Sunday, September 20, 2009

Digression: Seeds of Wittgenstein, Watts, and Alexander (transition)

I have promised to relate my comments in the last post about walking to the topic of meaning, or understanding. Before doing that in depth, I would like to provide a quick analogy based on a recent critique given as a comment to an earlier post.

It can sound as if I'm arguing that meaning (and by extension understanding, knowledge, etc.) doesn't exist. Wittgenstein has been accused of making similar claims. This perception is understandable, but misses the point of what I'm trying to do. I am attempting (based on Wittgenstein's work) to question the whole idea of what it is to say that meaning exists, or is real, or not. I hope that an analogy to walking will help make this clearer.

Suppose someone asks, "Is meaning real?" or "Does meaning exist?" To answer "No" would seem to be to deny the obvious. Of course words have meanings; of course we mean things by what we say; of course when I'm talking about something I (at least usually) know what I mean.

However, in the context of philosophy, answering "Yes" seems to commit us to a particular, misleading picture about language and the way words function. It seems as though we could pin down exactly what meaning is, where meaning resides, how meaning is determined, as if meaning were some sort of thing. (Or at least, as if particular meanings — e.g., the meaning/concept/knowledge of the word "dog" — were things.) The simple, commonplace notion that the idea of meaning has some sense to it gets blown up into a metaphysical or epistemological claim.

Now consider an analogy to walking. I ask you, is walking real? Does walking exist? Well, of course walking happens. People really do walk. In fact, I personally am quite sure that I walk all the time. Should you ask me at any given time whether I am in fact walking, I would be able to answer with certainty. I think I can safely guess that you share the same experience.

So far so good. The problems start only if we go further and try to understand walking as an isolated thing. When I walk, where does the walking reside? I do not possess a discrete, self-contained computational program for walking, so that when it is running I am walking and when it is idle I am not. It's impossible to pinpoint the exact moment when I learned to walk. (See the previous post.) Moreover, when I walk now it's impossible to say precisely when the walking begins and when it ends. And you can't just look at the movement of my legs to define the walking process, since in different contexts those same movements wouldn't constitute walking at all (say, if I were floating on my back in a swimming pool). The closer we look at the phenomenon of walking, the more we see that the idea of its being an isolated thing is incoherent.

In talking about a sensation, Wittgenstein comments "It is not a something but it is not a nothing either!" (Philosophical Investigations, section 304). We could say the same thing about walking — as well as about meaning, or knowing, or understanding.

I believe Alva Noë is making a similar point when he compares consciousness to a dance. He argues against the conception of experience as something that happens solely inside our heads, or even inside our bodies as a whole. "Our ability to dance depends on all sorts of things going on inside of us," he points out, "but that we are dancing is fundamentally an attunement to the world around us." Likewise, he encourages us to consider that "seeing, hearing, thinking, and feeling… isn't something going on inside of you, but is something you do." (Two interviews with Noë on this and related topics can be accessed here: Interview 1, Interview 2. These excerpts are taken from the first one.)

The same is true with meaning and knowing and understanding. Yes, we human beings do mean, and know, and understand. But these are things that we do, ongoing processes we engage in — not things that we have or states we are in. Furthermore, we do not engage in these activities in isolation. In any given instance, the specific actions or experiences associated with walking or dancing or meaning or understanding (the particular movements of our legs, thoughts that come to our mind, things we say, or other actions we take) only constitute walking or dancing or meaning or understanding given many other features of the larger, social-cultural-environmental-lingustic-etc. context.

I'm guessing it's that last part, about the context, that will be least clear to everyone. I hope to do it justice in the next post.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Digression: Seeds of Wittgenstein, Watts, and Alexander, part 1

Before moving on to the next big section of content, I’d like to say a little more related to Wittgenstein and meaning, inspired by several different sources I’ve been reading and listening to lately — particularly some Warren Goldfarb lectures (see reference in previous section) and various recordings by Alan Watts (who will be the subject of a future series of posts).

The central point: When looking at causes of actions and events, people have a strong tendency to look for fixed things that are isolated in space and time — while neglecting the “background” conditions or context that make those actions and events possible. This is at least true in American society today, probably all the more so for philosophers — and particularly noticeable when looking at ourselves and our own behavior.

