Wittgenstein Wednesdays, Section 3: Philosophical Investigations Sections 53-86

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Series Index

Emmanuel College’s Wittgenstein group meets today, which means I’m behind on getting the latest blog post up here.  So it goes.  As with previous posts, numbers refer to section numbers, not page numbers.

The Persistence and Boundaries of Concepts

When something stops existing as its intelligible self (for instance, today’s newspaper might burn in a fire, or the pencil that I found might break in half), folks retain the capacity to talk about that object.  In fact, if a blue piece of paper burns in a fire and stops being blue, folks can still talk about “blue,” even if said piece of paper were the last blue object to which they had ready access.

That we can imagine such scenarios, Wittgenstein suggests, means that “blue” has some kind of intelligible role in our language that doesn’t fit a simplistic “correspondence” theory, in which words name things, and words that don’t name things are simply nonsense (56).  Memory can’t be the measure of a concept’s validity either, as a bit of thought can conjure a scenario, one in which the blue paper is the last blue thing anyone sees for a generation, in which “blue” as a concept stops functioning within a language (57).  Instead, to say that blue exists as a concept is not necessarily to posit some metaphysical extra-linguistic existence for “blue” but merely to say that if we say that “blue” exists, “then it is not a sentence which treats of X, but a sentence about our use of language, that is, about the use of the word X” (58).  There’s little surprise, reading this section, that Lyotard considers Wittgenstein one of the precursors of the postmodern condition: Wittgenstein does not assert that there is nothing beyond the linguistic (that would be presumptuous) but simply notes that, as long as we’re communicating, the medium is always part of the picture.

The same holds for our concepts of simple and complex realities, a question that arose earlier and gets even more treatment in this section.  Wittgenstein’s paradigm sentence for this exploration is “My broom is in the corner” (60).  What if, Wittgenstein muses, someone would replace that assertion with “A stick and a brush, arranged just so, are in the corner,” or even better, “Wood-bark particles, the products of eukaryotic cells of a certain order, stand in a certain geometrically apprehendable order next to two drywall planes, supported in space by several hundred straws, each of whose properties I will now recite”?  A certain view of language says that each step of analysis in that series is inherently contained “within” the first and that each step of analysis will disclose more about the reality than the one before.  But the more analyzed such a statement becomes, the more removed it gets from the lived contexts in which brooms actually exist as brooms (60–I recognize that I’m shading into Heidegger here).  Ultimately Wittgenstein suggests, without pronouncing propositionally, that an analyzed statement, one paying attention to the atomized elements, loses some of its sense even as it gains another sense (63).  So once more Wittgenstein insists on holding onto two truths, each of which seems to contradict the other: on one hand, treating assertions as infinitely susceptible to analysis loses out on some of the holism inherent in the ways that language actually operates.  On the other, analysis does allow for language to do jobs that un-analyzed, everyday speech doesn’t do.

Family Reunions, Philosophy-Style

Philosophical Investigations turns next to categorical propositions, statements that might be true or false about this or that entity.  Wittgenstein admits that his examinations, up to this point, have resisted the urge to assert one proposition or even one set of propositions that would establish a singular, systematic way to think of what language is (65).  As he proceeds, he proposes an alternative, namely that philosophy does better work not when it asserts theses about reality, then explains how reality fits those theses, but rather reverses the process, looking closely at the ways that category-words actually work (66).  His prime example here is the category “game.”  Board-games share certain things in common but lack other stretches of common ground that ball-games share, and competitive games share common ground that a game of telephone doesn’t.  Yet, in everyday language, folks talk about all of the above things as “games” without much balking.

Instead of a single, global proposition saying what a game is and what a game is not, Wittgenstein suggests the image of “family resemblances” (67) as a tool to think about such things.  Just as, with a rope, no single fiber constitutes the whole thing, but a rope comes into recognizable form when several fibers overlap and twist together and such, so games do not submit to a single categorical explanation but instead relate to each other in ways that language maps with a network of connections.

Within this model, rules still stand important, even if they’re not universal matters; after all, tennis as a game has definite rules, even if there’s no rule (inherent to the game itself–there might be unstated expectations about showing off) governing how high one tosses the ball when one serves (68).  Likewise, unless the question “what is a game?” or “what is language” comes up, few people have any urge to draw boundaries around the set called “games,” even if we’re quite capable of doing so if a given situation calls for such a thing (69).  Finally, Wittgenstein insists that definitions themselves are tools that become useful only in moments of abstraction, not as a matter of prior groundwork before language can be useful (70).  Once again, Wittgenstein neither lapses into an overarching relativism (“There are no definitions!”) nor into a newly-formulated notion of language as a rules-system.  Instead, he grants that philosophical and grammatical rules have their place, and he tries to pay close attention precisely to those moments when they do become helpful.

Knowing, Saying, and Ball-Games

The last section we read for last meeting (we go in 15-page segments, so sometimes the subject matter gets a bit jumbled) has to do with relationships between theorizing about language and how language works when we’re not theorizing.  In  another brief but thought-provoking bit, he notes that “to know” only corresponds with “to say” in some, not all, valid uses of “to know.”  So he provides these three ways that folks “know”:

how many metres [sic.] high Mount Blanc is

how the word “game” is used

how a clarinet sounds (78)

The third one assumes that knowing something and being able to speak or write that knowledge fits very nicely with the first and not at all with the third.  (Not untypically, he doesn’t really say with regards to the middle one.)  Thus constructing theories about relationships between knowing and saying works quite well with segments of language and not at all with others.  Such is the ongoing project of Wittgenstein, to note that neither rule-abolition nor rule-refinement will encompass the ways that language actually happens; the ongoing project is to look and see and to pay attention.  And with that, I leave you, O reader, with a wee excerpt from Philosophical Investigations, section 85:

A rule stands there like a signpost. — Does the signpost leave no doubt about the way I have to go?  Does it show which direction I am to take when I have passed it, whether along the road or the footpath or cross-country?  But where does it say which way I am to follow it; whether in the direction of its finger or (for example) in the opposite one? […] So I can say that the signpost does after all leave room for doubt.  Or rather, it sometimes leaves room for doubt, and sometimes not.

 

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