and thought are to be possible. How do we come to know these objects? Wittgenstein doesn't say, but he probably follows something like Russell's theory of knowledge by acquaintance, which is itself part of his wider theory of sense data and logical atomism. We experience objects, and we do so with a directness that excludes doubt. If that is not the case then it becomes impossible to compare a picture with reality in order to see if it is correct. Why? Because if doubt was possible we would always need a further picture (or proposition) to determine the accuracy of the previous one.

All this makes logical objects seem perilously close to sensation-objects. Wittgenstein would have denied, however, that he was presenting an Idealist theory in the sense of, say, Berkeley's Principles of Human Knowledge – and he would have done so on logical grounds. It is of the essence of objects that they combine to form facts, and these facts must be real, they must be more than mere impressions, or else they couldn't be pictured. The reality of objects is a condition of the possibility of picturing, and the possibility of picturing is a condition of the possibility of thought itself. So, on the one hand, objects must be at least akin to phenomena, but, on the other hand, they also must give rise to an objectively real world. “These concepts: proposition, language, thought, world, stand in a line one behind the other, each equivalent to each” (§96), and each vouchsafes the reality of the others. And the glue that holds everything together is logical form: propositional form, pictorial form, objective form.

The Tractatus was finished by 1918 and published in 1921; Wittgenstein returned to philosophy in January 1929, ostensibly to clear up some minor difficulties with the work pointed out by FP Ramsey. Remarkably quickly, however, consideration of those “minor” difficulties led to the unravelling of the work's whole structure. Equally remarkable is how soon Wittgenstein began to identify talk of the inner as a crucial part of the problem. As early as that summer we get:
It is as if the phenomenological language led me into a bewitched swamp where everything tangible disappears. (MS 105, p116)
And then, the following October:
The worst philosophical mistakes come always about when one wants to apply our usual —physical — language in the field of the immediately given. […] All our ways of speaking are borrowed from the normal physical language and are not to be used in epistemology or phenomenology without putting the subject to a wrong light. (MS 107, p160)

By 1933 his new philosophical method has developed substantially, and we get a somewhat broader formulation: “In the theories and battles of philosophy we find words whose meanings are well-known to us from everyday life used in an ultra-physical sense” (Big Typescript, §91). And, more strikingly still: “An entire mythology is laid down in our language” (ibid, §93).

I think reflection on this development helps explain certain features of the Philosophical Investigations. First, it is striking (to someone reading the book in 2017) how little time Wittgenstein devotes to undermining reductive, Materialist approaches to the inner. He is, of course, aware of Behaviourism, talk of brain-states, etc, and he provides devastating remarks about their lack of coherence. But he does so almost in passing, and compared to the detailed, sustained assault he mounts on the inner realm there's something cursory about his treatment of such topics. Now I think we can see why. It's not just that Materialist explanations have far more cultural purchase in the 21st century than they did in the '30s and '40s; Wittgenstein's whole philosophical milieu was steeped in a thoroughly sublimated conception of the inner. It formed the deep-lying, unquestioned background to his early philosophy, and when he came to see it as a fundamental error it was something he had to struggle to break free from.
A picture held us captive. And we couldn't get outside it, for it lay in our language, and language seemed only to repeat it to us inexorably.
Philosophical Investigations, §115
And the “picture” here is the “mythology” of the inner.

Wittgenstein's personal journey away from the logical doctrines of the Tractatus and into the “bewitched swamp” of the inner is echoed in the Investigations itself. In §§134-137 he conducts a brief, scathing demolition of propositional form. But as I mentioned above, in the Tractatus logical form is the glue that binds everything together. If propositional form is a mirage, then what becomes of pictorial form? And that, of course, is the form which runs through our thoughts (qua pictures) and ensures their harmony with both our language and the world. So questioning propositional form brings us abruptly up against our conception of the inner and the role it plays in our lives. Investigating this sprawling, interconnected web of concepts is the predominant task of the rest of the book.

As we have seen, he begins at §138 with the concept of understanding. This is one of the “psychological” words from group (a) above. The mythology of the inner presents understanding to us as a state or process; understanding a word involves coming into possession of an inner sample, or rule, which dictates our future use of that word, and is accompanied by a characteristic experience of understanding which lets us know that we do now understand. (These two notions of possession and knowledge will reappear in the private language discussion.) There are numerous everyday turns of phrase that, at least on the surface, strengthen the appeal of this picture (the one Wittgenstein considers most closely is “now I can go on”). Be that as it may, if we consider the fundamental grammar involved we see that the criterion for ascribing understanding is not the attainment of an inner object or state, but reliably correct performance. If I exclaim “I've got it!” but then go on to make a hash of things we would typically (but not always) say that I hadn't understood after all. Feeling you understand isn't the same as actually understanding.

From about §185 the discussion focuses more narrowly on rule-following, but the struggle against the mythology of the inner continues. For it is tempting to construe a rule as a kind of logical machine, residing in the mind (the machine in the ghost), which relentlessly churns out correct applications. But this is just a poetic response to the impressive way in which we can come to follow rules blindly and without effort. Our fluency is not the result of some logical form that ripples through all possible worlds, ensuring that everything moves in perfect step. It is a thoroughly contingent fact about the abilities of (most) human beings – part of our natural history. As such, it is not the result of the rule; it is part of the broad context within which rules exist. Moreover, the rule does not produce correct applications, for although the rule gives a standard of correctness it only does so as part of a practice or custom which establishes what counts as correctly following the rule. To put it another way, you can explain the moves of the game in terms of its rules, but you can also explain the game's rules in terms of its moves. The two hang together and co-define each other. Rule-following is not an intrusion of sublime purity into the sordid world of sweat and mud, made possible by a miraculous go-between called the mind. It depends on the shared practices, reactions and judgements of living creatures.

