Well, I haven't been able to gather my thoughts very effectively the last few days. But the woodstove is roaring this morning & I have had a couple of cups of strong black coffee. If that isn't preparation for reading Wittgenstein I don't know what is. Actually, I want to backtrack a little, since I have the sense that I've been skimming over the surface of your remarks. I'm mostly thinking of your remarks on the 26th of this month.

[A] In the simplified language W experimentally imagines, he introduces the use of this & that--but these are far from simple concepts, at least in Vietnamese, the one language other than English I am (close to) competent to speak about. In VN you use a different word when saying "this pen" (cai but), but another when saying "this dog" (con cho) & so on for different classes of objects. And in W's story, it would be "cai slab" if referring to it, but "day la slab" if naming it ostensively--"this (thing) is a slab." Actually, it's much more complicated than this. [And as is usual I have for technical reasons eliminated all of the diacritical marks from my VN examples.] The conclusion I draw from this, in the current context, is that language is by definition complex, that even an experimental "primitive" language almost immediately effloresces into something with its own currents & eddies of sound, color, meaning, orthography, & etc. So, what can we learn from a "primitive" language if no such thing exists in nature? One thing we can learn--& this is where W is going, I think--that that earlier views of language, including his own in the Tractatus, are inadequate as explanatory tools. And, from what I think I already know about W's later views of language, I'd say that he comes to the conclusion--if W ever comes to a conclusion--that in understanding language (as a philosopher) one must begin with the acceptance of both complexity & inconsistency, i.e. pluralism--a philosophical conception of language that is symmetrical with the ways in which people (as opposed to philosophers) actually learn & use language.

[B] You ask whether teaching a language can ever be imagined in "a pure state." In some ways, from another angle, I have touched on that in [A] above, but can we generalize about teaching, perhaps with assistence from my own learning of Vietnamese? It appears that VN makes a semantic distinction between "This is a table" & "Look at this table." Teaching / naming is one language game, learning / using another? Well, now I've wound up confusing myself. I'd better sit on this a while & come back to it.

[C] I was wondering whether you had a response to my suggestion about the Theory of Types? I think there is something going on there.


Imaginative rehersals: I'm a big Leonard Cohen fan & on his latest CD, Ten New Songs, there is a tune called "In My Secret Life":

I smile when I'm angry
I cheat and I lie--
I do what it takes to get by
But I know what is wrong
And I know what is right
And I die for the truth
In my secret life.

Cohen extends the syllable /die/ in the penultimate line of the stanza in what must be one of the most subtle uses of self-deprecating irony ever in popular music. There's another song on the album about day dreaming, about which more later. And I will get back to the text we are ostensibly discussing soon, honest.

Darn it! I lost the entry I was working on. My fault too. To reconstruct: I wanted to draw attention to a point of overlap between Wittgenstein and Pragmatism. For George Herbert Mead, dreams and daydreams are best thought of as "imaginative rehearsals" for future situations. These situations cannot be predicted, but we prepare in a more general way. That is we cast ourselves as stars of "what if" scenes. Then we see ourselves acting heroically -- or at least the way we like to think of ourselves.

Here is Wittgenstein in Lectures and Conversations speaking on dreams in terms that are remarkably similar to the remarks on language learning and teaching that we have been examining. "There seems to be something in dream images that has a certain resemblance to signs of a language. As a series of marks on paper or on sand might have. There might be no mark which we have recognized as a conventional sign in any alphabet we knew, and yet we might have a strong feeling that they must be a language of some sort: that they mean something. There is a cathedral in Moscow with five spires. On each of these there is a different sort of curving configuration. One gets the strong impression that these different shapes and arrangements must mean something."

What we see here is the surface unity that Wittgenstein speaks of in 10,11.

"If the dreams we have in sleep have a similar function to day dreams, part of their purpose is to prepare a man for any eventuality (including the worst)." [Wittgenstein, Culture & Value, (73), 1948]

[10,11] Your dreams are far more interesting than mine. I wonder what this says about the life in which I am immersed. A few weeks ago I had a long, extremely detailed dream about sweeping out my garage. I wonder what Proust would have done with this.
It looks like 10 and 11 need to be taken together as Wittgenstein seeks to expand one the relationship between signification and use or function. This is difficult stuff. What he appears to be doing in 10 is eliminating the world/language duality by entwining them. This is achieved by looking at the polysemic quality of even simple words like "slab" or ordering sequences like "a,b,c,d." Slab can be the thing or the shape of the thing. Letters can be used to signify quantity or correct ordering. When we look at the uses "we see, they are absolutely unlike." Wittgenstein then moves to 11 where sensitivity to these differences needs to be acute.
What surprises here is an apparent recasting of the old appearance/reality distinction. We open with the analogy of the tool-box used to drive the point of difference in use home from remark 10. "The functions of words are as diverse as the functions of these objects." The entwining of language and world is shown to be dynamic on both counts. Think of the uses of slabs. Think of the uses for the word "slab." The way words are used appear uniform, Wittgenstein warns. This is a source of confusion -- particularly "when we are doing philosophy." Critical notice of uses cuts through the appearance of similarity and exposes the reality of differences.
I've been reading "Wittgenstein's Poker" and I suppose it is fun. It is not really for someone interested in Wittgenstein's philosophy. Where it succeeds is on the level of personality, the character of internecine squabbles in professional philosophy, and in its description of Cambridge life in the post-war era.


