4.23.2002

We are coming to the end of the semester and, like you, I am buried in final projects, papers, and presentations. I am working through Wittgenstein's remarks on perception -- continuous seeing, changing aspects, aspect dawning, and more -- and it is hard! We'll get to these remarks eventually. They are found in Part II of the Investigations.

I wonder how many readers have been drawn to Wittgenstein because of his reputation as a mystic. My sense is that a significant portion of Wittgenstein's audience have been drawn more to the religious implications of his work than by its consequences for philosophy. Even for philosophers, Wittgenstein's division of the universe between the sayable and the silent is a draw because of its resemblance to Kant.

4.22.2002

Sorry to have been out of the loop. I have been reading: more of the PI, but also Barrett's Illusion of Technique & the "Sketch of an Intellectual Biography" that fronts Glock's A Wittgenstein Dictionary. I'll be developing some of the things I've picked up in days to come, but would note for the moment that these two writers have fundamentally different views of W's "mysticism" in The Tractatus--Barrett sees it as the most valuable part of the book, these "last few pages," while noting that W's contributions to logic have been largely superceded; Glock, on the other hand, writes that mysticism "mars" The Tractatus. I also will go back & pick up on that stunning image of yours: Wittgenstein giving himself up to the process of falling through space. I had a dream about this a while back--did I write about that here? Anyway, I appreciate your last tow very detailed posts & regret that I have let my response go so long. Anon, anon.

4.20.2002

I suppose it can be said that I have wandered into linguistic idealism, but I cannot see how we can step out of language in order to view physical reality in an unmediated way. (As I was writing this the earth shook. It is the first time I have ever experienced an earthquake -- Cool! Apparently, physical reality wanted to let me know how to experience it directly.)

You want to talk about mental states that accompany linguistic distinctions. This is really difficult stuff and your examples are compelling. Where do what we call mental events or states occur? Are they in the mind or are they created by naming (and here I have in mind William James's claim that "I cry not because I am sad; I am sad because I cry")? If we want to posit a location called the mind outside of language, that precedes language, we then raise the traditional question of how we can know this mind. Mind is more vulnerable to physiologically-based criticism than ever before. Eliminative materialism is an anti-mentalist argument that emerges with each new discovery in neurophysiology. The idea is to replace an older, occult vocabulary with one that offers more plausible, powerful explanation for phenomena like dreaming, hallucinating, creativity, spiritual beliefs, etc. Before eliminative materialism were the sustained attacks by linguistic philosophers --Ryle, Wittgenstein, Austin -- that sought to replace the philosophy of mind with the philosophy of language.

The older I get, the more interesting (read:perverse) my mind becomes. A memory can arise out of nowhere, a la Proust, and I will spend hours reflecting on it. I may not have been using language as a tool at that moment. I may have been still and silent. The memory arose of its own accord. It felt like it appeared suddenly in my head, as if it was beneath the surface and now emerged. At these moments, I find myself gravitating toward Heidegger and away from Wittgenstein. I am a tool of language and not vice versa. On deeper reflection, however, Wittgenstein offers a more compelling view of mental states and language because it avoids the onto-theological excesses of Heidegger. For Wittgenstein, what we experience as our mental life is the mental life of language. Conceived this way, our relation to language is seamless. Indeed, our relation to others is linguistically seamless. At least potentially. We can think of boundaries to understanding in terms of the plurality of language-games that construct our individuality. But there is no barrier to understanding or problem of other minds so intractable that it cannot be overcome with travel. If there is an inner/outer, then it remains a linguistic distinction and not an ontological duality. That traditional cranial wall between our minds and our language is shown to be far more permeable than what Descartes would permit.

[28,29,30] In 28, Wittgenstein offers the example of ostensive definition where to define "two" I point to two nuts. You could mistake the "two" for the nuts themselves. Ostensive defining, as an activity, has no claim to certainty. By pointing to the relation between word and object, misunderstanding can still occur. In 29, Wittgenstein asks if we can avoid the mistake with the clarification, "The number is called 'two'." "For the word 'number' here shows the place in language, in grammar, we assign to the word." What is interesting here is not the obvious point that Wittgenstein raises regarding defining "by means of other words!"