To ascribe understanding to someone is not to hypothesize about her inner state, and to follow a rule is not to be compelled by an inner logical machine. But what about the items from group (b) mentioned above: our moods, emotions and sensations? Here things seem less clear-cut. For example, we might be willing to accept that the various sensations and mental processes attendant upon understanding are concomitant rather than definitional (§152), but it is hard to see how that can be true of something like pain. For surely the criterion for the correct use of “I am in pain” is that when I say it I am in pain? And doesn't the same go for the other words aligned to group (b): anger, joy, boredom, and so on? Here then we seem to have found a section of our language which cuts across Wittgenstein's claims about meaning as use, or at least perhaps where the use of the word is directly correlated with the object it represents.

This suggestion is bolstered by an obvious aspect of sensation-objects: their immediacy. With physical objects it is as if the gap between speaker and object is too great for language to take hold of it directly, and so an indirect approach (use) might be the best we can manage. Our experience of sensation-objects, however, has an immediacy about it which makes plausible the idea that a word might reach right out to the thing it names – be pinned to it, so to speak – so that object and word cannot help but dance in unison. And now all of a sudden we are surprisingly close to saying that the sensation-object is the given, and that its name mirrors its behaviour as a matter of necessity, because they both share the same underlying form.

Such a regression would be awkward enough, but it might also easily become the thin end of the wedge. For example, I mentioned above that the category “sensation-language” can include striking experiences of the outer world, though perhaps not mundane ones. Yet even the commonest experiences – tying your laces, watching water swirl down the plughole, the sound of the wind in the trees – might sometimes be striking. We're probably all familiar with the slightly uncanny experience of a normally unremarkable event leaping out at us; it seems to reveal itself as something remarkable after all, something we'd overlooked in the shrill clamour of everyday life. And this in turn can lead us on to conclude that every experience is a sensation, if only we pay close enough attention – and now, of course, all our talk of the outer world becomes subsumed under the heading of sensation-language. We are back where we started.

So unless Wittgenstein tackles this crucial case head-on, there will always remain the suspicion that his account of language is holed beneath the water-line. The idea of a private language is raised in §243 as a theoretical off-shoot of our actual linguistic practices, but it always seems in danger of taking over the whole show. Indeed, it is noticeable that its status shifts to and fro during the discussion. At times the question is: could there be such a thing? But at other times it is discussed as if was the language we actually do use – and not just when talking about straightforward sensations. For after “pain” the most commonly cited example is “red”, and if colour words are allowed to be private it's hard to see what's going to be left out of the picture.

Pyrrhic Victories, Pyrrhic Defeats

Let's finish by returning to the Materialist/Idealist debate and asking a basic question: what's really at stake here? It certainly seems an issue of first-rate importance, but is that actually true?
For Idealists, confronting the claims of Materialists can be genuinely disturbing, if only because they come dressed in the robes of scientific respectability (whether it's through neuroscience, psychology, genetics or computer science). Standing against them can seem a daunting prospect, like taking on reality itself. At the same time, however, the Materialist translation of the inner into purely physical terms seems self-evidently thin, and perhaps even horrific. Theirs is a hollowed-out world of twitching neurons and data manipulation; a world of genes in cells, not grief in hearts. And so everything that seems to make us significant – thought, feeling and even consciousness – is transformed into a ghastly parody of itself.

The Materialists likewise believe that something important is at stake. They march under the strict imperative of Truth – a post-Enlightenment commitment to following scientific reasoning come what may. For them, the mythology of the inner is a last outpost of superstition and magical thinking, and it is a kind of scandal that in the 21st century we still cling to the idea of the mind as a mysterious conduit between the “divine” and the secular. This is not to deny the astonishing nature of consciousness or thought; it is even conceded that the inner represents a great mystery. But it is a mystery like the composition of the sun used to be – a practical matter for science to clear up through theory, experiment and peer review. And although the resulting post-superstition world might be a less comfortable place, that will be because we have traded in the cheerful illusions of childhood for the sterner duties of full-grown adults.

Put like that, the debate between Idealism and Materialism seems a struggle for the very soul of humanity. At the same time, however, it's hard to shake off the sneaking suspicion that there's something completely bogus about the whole shooting match. For one thing, it rumbles on interminably, punctuated by occasional claims of a decisive breakthrough (usually by the Materialists) that quickly turn out to be another false dawn. This alone suggests that the two sides are not so much engaging with each other as completely talking past each other. But more corrosive still is the thought that the debate is not so much over what we should do as how we should describe what we do. As such, it is an argument without genuine consequence, whichever side wins. Let's suppose, for example, that the Materialists come out on top: we all agree that talk of the inner is just a form of folk-psychology, more properly replaced by descriptions of brain-states, input-processing, etc. But what exactly changes? For sure, we have adopted a new way of talking; instead of “I feel angry” we now say something like “I estimate that my brain-state equates to what was previously called 'anger'.” – But so what? Are we going to stop getting (what was previously called) angry? Should we? And when we do get “angry” are the consequences of that “anger” going to change? Surely not! In which case we have simply swapped our old notation for a new one that sits more comfortably with the broader prejudices of our age.

