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)

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