Saturday, August 31, 2013

Wittgenstein's Philosophical Investigations, Entry 8, "The king without a sword, the land without a king"

"The word 'Excalibur', say, is a proper name in the ordinary sense. The sword Excalibur consists of parts combined in a particular way. If they are combined differently Excalibur does not exist. But it is clear that "Excalibur has a sharp blade" makes sense whether Excalibur is still whole or is broken up. But if "Excalibur" is the name of an object, this object no longer exists when Excalibur is broken in pieces; and as no object would then correspond to the name it would have no meaning. But then the sentence "Excalibur has a sharp  blade" would contain a word that had no meaning, and hence the sentence would be nonsense. But it does make sense; so there must always be something corresponding to the words of which it consists. So the word "Excalibur" must disappear when the sense is analyzed and its place be taken by words which name simples. It will be reasonable to call these words the real names." (Wittgenstein, section 39)

I know, that was a few minutes you'll never get back. OK, so proper names are supposed to correspond to things that exist. Wittgenstein clears it up a bit later:

"We said that the sentence "Excalibur has a sharp blade" made sense even when Excalibur is broken in pieces. Now this is so because in this language-game a name is also used in the absence of its bearer. But we can imagine a language-game with names(that is, signs which we should certainly include among names) in which they are used only in the presence of the bearer, and so could always be replaced by a demonstrative pronoun and the act of pointing."(Wittgenstein, section 44)

OK, so the meaning of a word is its use in a specific language-game: in the language-game where proper names have to be pointable-to, Excalibur doesn't have a use as a proper name, and I take it therefore no meaning, but in the usual games we play Excalibur does have use and meaning.

That was exhausting.

Saturday, August 24, 2013

Wittgenstein's Philosophical Investigations, Enty 7, the problems of ostensive definitions

    After I got my undergrad in philosophy I spent the summer working on a horse farm -- I was part of the 'maintenance' team, they didn't let me near the horses!  -- and I had this boss who would bark commands at me like "Go over there get that thing and take it over there!" while pointing in arbitrary directions. He would get madder and madder as I didn't perform whatever task he had in mind. This, combined with me constantly wrecking his utility truck, backing tractors into it, running it into gates and so on, made for a long summer. One thing's for sure, I never mastered whatever the language game was, but at least I had the good sense not to mention Wittgenstein.
     The point is, when someone points at something by way of definition, the person being shown whatever it is has to know what is being pointed at: a shape, a color, and object, a number or whatever. How is it that the learner knows what specifically is being pointed at? How does the teacher know whether the person has learned it?
     It seems that a typical interpretation of Wittgenstein is that it has to do with how the learner USES the word, not what is in the mind of the learner. But then what is one to make of the passage below?

"What is the relation between name and thing named?...This relation may..consist, among many other things, in the fact that hearing a name called before our mind the picture of what is named; and it also consists, among other things, in the name's being written on the thing named or being pronounced when that thing is pointed at."(Wittgenstein pg,15-16, section 37)

But, I suppose, the teacher concludes the learner has got it when the learner performs the right task, or uses the word correctly later. What's in the mind of the learner is private, the only empirical thing is usage. If language is an empirical, intersubjective thing, then the thing in the mind of the learner might not be part of the definition of a thing, per say. Hmm... what do you think? Wittgenstein can't resist asking questions like:

"But what, for example, is the word 'this' the name of ...or the word 'that' in the ostensive definition 'that is called...?' -- If you do not want to produce confusion you will do best not to call these words names at all. Yet, strange to say, the word 'this' had been called the only genuine [italics in original] name; so that anything else we call a name was only in an inexact, approximate sense"(Wittgenstein, pg. 16, section 38).

I can't help remembering the mystical "That Art Thou".

Anyway, he goes on:

"the word "name" is used to characterize many different kinds of use of a word, related to one another in many different ways: -- but the kind of use that "this" has is not among them.(Wittgenstein pg. 16, section 38)

So, "this" is not used that same way as names are.

