Sunday, 12 September 2021

The Private Language Argument II: Pain and Knowledge: §§246-250

As we saw in the previous post, the private language discussion brings along with it a critique of the “object-in-a-box" conception of mind, and it is this latter conception that Wittgenstein turns to in §§246-255 (with a detour concerning a priori propositions in §§251-252). In §§246-250 he discusses pain in relation to knowledge, and in §§253-255 considers the grammar of possession as it applies to pain. Both these passages aim at breaking down the hugely tempting idea that sensations are basically inner objects – that we possess them and know about them in a way which is broadly analogous to our knowledge and possession of physical objects. The problems connected with this idea will feed directly into the discussion of the private language itself, which begins at §256. 

 

Subverting the Paradigm 


In §246, Wittgenstein asks “In what sense are my sensations private?” I suspect that most people would readily agree with the interlocutor’s reply: “only I can know whether I am really in pain; another person can only surmise it”. This view ties in with two obvious facts: when you are in pain I don’t feel it, and when I am in pain I certainly do feel it. It’s tempting to build upon these simple observations in the following way: not only do I know that I am in pain, but this represents a paradigm example of knowledge to which other cases merely approximate. My knowledge of my own pain is immediate and unfailingly correct, whereas my knowledge of your pain is indirect and prone to error. 


But Wittgenstein is having none of it: “In one way this is false, and in another nonsense”. It’s false in the sense that we often do know that others are in pain – and others often know it about us. And it’s nonsense because the statement “I know I am in pain” is at best a misbegotten way of saying “I am in pain”. So in a few brief words, Wittgenstein subverts the traditional philosophical paradigm: others can know that I am in pain, and it makes no sense to say that I know it about myself. 


But is this correct? We might argue against it as follows. The world consists of innumerable facts, which can be divided into two groups: those I know and those I don’t know. Every fact is either known or unknown. If I am in pain, that is undeniably a fact about me, so now the question is: do I know it or not? Clearly it would be absurd to suppose that I might not know I was in pain, therefore I do know it. I know that I’m in pain. 


This could be called the “passive” account of knowledge – “passive” because it is not concerned with knowledge as something active in our lives. Knowledge is either there or it isn’t; any consequences are beside the point. Put like that, we can see how knowledge is being treated as a kind of possession. It is an inner object or state. So now we are treating knowledge as an inner object in order to defend the conception of pain as an inner object, which is in turn being used to defend the idea of a private language consisting entirely of attaching names to inner objects. This is what we’re up against: not a few scattered errors, but a whole range of systematically interconnected and mutually supporting misconceptions. “An entire mythology is laid down in our language” (Big Typescript, §93). 

 

How to Know Things 


Against this passive account §246 offers two criticisms: first, that such a conception goes against our actual use of the word “know”; and secondly, that even if we adapted our usage to allow “I know I’m in pain” it wouldn’t actually achieve anything – it would just be a strange way of saying “I’m in pain”. 


In our ordinary usage, knowing is conceptually linked with finding out or how we come to know something. If I say I have an apple, I can justify this simply by holding it up to show you. How I came by the apple is neither here nor there – I might have stolen it, or it might just have materialised in my pocket; it doesn’t really matter. But if I say (eg) “I know the train is due at 8:15” this claim brings with it an obligation, if pressed, to explain how I came by my knowledge. A knowledge-claim stands in need of justification. I might, for example, say that I checked the timetable, or that I catch the 8:15 every morning, etc, etc. Such explanations will usually count as legitimising my claim. By contrast, if I say that the fact just materialised in my mind, this won’t do. And even if the train duly arrives at 8:15 you might still say I didn’t know – I just got lucky. 


The need for justification stems from the fact that knowledge-claims are connected up with decision-making in doubtful cases. Suppose there are three of us at the station at 7:55 one morning. Lee asks when the train’s due because he wants to know if he has time to buy a coffee. Jones says she thinks it’s 8am, and I say no, it’s 8:15. Lee asks me if I’m sure and I say “Yes, I know it is. I checked the timetable.” On this basis, Lee heads off to buy his coffee. This is a typical example of a knowledge-claim (there are, of course, numerous variations and unusual cases), and we can see how it centres on justified certainty confronting legitimate doubt.

 

Now suppose that Lee is queuing for his coffee at 8am when he is shocked to hear the train arriving. He just makes it on board in time, seeks me out and demands to know why I misled him. I protest that I was only going by what the timetable said. Perplexed, we ask the ticket inspector why the train was so early and show him the timetable. “Oh, that’s a printing error” he says, “the train always arrives at 8am.” (Jones, by the way, is watching all this with a quietly satisfied smile on her face.) So I didn’t know after all; I only thought I knew. 


