Saturday, 29 October 2011

Meaning is Use Part I: Argument

While writing “Wittgenstein's Toolkit” it became clear to me that I have unfinished business with the notion of meaning as use. Several aspects of it still puzzle me. First off, I’m intrigued and slightly uneasy about the flow of Wittgenstein’s argument on this subject. In the course of the opening 43 sections his position (or, at least, his prima facie position) gradually appears to shift. I suspect this is intentional, but it can lead to a lot of head-scratching – indeed, each time I reach the end of §43 I wonder whether Wittgenstein really is claiming that meaning is use at all. I think we’d better consult the text.

The first mention of use comes in §1 when, after the “five red apples” scenario, the interlocutor asks: “But what is the meaning of the word ‘five’?” And the reply comes: “No such thing was in question here, only how the word ‘five’ is used.” Considered literally, this suggests that “meaning” and “use” have nothing to do with each other. Of course, Wittgenstein is being disingenuous; he’s preventing us (via the interlocutor) from dashing down a blind ally, and – for reasons yet to be explained – keeping us focused on use. Still, it’s a long way from “use, not meaning” to “use is meaning”.

That journey begins at §5 when he explains the role of his primitive language-games:

[….] the general concept of the meaning of a word surrounds the working of language with a haze which makes clear vision impossible. – 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.

Here, then, we have a connection in terms of helpfulness: when considering meaning it is helpful (demystifying) to look at use. Obviously, there’s still no claim that meaning is use, but the two have, so to speak, inched closer together.

Next, at §§8-9, Wittgenstein outlines an extended version of the builder’s game (introduced in §2) involving number-words, colour samples and indexicals. This prompts the following question: “Now what do the words of this language signify?” (§10). “Signify” is a slippery word in this context. For example, is it synonymous with “mean” or “indicate” or “denote” or all three? And is there a nod here to its technical use in semiotics? But such questions aside, there seems to be a clear link with the interlocutor’s question in §1. They both suggest an underlying impulse to correlate a word with a thing in order to explain meaning. This time, however, Wittgenstein’s reply is markedly different: “How is what they signify supposed to come out other than in the kind of use they have?” Here, it seems, the connection has shifted again: use is not merely helpful when considering meaning, it is essential.

The reply is provocative because it’s natural to assume that, when grasping signification, an object is what we really need rather than an account of use. To put it in Russellian terms, we want acquaintance but instead we’re being offered description as a more pertinent alternative. Actually, this is the start of Wittgenstein’s discussion of ostensive definition – a discussion which will rumble on intermittently over the next 30 or so sections. I am not going to address its specific points in this post, but it is important to note that a) his attack on the philosophical account of ostensive definition is an attack on the link between object and meaning, and b) it is indicative of Wittgenstein’s general approach that his substantive arguments in this area are almost all negative. He seems less concerned with proving that use has the right of succession than with killing off its rivals to the crown.

The importance of use is next suggested in §§19-20 during a discussion of how the command “Slab!” might be meant either as a single word or an elliptical version of “bring me a slab”. Here Wittgenstein is glancing at a second pretender to the throne: meaning as a mental object or activity. The temptation is to think that the key difference between the two ways someone might mean “Slab!” lies in “something different going on in him when he pronounces it” (§20). Wittgenstein argues against this, and at the end of the section suggests the strongest connection so far between meaning and use: “doesn’t their having the same sense consist in their having the same use?” As with “signify”, “sense” ought to be approached with caution; it doesn’t necessarily mean “meaning”. Assuming even a rough equivalence, however, we are confronted with the idea that use is not just an essential part of considering meaning; meaning consists in use. This is getting mighty close to saying that meaning is use. Note, however, that neither the comment at §10 nor the one at §20 are presented categorically. They are framed as questions. The onus is put on us to decide (and this, of course, is Wittgenstein’s therapeutic method in action). Nevertheless, it’s becoming progressively harder to miss the direction he wants us to go in.