More pseudo-mystical language(all italics in original):

"This is connected with the conception of naming as, so to speak, an occult process.  Naming appears as a queer connexion of a word with an object. -- And you really get such a queer connexion when a philosopher tries to bring out the relation between name and the thing by staring at an object in front of him and repeating a name or even the word "this" innumerable times. For philosophical problems arise when language goes on holiday. And here we may indeed fancy naming to be some remarkable act of mind, as it were a baptism of an object. And we can say word "this" to the object, as it were address the object as "this" -- a queer use of this word, which doubtless only occurs in doing philosophy."(Wittgenstein, pg. 16-17, section 38)

This is all very heavy. So here is some free associating -- hey, it's a blog, not a paper... I remember Locke talking about a glass of water on the table in his Essay. Such talking TO an object, reifies it, makes it an instantiation of a Form, creates it, calls it into being. And this is language going on holiday. The relationship occurs in some occult sphere of Mind qua Mind, or whatever. Saying the word over and over, or even 'this' almost seems a kind of meditation, you know, when you turn something over in your mind in meditation.

To make things clear: Wittgenstein is saying that all this occult stuff is the result of trying to develop the single analysis of language one gets in Augustine or early Wittgenstein or traditional philosophy. The way out of this error is to focus on the real use of language and NOT to develop some transcendental view of language. Wittgenstein is precisely NOT being systematic, he is showing how language is used, giving examples of language games rather than developing some ethereal theory.

But I can't help the feeling that Wittgenstein feels a mystical pull, some emotion he can't escape.

Saturday, August 10, 2013

Wittgenstein's Philosophical Investigations, Entry 6, transformations and solipsism

     "If you do not keep the multiplicity of language-games in view you will perhaps be inclined to ask questions like: "What is a question?" -- Is it the statement that I do not know such-and-such, or the statement that I with the other person would tell me....? Or is it the description of my mental state of uncertainty? -- And is the cry "Help!" such a description?"(Wittgenstein, pg. 10)

I'm going to try to think this out -- feel free to help me here. So, it seems to me that he is saying something like: when we forget there are all these different games with their own purview, we start puzzling over meta-problems, asking self-referential questions or making self-referential statements. This is a take on why self-referential statements should be avoided: it is not to avoid paradoxes, per say, but because they betray a forgetting that language is actually a collection of games. Paradoxes are a hazard of this forgetting.
     "The significance of such possibilities of transformation, for example of turning all statements into sentences beginning "I think" or "I believe"(and thus, as it were, into descriptions of my inner life) will become clearer in another place. (Solipsism)."(Wittgenstein, pg. 11)

This manner of writing is very evocative. The reader has to make all these associations and try to puzzle through what's happening here. Transformations of one kind of statement into another, mixing and matching types, leads to philosophical problems like that of Solipsism('Soul Alone'). Since every proposition can be preceded with an 'I think', there is always the linguistic possibility of solipsism. Does this make solipsism invalid? I think the previous question is probably a forgetting about the language games mentioned above. Solipsism is a description of an ever-present linguistic mutation.
     He goes on, starting in 27, to go back into naming. I'll deal with that more in my next post. For now let me remind you of the weird entry 1, the 'naming infinity' entry. These Russian mystics were engaged in a game where there were rules of definition and the objects in the game were those that could be defined according to the rules of mathematical argument that go back to folks like Cantor. Once one of these well-formed entities could be named, defined, they called them into being by the act of defining them. Did they exist somehow before they were named? Again, a meta-question, but my habits of old keep me asking them. No need to devolve into squishy mysticism, just realize that games have words, phrases, names that can come into being because of the rules of linguistic mutation that define them.