I will relate this to meaning and understanding eventually (some patience is required here; this post ended up being much longer than I expected). But first consider what seems to be a straightforward physical activity: walking. Ask yourself — what makes walking possible? How are human beings able to walk?

What kind of answers occur to you? One of the first answers that comes to mind might be particular muscles — especially the big leg muscles. If you tend to be more interested in the brain, you’ll probably think about the brain's involvement, speculating about specific neuronal interactions or computational programming that might control walking. Getting a little more nuanced, you may think about our vestibular system, which provides a sense of balance.

Among the answers that are unlikely to occur to you are: the continuous presence of a solid surface beneath us; the reliable operation of our planet’s gravitational force; and the availability of open space (areas in which the density of matter is sufficiently low that a human body can easily move through). In other words, you’re likely to overlook all the external conditions that are relevant to — indeed, absolutely essential for — the process of walking. People’s answers tend to focus on one isolated area of space: their bodies. And usually, very limited parts of their bodies, like in this case the legs or, what tends to get credited for nearly all human behavior these days: the brain.

These answers also tend to focus on one isolated point in time: the eternal present. There’s generally no consideration of all the preparatory interactions that lay the foundation for walking — all the experiences, behaviors, and responses necessary for a growing child to develop the ability to walk. In addition to this personal history, we tend to neglect the larger historical context, which is arguably also relevant. Certainly, we would not be able to walk if we had not evolved in a particular way — responding to specific selection pressures, within a specific environmental context, on a specific kind of planet.

Now, there’s nothing inherently wrong with these tendencies we have. I’m not arguing that you shouldn’t say we can walk because of our various muscles, organs, nerve impulses, etc. As Wittgenstein advises us, “Say what you choose, so long as it does not prevent you from seeing the facts” (Philosophical Investigations, section 79). It is absolutely true that these aspects of our bodies enable us to walk — provided that all the rest of the greater systems in which we are embodied and embedded remain in place. Again, relating this to Wittgenstein: “‘I set the brake up by connecting up rod and lever.’—Yes, given the whole of the rest of the mechanism. Only in conjunction with that is it a brake-lever, and separated from its support it is not even a lever; it may be anything, or nothing.” (PI, section 6)
The problem comes when we forget the necessity of "the whole of the rest of the mechanism," which can easily “prevent [us] from seeing the facts,” leading to some fairly significant misunderstandings about how human beings actually function in the world. I'll give just a few examples here.

In the context of the Alexander Technique (the subject of the next long series of posts to come), an understanding of gravity plays an important role in correcting misconceptions about how the human body operates. Generally, gravity gets a bad rap. It gets blamed for all sorts of problems — like the tendency of spinal discs to become compressed over time, so we all get a little shorter as we age. (Not to mention wrinkles and the sagging of various body parts.) There’s a sense that we need to fight the effects of gravity. If only we didn’t need it to keep us stuck on to the planet, it may seem, we’d be better off without that pesky force.

In fact, this understanding gets things precisely backward. Our bodily structure functions as a complex suspension system that is spring-loaded by the gravitational force. When we’re not interfering with it (e.g., by using our large voluntary muscles to try to do the work that our tiny little postural muscles ought to be doing), this system works beautifully with gravity to keep us upright and buoyant and moving freely. Therefore, gravity can actually play a very important role in explaining how we’re able to walk, and what gets in the way. (Alexander teachers talk about this as a matter of course.)

The role of gravity in walking might seem more intuitive to us if we didn’t have an exaggerated sense of our separation from our environment — both conceptually (we think of ourselves as being independent, somewhat isolated entities) and perceptually (we feel as though we’re separate). (When I talk about the Alexander Technique, I’ll explain how such perception can shift, so that we no longer experience ourselves as being quite so separate from our surroundings.) It might also seem more intuitive if we had a broader, more long-term view of human capacities; since humans evolved on a planet with a gravitational field, it’s not surprising that our bodily structure is well adapted to respond to gravity.

