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Recently an intrepid group of students and faculty at Emmanuel College began a school-year-long adventure in philosophy, planning together to read Wittgenstein’s Philosophical Investigations together, a bit at a time, over the fall and spring semesters.  As we got the group rolling, I volunteered to provide some sort of online catch-up for those who couldn’t make this or that meeting.  This series of blog posts will attempt to do that.

Slab!  Or, Why Simple Theories and Solipsism Both Miss the Phenomena

If you ever want to find out whether an English-speaking friend of yours has read this book, send her a one-word (and punctuation mark) email reading simply “Slab!”  If your friend assumes your account has been compromised, then likely he hasn’t read the book.  If your friend asks when you read Wittgenstein, she might just have read this book.

The opening sections of Philosophical Investigations (parenthetical notations in the following refer to sections, not to pages) inquire into the nature of language, starting first with the common conception that words and things correspond on some level, with the word “apple” corresponding to a particular sort of fruit and the word “red” corresponding to this color but not that one (1).  But by means of a series of thought-experiments, Wittgenstein begins to show that such a view of language misses some of the most basic ways in which language does work.  The earliest thought-experiment asks a reader to imagine a language in which those who know the language use the words “block,” “pillar,” “slab,” and “beam” to help them build something together.  When one calls out “Slab!,” the other brings along the slab, and so on (2).

Simple enough, right?  But such a scenario already assumes that a one-word utterance might mean something entirely different depending on where in the story of the construction-project it happens.  So, for instance, two workers who have worked together for some time might proceed as described above, but when someone new joins the crew, a more experienced worker might use the same one-word utterances to demonstrate what work the words do, without the expectation that the new worker will bring the component to a given spot.  Thus the veteran might point and say “Slab!” not to call for another component for the task at hand but to let the rookie know, for future reference, what to pick up when the same worker calls “Slab!” later (6.)

A couple things should be occurring to you already: first, Wittgenstein uses particular scenarios precisely to demonstrate that simple, universal theories of language cannot account for all of the complexity and different rule-sets that govern language use.  Second, neither a simple universal theory would do (because it would have to account for too many uses of “Slab!) nor a solipsistic notion of language, in which each individual decides what words mean, will work here.  “Slab!” means something, and not something else, in each of these moments and in other conceivable moments (for instance, sending one’s friend a one-word email), and those who try to make “Slab!” do other work have a task ahead of them.  (Such a task is not impossible, as Wittgenstein demonstrates with the word “Slab,” but it takes some doing.)

Let’s Play a Language-Game!

For the sake of thinking differently about how language works, he proposes thinking about them not as neat, orderly systems but as clusters of games.  So in one game, “Slab!” is a command to bring a certain sort of building material from there to here, whereas in another, “Slab!” is the name of an object, a word but not a thing, to be discussed by a philosophy seminar.  How those games connect to each other isn’t yet the concern of the book, but Wittgenstein offers an early metaphor of the same, comparing language to the growth of a metropolis, complete with orderly suburbs, from the core of an old city, whose inner streets twist and a turn with a logic lost to time (18).

But back to games, Wittgenstein counters in these early sections certain philosophies of language that posit some sort of proposition (a sentence with a subject and a verb, in that order, making a statement) behind all other sorts of utterance.  One could, Wittgenstein concedes, insist that “Slab!” really means “I want you to hand me a slab,” but just as easily, he jests, could we not imagine that, behind all other sorts of utterance, there’s “really” a question followed by an affirmation?  He supplies one example, and the imagination runs from there: “[F]or instance, ‘Is it raining?  Yes!'” (22)

As I read it, one of the early theses of the book is that “to imagine a language means to imagine a form of life” (19).  Thus language is neither limited nor unlimited because human existence is neither limited nor unlimited.  Before the invention of baseball, to talk about baseball was unintelligible, but that doesn’t mean that the addition of baseball-talk makes language anarchic; instead, it’s intelligibly historical.  The “Slab!” language (yes, by the end of the first session of Wittgenstein Wednesdays, our whole group found the word “slab” utterly hysterical) derives its intelligibility from the human practice of building things with beams and blocks and slabs, and talking about double-plays and the infield fly rule is gibberish in an imagined context in which folks don’t play baseball.  The philosopher of language does well not to say too early (which is to say at all) that the limits of language are already drawn, but the skeptic of linguistics does well to note that, when talking to baseball fans, “designated hitter” does not mean whatever the speaker wants it to: it’s intelligible as evil because it’s part of the discourse of baseball, but that doesn’t change the fact that it’s evil.

As I write this, I know full well I need to leave this segment of Philosophical Investigations (which we discussed two weeks ago) and turn to sections 26-52 (which I’ve read but need to review now).  More on that in the next few days.


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