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


  1. Well, you've accomplished one of your stated goals - I'll have to go back now and take a closer look at Wittgenstein.

    My main field of interest is consciousness/philosophy of mind, not cognitive science or epistemology per se. You say that representationalism is the reigning orthodoxy these days - I guess I'll take your word for it. Based on what you've said, I think I know what you mean by "representationalism" but your criticisms seem kind of broad - I can't help but wonder if some representationalists wouldn't object to your characterizations. Do you have any particular people in mind, who have clearly articulated the position you argue against?

    That said, I suspect that while you and I will disagree later, I think we agree a lot on meaning. I make my negative case here: . In particular, I think you and I rail against the same thing: what I call a naive Platonism among most epistemologists, an assumption that there is some grand, shimmering Meaning behind each term we use, and we humans, in our limited, imperfect way, can only grope our way toward that meaning. To me, the only interesting question, perhaps the only coherent question, about semantics is: what happens in our minds when we use terms? There are no invisible magic meaning rays that connect our use of a term with the thing it refers to. There is no answer (or at least, no God-given answer) to the question of whether XYZ is water (I pick on Kripke and Putnam). All language is folk language, all language is slang.


    How does your position avoid degenerating into black-box behaviorism, if you focus exclusively on observable usage? Kind of Dennett's heterophenomenology applied to language use. Eventually, if we map out the ways the brain deals with language, we will likely find that when I hear or use the term "dog", there is some data structure, or loose bundle of such structures, or situation-specific scripts, that a representationalist would be able to draw a circle around with a purple crayon and say "There! That's my "dog" concept, my "dog" meaning!" This will likely be true even if the boundaries are fuzzy, or membership in the bundle is constantly shifting. It seems as though you have stated your case in such a way that the bar is low for your opponents to declare victory.

    As to the stuff we might disagree about: What about all of my non-verbal thoughts? As I said, my main interest is mind and consciousness, and I consider the phenomenon of language to be a subset of that. I am of the what-is-it-like-to-see-red qualophilic crowd. Language is an insanely addictive game, far worse than Tetris (an aspect of language-as-a-game that I suspect Wittgenstein didn't cover), but it isn't the only game in town.

  2. John, thanks so much for your comments. A few responses...
    1 - Very happy you're inclined to look more at Wittgenstein.

    2 - You're right that my criticisms are extremely broad. This is partly sloppiness, which I hope to correct at some point, and partly an indication that I'm setting out to oppose so many people (probably most of mainstream philosophy).

    3. I did a very, very quick read-through of the link you sent. When I have more time I'm going to go through it much more thoroughly, but already I see a lot that I like in it:
    - I am in full agreement about there being no objective "real meaning," and really like the way you talk about that and about semantics in general.
    - Your discussion of the Twin Earth thought experiment is great too. If I understand what you mean, I agree that the question of whether XYZ is water is a sociological one, not a philosophical one. (I'm fond of the concept of empty questions, so that's how I'd tend to describe it... The question "Is it really water?" sounds as if it is picking out some substantive fact about reality, whether physical or metaphysical; however, if it has any sense at all, all this question can get at is how we use the word "water," or how we think the word "water" ought to be used.)
    - I'm also right with you on the "content of thoughts" issue. Particularly your comment: "I have thoughts, that is all. As far as I can tell, I have no separate 'contents' of those thoughts." Well said.
    - Nice discussion of "turning out," and of vagueness and precision and ambiguity. Assuming I'm reading your arguments correctly, you'd find much to agree with in Wittgenstein. Even your mode of reasoning bears some similarity to his. I was reminded of section 60 of the Investigations: "When I say: 'My broom is in the corner',—is this really a statement about the broomstick and the brush? Well, it could at any rate be replaced by a statement giving the position of the stick and the position of the brush. And this statement is surely a further analysed form of the first one—But why do I call it 'further analysed'?....does someone who says that the broom is in the corner really mean: the broomstick is there, and so is the brush, and the broomstick is fixed in the brush?—If we were to ask anyone if he meant this he would probably say that he had not thought specially of the broomstick or specially of the brush at all. And that would be the right answer, for he meant to speak neither of the stick or of the brush in particular." And so on.

    4. Now, as to where we disagree... which is fascinating because there is so much we agree on. I think we agree that there is no objective, fixed grounding for meaning in the external world, or in some abstract metaphysical reality. It sounds to me as if you are still wanting to ground it *somewhere*, and you're thinking that where it gets grounded or fixed is in consciousness, subjective experience -- something internal. That's where I disagree -- strongly -- and where I believe Wittgenstein disagrees as well. That's probably a longer conversation, which may have to be in person. But I'm optimistic that this could be a productive conversation; at least we won't have to waste time trying to convince each other about those alternative ideas of meaning that we both agree are incoherent.