So far meaning has been considered in three different guises: straightforwardly as “meaning” itself, as “signifying” and as “sense”. Each time, use has been implicated in the process, and each time its role has become more central: use helps clarify meaning (§5); only use shows what words signify (§10); and sense consists in use (§20). At §37, however, Wittgenstein turns his attention to naming (although this is prefigured at §15), and at §39 he introduces a pronoun in the guise of Siegfried’s magic sword “Nothung” (NB: previous translations of the Investigations substituted “Excalibur”). Here, it seems, we are tackling the word/object connection in its strongest possible manifestation. Surely, no matter how things function elsewhere, the meaning of a pronoun is the object it names? And this, of course, is precisely what Wittgenstein denies.

The discussion hinges upon making clear the hardness of the “is” involved in the statement “the object is the meaning”. This is an identity-claim, so it’s not like “grass is green” but like “Johnny Rotten is John Lydon”. (Note how “green is grass” is nonsense, but “John Lydon is Johnny Rotten” is not. Likewise, the nouns in “the object is the meaning” are interchangeable.) Wittgenstein’s task, then, is to force us to confront the full implications of this claim. To this end he points out that if the object (or person) is the meaning of the pronoun then the word must cease to have meaning if the object is destroyed (or dies) because the meaning itself is thereby destroyed. Yet clearly this doesn’t (usually) happen. Why not? In answering this, he first considers (§41) a situation where it would be right to say that the object’s destruction renders the word meaningless. If a named tool in the builder’s game is broken then it could be said that the symbol for that tool is meaningless, but only because the symbol no longer achieves anything. It has no use because no convention has been established about what to do in such a case. As soon as a convention is put in place (eg, builder B shakes his head whenever he’s asked for a broken object) then the symbol continues to function. It has a meaning because it has a use. In the same way, for us names have meaning in phrases such as "Jones is dead" because we have a whole series of linguistic conventions relating to talking about the deceased. In fact, such is the primacy of use over object as the grounds for meaning that it is even possible to imagine a meaningful name that signifies no object whatsoever (see §42). All the name needs is a role in the language-game. This, I think, amounts to a devastating attack on the attempt to equate “meaning” with “object”. The final stronghold has been breached.

During §§1-42 the object/meaning correlation is doggedly tracked through various manifestations, backed into a corner and exposed as empty. Surely now (we think) Wittgenstein can stop skirting round the issue and categorically assert that meaning is use? Instead, we get this:

For a large class of cases of the employment of the word “meaning” – though not for all – this word can be explained in this way: the meaning of a word is its use in the language.

And the meaning of a name is sometimes explained by pointing to its bearer.
Philosophical Investigations §43

Taken by itself, “the meaning of a word is its use in the language” is exactly the categorical statement we were hoping for. Unfortunately, it comes at the end of a passage which seems expressly designed to undercut the potency of its message and perhaps mangle it beyond recognition. Why, for example, has Wittgenstein suddenly moved from what meaning is (or isn’t) to how the word “meaning” is explained? What is the implication of the caveat “though not for all”? If some explanations of meaning don’t involve use, is it because the object is the meaning in such cases? But that would directly contradict the arguments outlined above! So if the explanation doesn’t involve use and the meaning isn’t the object then what the hell is meaning in such situations? And, anyway, which situations are we actually talking about? Which explanations of meaning fall under “though not for all”? And, while we’re listing our grievances, what are we supposed to make of the second paragraph of §43? It seems to fly in the face of the important distinction Wittgenstein makes at §40 between the meaning of a name and its bearer. Surely we don’t explain meaning by pointing at the bearer; we explain who the bearer is?

Once we’ve resisted the urge to throw our copy of the Investigations across the room, we might gather our litany of complaints into one central question: in what sense (if any) does Wittgenstein actually say that meaning is use? He spends a lot of time presenting powerful arguments to show what meaning isn’t, and all the while nudges us closer and closer to the idea that use is the only thing that fits the bill. But then, at the crucial moment, he seems to pull back. Or, rather, he both does and he doesn’t. He both says the words and retracts them at the same time. So instead of a straightforward declaration we get a caveat within a caveat that leaves us with more questions than answers.

How are we to make sense of this? I think the key lies in Wittgenstein’s descriptive approach to philosophy. Before we get to that, however, we need to consider an issue I side-stepped earlier: the role of ostensive definition. And that will be the subject of the next post.#

Meaning is Use Part II

Tuesday, 25 October 2011

From My Notes on Philosophy…

I am currently preparing yet another post on meaning and use, and as part of that I’ve been looking through the notes I’ve made over the two months I’ve been working on this blog. Some of them, I think, shed light on the process of doing philosophy, so here’s a brief selection.

