May 142012
 
Ludwig Wittgenstein

Continuing discussion of Ludwig Wittgenstein’s Philosophical Investigations, Part I, sections 1-33 and 191-360.

Mark, Wes, Dylan, and Philosophy Bro talk about “family resemblances” in concepts, including the concept “game” as used by Wittgenstein: is there really no theory that can capture all and only instances of games, e.g. do all games have rules? Also, what does Wittgenstein mean by characterizing philosophical problems as mistakes of grammar, and how might that apply to the mind/body problem? Finally, we get to the private language argument, where W. argues that we don’t talk about our pains and things by pointing at and naming our inner states. Language is inevitably public, and our language about pains grows out of observable pain behaviors. Does this make Wittgenstein a behaviorist, and so hopelessly antiquated? Probably not.

Listen to Part 1. Read more about the topic and get the text.

End song: “Not a Woman,” by Mark Lint and the Fake from the album So Whaddaya Think? (2000). Download it free.

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  28 Responses to “Episode 56: More Wittgenstein on Language”

Comments (25) Pingbacks (3)
  1. taking a break @43min so maybe this is premature but I don’t think it’s entirely correct to say that philosophical reflection only emerges out of everyday language knots/breakdowns (like Dewey might say) because analytic philosophy has taken it upon itself to engineer its own ‘artificial’ projects/grammars that may be a whole other source of “bewitchment”, may in fact be manufacturing fly-bottles.

  2. here is Rupert Read Green Party brit-pol, zen practitioner, and Wittgenstein scholar on the “therapeutic”:
    http://eastanglia.academia.edu/RupertRead/Papers/130967/Therapy

  3. wait… Mark was the leader this whole time? Ugh this is going to require significant reedits to my PEL fanfic.

  4. Around Minute 25 when your talking about two people using different language games and double meanings, instead of talking about a con artist and a mark, I think a better example could be interactions between two people, one of which is flirting while the other is just being friendly. Both are misunderstanding each other, but both my feel that they are having a meaningful conversation.

    • Yes, good point. I think this demonstrates that “meaning” and “use” are in fact different. The people understand each other in that they understand not only the meanings of the words but of all the whole sentences, yet don’t understand each others’ motivations. I would say that “use” far outstrips meaning, in that the social roles and functions involved in a conversation comprise a complex set that is very much open to interpretation, e.g. if I’m flirting, am I attempting to use you for mating, exerting my power as a male, exercising my independence from my current marriage, denying the absurd, acting out bourgeoisie cliche, etc.?

      • one of Rorty’s points, pace Heidegger, is that as the critters we are we can only use/manipulate whatever, and whomever, we encounter.
        but as with Freudian sublimation (and M-Ponty’s maximal grips) there are degrees and kinds of manipulation, perhaps related to Foucault on power.
        Along these lines, and not Skinner’s, behaviorism is alive and well.
        http://www.class.uh.edu/cogsci/dreyfus.html

      • Doesn’t this assume some type of “Truth” independent of the couple? Who decides whether or not their was a misunderstanding? Isn’t it just that each has their own meaning of the conversation independent of the words exchanged between them?

        Say I pick up an old flame from high school at happy hour. We have a few drinks and decide to go watch the sunset. We find some discrete location to take the sunset in. Sitting there, the following exchange takes place:

        Her: The sunset is beautiful!

        Me: Actually, the sunset is a result of electromagnetic radiation from a star at the center of our solar system reaching my retina (blah blah blah and I ramble on scientifically for a bit from here…)

        Which statement is more true? I think LW wants to say that neither can have claim to some external Truth. The truth of the matter is that there is a sunset here (for me; I can’t say for sure whats going on with her). You seem to be wanting to say that because some of the words we exchange “match up” with my experience, that they mean something to me and only me. That they can somehow stand in place of my direct experience of the sunset. My reading of LW says that this is where we get confused.

        To say it another way, “the truth” isn’t something outside of us that we have to track down or discover through inquiry. We carry the truth with us all the time; it’s inherent in our obvious, mundane experiences (“There is a sunset”). It’s when we try to replace the truth of these experiences with the borrowed meaning from a language game that we start getting mixed up. There is no external judge deciding who gets it right; our experiences aren’t given meaning from the outside. Their meaning is just simply inherent. When I utter (or think) the word “sunset” it doesn’t capture the thing that I experience. It’s just a part of something I learned and throw out there to try to connect with others in some way.