And yet, and yet.... The above argument is adapted from a line of thought that appears several times in Wittgenstein's later writings, perhaps most witheringly in Zettel, §§413-414:
One man is a convinced realist, another a convinced idealist and teaches his children accordingly. In such an important matter as the existence or non-existence of the external world they don't want to teach their children anything wrong. […] But the idealist will teach his children the word “chair” after all, for of course he wants to teach them to do this and that, eg to fetch a chair. Then where will be the difference between what the idealist-educated children say and the realist ones? Won't the difference only be one of battle cry?

So far as arguments about the reality of the external world are concerned, I think this is pretty devastating. For our form of life there is no such thing as acting upon the conviction that the external world is an illusion, and so we cannot even try to do it. But what about arguments about the reality of the internal world? Do things run on in exactly the same way? Suppose we were brought up from infancy to believe that, though perhaps unavoidable, our everyday talk of thoughts and feelings was so much sentimental bad faith – that in truth we were just machines made of flesh and blood. Certainly this education would be conceptually incoherent; we could not in any thorough-going sense live out our lives according to its precepts. But is there no such thing as trying to act upon the conviction that human beings are simply machines? And if that's possible, what do you suppose might be the outcome? I don't think the answer is at all clear-cut.

What we are discussing here might be put like this: in what sense does Wittgenstein matter? Does his significance extend beyond the lecture hall or not? If all he shows is that philosophers are engaged in a massive academic circle-jerk then so what? Let's just leave them to it. But if there's something substantial at stake – say, the potential for conceptual confusion to facilitate a slow, partial leeching of humanity from our world-view – then obviously his work has a far deeper significance.

In this respect Wittgenstein's philosophy can seem ambiguous. On the one hand we have the “battle cry” argument, which suggests a limit to the ways in which our lives might genuinely change (and it is on this ground that Wittgenstein is sometimes labelled a conservative thinker – a Quietist who seeks to preserve the status quo). Yet the possibility of change – of language-games quite alien to our own – abounds in the Investigations. It is a cornerstone of his attempt to debunk the idea that our current practices reflect an a priori logical form, and is explicitly pointed out in §23: “new types of language, new language-games, as we may say, come into existence, and others become obsolete and get forgotten”. And on a personal level Wittgenstein clearly thought that life had changed – for the worse – over the previous hundred years or so (think of the story about his reaction to the pictures in the bookshop window). Indeed, he saw his philosophy as a struggle against this change, against the spirit of his age – a spirit characterised (as he saw it) by a slide towards superficiality: the worship of science and mere cleverness, as opposed to a deep appreciation of life and the retention of a sense of wonder. That doesn't suggest a man who only wanted to reform the bad habits of academia. Rather, it suggests someone who believed deeply that chasing after chimeras didn't always end in the harmless bathos of the idealist's battle cry. That something important could be lost in the process. That something important was being lost.

Of course, there is an alternative account of Wittgenstein's significance, most clearly put forward by Peter Hacker. According to this version, Wittgenstein's work is valuable because it establishes philosophy as “a Tribunal of Reason, before which scientists and mathematicians may be arraigned for their transgressions”. And this is valuable for all concerned, since it prevents scientists from wasting their time on wild goose-chases. I dispute neither the correctness nor the value of this account, but it seems to miss completely the sense of urgency and profundity that I, for one, find in Wittgenstein's philosophy. For me the Philosophical Investigations is unmistakably the work of a man trying with all his might to get us to see through an illusion, because he believes it is desperately important that we do so. Let me put it this way: if the book's only benefit is that it prevents neuroscientists from giving credence to the engaging clap-trap of Daniel Dennett, then I would consider the countless hours I've spent pouring over it to be a horrible waste of time.

Friday, 10 April 2015

Rules, Norms and Robinson Crusoe

In lieu of a proper post about understanding and rules (it's coming, it's coming), I've posted some rough notes on my other blog concerning rules, norms and the "Robinson Crusoe" debate. I'm not putting them on here as a "proper" post, since they're just me thinking out loud. Still, have a look and see what you think. And, obviously, I'd be grateful for any comments, either here or on the other blog.

Thursday, 2 April 2015

Why Wittgenstein Matters

I hope in due course to say something myself on this topic. In the meantime, however, here's an excellent talk given by my former tutor, Dr Ian Ground, to the Royal Institute of Philosophy last February.

(I am also, by the way, still working on my next post about understanding. Progress is hard and slow, so bear with me.)

Wednesday, 4 February 2015

New Wittgenstein Blog

Adrian Brockless has been running a monthly Wittgenstein reading group for a while now in London. I've not been to a meeting myself, but they've certainly looked interesting (the last topic was rule following, and they're about to discuss Peter Winch's paper on "an attitude towards a soul"). Adrian has just set up a blog to accompany the group's discussions. No posts on it as yet, but hopefully this will be well worth checking out as it develops.