[8, 9] Counting in Vietnamese: Counting is more than a merely internal, private affair. True (as Wittgenstein has it), I memorized the cardinal numbers in Vietnamese--muoi, mot, hi, ba, bon, nam, sao, bay, tam, chin--but it was only by going out into the world & using them that I actually learned how to count. After I had been living in Hanoi about six months, I was one day walking down a sidestreed near the Cathedral that led to one of my favorite cafes. There was a young woman with a couple of baskets sitting on the sidewalk & as I drew nearer I could see that she was selling kitchen impliments--knives, scissors, peelers, etc. I'm a cook & love this sort of stuff, so I stopped to have a look. There was a small pair of scissors with a mechinism I found interesting, so, holding the object between us I asked, "Bao niheu tien?" [How much money?] "Ba nghin" [3000 dong (25 cents US)], she replied. But I heard, "ba muoi nghin" [30,000 ($2.50 US)], an amount reasonable for a small pair of scissors in my world. For a month--until my language skills improved enough to tell her that I realized I had overpaid her, that girl made a beeline for me whenever she saw me coming. In her world, I was the man who paid an order of magniture too much. When I was finally able to tell her I had realized my mistake, we both had a good laugh. "Nguoi My rat giau!" she said as we were parting--"Americans are very rich!" This story illustrates, I think, that counting is a socially mediated activity. Why in the world would one of our ancestors bothered enumerating something if not to tell another soul something significant, or to buy something? "When a child learns this language, it has to learn a series of 'numerals' a, b, c, . . . by heart. And it has to learn their use . . . ." [9] "When I was a child I spoke as a child I understood as a child I thought as a child; but when I became a man I put away childish things." [I Cor. xiii. 11.] Oh, but in my dreams I am just a little baby mouthing syllables! I am polymorphously perverse!


[7,8,9]These dreams of speaking like a child are pretty instructive. They give you a feeling for the contrast between the child in a language community and an adult. (Where does the translator fit in?) This is especially pronounced for you as a poet in one language and a student of poetry in another. I don't think that we are looking at two different language games here -- the child's and the adult's -- but rather a dynamic within a language game called learning. Learning appears as a process of rising to new levels of conceptualization and comfort. This process is suggested by remarks 7,8, and 9. These need to be taken together, I think, and it raises questions about Wittgenstein's strategy in keeping the material distinct by separating them into remarks.
Let me open by trying to capture the implication of what you call the "big move" in 7. If it is therapeutic, it is a painful therapy for a difficult conceptual habit to break. "All the languages games together form a language game." What is dissolved here is the idea of language. For Wittgenstein, what we call language is the result of a category error. Language does not exist. What does exist are language games. There is no language. Put that starkly, we see no container that gives language games shape. Rather, they constitute something of a complex, self-regulating system (although system implies, perhaps, too much regulation or organization.) Now ant colonies fill the metaphoric role far better than pyramid schemes. We will have to play with this imagery some more.
In 8, liberated from the belief that language games all hang together somehow to engender LANGUAGE, Wittgenstein proceeds to expand the primitive language of the workers. In addition to "slab," the workers now have number or letter sequences (and these are already in evidence in s-l-a-b), and the words "this" and "there". We remain, for this remark, in the language game of ostensive teaching since instruction is given by pointing. "This slab -- there!"
In 9, to learn the language game in 8, the child must learn the number or letter series "by heart." It must be memorized. Does this learning by rote go beyond ostensive teaching? What of teaching "this" and "there"? It does not take much to throw the simplicity of pointing out a direct relation between word and thing into the direction of complexity. Can ostensive teaching ever be conceived in a pure state? As Wittgenstein notes, pointing occurs in both the language game of learning the use of the words and in the language game of using the words. There is an integral unity or similarity or area of imbrication between the learner's game and the game of the teacher. Earlier I said that we are looking at a dynamic within a language game of rising to higher levels of conceptualization. Now I think I want to take the act of pointing as indication that crossing language games occurs. The act of pointing is the same, but the meaning of the pointing is distinguished by the context of the teacher (who points to teach) and the context of the student (for whom the point is the path to learning).

Your point about the theory of types needs to be thought through. One variation is what Russell (or was it Frege?) called the fido/"fido" problem. When using fido, am I addressing the name of a dog or using the name to call it? I need to think through this suggestive point with unusually dogged determination (sorry!).


[2-7] This series of remarks is pretty clearly involved with setting up the conventional picture of language that needs to be re-thought; Wittgenstein is a "theraputic" philosopher & he is here laying out the etiology of the case.

It is not Language, but, as you say, a mosaic of language games plural, none of which are required to line up exactly with each other or exactly with the world, as in the positivist model.

I continue to dream in (poor) Vietnamese. I wonder if that means the dreams themselves are impoverished? Perhaps not--in my dreams I speak like a child, though not exactly like a Vietnamese child--so maybe my dreams are merely childish. On second thought, I'm not so sure my dream-Vietnamese is a child's language--the learning of a language not one's own (as an adult?) does not follow the same pattern as a child's learning, I suspect.


Language games: [7] I like the notion of game tiles pushed around on a board, as long as they are irregularly shaped & don't always line up perfectly--a jigsaw puzzle with imperfections. Each little intelligible section can be thought of as a "language game" & the whole, finally unsolvable puzzle is the language game of language games. The crucial insight--one that Wittgenstein's logical positivist pals could not accept--was that the puzzle, by definition, contained discontinuous areas. Godel did for mathematics what W did for language. And you have already mentioned Heisenberg's uncertainty principle--when we apply analytical tools to language we change the language under consideration.

The big "move" in 7 is the one that says all the language games together form a language game. Is there a connection here to Russell's Theory of Types?

When two language games come to sit together at a table, palyfulness & caution are in order!

[7]"I shall also call the whole, consisting of language and the actions into which it is woven, the 'language-game.'" As I read this remark, I am struck by how Wittgenstein talks about language-games in the plural. It is as if what we call language is actually a mosaic composed of game tiles. But the conclusion is unexpected because the whole, too, is a/the language-game. Is Wittgenstein using "language-game" to designate the particular or the general? It would appear to be both. This is maddening -- why be imprecise when it comes to a technical term like this? Because, I suspect, we are supposed to play with it, quite literally. Also, it is a concept that emerges from philosophical reflection occurring within language-games. We want to grasp the limitations to perception engendered by the internal vantage. At the same time, we do not want to fall into inescapable nominalism that celebrates the uniqueness of the particular language-game to that extent that language-games cannot bear resemblances, comparison, or even areas of imbrication. Nor do we want to resort to the kind of generalization one makes from the illusory outside of language. The modulations demanded are attained by an almost oxymoronic mixture of playfulness and caution.