Now, it still may not be clear why any of this is a big deal. (Much less how it’s related to meaning and understanding, but I promise I will get there before too long.) One of the biggest problems comes when we encounter a phenomenon that we want to study and our biases prevent us from seeing the full picture of what’s happening; as a result, we wind up with a distorted model of reality. Andy Clark gives a fantastic example of this in his book Being There, when he discusses the stages that infants go through in learning to walk. Newborns, when held up away from the ground, will perform well-coordinated stepping motions. Those motions disappear at about 2 months of age, only to reappear between 8 and 10 months as the infant starts to be able to support its weight on the feet.

In trying to explain this phenomenon, there is a temptation to look for an isolated, internal causative factor. “According to a ‘grand plan, single factor’ view,” Clark says, “we would expect these transitions to be expressions of the maturation or development of some central source — for example, the gradual capture of reflex-like processes by a higher cognitive center” (page 40). The truth is, what determines these stages is not some internal, central controlling source, but the interaction of multiple different factors — including, crucially, gravity. “In the upright position,” Clark explains, “the resistance of the leg mass at about 2 months overwhelms the spring-like action of the muscles” (page 41). An attempt to find the cause of the behavioral change by looking just at the infant’s muscles or brain or nerves or anything else internal is doomed to fail because the cause is not in there.The action is, to use one of Alan Watts’s terms, relational. In looking just at the leg, or at the body it’s attached to, we neglect to consider the relevance of the space it is moving through. Should that space change, the action (and, we might say, the capacity for action) changes: a 3-month-old infant cannot perform stepping motions in open air, but has no problem doing so when the lower body is immersed in water.

When you begin walking, where does the movement begin? What drives the action? Take a minute and consider this.

If you answered the foot, or the knee, or any other part of the lower limbs, you're in very good company, but you're wrong. The natural motion of walking actually begins with the head. As the weight of the head shifts forward, the body is thrown slightly off-balance, and the motions of the lower body help to catch us; this process has been described as "controlled falling."

Again, why is this a big deal? Because whenever it becomes important to figure out what's actually happening when somebody walks, a tendency to neglect certain parts of the body or certain bodily functions can get us into trouble. I heard a great story about this recently from a very insightful Alexander teacher (one of the people I studied with a few years ago). She once worked with a woman who had been to see many different health professionals to help with a long-standing problem with limping. Nobody had been able to give her a diagnosis; thorough medical examinations revealed no abnormalities in her lower body (which, of course, is where they had all been focusing). In a matter of minutes, the Alexander teacher was able to figure out what was actually happening. She knew this woman had an unusual characteristic: she had one false eye. (Of course, the doctors knew this too, though it never factored into their diagnosis.) She asked her to raise up her finger to the center of her field of vision. Lo and behold, the woman raised her finger not to the true center, but far off to one side. What needed to change was not her leg, but her visual perception — or rather, her integration of her visual perception with her kinesthetic sense and proprioception, so that as she moved she would be able to gather more accurate information about her spatial relationships to the world around her. (Alexander lessons did prove to be effective in this respect.)

Notice how a bias toward localization makes it impossible to understand a situation like this one. You could study this woman's legs until the end of time and you would never find the problem, because it was never in there. Note that this doesn't mean the problem was entirely in her head or brain either. Again, we're looking at a relational phenomenon — we can't identify something in the brain, or nervous system, or leg muscles as being the cause. Rather, it was a wide variety of bodily systems interacting, within the larger context of the wider, physically and visually present environment, that led to her peculiar way of walking.

It is also important to keep in mind the role of past training and conditioning. The mere presence of muscles and nerves does not in and of itself make movement possible. For any type of movement, it takes practice — often lots and lots of practice — to set up the neuromuscular pathways required for coordinated action. It’s a gradual process.

Think about the process of a child learning to walk. Can you identify a specific moment when she transitions from learning or trying to walk to actually walking? We can certainly choose a moment — perhaps the first unassisted step, or two steps, or five or ten steps; or the moment after which the child spent more time taking steady steps than stumbling; or various other points in time. But each of these choices would be arbitary. There is no single moment at which “real” walking kicks in. Rather, there is a continuum of competency, which is continuously shaped and refined through ongoing interactions in a complex physical and social environment.

