Word and Object

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Deconstructing Wittgenstein

March 19th, 2008 by David Kronemyer · No Comments

§243 – §315 of the Philosophical Investigations suggest a large quantity of imprecise notions, which is typical of Wittgenstein. I don’t want to call them “concepts” or “ideas,” and certainly not “propositions.” The definitions of each of these words is different, and they imply other contexts. “Proposals” might work, but that makes it sound as though Wittgenstein had deposited certain meanings into them, whatever those are. This well might be the case, but probably isn’t. I don’t want to prejudge the issue, because it’s easy with Wittgenstein to over-interpret the text – a peculiar form of granular analysis. The biggest problem might be “calling” or “naming” “them” at all, because doing so implies they are “things” or “entities,” susceptible to being “referred to” or “designated as” such, which Wittgenstein most certainly would eschew. In fact, I am hesitant even to say they suggest some-“thing” or any-“thing” to begin with, again because of that pesky word “thing,” which implies they can be pointed out, or defined ostensively.

By the same token, they (whatever they are, or might be) certainly suggest more than merely no-“thing,” understood as the absence of some-“thing,” or any-“thing.” Taking a stand as to what “they” actually are, or might be, may make it impossible to discern exactly what (if anything) Wittgenstein is saying, or trying to stay. Wittgenstein certainly is engaging in some form of activity, otherwise he wouldn’t have written down any words, to begin with, much less the specific words he used. Rather, he would have sat there with his hands neatly folded, or embarked upon some other form of activity. In doing so, he would not necessarily have to be thinking about §243 – §315, or writing anything down, or wondering what words he was going to use, or anything at all. He could have been listening to music, or eating a sandwich, or whatever else he was doing.

The eventual outcome of this problem (understood in the sense of what happens at the conclusion of a process, not as a specific result, which might be a “thing”) well may be we have do away with certain nouns and articles altogether, if only because of the false ideations they import. The nouns we probably can keep are those that unambiguously refer to objects, items or things that actually exist in the world, or that might exist – items like rocks and trees, and unicorns. We can point to them, or hypothetical rearrangements of them, and possibly even devise a word for them. The nouns with which we must dispense will be those implicating mental representations of the foregoing, including perceptions, thoughts, ideas, memories, and all other forms of activity allegedly occurring in the “mind,” whatever that is (if it is any-“thing” at all). In a way, this may be what Bertrand Russell was trying to get to, when he defined a class of two or three nouns that could refer unambiguously, such as “this,” “that” and “I.”

The reason why Wittgenstein’s notions are imprecise is because they are not tightly compacted, or proprietary. Anybody can grab onto them, and define them pretty much however they want. Wittgenstein well might subscribe to some of these deployments, others he would reject entirely as ill-conceived, or an inappropriate extrapolation from whatever it is (or might be) that he meant. And, as per above, we know he meant some-“thing,” otherwise, he wouldn’t have written down the words he wrote, to begin with. Or, better phrased: we might approximate what Wittgenstein meant, if he would assent to some formulation of it, if it was presented to him for approval or rejection – if it was sufficiently determinate, and within the penumbra of what counts as “close enough.” In order to elude any problem of reference, perhaps he would evidence his agreement (or lack of it) only by nodding his head up, or down, as the case might be.

They are, then, a congeries of notions, partaking of varying degrees of definiteness or precision, situated at various distances from the core of whatever it is that Wittgenstein is attempting to express. Like planets, orbiting the center, in concentric circles.

Going back to the start, I also hesitate to use a verb stronger than the text “suggests” the notions. I certainly wouldn’t go so far as to say these sections of the Philosophical Investigations “state” or even “imply” (insert appropriate word for whatever “it” “is,” or might be). Because that indicates, or tends to indicate, intentional, meaning-conferring activity on Wittgenstein’s part. Wittgenstein well might deny ever having engaged in same, because it would be a form of “mental noun,” like having an “intention,” which he probably would want to avoid.

Even the process is dubious, because it implies Wittgenstein deliberately “selected” certain words that somehow “matched” whatever it was in his head, that he was attempting to express. In much the same way one might pick out produce at the grocery store, carefully inspecting each potato, in order to determine its fitness and suitability for the purpose of including it as a menu item in one’s dinner.