Two language-games come together around a seminar table. The immediate impression is one of insurmountable differences. "I respond to the world with the lexicon and grammar of engineering. Why do I have to read poetry?" (I'm guessing that you have heard this all before.) "Well, I respond to the world with the love of language that marks the poet. I don't have the mathematics to see the world as an engineer." Impasse. How is it overcome? (Notice I do not ask: Can it be overcome?)

Perhaps a more immediate concern arises. Am I misusing language-game by using poetry and engineering as examples?


[6] My grandson and I were sitting on the front steps one day. We were looking at the sky. I said, "Hey Nick, look at the clouds!" He didn't know what I meant. He liked the sky, however. Fortunately it was a windy day and there was a tall building across the street that obscured a slice of our view. I picked out a big, white, puffy cloud and pointed to it (ostensive teaching) and said watch -- it disappeared behind the building and then re-appeared. "That's a cloud," I said. Nick grasped this and his view of the sky has never been the same. Words create things like theories create facts. Thingness is not an in-itself quality, but an attribute conferred by linguistic designation. I'll put this out there but I am not wedded to it.

You gave me so much to think about that I need to give myself a good talking to. The anthropological questions can be suspended for a time, but I think we will need to re-visit these just to help illustrate and ground some argumentative points. Please tell me more about Pound's ideographic method. Note to myself: start studying Vietnamese and get a dog.


[6] Word & Thing: That's the mystery, isn't it? For a poet, the notion that there might be some direct linkage between the word mountain & a /mountain/ is profoundly attractive; it drives much of Wordsworth's poetry as well as Pound's notion of the "ideographic method," which is based on Ernest Fenollosa's mis-translations of Chinese poetry. Don't you love it?

You write, concerning the example in the final short paragraph of 6, "The tendency is to say something more general about the relation of language to the mechanism, as if language is like this steam engine. To say this, however, implies an Archimedean position outside of language that enables us to see it as a whole -- in the same way we can see a steam engine as a whole," & this has wide resonance for me, both as a poet, realizing that every context is different, and as a philosophical pluralist, believing that no single, self-consistent description of the world can ever be a total & adequate description. Here we are back to Heisenberg. There is no Archimedean point, no fulcrum on which to get purchase. So now I (provisionally) understand 6 as using a shifting perspective to suggest that the model proposed by Augustine, being metaphysical & static, cannot even begin to describe human language.

I don't want to get totally sidetracked by anthropology (even though it was my undergraduate minor), so let me say that I share your sadness at the effacement of cultural difference. I would suggest that different forms of life emerge from & create distinct environmental & social conditions & just as we should preserve biodiversity, both for our own selfish ends (medicines, air) & in a more general ethical sense, we ought to preserve forms of life--never know when one might come in handy, after all. The market is an ass.

Pain: Okay, I understand this. There is a fundamental bodily identification; but, my bluetick hound is old & sick right now & while I don't come to her exactly as I would come to a suffering human, she says in her way, "This hurts" & I respond by saying, "Yes, sweetie, I know it does." So if we are going to understand the dynamics of forms of life to this fundamental level, we will have to include animals. I suppose that with dogs & cats & a few other species, we already do partake in the forms of life of animals. Still, giving the body its due, I remain an epistemological skeptic when it comes to "getting inside" another culture. Marriage may (potentially, in some cases) be an exception--some of my Vietnamese friends urged me quite seriously to "get a Vietnamese girlfriend" in order to learn the language. My Vietnamese teacher, a rather proper middle-class woman of fifty & the mother of two grown sons, surprised me one day by saying, "The best place to learn a language is in bed." Those Vietnamese, very pithy! I refrained from asking her if that was where she had learned Russian. At the same time, when you write, "Other cultures allow us to at least entertain alternatives that would be unimaginable if we were to think of cultural boundaries as impermeable," I understand this to be ethically true if not practically true. (Maybe when we're done with Wittgenstein in a couple of decades we can move on to the American Prgamatists--if we are able to move at all by then.)

I think the argument from physiological isomorphism has its origins in Shylock's speech, "Hath not a Jew..." Certainly cultures regard the body differently. It can be celebrated and decorated; it can be loathed and denigrated. Sometimes these competing body images exist side-by-side and demarcate gender or religious differences within a culture. (No one told me I bear a resemblance to John Lennon until I started seeing Sunhee.) And the isomorphism can be questioned: Is my identity altered by the loss of a limb? Is my mother's perspective changed by the osteoporosis that bends her spine? Despite differences, what unites are experiences of pain (although my pain threshold is much lower than that of a hockey player or one who has been tortured), mortality, vanity, and so on. Wittgenstein will talk about traversing forms of life in terms of criteria for pain. You can feign pain, but you cannot feign the criteria for pain. When someone holds up a swollen finger and says "this hurts," we can respond by acknowledging "I know it does." This is not some empty Clintonesque moment, "I feel your pain." Rather it is empathy borne from experience.

Barriers to another language and culture remain significant. Sadly, some of these barriers are undergoing effacement by market forces. My whole time in the Far East, I tried to get away from America and Americans. I couldn't walk down a street without being assaulted by Pizza Hut signs. If globalization can be an indication of something other than the illusion of limitless growth, it is that these cultural boundaries are all too permeable.


Anthropology, Clifford Geetrz, Jean-Paul Dumont & pulling back the stage curtain (only to reveal another curtain): Last night I had a dream that I had returned to Vietnam, a place where I have spent about twenty percent of my time over the last four years). In my dream I was moving back into my old apartment in Hanoi when the landlady, Ba Hanh, showed up & (very apologetically) told me that she had someone else who had to live there, so I had to move to a hotel--that is, a place for visitors or tourists. By the way, since this is a discussion about language, in my dreams I speak Vietnamese. Badly. Same as in waking life. So, this wasn't so much about uncertainty in the study of subatomic principles as about the impossibility of taking on another form of life completely. I'm attracted to Geertz' notion that the human body binds us together in certain forms of experience, but even here I am skeptical--in Vietnam, the human body is different. Shaped differently. Arranged differently. Held differently. Even with my passion for the country & culture I will always live figuratively in a hotel there.


