Saturday, 14 January 2017

The Inner and the Outer

Approaching the Private Language Argument

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

Inner and Outer Language

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wittgenstein and the Inner

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

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

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

Wittgenstein and Sensation-Language

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pyrrhic Victories, Pyrrhic Defeats

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


  1. Thanks Philip, I enjoyed that a lot and found it very illuminating. I even copied a passage and added it to my research file:

    "To put it another way, you can explain the moves of the game in terms of its rules, but you can also explain the game's rules in terms of its moves. The two hang together and co-define each other. Rule-following is not an intrusion of sublime purity into the sordid world of sweat and mud, made possible by a miraculous go-between called the mind. It depends on the shared practices, reactions and judgements of living creatures."

    I have a question though about the first two sentences. Do you mean "explaining something in terms if it's rules" in the sense of demonstrating the gameplay? The reason I ask is because demonstrating a procedure which must be followed precisely to eventuate in a particular outcome is not really "explaining" and nor are the moves "terms". I hope I don't seem punctilious. I agree that the explanation and the moves hang together in a mutually reinforcing way, but I don't see how the moves define the explanation. In other words we surely have to have habits and perhaps even customs before we can have rules that might define them.

    1. Thanks Jim.

      Regarding rules, I'd be happy to swap "in terms of" with, say, "by appeal to". The important point is that the connection between rules and practice is internal. The rules set out what we ought to do, but the practice establishes what counts as following the rules. The former is "agreement in definitions" and the latter is "agreement in judgements".

      Regarding your final remark, I think following a custom *is* following a rule - even if there is no official rule-book. You deviate from the custom and you are rebuked: "That is NOT how we do things around here". Indeed, the vast majority of our childhood language acquisition happens in precisely this way - and before there were dictionaries or grammar books ALL our language was learnt like that. Was language then not rule-governed?

      Of course, not all regular behaviour counts as rule-following. Ants don't have rules. But neither do they have customs.

  2. Thanks for this blog Philip, even though I'm just starting PI, this blog is a very useful resource for better understanding. Your way of explaining makes it easier to follow arguments.

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  5. Hi - I am new to your blog but would like to offer a comment.

    Regarding the inner and outer in the early and later philosophy, a good question to ask is: why did Wittgenstein in the Tractatus say he had solved all philosophical problems when the question of the nature or 'origin' of consciousness is clearly a philosophical problem and is not dealt with?

    The only possible answer is: the Tractatus does deal with it, but indirectly. Compare the following passage from the Notebooks 1914-16 (page 19):

    […] The difficulty of my theory of logical portrayal was that of finding a connexion between the signs on paper and a situation outside in the world. […]
    A naive objection to this is: surely it is the SUBJECT who connects the signs on paper and a situation outside in the world! It is naïve, but it still an objection that needs to be answered.

    The answer must be: BY giving a logical (i.e. systematic, in something like Davidson's sense) account of the connection between the two EXTERNAL items (sign on paper and situation in with world) we have thereby FULLY 'characterised' the subject.

    I use the word 'characterised' because it seems obvious that this INDIRECT method of 'defining' the subject is not accidental, but essential to what is being defined.

    In other words, the category of the subject as inner or mental is not to be thought of as signifying something self subsistent, but as something that has two aspects: a) it is equivalent to the concept of system; and b) the system is essentially defined by way of transitions between external items; with this notion of external requiring a 'starting' (or finishing) distinction of language and world.

    In the Tractatus the concept of system is equivalent to what can only be shown. What we deal with in real life are facts and propositional signs - i.e. the outer. But the mental is not thereby left out, but is implicit in the system which connects these together. The mental does not MAKE the connections; rather, it is given THROUGH the existence of a system. (Hence the mental is neither explanatory nor a thing to be dismissed.) There is of course a deep issue here: how is the concept of system to be understood in a way which neither smuggles in equivalent concepts (e.g. intention, rule) nor reduces it to a causal basis (cf see PI #198).

    With best wishes