July 6, 2005
Tractatus, Proposition 4.002
"4.002 Man possesses the capacity of constructing languages, in which every sense can be expressed, without having an idea how and what each word means--just as one speaks without knowing how the single sounds are produced.
Colloquial language is a part of the human organism and is not less complicated than it.
From it it is humanly impossible to gather immediately the logic of language.
Language disguises the thought; so that from the external form of the clothes one cannot infer the form of the thought they clothe, because the external form of the clothes is constructed with quite another object than to let the form of the body be recognized.
The silent adjustments to understand colloquial language are enormously complicated."
--from Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus*
The fourth sentence is particularly intriguing, as it makes an assertion that might be investigated empirically. Most of Wittgenstein's statements in the Tractatus are intended to be purely logical statements, and therefore exempt from such scrutiny. (Which is not to say that the purely logical statements escape scrutiny, but that, being a priori claims, they are subject to a different sort of test entirely.) Wittgenstein's attempt to define a relationship between thought and language, however, begins to tread the ground covered by the science of psychology.
There are two easily discernible positions here. Wittgenstein, in the above quote, considers language merely as the garb of thought--a relationship reminiscent of Plato's distinction between the real Forms and the merely phenomenal objects of perception. Thought is (logically) pure, and language is simply our best available method for transmitting it. Language serves as a sort of procrustean bed for our ideas; that is, when we attempt to express a thought, the vagaries of our particular language warp the ideas in a certain "enormously complicated" way.
The second position denies any logical purity to thought. Instead, language influences thought as it happens--thought is, in other words, determined by language. If one's language contains a number system incapable of describing numbers greater than 3, then one cannot think numbers greater than 3. Of course, there are varying degrees to which one might believe thought is influenced by language, but the positions may be grouped together in opposition to the aforementioned "pure thought" position. (Many readers will be familiar with the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, which is one variant of this position.)
There is an extent to which this is a metaphysical question. Certainly, it has metaphysical repercussions. If thought is logically pure, then attempts at developing a logically perfect language are definitely desirable; after all, only when such a language is developed could we perfectly express ourselves. Wittgenstein's Tractatus might be seen as a treatise on the construction of such a language. If, on the other hand, thought not only shapes but is shaped by language, the quest for linguistic perfection becomes nonsensical--the best language is not perfect and timeless, but adaptive, interactive, and natural.
The position of the linguistics and psychology communities varies according to their level of committment to these metaphysical statements about language.
(My actual familiarity with the intellectual histories of these communities is minimal, and I welcome comments by those who know the field with some depth; my statement is merely an observation about the assumptions/commitments of these fields.)
*Passage 4.002 is mislabelled as "4.022" in the linked text.
June 2, 2005
Wittgenstein's Students: Stephen Toulmin
Taking a break from the usual discussion of specific passages, it might be fruitful to discuss the impact Wittgenstein had on specific contemporary philosophers/theorists. A review posted recently to the London Review of Books reminded me just how influential Wittgenstein had been on some of the greatest philosophers of the past few decades. (And then there are philosophers such as Tyler Burge, who refuse to read any Wittgenstein at all.) At any rate, here is a link to the review, by Steven Shapin, of Stephen Toulmin's latest.
Some notes on the reviewer, Steven Shapin: One of the most influential proponents of the Sociology of Scientific Knowledge (SSK), Shapin has worked extensively on various case studies in contemporary scientific experiments and methods, emphasizing the major impact--both positive and negative--that social considerations have on the success of scientific practice.
Some notes on the author, Stephen Toulmin: Wittgenstein's influence is evident in Toulmin's works, especially his "therapeutic" focus. As Shapin notes in his review, Toulmin wants to point out those places in which theory has lost touch with reality--those places which Wittgenstein would say have "no friction". Of course, the real problem with continuing scholarship in this vein is that one needs to show where problems are arising out of a disconnect between theory and reality; as Shapin points out, much of academia has become aware of the problem, and Toulmin is in many ways (somewhat ironically) out of touch with this fact. Choice quote:
"If...you really believe that philosophical and social scientific Dreams of Rationality and Certainty are disrupting basically healthy lay patterns of judgment and action, then you've got both a case to make and a case worth making. You've got to show, as Toulmin doesn't quite manage to do, that Rational expertise fails in general as a guide to real-life practical action, and that it does so not merely because it is in the service of unjust or uncaring agents but because it is abstracted from the world it is supposed to regulate. In which case, your message might take on a rather simpler quality: 'Don't prescribe a solution before you describe the predicament'; 'When you confront the real world, be suitably modest about your powers and your knowledge'; or, with Montaigne, 'Que sçais-je?'"