My head hurts.

  1. “Fetch me Graeme”, “He’s dead.”
  2. “Fetch me an apple”, “We’ve run out.”
  3. “Fetch me another dodo”, “You just ate the very last one”.

FFS! What do I want to say?

But! Talking about explanation of meaning in §43. I keep making the same mistake over and over.


NO! (FFS!)

W is (1) showing how a small, innocent-seeming conceptual error early on can give rise to serious puzzlement further down the line, and (2) mounting a fierce attack on Realist (?) conception of language and its attempt to… er, what?

(How does this analogy work? Why can’t my mind focus on this?)

Look up “purple”

Russell + Tractatus Wittgenstein didn’t have OD, you donk!

It is a rule for using the word “element” that… that what? (Brain’s gone again).

What damage do they do, these conceptual confusions, other than keep philosophers in work?

But! The difference between superficial similarities and pertinent ones. (Er, what is the difference?)

If a rule of law is nowhere regarded then it is obsolete. But that doesn’t mean no-one ever breaks perfectly useful and important laws. Any law can be broken. That’s why they’re there.

The philosopher’s prayer: “Lord, today at least, let me say something correct.”

Interesting he doesn’t say “is logic sublime?”
Also: look up “sublime”!

And if you’re not writing for someone in the grip of a picture, who are you writing for? To disinterested outsiders the whole thing looks crazy.

The scene in the Graduate’s Bar in Warwick: “So what are we supposed to do after that?!” “Find a more useful purpose for our lives.”

(I’m getting side-tracked here.)




“The king must have an inherent castling potential which is obtainable in some circumstances but not others”. But what is this potential? In what way can it be possessed by the king? How, exactly, is it negated by (eg) having to cross the checking potential of an enemy piece? And so on.


Thursday, 20 October 2011

Wittgenstein's Toolkit

One rough but helpful way of considering the structure of the Investigations might be as follows: §§1-133 specify a new role for philosophy and introduce the necessary tools for the job. The rest of the book then gets on with actually putting those tools to work. Our understanding of them certainly grows richer as we see their application, but substantially everything needed for the task is there in the book’s first quarter.

With this in mind, it’s perhaps useful to take stock of the “tools” provided. The comments below are not intended to supplant my earlier posts. Hopefully, though, they’ll highlight the positive aspect of the Investigations and show that it’s not simply about taking a hammer to traditional philosophy.

If I had to sum up the central philosophical insight of Wittgenstein’s later philosophy, I’d say it was this: language is an activity. More specifically, it is a rule-governed activity performed by agents in particular circumstances. As he says at §25, “Giving orders, asking questions, telling stories, having a chat, are as much a part of our natural history as walking, eating, drinking, playing.” This consideration stands behind all the strands of his later philosophy and it’s the reason he seized upon the analogy between language and games.

Viewing language in this way highlights its active and varied role. Language is something we do, and we do it in many different, yet subtly interconnected situations. To understand it properly, therefore, it must be considered in context. Attempts to abstract language in the hope of discovering its essence merely falsify the phenomenon. Indeed, the whole urge to produce explanations sub specie aeternitatis is misguided because explanation is itself a language-game that only makes sense when viewed in situ: “If we say, ‘Every word in the language signifies something’, we have so far said nothing whatever; unless we explain exactly what distinction we wish to make” (§13). In such cases language is no longer working; it has gone on holiday. And the only result is nonsense.

Another benefit of likening language to a series of games is that it brings out the importance of two related features: training and rules. Language, like a game, is something we learn. We learn it in a variety of ways: sometimes we’re required to memorise a formal set of rules (at school, for example), but often we work out correct usage from observing others, and sometimes we just copy what everyone else is doing. This is all part of what Wittgenstein calls “mastering a technique” (§150).

Learning and application are intrinsically linked. We can’t do things with language until we’ve grasped the rules (mastered the technique), but the whole process of learning is shaped by the application. This is another way of saying that language can’t be understood when detached from its context. The rules and definitions which are supposed to explain meaning seem mysterious or puzzling when they’re extracted from the situations that give them purpose. Returning them to their rightful home dispels the mystery, and this is the intention behind Wittgenstein’s assertion at §43 that “the meaning of a word is its use in the language”.