[5,6]The anthropologist's dilemma has been likened to the Heisenberg uncertainty principle as it pertains to the study of subatomic particles. The instruments needed to study these particles affects the behavior of the particles. Geertz has that cool story in his study of Balinese Cockfighting where he gained admission into the cockfights by running from the police with everyone else. I'm not convinced and I think the problem is actually two-fold. You have the problem of studying another culture without changing the behavior of those you observe by your presence. Then you must communicate findings back to your home culture in a way that could be understood. The deeper argument of Geertz is that no human cultures are thoroughly incommensurable. There is always the experience of the human body that forms a link. At best, the effect is occasionally to denaturalize a behavior or predilection in the home culture. For example, we tend to think of politics as a natural way to organize collective life and decision-making. We see misreadings of what Aristotle meant when he described humans as "political animals" in support of the naturalness of politics. Anthropological evidence of humans resolving conflict and coming to consensus in non-political ways has the important effect of historicizing politics. It came into being at a point in time and there could be a point in time when it ceases to be. Other cultures allow us to at least entertain alternatives that would be unimaginable if we were to think of cultural boundaries as impermeable. This contextualizing or localization of knowledge is not an effect when we think about inter-species communication and/or understanding.
Section 6 is tough. I don't know what commentary you are looking at, but there is Hacker's concordance and Feyerabend's treatment, and several others. I think about Erich Heller's distinction between systematic and poetic philosophy. Systematic philosophers like Aristotle or Kant can be conquered, he said. Poetic philosophers like Plato and, for us, Wittgenstein, are mountains without peaks. We need all the help we can get. Let me try to work from 5 through 6 and see if I cannot do better than I have in the past.
In 5, what we really want according to Wittgenstein, is a clear view of the way language works. However, Augustines' "general notion of the meaning of a word surrounds the working of language with a haze which makes clear vision impossible." We see a child learning to talk. This is not to be confused with an explanation for how language works. Conflating the example with a more general implication, taking the part for the whole, ends in conceptual confusion or haze that defeats the desire for a clear view. The technique of teaching a language is between these adults and the child. This relationship is different from the relationship of the philosopher (or whomever is charged with the responsibility of explaining language) to language. This is a problem and a distinction of perceptual vantages. It will be a mistake, however, to see the explainer of language as somehow succeeding in stepping outside of language. The perceptual vantages of both the teacher of language and the philosopher of language are similarly immanent -- "in" language -- but their relation to the whole are distinctive.
I tend to make a big deal about the immanence of perceptual vantages in Wittgenstein because of my abiding interest in theorizing. Wittgenstein proclaimed that he hated theory, he had no use for it. But what he was criticizing was the pretense of the theorist to have achieved some sort of transcendent, epic perspective outside of language. Wittgenstein shows us what theorizing from a perspective of immanence -- inside the city -- would produce. This is the subject matter of the book I am writing.
On to 6. What makes this darn remark so difficult is that it appears to entail a change of perspective -- a modulation on the part of Wittgenstein as he moves to distinguish the technique of teaching a language and the desired clear view of how language works. Who is speaking here? Is Wittgenstein presenting himself as an omniscence standing outside the text looking down, or does his voice emerge from within the text? (I struggle with this location of voice because the direction changes, like an echo or the effect of one who can "throw" her voice.)
What Wittgenstein is doing here (let me be bold) is showing the effect of neceesary movement within language. We move from particular, a local context engendered by this instance of ostensive teaching of words, to the broader view of seeing this teaching technique as part of a larger constellation of linguistic activities. We start with the context engendered by this particular example of ostensive teaching of the word "Slab." The word is taught by the teacher by making a connection of word to object by saying and pointing. Does this create a mental picture for the child? It may. "Uttering a word is like striking a note in the keyboard of the imagination." We are to understand that this is not a necessary effect, but in this instance the child has learned because when she or he says "Slab" it is accompanied by an image. Although this image may indicate learning, understanding is revealed by an appropriate behavior. This is the difference, I think, between "training" and "understanding." The teacher knows the child has understood because the child responds appropriately to the command "Slab," by either pointing to the slab or picking it up. "With different training the same ostensive teaching of these words would have effected quite a different understanding." That is to say, the approprate understanding behavior would be different. Say "slab" and the child sits down on the slab.
Next we are told to modulate the perspective. We move from the specific context-engendering of this ostensive teaching to a wider view of this creative activity as part of a larger mechanism. Wittgenstein does not make some claim about language as synonomous with this mechanism used to illustrate an understanding of the rod and lever as brake. He is only showing a perspective that is broader than that of the child. We can see an array of ostensive teachings and possible understandings where the child sees only one. "I set the brake up by connecting up rod and lever." The ostensive teaching has occurred before this statement is made. I used the rod and lever appropriately in this context. By using them to set the break I showed I understood in this particular ostensive teaching. Another ostensive teaching context may have led me to display my understanding appropriately by wielding them as a weapon.
The tendency is to say something more general about the relation of language to the mechanism, as if language is like this steam engine. To say this, however, implies an Archimedean position outside of language that enables us to see it as a whole -- in the same way we can see a steam engine as a whole. Well, Wittgenstein says, that position is not available to us. The desire for such a position, though understandable, has led to a lot of distortions that obfuscate rather than yield a clear view to language. What can we see from the inside?
Sorry this is so long and tedious. When I get tied up in a remark I work in this soliloquy form. Up until now, I have been the only one who has to suffer through reading it.

[6] I'm having a difficult time following W's argument in section 6. I don't yet get what he means by "training." Is he saying that the sort of training described by Augustine might lead to one kind of understanding but that such an understanding would be changed if it occurred under other circumstances? What is the relationship between training & understanding? I'm going to turn to the commentary & see if that clears things up.


Clifford Geertz: My old anthropology professor Jean-Paul Dumont would say that the anthropologist-visitor to another culture--even a visitor endowed with perfect good will--will inevitably witness a performance, behavior "staged" for him. And even when you get behind one performance, pull back one set of curtains, you are confronted by another stage & yet another performance. If there is a never-ending regression of performances between human cultures, how much more profound is the problem across species.