Remembering that walking is a capability that develops slowly over time can help insulate us from a range of biases, including the tendency to see the ability to walk as something 1) unitary; 2) localized internally; and 3) primarily proactive rather than responsive.

If we see walking as a unitary phenomenon, we may be tempted to look for a unitary cause (tendency 1) — say, a sort of neurological program for walking (lift leg, then bend knee, then extend knee and lower heel, etc.). To be able to walk, in this case, would be to have some version of this program. Of course, this program would be localized internally (tendency 2). And the emphasis here would be on what the person (or the program) initiates, or puts out into the world, rather than on how he/she/it responds to the world (tendency 3). This approach puts the burden of explaining all the complexity of real-life practice on some internal controlling mechanism. If you consider how complex walking really is (just think of all the different surfaces we walk on, all the obstacles we navigate around, all the other things we do while walking), you can start to appreciate just how great of a burden this is.

In the history of robotics, designers have increasingly moved away from models using centralized control. I’ll talk about how this relates to cognition in the next post. Related to walking, the most advanced robots today are inspired by old-fashioned toys that were first developed in the 1800s, using no internal motors at all. Walking emerges from the interaction of the toys’ physical structure with the environment; the movement is driven by gravity. The robots do use internal power sources, but operate much more efficiently by taking advantage of various features of body structure and the physical environment. For instance, all of them have arms that swing opposite the legs (as ours do) to help with balance.

One of these robots, called Toddler (developed at MIT), uses a learning program to teach itself to walk. Apparently it is the first walking robot “to learn to walk without any prior information built into the controller.” A major advantage is that Toddler learns to navigate over a variety of different walking surfaces. In this way, it can display sophisticated abilities not because something complex is programmed in from the outset, but because complex behavior emerges from ongoing, continuously shifting interactions with an environment. Here it’s obvious that the ability to respond is at least as important as the ability to initiate. (For more details on this and other walking robots, see this article.)

Moving on
Just about everything I have said here about walking has a direct analogy to meaning and understanding. If we could only appreciate these as activities (things we do, like walking and eating and playing soccer), rather than fixed states or mental contents (things we have, like neurons and colons and shin splints), we would avoid all sorts of confusion. Since this post is already quite long, I will explain this line of reasoning in a new one.

Sunday, August 30, 2009

Part 4b-iv. Final Comments (for the moment) on Wittgenstein

I first learned about Wittgenstein's later philosophy in college, and even with what I consider to be phenomenal instruction, it took at least a few months before I started to really "get it." I honestly don't know if it's possible to understand anything substantial about the Philosophical Investigations without months of focused study, guided by an expert professor. Therefore, my expectations of what I personally can accomplish with a few casually written, relatively brief blog posts must be extremely modest. I'll be happy if I can manage to:

- Get a few people sufficiently intrigued that they'll want to learn more about Wittgenstein — either through longer conversations or by reading more authoritative analyses. (I highly recommend reading through lectures by Warren Goldfarb, the professor I had. I just found these online:

- Start a conversation with a few interested people who know something about Wittgenstein and can help clarify which descriptions here are useful, which could be misinterpreted, and which may be downright wrong

- Start a conversation with a few interested people who know nothing about Wittgenstein and can force me to refine my explanations so they're sufficiently clear for newcomers

- Give a basic, rudimentary (and not too misleading) suggestion of how Wittgenstein's ideas might relate to radical embodied cognitive science approach

Part 4b-iii. Brief Review: Wittgenstein and Radical Embodied Cognition

I've discussed four interrelated factors as being characteristic of various perspectives that can all be classified as non-representational:
  1. Explaining specific behaviors and experiences rather than context-independent capacities
  2. Lack of reliance on mental entities (such as representations) to explain experience and behavior
  3. Emphasis on not-purely-mental processes and/or systems rather than any individual entity (mental or otherwise)
  4. Lack of rigid boundaries between mind, body, and world
Here in Part 4b, I've attempted to illustrate several ways in which these ideas show up in (or at least are consistent with) the later Wittgenstein's writings on language, understanding, meaning, thought, and intention. Here's a very superficial review of a few main points:

IDEA #1 - Explaining specific behaviors and experiences rather than context-independent capacities.
Wittgenstein redirects our focus from the big, abstract philosophical questions (e.g., "What is thought?" "What is language?") to observation of what actually happens when we think or speak or understand something.