Clearly, approaching meaning in terms of use is in keeping with the idea of language as an activity. Its philosophical advantage is that it brings the question of meaning down to earth. By deriving meaning from practice we are less prone to abstracting the concept and viewing it as something occult. In particular, we avoid the temptation to think meaning must be a thing – either the physical object correlated with a word or some kind of mental picture.

More generally, we’re able to trace the complex grammatical rules governing concept-words (including “meaning”) as they are applied in our lives. We see distinctions and similarities that are usually overlooked, and this prevents us from reaching for limited or partial definitions (eg, “knowledge is justified true belief”) and then being puzzled when they conflict with what actually happens.

What is less clear, however, is the precise status of the claim that meaning is use. Wittgenstein cannot be proposing it as a theory (unless he’s made a shocking blunder), and yet as a description of the use of “meaning” it is hardly self-evidently true. This, presumably, is the reason for the caveat in §43 (“For a large class of cases […] though not for all”). But the caveat in itself is troubling because it seems like he’s saying “in some cases the meaning of a word is an object rather than use” and yet (a) he elsewhere brings forward powerful arguments to show that meaning cannot be an object and (b) use does appear to play some part in all explanations of meaning (eg, the difference between “This→ is red” as a definition and as a complaint (because I’d asked for something orange) is a matter of context, although this raises a further question as to how far “use” and “context” are synonymous).

Further thought is needed. For now, though, I think we can say this: Wittgenstein invites us to consider meaning in terms of use because (a) we often do explain meaning by describing the use of a word and (b) from a philosophical viewpoint it helps avoid certain temptations that are more strongly exerted in other forms of explanation – and it does this because it keeps language fixed in the human activities that give it its life.

It is easy to suppose that all items falling under a particular concept must have something in common in virtue of which they qualify as examples of that concept. Wittgenstein maintains, however, that if we look at the way concepts function in our lives (ie, derive their meaning from use) we will see that this is not always the case. Sometimes concepts exhibit a family of affinities that have developed over time, “as in spinning a thread we twist fibre on fibre” (§67). The requirement for commonality is a hasty assumption that often leads to confusion.

For example, if we consider all the different instances of what’s called “understanding” we may become puzzled as to how these varied items all fall under the same concept. Here it’s tempting to posit a phenomenon (perhaps some kind of mental act) that will provide the unity we think we need. But far from solving the problem, the phenomenon creates a host of further puzzles and our confusion only deepens.

The notion of family resemblance concepts frees us from this impasse. It shows how concepts can retain integrity without commonality: they do it by remaining useful. Thus our preconceived need for unity is trumped by our actual behaviour and we no longer have to invent what we do not see.

Forms of Life

[NB: consider this section a “first go” at describing the importance of forms of life. I’m making some pretty contentious claims here and absolutely reserve the right to change my mind later on.]

Approaching language from the point of view of use inevitably brings the agent into the picture. If language is something that gets done then who is doing the doing? Wittgenstein’s favoured term for this “doer” is the strikingly non-specific “form of life”. Why choose this expression?

Well, for one thing, using “form of life” rather than “person” or “human being” discourages us from dragging in any distorting preconceptions we might have about ourselves. Nothing is assumed. Rather, the form of life is whatever happens to emerge from descriptions of linguistic activity. This allows for distinctions and connections both within and across any particular species, as well as change over time in the practices of individuals and linguistic communities. We might link the term to language-games here and say that insofar as two individuals share a language-game they share a form of life.

This non-presumptive generality of form arises out of the focus on use, and is linked to the very nature of philosophy as Wittgenstein saw it. The philosopher’s task is to outline the concepts we have. To go further and ask why we have them is to cross the boundary between a conceptual investigation and an empirical one. For the philosopher, therefore, the form of life represents a terminus (PPF §345: “What has to be accepted, the given, is – one might say – forms of life”). It is here we find the foundation of our concepts, not in theories about the a priori structure of the world, nor in theories about the a priori structure of experience. We simply have to accept the form of life as manifested through activity. “This is how we think. This is how we act. This is how we talk about it.“ (Zettel, §309). We can go no further; the buck stops here.