[5] Let's talk about training. W. seems to be distinguishing training from learning or understanding. Am I reading this correctly? I admit confusion when W. directs us to the example in [1] & says, "we may perhaps get an inkling how much this general notion of meaning of a word surrounds the working of language with a a haze that makes clear vision impossible." Does he mean that out usual way of thinking about language is so infected by the Augustine word-thing view of language that we cannot think clearly about what is really going on? That reading of [5] would make sense to me.

I had never thought of the private language argument in terms of cross-species interaction. I had instead thought of it as an argument for the social qualities of human language. When a creative writing student tells me that she writes "only for myself," usually ask, "then why are you taking this class?" A class is, after all, a public forum. A poem that has never been read by a reader other than the author is not really a poem, though it can of course become a poem later, when it aquires readers (as in the case of Emily Dickinson). Since language as a system of meanings flows from our form of life, to use Wittgenstein's term & our form of life is fundamentally social, meaning only emerges from i-behavior. Or that's how I have always thought about W's private language thought-experiment. An animal such as a chimp or a dolphin could in principle derive meanings out of i-behavior within its form of life; still, as close as we are genetically to chimps, we do not swing from trees. The problem of cross-species language (as opposed to simple communication--I communicate with my dogs every day) remains profound.

Bodies: to have a human body circumscribes a form of life. Just so with dolphins. Perhaps because mammals all seem to like to play, we can share the form called play with dolphins; but is dolphin play, or even chimp play, similar to human play? The distances are vast & I am still inclined to think my student--& like you I am ever-grateful to my students--was being sentimental when she claimed that "animals have language, just different from our own." Look, I've just returned from a year in Vietnam & I can tell you that even within the human species, forms of life differ so greatly as to make mutual understanding at least difficult.

Wittgenstein struggled mightily with the issue of private language. His concern was to show that any language constructed by humans -- private language, symbolic logic, mathematical logic, Esperanto -- is an extrapolation of ordinary language. Ordinary language connects us, tethers, and there is comfort here. But is there more? Physiological isomorphism is another area of congruence and I think it is a way to think about what is unique about human language and why we could never understand the lion's speech. What is it like to have a human body?
Clifford Geertz talks about overcoming the cultural boundaries in anthropological work. I ask a Sherpa if the water is potable. She nods her head up and down. I drink and get sick. Why? Well, nodding up and down in Sherpa means "no." A small illustration for a big problem. How do we begin to engage and study cultures different from our own without losing the differences? The starting point for Geertz is the "experience near" and "experience far" distinction. What we share is the experience near of having a body. A person slams their fingers in a door. They cry out in pain. I do not feel that pain, but I recognize the criteria for pain, "I know how it feels," -- even if they were to respond by laughing rather than crying -- because I have a similar body. The world as I know it is shaped by ancestors who experienced the world through bodies close to my own. (Sadly, this capacity for empathy feeds cruelty (torture) as well as compassion.) I reaffirm that aspect of experience.
I imagine there can be inter-species sharing in this form of life, this body shape community. Jane Goodall's work leaps to mind here in the relation of humans to chimps. The Washoe Project illustrates the relation from the ape to human direction. Successful interaction is limited, but immersion in one another's forms of life enhance what successes there are/were. If a chimpanzee could talk, we might understand some of it -- or we could be taught to understand one another. With limitations.
Clearly, dolphins can be trained to perform tasks. They demonstrate a mammalian need for social interaction that can be shared with humans in certain circumstances. But the physiological differences are hugely significant and stand as barriers to linguistic imbrication. Worlds are different.
Sometimes you just have to throw ideas out there and see what the response will be. Fortunately, we have wonderful students to serve as crap detectors for us.


I want to follow out this idea of a bestiary of possible languages I raised a little earlier: the whales, the chimps. I have a bright student, a biology major, in my Imagining Science course this semester & this morning we watched fifteen minutes of an interview with Stephen J. Gould in which he was asked about the transgenic crossing of a human with a chimpanzee. Gould averred that it would be a very interesting experiment, but then stated unequivocally that "it must not be done" because, he said, it would be hard to imagine a more unethical experiment--an experiment that would produce, possibly, a being who would be able to use human language to tell us about "the chimp side of its nature," thus getting round the fundamental assumption behind Wittgenstein's remark, in Culture & Value, that, "If a lion could speak, we wouldn't be able to understand him." Anyway, my intelligent & sensitive student took Gould to task for impugning the value of chimp consciousness. "Many animals have languages," she said, "just different from ours." Since I had to get on to introducing the notion of paradigms that hour, I told her that we would spend an hour of class time later in the semester on problems of language, but suggested that whatever it is that animals are doing when they "communicate," it might be best to call it something other than language. What is much more difficult to explain to such a student is just exactly what it is about human language that differentiates it from all the other forms of animal communication with which we are familiar. Superficially, they look the same. But in fact I think we denature animals' i-behavior (where "i" stands, a little lamely, for "interaction") by equating it with human i-behavior; given what we know of biology, it appears that even plants exhibit i-behavior in the form of chemical secretions that are highly specific as to circumstances in the environment. What dolphins do, what tomato plants do, is amazing. We ought to stand in awe. Why do we need to believe that those beings are up to the same stuff we are up to? It's a big damn world.


When I teach creative writing, I begin with the assumption that the writer's job is not self-expression, but allowing language to speak. This runs exactly counter to what most people think poetry, fiction & etc. is about.

I agree that there is a self-critical intention behind Wittgenstein's description of Augustine's model of language. This would be characteristic of Wittgenstein's personality (I'm drawing on the Ray Monk biography); as austere as it appears, Wittgenstein's philosophy extends & develops the concerns of his own psychology / psyche. And despite Wittgenstein's despairing tone in the Preface, Philosophical Investigations is more "put together" than it appears--than it is intended to appear.