IDEA #2 - Lack of reliance on mental entities (such as representations) to explain experience and behavior &
IDEA #3 - Emphasis on not-purely-mental processes and/or systems rather than any individual entity (mental or otherwise)
Wittgenstein's discussions of mental life and language use focus not on what a person has (e.g., a particular mental state or mental object) or what a word has (some sort of fixed meaning), but on what happens. Thus, he relates knowing or understanding to action — what you can do, how you respond in specific situations. Likewise, he relates the meaning of words to their use — how people do things with them and respond to them.

IDEA #4 - Lack of rigid boundaries between mind, body, and world
The processes and interactions that Wittgenstein discusses as helping to explain language use, meaning, understanding, intending, and thinking are not mental processes per se; they're not all in the brain, or even in the body. In order to understand any of these activities, he suggests, we need to take into account the larger context (social, cultural, physical, etc.) — our "forms of life," looking at highly complex interactions not just within an embodied person but between that person and the rest of the world. I believe that Wittgenstein convincingly demonstrates that any description of thinking, intending, etc. as an isolated, purely "mental" thing or process is doomed to failure.

Saturday, August 29, 2009

Part 4b-ii(d). So How Would Wittgenstein Explain Mental Life? (continued)

Question d. If language is not just a way of expressing meaning or thoughts or something else essentially internal, what does it express? What is the relationship between language and thought?

Underlying questions about the relationship between language and meaning is a notion that these are separate things:

“You say: the point isn’t the word, but its meaning, and you think of the meaning as a thing of the same kind as the word, though also different from the word. Here the word, there the meaning.” (120)

This characterization reveals are two distinct assumptions that Wittgenstein challenges:

1) Meaning (or thought) is somehow separable from, or additional to, language

“When I think in language, there aren’t ‘meanings’ going through my mind in addition to the verbal expressions: the language is itself the vehicle of thought.” (329)

“Thinking is not an incorporeal process which lends life and sense to speaking, and which it would be possible to detach from speaking, rather as the Devil took the shadow of Schlemiehl from the ground.” (339)

2) Meaning is “a thing” — some sort of entity (however abstract) with a fixed or stable identity.

Recall from Idea #3 the possibility of relying on processes, rather than any type of entity, to explain mental life and understanding. Only by letting go of a reliance on entities can we truly understand Wittgenstein’s explanation of meaning in terms of use:

“For a large class of cases — though not for all — in which we employ the word ‘meaning’ it can be defined thus: the meaning of a word is its use in the language.” (43)

This isn’t a philosophical thesis or a general, abstract definition of meaning. Wittgenstein isn’t saying that meaning corresponds to something fixed, which we can pinpoint, and that something is use. In fact, even asking the question “What is meaning?” can be misleading here, as it seems to imply that we can pin down a stable, context-free definition — exactly the type of implication that Wittgenstein is challenging:

“We ask: ‘
What is language?’, “What is a proposition?” And the answer to these questions is to be given once and for all; and independently of any future experience.” (92)

I’ll try stating the point a little differently. Try not to think about meaning as something that a word has, or that a person has. (This is analogous to the earlier argument that we need not see understanding as something that a person has.) Consider meaning as more of a verb than a noun — meaning happens. And this happening is not independent from language use. Meaning does not transcend language use, underlie language use, precede language use, cause language use, or extend beyond language use. To know everything about how a word is used would be to know all there is to know about its meaning. Similarly, thinking does not transcend, underlie, precede, cause, or extend beyond speaking. Just because nobody else can hear your thoughts unless you speak them aloud, that doesn't mean that thinking differs from speaking in some more profound way. Both are ways of using language.

I can't think of any better way to describe the relationship between language and thought than the quotation I referenced earlier:

"[T]he language is itself the vehicle of thought.” (329)

Thus, only someone who can use language can think — at least in the sense that we think.