Questions arise: Does Shapin's point threaten Wittgenstein's work? And, if so, does Wittgenstein illustrate the theory/reality disconnect sufficiently to make his points valid?
In any event, Toulmin is an intelligent and interesting author, and I think his attempts at reintroducing history to philosophy will be important in the development of philosophy in the coming years. One of my former professors, Ronald Giere, contends that the linguistic turn in philosophy has begun to dry up--that is, as a research program, it has been turning up fewer and fewer philosophical insights. I would bet that some type of "historical turn" will take its place fairly soon, which is certainly in line with Toulmin's efforts. (This is also indicated by the recent surge in interest in Hegelian thought.)
May 29, 2005
#124 (The limits of philosophy.)
"124. Philosophy may in no way interfere with the actual use of language; it can in the end only describe it.
For it cannot give anything a foundation either.
It leaves everything as it is.
It also leaves mathematics as it is, and no mathematical discovery can advance it. A 'leading problem of mathematical logic' is for us a problem of mathematics like any other."
-from Philosophical Investigations
I post this partly as a response to questions that have recently been raised about the relationship between Wittgenstein's philosophy of language and contemporary naturalistic explanations in the field of linguistics. I should also note that, in spite of my interest in Wittgenstein's work, I have not studied much philosophy of language; philosophy of science and mathematics is where I find myself most at home, so I may slip into that mode in discussing this question.
The first statement, that philosophy may not "interfere" with the use of language, but only describe it, is in line with investigations into questions such as "How are we able to construct such a range of meaningful sentences when we have not been explicitly taught to do so?" (And other questions of this sort.) It does not seem to me that Wittgenstein would object to the question. The question makes sense to ask.
Shane referred me to a paper considering the compatibility--or lack thereof--between Wittgenstein's and Chomsky's views. (That paper can be found here.) The general conclusion of the author was that the two views are not incompatible, but that they have wildly divergent aims and methods, a conclusion with which I agree wholeheartedly. Chomsky pursues the question from a scientific standpoint, which immediately places his thesis outside of the bounds of what Wittgenstein would consider philosophical. (We can easily read his above statement about mathematics as applying to science as well; and this is a point that will arouse contention, I think, because many people do believe that various scientific and mathematical advances have also advanced philosophy.)
Of course, the question that Wittgenstein's work so often leaves us with is still hanging in the air: just what is philosophy of language supposed to do, if not what Chomsky is doing? My feeling is that Wittgenstein would have philosophy of language act as a foil to linguistics, gently reminding people like Chomsky of the realities of language-use, the importance of the social character of language. But this is just an initial reading of the situation, and I could easily be convinced of a different one.
May 26, 2005
Sorry for the delay in updates this week, I've been somewhat under the weather for the past few days. Things are starting to look up a bit, so I hope to post again (as well as answer some questions in the Comments sections) on Friday.
May 20, 2005
"120. When I talk about language (words, sentences, etc.) I must speak the language of every day. Is this language somehow too coarse and material for what we want to say? Then how is another one to be constructed?--And how strange that we should be able to do anything at all with the one we have!
In giving explanations I already have to use language full-blown (not some sort of preparatory, provisional one); this by itself shews that I can adduce only exterior facts about language.
Yes, but then how can these explanations satisfy us?--Well, your very questions were framed in this language; they had to be expressed in this language, if there was anything to ask!
And your scruples are misunderstandings.
Your questions refer to words; so I have to talk about words.
You say: the point isn't the word, but its meaning, and you think of the meaning as a thing of the same kind as the word, though also different from the word. Here the word, there the meaning. The money, and the cow that you can buy with it. (But contrast: money, and its use.)"
-from Philosophical Investigations
Much of what I might say about this passage I have already said, in the discussion of passage #107.
This passage illustrates well the combination of philosophical argumentation and literary affectations (so to speak) that was the style of most of Wittgenstein's later writing. Two points especially stand out here. First, this passage seems representative of the explanation put forth by Cavell, that these "debates" between two nondescript people are really descriptions of Wittgenstein's internal debates on the topics. "And your scruples are misunderstandings." These are the words of an older and more mature Wittgenstein looking at the work of his youth and shaking his head in dismay.
Second, the comparison of words to money is intriguing. As has become more and more apparent with the globalization of economies, money's true value is not the amount of gold for which it can be exchanged. Nor is it necessarily dependent on the backing of a government (though this often helps). It is, rather, a function of the ability of the money to be used effectively in trade. A dollar is worth a lot when (many) people think it is worth a lot.
