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...

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