Wittgenstein Wednesdays, Session 8: Philosophical Investigations sections 293-362


Series Index

A few months passed between installments seven and eight of this series, so for the sake of those who might come across this later, I’ll just say that I might repeat some things in the second half that I already dealt with in the first, and all parenthetical references below are to the section numbers, not the page numbers, of Philosophical Investigations.

In this section of the book Wittgenstein asks the reader to consider what’s at stake when we say that we have, share, and otherwise relate to thoughts.  Early in the section he compares a philosophical proposition to “an allegorical painting” (295) and suggests that, rather than providing grammatical structures that represent and articulate things in a simple manner, that philosophy might function as a set of “illustrated turns of speech” (295).  Once again the strong questions that arise time and again have to do with how philosophy relates to the form of life.  Responding to a hypothetical objection that something rather than nothing is happening when somebody cries out in pain, Wittgenstein does not insist on the nothing but asks instead “Only to whom are we telling this? And on what occasion?” (296).  Just to press the point one step further, a thought-experiment serves to show that, in some cases, asking what lies beneath or behind what’s apparent is less profound than silly:

Of course, if water boils in a pot, steam comes out of the pot, and also a picture of steam comes out of a picture of the pot.  But what if one insisted on saying that there must also be something boiling in the picture of the pot? (297)

The questions remaining are more interesting than the answers: What about the form-of-life that we call “philosophy classroom” leads us to ask behind-what and beneath-what questions?  What differences are there between what we treat as sure in a conversation and what we regard as certain in philosophy?  What drives us to definitions in some conversations when others don’t seem to require them?  Once again Wittgenstein’s is a thoroughly social philosophy: whenever we’re tempted to offer definitions that will encompass all human moments, or even worse when we try to posit that there are no definitions, Wittgenstein returns to the complexity of life and insists that whatever we say respect that complexity.

Among the constructions that only make sense in philosophy classrooms, as Wittgenstein illustrates, is radical doubt.  Saying “I believe that my neighbor in pain” rather than “My neighbor is in pain” (303) is as valid a linguistic resolution as any, but once again the challenge to the resolution comes not from syllogistic constructions but from imagining forms of life: “Just try–in a real case–to doubt someone else’s fear or pain!” (303)  Sensations ultimately are neither nothing nor really something (304): since a call for help or a prayer to Heaven does not function in simple, words-refer-to-things way, only a theory of language that insists on a one-dimensional “way that language works” really presents a problem.

Here I have a pause and say that, although I grant that Philosophical Investigations is a great book and, in its moment (which was after Wittgenstein’s death), likely did some good work countering some really inflexible philosophies of language, I have to say that, in its aftermath, from the perspective of someone who doesn’t do much at all with analytical philosophy, I often find myself thinking that Wittgenstein is simply bringing back to philosophy’s attention what they must have forgotten from their Aristotle.  Certainly the ancients already had figured out that it’s foolish to carry on “As if the purpose of a sentence were to convey to one person how it is with another: only, so to speak, in his thinking apparatus, and not in his stomach” (317).  Perhaps I’m simply reading the ancients as a post-modern once more, and my response to that possibility is gratitude.

Were I a professional philosopher I would be more inclined than I am, as a liberal-arts college English professor, to run down the folks to whom Wittgenstein responds and say with some more precision where and when this book responds to philosophy that was really an option in the mid-twentieth century and where and when it’s demolishing straw-men, but as an amateur rather than a specialist, I’ll go ahead and say that, the more time I spend with this book, the gladder I am that I started studying philosophy a couple generations after it became prominent.

Back to the book, though.  The test case that follows the neighbor-in-pain is the moment of “sudden understanding” (321).  Wittgenstein uses the license he’s given himself to use medical language to talk about the “symptoms” of such a happening.  After all, if the form of life is medical diagnosis, the aim is not mainly to articulate irrefutable definitions of such things so much as it is to “compare these experiences” and to “stipulate” (322) their boundaries for the sake of doing something with them.  Ultimately it’s success, not an airtight definition, that makes accounts of understanding intelligible (324).  And of course, “success” has its meanings not an any timeless lexicon but embedded in the actual practices and events of various forms of life.

