In case you’re just tuning in, or in case you’ve forgotten what a Wittgenstein Wednesday is, some faculty and students got together every couple weeks during the 2014-15 school year at Emmanuel College to read through Ludwig Wittgenstein’s Philosophical Investigations together. Since I was the de facto discussion leader, and since most of my open afternoons fell on Wednesdays, Wittgenstein Wednesdays came to be. Since I had discussion notes prepared for each session, I figured that writing them up as blog posts might amuse some, so here we are. Remember that the citation numbers are section numbers, not page numbers. Now on with the discussion.
What Are You Talking About?
Section 363 poses a question that rises from the long array of thought-experiments before: why do we assume that language is first and foremost for communication, and why do we assume that communication involves the transfer of the transmitter’s mental state to the receiver’s mental state? And for the reader who remembers the sections before, the point is quite clear: some modes of speech do not transmit a mental state so much as they call for action, demand awareness of some phenomenon in the world, and so on.
Riding a strong sense that there’s no single, simple theory that will account for all utterance, Wittgenstein turns to mental processes and the variety of accounts that one must give to explain them. So when somebody calculates an engineering problem mentally, there’s definitely something going on, and it’s neither identical with nor simply derivative from what one does with pencil on paper (364). The process “in the head” might seem to correspond simply to what one might do on paper (366), but when we try to say what went on in one’s head, we feel a need to say, beyond narrating the terms and operations, a formal or process that could extend beyond the calculation at hand (369). Whatever is going on, then, we can only talk about it in terms native to spoken or written language, not with thought-waves or whatever else that might entail. Thus, when Wittgenstein wraps up this run of sections with the aphorism “Essence is expressed in grammar” (371), he does not deny that things are things or even that things might do something while nobody’s talking about them so much as the straightforward reality that being itself is a word, as is grammar, as are any clauses that deny that language frames all reality, and so on.
What Are You Thinking?
With little warning (there’s seldom warning of changes-of-subject in this book) the conversation turns to the puzzle of reading and thinking silently. The problem is not that we’re not sure we’re doing so (you’re likely doing so right now) or even that we can’t learn to do so (I can remember a time when my son did not read to himself, and now he reads all the time without speaking) but that any sort of comparison between my reading-to-myself and your reading-to-yourself is not impossible so much as illogical (376). A parallel problem arises with any sort of comparison, even when two people seeing the same two images decide whether they are similar or not (377). Either one could say easily enough that these two images are similar or that they’re not similar at all, but declaring systematic criteria for “same” and “similar” is nearly impossible even as the term retains its social character and loses meaning if “same” means something for me and nothing for you (378). What’s going on here is not exactly philosophy of mind, but it does make me think of the too-easy equivalence that some folks seem to find in brain-scans of, say, praying Christians and meditating Buddhists and other such folks having “religious” experiences. When someone first presented that possibility to me, the narrative that all religious experiences were the same, it made good sense, and yet when I construct a narrative in which the coincidental brain-scan readings do not constitute sameness but merely a cosmetic coincidence, I could convince myself that direction as well. Such is not to say that any old theory is true: after all, I would be quite skeptical if someone said that space-aliens or even the NSA were manipulating people’s minds so that they only think they’re similar (or vice versa). But this language-game, like so many, lies somewhere other than univocal certainty or anything-goes anarchy.
Wittgenstein advances the closest thing one sees to a theory at this point: when we analyze things philosophically, we analyze not phenomena but concepts (383). Such is not nominalism, Wittgenstein insists, because nominalism simplifies too much by saying that all words are names. Nonetheless, for late-career Wittgenstein, philosophy is first and foremost a description of language, encompassing names as well as applications of vocabularies and other such linguistic processes, never stepping “beyond” or “behind” language but always happening within grammars. Such is not a straitjacket by any means; after all, language, by its nature, moves around whenever we try to put too-strict limits on it.