What is interesting is the condition that necessitates this act of defining. This is another glimpse at the pragmatic vein in Wittgenstein's thinking. "Whether the word 'number' is necessary in the ostensive definition depends on whether without it the other person takes the definition otherwise than I wish ... And how he 'takes' the definition is seen in the use he makes of the word defined." Even in the context of ostensive defining there can be more than one use of the word being defined. Do we want to talk about this as a context where there are two mental states?

Wittgenstein makes this question even more difficult to answer in 30. There has to be some initial agreement about the activity of ostensive defining. "...the ostensive definition explains the use -- the meaning -- of the word when the overall role of the word in language is clear." We have to grasp that a color or number term is being defined for us ostensively before we can see the meaning of the act of pointing to a color to define it. "One has already to know (or be able to do) something in order to be capacble of asking a thing's name. But what does one have to know?" What has to be known is that the two people are in the same language game. Or, and here we have to imagine this situation, I come to the boundary of a language game called political theory and there you are on the boundary of poetry. We are close enough to talk and both our language games have ostensive defining as part of the tool box. We can see here the grounds for understanding and the grounds for misunderstanding simultaneously. (I'd love an example here, but I'm running out of gas.)

4.15.2002

"We think we are pointing to something outside of language that has stability because it is outside. We are really pointing to something created in language." Distinctions are linguistic. Your red hair, or the Santa suit, or the red lacquer on a Vietnamese goddess's draperies. Clear enough. But there remain mental states that put one in conflict with the (physical) world in ways that definitions of red do not approach. If I am drunk & believe that the oncoming bus can do me no harm--or even, more modestly, that I will get across the street before it hammers me into the pavement--I have been injured by a distinction of a different ontological order than questions having to do with the definition of red. And interestingly, states of mind that put the person at odds with reality--trance, hallucination, meditation, prayer, v.v.--have traditionally been respected, even by those who do not experience them. In Jerome Rothenberg's phrase, we appoint technicians of the sacred. Okay, tomorrow you have to come to my class & tell my students that I was doing philosophy last night when I should have been grading their tests. Grading their tests? Talk about trying to dominate reality!

"Differences arise in language, and not in relations to reality," you write. This is a powerful way of looking at the language / world "problem," I think. With my students in Imagining Science I've been working through a few of the problems associated with that other dualism, mind / body. Basically, I want to challenge their shallow & automatic acceptance of the cogito. My own way out of Descartes begins with seeing mind as extensive & socially constructed, which may be to say (I'm not sure) that mind is a function of language. But even this move runs up eventually against Dr. Johnson's refutation of Berkeley: Asked how he could refute Berkelian idealism, the good doctor replied, "I refute it thus!" & kicked a large stone lying in the street. However one defines mind, there will always be the conditions of existence, aka the stone in the street.

You've given me so much to think about I find myself replying to one sentence at a time. More anon.

4.10.2002

Picking up a point, briefly: In my Imagining Science course we have been talking about simulations of reality. Artificial life, computer simulations of human behavior, v.v. . . Halfway through class the other day I asked, What is the difference between a simulation & reality? My assumption is that there is a fundamental ontological distinction between a simulation & reality. That is, Flatland gets its ironic twist from pretending that a simulation can be treated as a reality. Same goes for A.K. Dewdney's The Planiverse & other literary works of this sort. The fun of this book & of Flatterland, is that they wink at us concerning ontology.

I haven't named my laptop, though sometimes I call it fuckhead. (This is unfair of me--when I curse the machine I am almost always cursing the Microsoft software the machine is "running." The machine itself is just doing what it's told.) There is a lot in your post I want to respond to, but it's been a long day so I think I will take these points up in the morning. Nota: v.v. stands for van van in Vietnamese--it means & so on & so forth or etc.