This move from “I know” to “I thought I knew” can seem perplexing if we view knowledge as an inner object. For that makes it look as if I misidentified something in my mind, and now I’m at a loss to explain how this happened or how I could ever tell genuine knowledge from a convincing imposter. Moreover, the nature of the genuine knowledge-object is perplexing in itself, since it seems to guarantee the existence of a state of affairs. But how could this possibly be true?


If we stick to the facts as described above, however, there really isn’t a problem. My knowledge-claim expressed a certainty backed by reasons, and in such cases we are entitled to say “I know...” rather than “I believe...” or “I think...”. Of course, we can still be wrong, and when that happens our assertion loses the status of knowledge. We didn’t know after all. So the super-strong connection between knowing and how things are in the world is actually a grammatical connection. It relates to a linguistic rule about what we are entitled to say in various circumstances. And this rule gets its importance from the fact that knowledge-claims are bound up with decision-making. They say, in effect, “trust me – and not just because I’m certain, but because I have good reasons for my certainty.” Above all, they are embedded in activity, like moves in a game. Reasons are given, questions get answered, decisions get made. 

 

Knowledge and Pain 


The point of all this is that the concept of knowledge doesn’t connect up willy-nilly with anything which might be called a fact. It has its life within a particular context – it has, we might say, a jurisdiction. And when we try to apply a concept outside of its jurisdiction, the result is nonsense. Wittgenstein gives an example of this in §268: 

Why can’t my right hand give my left hand money? – My right hand can put it into my left hand. My right hand can write a deed of gift, and my left hand a receipt. – But the further practical consequences would not be those of a gift. 


In that section he’s criticising the idea that we can give ourselves a private definition of a word, but the point holds good regarding knowledge and pain. Since there’s no such thing as finding out that I’m in pain, no such thing as a good (or bad) reason for claiming to be in pain, and no such thing as making a mistake about my being in pain, it achieves nothing to say that I know that I’m in pain. In such a case we are attempting to use the word “know” outside of its conceptual jurisdiction. But since the use stops at the border, the meaning stops as well, and all we’re left with is nonsense. (Cf, The Big Typescript, §90: “The aim of philosophy is to erect a wall at the point where language stops anyway”.)

 

Here we might object that just because “I know I am in pain” doesn’t achieve anything, that doesn’t mean it isn’t true. Of course, this just restates the initial claim that all facts can be divided into “known” and “unknown”. It amounts to a stubborn refusal to engage with Wittgenstein’s observation that meaning arises through use. But let’s go along with it for the moment and see what happens. Suppose we decided to allow “I know I’m in pain”, and to change “She is in pain” and “I know she’s in pain” to “I believe she is in pain” – what would be the outcome? 

 

I Know I’m in Pain 


Regarding “I know I’m in pain” we would have a useless statement. Why is that a problem? After all, a lot of what I know doesn’t seem particularly useful. For example, I know that the radio is on because I switched it on a few minutes ago and I can hear music coming out of it. But so what? And likewise with pain: isn’t the reason we never say “I know I’m in pain” not because it’s nonsense, but because it’s so obviously true that there’s no need to mention it? This comparison, however, rests on a mistake. When I said I knew the radio was on I was able to give reasons justifying my knowledge-claim. I was able to say how I knew. But it’s nonsense to say I know I’m in pain because I feel it, since feeling pain is not a clue that I’m pain; it is being in pain. So “I know I’m in pain because I can feel it” doesn’t equate to “I know the radio is on because I can hear it”. Rather, it equates to “I know the radio is on because the radio is on”. And that’s nonsense. 


Once we realise that “I know I’m in pain because I can feel it” amounts to saying “I know I’m in pain because I’m in pain”, it’s easier to see why “I know I’m in pain” is nonsense rather than trivially true. This in turn highlights the categorical distinction between a nonsensical statement like “I know I’m in pain” and a trivially true one such as “I know the radio is on” or “I know my name is Philip”. It is possible for a trivially true statement to be informative in certain circumstances – eg, I might confirm that I knew my name to show I had recovered from amnesia. Such statements are only contingently useless. But since “I know I’m in pain” is nonsense, it is necessarily useless. Someone in the grip of dementia can fail to recognise his own children, but he cannot be unaware of his pain. This is not because being aware of pain is so easy to do (even easier than recognising your children) but because there’s no such thing as being in pain and not feeling it. Feeling pain and being in pain are the same thing. And that, of course, is a grammatical remark. 


