A Private Conversation with Wittgenstein
Reading Ludwig Wittgenstein's Philosophical Investigations is an apt reminder of the qualities he attributes to language: it is fuzzy, open-ended, and perhaps ultimately indefinable. But Philosophical Investigations purports not only to tell us, but also to show us, how a true philosophical investigation should be conducted. In doing so, the book represents a powerful challenge to the centuries-old traditions of philosophical endeavors.
Traditional Philosophical Investigations
Traditional philosophical investigations have focused on the meaning of certain kinds of words: truth, justice, virtue, and so on. In the traditional view, a rational, analytical process will lead us to a definition of such a concept, by understanding what the concept has that separates it from what is not that concept. For example, understanding what virtue is comes from understanding the difference between those things that are virtuous and those that are not virtuous.
In this notion, each of these concepts has an essence. The description of this essence becomes the definition, which explains the essence, and acts as a rule that we can apply to determine whether something has this essential quality.
This essence may have various instantiations, or examples. These examples demonstrate the essence, and they may help in reaching an understanding of the essence. However, they are not the essence itself. Examples have one other use in the traditional view: a single counter-example proves a definition wrong. Definitions must be absolute in classical philosophy. They must decide for every case.
These kinds of traditional philosophical investigations have always proven very difficult to carry out. Even when they are performed with great thoughtfulness, rationality, and internal consistency (as with, say, Spinoza), they are ultimately unconvincing for most of us. In Philosophical Investigations, Wittgenstein gives us a clue as to why this might be.
Wittgenstein and the Analysis of Language
For Wittgenstein, traditional philosophic investigation is fundamentally unsound. It takes the constituents of our everyday language and tries to find the meaning "beneath" them.
This finds expression in questions as to the essence of language, of propositions, of thought ... Something that lies within, which we see when we look into the thing, and which an analysis digs out.
‘The essence is hidden from us': this is the form our problem now assumes. We ask: "What is language?", "What is a proposition?" And the answer to these questions is to be given once and for all; and independently of any future experience.[i]
This is the fundamental misunderstanding of the classical philosophic enterprise. As Wittgenstein says, "Philosophical problems arise when language goes on holiday"[ii].
For Wittgenstein, there is no beneath, no essence lying hidden. Instead, meaning lies in the way the language is used in what Wittgenstein calls the "language game[iii]". This language game is nothing more than the ordinary, everyday, customary way that we use the language.
Wittgenstein constantly exhorts us to look at the way that words are used in our ordinary language.
We must do away with all explanation, and description alone must take its place. And this description gets its light, that is to say its purpose, from the philosophical problems. These are, of course, not empirical problems; they are solved, rather, by looking into the workings of our language, and that in such a way as to make us recognize those workings: in despite of an urge to misunderstand them.[iv]
Examples and Definitions
If words are not understood by definitions in this new process of philosophical investigation, how are they to be understood? As we understand them within the language game. We examine how the words are actually used.
And the result of this examination is: we see a complicated network of similarities overlapping and criss-crossing: sometimes overall similarities, sometimes similarities of detail. ... I can think of no better expression to characterize these similarities than "family resemblances".[v]
These family resemblances, these loose sets of interconnections of word associations, are the meaning. There is no lofty concept underlying the word; there is only the multiplicity of ways the word is applied. To show this, Wittgenstein looks at the example of games.
What is common to them all? - Don't say "There must be something common, or they would not be called ‘games'" -but look and see whether there is anything common to all.[vi]
Wittgenstein says that games have no one essence or definition, but instead have an interlaced network of connections. Games have no rule of explanation, no boundary has been drawn for them. How then do we explain to someone what a game is? By showing how the word is used. We do this, in this instance, by giving examples:
And this is just how one might explain to someone what a game is. One gives examples and intends them to be taken in a particular way.[vii]
This form of definition, known as ostensive definition (as opposed to definition by rule or formula), does not stand in the place of rule-based definition. It is the only kind of definition we can achieve given the nature of our language, because it is the only kind that discerns the way language works.
I do not, however, mean by this that he is supposed to see in those examples that common thing which I -for some reason- was unable to express; but that he is now to employ those examples in a particular way. Here giving examples is not an indirect means of explaining - in default of a better.[viii]
Rules and Their Uses
Wittgenstein further undermines the traditional approach to philosophy by his analysis of rules, and how they can be used. Rules for Wittgenstein are like sign posts; they themselves are in need of interpretation, and hence are open to multiple interpretations. Since multiple interpretations are possible, rules cannot by themselves eliminate the fuzziness of ostensive definitions.
I said that the application of a word is not everywhere bounded by rules. But what does a game look like that is everywhere bounded by rules? whose rules never let a doubt creep in, but stop up all the cracks where it might?-Can't we imagine a rule determining the application of a rule, and a doubt which it removes, and so on?[ix]
The Nature of Understanding
What does it mean to say that we understand a word? For Wittgenstein, this is a perfect example of a subject where it is easy to run aground philosophically.
We are trying to get hold of the mental process of understanding which seems to be hidden behind those coarser and therefore more readily visible accompaniments. But we do not succeed; or, rather, it does not get as far as a real attempt. For even supposing that I had found something in all those cases of understanding,- why should it be the understanding?[x]
Wittgenstein avoids the process of looking behind the word for the meaning, and follows his own method: he examines and describes how we use the word. For Wittgenstein, this means that we should avoid thinking of understanding as a mental process at all. This kind of classical philosophical thinking only muddles things. Instead we should ask ourselves:
In what sort of case, in what kind of circumstances, do we say "Now I know how to go on," when, that is, the formula has occurred to me? In the sense in which there are processes (including mental processes) which are characteristic of understanding, understanding is not a mental process.[xi]
Understanding is not a mental process, because that is not how we use the word. When we say someone understands, that understanding is "the circumstances under which he had such an experience that justify him in saying in such a case that he understands, that he knows how to go on[xii]". For Wittgenstein, the meaning is in the application.