[26,27,28] Naming is tricky because we ask questions that presuppose dualities. In naming we might ask, "What is the relation of language to world or to thinking?" What we call language is composed of a wide array of activities, naming being one of these. What distinguishes these activities is the reality they engender. Naming might create objects, while commanding might create a context, and so on. Differences arise in language, and not in relations to reality. Thinking and language is a harder duality to throw out. There is an inner/outer relation in Wittgenstein, but the inner is not to be understood as a set of occult mental processes. Thought occurs in language, through language, and is evinced linguistically. Metaphysician, heal thyself.

What arrests arbitrariness in naming within a form of life is a combination of convention (tradition, habit) and a desire to communicate successfully. Mistakes can happen, or we can cleverly call our cat "Fido," but we use naming to disclose features of our world to one another. Proper names distinguish us along family lines. We are named by or parents or grandparents to show that we belong to them. If we think about this in reference to remark 26, we name a child in preparation for membership in a world where identity is an emerges from exceedingly complex social interactions.

Complexity is Wittgenstein's goal in 27. He looks at sentences and their various uses by starting with elemental, one word exclamations. "Careful!," I might yell out when it appears that you are going to bang your head on the cave ceiling. The exclamation is admonitory and compassionate. Then again, I might scream "Careful!" into your ear as you stand on the edge of a cliff. The result might lead one to say that the exclamation was designed to send you over the edge. It was anything but compassionate. You must look at the bigger picture that is created by the exclamation. Wittgenstein then extends this point to the simple language-game of naming. "And there is also a language-game of inventing a name for something." This bespeaks a growth to the language/world/person circle. In naming there is the activity akin to what Daniel Dennett calls "the intentional stance." I name my computer "Genevieve" (I have this adolescent thing for Genevieve Bujold--never mind). I speak to Genevieve and beg "her" for explanation on why she crashed just as I was completing a long letter of recommendation yesterday. In naming, we create a relationship with what we have named. This relation occurs within language, but we make the mistake of creating an ontological dualism where there is only linguistic distinction. (Would you pick up this point for commentary? I have been trying to say this for a while and I am closer here than in earlier formulations).

In 28, Wittgenstein suggests there is arbitrariness in even ostensive definitions. "...an ostensive definition can be variously interpreted in every case." In this, you might define "red" by pointing to my hair (before students turned it gray). Red can also be defined by pointing to Santa's suit. Clearly these reds are different and yet there is a reason why we define the word by pointing to examples of the range of shades we call red. We think we are pointing to something outside of language that has stability because it is outside. We are really pointing to something created in language.

Have you seen Jarman's film "Wittgenstein"? It is a strange and impressionistic film based on a screenplay by Terry Eagleton (although Eagleton had his name dropped from the project). In the movie, Wittgenstein speaks of the logic of the Tractatus as realm of ice, a realm of cold perfection. Barrett seems to tap into the same kind of imagery. As in the Yeats poem, we understand the impulse to escape from the messiness and madness of the world. But escape is illusory. Still, as in the case of Descartes, the certitude he found in what he took to be the realm of pure thought rescued him from the existential free fall he was in. Meditations on First Philosophy can fill me with a sense of dread. Here was a man, sitting before a fire, ravaged by existential solipsism. The certainty he had known, the purity of his faith, the hermeticism of the story offered by Christianity, was gone suddenly. The ground liquified and he plunged downward. As he fell he grabbed wildly for a branch. The cogito was the only branch that held. The Wittgenstein of the Philosophical Investigations tells us that there are no branches to cling too. Even if there were, we should avoid them and enjoy the creativity that is one with the friction-filled sensation of plunging.

4.09.2002

Naming & making: Naming is simple-minded, but making is a complex activity in the world that manipulates names along with other things. Things. There is a materialization of language going on here. Despite modern linguistics, there remains a potent connection between a name & its thing: not arbitrary despite the fact that sign & signified bear no apparently necessary connection; names take on a numinous quality through long habit: forms of life. So the fact that I call one particular furry quadruped cat & another dog, does not require anything but an arbitrary connection between sign & signified--nevertheless, long habit produces overlapping webs of association & meaning surrounding these words. The connection between word & thing is not metaphysical, but that does not prevent it from being ontological. (Am I using these terms correctly?) Okay: the question, really, is: How do we get beyond naming & into thinking?