Monday, 20 October 2014

Understanding, States and Correctness

This post considers the negative account of understanding in §§138-242. By “negative account” I mean Wittgenstein's criticism of understanding as a state which governs our use of language. It is not, however, a straightforward description of that criticism as it develops in the Investigations. Instead, I've reordered the arguments in an attempt to bring out their key features – for the more I consider them the more it seems to me that Wittgenstein makes the same (or similar) points over and over again. Or perhaps it would be more accurate to say that the points he makes about a specific type of state turn out to be applicable across the board (and this, of course, is not a coincidence).

My next post will outline Wittgenstein's positive account of understanding – ie, his description of the role the concept plays in our lives and the circumstances within which it operates. Hopefully that won't take me ten months to write.


Let's start with the interlocutor's remark in §138:

But we understand the meaning of a word when we hear or say it; we grasp the meaning at a stroke, and what we grasp in this way is surely something different from the 'use' which is extended in time!

Why does this represent a challenge to Wittgenstein's claim that the meaning of a word is it's use in the language (§43)? Well, consider the following exchange between Lee and Jones:
Lee: I bought a piccolo today.
Jones: What does 'piccolo' mean?
Lee: This is a piccolo:
[Lee takes a piccolo out of his bag and shows Jones.]

At once the penny drops. Jones understands the meaning of the word “piccolo” at a stroke; she has grasped not merely what Lee meant in his specific remark, but how the word is to be used in a vast (indeed infinite) range of possible applications. But if that is so then how can meaning be use? Jones didn't study the use of the word in order to grasp its meaning – indeed her understanding seems prior to the use she will now go on to make of it. We might put it more strongly: how could a study of use (ie, what has happened in a relatively tiny number of past occasions) possibly determine how a word will function in an infinity of potential future cases?

Such thoughts can be built upon in a number of ways (as we shall see), but four points stand out:

  1. The above account presents understanding as an entity of some kind. As such, it readily suggests that understanding is a state. Jones was in one state before she understood, and acquiring the “entity” moved her into a new state: the state of understanding.
  2. The State governs our use of words. We use them as we do because we're in a particular state.
  3. The state enables us to use a word correctly. It is because Jones has acquired the entity that she can now respond to “piccolo” correctly when someone else uses it, and will also use it correctly herself. So the state must provide a standard of correctness against which usage can be assessed. Inevitably, this raises the issue of rules, since using a word correctly simply is using it in accordance with the relevant rule. So what is grasped at the moment of understanding would seem to be the rule itself (in some form or other). The state of understanding requires the possession of, and correcting functioning of, a rule.
  4. Achieving understanding seems to require a mental act of comprehension; the “entity” didn't merely fall into Jones – she grasped it. She not only saw the entity, she understood its meaning. She was conscious of the fact that she could now go on to use the word correctly.
Taken together, these points outline a foundational theory of understanding. But of course we still need to fill in the details: what sort of state are we talking about? In what sense does it govern use? And how does it provide a standard of correctness? As we shall see, the heart of Wittgenstein's objection to this whole approach lies in an unbearable tension arising out of the answers to these last two questions.

Physical States

We'll consider physical states first, if only because they seem the least mysterious option on offer. Here we are talking about “a state of an apparatus” (§149) such that it produces a given output for a given input. In the case of humans, the apparatus in question is held to be the brain, but it's worth noting that the theory doesn't rule out the existence of understanding in inorganic structures such as computers. For us, however, the process runs as follows: when we hear a word, the brain receives it as an input (or stimulus) which causes various neurological reactions (or processing), resulting in an output (or response). Clearly this account offers an explanation as to how the state governs use: it is a causal process. But how does it budget for correctness? Well, the state represents the rule for the use of the word. The rule is encoded into the brain's neurological structure just as the rules encoded into an iPhone's circuits allow Siri to answer our questions. The correct set of rules, properly encoded, results in the correct response for a particular verbal stimulus. Obviously our current understanding of the brain is too coarse to enable us to identify the detailed workings of these rules, but part of the theory's force lies in the thought that they must be there, or else understanding would seem to lie outside the realm of natural laws. It would be not simply mysterious but akin to magic (cf §158).

The first problem to note with this account is that it means my own understanding is hidden from me. I have no access to the rule I need to follow in order to use a word correctly (cf §153). So at best I can only infer that I understand a word – or we might say that I interpret my current state to be one of understanding. Likewise, when I use a word I can only infer that I'm using it correctly; I interpret its meaning in such-and-such a way. But from what do I make these inferences? What are my interpretations based upon? Consider a normal case of interpretation: I'm presented with the sentence “The cit purred and licked her paws”. Here I can easily infer that “cit” means “cat” (perhaps it's a typo). But the situation we're now presented with is one in which all our words need to be interpreted. So I'm not just inferring the meaning of “cit”; I'm also inferring the meaning of “inferring”. (And “meaning”. And “word”. And “and”.) It is difficult to make any sense of the phrase “I infer that by 'infer' I mean infer”. Worse still, the meaning of any interpretation I come up with will itself need to be interpreted, and so will the interpretation of my interpretation. And so on.

In fact, this same objection holds against the basic idea that the rules of language are encoded in our brains. Given that we have a language which is not a code, it's a simple enough job to decode a sequence like “Gl yv li mlg gl yv”. Likewise, it is because we have language in uncoded form that we can built coded versions of its rules into iPhones and PCs. But if all language everywhere is a code then the process of decoding can never end – and that amounts to saying that there's no such thing as a code in the first place. And no such thing as language, either. The concepts of interpretation, inference and encoding only make sense within a framework where there are some things which are not interpreted, inferred or encoded. The former are parasitic upon the latter. If you try to make them the fundamental basis for language then language itself collapses in a heap.

