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’?”

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