This simple exegesis casts some doubt on Wittgenstein’s enterprise, if his objective is to eliminate all things mental. For surely he would not have written down the words he in fact used, unless he discerned some relationship, however abstract, between them and what he wanted to express. We might even call it the “idea” he wanted to express, without committing ourselves to the existence of some-“thing” tangible that lived inside of his head. His words might be vague, and they may not completely envelop the topography of the idea.

This potential difficulty is exacerbated by the German language, which specializes in attempting to match words with ideas, simply by adding on more syllables to the words – sometimes expanding their potential applicability, sometimes restricting it. It fundamentally is unlike its parent language, Latin, which has a clear structure of subject – verb – object. It is easy to diagram Latin sentences. Latin invites this form of analysis, because it is particularly serial. Its syntactical structure also implies a robust notion of self. If Latin has an excess of “subject” nouns, then German is partakes of an excess of compound “object” nouns, together with their exfoliated adjectival appendages.

Despite this, somehow, the words Wittgenstein uses are “close enough” to express his thoughts, in the context of discourse in which he is engaged – that is, philosophical analysis. Which, for Wittgenstein, paradoxically might result in an outcome where the words “mean” no-“thing” at all, either to him, or for us, bewildered as we are in our attempts to extract meaning from them.

Let us consider two more examples of, or analogies to, this type of activity. A camera with a zoom lens situates the image to be photographed in a certain perspective. It also enables the photographer to focus on that image; and select a focal length (the “f”-stop), which is the depth of field of the focus. And, a notch filter for the sound engineer performs a similar function. The engineer selects a particular frequency to be boosted or cut; and then the “q” factor, which is the shape of the envelope surrounding the frequency – the range of frequencies surrounding the center, which also will be affected. That zone can be narrow or wider, either in fixed increments (like an f-stop), or on a variable basis, depending upon the type of control.

Both of these are analog processes, in that they involve interaction between light or sound, on the one hand, and perspicuous activity on the part of the person performing the task. The person performing the task must deploy tools of sensory perception in order to discern which looks, or sounds, “best” (or, at least, “better than” some other iteration of same). In the same manner, Wittgenstein must select the words to express his ideas.

There is no particular reason why this is, or must be, a “conscious” process. Most of the time, we write down words, or natter on in conversation, without the slightest “idea” of what we are trying to say (or, only a “general” idea, or a heading in a “vague direction”). We just open our mouth, and out come the words. It certainly would be wrong to say (again, for most of the time) that we “pick out” individual words to use.

Nor does the photographer necessarily have a “mental representation” of the photograph-to-be (how it should “look”), or compare one “mental representation” of it to another, say, when changing zoom-perspective or focal length. Fashion photographers, for example, attempt to induce their models to assume a number of different poses, attitudes and expressions, and are content blithely to snap away, hoping that one of the pictures felicitously captures or depicts what transpired during the session.

And, the sound engineer may spend hours fiddling with the equalization of different frequencies, all with a view towards making the sound recording sound as “good” as possible, with reference to some standard. Even less so than the photographer, that paradigm is not a “mental representation.” Rather, it depends on the engineer’s background, experience, and skill at differentiating (and then selecting from) any number of possible outcomes.

Still, we deploy certain words, instead of others. A musician writes down certain notes, instead of others. An artist chooses certain colors from a palette, instead of others. Even the chef selects particular vegetables from those on offer at the market. This process cannot be random, or chaotic. If it was, then, any old word, or any old note, or any old color, or any old vegetable, would do – which simply isn’t the case.

In order to be explanatory, or to explore his own assumptions, Wittgenstein ought to clarify exactly what’s involved in this process. But he doesn’t. Rather, if anything, he suggests we ought to do it, on his behalf. His words are elusive. This might mean he doesn’t have the slightest idea of what he’s talking about. Or, he cannot express himself articulately. Giving Wittgenstein more credit, he may be eschewing mere exposition. He invites us to participate in the process of understanding. We are not simply readers, rather, collaborators. To cooperate with Wittgenstein effectively, we in turn must import our own concepts, structure, meaning, framework, assumptions, and uses of language.