“[O]ne can only say something if one has learned to talk. Therefore in order to want to say something one must also have mastered a language…” (338)

“It is sometimes said that animals do not talk because they lack the mental capacity. And this means: ‘they do not think, and that is why they not talk.’ But — they simply do not talk. Or to put it better: they do not use language — if we except the most primitive forms of language.” (25)

Conceptualizing thought or meaning as somehow separate from language, separate from words, can only lead to confusion. I won't take the time to develop that argument any further right now, but hope it will become clear in Part 6. I'll just leave you with a couple of additional quotations related to this point that hopefully will at least be thought-provoking:

“‘The purpose of language is to express thoughts.’—So presumably the purpose of every sentence is to express a thought. Then what thought is expressed, for example, by the sentence ‘It’s raining’?” (301)

“[I]f you shout “Slab!” you really mean: “Bring me a slab...Why should I not say: ‘When he says ‘Slab!’ he means ‘Slab!” Again, if you can mean ‘Bring me the slab”, why should you not be able to mean ‘Slab!”? (19)

Friday, August 28, 2009

Part 4b-ii(c). So How Would Wittgenstein Explain Mental Life? (continued)

(continued directly from the previous two posts)

Question c. If there isn't something deeper underlying our everyday use of language, why does it seem as though there is? And how can you explain consistencies and similarities in language use if not through deeper regularities?

First, why does it seem as though there is something deeper that underpins all language use? There are a number of possible answers. I’ll just mention a few of them here. [This piece overlaps somewhat with Part 2, with the primary difference being that here I’m looking only at ideas with a basis in Wittgenstein’s writings.]

1. We are misled by the superficial similarities between words that in fact function quite differently, so it seems as though their uses have much more in common than they actually do:

“Think of the tools in a tool-box: there is a hammer, pliers, a saw, a screw-driver, a rule, a glue-pot, glue, nails and screws.—The functions of words are as diverse as the functions of these objects… What confuses us is the uniform appearance of words when we hear them spoken or meet them in script and print. For their application is not presented to us so clearly. Especially when we are doing philosophy!” (11)

Upon examining those applications, which we can learn about only empirically (not through abstract philosophical reasoning) we find that there is in fact no single feature that is shared by all words or all aspects of language:

“Instead of producing something common to all that we call language, I am saying that these phenomena have no one thing in common which makes us use the same word for all, — but that they are related to one another in many different ways.” (65)

2. As we do philosophy, it can certainly seem as if we’re getting at something deeper.

Wittgenstein talks about how we can sometimes remove misunderstandings by “substituting one form of expression for another; this may be called an ‘analysis’ of our forms of expression, for the process is sometimes like one of taking a thing apart.” (90)

The problem comes when we assume that this sort of “analysis” accomplishes something much more profound than it can actually accomplish — penetrating to a deeper reality, rather than just rephrasing or rearranging words or ideas so that we can more easily understand them:

“[Q]uestions as to the essence of language, of propositions, of thought… see in the essence, not something that already lies open to view and that becomes surveyable by a rearrangement, but something that lies beneath the surface. Something that lies within, which we see when we look into the thing, and which an analysis digs out.” (92)

It can then appear as though if we could just continue that analysis to some logical conclusion, we would eventually hit bottom, coming across the ultimate meaning or basic form of a thought or expression:

“[I]t may come to look as if there were something like a final analysis of our forms of language, and so a single completely resolved form of every expression. That is, as if our usual forms of expression were, essentially, unanalyzed; as if there were something hidden in them that had to be brought to light.” (91)

3. Real language practices are messy — so if we assume there is a neat, ordered system somewhere, it’s natural to assume it lies somewhere deeper. Wittgenstein talks of the problems that arise when we see formal logic as a model for understanding language. Logic is not empirical, not concerned with specific behaviors and experiences: “Logical investigation… seeks to see to the bottom of things and is not meant to concern itself whether what actually happens is this or that.” (89) If we see language or meaning as something that must be highly pristine or ordered, like logic, it’s of concern that we can’t find evidence for that in everyday practices: “When we believe that we must find… order, must find the ideal, in our actual language, we become dissatisfied with what are ordinarily called ‘propositions’, ‘words’, ‘signs’.” (105) “The more narrowly we examine actual language, the sharper becomes the conflict between it and our requirement.” (107) Wittgenstein points out that this search for order or purity is based not observational evidence or data, but on a preconceived assumption: “[T]he crystalline purity of logic was, of course, not a result of investigation: it was a requirement.” If individuals operate with this assumption — seeking out the “crystalline purity” that they’re sure must exist and yet is not evident in our ordinary language practices — it’s no wonder they’ll look for it elsewhere, at some deeper level.

