Friday, 30 September 2011

Wittgenstein’s New Philosophy: A “No Theory” Theory?

According to Wittgenstein, the bewitching allure of metaphysics has proved empty (§§89-108). It has led to a collection of a priori theories concerning how the world must be, but such theories are founded upon illusions brought about by misunderstandings of, and misrepresentations of, our forms of expression. The result has not been to create a body of philosophical knowledge but to generate a series of seemingly intractable problems – problems that trap us between what must be the case (according to the theories) and what is the case, so far as our everyday lives are concerned.

Thus philosophy is left with the task of revealing the illusionary nature of these problems. They are not to be solved but dissolved: “The results of philosophy are the discovery of some piece of plain nonsense and the bumps that the understanding has got by running up against the limits of language” (§119). Obviously, the proper technique for achieving this cannot itself be theoretical – that would just repeat the process that caused the problem in the first place. Instead, Wittgenstein proposes an altogether different method:

[…] we may not advance any kind of theory. There must not be anything hypothetical in our considerations. All explanation must disappear, and description alone must take its place.
Philosophical Investigations §109

Such description will be tailored according to the problem at hand; we will be “marshalling recollections for a particular purpose” (§127). And the results will not be new facts about the world but a clearer understanding of what we already know, in the same way that a map might give us a clearer understanding of our home town.

This, basically, is Wittgenstein’s New Deal for Philosophy, as set out in §§109-133. It was a radical and controversial idea when the Investigations was published in 1953, and it remains so today. It’s an idea that even some who admire his philosophy find a step too far (John Searle, for instance). And although many of the arguments in the Investigations have been recognised as hugely important, I think it’s fair to say that the philosophical community as a whole has declined to take Wittgenstein up on his offer.

I’ll discuss their reluctance in a future post. For now, however, I want to address an obvious question raised by the rejection of theory, namely: how the hell can you do philosophy without theories?

It seems that such an approach would make it impossible to state any conclusions, because that (surely) involves stating a theory. When, for example, Wittgenstein says “the meaning of a word is its use in the language” (§43), isn’t that a theory? Indeed, isn’t it a counter-theory to “A name means an object. The object is its meaning” (TLP 3.203)? Might we not go further and say that any general statement (eg, “cats are more intelligent than dogs”) makes a theoretical claim about the world? And if that’s true, it’s hard to see how theories can be avoided.

The first thing to point out is that actually not every general statement can meaningfully be called theoretical. A theory operates in an area of contention – there has to be something that’s up for grabs. So “cats are more intelligent than dogs” could be considered theoretical because it is by no means obviously true. There is something to be tested here. On the other hand, “giraffes have longer necks than swans” is not (for us) theoretical. It merely states an established truth. Likewise, it is not theoretical to point out that “losing my mind” is unlike “losing my hat”. We would all admit that I cannot look for my mind or offer a reward for the person who finds it; someone can’t have taken my mind because he mistook it for his own, and so on. Such statements are not contentious and therefore not theoretical.

There is, however, an important distinction between the above two examples. The non-theoretical status of the giraffe/swan statement is a posteriori; it is a contingent truth that we have established about the world. We could imagine a situation where this truth was still up for grabs, and there the statement would be theoretical. We would need more facts about giraffes or swans to settle the issue.

The mind/hat statement, on the other hand, works differently. It does not remind us of an established empirical truth, but a grammatical one. We didn’t discover it by encountering hats and minds; we learnt it when we learnt our language, and the truth it expresses partly constitutes what minds and hats are. The only way it could be “up for grabs” would be if someone didn’t know how we use the words “mind” or “hat”. And that person would require linguistic instruction rather than new empirical facts. In this sense, the mind/hat statement is a priori. I don't mean that it's "true for all possible worlds" or anything like that, but that it is about the concepts we need to master in order to make empirical statements such as “your hat is bigger than my hat” or “your mind is sharper than my mind” (perhaps it would be better to call it a grammatical truth rather than an a priori one). And part of mastering such concepts involves realising that it’s nonsense to say “I’ve lost my mind, stop what you’re doing and help me look for it”.

Since these grammatical observations are not theoretical, it is possible to derive general statements from them which are also not theoretical. Such statements are summaries. They do not rely on deduction and do not express hypotheses. They can be verified, not by experiment, but simply by looking and seeing whether they correctly reflect the established facts.

This highlights the important distinction between TLP 3.203 and §43. “A name means an object” is a dogmatic expression of an a priori theory – it must be so, given the requirements of the Picture Theory of Meaning. By contrast, “The meaning of a word is its use in the language” asserts what we will all admit to be true if we look carefully at our forms of expression and, in particular, at the way the word “meaning” is generally explained (be warned, however, that this is a highly controversial claim). Wittgenstein does not say it must be so (indeed, he explicitly says it is not always so), merely that – most of the time – it is so. And it is precisely this sort of statement he has in mind when he says, “If someone were to advance theses in philosophy, it would never be possible to debate them, because everyone would agree to them” (§129).

Here we might admit that we can draw non-theoretical conclusions, yet still wonder why theories must be ruled out altogether. After all, couldn’t we use our new-found linguistic insights to construct better theories? No. The suggestion misunderstands the flaw at the heart of philosophical theories.

A philosophical theory looks like it’s making an a priori claim about how the world must be, but actually its a priori nature comes from its use of conceptual rules. Determinism, for example, flows from reflections on the fact that every event has a cause. But “every event has a cause” is not an empirical fact (unlike, say “every child has a penny”); it is a conceptual precondition for certain types of activity – scientific investigations, for example. It provides a rule legitimising these activities and guarantees that, given an event, you can always ask “what caused this?” That is the nature of its “must”. It does not, however, guarantee anything about what is or isn’t the case.

