Series Index

The final section of Philosophical Investigations brings the language-game approach to questions of ethics, and once again, the real benefit of reading and thinking about what Wittgenstein is doing lies not so much in a single claim or thesis that he develops (as one finds, for instance, in Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason) so much as in his way of going about the project, complicating both theoretical alternatives and seeming common-sense answers but never allowing a reader to escape the project by denying the importance of rules and theories in general.  As with other segments of this series, parenthetical references below point to section numbers, not page numbers.

Try Not.  Do or Do Not.

Wittgenstein, just before he turns to the language-games of wishing and willing, poses a question that has troubled me since the first time I read it: since so many people have written so many times that a certain phenomenon or a certain experience is “beyond words,” why don’t people just invent new words to name them (610)?  Of course, Philosophical Investigations never does answer that question, but sitting down and pondering that one for a few minutes will give you a sense of what it’s like both to confront the difficult and complex thoughts Wittgenstein offers and to refuse the easy “anything goes” surrender that Wittgenstein denies to those who read him carefully.

That impulse to declare something “beyond words” certainly occurred to me as I started thinking about wishing and willing with Wittgenstein.  Like so many things in Philosophical Investigations, a wish or an intention is neither nothing nor exactly something (613).  It’s not exactly a means to an end–after all, it would be nonsense (outside of a philosophy seminar) to say, “I willed to raise my arm so that my arm would raise.”  When one raises an arm, one just raises an arm (614).  Likewise most forms of life make more sense when one simply does something or tries to do something; to say that I tried to will this or that short-circuits the normal grammar of action (618).  Since I’ve read some Augustine and some of his heirs, I immediately started thinking about his discourse about the will (and Luther’s after him) that makes “the will” something that exists in bondage so that the soul cannot will what is good, and I’ll admit that I can’t make sense of that either, except to say that such claims seem to make most sense when they describe “the will” as an entity that once was in bondage but now, as the theologian does theology, remembers an entity continuous in some sense with one’s redeemed self but different enough that talking about “it” in the third person makes some sense.

But this isn’t a post about Luther, so back to Wittgenstein, no?

To make some headway on the question Wittgenstein turns, as should be familiar to folks who have read much of Philosophical Investigations, to the form of life.  To strive or even to try to do something implies at least that something or someone is offering resistance (622-23).  Along the same lines, the difference between a voluntary move and an involuntary move often involves the fact that few people are surprised when they execute voluntary actions (628).  I would add to that the fact that most discourse about voluntary and involuntary act has its roots in legal and ethical writing, so surprise really does become a concern there: if an object functions as a weapon, and I knew it would before I used it as a weapon, that’s a different case (though not necessarily less deadly) than the case in which I only knew the object was a weapon only after it functioned as one.  (I’ve got Looney Tunes scenarios in my head right now, but I imagine non-animated cases of this sort are possible as well.)  To shed some more light still, Wittgenstein notes that, when future-tellers in stories and plays tell the future, nobody really expects them to foretell their own future voluntary actions (629).  So without asserting any particular metaphysical thesis, Wittgenstein notes that the simple grammar of voluntary and involuntary actions leads away from certain, too-easy theories of what it means to will or to intend or to wish that something happens.

Time and Intention

Grammar runs into complications with time in other contexts, and the thought-experiment that introduces the next complication is this: what happens when someone interrupts someone else, then apologizes for rudeness and asks the interrupted party to continue that thought?  Does the person continuing the thought make some sort of interpretive choice based on the words already spoken? (634)  Once again Philosophical Investigations seems sympathetic to the possibility that everything is an interpretive act until it starts to examine forms of life, and as it turns out, the sort of attention that constitutes interpretation does enter into many moments in a person’s life but simply isn’t part of many human experiences, so once more the universal rule gives way to a more complex array of rules.

With a sentence as simple as “I meant him” (663), a broad array of possibilities opens up.  Given more details about the life-situation surrounding the utterance, though, the meaning becomes less a matter of open interpretive choice and more a matter of responsible interpretation versus irresponsible, and eventually stops being a matter of interpretation at all when, for instance, the said sentence answers a question like “Which baseball player were you talking about just now?”  Having done a fair bit of work in Biblical studies and the humanities more generally, I appreciate this reminder about form-of-life especially.  When, for instance, I preach a sermon or teach a lesson on Psalm 45, the interpretive task is paramount.  On the other hand, when I tell my son to move his shoes from the middle of the floor to his room, his insistence that they’re not precisely in the center of the room is a supremely inappropriate attempt at interpretation.  (Yes, folks, I just got confessional.)

So words do in fact connect things, but saying that every utterance first creates some sort of “mental picture” then translates it into a proposition’s subject and verb misses the diversity of utterances (684).  Or, to paraphrase Wittgenstein’s final section, to say that meaning is something rather than nothing is a good place to start, but to mean something is no more a mental act than rising-in-price is the act of the butter that rose in price (693).  To assert general propositions about this utterance or even these utterances does good work; to make these utterances paradigmatic for all possible utterances is just as much a mistake as saying that there are not rules governing any utterance.

Unlike some of these series, I likely won’t write a finale post to follow this one.  To attempt to paraphrase Philosophical Investigations would be a mistake, I think.  More suitable is an encouragement from me to you, O Reader, to find a copy of this fun little book and to walk through it with the original master, learning to think complexity and to see what normally you look past and to pay attention when your rules kept you from doing so before.

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