Wittgenstein Wednesdays, Session 10: Philosophical Investigations sections 436-528

Series Index

Philosophical Investigations was the reading and discussion matter for a group of students and faculty at Emmanuel College during the 2014-15 school year, under the auspices of the Emmanuel College Christian Humanists.  Because I led most of the discussions, I prepared reading notes for each of the twelve sessions that ended up happening, and this series of blog posts emerges from those notes.  All references to Philosohpical Investigations point to section numbers, not page numbers.

Wishing for Something

Wittgenstein, having considered thought and what counts as thinking, gets more specific next and takes a look at a philosophical problem as old as Plato, namely the nature of wishing.  In the Meno and elsewhere, Plato’s Socrates shows that wishes and aspirations and desires always involve not-having something.  After all, the person who already has a pizza may wish for a second pizza, but for that person to wish for one pizza would not make any sense.  So far so good, but if one aspires to something like wisdom or excellence more generally, the question becomes more difficult, since wisdom itself means–among other things–the capacity to know what wisdom is.  Thus Plato proposes a range of vehicles, among them education and the continuity of communities and even reincarnation, that would make possible the desire for wisdom, which both requires having-wisdom and not-having-wisdom.

Wittgenstein, of course, points to the fact that such a conundrum simply doesn’t occur in most forms-of-life.  To believe something means that there must be an object other than belief-itself that one believes (438), and by learning to say that one wishes for something, one already demonstrates some sort of knowledge of the thing wished for simply by virtue of learning to say “I wish for x” (444).  The metaphysics of how the object becomes part of the desires isn’t nearly as important, in this sort of inquiry, as the fact that language simply assumes as much: “It is in language that an expectation and its fulfillment make contact” (445).

Talk of wishes assumes negation: once again, going back as far as Plato’s Symposium, the nature of desire seems to be that one desires what is not there.  But once again Wittgenstein notes the strangeness of such constructions, beginning with a thought-experiment about dreaming.  The utterance that one did not dream last night seems to assume a prior concept of “to dream,” yet Wittgenstein wonders whether such an utterance involves the experience of “something, as it were the hint of a dream, which made you aware of the place which a dream would have occupied?” (448)  Likewise, while our language of expectation and wish seems to involve an object-wished-for or an object-expected, we discover once again that linguistically such a thing makes sense, but something happens with this language such that words don’t easily connect with things.

To push this point home, Wittgenstein asks the reader to imagine a scenario in which one person in the scene expects something of the other, and he asks what the expectation itself looks like (452).  Once again keeping focus on the form of life, he suggests that, if we keep our focus exclusively on perception, what we actually perceive is a manifestation of expectation rather than expectation itself, yet we know that when we expect something, to reduce that to “I perceive my expectation” misses the point of expectation (453).  Once again Philosophical Investigations walks us through a particular process of thinking.  The point is not to arrive at an unshakable right answer but to think through what happens, what our philosophical account of the happening would have us translate the happening, and attention to alternative ways to write and speak about the happening.  I can’t think of too many strong theses to which the book points so much as a series of exercises for the person doing philosophy, habits of mind that keep theses (including the thesis that there are no good theses) from becoming too solid too easily.

Orders and Nonsense

Likewise one does not order someone else to do something that already stands done, logically, yet to order the thing means that some knowledge of the thing-done is involved (458).  The point of this paradox, for Wittgenstein, is not to translate all possible meanings of “order” into one set of terms but to describe the finite plurality of possibilities that go along with a notion like “order.”  So on one hand, “We translate [an order] at one time into a sentence, at another into a demonstration, and at another into action” (459), yet not every translation is as good as others:

Could a justification of an action as the execution of an order run like this: “You said ‘Bring me a yellow flower’, whereupon this flower gave me a feeling of satisfaction; that’s why I’ve brought it”? Wouldn’t one have to reply: “But I didn’t tell you to bring me a flower that would give you that sort of feeling in response to my words!”? (460)

Since an order could be carried-out or not-carried-out, Wittgenstein notes that some are tempted to regard any command as having some sort of power of prognostication (461).  But once again, Wittgenstein notes that an order is a grammatical structure, not a superpower, and one should regard a sentence as a sentence, not as a capacity to give the world structure.  To demonstrate the difference between the two, Wittgenstein simply alters the verb: “I can look for him when he is not there, but not hang him when he is not there” (462).

At this point Wittgenstein offers my favorite sentence in the whole book, one which adorns my office door in a prominent, visible spot: “What I want to teach is: to pass from unobvious nonsense to obvious nonsense” (464).  Philosophical Investigations does not purport to make sense of things so much as to push us beyond lazy attempts to make sense of things, beyond the too-easy theory to theories that actually see language escape them when they try to grip too tightly.

Why Think in the First Place?

My hunch is that the next section aims at the skeptics, folks who, like David Hume, regard our attempts to find laws and such in nature as hubristic impositions of necessity where all we should really assert is habit and custom.  Once again, form of life pushes us towards different questions: after all, whether calculating the thickness of a boiler’s walls is a function of habit or of a necessary connection between mathematics and not getting burned by hot steam, the man who does not want to get burned calculates the thickness of boilers’ walls (466).  But just in case you’re tempted to think that all thought is merely instrumental, that a person only thinks because it pays, Wittgenstein asks, “Does he bring his children up because he has found it pays?” (467).