Wittgenstein's Philosophical Investigations, Entry 5, you are what you play

     If we follow through on what Wittgenstein is saying, we get some more multi-culti inferences. Rather than consciousness having a universal character, if there are all these language games, and these games define how you interact with yourself and the world, then consciousness is relative to the games you are playing. This is culturally relative and changes over time in your own life as you play different games.
     Augustine's theory of language has a naughty youngster using language to get what he wants prior to the game. With Wittgenstein's view, the point may be that the game defines what is wantable; there is no primordial want.
     All of this is, you know, hackneyed or whatever by now, but that's where I think this is going. Now, I also think there's a fundamental way in which this has to be wrong.  I have a strong feeling that there are meta-rules out there, determined by our DNA, that determine the set of possible games. But I know better than to think I know what those rules are: the minute you say what the rules are someone comes along and proves they're violated, so I'm not going down there, Billy.

Wittgenstein's Philosophical Investigations, Entry 4, Language Games and Forms of Life

     In paragraph 23 Wittgenstein lists a number of language games:
"Giving orders, and obeying them--
Describing the appearance of an object, or giving its measurements--
Constructing an object from a description(a drawing)--
Reporting and event--
Speculating about an event--
Forming and testing a hypothesis--
Presenting the results of an experiment in tables and diagrams--
Making up a story; and reading it--
Singing catches--
Guessing riddles--
Making a joke; telling it--
Solving a problem in practical arithmetic--
Translating from one language to another--
Requesting, thanking, cursing, greeting, praying."(Wittgenstein pg. 11)

     I take it this list is not supposed to be exhaustive. Wittgenstein associates a 'Form of Life', a Lebensform, with each language-game. So, what's a Lebensform? Well, its a way of interacting with other people and the world, I guess. I suppose this is a good word for it. Rather than a single way of dealing with the world, as represented in earlier works, like the Tractatus etc..., there are all these different ways.
     This is probably popular with postmoderns as it doesn't privilege one game over the other. He puts hypothesis testing etc.. as games like the others, there's nothing special about sciency games. It suggests the possibility, though Wittgenstein has not said anything like this, that science only applies within its own game -- it's fascistic to claim its power over the other games. Again, Wittgenstein hasn't said anything like this, at least, not yet. I don't know if he ever does.

Thursday, August 8, 2013

Wittgenstein's Philosophical Investigations, Entry 3, Philosophy and Language

     The first 20 paragraphs are broad reflections on the nature of language itself, how it is learned, the uses to which it is put etc... Wittgenstein begins with a quotation from Augustine's Confessions about how he learned language by imitating what adults said. I always feel, even reading this passage, that somehow Augustine is being naughty, seeking advantage, being a little rascal by imitating adults to get what he wants, but maybe that's just me projecting my own guilt. Another thing I can't help mentioning is the influence of Chomsky, that language acquisition involves much more than mere imitation, there's complicated structures under the hood -- this seems much less naughty.
     One might be tempted to ask: "why the obsession with linguistics, isn't that a science now?"
So, I should say some things about the relationship between our theories regarding language and the problems of philosophy. Philosophy has these 'problems': what's the relationship between our experience and the world? Do other minds exist? How do we know what is right and wrong? What is the best society? What is beauty? What is knowledge? What should be the scientific method? What is the meaning of life? etc... One assessment of why these remain PHILOSOPHICAL problems is that language is somehow going out of bounds with these questions. If language were being used normally the problems would resolve themselves logically or become the subject of some kind of science.  These problems point outside of language, and because of this, well, there will always be philosophy professors and mystics somewhere.
     To study language is to study why these problems persist, to dilate upon the border between our everyday world and the other, to diagnose the place where the mind goes off the rails. Sometimes philosophers have a kind of 'negative capability', like Nietzsche, but most are irritatingly explicative. One approach is to realize that these problems fail to use language properly and so abandon philosophy as trickery. But over the course of my life I've realized I can't do that. These problems have a kind of undertow to them: once I was made aware of them I couldn't escape them. Mystically, they pull from a place beyond language; non-mystically, language is pushed to the edge and piles up there. No, really, I'm not high.
    Just a teaser, Wittgenstein describes language as being composed of games, where words and meanings have rules local to the context. Language itself does not have the single picture presented in the Tractatus. Does this mean that meaning itself is relative to the game? Well, it seems to; the meanings are apparent once one is initiated into the game. But is there a meta-game? Well...