        Thats the point, that the meaning of the word “sunset” is determined not by what the sun did to my eyes that evening, but is created through the encounter with my old flame, as well as by the series of judgements over time made by other players in language games that I’ve played with in the past. The experience I had of the sunset that evening has a meaning all it’s own, a meaning that cannot be articulated.

        Makes sense, or should I switch to decaf?

        • Christopher :

          Thats the point, that the meaning of the word “sunset” is determined not by what the sun did to my eyes that evening, but is created through the encounter with my old flame, as well as by the series of judgements over time made by other players in language games that I’ve played with in the past. The experience I had of the sunset that evening has a meaning all it’s own, a meaning that cannot be articulated.
          Makes sense, or should I switch to decaf?

          I would agree with a substatial portion of this statement, but I’m inclined to want to say that meaning can be articulated within the context of the situation in which the word is used.

          At the moment that your old flame uttered the statement “the sunset is beautiful”, you have to consider the circumstances immediately leading up to the statement.

          Christopher :
          Say I pick up an old flame from high school at happy hour. We have a few drinks and decide to go watch the sunset. We find some discrete location to take the sunset in. Sitting there, the following exchange takes place:
          Her: The sunset is beautiful!
          Me: Actually, the sunset is a result of electromagnetic radiation from a star at the center of our solar system reaching my retina (blah blah blah and I ramble on scientifically for a bit from here…)
          Which statement is more true?

          Given that context, one could arguably say that her statement is more true then yours, even though technically you are both, given the binary choices of true or false, proclaiming truths.

          That’s where the concept of playing language games comes in. You were playing the “reductionist” game if you will and she was playing the “drunk with an old flame” game. Given the context of the situation, i would say its fair to say that you were playing the wrong game.

          Christopher :
          I think LW wants to say that neither can have claim to some external Truth. The truth of the matter is that there is a sunset here (for me; I can’t say for sure whats going on with her). You seem to be wanting to say that because some of the words we exchange “match up” with my experience, that they mean something to me and only me. That they can somehow stand in place of my direct experience of the sunset. My reading of LW says that this is where we get confused.

          The gist of what i perceive LW to be trying to say is that truth, in the context of language, does not have the binary meaning that it has in a logical, math oriented context. It must be looked at as being infinitely connotative as there are an infinite amount of contexts, or situations, in which a word or statement can occur.

          • Nice reply, Cody. I agree that my old flame was playing that language game better than me; that’s really what I was trying to get at. To me, that shows that it’s best to determine meaning based on how successfully a word or phrase helps someone in the given context of a particular language game. I’m less inclined to judge it based on how well it “matches up” with my view of the world, or her view, or some “ultimate” or “pure” view from nowhere. Yes, you have to consider the circumstances immediately leading up to the statement, but only for the fact that it gives you the context for the language game.

            To try be more clear, if she had said, “The cantaloupe is beautiful!”, I’d be reluctant to say that the meaning of her statement was determined by how well it “matched up” with what I was seeing at the time. I might give her a puzzled look, or maybe cock my head while taking in the view and wonder, “does the sun look like a cantaloupe right now?” But in the end, her statement will be meaningful only in what it creates between us. Perhaps I’ll think she’s nuts and wrap things up, but it could also lead me to find her endearing in some quirky way (this will likely have less to do with the sunset and much more to do with how hot she is). She, on the other hand, may give me some kind of “do you get it?” glance, or maybe she’d get awkward, realizing that she had a brain fart.

            I think the best way that I can put it is that the meaning of the word “sunset” or “cantaloupe” isn’t really there until it leaves her lips. The meaning (or truth value, or whatever philosophical term I should be using) of my experience of the sunset, on the other hand, is a separate thing. It’s meaning doesn’t invade the meaning of the word, and vice versa. The reason we’re able to communicate with other folks is not because words have some uniform meaning applicable across our social interactions, but because we share a “form of life” with other people as game players. As a result, I feel more comfortable judging a word’s or sentence’s meaning as one game player judges another game player’s movement in a game, not as some type of arbitrator of how much someone “got it right” in terms of how it corresponds to what “really is the case.”

            OK, that’s enough; this post makes sense as of now. I look forward to your response.

          • At the risk of muddying things up even further, I think this bit by Michael Frayn is relevant:

            http://stevepetersen.net/personal/wittgenstein-fog.html

          • What is it that you think you are doing when you perform this meta-”talking about language games” game, is it a game which is universally applicable to all other language games? At the very least I find the whole rhetoric disquieting, to me life and death are to be taken very seriously and not at all like playing games.