An interesting question is how the comparison holds up for, say, rare collectible coins. They cannot be spent at Target, but if you go to the right person you can get a great deal in exchange for them. The analogies that come to mind: dead languages, coded languages. (You cannot use Morse code at Target, either, except under the strangest of circumstances.)
May 19, 2005
"107. The more narrowly we examine actual language, the sharper becomes the conflict between it and our requirement. (For the crystalline purity of logic was, of course, not a result of investigation: it was a requirement.) The conflict now becomes intolerable; the requirement is now in danger of becoming empty.--We have got on to slippery ice where there is no friction and so in a certain sense the conditions are ideal, but also, just because of that, we are unable to walk. We want to walk: so we need friction. Back to rough ground!"
-from Philosophical Investigations
During the later period of Wittgenstein's tenure at Cambridge, easily the greatest period for what is sometimes called "ordinary language" philosophy, many other great philosophers at the time looked down upon the work of Wittgenstein and those who followed in his style. One of the major reasons for this was that the "crystalline purity of logic" was (and in many cases still is) seen as a result of investigation. Wittgenstein seemed to be flouting this time-tested wisdom (and indeed he was).
When one is taught formal logic, it is always within the context of formal logic as a way of lending mathematical rigor to arguments. And, at more advanced levels, one is taught to see the contradictions that arise out of certain translations of ordinary language into formalization ("I am lying"; "This sentence is false").
This tends to make one think, "If only our language were more logical! How could it be fixed?" But this is impossible; as Wittgenstein says in another passage (perhaps tomorrow's entry), "Is this language somehow too coarse and material for what we want to say? Then how is another one to be constructed?" (#120)
In yet another passage, he emphasizes again that the language-games he has described in various places in the Investigations are not "preliminary studies" meant to point the way to building the perfect language. Rather, they are simply examples meant to be held up in contrast to our ordinary language, and, in this way, to illustrate certain facts about our language.
This section, from #107 to around #133, has fascinated me lately. I'm sure I'll be posting a few more from this area soon.
May 17, 2005
Silences Noises Voices (excerpt).
"The silence in which philosophy begins is the recognition of my lostness to myself, something Wittgenstein's text [Philosophical Investigations] figures as the emptiness of my words, my craving or insistence upon their emptiness, upon wanting them to do what human words cannot do. I read this disappointment with words as a function of the human wish to deny responsibility for speech. The silence in which philosophy ends is the acceptance of the human life of words, that I am revealed and concealed in every word I utter, that when I have found the word I had lost, that is, displaced from myself, it is up to me to acknowledge my reorientation (Wittgenstein describes the work of philosophy as having to turn our search around, as if reality is behind us), that I have said what there is for me to say, that this ground gained from discontent is all the ground I have, that I am exposed in my finitude, without justification. ('Justifications come to an end' is a way Wittgenstein says it.) That the end of philosophy here occurs as a punctuation within philosophy, that it is dictated neither by the conclusion of a proof nor of a system, that philosophy is brought so inconsequential a form of peace (to bring which to philosophy Wittgenstein pronounces with pride) is the hardest news for Wittgenstein's readers to accept. The news is expressed by his announcing that philosophy has no place to advance theses."
--Stanley Cavell, "Silences Noises Voices", in Future Pasts: The Analytic Tradition in Twentieth-Century Philosophy, ed. Juliet Floyd and Sanford Shieh, New York: Oxford University Press, 2001. (p 353)
When I asked my epistemology professor why we wouldn't be reading any Wittgenstein, he replied that it would be best to ignore Wittgenstein's criticism for the class. Of course, I immediately asked why that was so. He replied that, in the aftermath of Wittgenstein's criticism of philosophy, it isn't at all clear what is left for philosophers to do.
Ever since that class, I have absolutely hated this response (though I should mention that the professor who spoke it is very intelligent). Cavell's discussion of the difficulty we have accepting the real end of philosophy--"that I am exposed in my finitude, without justification"--is, I think, a wonderful description of the confusion that lies behind such responses.
Again, I am reminded of Hume: philosophical problems obsess us for a time, while we sit alone by the fire (as Descartes), but they are inevitably pushed away when we rejoin the company of friends and go out into the world.
May 16, 2005
As the calendar on the right hand side of the screen will indicate, finals week (last week) was difficult, but is now over. Back to regular updates, and possibly new projects.