I am also convinced by Deacon's argument as you summarize it. I am particularly struck by the deconstructive move that collapses the various culturally-induced dualisms that tend to structure our reality. Such indeed are the "bad habits" of thought, but like other bad habits they are devilishly difficult to leave behind. What begins as a critique of language & the way in which it structures thought leads, inexorably, in Wittgenstein, to a philosophical way of life that demands of the adept that he/she be conscious every minute: Roshi Wittgenstein. I cut my philosophical teeth on Heidegger's Poetry, Language, Thought so I am pretty comfortable with an evolutionary description of language--language as organism--as long as we are careful to avoid the simplistic reductions of the so-called "evolutionary psychologists," cheif among them Stephen Pinker. In Pinker's 800 page book on language there is one index entry under poetry & it deals with sound-play as a primitive quality of language. (Really, this would go without saying, except that the Standard Model--derived ultimately from Augustine &/or other early thinkers drawing on Classical philosophy--has such a hold on the popular & scholarly imagination--insofar at that imagination considers language at all--that some good Wittgensteinian therapy is in order. The problem is, as noted above, that following Wittgenstein's lead requires a certain amount of discipline.)


[4,5] Let me continue that thread raised by Deacon's insight into the evolution of language. In particular, I want to think about language changing, adapting, being used by humans to enhance their survivability, not with the goal of enhancing communication per se, but to be reproduced. This emphasizes how humans use and impose forces of selection on language. But if language is to be understood as a complex coadaptive system, then we should expect alterations in humans imposed by language. Indeed, this is an implication of Deacon's thesis. "I do not suggest that a disembodied thought acted to change the physical structure of our brains, as might a god in a mythical story, " writes Deacon, "but I do suggest that the first use of symbolic reference by some distant ancestors changed how natural selection processes have affected the hominid brain ever since. So in a very real sense, I mean that the physical changes that make us human are the incarnations, so to speak, of the process of using words."
Wittgenstein offers us a sustained argument against the dualisms that structure our culture and self-image. We think in terms of mind/body, nature/nurture, human world/natural world, self/other, in language/beyond language. What Deacon offers is a resolution of these binary structures that is also an insight into Wittgenstein: We are the result of the coadaptive character of memes and genes.
Dualism devolves into reductive accounts of reality. Either we are determined by our biology or we are social constructs. This sort of thing. To rid ourselves of inner/outer conceptions and posit an integrated complex order is described by Wittgenstein as the correct way of seeing ourselves in relation to language. The result, he says in remark 5, is clear vision. Reductionism and dualism are associated with "haze" and "fog." How do children really learn language? The "training" involved in Augustine's account is one component of learning. Should we focus upon this, reduce language to word/object relations, then we lose our ability to see clearly.
I keep going back to a description of Wittgenstein in the classroom offered by Stephen Toulmin in an interview. As Toulmin recalled, Wittgenstein would start class trying to formulate a question. This was accompanied by a real struggle to phrase the question. Sometimes most of the class time was spent on this opening. Once the question was asked, once Wittgenstein had put the words together in a satisfactory or near satisfactory way, the point was not to answer the question. Rather, the class would turn to the ancillary questions of why we ask the question this way, and why it is so difficult to formulate the question in the first place. The enterprise became historical and the hope was to find the origin of the bad habits that inform our concepts and questions in order to see them as conventional and therefore alterable.


[2,3,4] We are on the subject of language and communication and we struggle to resist reducing language to communication. This is but one function of language and we should not privilege it even as we note its importance (and difficulty). Terrence Deacon wants us to see language in an evolutionary context, as an emergent self-organizing system. He says "The world's language's evolved spontaneously...The most basic principle guiding their design is not communicative utility but reproduction -- theirs and ours. So, the proper tool for analyzing language structure may not be to discover how best to model them as axiomatic rule systems (pace Chomsky and Levi-Strauss--CR) but rather to study them the way we study organism structure: in evolutionary terms. Languages are social and cultural entities that have evolved with respect to the forces of selection imposed by human users." Communication is one force of selection. Deacon limits this point of language's evolution to humans. Wittgenstein would say we can step out of our human orientation to the world to assess the languages of other species. We are left hopelessly anthropocentric. The best we can do is acknowledge this.
The reduction that Augustine is found guilty of by Wittgenstein is different. First, Augustine assumes that language is primarily about communication. Second, Augustine frames a proof of this by privileging word to object definitions as the mode that ensures correct communication. What Wittgenstein alerts us to is the narrowness of this view of language. The example of letter to sound correspondence in remark 4 is an illustration of this narrowness. Letters do not merely stand for sounds just as words do not stand for objects.
There is a self-critical dimension to these remarks on language as communication of the world of objects. The congruence between Augustine and the author of the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus is striking on a number levels -- personal, philosophical, spiritual. Significantly, Wittgenstein wanted the Tractatus to be re-published along with his Philosophical Investigations.


[3.] A further thought on "communication": Fifteen years ago now I had an extended after-dinner conversation with a roommate who believed that it wouldn't be long before we humans were having conversations with dolphins & whales. This was out in California & the conversation took place within a couple of hundred yards of the Pacific, so it was an attractive enough notion, especially given the setting. I hadn't yet read Wittgenstein's remark, in Culture & Value, that "If a lion could talk, we wouldn't be able understand him." Nevertheless, I had a gut feeling that the matter was somewhat more complicated than my roommate thought it was. I tried to make clear this distinction about the difference between communication & language, but also to suggest that by language, I meant something specifically human. I said, before the meal broke up with some ill-feeling, that I was willing to grant that dolphins might have language, but that it would be dolphin-language & that translating between dolphin-language & human language was qualitatively different from translating between human languages. Come to think of it, my roommate's point of view was profoundly anthropocentric: he wanted to treat Dolphinese as if it were equivalent to, say, Vietnamese. Translating between human languages is difficult enough, to say nothing of translating between the languages of different species, if they exist outside human evolution.


Woke up this morning with the thought that the difference between language & communication is crucial. The vulgar view is that language is nothing but a means of communication; poets & at least a few philosop-hers know better.


[1, 2] "That [standard, conventional] philosophical concept of meaning has its place in a primitive idea of the way language functions." In the paragraph Wittgenstein is (slyly?) setting the reader up for a fall. Of course one may imagine the builder & his assistant operating in the way described--but the imaginary picture depends upon assumptions about language that are not part of the simple, primitive system. W. as can be seen with the example of the grocer & the 5 red apples, wants to suggest that we know a great deal about how to use language that cannot be captured by Augustine's sweet little fancy, not by the standard positivist theories of language current when W. was writing.