It is illicit, therefore, to move from “every event has a cause” to “free actions do not exist” because that is making an unsanctioned existential claim about the world. What you can do, however, is examine the conceptual underpinning of “free will” together with the concept of causation to see how they relate to each other. This involves no illicit move because everything remains at an a priori level. It does not, however, save the theory by getting rid of its mistakes – it gets rid of the theory. That is because we are no longer deducing what must be the case, but consulting the rule-book to see how things are. It’s as if we had a theory that castling is impossible in chess because the king can only move one square at a time. Then we look up the rules and see that under certain circumstances it is perfectly legitimate. We cannot now seriously have a theory that the rules of castling don’t exist, nor that castling is invalidated by the game’s other rules. It is part of the game, and that’s that.

Wittgenstein’s rejection of philosophical theories is not based on the notion that they’re unlikely to yield results. His argument is that they cannot yield results because they are conceptually incoherent. They attempt to deduce a priori truths about the world based on rules that provide no justification for such deductions. Dispensing with them is not (pace Searle) an unnecessary piece of philosophical extravagance; the need flows directly from Wittgenstein’s ideas about meaning as use, language-games, the nature of rules, and family resemblance concepts. If those are accepted then ditching theory is mandatory, not optional.

Finally (and at the risk of stating the bleeding obvious) it is also not itself a theory. It is a proposal offered as the only way of avoiding the endlessly repeated mistakes of the past and providing us with a way to see the world aright when we become entangled in conceptual confusion. The price to pay consists in renouncing philosophy as a heroic endeavour – one where the next great mind might finally hit upon the correct theory and explain things to everyone’s satisfaction. (Two and a half thousand years and still waiting….) Instead it would be a more humble matter of “marshalling recollections for a particular purpose”. It would require patience and skill rather than god-like genius.

For many that price is too high. 

Thursday, 22 September 2011

Logic and Magic

In 88 sections (a little over 40 pages), Wittgenstein dismantles many of the key tenets that supported his Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus. Language does not work in one way; objects are not the meaning of words; sentences are not simply combinations of names representing possible states of affairs; they cannot be analysed into elementary names signifying elementary objects – indeed, there are no such names and no such objects; there is no a priori logical structure shared by language, thought and the world; and finally, therefore, there is not (and cannot be) an essence of language. Having done that, he steps back to consider the nature of logic itself and reflect on the broad methodology from which his earlier philosophy had emerged.

The bare bones of his account are easily sketched: a conception of logic as exploring essences leads to the idea that analysis of language will uncover its structure. This in turn suggests a final analysis which will reveal nothing less than the hidden a priori structure of the world (§§89-92). But now problems start to emerge: propositions, for example, seem to do something odd. They reach right up to the world, describe it exactly, and yet they are not the same as what they describe – for a proposition can be false as well as true. They start to look thoroughly mysterious (§§93-95). Nevertheless, thought, language and the world mirror each other and so, through showing us the essence of thought, logic reveals the a priori structure of the world. This structure must be simple, concrete and exact, and therefore the structure of language must also be simple, concrete and exact. And yet we cannot see anything like this structure in the language we actually use. So it must be hidden, concealed deep in our everyday forms of expression and awaiting analysis to bring it to light (§§96-104). But the more we compare language as it is with the structure we feel must be there, the harder it becomes to reconcile the two. One side will have to go (§§105-108).

This, briefly, is the tale Wittgenstein tells. But the really striking thing about it is how impressionistic it is. He barely touches upon the incredibly detailed network of metaphysical arguments which lay behind the terse pronouncements of the Tractatus. Indeed, he barely mentions the Tractatus at all. Instead, he concentrates his efforts on evoking the flavour of his old conception of philosophy. At times there is something almost ravishing about the vision he presents:
Thinking is surrounded by a nimbus. – Its essence, logic, presents an order: namely, the a priori order of the world; that is, the order of possibilities, which the world and thinking must have in common. But this order, it seems, must be utterly simple. It is prior to all experience, must run through all experience; no empirical cloudiness or uncertainty may attach to it. – It must rather be of the purest crystal. But this crystal does not appear as an abstraction, but as something concrete, indeed, as the most concrete, as it were the hardest thing there is.
Philosophical Investigations §97

There is no argument here, just an evocation of a particular mind-set. So why does Wittgenstein go to so much trouble to put us in the picture? Why does he focus on atmosphere rather than specifics? I think there are two reasons.

First, he doesn’t want to get caught up in a direct examination of the Tractatus. It is there more as an example of a broad philosophical outlook than as a text for detailed critical analysis. The important mistakes he made were not matters of detail but of approach.  Elements of that approach saturate the history of philosophy: in Plato’s theory of Forms, Cartesian Foundationalism, Empiricist Idealism, Kantian Transcendental Idealism, Phenomenology, Frege’s mathematical logic, the logical atomism of Russell, and the logical positivism of Carnap et al (plus, I might add, Quine’s Naturalism, Kripke’s metaphysics and the neo-Cartesian dualism of Consciousness Studies). For obvious reasons the Tractatus was in the foreground of his thoughts, but Wittgenstein’s real target was nothing less than the dismantling of a tradition of Western philosophy stretching back at least some 2,500 years.

Given such a radical agenda, it’s not surprising that he felt the need to employ some novel tactics in seeing it through. One such tactic was to present his opponents’ arguments in their strongest possible form. This didn’t just add to the power of his counter-arguments, it also paid his opponents the respect of taking their position seriously. And as a corollary to that he felt it important to acknowledge the seductive appeal of his opponents’ basic approach. After all, if so many great minds had been misled there must be more to it than a few dubious arguments or logical non-sequiturs. Traditional philosophy had been bewitched by the resources of language (§109) and one of the things that helped maintain the spell was the sheer beauty of the mirage it produced.

This is why Wittgenstein begins his reflections by asking in what way logic is something sublime (§89). Notions of essence, logical form and a priori structure readily suggest a profound depth – something vast and inscrutable before which the individual feels a mixture of awe and fear. And this is the sublime: the blank unreason at the heart of reason. As such, its appeal is partly aesthetic – perhaps even spiritual.