The End of Philosophy
In Wittgenstein's view, clearing up the misunderstandings of traditional philosophy doesn't lead to a new and better philosophy. It leads instead to the demise of philosophy itself.
For the clarity we are aiming at is indeed complete clarity. But this simply means that the philosophical problems should completely disappear.
The real discovery is the one that makes me capable of stopping philosophy when I want to.- The one that gives philosophy peace, so that it is no longer tormented by questions which bring itself in question.[xiii]
The Limits of Language
In the end of his first masterwork, the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, Wittgenstein leaves us with the gloomy saying "What we cannot speak about we must consign to silence[xiv]". Although Wittgenstein repudiates in the Philosophical Investigations much of what he put forth in the Tractatus, he still maintains his view of the limits of language.
Wittgenstein would probably not agree that the view is gloomy, since it is only gloomy if one makes the mistake of trying to do traditional philosophy. For philosophers, however, there is a decidedly gloomy effect, if Wittgenstein is correct.
An example of Wittgenstein's insistence on the limits of language is his denial of the possibility of a private language. By a private language, Wittgenstein means:
A language in which a person could write down or give vocal expression to his inner experiences-his feelings, moods, and the rest,-for his private use ...The individual words of this language are to refer to what can only be known to the person speaking; to his immediate private sensations. So another person cannot understand the language.[xv]
Wittgenstein concedes that there is language referring to sensations (for example, the word "pain"), but there is no sense in which this language is private. Wittgenstein surmises that the word "pain" might have occurred as a substitute for the expression of pain[xvi]. That is, instead of crying, we might say "I am in pain".
Wittgenstein goes on to say that, not only can we not have a private language referring to private sensations, but that sensations themselves really aren't private. He says:
In what sense are my sensations private?-Well, only I can know whether I am really in pain; another person can only surmise it.-In one way this is wrong, and in another nonsense. If we are using the word "to know" as it is normally used (and how else are we to use it?), then other people very often know when I am in pain ...The truth is: it makes sense to say about other people that they doubt whether I am in pain, but not to say it about myself.[xvii]
For Wittgenstein, since it makes no sense to doubt whether I am in pain, it makes no sense to say I know that I am in pain. Hence, sensations in this sense cannot be talked about, for it makes no sense to talk about them in this way.
In fact, for most people, it makes perfect sense to say "I know that I am in pain", though most people would consider the "I know" to be superfluous. There doesn't seem to be anything in the phrase that we cannot understand. However, for Wittgenstein, since this isn't the way we normally use the word "to know", it is not an acceptable use of the language.
Another limitation of language for Wittgenstein is that we cannot sensibly make an assertion when there is no way to determine the correctness of the assertion. He describes the case of someone assigning the sign "S" to a sensation, and writing it on the calendar every day the sensation occurred.
But in the present case I have no criterion of correctness. One would like to say: whatever is going to seem right to me is right. And that only means we can't talk here about ‘right'[xviii].
This seems critical to Wittgenstein's repudiation of private language. Private language can have no criteria of correctness or decidability, and so therefore cannot make sense. However, Wittgenstein does not demonstrate that this decidability or verifiability is really necessary for language to make sense. He seems to assume it as a matter of course, possibly because of his previous work. (He also doesn't show that making sense is a necessary constituent of language, public or private, though perhaps he has more reason to assume this).
In fact, Wittgenstein's account of language brings the whole question of decidability of correctness into question for any statement, public or private. If the standard of decidability is to be the ordinary use of the word, as Wittgenstein insists, how then are we to arrive at this ordinary use?? What is this normality which we strive to realize? Can we ever in fact grasp it? Is it really so clear and easy to get hold of?
The ordinary usage changes constantly, especially in this age of mass media, when new coinages sweep across the world with unprecedented speed. Usage is constantly changing even as we attempt to seize it, like Proteus.
If the lack of decidability prevents private language, it must also prevent any language, in Wittgenstein's account. If it doesn't prevent public language, then private language may be possible after all.
In fact, the customs or norms of usage upon which Wittgenstein depends are created by individual people one use at a time. Most attempts to institute controls or standards for language (consider, for example, the Académie Française) are doomed to failure, because in the end the meaning of language belongs to the people speaking it every day.
Perhaps the real decidability of language resides with the individual. At least one prominent nineteenth century philosopher of language seemed to think so:
"When I use a word," Humpty Dumpty said in a rather scornful tone, "it means just what I choose it to mean - neither more nor less."
"The question is," said Alice, "whether you can make words mean so many different things."
"The question is," said Humpty Dumpty, "which is to be master-that's all.[xix]"
[i] Philosophical Investigations, Ludwig Wittgenstein, paragraph 92.
[ii] Ibid, p. 38.
[iii] Ibid, p. 7.
[iv] Ibid, p. 109.
[v] Ibid, p. 66-67.
[vi] Ibid, p. 66.
[viii] Ibid, p. 71.
[ix] Ibid, p. 84.
[x] Ibid, p. 153.
[xi] Ibid, p. 154.
[xii] Ibid, p. 155.
[xiii] Ibid, p. 133.
[xiv] Philosophy in the Twentieth Century, A. J. Ayer, p. 112.
[xv] Philosophical Investigations, p. 243.
[xvi] Ibid, p. 244.
[xvii] Ibid, p. 246.
[xviii] Ibid, p. 258.
[xix] Through the Looking Glass, Lewis Carroll, Avenel Books, p. 124.