[1.] I accept the definition you offer, for Wittgenstein, of primitive. It may have been just a tangent on my part to pursue the problem of definition. As with you, the word primitive usually raises a red flag with me. I think by "elemental" I was suggesting something like "simple." And, as you point out, Wittgenstein is developing, in his way, the notion that language is not simple. Hadn't he spent most of WWI, under horrific conditions, scratching notes in a little book, hoping to demonstrate that language was reducible to propositions about pictures, only to discover, slowly & painstakingly--& with ruthless honesty--that such a description of language would not stand? The nostalgia for Augustine's picture of the infant in the bosom of the family is also a nostalgia for Wittgenstein's own lost certainty about the simplicity of language. (Aside: There seems to have been a moment of rich cultural self-confidence in Vienna in the decade before WWI--a self-confidence that gave rise to Klimt, Webern, Berg, Freud, Schoenberg. And Wittgenstein. Music & philosophy & the visual imagination--all reinvented. (Second Aside: Fraiser possesed an astonishing intellect typical of the great Victorian mania for collecting things; he also structured his collections--of customs, myth, religious practice--in a typically Victorian manner that valorized Progress. One thinks of Francis Fukuyama & the purported end of history.)

You still have a 5th grade paper on Teddy Roosevelt? I admire this.

[1, 2]Primitive is a term Wittgenstein took Frasier to task on. For Frasier, magic was taken as a sign of primitivity -- by this he meant pre- or non-scientific. Wittgenstein saw this as hopelessly condescending. See the "Remarks on Frasier" where the power of Wittgenstein's critical imagination is displayed. He is also funny. Primitive seems to imply simple in Wittgenstein. This takes us into remark 2 where Wittgenstein imagines a language system where Augustine's conception of language acquisition of uniting word to object would work. "Conceive this as a complete primitive language." Wittgenstein then moves on to qualify this idea of a noun language. For now, we look not at a primitive language functioning, but a "primitive idea of the way language functions." It is an overly simplistic account of how language works, not a quality in language. There are nouns in language, to be sure. But the act of reducing language to nouns is primitive.
I'm trying to talk my way through the difference here between language and the way language may be seen. Wittgenstein is arguing against reductionism apparently. There is a pretense in talking about language that one can step outside and achieve an Archimedian perspective on what language is and how it functions. This analytic distance is an illusion. I want to say of the distance: It is primitive.
You no longer have an undergraduate paper? I admire this. I still believe the paper I wrote on Theodore Roosevelt in 5th grade may come in handy.
I keep running decomposed and elemental through my head. To say elemental would privilege the noun function. It is as if to say it is most basic component of language. This may make sense if language evolves and we can say some parts are older than others. Does language have an evolution in Wittgenstein?
The thinking here is pretty messy.


By "primitive" does Wittgensteing mean decomposed? Elemental?

[1.] Many years ago when I was an undergraduate at the University of Washington, I sat at a small desk in front of a window overlooking some trees & wrote an essay for an anthropology course I was taking & in that essay I argued that the Kwakiutl Indians wrote "noun poetry." I then attempted to explain what that sort of poetry might be. I wish I still had the paper, but it has vanished somewhere along the line of my many movings. I recall that I suggested that there were also "verb poetries," but I can no longer remember what examples I put forth. I was careful, good cultural relativist that I was & remain, not to valorize one or the other sort of poetry. As I recall, I was attempting to show how one or the other sort of poetry might arise from environmental factors. The Kwakiutl had the good fortune to live in the Pacific Northwest, where the forests were full of game & the streams, rivers & ocean were full of fish. Clearly, their situation in the world affected their social structures & out of those social structures grew a poetry. A poetry of things. The visual art of the Northwest coast tribes is stunningly particular in the way it accumulates things & beings.

At first glance it would seem that Augustine's view of language bears some resemblance to my notion of "noun poetry," but I want to be very careful here. The Kwakiutl certainly had access to verbs & all the other parts of speech & gramatical structures that any language group employs. It is a famous maxim of modern anthropology that there are no primitive languages. So, while I agree that Wittgenstein is not using Augustine merely as a straw philosopher of language, we must account for what Wittgenstein means by the word primitive. Is he merely under the sway of 19th c. views of culture & language? I don't think so. By primitive I think Wittgenstein means something like "not fully conceived." Perhaps he should have written childlike instead of primitive? Childlike goes to the heart of the family metaphor Wittgenstein develops in PI, certainly. Intimacy & trust, yes.

[1.]When you spend four years in the seminary there is simply no avoiding St. Augustine's Confessions. For this I am genuinely grateful -- something I cannot say for all the hours spent on Thomas Aquinas and Duns Scotus. The argument about the relation between thinking and remembering in Book Ten of the Confessions remains profound and worth the time spent contemplating. This was one of the few books on Wittgenstein's shelf (although he read much more philosophy than he ever admitted to).
George Steiner once said that where Heidegger appears to have read everything, Wittgenstein comes across has having read nothing. This is a profound insight into their respective theories of language (although Wittgenstein would say that he offers no such theory). For Heidegger, language is something we are born into -- it is older than us. Language is not used by mortals; mortals are used by language. Language is, as he said famously, "the house of being." For Wittgenstein, it is only a slight overstatement to say that we create language every time we use it.
Both Heidegger and Wittgenstein can be used to describe that experience of sitting down with pen and paper and an idea. The writing begins. Although there is a plan, nevertheless, you feel utterly surprised by what you have created by the time you reach the page's bottom. Heidegger will offer the image of the human as the tool of language; Wittgenstein will talk about meaning as the residue of the positioning of words in a sentence.
You do not start off creating language; rather, you acquire competency in language by interacting with adults. Wittgenstein did not choose this citation from St. Augustine to simply criticize its limitations as a description of what counts as language. The family setting offered by Augustine appealed to Wittgenstein. The intimacy and trust are important elements that become rules we employ in using language. We desire understanding from others, and language is characterized by indeterminacy. For Wittgenstein it is a miracle that we are understood at all. Conventions in language use help increase the odds of achieving understanding.


