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.

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