In the face of such an intoxicating phenomenon mere arguments might not be enough. The bewitched opponent (who is actually more like a patient in Wittgenstein’s view) might simply reply, “That’s all very clever, but you don’t understand” and return to his mirage – especially as this mirage seems to him to be the apogee of reason. In such a case, paying due respect to the sublime quality of traditional philosophy is a way of gaining the patient’s trust. “I do understand,” it says, “so hear me out.”

Personally, I think this is related to Wittgenstein’s comment about The Concept of Mind. After reading Ryle’s work he simply remarked, “All the magic has vanished”. In other words, “how do you expect to convince anyone when you pay your opponents such scant regard?” Ryle had set about demolishing the Cartesian conception of mind with unmistakable glee. Wittgenstein, however, was less sanguine about his task and once noted gloomily “I was thinking about my philosophical work and saying to myself: ‘I destroy, I destroy, I destroy’” (Culture and Value, p21). It might be fair to suggest that his description of sublimated logic in the Investigations is tinged with sadness and perhaps even nostalgia.

Of course, not everyone who thinks philosophically becomes dazzled by sublime visions of logic; our preoccupations are not those of Wittgenstein in the 1910s. But although the focus shifts, the pitfalls remain the same and the temptation towards bewitchment endures. Here is a more recent example of a metaphysical vision:
The Astonishing Hypothesis is that "You," your joys and your sorrows, your memories and your ambitions, your sense of personal identity and free will, are in fact no more than the behavior of a vast assembly of nerve cells and their associated molecules. As Lewis Carroll's Alice might have phrased it: "You're nothing but a pack of neurons." This hypothesis is so alien to the ideas of most people alive today that it can truly be called astonishing.
Francis Crick, The Astonishing Hypothesis (1995) Chapter 1

The astonishment here is not a mere question of novelty, but relates to the fascinating yet frighteningly alien world the author claims lies hidden beneath our everyday assumptions. It is, in its own peculiar way, a vision of the sublime. And what it shows as much as anything else is that you don’t have to be a logical atomist to find yourself trapped between the “must be” and the “is”. In fact, you don’t have to be a philosopher at all.

Monday, 19 September 2011

Drawing the Line: Family Resemblance Concepts

So far (§§1-64) Wittgenstein has been chipping away at the Augustinian picture of language, showing that it doesn’t provide us with the essence of language. All attempts to delineate or shore up its features have only led to confusion or nonsense (metaphysics, for example). Finally, at §65, Wittgenstein’s interlocutor snaps:
You make things easy for yourself! You talk about all sorts of language-games, but have nowhere said what is essential to a language-game, and so to language: what is common to all these activities, and makes them into language or parts of language.
Let’s consider the interlocutor’s frustration in more detail. After all, what is it about the concept of language that might lead him to claim it must have an essence? It hinges upon an understanding of the term “concept” which might be put as follows:

A concept picks out a particular group of things that all have a common factor (or factors). For example, generosity, bravery and humility are all called “good” because they all have something good about them. But what is this quality of goodness? That is to be revealed by a logical analysis of the sub-concepts “generosity”, “bravery”, etc. And what is thereby revealed will be goodness in its pure or ideal form; it will be the essence of goodness.

Following on from this, it seems reasonable to expect that concepts must be exact. If all objects with the factor Φ fall under the concept P, then object x either has Φ or it doesn’t. It’s either in or it’s out.

It’s clear then, I think, why the interlocutor demands an essence of language: since items x, y and z all fall under the concept-term “language” there must be some quality Φ they all share and is the reason they are grouped together in this way. So what is quality Φ? If the Augustinian picture isn’t the essence of language then what the hell is? Typically, Wittgenstein’s response is a rejection of this question:
 Instead of pointing out something common to all that we call language, I’m saying that these phenomena have no one thing in common in virtue of which we use the same word for all – but there are many different kinds of affinity between them. And on account of this affinity, or these affinities, we call them all “languages”.
Philosophical Investigations §65

To demonstrate this, he asks us to consider the concept of “game”. From board-games to guessing-games to bouncing a ball against a wall, there is no one thing (or set of things) that all games have in common. Instead, “we see a complicated network of similarities overlapping and criss-crossing: similarities in the large and in the small” (§66). These similarities he christens “family resemblances”, and says that the various things we call “games” form such a family (§67).

This account denies that either commonality or exactness are necessary features of our concepts. The members of the concept “number” (cardinal numbers, negative numbers, imaginary numbers, etc) have no one thing in common, but it is clear what we call a number and what we don’t. To that extent it is an exact concept (though there’s always the possibility that it might be extended by a development in mathematics). But with a concept like “game” not only might there be extension, but the current members cannot always be clearly identified. Is throwing a ball against a wall really a game? Or seeing how long you can hold your breath? With such borderline cases there may be no right or wrong answer – we could just say “it’s up to you”.

But now (the interlocutor may object) it seems the concept is in danger of losing coherence. If you replace commonality with resemblance then can’t everything be linked to everything else by a web of resemblances? What’s to prevent everything from finding a place in the concept? Moreover, how can a concept function if it isn’t exact? If we don’t know which objects fall under it then surely we don’t know what it means? So even though commonality and exactness might not appear to be there, in some way they must be or else the concept is unviable.

Wittgenstein first tackles the question of exactness. He admits that the use of a word like “game” is not everywhere clear, but denies this necessarily makes it unviable. As he points out (§68), tennis is a perfectly playable game despite the fact that there’s no rule about how high to throw the ball when serving. In the same way, the concept-word “game” fulfils its purpose even though it’s not always clear whether something is a game or not. Of course, it may sometimes be helpful to draw a clear boundary (Game Theory, for example, uses a specific definition of “game” for the purposes of its research) but that is something we do as and when we need to. It is an invention rather than a discovery.

Moreover, not only is a clear definition not always necessary, it is not even always preferable. When a mother tells her child “go out and play” would it always be better if she specified exactly which games she meant (supposing she could)? Mightn’t it sometimes be best to let the child make its own mind up?