Why is it so easy to overlook this rather simple point? Well for one thing, denying the validity of “I know I’m in pain” can be misconstrued as the assertion that we don’t know we’re in pain – that we’re unaware of our own pains. But Wittgenstein doesn’t claim that “I know I’m in pain” is false; he claims it’s nonsense. The concept of knowledge has no jurisdiction when it comes to the first-person ascription of pain. 


Perhaps another reason is that it seems such a small, harmless step from “I know she’s in pain” to “I know I’m in pain”. Both share the same form, and this disguises the gulf that lies between them. True, the distinction between first- and second-person cases is recognised by the object-in-a-box model, but it is inevitably misdescribed in terms of possession. I have an object in my consciousness that I cannot share with you directly. Therefore, only I can know I have it; you’ll just have to take my word for it. But “this makes the difference between the meanings look too slight” (§339), for we are not talking about a difference in degree (“the pain in my consciousness is even more private than the gold in my secret vault”), but a conceptual difference. You cannot have a pain in my foot – not because it’s too difficult, but because there’s no such thing. Again, that’s a grammatical remark, and it’s what lies behind Wittgenstein’s comment in §248: 

The sentence “Sensations are private” is comparable to “One plays patience by oneself”. 


The gold in my vault just happens to be private, but insofar as it makes sense to call sensations “private” at all, they are so by definition. (Why might it not make sense? Because here I think we are borrowing the word “private” from its everyday use in a somewhat figurative way. I want to say that if a secret cannot possibly be revealed then it isn’t actually a secret at all; the concept of privacy hangs together with the possibility of revelation.) 


In view of all this, must “I know I’m in pain” be stricken from the record? Not entirely. Taken as a straightforward knowledge-claim it’s nonsense, but it could still have some peripheral uses. Wittgenstein mentions a couple of these in §246 and §247. For a start, it could be a kind of joke (§246) – eg, a facetious rejoinder to someone who pointed out to me that I was hurt.

 

Secondly, in §247, Wittgenstein suggests a use of “you know” in relation to intention which might equally well apply in the case of pain. A footballer goes down in the box, screaming and clutching his ankle. His opponents complain that he’s faking it to buy a penalty. Here we might say, “Only he can know if he’s really in pain”. But, again, there’s no suggestion that the player has found out he’s in pain. Rather, it’s a comment about whether or not he’s pretending, and rests on the fact that if he is in pain then he can’t be unaware of it, whereas others might assume he’s pretending but be wrong. 


Thirdly, “I know I’m in pain” might mean “I know that what I’m currently feeling is called ‘pain’”. That is, I know the meaning of the word “pain”. (Cf §381: “How do I recognise that this colour is red? – One answer would be: ‘I have learnt English.’”) 


Finally, we might allow it as a kind of honorary proposition – a phrase that achieved nothing but was accepted as an ornament. Or perhaps as a stylised gesture towards the intimate relation between ourselves and our pain. In either case, of course, it would be a figure of speech rather than a genuine assertion of knowledge (Cf §295). 

 

I Know She’s in Pain 


Things don’t turn out much better when we consider the proposed switch from “I know she’s in pain” to “I believe she’s in pain”. Whereas “I know I’m pain” has no straightforward application in our lives, that’s not true of these two phrases, and there’s an important distinction between them. 


Suppose a friend is limping and groaning. I say that I don’t believe she’s in pain, but you reply that you know she is because you saw her get injured, you’ve seen the x-ray of her torn ligament, etc. This convinces me, and changes my attitude towards her; I become sympathetic rather than dismissive. Here we can see the sort of thing that differentiates “believing” from “knowing”, and what hinges upon the distinction. 


If we outlaw “I know she’s in pain” and insist on using “I believe” instead, we’re still going to want to distinguish between a well-founded claim and a guess. We’re going to want to make it clear that we’re speaking from a position of certainty rather than doubt or suspicion. So to make things easier, let’s pronounce “believe” differently in the two cases. “believe” will indicate well-founded certainty, and “believe” will indicate doubt. But this just amounts to using two different words: “believe” equates to what was formerly “believe” and “believe” equates to “know”. We’ve gone round in a circle. 