It's important to realise that the basic problem lies with the need for a standard of correctness. The physical state hides the rules of language, but you cannot follow a rule if you don't know what it is. And while it is possible to act in accordance with a rule without knowing that it exists, this can only happen within a broader practice of rule-following. Because the physical state makes following a rule impossible, it also makes acting in accordance with a rule impossible. And that, at bottom, is why notions such as interpretation can get no purchase here; we are attempting to act in accordance with a rule when there is no such thing as following it. In such a situation, the very notion of a rule disappears.

What this comes down to is that brain processes do not amount to rules. They may well operate according to causal laws, but there is a categorical distinction between rules and laws of nature. You don't need to know the laws of gravity in order to fall at 9.8 metres per second per second. And there is no such thing as correctly (or incorrectly) following that law. A causal process might do what we hoped or disappoint us; it might operate as predicted or might surprise us. But it cannot make a mistake. Therefore a causal process cannot provide a standard of correctness for usage, and therefore it cannot provide a foundational account of understanding.

Function and Behaviour

But it might be objected that we're needlessly over-complicating things. There's a much simpler way to allow for correctness in relation to physical states and processes. All that's required is for the outputs to be properly calibrated – that is, given the same input, the individual states reliably produce the same output. From this point of view it doesn't even matter if the states in question are completely different; after all, mobile phones can be constructed in numerous different ways but that doesn't bother us. It's the function that counts.

Interestingly, this approach leaves us in some doubt as to the precise criteria for specifying understanding. Our starting point was that understanding is a state; find the state and you've found the thing itself. But switching the focus towards function muddies the waters. Now it seems that understanding is a state plus the output (ie, behaviour). And since the state can take any number of different forms it seems to be the output which is doing all the heavy lifting here. The requisite state is merely whichever one happens to be in place when correctly calibrated outputs are produced. Doesn't it thereby drop out of the picture so far as defining understanding is concerned? Can't we say that understanding is simply correct behaviour? Or is there something important about the fact that the behaviour is produced – ie, that it's linked to inputs via the state? Should we take an inclusive approach and say that understanding is something which emerges out of the process as a whole, so that the total “system” includes all the linguistic interactions between people?

However, the real problem with this account is not which part to designate as the essence of understanding. The whole approach fails because, again, it cannot provide a standard of correctness. To say that we can generate a standard of correctness by properly calibrating outputs simply presupposes a standard – ie, we're assuming that the meaning of “properly calibrated” has already been settled. But that's precisely what we're supposed to be explaining! It's no help to say an output is right if it accords with everyone else's, because we've yet to fix what counts as “being in accordance with” in any given case. Here it's tempting to say that they're in accordance if they're the same – but this takes us in a circle, because whether two things count as “the same” depends on whether they are both in accordance with a particular rule. So we're defining “accords with” in terms of “the same” and “the same” in terms of “accords with”!

This brings out the significance of Wittgenstein's remarks on sameness which are dotted throughout §§138-242 (see §208, §§215-216 and §§224-227). It is tempting to suppose that the sameness of any two objects is an intrinsic feature of the world – something we can simply “read off” by regarding the objects themselves. From this point of view, a rule would be a description of the feature in question, and whether or not it was a correct rule would depend on how accurately it described the feature. So, for example, the rule “This = 'red'” would successfully correlate the word “red” with red objects because such objects were intrinsically the same as . The sample merely described redness and the rest followed as a matter of course. But, as we're already seen when discussing ostensive definition, this doesn't work as a foundational account because without a pre-established context the definition achieves nothing at all (cf §§28-31). In this case, the context is that the box is a sample of a particular colour and that we already know what counts as “being the same colour”. In different circumstances the rule would have had an entirely different effect. Likewise, if someone buys two copies of the morning paper has he bought two things once or one thing twice? That is, are we to classify the two papers as “the same” or “different”? The answer, of course, depends on why we're asking; it cannot be divorced from the activity in which the question arises. What a rule achieves depends on the context in which it is applied; it is woven into the way we live, the way we interact with things (with colours, for example). It does not function as a description.

But the function/behaviour approach implicitly assumes that rules describe “sameness” as an intrinsic feature of the world, and therefore, in themselves, provide a context-independent standard of correctness. All you need is the rule; the rest takes care of itself. But if you do not specify in advance what is to count as “being the same” (ie, “being in accordance with”) then any response can be classified as “the same” – or “different” – according to some formulation or other. It's easy to overlook this point because the examples of “sameness” used are extremely typical, and so we readily imagine a context in which they would be correct. But it is therefore we who are providing the standard of correctness. And this brings us back to our earlier point: far from showing how the input/process/output model gives rise to correctness, it simply presupposes what it is claiming to explain.

Mental States

Since the mechanistic causality of physical states presents an insurmountable difficulty, might not mental states prove more accommodating? Certainly there is something appealing about this idea. The mental realm offers something less rigid, something stranger – it is (we suppose) a nebulous realm whose workings we don't quite understand and yet seem capable of near miraculous results. This connects with the thought that, at best, a mechanical system can merely manipulate dead signs; you need the mind to breath life into the process and turn it into meaningful language (cf, the Blue Book, p3-4). And, in a way, such a transformation simply represents the move from mere causal “happenings” to correct or incorrect use. For unless our use of words can be right or wrong they cannot be meaningful – indeed, they do not even count as words. They are just bleats or scratches on a page.