At §71 Wittgenstein moves on to the notion of essence, which he raises in the context of how we explain family resemblance concepts to others. This, he points out, is often done by giving typical examples, together with a similarity-clause (“and so on”, “and similar things” etc). We expect this explanation to be taken in a certain way: most of the time (we hope) the other person will “draw the line” in the right place from now on. Of course, here we are at the mercy of his ability to understand – but that is true given any explanation or definition we might provide.

Such an explanation is not an incomplete expression of my knowledge – as if I had a precise definition that for some reason I couldn’t articulate. Here Wittgenstein is combating the temptation to suppose that understanding our explanation “means to have in one’s mind an idea of the thing explained, and that is a sample or picture” (§73). This sample would be the essence or ideal form of the concept. Wittgenstein’s point here is not simply that we don’t have such a sample, but that the sample could not possibly do the job required of it.

What, for example, would be a completely general representation of “redness”? A sample like “” is not unambiguous; it might be taken as a sample of that specific shade of red. Alternatively, if it’s supposed to be a sample of a specific shade, what’s to stop it being taken as a general sample of redness? The requisite type of training is required to make it one or the other (eg: “When I hold up this→ bring me any red object”) but that’s precisely what is lacking here. Without this training the sample might stand for redness, a shade of red, or even “not red”. It could stand for anything, and so it stands for nothing.

Similar difficulties arise if essence is viewed in terms of a definition – as if our rough explanation might be used as the raw material for constructing a precise one. For a start, this would put us in a very strange situation: in explaining (eg) games we (somehow) consult a definition we are not aware of having and which we are (somehow) unable to articulate. The other person then uses our rough examples to (somehow) formulate this same definition – without realising he’s doing it – and is then unaware of having it and (somehow) cannot articulate it.

Even if we accept this situation, we’re still faced with the problem that no definition can be completely clear or stipulate how we should proceed in every possible case. Take, for example, a proposed definition such as, “Games are those things we play according to certain rules”. For absolute clarity, don’t we need a further analysis of the words “things”, “play” and “rules”? And won’t that analysis throw up yet more terms to be explained? There seems to be no end to the process (cf, the seemingly throwaway remark in §1: “Explanations come to an end somewhere”). As Wittgenstein comments (§87): “It may easily look as if every doubt merely revealed a gap in the foundations; so that secure understanding is possible only if we first doubt everything that can be doubted, and then remove all these doubts.”

But still (it might be objected), even if we accept that an essence cannot guarantee coherence, how is it maintained in a family resemblance concept? Why doesn’t everything leech into everything else in a blur of affinities? The point here is that we distinguish between pertinent affinities and superficial ones. War is similar to a game in many respects; however, we don’t call it a game (though we may accuse someone of treating it like a game) because this similarity is not as pertinent as the one between war and a quarrel. It is important that we don’t confuse “let’s play war” with “this means war!” and so we have drawn a conceptual boundary-line between the two. In other words, it is the activity in which the concept is embedded that dictates where its boundaries lie. And where no boundary is necessary then none need be drawn. The boundary does not come built in to the concept so that we have to discover its contours (like discovering the molecular structure of salt); it is dictated by use – and that is something invented by us.

This is why we do not have to combat every conceivable doubt before a concept can be declared viable. As Wittgenstein puts it: “an explanation may indeed rest on another one that has been given, but none stands in need of another – unless we require it to avoid a misunderstanding – one, that is, that would arise if not for the explanation, but not every misunderstanding that I can imagine” (§87).

We can (and often do) use words without fixed definitions. We may even alter our definitions “on the hoof” if required (§79). And this is fine so long as it doesn’t make our language-game unplayable. It is the language-game (the activity) that dictates whether or not a concept is coherent – not an Ideal Form which is supposed to reveal the common essence of our concept words and provide them with completely clear boundaries. For the Ideal can do no such thing. It is neither possible nor necessary. “The signpost is in order – if, under normal circumstances, it fulfils its purpose” (§87).

Well, perhaps the interlocutor still has one last question: “If the explanation of ‘game’ doesn’t provide a sample or definition or formula, then what does it provide? Surely the pupil gets something? After all, he understands! Before he didn’t know and now he does know. So what’s in his mind now that wasn’t there before?” This leads to questions about what it means to “know” or “understand” something. Wittgenstein has already flagged up the issue (in §81) for further consideration. And it will get a lot of further consideration, because it involves confronting what is perhaps the really deep illusion here – the one that stands behind (and sanctions) illusions concerning logical simples, essences and ideal forms.

Wednesday, 14 September 2011

Some Thoughts on Translating Wittgenstein

The sharp-eyed amongst you might’ve noticed that I’ve been quoting from the 2009 translation of Philosophical Investigations, rather than Elizabeth Anscombe’s original 1953 version (the new edition is based on Anscombe’s translation, but amended by Peter Hacker and Joachim Schulte, with the help of the Wittgenstein editorial advisory committee). Actually, the 2009 translation was the catalyst that sparked this blog; I borrowed it from a friend a few weeks back just to see what changes had been made. Then I decided it was about time I read it again; then I decided to read it carefully; then I realised (to my shame) that there were certain fairly key passages I only partly understood; then I realised that correcting this would mean taking notes and working through examples; then I decided that keeping a blog would help spur me on and force me to focus my thoughts; and then… well, here we are knee-deep in language-games and the definition of “definition”.

Anyway, I approached the Hacker/Schulte translation with a certain amount of trepidation. The Investigations is one of those rare philosophical works that is admired not just for its insight, but also for its style. It is gnomic, elliptical, aphoristic, playful, discursive, conversational and yet always (somehow) serious and to the point. Delving into it after reading, say, Descartes’ Meditations or Hume’s Treatise on Human Nature, you cannot help but realise that you are meeting a mind that is simply not like that of other philosophers (perhaps only Nietzsche’s works come close in this respect). That it is such a pleasure to read is, for English speakers, due at least in part to Anscombe’s excellent stylistic interpretation. So what changes had been made to this classic? To put it bluntly, had they mucked about with it?