A major source of philosophical error involves faulty presuppositions (or theories) about the way language is actually used. We assume commonality, essence, similarity, and so on. The only way round this is to get a clear view of language. In other words, we must abstain from theory and simply describe its use (§66: “don’t think, but look!”). Perhaps surprisingly, this description is not preparation for developing better answers to our problems; it is the answer itself.

Why does description resolve philosophical problems? Because it brings our attention back from a situation where a concept is puzzling (ie, philosophy) to one where it is not (ie, our lives). The concept of knowledge, for example, puzzles philosophers. Is it possible? And if it is, then how? And yet every day we use the term without any difficulty at all. Wittgenstein suggests the problem arises when we lose sight of the position that such concepts occupy in our day-to-day affairs. “The civic status of a contradiction, or its status in civic life – that is the philosophical problem” (§125). Description restores clarity, and “the clarity that we are aiming at is indeed complete clarity. But this simply means that the philosophical problems should completely disappear” (§133).

Apologies for going over (mostly) old ground, but I’ve been keen to do two things: first, to highlight the fundamental importance of §§1-133 with regard to the rest of the Investigations; and secondly, to show the unity of approach behind the positive aspects of Wittgenstein’s later philosophy.

Speaking from personal experience, it’s tempting to gloss over §§1-133. Arguments about logical atomism and propositional form can seem more relevant to historians than anyone engaged with philosophy today, and it’s easy think, “When do we get to the sexy stuff? When do we get to rule-following or the private language argument? That’s where the action is.” But the discussion of the “sexy stuff” flows directly out of the approach and methodology developed in the book’s opening quarter. If you don’t have a clear grasp of that then it’s going to be next to impossible to see the later arguments in their right light. (For now I shall merely flag up the additional point that you probably can’t get a clear grasp of §§1-133 until you’ve read the rest of the book.) If my experience here is atypical then: good. If, however, it reflects a more general trend then: be warned.

Regarding the unity of Wittgenstein’s approach, I think it’s a corollary of its radical nature; the whole thing points away from more traditional philosophical methods. For me, this puts a deep question mark over attempts to cherry-pick his ideas or blend them with other approaches. How far, for example, can you pray-in-aid family resemblance while maintaining a broadly naturalist approach? Family resemblance ramifies into notions such as “meaning as use”, grammar and the descriptive method – and these notions work against the fundamental thrust of naturalistic analysis. The reason why such cherry-picking happens is interesting and (I believe) often has as much to do with disarming the threat of Wittgenstein as anything else. But that’s for another post.

Tuesday, 18 October 2011

One Hundred Years Ago Today

On Wednesday 18 October 1911, Bertrand Russell was having tea with CK Ogden in his rooms at Trinity College Cambridge when they were interrupted by a complete stranger. As Russell wrote to Lady Ottoline Morrell, "an unknown German appeared, speaking very little English but refusing to speak German. He turned out to be a man who had learned engineering at Charlottenberg, but during his course had acquired by himself, a passion for the philosophy of mathematics and has now come to Cambridge on purpose to hear me."

The German turned out to be an Austrian called Ludwig Wittgenstein. Things would never be quite the same again for either of them - just three months later Russell wrote to Lady Morrell: "I love him & feel he will solve the problems I am too old to solve ... He is the young man one hopes for."

Dr John Preston from the University of Reading has set up a website to chronicle Wittgenstein's philosophical development on a day-by-day basis. As he says, "from 18th October 2011, the site will slowly build up information covering events up to the end of 1926, at the same pace as these events took place, exactly one century ago". Should be well worth a look.

Wednesday, 12 October 2011


When I was at Uni we used to joke that there ought to be a “teacher’s edition” of the Philosophical Investigations – one with all the answers set out in the back. This, of course, was a reference to the extraordinary number of unanswered questions in the book – according to Anthony Kenny only 110 of its 784 questions are answered, and 70 of those are intentionally wrong. In fact, this is just one of the Investigations’ puzzling (and sometimes infuriating) features; it has no chapter headings; it segues from topic to topic; it frequently doubles back on itself and doesn’t so much come to a conclusion as peter out in a blizzard of remarks about meaning and intention. It’s easy to put this down to the fact that the book was never finished; maybe Wittgenstein just wasn’t up to the task of writing a “proper” philosophical work. In fact, however, the Investigations is constructed with great care. Far from being jumbled or haphazard, its unusual style is everywhere guided by Wittgenstein’s conception both of the deep roots of philosophical confusion and his strategy for resolving it.

