Sunday, August 23, 2009

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

In the previous post, I laid out several ideas that Wittgenstein challenges, explaining what I take him to be saying in a negative sense (what is not true about mental life). Here I’ll give just a brief summary of those points, together with the questions that they invite about a possible positive account (what we can then say about mental life):

a. Words (or combinations of words) don’t have fixed meanings or correspond to fixed states or processes.
Well, then, how do we come to use them?

b. Understanding, knowing, believing, or intending something cannot be usefully explained as a purely mental state or process.
Then how can any of those things be explained?

c. It is not true that there is something deeper underlying our everyday use of language, which we need to engage in philosophical analysis to uncover. Why, then, does it seem as though there is? And how can you explain consistencies and similarities in language use if not through deeper regularities?

d. Language is not just a way of expressing meaning or thoughts or something else essentially internal that could exist independently of any language. What, then, is our language expressing? What is the relationship between language and thought?

In the course of answering these questions, I’m going to keep referring back to the four ideas I’ve identified as common to many non-representational viewpoints. I hesitate to call them principles, much less theses, so I’ll just stick with calling them ideas for now:

  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

Question a: How can you explain how we come to use words, if not by referring to fixed meanings, fixed mental states or processes, or some other stable factor?

If you’re looking at context-independent capacities, this sounds like a single question you’d need to investigate with philosophical analysis. You’d come up with one generic account of meaning and usage that applies to all words. However, as soon as you shift your focus to specific behaviors and experiences (as in Idea #1), this becomes a series of questions you’d need to investigate empirically, looking at what actually happens in particular situations. For instance, instead of asking how we come to use words generally, we would ask how we come to use the word “this” or “dog” or “red” or any other individual word. To do this, we would have to look at the particular details of how that word is used in our language, what specific things people do with that word, how they respond to it in various contexts, etc.

Wittgenstein redirects our attention from philosophical analysis to empirical inquiry:

“What is the relation between name and thing named?” [a typical abstract philosophical question] “Well, what is it? Look at language-game (2) or at another one: there you can see the sort of thing this relation consists in. [Note: language-game (2) refers to the “primitive” language of slabs, beams, and so forth, as referenced in the previous post.] This relation may also consist, among many other things, in the fact that hearing the name calls before our mind the picture of what is being named; and it also consists, among other things, in the name’s being written on the thing named or being pronounced when that thing is pointed at.” (37)

This is not simply a statement of preference; Wittgenstein is not just saying that it’s possible to learn about meaning by examining what happens in specific cases, or that it’s valuable to do so. He’s saying that this is the only way to understand the meaning and use of words. The alternative — abstract theorizing detached from particular instances — does not give us the answers we seek:
“One cannot guess how a word functions. One has to look at its use and learn from that.” (350)

This is just as true for words that seem to have deep abstract or metaphysical significance as it is for seemingly more ordinary or concrete terms like chair or book or potato pancake:

“When philosophers use a word — ‘knowledge’, ‘being’, ‘object’, ‘I’, ‘proposition’, ‘name’— and try to grasp the essence of the thing one must always ask oneself: is the word ever actually used in this way in the language-game which is its original home?” (116)

After we shift our focus to what actually happens in particular situations, the question remains of how those things come to happen. How does it come to be that hearing a particular name “calls before our mind the picture of what is being named”? Or that a certain name is “pronounced when that thing is pointed at”? How do human beings come to speak, write, and respond to the words “this” or “dog” or “red” (or “I” or “knowledge” etc.) in different contexts?

This is directly tied in with the issue of understanding. For instance: if we want to explain how, when I hear the word “dog,” an image of a dog comes before my mind, or I am able to point to a picture of a dog, we might start by saying that I understand the word “dog” or know what “dog” means. Therefore, exploring the answer to Question b will help flesh out the answer to Question a. On to the next post...

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