The answer, mostly, is: no. Anscombe’s original words remain largely intact and, so far as I can tell, substantive changes to the text are based on sound methodological reasoning (I should point out that I speak no German, so I’m not qualified to comment on the accuracy of the translation itself). Having said that, I have still found myself balking over small changes to cherished passages. Today, for example, I looked up §371 and was disconcerted to see “Essence is expressed in grammar”. In? In?! How could they change “by” to “in”? It just doesn’t read right!

Of course, a good deal of my grumpiness about this was brought on by nostalgia. The Investigations has been part of my life for over 25 years and so even a change for the better would be a bit like seeing a new wrinkle on the face of an old friend. All the same, it’s sad to see that some of the “flavour” of Anscombe’s prose has been jettisoned in order to bring the text up to date. As the editors remark, “Anscombe’s translation is now more than 50 years old, and English has moved on apace”. Accordingly, they’ve stripped out some of her more archaic usages, such as spelling “show” as “shew” (which Word considers a mistake), her fastidiousness over the use of “shall” and “will”, and the use of words like “queer” (meaning “odd”) and “fishy”.

Personally, I’ve always found such quirks rather charming, but there’s a more important point here that’s not simply a matter of taste. Ascombe’s translation was itself a product of the time and place in which the Investigations was written. She was a pupil and close friend of Wittgenstein’s, and such was his faith in her ability that he asked her to translate his work even before she had learnt German. Her linguistic quirks might not have been the same as his but they were from (roughly) the same milieu, and I can’t help thinking that’s a mark in their favour.

To put things in perspective, imagine how it would sound for a translator of Faust to say, “I’ve updated the verse-style because German has moved on apace since Goethe’s day”. In such a case I think it would be fair to wonder if making things easy for the modern reader was the only valid consideration. Sure, give us the sense of what he wrote, but wouldn’t a suggestion of Goethe’s archaic syntax, spelling and vocabulary also provide us with an insight into his creation?

Now, obviously the Investigations is not a poem, and different priorities are bound to operate when translating philosophy. But how far – even here – should bare ease of reading predominate? This seems a particularly pertinent question in the context of a philosopher who once remarked that a great work of philosophy should also be a work of literature, and whose masterpiece bristles with such a keen sense of the different ways in which language can convey meaning – indeed, the different forms that “meaning” can take.

Furthermore, it’s strange that updating archaic idioms seems more relevant to translations than to original-language texts. Here’s a quote from Locke’s Essay Concerning Human Understanding, taken more or less at random: “If we will disbelieve everything, because we cannot certainly know all things; we shall do muchwhat as wisely as he, who would not use his legs, but sit still and perish, because he has no wings to fly” (Book 1, §5, 2004 Penguin edition). I think it’s fair to say that English has certainly “moved on apace” since 1690. Why are we still forcing students to read this stuff? Where are the modern-vernacular editions of Locke, or Berkeley, or Hume?

Well, let’s not get carried away. Over all, the new edition of the Investigations is a fine piece of work. And regarding its style we are, at present, only talking about a few discrete tweaks here and there. All the same, this sets a precedent and I can’t help wondering what the 150th anniversary edition will look like. Wittgenstein considered his writing to be against the spirit of his age, and – precisely for that reason – the Philosophical Investigations is very much a product of that age. To read it outside of its historical context is to miss something of its meaning. Anscombe’s prose helped anchor the translated version firmly in that context. I think it’s a shame the connection has been diluted, and worry about how far the trend may continue. Or maybe I’m making a mountain out of a molehill? I don’t know.

Sunday, 11 September 2011

The Death of Metaphysics

A couple of posts ago (“Of Simples and Samples”), I attempted to explain the distinction Wittgenstein makes at §50 between the different linguistic roles played by (on the one hand) a means of representation, and (on the other) the thing represented. This is an absolutely crucial point with far-reaching consequences for philosophy and, to be honest, I don’t think I really nailed it. So let’s have another go.

I’ll start with a language-game (based on the one at §48) which hopefully gives a rough idea of the general approach found in works such as the Tractatus.

Imagine a world made of the following, utterly simple elements: , , . We shall name them “R”, “B” and “G”. If any two elements appear next to each other they are said to form a compound object. For example, we shall call the compound object “p”, and the compound object “q”.

So a state of affairs such as: “  “ can be described by the proposition “p, q” and this proposition can be further analysed into “RB, BG”. The most elementary proposition would simply name an element: “R”. It would mean something like “This → is R”.

We can say of p and q that they exist (or don’t exist), and also that they have (or have not) been destroyed. But we cannot say either things of R, G or B because existence and destruction are only to be thought of in terms of the combination or non-combination of elements. So words such as “existence” and “destruction” only operate at the level of compound objects, not at the level of elements.

A report of the total destruction of everything might be: “R, G, B”, representing the state of affairs: “●  ●  “.  In such a case nothing of which we could say “it exists” does exist, and everything of which we could say “it has been destroyed” has been destroyed. Of course, the elements are still there – they must be, or else it would be impossible to describe the state of affairs. But we can say nothing at all about them – not even that they exist. All we can do is name them. (Here the scenario’s limitations should be borne in mind; , and are not actual examples of utterly simple elements. For instance, they have both area and shape.)

This act of naming, however, is crucial because it is the means by which language is connected to the world. It is a form of what might be called “ostensive identification” linking name and object at the most fundamental level possible, and allowing us to see with complete clarity whether what we say is true or false. The statement “This → is R” either correctly picks out the element or it doesn’t.

In the Investigations, Wittgenstein sums things up as follows:
What does it mean to say that we can attribute neither being nor non-being to the elements? – One might say: if everything that we call “being” and “non-being” consists in the obtaining and non-obtaining of connections between elements, it makes no sense to speak of the being (non-being) of an element; just as it makes no sense to speak of the destruction of an element, if everything we call “destruction” lies in the separation of elements.
Philosophical Investigations §50
He then makes the same point in a slightly different way: “One would like to say, however, that being cannot be attributed to an element, for if it did not exist, one could not even name it, and so one could state nothing at all about it.”