In a way, this conception serves to answer a very pertinent question: if philosophy is founded on error how could so many great minds have got it so wrong for so long? Wittgenstein’s answer is that the error is as much psychological as intellectual. It stems from a threefold difficulty: a) the need to consider things in a way that cuts across the grain of our habitual thought processes; b) our reluctance to abandon normal problem-solving techniques even when they are no longer helpful; and c) the illusion of profundity that these techniques produce when misapplied to philosophical problems.

How, then, had previous philosophers managed to miss the conceptual distinctions that lie at the heart of so much of Wittgenstein’s later work? Well, for one thing language often misleads us by making dissimilar things look the same. Thus “I have a car” has the same linguistic form as “I have a pain”, despite the fact that the concepts “car” and “pain” are very different. But just as importantly, it is extremely difficult to step back and get a clearer picture. When it comes to meaning, our natural bias is towards similarities rather than differences. So, for example, we are used to thinking of different words with the same meaning – we do it all the time when writing. But it is far less usual to think of different meanings for the same word. Consider a basic verb like “to have”. Given “I have a car” it is obvious that (often) we can replace it with “I own a car”. And given “I have a pain” an alternative might be “I feel a pain”. But usually we do not reflect that neither “I feel a car” nor “I own a pain” provide workable synonyms in these contexts. Such distinctions readily elude us because we are simply not used to thinking in that way. It is not a technique we have mastered fluently.

Moreover, even when these distinctions are pointed out, they can seem trivial – beneath the weighty considerations of philosophy (for we have a preconceived notion of what a serious enquiry looks like). But it is precisely such “trivial” distinctions that show how our concepts work. They cannot be understood by any other means. As Wittgenstein remarks at §340: “One cannot guess how a word functions. One has to look at its application and learn from that. But the difficulty is to remove the prejudice which stands in the way of doing so. It is not a stupid prejudice”.

This brings us to the second obstacle to clarity: philosophy turns our normal intellectual virtues into vices. When faced with a problem we have a range of “go to” techniques. Typically, these are reductive in nature: we use inference to the best explanation (see “Open Prison” for an example of how this can cramp our understanding); we seek the essential features of the situation; we look for a law, or a formula or a unifying principle. Such techniques stand as paradigms of intellectual respectability. In particular, the scientific method provides a standard of correctness to which (it seems) all other approaches must aspire. And this is a further reason why it is so tempting to assimilate phrases such as “I have a car” and “I have a pain”: we seize upon a similarity as suggesting an essence because (normally) this is a helpful way of approaching things.

For Wittgenstein, however, the problems of philosophy are conceptual rather than empirical. Solving them does not require new knowledge but a clearer understanding of what we already know. As a result, techniques modelled on the theoretico-deductive method of science are powerless to help. Nevertheless, we persevere with them, not only out of habit but also because the theories they produce seem to reveal something profound about the world. As Wittgenstein says at §89: “logic seemed to have a peculiar depth – a universal significance. Logic lay, it seemed, at the foundation of all the sciences”. Custom is bolstered by bewitchment.

Thus we’re prevented from achieving a clear view of our concepts, yet compelled to persevere with a misplaced approach. This amounts to what Wittgenstein calls “a sickness of the understanding” (Remarks on the Foundations of Mathematics, p157). He also speaks of “philosophical diseases” (§593) and wryly likens philosophy to madness:
I am sitting with a philosopher in the garden; he says again and again “I know that that’s a tree”, pointing to a tree that is near us. Someone else arrives and hears this, and I tell him: “This fellow isn’t insane. We are only doing philosophy.”
On Certainty §467
Regarding a “cure”, he says “The philosopher treats a question; like an illness” (§255) and also “There is not a single philosophical method, though there are indeed methods, different therapies, as it were” (§133d).