4. It may seem as though in order for different people to understand one another, they need to share something at a deep level.

Which brings us to the next question:

How can you explain consistencies and similarities in language use — essentially, the fact that we are able to understand each other — if not through something deeper that we all share?

For instance, how do you explain the fact that you and I can both understand the word “dog” without assuming that we both have a concept or representation “dog” in our brains?

Here again, I come back to the ideas of training and “forms of life” (as discussed in the last post). The necessary regularities and similarities exist not in our heads, but in the wider world. You and I can understand the word “dog” or “red” or “tree” — i.e., we can use and respond to the word in quite similar ways — because we live in the same sort of language community (even if we speak different languages, those languages are used to do similar types of things, including naming and describing objects) and the same physical environment (including dogs and trees and various red things, or at least pictures of those). Think of the training we get in these words as we’re growing up. If a child points to a flower and says “tree” (which could easily happen), someone will correct her and say “No, that’s a flower.” She’ll also be corrected if someone asks her what color grass is and she replies “red,” or asks what kind of animal says “woof” and she replies “cat.” To imagine that psychologically healthy, normally socialized individuals could grow to adulthood using these words in conflicting ways is just as odd as imagining they could wind up using the wrong end of a fork to eat their food or talk into the wrong end of a telephone. The external environment can do a great deal of the work that inner representations are brought in to accomplish.

I imagine to many readers this answer will seem unsatisfactory, as though it misses something critically important. I encourage you to give it a little more thought... and to keep reading...

Sunday, August 23, 2009

Part 4b-ii(b). So How Would Wittgenstein Explain Mental Life? (continued)

(continued directly from the previous post)

Question b: If understanding, knowing, believing, or intending something cannot be usefully explained as a purely mental state or process, how can these things be explained?

Here we can bring in Idea #3: Emphasis on not-purely-mental processes and/or systems rather than any individual entity (mental or otherwise). It is typical in the philosophy of mind to talk about understanding, knowing, beliefs, intentions, concepts, and the like as isolated entities — something you have (probably inside your brain). The idea is that in some deep sense, a particular concept really is a discrete network of neurons or type of neural activity; a particular belief really is a certain pattern of activation or state of the brain; and so forth.

Instead of being tied to something that you have, Wittgenstein relates understanding and knowing to what you can do, how you respond in particular situations. (Similarly with belief and intention, which I’ll address a bit later.) Here he relates that to knowing what a game is:

“What does it mean to know what a game is?... Isn’t my knowledge, my concept of a game, completely expressed in the explanations that I could give? That is, in my describing examples of various kinds of game; shewing how all sorts of other games can be constructed on the analogy of these; saying that I should scarcely include this or this among games; and so on.” (75)

In the context of the primitive language he imagines, he relates understanding to action:

“Don’t you understand the call ‘Slab!’ if you act on it in such-and-such a way?” (6)

Of course, this explanation of knowing and understanding gets us no closer to explaining behavior. We were trying to explain how someone could come to use particular words, and considering the start of an answer — the person understands the word. But if understanding a word entails no more than the ability to use that word, we are left with complete circularity: you’re able to use the word because you have the ability to use it.

Furthermore, it may seem that in order to explain what you can do, we still need to identify something that you have — that behaviors in specific situations (describing different games, responding to the call “Slab”, etc.) would only be possible if you had a particular internal thing (concept of game, mental representation of a slab, etc.). But that is an assumption, and one that Wittgenstein does not buy into (Idea #2: Lack of reliance on mental entities).

Instead, we can explain how a person has come to know and understand words (that is, to be able to speak, write, and/or respond to particular words in particular contexts) by referring to past processes — specifically, the interactions that human being has had in the world, related to those words.