          • I am worried that you find this discussion disquieting. As what we are doing is trying to cement in our own minds what it is that’s being said by LW.

            It seems to me like you don’t agree with what LW is saying because your trying to say that games can’t be taken seriously enough for some of whats done in language.

            I feel I need to argue against this definition of game (It also points towards what LW is trying to say when it comes to confusion of philosophy).

            Again, i feel i should bring up context.

            In certain context’s, a game can be used in a very serious tone. To bring up a popular example, look at the book “the hunger games”. Obviously those games are taken very seriously. And we, as a society, did’t have a problem with that use of the word “game”. It may be true that it’s within a context that is not a part of our “reality”, but the use still is within reality.

            We all play these “games” generally the same, but we all also set-up more precise definitions of how “games” or words should be played or used in our own minds. Within this precision, we then judge others use of these principals of language. We get disagree with others because they use words in less precise ways then we have defined for ourselves. We assume that others define theses words the exact same way we do. I feel the wider the audience that is being accessed, the more general the definition should be.

            I wrote this out within the period of 2 hours so let me know if some of it doesn’t make sense.

  5. On private language – by coincidence, right after I listened to this I listened to an old episode of Radiolab, which has a few case studies looking at what it might be like to have pre-linguistic or otherwise language-free mental activities.

    http://www.radiolab.org/2010/aug/09/
    –R.

  6. Christopher :
    I feel more comfortable judging a word’s or sentence’s meaning as one game player judges another game player’s movement in a game, not as some type of arbitrator of how much someone “got it right” in terms of how it corresponds to what “really is the case.”

    I would have to agree, but you have to remember that in judging the “players movement” in a game you first be aware what game is being played, and then once you have come to a reasonable idea of what that game is, you then have to make the distinction of what are legal moves in this game. (in the context of a language game you would ask yourself, what is a socially acceptable statement or response). In this regard, a person could be right or wrong. But, as language is a social tool, it is not set in stone. So the same game can have different “legal moves” between close friends and say co-workers.

    I feel we are both in agreement in concept though.

    • Right on. I think what you were getting at is that if I’m playing one game, but you’re playing another, there must be something constant between us that allows us to play together. I thought you were suggesting that word meaning had some type of authority beyond it’s use in language games. As such, I was just pointing out that these meanings are always evolving. Each social use edges a word’s meaning away from what it was the previous use. They’re “constant” simply because they have a history of coming in handy in my, yours, and billions of others’ past experiences as similar forms of life playing similar games. With your post here, it looks like we’re on the same page.

  7. Do you guys have a reference to Moore flipping off Wittgenstein? Or was that metaphorical? (Philosophybro.com mentioned this.)

    I really would like to read more about that event. Thanks!

    • The possibly-apocryphal story recounted by Philosophy Bro actually relates to Pierro Sraffa, not GE Moore: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Piero_Sraffa

      Wittgenstein was insisting that a proposition and that which it describes must have the same ‘logical form’, the same ‘logical multiplicity’, Sraffa made a gesture, familiar to Neapolitans as meaning something like disgust or contempt, of brushing the underneath of his chin with an outward sweep of the finger-tips of one hand. And he asked: ‘What is the logical form of that?’

      In the introduction to Philosophical Investigations, Wittgenstein mentions discussions with Sraffa over many years and says: “I am indebted to this stimulus for the most consequential ideas in this book”.

  8. Hi folks,

    I really enjoy your podcast.

    I just would like to comment that an answer to the “pattern recognition” demand that Dylan insists on was given by Quine in “Identity, Ostension, and Hyposthasis”.

    Cheers,
    Jerzy

  9. Great podcast guys. You’ve refashioned intelligent conversation into a method that can actually be listened to for more than 30 minutes. I’ve downloaded discussions with Rorty, Santayana, Allan Bloom and others on YouTube. Ugh, those are so boring. Thanks for using your intelligence and creativity, and adding something to the delivery of this information. Your method works better.
    -
    One comment on W: I propose that W had Asperger’s syndrome . What else can possibly explain why a human being would devote their life to the study of language?
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Asperger_syndrome

    What kind of a person would INSIST that everyone else is wrong, then stalk off and prove it?
    Most of us just figure out that others can’t say what they mean to us clearly. So we learn to adapt.
    W hated everyone, criticized everyone, and was fond of finding far flung corners of the world to sulk (i mean ‘do philosophy’).
    I’m glad these aspergery geniuses write and share their conclusions, but i’d hate to have one for a child.