It’s perhaps easy to get too hung up on the details of this medical metaphor. (Was Wittgenstein only writing for those who agonised over philosophy? Did he model his method explicitly on psychoanalysis? And if so, which version? Etc, etc.) The key point, however, is clear: philosophical problems are unusual and therefore require an unusual method to give them rest. Wittgenstein’s own method is exemplified in the style and structure of the Investigations. It is certainly akin to therapy and is based around an insight he spells out explicitly in §86 of The Big Typescript:  “What has to be overcome is not a difficulty of the intellect, but of the will.”

A central feature of this type of situation is that argument alone is not enough to affect genuine change. As Wittgenstein remarked to Rush Rhees: “I don’t try to make you believe something you don’t believe, but to make you do something you won’t do.” The “patient” cannot simply be told how a philosophically “healthy” person sees things; he must internalise the viewpoint. That requires training, practice and a sympathetic understanding of the intellectual temptations that are likely to derail things. The Investigations is structured so as to take the reader through precisely this kind of process.

For example, its striking tendency to segue between topics is not due to unruliness or a lack of ordered thinking. On the contrary, it reflects a deep understanding of the interconnected nature of philosophical problems. What might appear to be a series of discrete issues are (Wittgenstein maintains) linked by deeply ingrained background assumptions that form a kind of self-supporting “mythology”. It is a mythology that reverberates across a huge conceptual range. For example:
  • inner/outer
  • mental/physical
  • subjective/objective
  • emotion/rationality
  • sensation/behaviour
  • private/public
  • symbol/sign
  • intention/expression

Pushing against one part of the structure brings resistance from the rest. So you have to follow the connections and tackle them all, turn and turn about, until the reader understands the true nature of what he’s up against. At that point you can trust him to see the connections for himself and deal with them accordingly. Conversely, if you don’t follow these connections then you don’t do justice to the complexity of the problem. The reader may (rightly) decide you haven’t grasped the strength of his position, because that strength is derived from the support the whole gives to its parts.

Another aspect of dismantling the system is that, in a sense, the reader must do it for himself. Of course, he must be guided, but this is a matter of steering him towards conclusions which he then draws, rather than simply telling him what to think. As a result, he takes ownership of the process and becomes more willing to resist the temptations presented by his old way of thinking. The problems are not merely scythed back but dug up root and branch.

This, of course, is the reason for the cryptic, questioning nature of the Investigations: it forces the reader to explore for himself the incoherence of his position. Equally, it requires him to shake off his old thought-habits and practice a new approach – hunting out connections and distinctions which had previously been brushed aside by the urge to reduce things to a fundamental essence. In this sense, the Investigations resembles a school text-book: it doesn’t just give the facts, it provides exercises so that the reader can properly master the relevant techniques. The book is as much a process as an argument, and working through that process is integral to solving the problems it discusses. The reason there is no “teachers edition” of the Investigations is exactly the same reason that school children aren’t given maths books with the answers in the back.

The notion of the Investigations as a process also explains why the book has no formal conclusion. In a way, it cannot have one because it is not seeking to provide the reader with an answer, but to give him techniques which (properly applied) will release him from the question. As Wittgenstein puts it at §133:
The real discovery is the one that enables me to break off philosophizing when I want to. – The one that gives philosophy peace, so that it is no longer tormented by questions which bring itself in question.
You cannot say in advance when the moment of release will happen. You must simply keep working until it arrives.

Such is my understanding of the relationship between Wittgenstein’s conception of philosophy and the style of the Investigations. Assuming it’s correct, three points occur to me.

First, it’s tempting to see something disrespectful in Wittgenstein’s “diagnosis”. It can feel like he explains how so many great minds have been led astray, but only at the cost of suggesting they were a bit mad rather than a bit stupid. I’m sure he would’ve objected to such a travesty of his position, and it should be borne in mind that Wittgenstein’s analysis draws heavily on his own experience, which he takes to be characteristic (plus, for what it’s worth, his account tallies with my own experience on most points). All the same, considering philosophers as quasi patients is not always a comfortable thing to do.