  3. (continued)
    5. I hope by the time this blog is completed it will do more to counteract the "black-box behaviorism" charge. Your concern with that issue is actually a good indication that you understand what I'm saying; it's something Wittgenstein needed to address as well. Again, from the Investigations, page 307: "'Are you not really a behaviourist in disguise? Aren't you at bottom really saying that everything except human behaviour is a fiction?—If I do speak of a fiction, then it is of a grammatical fiction." It can easily sound as if Wittgenstein was (and I am) denying the existence or importance of first-person experience and consciousness and pain and redness and so on. Again, this might take an in-person discussion to clarify. At the very least it will have to come later in the blog. Very tricky issue. Oh, but I can say I do not agree with your guess that there is something in our brains that corresponds to the concept "dog." Indeed I am setting the bar low for my opponents, and high for myself. This gets back to point (2) -- make no mistake; what I'm saying is radical.

    6. What you're calling "non-verbal thoughts" I'd probably just call experiences... and again, to get at all that -- consciousness, etc. -- would take more space and time than I have here. But it's coming, I promise. If only the rest of the world could agree with the rest of what I'm saying as much as you seem to, I could skip right ahead to that right now!

  4. OK, leaving aside for the moment all the redness of red and qualia stuff . . . People use the term "meaning" in their lives. To say it does not exist, you have to say why people use the term. I generally think it is a dangerous thing when people use computer terms to describe minds, but here goes: the brain is a tricky thing. Presumably, as we learn more about how it does what it does, there will be patterns we find in it, even data structures - ways we store and manipulate facts, memories, generalities that we can apply to individual situations, etc. However these things are implemented in the brain, whatever form they take (hardwired neuronal assemblies? activation patters of clusters of neurons?) why couldn't someone just say "There - that one is the meaning of 'dog'". We are almost there already. We've all seen the color coded MRI brain slices in magazines like Scientific American, with some parts lighting up red when the subject is thinking about chocolate, for instance. The more we find out, the more specific scientists will be able to be in terms of figuring out exactly what data structures or patterns of activity are involved in my thinking and talking about dogs. Without running afoul of my accusations of Platonism about meaning, couldn't investigators just say that the meaning of "dog" JUST IS the brain activity and/or data structures? I'd probably still argue with people about qualia and stuff like that, but I'd be happy that they had put meaning back in the head where it belongs. You wouldn't be happy though. I don't quite see why not, but more important, what would you say to them? Are you claiming now that scientists simply won't find any single data structure or collection of such structures, or pattern of activity or anything specific enough for them to feel comfortable calling the doggy part of my brain? That's a long shot, empirically, since as I say, we are closeish already.

  5. You’re raising a really important issue here, and it’s one that comes up with Wittgenstein too. It can seem as though I am making an a priori claim about what science will or will not discover — which would be a rather foolish, antiscientific thing to do. For an explanation of how Wittgenstein is not doing that (which also applies to what I’m trying to do here), I recommend Goldfarb’s article “Wittgenstein, Mind, and Scientism” at

    I’ll take a preliminary shot at my own explanation. I am not stating that scientists will not find a single neuron, or group of neurons, or more general pattern of activity that always lights up in my brain when I think or say the word “dog.” That would be an a priori empirical claim. Maybe there IS one neuron, group, or pattern that always lights up in every conceivable instance — hear, say, or read the word “dog,” see a real dog or a picture of a dog, hear a dog barking, even taste a hot dog… However, I see no reason to expect that there is, and I don’t see how finding such a thing would add anything significant to our understanding of how we come to use and respond to the word “dog” or respond to real dogs or other dog-related things.

    I don’t see how such an entity could possibly do the explanatory work that it’s meant to do. Once we look at our actual practices, I think it becomes clear that such a thing fails miserably at explaining the very thing it is being invoked to explain (how we do what we do).

    So someone points to a dog, asks me what it is, and I look at it and say “a dog.” Now maybe we can say, I look at it and the dog neuron fires, and then I say “a dog.” How is this particularly helpful? The only difference is, instead of having to explain how visual and auditory stimuli (hearing a question, seeing a dog) can lead to a verbal response (“a dog”), we need to explain how those visual and auditory stimuli can lead to a particular neuron firing, and then how the firing of that particular neuron leads to the verbal response.

    Why do we need that particular neuron in there anyway? What purpose is it serving? What makes you (and almost everyone else) assume that there must be something in there, in our heads, that corresponds to each individual word? I think the burden of proof is on you, not me. You can’t see why I think there won’t be something isolated in our brains that relates to a word. I ask you to explain why you think there will be.

    I'll be saying a lot more about this in later posts, and making much more sophisticated (and hopefully more convincing) arguments than this, but it's good to get a start on the issue now. Thanks again for keeping up the dialogue.

  6. Oh, and also, I am not saying that meaning does not exist, or that it is an illusion. It just doesn't exist in the way in which you imagine it to exist -- as an isolatable *thing*. Surely words have meanings, and we can mean things by what we say and do. I am not denying that. It's only when we start to try to make those statements (e.g., words have meanings; I mean things with my words) into philosophical claims that we run into trouble.