Wittgenstein Wednesdays, Session 5: Philosophical Investigations Sections 140-170

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Series Index

At this point I’m not posting things before the meetings or even the day of the meetings but catching up from missed meetings.  Mea culpa.  For those just joining us, this series follows the Emmanuel College Christian Humanist reading group for the 2014-2015 school year as we read together through Ludwig Wittgenstein’s Philosophical Investigations.  Citations of Wittgenstein in the post will point to section numbers rather than page numbers.

Wittgenstein’s concern in this section is with connections between behaviors, memories, and what counts as mental processes.  As has been the case in previous sections, Wittgenstein points to assumptions that our language carries in its grammar more than in its arguments, and the phrase “from my mind” comes under investigation here.  One of Wittgenstein’s more intelligible examples involves the common moment in which we witness another person cry out or laugh.  In “normal cases” (142), we don’t even pause to think about connections between people’s observed responses and anything unseeen going on “inside” the mind of the responder: most of us can identify a cry of pain, a response to an amusing but socially inappropriate joke, and so on: we fool ourselves, philosophically, when we start to believe that the abnormal cases, such as self-delusion or neighbor-deception, govern all cases.  The person pretending to be amused at the boss’s joke is a variation on the person simply amused, not vice versa.  Likewise “there is no sharp distinction between a random and a systematic mistake” (143).  Instead, any given account of a mistake or a laugh or any other observable human phenomenon might or might not be mistaken.  There’s no clear and universal rule governing all phenomena that we call mistakes and emotional reactions (145).

Such an impenetrable contingency means that knowing an equation or a skill also consists not in some universal capacity applied to finite moments but names a finite pattern in which the practitioner does things right or responds to stimuli on a reliable basis (148).  To say that knowledge is a state of consciousness for all people at all times, then, is not responsible; nor is to say that no connection exists between conscious will and social response.  Likewise each of us knows when we’re faking an injury, and only a sort of educated guesswork can give us a sense of when somebody laughs to be obsequious.  It’s not merely a division between self and other either: Wittgenstein poses a series of questions in a side note about a common sort of knowledge that presumably one knows about one’s self:

What if one asked: When can you play chess?  All the time?  Or just while you are making a move?  And the whole of chess during each move? — And how odd that being able to play chess should take such a short time, and a game so much longer! (149, note)

The problem of knowledge, then, is a logical one as much as one of limited human perception.  Thus to know something is neither merely to know its shorthand formulas (153) nor an occurrence of right usage (154) but something that doesn’t quite fit either of those categories.

In an extended examination of the same logical opacity Wittgenstein considers what counts as “reading.”  Wittgenstein begins by noting the strange metaphors we use for the activity: to “run one’s eyes over” a line of text doesn’t quite get at what’s happening, and neither does “taking in” the shapes on the page (156).  As with the other examples, it’s terribly difficult to distinguish between reading and merely remembering when someone else said words, relative to the shapes on the page (157), and presumably the same contingency applies to one’s self when one “reads” a paragraph and immediately can’t remember what one has “read.”

Wittgenstein cuts off the line of thought that says understanding such things is merely a matter of improving neuroscience and brain physiology (158).  After all, brain states can be manipulated, and one could imagine a drug (manufactured, presumably, by a mad scientist), that made one “feel” as if the words one read from a page were actually drawn from memory (160).  Such a scenario is not difficult to imagine, after all: I’ve been told that enough cheap beer can make one “feel” more sexually attractive to other human beings than other human beings would think.  Or, to go away from mad-scientist scenarios, Wittgenstein invites the reader to attempt to distinguish reading from memory in a less abstract way:

Try this experiment: say the numbers from 1 to 12.  Now look at the dial of your watch and read them. — What was it that you called “reading” in the latter case?  That is to say, what did you do, to make it into reading? (161)

The point here is not to say that reading is nothing or that brain activity doesn’t happen but to note that “reading” and “mental activity,” like “emotional response” and “knowledge,” all have the imprecision that goes along with all metaphors.  Like the rest of the metaphors we use on a daily basis, we have no trouble using them and living within them, but conventions of use should not deceive us into assuming that we can reach a precision that actual, living language does not afford.

We cannot reduce “reading” to the simple coincidence of looking at printed marks and uttering words (165).  Nor can we say that reading consists of sounds that “come” from printed marks, as fanciful and non-alphabetic marks, if we allow them, can “cause” us to imagine sounds (166).  Yet we know the difference between reading and looking at a sequence of marks that we do not recognize as language (169).  Ultimately, as this section leads into the next post’s concerns, Wittgenstein points to difference as the mark of knowledge (170).  When we read, something happens that differs from looking at an animal’s trail on soft ground or a grid of differently-colored squares or a sequence of non-alphabetic scribbles.  That notion of difference will roll into the next section as Wittgenstein considers what we mean when we say that objects have essential qualities and that human beings act according to or against custom.


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