Secondly, his account seems to me to provide a quandary regarding the secondary literature. In helping people understand Wittgenstein’s position, there is a danger that such works actually prevent it from being taken to heart. Insofar as they allow readers to avoid the therapeutic task of thinking things through for themselves, any resulting change could be rendered superficial rather than fundamental. On the other hand, given the difficulty of what he wrote, some kind of elucidation seems necessary if his ideas are to be properly understood. Perhaps every guide to Wittgenstein should end with the words “This is what I think – now go back to the Investigations and work it out for yourself”.

Finally, how successful is the therapeutic method he proposes? For Wittgenstein himself, it seems, the moment of release never truly arrived. He kept hammering away at the psychological landscape almost until his death, sure that he was on the right track yet dissatisfied with what he had written and unable to write anything better. What is the significance of that? Maybe it was due to his personal limitations, or his self-defeating perfectionism. Or maybe it’s a sign that he’d made a mistake and marched down a dead-end. Or maybe it was the only possible outcome because even though his analysis of philosophy was correct he was wrong to assume that a satisfying, philosophy-ending survey of our language was actually possible. Maybe it simply can’t be done. And maybe the notion of the philosophically healthy person is every bit as fictional as the notion of the psychologically healthy person. I’m not sure that’s true. But it might be.

That’s what I think – now go back to the Investigations and work it out for yourself.

Tuesday, 4 October 2011

Open Prison

[A quick post while I gather my thoughts on the notion of philosophy as therapy.]

At §593 Wittgenstein comments “A main cause of philosophical diseases – a one-sided diet: one nourishes one’s thinking with only one kind of example.” So, for instance, when confronted with a familiar word or sentence we tend to imagine a typical context for it and fail to see that it might also have less obvious applications. In everyday life this might be a helpful time-saver, but in philosophy it can lead us to overlook the complexity of our expressions. The typical context strongly suggests itself; it hogs our attention and can easily harden into a definition that we are loathed to depart from. “It does mean this,” we think, “it’s just so obvious.”

How easy it is to fall into this trap was brought home to me recently when considering family resemblance concepts. Speaking of the misguided requirement for complete exactness in our concepts, Wittgenstein remarks:

Here one thinks something like this: if I say “I have locked the man up in the room – there is only one door left open” – then I simply haven’t locked him up at all; his being locked up is a sham. One would be inclined to say here: “So you haven’t accomplished anything at all.” An enclosure with a hole in it is as good as none. – But is that really true?
Philosophical Investigations §99

Clearly the answer to his question is supposed to be “no”, but to be honest the example always troubled me. “The door is open,” I’d think, “so the man can get out”. I could see it vividly before me: the unlocked door, the man leaving. How else could it be taken? It was just so obvious. I suspected I was wrong, but I couldn't see how and wished (not for the first time) that Wittgenstein had answered his own question with an example.

A few days later, I came across a reference to the famous comment at §309: “What is your aim in philosophy? – To show the fly the way out of the fly bottle.” I realised with a bit of a shock that I didn’t know what a fly bottle was. I mean, I knew it was a kind of trap, but I had no idea how it actually worked. So I looked it up on Wiki and found the following definition:

A fly bottle or glass flytrap is a passive fly trap. In the Far East it is large bottle of clear glass with a black metal top in which there is a hole. Bait is placed in the bottom of the bottle in the form of pieces of meat. Flies enter the bottle in search of food and are then unable to escape because their Phototaxis leads them anywhere in the bottle except to the darker top where the entry hole is.

Now, of course, I realised that (for once) Wittgenstein had answered his own question - it was just that he’d waited 210 sections before doing it. Here was an example of an enclosure with a hole that worked perfectly well as a trap. And finding it broke the spell of the typical scenario. Suddenly I was able to think of all sorts of ways in which an unlocked door still might not allow someone to escape. The door’s handle could be red hot. Or the door could open onto a sheer drop. Or maybe the door was hidden and the captive was prevented from finding it by a fake door that consumed his attention as he obsessively tried to work out how to open it. Once I was released from the grip of my paradigm case it all just seemed so obvious.

There’s a pleasing symmetry here. I had failed to see the simple way out of the problem of how the captive might fail to see the simple way out of his problem because, like the captive, I’d been seduced into looking in the wrong place for the answer. But, on this occasion, the fly bottle had shown the fly the way out of the fly bottle.