The moral of the story is that linguistic usage isn’t simply a matter of free-floating syntactical rules. It is bound up with how we live. And unless it’s accompanied by a requisite change in behaviour, a new usage just swaps one way of talking for another (§303). That’s why “I know I’m in pain” can’t get a real purchase in our lives, no matter how tempting it is as a form of expression. And that’s why extending “I believe” to cases where we currently say “I know” is doomed to failure. To make it work, we’d have to doubt in cases where we do not currently doubt; we’d have to be sceptical towards evidence which, actually, we routinely find convincing. 

 

How to Doubt Things 


Here we might argue that just because we don’t doubt, that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t. And the key witness for this line of thought is pretending. We can pretend to be hurt when we’re not and act like we’re fine when we’re in pain. Doesn’t it follow from this that we at least ought to reserve judgement in any particular case? After all, how can we say we know someone is in pain when we might be wrong? 


Against this, in §249, Wittgenstein presents the example of a smiling baby and asks (with heavy irony) if perhaps we shouldn’t be more sceptical about its happiness. The absurdity of this suggestion points in a number of different directions. First, it is incorrect to suppose that any particular case is open to doubt. Doubt’s jurisdiction is more limited than that. And the boundary comes with the guileless expression of feeling in obvious cases. The behaviour of others is evidence of their state, but this doesn’t mean we always deduce their mood from their behaviour. A baby’s smile is not evidence in that sense. Indeed, it would be more accurate to say that the happiness was right there in the smile. (Cf Zettel, §220: “Do you look into yourself in order to recognise the fury in his face? It is there as clearly as in your own breast”.) 


The baby’s smile is a natural expression, and our reaction to it is equally natural. This comes first. It is the foundation upon which our more sophisticated behaviour is based. As Wittgenstein remarks in §249, “Lying is a language-game that needs to be learned like any other one”. The idea of a baby deceiving us is absurd because babies lack the behavioural and linguistic framework within which deception becomes intelligible. The same is true of the dog in §250, which can no more be sincere than it can lie. (Wittgenstein gets his animal behaviour wrong here, by the way. Dogs don’t howl when they’re in pain. A more pertinent example would be Killdeers, which lure predators away from their nests by acting as if they had a broken wing. This typically gets described in anthropomorphic terms: the bird “pretends” to be injured, “fools” the predator, etc. But, literally speaking, there is no scheming going on. It’s purely instinctive behaviour. And when a Killdeer really does have an injured wing it’s not being honest.) 


The importance of natural reactions extends into our more complex forms of behaviour. If I see someone wince, I might doubt whether they’ve felt a painful twinge or remembered something unpleasant (or they might just be pretending). But if I see them scream after being smashed in the face by a cricket ball, I’m not going to doubt that they’re in pain – and neither am I going to deduce it. I will say that of course they’re in pain, and anyone who doubts it is stupid. 


It’s worth noting however, that it’s at least possible I might be wrong: the whole thing might be an incredibly elaborate ruse involving a fake cricket ball, fake blood, etc. So it’s possible that I might doubt even here, but only if I had some reason to do so (eg, I’d been tipped off that a practical joke was going to be played on me at some point during the day). 


This basic pattern holds true in less obvious cases as well. If a friend truthfully tells me he’s going home because he has a headache then I know that he’s in pain. But how do I know he’s being truthful? Well, there are various criteria for honesty which come into play. For example, I might check what he did after he left me. If he took an aspirin and went to bed that will speak strongly in his favour. But if he went clubbing I will probably conclude he was lying about his headache. However, the issue of deceit will normally only arise if I have a reason to doubt my friend. Without that, I will simply take his word for it. This doesn’t mean I’m being naïve or credulous; it’s simply how the language-game is played here (cf PPF §331). Someone who persistently doubted everything he was told without any good reason wouldn’t be praised for his intellectual rigour. We would consider him mentally ill.

 

Doubt, like knowledge, requires grounds. Doubt, like knowledge, has both antecedents and consequences. It has a function. With the baby and the dog, however, it’s a different matter. Doubt has no purchase here because our certainty is non-deductive. It is not based on reasons or past experience; rather, it is characteristic of our basic way of living. This comes first, deduction and doubts come later. 


All this is not primarily about the natural phases of human development; the fundamental point is a logical one. “[O]ur doubts depend on the fact that some propositions are exempt from doubt, are as it were like hinges on which those turn. […] But it isn’t that the situation is like this: We just can’t investigate everything, and for that reason we are forced to rest content with assumption. If I want the door to turn, the hinges must stay put” (OC §§341-344). Without certainty, doubt cannot perform its function, and so “A doubt that doubted everything would not be a doubt” (OC §450).