It is this second formulation he goes on to consider, and he does it by way of a comparison with the standard metre in Paris. In Wittgenstein’s time this was a rod of platinum-iridium which served as the authoritative sample of the length “1m”. (It has since been replaced by a definition involving the speed of light, which can be found here; this does not affect the argument.) Wittgenstein points out that, in an important sense, we can say neither that the standard metre is or isn’t 1m long. This is because “being 1m long” depends on matching the length of the standard metre, and a sample cannot meaningfully be measured against itself.

This might seem mysterious, but it actually just reflects the peculiar role of the sample in the language-game. It is a rule by which we establish the convention “1m”. Or, as Wittgenstein puts it: “it is not something that is represented, but is a means of representation” (§50). Without it we could not talk about things being (or not being) 1m long.

It could be put like this: “The standard metre is 1m long” looks like a description (which could be true or false), but in fact it is the expression of a rule governing the use of the phrase “1m”. It is not an empirical statement, but a grammatical one.

So although we might be tempted to claim that the length “1m” must exist or else we couldn’t even say “nothing is 1m long”, this would be confused. What has to exist (if we are to play the language-game we play with the word "1m") is part of the language: the means of representation. And the means of representation (the rule) will be neither true nor false, because it doesn’t describe the world; it defines a concept governing the use of a word (and in the case of the standard metre it is internally linked to a whole cluster of other concepts involving length and measurement).

Hopefully it is clear how this analogy relates to the case of elements. The meaning of “This → is R” appears to rely on an intrinsic quality of the world – a quality which must exist (eg, the element ). But actually its meaning depends not on the world but on the rule governing its use. This point can be easily missed because the rule takes the same form as the statement, making it look as though there were only statements. The statement “This → is R” is a successful application of the rule “This → is ‘R’”. And the statement “This → is R” is false because there is no such rule as “This → is ‘R’”. So the claim that (eg) “red must exist” boils down to the fact that if there’d never been a red-coloured object then we couldn’t have the rule “This → is ‘red’”. (Hence, 15th C. Europeans could not have a rule governing the colour-word “carmine”, because before Spain conquered the New World and brought back dyes made from cochineal insects, Europeans had simply never seen the colour before.) What do exist are red objects. But, from the point of view of meaning, what must exist is a rule.

This insight in turn gives us a clearer view of the confusion over “existence” and “destruction” in my initial language-game. There I said that “existence and destruction are only to be thought of in terms of the combination or non-combination of elements”. What sort of statement was that? An empirical one? No. It was a rule: a definition that governed the use of “existence” and “destruction” in the game. And it was this rule – not any necessary quality residing in objects – that made it impossible to talk of elements existing (or not existing) or of their being destroyed. It may look like a statement about the world to say, “we cannot assign existence or non-existence to elements”, but it’s actually a restatement of the rule. As such, it is part of the means of representation, not something that is represented.

So was the rule the right one? Well, imagine while playing with Lego you decide that only two (or more) bricks stuck together count as “existing”. Would that be the right rule? It seems not so much right – or wrong – as pointless. Language has gone on holiday.

Statements such as “simple elements must exist” are metaphysical. They claim to reveal a priori necessary truths about the world. If Wittgenstein is right (and there are many who would say he is not), then such statements are revealed as essentially empty. Insofar as they have any meaning, they are misleading expressions of the rules of our language – and rules are neither true nor false. Aside from that, they are merely examples of a subtle (and extremely tempting) form of nonsense, a shadow cast by grammar.

Wednesday, 7 September 2011


One of the most striking features of the Philosophical Investigations is how little technical jargon it contains. If, like me, you suspect that the amount of rubbish talked usually rises in direct proportion to the amount of jargon used, this is a very encouraging sign. The book is not entirely jargon-free, however, and the first technical (or quasi-technical) term it introduces is the phrase “language-game”. This turns out to be a hugely important term, and it's useful to look at how and why Wittgenstein uses it. It is first introduced at §7:

We can also think of the whole process of using words in (2) as one of those games by means of which children learn their native language. I will call these games “language-games” and will sometimes speak of a primitive language as a language-game.

And the process of naming the stones and of repeating words after someone might also be called language-games. Think of certain uses that are made of words in games like ring-a-ring-a-roses.

I shall also call the whole, consisting of language and the activities into which it is woven, a “language-game”.
This is less a definition than a broad hint as to how Wittgenstein will use the term, but it’s worth noting that (a) even the simple builder’s language at §2 involves more than one language-game (teaching and use) and (b) the whole of language itself can be thought of as a language-game, made up of a series of inter-woven and cross-cutting sub-games.

From this, we get two broad uses of the term:
  1. Language-game as a thought experiment, involving invented situations or uses of language; and
  2. “Game” as an analogy for language as we actually use it in our lives.

The language-game thought experiment

Language-game thought experiments serve two (complementary) functions. First, they shed light on language by allowing us to focus on the basics: “It disperses the fog if we study the phenomena of language in primitive kinds of use in which one can clearly survey the purpose and functioning of the words” (§5).

The building game at §2 is a typical example. By virtue of its very primitiveness it helps clarify concepts such as meaning and understanding. For example, the builder’s call of “slab!” clearly means “bring me a slab” despite the fact that he has no such form of words in his language (his entire vocabulary is merely “slab”, “block”, “pillar” and “beam”). But in what sense can “slab” mean “bring me a slab” to someone who cannot say the latter phrase? Well, in the sense that he wants a slab to be brought to him. In other words: meaning is use. Here we see the first small step in Wittgenstein’s dismantling of the idea that words such as “meaning”, “understanding” and “intending” refer to mental states. There will be much more on this later.

The thought experiment’s second function is to reveal the inadequacy of certain conceptions of language (usually conceptions formerly asserted by Wittgenstein himself). Again, the building game is an example: by demonstrating what Augustine’s picture of language would look like in practice it highlights the narrowness of his account, revealing how little it captures of what we actually do with words. (We shouldn’t think, therefore, that such primitive games reveal the essence of language. Each one is just a single example of the various ways language is used - they are basic, but not privileged.)