Of course, in proposing mental states as a way forward we must be careful to avoid the difficulties we've already encountered. So, for example, such states must not operate in a causal or quasi-causal manner; a mental mechanism is no more helpful than a physical one. Likewise, a hidden state (or process) will be no use to us; that would simply re-introduce the absurdity of language as constant interpretation. Yet we still need to account for the way in which the state governs behaviour and produces a standard of correctness against which such behaviour can be judged.

Taken together, these requirements point us towards the linked notions of guidance (as opposed to causation) and characteristic experiences (as opposed to hidden processes). This picture can be fleshed out in a number of ways, but roughly speaking it hinges on the idea that we are directly aware of our understanding; we feel it. And this feeling guides us in our use of words. It suggests one use rather than another.

As usual, the devil is in the details. For example, is the feeling we get understanding itself? – in which case, we only understand a word while we're experiencing that feeling, which seems absurd. Or is it merely an indication that we understand? – in which case our actual understanding again seems hidden from us. Moreover, is there even such a thing as a characteristic experience of understanding? Do you have a characteristic experience every single time you hear the word “dog” or “the”?

Wittgenstein spends a considerable amount of time undermining the plausibility of the whole account, but it seems to me that it falls on two basic points he makes regarding correctness. First of all, feeling you understand isn't the same as understanding. Being sure you're right isn't the same as being right. Thinking you're following a rule isn't the same as following it (§202). If it was then there would be no way of settling disputes over rules, and therefore no standard of correctness for their use. Secondly, insofar as the experience guides me, it again fails to provide a standard of correctness, because “if it can guide me right, it can also guide me wrong” (§213). Guidance is not enough; I still need a means of evaluating it. And, of course, that cannot take the form of further guidance, because then I would need a means of evaluating the guidance about the guidance.

We've ended up back at the familiar regress, and this should alert us to the fact that “guidance” here is playing a similar role to inference and interpretation in earlier accounts. Guidance suggests an application of a rule, and that is akin to being offered an interpretation. But (we might object) can't guidance tell us what to do? Obviously it can, but then it's either up to us whether we do as we're told or we have no choice in the matter. In the former case, we need a standard of correctness by which to decide if it is right to obey. In the latter case, there's no question of a standard because we're again in a rigidly determined system. Our discussion repeatedly brings us back to this dilemma: either the state governs use in a rigid way, in which case there cannot be right or wrong usage; or else it leaves the final decision up to us, in which case we have no firm basis for a decision since that's precisely what the state is supposed to be providing.


But doesn't this introduce the role of the mental in the wrong way? Perhaps all this talk of characteristic experiences is besides the point. After all, item (iv) on our list spoke of mental acts rather than a passive awareness of sensations – isn't that what we need to add in order to provide a standard of correctness? This is what the interlocutor is getting at in §186 when he says, “The right step is the one that is in accordance with the order – as it was meant.” And it's a suggestion that brings us back to the difference between dead signs and living language. When I say something I don't just respond to a stimulus like a bell ringing at the push of a button; I talk about things and I mean what I say. And this meaning is (it seems) a conscious act which, inter alia, specifies how you should respond to my words. If you do so correctly (ie, as I meant it) then you've understood. Understanding, therefore, is the mental act of grasping the intention behind the word.

Hence (it seems) it is the mental act of meaning which supplies a standard of correctness and transforms dead signs into living language. But what do we actually mean here by “mental act”? What sort of act are we talking about? The answer seems to be something like picturing to ourselves what we mean by our words. As Wittgenstein (discussing “red”) rather scathingly puts it, “It is as if, when I uttered the word, I cast a sidelong glance at my own colour impression, as it were, in order to say to myself: I know all right what I mean by the word” (§274).

The most obvious objection to this account is that it doesn't seem to fit the facts. In the flow of a normal conversation we're not aware of performing acts of meaning relating to individual words or even groups of words. Perhaps (we might say) the acts go by too quickly to be noticed, or maybe they're performed subconsciously. But this just brings us back (yet again) to the problem of hidden criteria. If meaning is provided by associating a word with a sample and I'm not aware of making this association then how do I know what I mean by my words? The sample is supposed to be the rule that I follow, but, as we've seen, I cannot follow a rule of which I am unaware.

Even setting aside the issue of hiddenness, however, could the mental act achieve what we require of it? When the interlocutor introduces the subject of intention in §186, Wittgenstein immediately brushes it aside:
But that is just what is in question: what, at any stage, does follow from that sentence. Or, again, what at any stage we are to call “being in accordance” with it.

And consider in this context §239:
How is he to know what colour he is to pick out when he hears “red”? – Quite simple: he is to take the colour whose image occurs to him when he hears the word. – But how is he to know which colour it is 'whose image occurs to him'? Is a further criterion needed for that?

In other words, simply associating a word with a mental sample (or rule) isn't enough – it has to be the correct sample. Yet again, the process we posited in order to inject correctness into language itself requires a prior standard in order to make it work.