Running along with the notion of embedded meanings for words, Wittgenstein poses an obvious one for philosophy: “Well, what does one call ‘thinking’?” (328).  And once again, rather than attempting a definition so narrow that it fails to name much of what folks call thinking, or so broad that it encompasses spans that nobody considers thinking (unless one is trying to prove some philosophical point about the plasticity of the lexicon), Wittgenstein turns to the forms of life that make such language intelligible.  When it comes to the “sub-vocal speech” sort of thought, Wittgenstein notes that there aren’t “thought” rolling around in there that merely attach to “meanings” but that forming such unspoken sentences simply is thinking (329).  To demonstrate this he proposes another brief experiment, with an anachronistic nod to the “this time think about the words you’re singing” trope that irritates me in contemporary worship services:

Utter a sentence, and think it; utter it with understanding. — And now don’t utter it, and just do what you accompanied it with when you uttered it with understanding! — (Sing this song with expression! And now don’t sing it, but repeat its expression! — And here too is something one might repeat: for example, swaying of the body, slower and faster breathing, and so on.) (332)

Once again the thought is not exactly something, but it’s also undeniably not nothing.  (I love piling up negatives that way.)  We can make perfect sense of an expression like “So you really wanted to say…” (334) in terms of suggesting one expression rather than another, thus avoiding the seeming metaphysical impossibility of guessing at another person’s inner intentions.  In this form of life, again a framework crucial to Wittgenstein’s project, precision of expression is quite important, and there’s no need to solve the abstract problem of “other minds” in order to imagine one conversation partner saying this and making perfect sense.  And once more this book’s true genius shines through: the point is never to deny the possibility of definitions or even to say that any definition is as good as another but to note that definitions must have enough moving parts that they can encompass the next actual living work of language.

An undeniably funny moment in this section is also one of the rare references to other philosophers, in this case William James.  In section 342 he rehearses a case study of James’s in which a man who claims to have thought about God, the creation of the world, and other such cosmic things long before learning the rudiments of speech and writing.  Rather than ruin Wittgenstein by paraphrase, I’ll just quote the translation:

Are you sure–one would like to ask–that this is the correct translation of your wordless thoughts into words?  And why does this question–which otherwise seems not to exist–arise here? Do I want to say that the writer’s memory deceives him? — I don’t even know if I’d say that.  These recollections are a strange memory phenomenon–and I don’t know what conclusions one can draw from them about the narrator’s past! (342)

So once again, there’s no sense here that every scenario counts as thought: after all, the man who claims to have done theology as an infant Wittgenstein doubts very much.  (I’d likely agree.)  But whatever we have to say about what counts as thought should be flexible enough to encompass many things without being so boundary-less as to encompass all things (and thus define nothing).

The last section that this segment will treat is another of those boundary cases, this time having to do with what sorts of sentences are intelligible and which are nonsense when it comes to thinking.  And here’s the test case: if someone said that a chair were thinking silently to itself and that the person sitting next to it (presumably on the ground) were doing the same, what questions would arise in each case? (362)  Once again the questions are more important than the answers: to tell whether the person is thinking silently we merely ask questions of analogy, wondering whether she is doing what I would do if I were to think silently, and relatively few people who aren’t in a philosophy seminar have to do much work beyond the possibility of an analogy.  On the other hand, in order to ask whether the chair is thinking silently, one finds oneself asking questions of furniture anatomy: is the chair’s thinking organ roughly at the top center?  In one of the legs?  About what would a chair think?  And so on.

In the end, even without the need to counter what must have been a stifling analytical philosophy of the early twentieth century, Philosophical Investigations remains a great book to read in order to practice posing questions of reality that don’t normally occur to us and at the same time to wonder why the questions we do pose of reality are the questions we do pose.  A system of thought it ain’t, but once again turning to virtue ethics, a good read-through with Wittgenstein, I would contend, develops those dispositions that make us capable of appreciating, resisting, and otherwise engaging with systems.