This destructive function is perhaps even more evident in another type of thought experiment used by Wittgenstein: the “what-if” experiment. Rather than presenting simplified versions of our linguistic behaviour, these ask us to imagine situations radically different from our own. At §257, for example, he asks: “What would it be like if human beings did not manifest their pains (did not groan, grimace, etc.)? Then it would be impossible to teach a child the use of the word ‘toothache’.”

Here, the thought experiment seeks to free us of the idea that our concepts are somehow necessary. By imagining how things might have been different, we see that our language is not designed for any possible creature in any possible world; it is a language for us, living in our world. It reflects all the vagaries of our nature and the environment in which we operate. This remark might seem obvious, but (Wittgenstein claims) the misguided tendency towards essence and necessity is remarkably insidious and lurks unquestioned behind many of the philosophical problems which baffle us. One way or another, his thought experiments seek to drag this tendency out into the light.

The game analogy

So how does our language operate, then? It is in attempting to answer this question that Wittgenstein draws upon games as an analogy for language. In fact, this analogy is central to his whole approach and is used to highlight several crucial (and often overlooked) points:

i. Language (like a game) is an activity. It is embedded in, and gets its purpose from, the sorts of things that human beings do. As Wittgenstein explains at §23: “The word ‘language-game’ is used here to emphasize the fact that the speaking of language is part of an activity, or of a form of life.” All too often, philosophers present language as essentially something passive. It is (for example) a way of getting an idea from my mind into yours. Why we might want to do this is felt to be neither here nor there (or something that will take care of itself). Wittgenstein considered this an important error.

ii. Language, like a game, is out there in the world. It is a shared activity (though, to be sure, there are some language-games we play by ourselves). It is not a matter of private phenomena (thoughts, sensations, etc) that others can only guess at using behavioural clues.

iii. Language, like a game, is normative. It is rule-bound, but not exhaustively so. There are just enough rules as are needed for the (language) game to work. So, for example, there are no rules in tennis about how high one is supposed to throw the ball when serving (§68). Likewise, there are rules for determining the correct use of words but they are only as rigid as the situation requires. Thus, language can function without being like a logical calculus where everything must be precisely defined and each possible step determined by strict laws.

iv. Language is diverse. We have as many games as we find amusing or interesting, and in the same way there are as many uses of language as we find beneficial or significant. Note, though, that our language-games are inter-connected. The game of teaching words, for example, presupposes the game of using of words in practice. Without the other, neither has a function. The same cannot be said of actual games – we could have snooker without poker. Indeed, we could have stud poker without draw poker. It should also be noted that what counts as a language-game will depend on the aspect of language under consideration. There are as many language-games as there are ways of classifying our linguistic concepts.

v. The concept “Language”, like the concept “game”, is a family-resemblance concept (NB: this is another of Wittgenstein’s technical terms; I hope to say something about it in another post). There is no clear distinction between linguistic and non-linguistic activity and no single definition of what language is – and hence no essence either.

vi. Language, like a game, is “free-floating”. Its rules are up to us – they do not get ultimate validation from the world. We are free to construct whatever games we wish and, in the same way, we are free to construct whatever linguistic concepts we wish. This point is very easy to misunderstand; it does not mean (for example) that language has no connection with reality. In what way is it connected? Well, in what way is the game of football connected with reality? We don’t play football with cannonballs or soap bubbles. Why not?

Both through thought experiments and by analogy, Wittgenstein uses the idea of language-games to reveal language as something public, active, diverse and constituted by rules which are up to us rather than determined by any supposed necessary structure of the world. Fruitful as it is, however, the analogy should be treated with a degree of caution. It is just an analogy. Language is not a game. Wittgenstein is not saying that what we do is trivial, or that his philosophy merely plays with words. Our linguistic capabilities have a huge role in defining what we are as human beings, so to get a clearer view of our language is to get a clearer view of ourselves. As he puts it at §19: “to imagine a language means to imagine a form of life”.

Sunday, 4 September 2011

Of Simples and Samples


Wittgenstein’s observation in §43 that “the meaning of a word is its use in the language” (see previous post) comes in the middle of a discussion of the role of ostensive definition and the reasoning behind so-called logical simples. The explicit target here is the thinking in his earlier work, the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus. That, however, can be seen as indicative of the general problems faced by philosophers when they attempt to construct theories based on conceptual misunderstandings (and the problems can be very great indeed – I have heard a philosophy lecturer state that, if only she had the nerve, she would come right out and declare fiction to be impossible). In other words, it’s a particular example of a common type of mistake.

It’s useful, then, to pick through the argument just to see the sorts of problems which can arise from a seemingly unobjectionable starting position. But Wittgenstein’s discussion of these confusions also brings into focus two hugely significant aspects of his philosophy: the distinction between description and rules, and (following on from this) the “free-floating” nature of language-games.

Let’s trace things from the beginning: Augustine’s description of language acquirement (§1) suggests that “the words in language name objects – sentences are combinations of such names”. This picture (which is not so much a theory as the soil from which a theory might grow), can give rise to a further notion: “Every word has a meaning. This meaning is correlated with the word. It is the object for which the word stands”. Once this is accepted, the task becomes how to explain various features of language which seem puzzling given this initial conception.

One such problem is how to account for the meaning of words signifying objects that have ceased to exist. Take, for example, “Carthage was destroyed”. This sentence surely has a meaning, and yet how can it? – Its subject-word, “Carthage”, has no correlative object to be its meaning. But now the thought occurs that “Carthage” is a word for a compound object, and the destruction of Carthage involved the disordering of its constituent parts. So the word “Carthage” can be analysed into more “fundamental” words naming those constituent parts and thus – provided the constituent parts haven’t been destroyed – “Carthage was destroyed” retains meaning.