Many things Wittgenstein says are absurd. In many instances, he doesn’t have the slightest idea of what he’s talking about. He fails to address the issue properly, or parse it in a manner that makes sense. There are few things more amusing than contemporary philosophers who slavishly worship at the altar of Wittgenstein.

One of my personal grievances is that he has an annoying habit of using an imaginary interlocutor to express matters of importance, or at least they seem as though they are, or might be. This rather gives the impression that he’s a little child, wanting his mother to see something clever he’s just done. The imaginary interlocutor might just be a cover Wittgenstein uses, when he reaches impasse. Like a salmon about to spawn, he swims up a stream, to a tiny, closely-confined pond. The pond is so far removed from the mainstream of the river, that he no longer has the ability to navigate his way back. Where he would confront the rush of culture, and society – the main stream, or commonly accepted version, of what he’s trying to observe and articulate.

None of this particularly would matter, except for Wittgenstein’s stated objective, of doing just that – to expose the backgrounds, the contexts, and the applications, of words. How they are used, and how they intersect with “mind,” if they do, or if that’s possible, to begin with.

On the other hand, many of Wittgenstein’s insights are brilliant. But it’s hard to tell which is which.

For Wittgenstein, the best outcome might be a “brain transplant” between him and you, or me, or us. In this way, his thoughts could be transferred to us seamlessly, without loss of nuance, and without the intervention of words, each participating in some degree of indeterminacy. This particularly is so for nouns attempting to name, or characterize, or describe mental events or activity. And, verbs describing mental processes, as to which there is some kind of an outcome or result.

This, of course, isn’t possible. Words, properly understood, are the troublesome intermediaries. Even if we break through the penumbra of vagueness, we still are left with the problem of “why those words, instead of others.” Why did Dostoyevsky, or Melville, or any other great novelist, use the words they did, instead of others? Why did Mozart pick the certain notes he did? Surely, they weren’t just random – otherwise, anybody could do it. Part of what makes them great artists is their skill at instinctively selecting the “best” word (note) to use. [I hesitate to say “intuitively,” because that implies a level of cognition that well might be absent.]

But, “best” with reference to what? Even if we don’t attribute to them any “conscious” objective, we haven’t avoided the issue. Because if it comes down to sheer skill, like a championship tennis player, or a grand master at chess, there still has to be some standard, or criteria, for what counts as “good.” In a game, it is winning – there is a way of scoring one performance, as “better than” another. It is implausible, though, this would be sufficient for Wittgenstein’s purpose. Because some people can’t stand Dostoyevsky. Some people find Schoenberg, Berg, and Webern, to be unlistenable. On the other hand, I think they’re so amazing, that I no longer can listen to Bach, or Brahms, or Beethoven, or other crusty old German composers. There is a reason for these different outcomes, and I think I know what it is. For now, though, Wittgenstein has enough trouble enough explaining the fact they’re different, to begin with.

In the absence of suitable technology, then, we have no choice but to parse the text as delicately as possible, and with as much deference and discretion as we are capable of mustering. Keeping in mind that it is possible to read the same section of the Philosophical Investigations for several hours, sometimes quickly, sometimes slowly, as different issues keep revealing themselves with each methodology. It’s not possible to establish a protocol, or a procedure, for reading the text, that will result in the maximum extraction of whatever is, or might be, there to be extracted.

The simples way to proceed might be to construct a table. Column A sets forth the notion suggested by the text. Column B would ask, “does Wittgenstein agree?” In some cases he might rebuke the notion; in others, accept it; in others, not have the slightest idea of what we are talking about. Column C would evaluate whether the notion actually is so, or, at least, if we “think” it is (itself a conundrum unavoidably suggested by the very nature of this activity). You can pose the following as questions, or aspects of a phenomenological inquiry. Examples:

1. We experience brain activity in response to irradiations on the retina, vibrations in the auditory canal. If these are pleasurable or painful, we well might react behaviorally, with words or gestures. There is a functional, and perhaps even predictable, relationship between the two.