[1.]* Without, I confess, having read more than bits & pieces of Augustine's Confessions, I have used this notion as Wittgenstein uses it with my freshman writing students. That is, I have pointed out that most of them naively imagine that writing involves pulling a word off the shelf in their brain/mind in order to express a meaning & that combinations of words express complex meanings . . . . A little reflection, I then suggest, makes this view problematic. "What are some of the problems you encounter in getting your thoughts on paper?" I ask. Often, a student will respond that her thoughts seem to go "all over the place" & note that "getting organized" is a problem. I submit that to conceive of writing as "organizing" pre-existing thoughts is, while widely thought to be of the essence, a profoundly mistaken way of looking at the act of writing. Is it Heidegger who says "language speaks"? Must be. An instrumental view of language necessarily disregards this dynamical quality of language, this poetic quality. Any meaning that manages to get written is a sort of collaboration between the author & the language & the world of intractable things (see William Wordsworth's "Tintern Abbey").
*Chris, let's agree to number our own remarks to correspond to Wittgenstein's in PI 3rd edition (Prentice Hall paperback), since I think that's the one we both are reading.

I take two things from the Preface, maybe three. The first is that the difference between the Tractatus & PI is that in PI Wittgenstein has come to realize that human beings have lives as well as thoughts. The second impulse I take from Wittgenstein's almost pathologically modest Preface is that he conceives his task in poetic terms: "I should not like my writing to spare other people the trouble of thinking. But, if possible, to stimulate someone to thoughts of his own." [PI vi] That, too, is the task of poetry, at least since the beginning of the 19th c. & probably always, everywhere. Finally, it has been suggested by contemporary thinkers like George P. Landow that Wittgenstein would have been attracted by computer-enabled hypertext. There is a sense in which the Philosophical Investigations aspires to be a hypertext document, in which the various paragraphs could rub up against each other in different ways, could form & reform different "family relationships" as required (or desired) by the reader. So, perhaps we need to take a critical perspective on Wittgenstein's notion that a book of philosophy has a "natural order"; or to consider the possibility that the natural order might be one consisting of more than a simple narrative dimension.

Where the Tractatus ends with silence, the Philosophical Investigations begins that way. It is the silence of one who is prelinguistic and it is as momentary as it is an aberration. It turns out there is a whole community waiting to teach the initiate. This is the point of contact and departure from the quotation from St. Augustine.

But let's begin with the preface and Wittgenstein's own confession. He writes this some six years before his death. Yet he acknowledges that "I should never succeed" in writing a conventional philosophical text. What he is left with is "an album." I think about this image often. When I think of an album I think of black page after black page with photographs affixed to them with little glued corners. This would run against one of the philosophical ambitions of the work -- the critique of representational accounts of truth or the so-called picture theory. So what is he talking about here? Montage? A flipbook that children like to play with?

Walter Benjamin also employed aphorisms. I'm not sure if he called them "illuminations" or if this comes from Arendt or Adorno. In any case, with Benjamin, the aphorism is designed to burn brightly, like a sky rocket, and then dwindle. Flashes of insight are provided. Sometimes I can read Wittgenstein like this. In the darkness of our time, the light is as welcomed as it is disconcerting.

Most times, walking through the Investigations is like walking a busy city street. You follow along as a problem is presented or as some general instruction is offered. Suddenly it ends and you find yourself in another area, another problem, another line of thinking. You begin belonging to a family of teachers. Once you leave that group (just as you are accepted as a competent language-user), life grows increasingly lonely. Relationships and associations are fleeting. You can talk. But to whom?

There is a "natural order" to a book, Wittgenstein tells us. He also says his "thoughts were soon crippled if I tried to force them on in any single direction against their natural inclination." Much has been made of the distinction between the conventional and the natural in Wittgenstein. We see immediately why this is a problem.

In the end, this reading of the preface is like the earlier walks through these pages: I am left feeling a profound sadness, bereft. I am to witness failure after herculean efforts to succeed. Silence broken by ambient sounds -- phones ringing down the hall, a colleague's answering machine kicking in, an ever-present ventilation fan blowing --is the transition from preface to remark number 1.

An aside: Theolonius Monk loved Hank Williams.


Oddly, as I have been writing this, I have been listening to the NPR 100's presentation of John Cage's 4" 33', also Hank Williams' "I'm So Lonesome I Could Cry." Yes, silence. That would be where we begin & where we end. Actually, I don't think either of these seminal compositions made the final 100--this was a kind of "also rans" show.

Here is the text of the poem, written specifically for David Rakowski to set to music as part of the song cycle, "Suddenly, A Wind Goes Over." [Editions Peters score No. P67616] The poem also appears at the end of Magical Thinking. Here's how the poem came about: Davy Rakowski & I had met at Yaddo & after that corresponded for a while. Sometime in the early 90s Davy called me up & asked me to write some poems "with wind in them." I had been reading my old teacher Sandra McPherson's poems at the time, including a triolet from, I think, her third book. I also had Wittgenstein in mind, especially the ending of the Tractatus (about which there has been so much debate & just plain disagreement). Sitting in my office, for some reason I pulled the RSV bible off the shelf, turned to the concordance & looked up wind. In Psalms I found "Days are like grass the wind moves over." That evening I wrote my own overdetermined triolet & shortly after that Rakowski set it to music.

For Wittgenstein

Days are like grass the wind moves over:
first the wind & then the silence—
what cannot be said we must pass over
in silence, or play some music over
in our heads. Silently, a wind goes over
(we know from the motion of the grass).
Days are like grass; the wind goes over:
first the wind & then the silence.


All my previous attempts to read this work systematically have broken down. But I sense that despite the remark form organized into constellations, Wittgenstein is inviting readers to walk along with him. It is a journey not only through the "city" of language, but also from childhood to adulthood. My main interest in the text these days are the inquiries into perception that compose the bulk of Part II.

I'm looking forward to reading this with a friend I have come to know as a careful and interesting reader of difficult works and, in the case of E.O. Wilson's Consilience, works that can boil blood.

"For Wittgenstein" is a beautiful poem that captures the frictionless realm offered by the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus. Now it is on to the rough ground of the Philosophical Investigations.