But what are the constituent parts of Carthage? The buildings? The bricks? Molecules? Atoms? Well, each of these can be destroyed and if that happens then “Carthage was destroyed” loses meaning. So the analysis must continue down until we reach the ultimate constituents, and these must be ultimately simple – hence “simples”. They must be indestructible and therefore indescribable (because a description signifies a combination of elements and a combination can be destroyed). Obviously, we have no idea what these simples might be. Nobody has ever seen one. Indeed, it’s hard to imagine how they could even be physical – they are, it seems, logical objects and they are logically necessary: they must exist or else meaning is impossible.

At the same time, however, it makes no sense to talk of simples existing or not existing. Why not? Precisely because their existence is a necessary grounds of meaning. If simple X did not exist then the word “X” would have no meaning and the sentence “X does not exist” would mean “… does not exist” – that is, nothing at all. And if you cannot meaningfully say “X does not exist” then you cannot meaningfully say “X exists” either – “X exists” tells you nothing because its opposite is not possible.

Now, if simples are indescribable, how might we refer to them? One tempting answer is that it will be achieved by ostensive definition: by pointing while saying (or thinking) the name: “This → is what I mean.” Indeed, it’s hard to see how else a connection might be established. Such pointing needn’t be physical; it could be mental pointing or even, perhaps, logical pointing. Whatever form it takes, however, it is hoped this act of ostensive definition will create a completely clear, unmistakable link between word and object. The word is “pinned” to the world and that is how language becomes meaningful.

This was (roughly) the sort of argument put forward by Russell and the young Wittgenstein. In the Investigations, however, he mounts some powerful arguments against it.

First off, he points out that the notions of simplicity and complexity require a context (a use) to give them meaning (§47). What count as the “simple components” of an object depends on the reason for dividing it in the first place – it is the activity that gives the words their purpose and hence their meaning. Think of categorising chess pieces: you might say there were 32 basic components or only 6 (pawn, rook, knight, bishop, king and queen), depending on your reason for categorising them. Talk of ultimate simplicity is an attempt to use language outside of any context, and this renders it meaningless (“philosophical problems arise when language goes on holiday” §38). It is like trying to specify the rules indicating when a “goal” has been scored, but not just in football (or rugby, hockey, etc), but in any possible game.

Next we come to the notions that simples can only be named and must exist. Wittgenstein shows these claims to be thoroughly confused.

How might we make sense in practice of the claim that simples can only be named? Here’s one way: imagine a language-game describing sequences of primary coloured dots. The words “R”, “B” and “G” stand for the colours and a report might be “R, G, B” (), “B,B” (●●) or even just “R” (). (This is an amended version of the game Wittgenstein introduces at §48.) In this last case we might say that the reporter simply names the basic element “R”. What else can he do? But this way of putting it covers up a crucial distinction, because in this context “R” is still a report – it is not merely naming. When the reporter was being taught the colour-words and the teacher said “R”→ that was an example of mere naming. But the two cases achieve completely different things. The report “R” describes a possible state of affairs (and excludes all the others) whereas the teaching of “R” neither describes nor excludes; it sets up a rule for the use of a word. Without the rule the report isn’t possible, but the rule by itself says nothing – indeed, it only counts as naming if it is preparation for a subsequent use of the name. The two activities stand on different logical levels but are linked internally (by which I mean the link is conceptual rather than empirical).

A similar thought holds sway regarding the necessary existence of simples. At §50 Wittgenstein draws our attention to the linguistic role of samples. Consider, for example, the colour sample used by the shopkeeper in §1 (you see now how carefully the phrase “five red apples” was chosen?). Is the sample red or not? It’s tempting to reply “Of course!” but there’s something odd about that, because the sample is the means by which it is decided whether or not an object is red. So what is our basis for saying the sample is red? Do we look at it and compare it with itself? Obviously that’s nonsense, so the answer to “is it red?” seems to be both yes and no. Or neither. It is not the sort of thing about which “is it red” can be meaningfully asked.

As with simples, it can easily seem like something mysterious or occult is going on here, but actually what we’re running up against is (once again) the grammatical status of samples in the language-game. The colour sample plays an analogous role to the teacher’s definition “R”→. As such, it provides a rule governing the use of colour words in particular cases. Or as Wittgenstein puts it (§50): “The sample is an instrument of the language, by means of which we make colour statements. In this game, it is not something that is represented, but is a means of representation.”

Thus it turns out that the seemingly occult nature of the sample amounts to this: if we had not set up the rule “this is ‘red’” then the word “red” in “five red apples” would have no meaning. And on the same basis, saying it makes no sense to assert that “X does not exist” is really just an odd way of saying that if we hadn’t named this simple “X” then “X exists” would be meaningless. “What looks as if it had to exist is part of the language. It is a paradigm in our game; something with which comparisons are made.” Philosophical Investigations, §50. [Edit: This isn't very clear, is it? Hopefully, this post makes a better fist of spelling it out. - Phil, 2/10/11]

A failure to distinguish between a description and a rule has led to a statement about grammar being taken for a statement about the world. (And it is easy to overlook this distinction when you start from the assumption that the essence of language is to describe states of affairs by combining names. “The decisive movement in the conjuring trick has been made, and it was the very one that seemed to us quite innocent” §308.)

And we can also see from this that ostensive definition doesn’t “pin” language to the world. It creates rules for the use of words within a language-game. A word has no meaning if it has no use, not because of the non-existence of an object. So, for example, we have a use for “Jones” even when the bearer of the name is dead. “Jones is dead” we say. We can imagine things being otherwise (think of the “unpersons” in Nineteen Eighty-Four) but that just shows that whichever language-game is adopted, its rules are not forced upon us by the a priori logical structure of the world (for there is no such thing). And it follows from this that a language-game cannot itself be true or false. Only statements within the game can be true or false – according to criteria that are also contained within the language-game.

You must bear in mind that the language-game is so to say something unpredictable. I mean: it is not based on grounds. It is not reasonable (or unreasonable). It is there – like our life.
On Certainty, §559