Such is the character of certainty in most forms of life outside the philosophy seminar–“I shall get burnt if I put my hand in the fire–that is certainty. That is to say, here we see what certainty means. (Not just the menaing of the word ‘certainty’ but also what certainty amounts to.)” (474)  Once again the reasons for believing something are various but finite: they could be functions of one’s own experience, of accounts of other people’s experience, and so on (479-80), but probably few people, outside a philosophy seminar, would offer the number of consonant sounds in the standard way to state a belief or the weather conditions when somebody first asserted the sentence to be believed.  Wittgenstein plays his normal tricks when he writes, “A good reason is one that looks like this” (483).  So sometimes a belief requires inference and sometimes not (486), and the point of philosophy is not to translate everything into terms that require inference or do not but to describe what actually happens in the language-games we play.

Ultimately we justify thought, like anything else, in terms of a more robust form of life; thus philosophy’s task once again is to call into question too-broad rules about what language always does or never does:

Ask yourself: On what occasion, for what purpose, do we say this? What kinds of action accompany these words? (Think of a greeting.) In what kinds of setting would they be used; and what for? (489)

As long as language remains connected to its place in life, neither nihilism nor over-broad generalizations become a problem.  Separated from their life-contexts, just about any utterance could become the kernel for a (bad) philosophy of language.

Thus, for Wittgenstein, grammar has a very particular and a very limited function:

Grammar doe snot tell us how language must be constructed in order to fulfil its purpose, in order to have such-and-such an effect on human beings. It only describes, and in no way explains, the use of signs. (496)

I highlight this passage not only because it dispels the myth that grammar is somehow “arbitrary” (497) but also because it calls into question certain self-important proclamations that one sometimes sees–especially in Internet contexts–that a person is a “descriptive, not a prescriptive grammarian.”  Wittgenstein, I think, helps us see that all grammar is descriptive, and part of that description, if I’m getting him right, is a description of which forms are parts of stories in which some writers impress readers and others annoy readers.  In other words, the grammatical scold might play a certain part in the little comedy that we call “reading and writing,” and to say that the scold is wrong gets at part of the picture but misses other parts.  At this point it is I, Gilmour talking, not Ludwig, but I figured I’d earned a small digression at this point.

The Wrong Turn

For the home stretch of this post, consider another thought-experiment:

The absent-minded man who at the order “Right turn!” turns left, and then, clutching his forehead, says “Oh! right turn”, and does a right turn. — What struck him? An interpretation? (506)

To say that we speak words, and we also have meanings, can be in some cases a sort of linguistic deception.  (If you’ve been paying attention to the series up to this point, you know why I qualified that claim.)  So, for instance, normally we do not say “It’s cold here” and mean “It’s warm here” (510), but one could imagine narratives, forms of life, perhaps one in which a northerner mocks a southerner when the temperature drops below sixty degrees, that would make sense of the separation between utterance and meaning.  The point, for Wittgenstein, is to treat such complex boundary cases not as typical but precisely as outliers.

And so he offers another thought-experiment: “A rose is red in the dark too” (514).  Wittgenstein notes that more than one mental picture could arise: one could think of a red shape against a dark field, or one could imagine simply a dark field, since the rose would not be illuminated (515).  Which one is right depends on what sort of story it’s a part of: for instance, one could imagine a power outage at night at a florist’s shop, and in that case there would indeed be a difference between white roses in the dark and red roses in the dark (515).  But if we asked whether the florist could distinguish between them in those circumstances, both sorts of roses are dark in that scenario (515).  Once again, interpretation sometimes enters into our encounters with language and sometimes not.  (Did the absent-minded left-turner consider a different possibility for “Right turn” the way that you, as a reader, considered different possibilities for “roses in the dark” when you read this paragraph?  Mind the form of life!)

Here once again Wittgenstein offers a rare programmatic suggestion for the life of philosophy:

Don’t take it as a matter of course, but as a remarkable fact, that pictures and fictitious narratives give us pleasure, absorb us.

(“Don’t take it as a matter of course”–that means: puzzle over this, as you do over some other things which disturb you. Then what is problematic will disappear, by your accepting the one fact as you do the other.) (524)

I realize that some who read my posts here, especially those who have themselves read Philosophical Investigations, might find my virtue-ethics reading of the book an imposition rather than an exegesis of Wittgenstein’s work.  I’m glad for you to respond to that in the comments here.  But as I read this book for the fourth time (twice on my own, once with the Emmanuel College Christian Humanists, and once here as review as I write these blog posts), the book’s large project strikes me precisely as a training in certain ways of seeing and thinking and encountering words and worlds and such, and virtue ethics seems to offer a vocabulary for doing that.  I know that as I’ve read and reread this great little book, I do not come away agreeing with or disagreeing with its thesis so much as practicing, more and more each time I re-read, the art of interrogating ideas in the way that Philosophical Investigations does, and I suppose that’s why I’m inclined to read it once more.

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