  10. Hi,

    I enjoyed the episode for the most part, although sometimes i felt like “come on guys, move on”; and for moment, at about 1h 35 min (or something) into the episode, I got a strange intuition; – i “saw” a link between Heidegger and Wittgenstein (a bit obvious maybe, since Wittgenstein himself said that what Heidegger was seeking (Sein) laid outside language; remember also that he was a practicing protestantism intensely – barely eating, in what one may call ascetic life), and from this I started thinking about Gadamer (this was when one of you had problems comprehending (or accepting) the “fact” that a private language is impossible in principle and praxis. There’s an obvious link between phenomenology and Wittgenstein, and i think Gadamer, with his use of for example antropology in his studies, is a resource that you should (if you’re interested) do a episode on! For his more aesthetic side “the Relevance of the Beautiful” is great and short, and for his take on “the thing’s own languageness” (i’ve only read it in Norwegian, don’t know translation) and his use of Plato (and Aristotle) to shine light upon questions regarding where language comes from and develops are great, he also uses Heidegger, Hegel, Kant, Kierkegaard, etc. so the master piece “Truth and Method” book is relevant (and great), a book where he addresses a bucket load of philosophical questions; but if you only wanna read the most important parts and relate to this episode i would recommend you read part 1 section 2 to part 2, but i recommend you read part 2 section 2 as well, if you wanna see Gadamer use his “findings” (on art and how art has a certain language that speaks to us in a proto-linguistic way, a way (part 1)) and set them in a bigger perspective: his hermeneutic ground view (and “system”.) Quite fascinating reading actually, and it corresponds well with Wittgenstein.

  11. Late to the game here, and not philosophically trained, but I have a question. Around the one hour mark yall begin questioning whether having the definition of a word constitutes, contributes, is prior to, etc. the ability to use the word, or if (as some assume W is arguing) only the ability to use the word is relevant for really “knowing” the word. In terms of language acquisition (whether childhood development or SAT language prep), couldn’t one argue that until the word is used by the speaker their knowledge of it is pure tautology? Use of the word would, in this case, be creative in the sense that the word takes on unique significance for the speaker, and is not merely a matter or definition or simile. Before I use the word creatively–before I call a disruptive child in my class “recalcitrant”–will I not read, hear, and perhaps even recite “recalcitrance” not as the word itself, but rather as “something like obstinate”? Perhaps simply repeated use by another party (like repeated ostention) would be enough for “recalcitrant” to take on a unique significance, to be, in fact, its own word in the language, but I find that unsatisfactory.

    This thought comes from the question of language acquisition. Whether learning a new language altogether, or simply learning a new set of jargon within the same language, there seems to come a moment when we stop “translating” in our heads (that is, making the tautology, reciting the definition, or using a simile) and we begin to actively “think” in the language. If we say that we’re still actually translating, then isn’t all language, even one’s native tongue, just one great extrapolation or simile? If we do stop translating, and begin “thinking” in these new terms, we have acquired a new concept. This would still allow, of course, for non-use meaning and would imply, then, that our new concept is merely a rephrasing or complication of a pre-existing concept. The moment when we stop translating, and begin to actively think in a new language would be the moment where we creatively use the new word, that is, give it a unique status within our minds. Could it go the other way? Could a word have unique significance (that is, could we know its meaning by use) without grasping the definition? I believe so, as the definition is, in the way I’ve tried to understand it and describe it here, is merely a way to link it to other concepts, to generalize. We might even imagine that once we grasp the word through use, once it gains unique significance as a word, we could shed the definitional “meaning” of the word, as such comparative tools are only relevant insofar as comparison is itself a language game (perhaps, in choosing the perfect word from three of four synonyms in a paper. This is a game I am obviously not playing in the space of this comment.)

    As I said, I’m new to philosophy and I’m still trying to learn how to read (and listen to!) it. Do my questions here even flow logically from the discussion at hand? Thanks for the podcast!

    • to add: a word gaining unique significance is not to have “private” meaning for it, but rather is part of the process of entering the community meaning. Whereas purely private language is untranslatable and therefore untenable, wouldn’t purely public language be functionally dead and just as “untranslatable” to personal experience? With the creative use of language we enter, as individuals, into the communal meaning. This would allow for change in language, as meaning would established in the sharing between the individual and the community. What I mean by a “unique” significance is not a notion of private language, but rather that a word is unique compared to other words, ie, not reducible to another word.

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