2. We interpolate, or somehow translate, that brain activity, into sensations and experiences, such as pleasure or pain.

3. We use words to identify or characterize these states (though not in the sense of “naming” an “object,” a “mental state,” that resides in the brain). One of the ways in which we do so is by using first-person psychological sentences (“avowals”). Not all uses of words, though, involve this reflexiveness. We are capable of engaging in fluid conversation and discourse, with other people. We communicate with them, and they with us. As we do so, we may not have the slightest “idea” of what we’re talking about.

4. Our brains are confined to our skulls. We do not have television screens on our foreheads, enabling somebody else to peer inside of our brain. The most advanced forms of electroencephalography, MRI, cat scan, and brain surgery cannot begin to account for the wealth of human experience and common sense. In principle, they never will be able to.

5. Because of this, it is impossible for us to experience other people’s sensations. Nonetheless, we understand their descriptions of their sensations, and even their characterizations of ours. This is what happens when you go to a doctor, for example, and describe, or try to describe, an ailment. The reciprocal occurs when the doctor offers a diagnosis. Most of the time, the patient and the doctor achieve mutual understanding. Sometimes, we have “empathy” with another person’s problems or issues. This only is possible because we recognize their experience, characterized by their words, as something uncannily similar to something we also have experienced. We are able to communicate that sense, back to our conversational counterpart.

6. It is impossible for any one of us to have a “private language,” that is, one understood only by its speaker. If this was so, it would preclude any reciprocal, interactive, or communicative effect.

7. We engage in “functional behavior,” that is, the ability to use language, follow rules, manipulate equipment, and the like. In some cases, we have no “sensation” of doing so. We do so with ease, facility, and non-consciously. Any sensations we might have might collapse, or incorporate into, sensation-experiencing behavior (the type of behavior exhibited by someone experiencing that sensation, or one somehow similar to it). Certainly this is all somebody else can perceive, or respond to, if at all.

8. There is, however, no “one way” (much less a “right way,” or even a “comprehensive way”) to describe human activity or endeavor.

9. We deploy cognitive mechanisms and processes, such as doing arithmetic, writing poems, and conceiving of the theory of relativity. We use what J. L. Austin characterized as “performative” verbs, to achieve a result in the world. The world changes when we use them; it is different than it was, before the speaker’s utterance. The use of performatives in turn implies an “intention” to cause, or bring about, a certain state of affairs. If I didn’t want to achieve a certain effect, then I would have used different words, or no words at all. Again, this activity doesn’t necessarily have to be “conscious,” in the sense that it’s subject to more-or-less simultaneous awareness or introspection. However, sometimes, it is.

10. We also have ideas, reflections, memories, and other forms of “mental representations.” We associate ideas quickly and fluently, hop-scotching between one suggestive thought to another. These somehow are triggered, or activated. Sometimes they’re from the distant past, sometimes quite recent. There is, however, a reason why one has Memory A, which leads to Memory B, which leads to Memory C. If this process was random or chaotic, however, then there would be no reason why anybody is able to associate anything with anything. The explanation may be entirely neurochemical, or depend on relative electrical charges of neurons or synapses, or their size, or their flexibility. As with most of our day-to-day activity, it is entirely non-conscious.

11. From time to time, we have “self-knowledge,” that is, we know what we are thinking about, and why we are thinking about that, instead of something else. We “know” what is in the “mind.”

12. Wittgenstein believes philosophy is nothing more than “grammar,” that is, parsing language and how words are used. Because of this, he also is committed to the notion there is no such thing as a “creative” use of language, such as that found in novels, or poetry. It’s a mystery how he was able to write Philosophical Investigations, to begin with. Is this right? It seems dubious, because philosophy deals with “issues,” comprising more than merely the means by which they are expressed.

Put slightly differently, language presents a “procedural” issue. Because it deals with “fit,” in the ways we’ve discussed, it isn’t disinteresting. However, particularly in philosophical or creative discourse, it always is deployed for some purpose or reason. We can be as clear as crystal about words and language, yet the “substantive” problem remains.


The Solution to Wittgenstein’s Dilemma

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