Let's pause a moment and consider the act of intending a bit more closely. I said it was a kind of picturing, but what might that involve? Here are three suggestions:
  1. I picture the object I mean by the word.
  2. I picture the use to which the word should be put.
  3. I picture both the object and its use as complementary parts of a whole.
How might the act described in (i) work? It seems to be a case of projecting the pictured object as a sample. If the picture is grasped by the hearer, she will use it to identify the appropriate objects in the world. But this just takes us back to where we were regarding the calibration of outputs. Which objects count as the appropriate ones? We are again trying to use a rule as a description, and so its status as a standard of correctness is either missing or assumed. Options (ii) and (iii) seek to rectify things by picturing the rule's application (it should be borne in mind that the “picture” need not be a literal one). But this amounts to providing a second rule for the application of the first – so the question now arises as to the application of the new rule. The regress has reappeared. (We are, in fact, right back in the difficulty described in §§139-141 and §146. See Understanding Part 1: Pictures for more on this.) Moreover, these aren't just problems for the person hearing the words; they apply to the speaker as well. Neither party has a standard of correctness and so neither can tell the meaning of what's said. (§504: “But if someone says, 'How am I to know what he means – I see only his signs?', then I say, 'How is he to know what he means, he too has only his signs?'”)

Still, it might be objected that we're not doing justice to the mental act. Of course it's not just about inwardly looking at a sign while uttering a word. How could anyone think that that would be enough? It's about meaning that the picture (or sample or rule) ought to be applied in a particular way. So this “meaning” is something that happens alongside paying attention to the picture. But what is this something extra? Wittgenstein brings out the strangeness of the claim in §332: “Utter a sentence, and think it; utter it with understanding. – And now don't utter it, and just do what you accompanied it with when you uttered it with understanding!” And again in §510: “Try to do the following: say 'It's cold here', and mean 'It's warm here'. Can you do it? – And what are you doing as you do it? And is there only one way of doing it?” The point, of course, is that whatever we end up trying is utterly unlike anything we'd be prepared to call “an act of meaning”. The very notion of meaning or intending as a substantive act begins to appear hollow.

At this point we are flirting with arguments which are given their fullest expression in the sections on private language (§§243-315), so I'm reluctant to delve into too much detail in this post. But I hope I've said enough at least to indicate how the interlocutor's account of intention struggles to fulfil its mission.

Logical Compulsion

Maybe, however, we're still looking at the mind in the wrong way. We've been talking about psychological laws and processes, and these are inevitably analogous to physical ones – so it's only to be expected that the same problems would emerge in both accounts. But isn't the important thing about the mind the fact that it is the medium by which we apprehend the underlying logic of things? We need a non-causal process which nonetheless does more than simply guide us; doesn't the notion of logical compulsion provide us with just this feature? For the force of logic is imperative yet not causal. Consider a typical logical statement such as “-(P˄-P)”. You cannot have both “P” and “not-P” at the same time. We are (somehow) forced to acknowledge the statement's truth – we cannot help but see that it is correct, that it must be correct. And yet this is not a matter of causation; if anything, the compulsion runs deeper than that. It is not founded upon the contingent laws of nature but upon the necessary structure of the world. It provides the framework within which such contingent laws can exist.

Tracing through the implications of this for language can take many forms, but the basic idea is that somehow logic locks words into a descriptive relationship with the world. Let's return for a moment to the distinction between language and dead signs. Seeing how the latter can become the former means answering a simple question: how do signs work? How is it that scratches on a page or emitted sounds actually mean something? How is it that they describe the world? Well, in the case of the Tractatus, it's a matter of logical structure. Names (which correspond to simples) are combined in a way that matches the logical structure of what they depict. They mirror the essence of a possible state of affairs. It is vital here that what is mirrored is a logical structure. That is what gives the connection its peculiar depth. Logic, we might say, acts as a kind of force which binds the two together in a depicting/depicted relationship. It adds an imperative quality to what otherwise would merely be a contingent likeness. So given that a particular mark or sound is being used as a sign, you must see that it represents such-and-such a state of affairs. Of course, this account doesn't explain anything. As an answer to “How do signs depict?” it amounts to replying “They just do”. And the Tractatus, at least, is audaciously upfront about this: you cannot say how the sign depicts. It shows that it does so by exhibiting the requisite logical form. This might seem unsatisfactory, but it must be the case because (the argument goes) it is a condition of the possibility of language itself.

The problems with this account are frustratingly familiar. First, it presents us with a sign which is a description of a possible state of affairs and yet which has the imperative quality of a rule. As such, it implicitly rests upon the idea of intrinsic sameness, and so it presupposes its standard of correctness. It says, in effect, that because the sign and state of affairs share a structure we cannot help but see that they're the same. But to say they share a structure is just another way of saying they're the same, and “they're the same because they're the same” says nothing. We still need to know what counts as “sharing a structure”.

It might be objected here that we've overlooked the sublime nature of logic; it is precisely because we're dealing with a logical force rather than an empirical one that this problem doesn't arise. Logic just is the realm in which the notion of intrinsic sameness holds good. Aside from the fact that this makes logic look uncomfortably like magic, it runs headlong into our other perennial problem: if logic creates an unbreakable bond between the sign and what it signifies then how is a mistake possible? Yet again we have produced an account of language which is too rigid to allow for the notion of correctness. And, as before, if we attempt to soften things – by an appeal to the guiding inner voice of “intuition”, for example – then we're left without a foundation for our judgements. Each guiding voice needs another to underwrite its advice.