After all, something as simple as a stage-play allows people who aren’t doing philosophical analysis to undertake some genuinely complex thinking about other people’s inner states (393). One could ask most people, who had taken a philosophy course or not, to imagine an actor playing a character whose spouse just died. Then one could add complexity, asking the same conversation partner to imagine the actor as a leader backstage, projecting confidence for the sake of her fellow actors, and if one really wanted to test the limits, one could imagine the same person serving as a mentor to younger actors while worried that the IRS will discover a moment of dishonesty on the tax return she filed the week before. There’s no simple tool that will allow us to say how we imagine such things, but we know well enough that we can in fact imagine it (395). Perhaps our problem, Wittgenstein suggests, is that we frame things in terms of imaginability, which is something other than a description of imagination, instead of in terms of representation, which is what happens once we start thinking about what imagination actually does (397). If you’ve been reading through the whole Wittgenstein Wednesdays series, no doubt you’re already seeing that the move here is back into forms of life: to talk about imagination as an abstract, formal process is not any sort of universal happening but occurs when we engage in a philosophy seminar or a dorm-room conversation or reading a blog about philosophy. The form of life makes even thinking about forms of life intelligible.
And here’s the problem with so many modes of philosophy (Wittgenstein names idealists and realists, but the critique could extend further): when we do philosophy and ignore form of life, our tendency is to assume that one form of life translates without complication to others, when in fact someone playing shortstop would be a fool to spend much time on the diamond thinking about whether the core and the skin and the stitches coming at him really constitute a unity called “baseball,” and a philosopher engaging with certain modes of Continental thought would be negligent not to (402). The form of life that we call “shortstop” does not assume the metaphysical speculation, much less participate in it “subconsciously,” any more than someone editing a draft of a blog post is subconsciously turning double plays. But once again, if we’re tempted to think that therefore the names we use to make sense of baseball and philosophy don’t do any work, we should remember once more that most of us, encountering me sitting at the computer, would be fully able to say that I’m not at the moment playing shortstop.
Philosophy, as Wittgenstein imagines it in this run of Philosophical Investigations, is thus not the positing or even the discovery of arcane or obscure things but things that “are always before our eyes” (415) but do not always get our attention, for whatever reason. Unlike Kant (whose Critique of Pure Reason I’m reading through this summer), Wittgenstein cannot imagine very many forms of life in which insisting that “I perceive that I am conscious” adds much of value to “I am conscious” (417). Such redundancy makes sense in a very limited range of life-forms, but such limits do not signal rigor for Wittgenstein but the possibility that such artificial forms of life might have little to do with life in many other moments of life. So in a philosophy seminar one could imagine that all bodies other than one’s own are automata, that bodies simply respond to some sort of programming without consciousness as one experiences consciousness, but maintaining that thought while conversing with one’s neighbor is at best unsettling and at worst impossible, and thinking of a playground full of children as some sort of illusion will likely make one mentally ill (420). Once again none of this is to say that such thoughts are impossible or even bad but rather that each one stands as a border case, and language is a network of borders that threatens to become invisible as soon as one regards this territory rather than that as the center.
Nothing–and Everything–Is Strange Here
The dynamic between commonly-intelligible life and the difficulty of theorizing that life that has played out throughout the book continues as Wittgenstein writes about thinking:
“A thought–what a strange thing!” — but it does not strike us as strange when we are thinking. A thought does not strike us as mysterious while we are thinking, but only when we say, as it were retrospectively, “How was that possible?” How was it possible for a thought to deal with this very object? It seems to us as if we had captured reality with the thought. (428)
Philosophy’s project, then, is not to declare things out of bounds as thought or even to render all thoughts that seem to differ as variations of the same but rather to describe what happens when one thinks. To see things “more fully laid out” (435) is something worthwhile to take on, even if the caution always stands that folks who lay things out too simply are likely to miss out on what people not doing philosophy can understand clearly enough.
As with other parts of this book, this session’s run is more of a discipline than a thesis: the habit of mind that emerges, if one dwells with these thoughts experiments, is the humbling of theories that want to make too much of the world their own as well as to encourage thoughts not to yield when those who have given up on theory declare all theories worthless. Instead philosophy’s project is the person who does philosophy, and the aim once again is to keep us in that uncomfortable but true tension between the complexity of how we actually live and the finite complexity of how we talk about the same complexity.