Wittgenstein's philosophy is a springboard to new thought, but so often we get caught up in our fascination of what he said that we forget to move on. (Or perhaps it is that having been confronted by his undeniable genius, we fear our own contributions will not stand up.) Obviously, I believe close readings of Wittgenstein are important (which is to say, good for developing critical thought). I also think that other philosophical avenues will yield just as many insights. I plan on studying pragmatist philosophy this summer, as well as work out some thoughts of my own. Hopefully you will be able to join the summer Wittgenstein reading group--which I can now begin to prepare--and, if not, hopefully you will be toying with some other vehicle for critical thought.
The most recent new passage is just below, #114, and I plan to update with a quote from Cavell's "Silences Noises Voices" tomorrow. Until then, let me know what you think.
"114. (Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, 4.5): 'The general form of propositions is: This is how things are.' --That is the kind of proposition that one repeats to oneself countless times. One thinks that one is tracing the outline of the thing's nature over and over again, and one is merely tracing round the frame through which we look at it."
--from Philosophical Investigations
I recently asked Shane what his favorite passage was. A loaded question, of course, too broad to have a real answer. If I had to answer it for myself, though, I might do so with this passage. It succinctly connects his two major works, and describes the change he underwent between them.
Cavell has suggested that the many passages in the Investigations that consist of a series of questions and answers (cf, for example, #303) can be seen as conversations Wittgenstein is holding with himself, one-person dialogues that reflect both sides of Wittgenstein's philosophy. This passage is a concrete example of a confrontation between those two sides.
To hardcore analytic philosophers, the quote from the Tractatus expresses an axiom so basic that it needs no defense (read: goes unquestioned). "There is a book on the table." This is how things are. From this the idea develops that, as Wittgenstein writes, "the general form of propositions" is to express the way things are.
But what about: "Put the book on the table!" Or: "Why is there a book on the table?" Declarative and conditional sentences do not comprise the whole of language. "One thinks that one is tracing the outline of the thing's nature..." Even in the Tractatus, Wittgenstein recognized that there was a problem with this view of language.
You might explain what you see using a sentence, and it was (he believed, circa Tractatus) a logical relationship between your words and the actual state of affairs that gives meaning to the sentence. So far so good. But what about my investigations into this relationship connecting words to world? Will I explain this, too, with words? And will my explanation here have the same structure as my other statements? It cannot, in order to serve as an explanation. But it must, or it is false.
Why is this a problem? asks the Wittgenstein of Investigations...we use language, and it's logical inconsistencies are not problems as long as it works. More importantly, if it is a problem, it is not a philosophical problem. Perhaps it is a problem for computer science, the field of natural language processing, and such.
Too many words...when I began this entry, I told myself it would be short because the passage was so self explanatory.
One last thought: "the frame through which we look at it" references the "it". What was a thing's nature to Wittgenstein, then? Why not: "the frame through which we see"? Troubling.
May 4, 2005
"226. Suppose someone gets the series of numbers 1, 3, 5, 7,... by working out the series 2x + 1. And now he asks himself: 'But am I always doing the same thing, or something different every time?'
If from one day to the next you promise: 'To-morrow I will come and see you'--are you saying the same thing every day, or every day something different?"
--from Philosophical Investigations
It sounds as though Wittgenstein wants to treat the first question as the second, so to answer the first we should see what answers we come up with for the second.
"...are you saying the same thing every day, or every day something different?" There is an obvious sense in which I am saying the same thing every day, in the latter example: I make the same utterance each time. If I asked my friend whether the day before I had said the same thing, she would (in usual circumstances) say, "Yes, exactly the same thing." So it seems that I am saying the same thing each time.
But there is another sense in which I seem to be saying something different with each utterance: the referent of the word 'tomorrow' changes each day, that is, each day I speak the words, I am referring to just the next day after that day, not any other. And again, were I to point this out to my friend, she might rethink her position and agree that I had not in fact been saying the same thing after all.
There is something important about the point that my friend's first inclination--prior, we might say, to any philosophical training--would be to say that my statements had been the same each day. The two answers ("yes, you said the same thing" and "no, you referred to different things each time") come from different language games. The first language game is our ordinary ordinary one, in which the meaning of the words is related primarily to their effectiveness in a certain use. That is, my friend understood that I had the same intentions each time I said "tomorrow I'll come see you", despite it being a different "tomorrow" each time.
Kripke interpreted this as the beginnings of a philosophical problem, but I don't think Wittgenstein saw it as such. It is just a question, the answer to which is easy enough to discover once you decide on a language game.