Wittgenstein Wednesdays, Session 11: Philosophical Investigations sections 529-606

Series Index

Philosophical Investigations, as I read it, doesn’t have a thesis so much as it explores both the limits of stating theses and the limits of denying the need for theses.  Whether the subject matter is the nature of thought, the nature of private experiences and our common names for them, or anything else, Wittgenstein has guided us readers through a long series of thought-experiments that at the same time complicate theories that don’t have enough dimensions to accommodate real lived experience and also shows the impossibility of simply experiencing without having any theories at all.  In other words, the point of the book is the investigation, not the reveal at the end of the investigation.  As with previous posts, the parenthetical citations refer to sections, not pages.

“Not” Does Not Have a Single Meaning

To understand a sentence, Wittgenstein begins, means knowing what sort of sentence to speak or write in order to replace the sentence (531), except in those cases in which the point of the sentence is to be irreplaceable.  (The second class recalls Eliot’s aphorism that a poem is its own paraphrase.)  He calls to mind the process of learning to hear the end of an oratorio’s movement as an ending (535) as well as learning not a single connotation for a given facial expression but learning that one can interpret a facial expression this way or that way but presumably not any old way at all (539).  To get a bit more elaborate Wittgenstein proposes a scenario in which someone points at the sky, babbles a string of nonsense syllables, and then translates his own nonsense so that the folks to whom he is talking understand that he means “Thank heaven it’ll soon stop raining” (540).  Wittgenstein then poses question about how we understand that phenomenon: “What am I to say now?  Didn’t he understand the sentence as he was saying it? Wasn’t the whole meaning there in the sentence?” (540)  The point here is not to say that such an episode happened or even that it should happen but to note that, when we try to explain such an event, fictional or remembered, we both rely on our capacity to theorize and realize that theories governing other forms of life simply don’t apply to this one.

If explanations are complicated, negations are even more so.  Or perhaps they’re not uncomplicated.  They involve some sort of “mental activity” (547), and negating mentally involves something related to writing the word “not,” though to wish that something would happen involves a decidedly different mental picture than wishing that something would not happen (548).  The word “not” decidedly does some sort of work, but saying what common ground negative expressions share requires a theory that expands with each class of utterance.  The “gesture of exclusion” that seems to run through all of them (550) does decidedly different work when one says “Two times five do not make eleven” and “Iron does not melt at 100 degrees Centigrade” (551).  Again, such is not to say that negations are simply whatever one makes of them; they only make sense accompanying propositions, not other kinds of sentences (again, a bit of Aristotle already teaches us this, but if MacIntyre is right, we moderns have forgotten entirely too much Aristotle), and even within propositions, the negation becomes nonsense in the wrong place, such as “I drove my car so that I would not arrive where I was going.”

Wittgenstein also points out that the tendency of negations to multiply rather than to add is arbitrary but, within a linguistic system, binding.  After all, one could imagine (or read!) a language in which negatives add up rather than multiplying and cancelling each other out.  Thus at the end of The Battle of Maldon the poet tells us, roughly speaking, that unlike the cowardly Goodwin, the Goodwin that remained didn’t never run from battle.  (I love teaching that poem to English majors–they try to hard to be non-judgmental, but the double negative brings out the absolutist in many, and it’s terrible fun.)

The Rules that Matter, and the Matter of Rules

Philosophical Investigations has done a fair bit of comparing language to games, and the phrase language-game of course features prominently, at least in English translation.  But even rules in a game stand to be examined by the same means that Wittgenstein has examined other linguistic happenings.  After all, there are rules that articulate the core of what language does, and there are rules that are arbitrary and could work just as well in counter-factual arrangements.  So, for instance, in a game of checkers, a piece advancing to the back rank becomes a king, which is at the core of the game.  But the custom of signifying that a piece has been kinged by stacking one checker on the other is conventional, but one could put a penny on top, flip the piece if one side has a crown showing, or a dozen other conventional but non-essential signs (562).  Likewise one often begins a game of chess with one player hiding a pawn in each hand, one black and one white, and letting the other player choose sides blind, but folks who play chess have a notion that such is not “what a pawn does” in a game of chess (563).

Wittgenstein takes the momentum from the discussion of games to talk about the ways that customary phrases work.  So, for instance, instead of asking broadly what “to have an opinion” means, he suggests instead that we consider particular moments like what would count as changing an opinion, how to tell whether two people share an opinion or differ in respect to opinions, and so on (573).  The same goes for expectation: we know what it means to say “I’m expecting him” and signal impatience, longing, and all sorts of other things, though again not an infinite range (577).  To expect that a bomb will detonate soon does not signal an emotion precisely but a certain way of relating to the world, hopefully a way of relating that minimizes the harm done by said bomb.  Likewise an utterance like “I hope he’ll come” could be a report of emotional state or, if one says it to one’s self, a manifestation of the same emotional state, assuming that one doesn’t need to report one’s emotions to one’s self (585).  As with before, the motion is always towards expanding complexity and not towards simplification, either in terms of a theory that encompasses all utterance in a dozen rules or a nihilism that denies the place of rules.

The last thought-experiment that this post will engage shows this process in a neat, compact manner: Did I recognize my desk when I last went into my office? (602) The obvious answer is “Yes”: after all, nothing struck me out of place, and I would have noticed if a piece of furniture I did not recognize were in its place.  Yet, if I think about what I usually mean by “recognize,” the forms of life within which that word usually carries meaning, I know that “to recognize” usually involves a level of attention, for the sake of distinguishing this thing from that, which my most recent office-entrance did not really involve.

So as I wrap this one up and get ready to head into the final post, once again I’ll advance my own thesis (since Wittgenstein doesn’t seem to offer one) about this book: the point is precisely in the investigation, not the testing of a single claim against observed reality or logical validity, but an invitation to the reader to live life and notice things in a certain way, to appreciate the place of rules and negations and utterances with an eye (and an ear) both for the rules that govern a given utterance and enough flexibility of mind to notice with some precision where this utterance’s rules stop making sense and philosophy must articulate another.  Such is the way of philosophy, as Wittgenstein presents it, and in the final post, which will be the next one, we’ll have a look at how Philosophical Investigations heads for the door.

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