We can express this as a problem arising from the fact that we're treating the sign as both a description and a rule. If you treat a description as a rule then its connection with what it describes is too rigid to allow for mistakes. But if you treat a rule as a description then it loses its imperative force and always stands in need of something further to justify its function. Rules and descriptions are conceptually distinct; running them together produces only chaos.


We have traced the idea of understanding as a state through various permutations, and each time we've been confronted by a similar set of difficulties, all of which centre upon the need to account for correctness. This suggests that the problem does not stem from choosing the wrong type of state, or misrepresenting its workings. It is far more fundamental than that. So where have we gone wrong?

Well, in a sense we have been misled by the very question we're trying to answer, viz: what is understanding? It's one of those questions that, according to Wittgenstein, produces in us a mental cramp. “We feel that we can't point to anything in reply to them and yet ought to point to something” (Blue Book, p1). He then remarks “We are up against one of the greatest sources of philosophical bewilderment: a substantive makes us look for a thing that corresponds to it”. And that's precisely our position regarding understanding; a form of expression (“we grasp the meaning at a stroke”) tempted us into treating it as a kind of entity. Of course, we weren't sure what type of entity we were dealing with, so we began to produce various hypotheses concerning its nature: it must be a physical state, or a functional state, a mental state, and so on. But the one constant amongst all this was that we were investigating a thing, and that by itself locked us into a particular way of considering it. Understanding, whatever its precise form, was a discrete entity which could be considered in isolation from its surroundings. It was context-independent. And insofar as it exhibited influence over other things, such as behaviour, it would do so in what was essentially a rigid, mechanical relationship.

And because understanding is bound up with grasping and following rules, those rules were themselves treated as things – mechanistic structures processing inputs in the brain or the mind or a platonic realm of logical compulsion. At the same time, however, these rules were assumed to function as descriptions, so that the computation was a matter of comparing a rule with a context-independent reality (either the reality of things being “thus and so” or the reality of the output which commonly followed from the relevant input). This act of comparison could only get off the ground if it was assumed that “sameness” or “being in accord with” was an intrinsic feature of the world, so that a standard of correctness was automatically provided along with the rule itself. That is, given a particular rule, it could not possibly be seen as anything other than a picture of such-and-such, and so there could be no doubt as to whether it was being correctly applied on any specific occasion.

Unravelling this illusion begins at §28 with the remark that “an ostensive definition can be variously interpreted in any case”. The ramifications of this simple observation echo throughout the Investigations in a variety of associated contexts; see, for example, §§85-87, §139, §§162-164 and §186. But the underlying point remains constant: a rule (or sample or picture) does not come with its method of application built into it. Imagining that it does so amounts to sublimating the concept; it turns the rule into something occult and utterly mysterious. And once this illusion is dispelled the whole mythology which has been built on top of it collapses. A rule cannot function as a description and therefore cannot state a context-independent fact (indeed, there are no context-independent facts). A rule is not itself a thing, so understanding the meaning of a word cannot be a matter of possessing this thing. Therefore understanding cannot be a state, for that was just another way of saying that understanding meant possessing (in some form or other) a rule. This is why normative explanations cannot be reduced to causes or rigid processes; they represent categorically different types of explanation, and the attempt to run them together only yields confusion (it's an example of what Wittgenstein calls “the crossing of different pictures” in §191).

And that, in turn, is why the switch from causation to something less rigid (guidance, interpretation, inference, etc) gets us nowhere. It introduces an alien type of explanation into the causal account. At the same time, it strips these new notions from their customary framework where they function alongside other, more direct practices. But it is only within this wider framework that they make sense; guidance is grounded in practices which are not themselves guidance, and the same goes for interpretation and inference (cf §1: “Explanations come to an end somewhere”). When we illicitly import them into the causal account, we expect them to provide a foundation for understanding, and this is precisely what they cannot do. Cut free from their own foundations they produce a regress whereby meaning itself vanishes into thin air: each interpretation requires a further interpretation and any response can be brought into accord with any rule according to some interpretation or other. In this situation, language collapses and with it go even our most basic concepts.

All this amounts to a damning indictment of the idea that we can found our concepts in a context-free description of reality – that we can start with “brute facts” about the world and show how features such as “understanding”, “knowing” and “meaning” arise out of them. (Think of the Tractatus: the facts are just there, and the philosopher's job is to explain how language reflects them.) The temptation to take this approach is built into the initial question: What is understanding? It doesn't express puzzlement about this or that aspect of understanding; it is not a question which arises out of a concrete difficulty. So it is unlike (eg) “What are the physical processes which underpin understanding?”. It is a question without a context and therefore invites a context-free answer. It is an example of the “engine idling” (§132), and the response it tempts us to make doesn't just fail to provide a convincing answer; nor does it merely destroy the concept it is trying to explain; it makes concepts themselves impossible – including the concept of brute facts. It is a response which brings itself into disrepute.

The context-free question is, we might say, a paradigmatically philosophical question. If, therefore, there's no legitimate way of answering it, that amounts to saying there's no such thing as philosophy itself. For Wittgenstein, however, the correct response is to describe the various contexts in which the relevant concept operates – the complex role it plays in our lives. So the answer is neither context-free nor an attempt to produce a single description covering all possible circumstances. And it is this approach which forms the basis of his positive account of understanding.