4.06.2002

The first hundred pages of William Barrett's The Illusion of Technique provide a very useful background / introduction to Wittgenstein's intellectual culture & to the transition from the logical atomism of the Tractatus to the natural language philosophy of the Investigations. It is surprising that Barrett's book, published in 1967, does not find its way into the Bibliography of Ray Monk's biography. I would call Barrett an Existentialist, but his own philosophical point of view remains in the background, a framework, as he elucidates Wittgenstein. Briefly, Barrett sees the Tractatus as leading to a point of intellectual sterility, though it was a point to which W was bound to travel, beginning with the Principia. The error--the dead end--turns out to be taking mathematical logic as the structure of the world & of human language, rather than as the specialized tool that it is. Barrett argues that it is the last few pages of the Tractatus, where W claims that he is kicking away the ladder of logic, that the enduring value of the work is to be found.

Those masterful images because complete
Grew in pure mind, but out of what began?
A mound of refuse or the sweepings of a street,
Old kettles, old bottles, and a broken can,
Old iron, old bones, old rags, that raving slut
Who keeps the till. Now that my ladder's gone,
I must lie down where all the ladders start
In the foul rag and bone shop of the heart.

[Yeats, "The Circus Animals Desertion"]

4.04.2002

You write, "It seems that Wittgenstein is putting naming before us for a reason." When I read this earlier today, I had one of those "Well, duh!" moments. Of course he is, though I hadn't thought about it in this way. In fact, skimming back--if one ever skims Wittgenstein--over the remarks from 20 on, it's not as if W is being coy about "putting naming before us" & in fact he's quite clearly foregrounding this concept in order to call it into question. But W's style can throw one off--it seems so tentative; and I think it was put into tentative language naturally (as oppose to intentionally, which is a problematic notion with language). That is, Wittgenstein really is feeling his way along, though once we, in our privileged position as readers 51 years after W's death, work through the tentative working-out, there is a wonderful clarity about the notion of naming, about the activity of naming. Great philosophers struggle for the rest of us & leave a record of their struggle. Had Jesus written the Gospel himself, it would be something like the Philosophical Investigations.

"Naming would be different from one language game to the next." Yes, but somehow still recognizable as naming. I find your examples of the activity of naming in politics & natural science very much to the point & also agree with you that the metaphor of the mosaic needs to be softened or deepened . . . or something . . . in order to communicate the qualities of language games we are trying to delineate.

I've always been struck by the Irish-Catholic idea that one must "make one's soul." I'm thinking about poetry here & wondering what the relationship between naming & making might be. More on this tomorrow.

It seems that Wittgenstein is putting naming before us for a reason: One of the more difficult habits to break is the idea that those language-games that unite words to objects are somehow more important that other language-games, or that they perform a steering role for all of language. By putting naming in its place, we are encouraging ourselves to look at language as a complex adaptive system that has no telos. There are various functions fulfilled, to be sure, but language is not moving toward some goal of perfect word to object symmetry. Your idea that naming is a game that "interpenetrates" many games is suggestive. I'm thinking now that perhaps that simile of language as a mosaic can hold only if we drop the idea that it is composed of rigid tiles with clear and regular boundaries. Naming would be different from one language-game to the next. Natural science as a language game would name things found in the world and then offer a taxonomy. Politics, by contrast, names conventions. These might change more readily than the things named by natural science (though things named by natural science certainly have changed over time). Are we to see these games as having different relations to reality or different realities?

4.02.2002

[27] Or naming is a language game that interpenetrates many language games. Probably it amounts to the same thing. In any case, naming is a kind of sub-routine in many language games & as Wittgenstein points out is often preparatory to other human activities using language. And then goes on to point out the inadequacy of naming as a model of language--either language acquisition or language use--in remark 28.

4.01.2002

I'm not sure if naming is one kind of language-game upon reflection. It is a use of words that produces one kind of meaning. There can therefore be a naming dimension in a lot of language-games. Perhaps we can think of an activity like lexicography that might be described as a naming language-game. This is an inchoate thought -- I need to think some more on it. Let me post this for your response.