Monday, August 5, 2013

Wittgenstein's Philosophical Investigations, Entry 2, The Preface

     As some of you know, the title of the Tractatus was suggested by G.E. Moore as a reference to Spinoza's Tractatus, a work that proved the impossibility of miracles. Wittgenstein's Tractatus reads like one of the hyper-geometric set of axioms a-la the Ethics, with lots of numbers and sections, giving it the sense of a long proof, though whether or not it was meant to be one is at least questionable.
    Unlike the Tractatus, the Investigations is a set of sentences, paragraphs, numbered, perhaps reminiscent of Nietzsche's  aphorisms, though much more explicated and logical. As Wittgenstein opens the Preface:
"The thoughts which I publish in what follows are the precipitate of philosophical investigations which have occupied me for the last sixteen years. They concern many subjects: the concepts of meaning, of understanding, of a proposition, of logic, the foundations of mathematics, states of consciousness, and other things."
He laments that he was unable to put his thoughts together into a into a single structure, saying "my thoughts were soon crippled if I tried to force them on in any single direction against their natural inclination." This smacks of the artistic, doesn't it? He even mentions "sketches of landscapes." If your mind is prepped by years of thinking you let it go where it goes, taking down the results.
    A similar thing can be found in doing math. I've come up with math proofs in the same way. I think and think and then, sometimes late at night, a relationship comes to me, alas, nothing Earth shattering, but something new to me.
    He felt he should put the Tractatus together with his new thinking, by way of contrast.
He ends characteristically:
"I should have liked to produce a good book. This has not come about, but the time is past in which I could improve it."
This last brings to mind two things: first, the long bouts of low fever Wittgenstein suffered with in a later age, but also a reminiscence of Russell; Russell says Wittgenstein burst into his room, pacing like a caged tiger, Russell asks, "Wittgenstein, are you thinking about logic or your sins?" Wittgenstein yells "Both!"

Sunday, August 4, 2013

Wittgenstein's Philosophical Investigations, entry 1

      I've been thinking for some time about starting a, probably very, very long, series of entries on the Philosophical Investigations. Now, I am NOT an expert on Wittgenstein. I've read the Tractatus and Blue and Brown Books, but it's been a while. Of course, if someone who knows about Wittgenstein wants to opine about how I'm wrong, please do so.
      Wittgenstein is obviously a fascinating figure: I remember being intrigued by him when I was a teenager reading accounts of his personality by Russell. He seemed an wild foil to Russell's self-control -- it was later I read about Russell's letters with D.H. Lawrence.
      Be prepared for idiosyncratic digressions. I'll start now...

     A few years ago I read a book called Naming Infinity, by Graham and Kantor. This book is about the development of modern analysis in France and Russia, with an emphasis on the mystical devotion of Luzin,  Egorov and Florensky. The notion that to name something is to create it, or to discover its existence points to both the denotative quality of math and combines it with a traditional notion of the power of a name, as in the name of God. People meditate on the name of God, saying it over and over, thinking that the name is the actual being of God: God and the name of God are the same. This bled over into thinking about mathematical ideas.
     When it comes to thinking about God, I know from my own experience that thinking along these lines can create big emotional states: one finds a kind of schizoid place of refuge. I am certainly capable of having these states, I've always thought I was a little 'flicted in the head, but it is important for someone like me not to attach metaphysical importance to emotions. It's difficult, and I think most sensitive people are prone to it, but it's necessary to keep from believing crazy things. On the downside, tearing yourself away from this kind of mysticism creates feelings that the world is a nasty quotidian of garbage cans. No, I'm not high.

     Anyway, next time I will start studying the Philosophical Investigations, dual German-English edition, translated by Anscombe. Along the way I'll bring in a number of secondary sources on the text and more strange asides.