Early in the Investigations, Wittgenstein comments that when a child learns to talk, “the teaching of language is not explanation, but training” (5). Explanation is a particular type of verbal activity that takes place between people who already have the background of a shared language behind them. For instance, once you and I share common language practices, you can point to an object and ask me what it is, and I can give you an explanation in response. This back-and-forth could not take place if both of us had not had extensive past “training” in language practices — involving pointing to things, naming things, asking questions, answering questions, describing the physical properties and uses of various objects, and so forth.

When Wittgenstein describes the primitive (“slab,” “block,” etc.) language, he says that “[t]he children are brought up to perform these actions, to use these words as they do so, and to react in this way to the words of others.” (6) This sort of training — learning to respond to certain stimuli (including the verbal or visual perception of words) by behaving in certain ways (including uttering words) — is a precondition to being able to use the language. Notice again the focus on doing something (developing the ability to respond skillfully), rather than having something (acquiring some entity that can later be retrieved).

When we neglect to consider all of that background training, it’s easy to think that “ostensive teaching of words” (pointing to things and saying what they are called) can, in and of itself, explain how a person learns the name for something. Wittgenstein mentions that ostensive teaching will play a significant role in the primitive language: “An important part of the training will consist in the teacher’s pointing to the objects, directing the child’s attention to them, and at the same time uttering a word; for instance, the word ‘slab’ as he points to that shape.” (6) However, that alone doesn't account for skillful use of that language. When someone is able to act appropriately in response to the call “Slab!”, he says, “[d]oubtless the ostensive teaching helped to bring this about; but only together with a particular training. With different training the same ostensive teaching of these words would have effected a quite different understanding.” (6)

Applying this idea to our own language, it’s easy to forget the years and years of language “training” (relevant, influential experiences) we have all had; training in interpersonal communication begins with the earliest interactions with caregivers, as infants get practice responding to another individual’s vocal sounds by making sounds of their own (and having those sounds responded to), and continues to develop throughout our lifespan (we learn to do many different things with language, engage in different forms of discourse, learn new categories of words, etc.).

Only in the context of an entire language community — where our use of words is inextricably entwined with our actions and perceptions within the wider physical and social world, and is shaped by lifetimes of experience — can we understand individual instances of word use: “[T]o imagine a language means to imagine a form of life.” (19) (The same is true of intentions: “An intention is embedded in its situation, in human customs and institutions.” (337). More on that later.) To put it a little differently: it is only after a history of past experiences speaking, hearing, writing, and/or reading words in a wide range of contexts (many of them social) that future word-related stimuli, such as being asked a question, will elicit the kinds of skillful, intelligible responses one would expect from an fluent speaker of a particular language.

This brings us to Idea #4: Lack of rigid boundaries between mind, body, and world. The processes that help explain our skillful use of words are not “mental” processes per se. Language training and experience involve highly complex interactions within an embodied organism (including the entire nervous system, vocal apparatus, and the rest of the physical body) and between that organism (person) and the rest of the world. There’s no way to understand them merely by looking inside the head. Wittgenstein advises us: “Try not to think of understanding as a ‘mental process’ at all. — For that is the expression which confuses you… In the sense in which there are processes (including mental processes) which are characteristic of understanding, understanding is not a mental process.” (154)

There is one more critical point that I want to mention before moving on. I expect this claim to be highly controversial and require a good deal of defense; I’ll state it just briefly here and discuss it in much greater detail in Part 6.

Here it is: An explanation that relies only on mental entities, mental processes, or conscious experiences cannot possibly explain how we use or understand language.

A few relevant quotes from Wittgenstein (which may or may not make more sense than they did when I mentioned them in the last post):

“We are trying to get hold of the mental process of understanding which seems to be hidden behind those coarser and therefore more readily visible accompaniments. But we do not succeed; or, rather, it does not get as far as a real attempt. For even supposing I had found something that happened in all those cases of understanding,— why should it be the understanding? And how can the process of understanding have been hidden, when I said ‘Now I understand’ because I understood?!” (153)

“[S]uppose that… I did remember a single sensation [connected with intending]; how have I the right to say that it is what I call the ‘intention’?”