Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Part 4b-i. Wittgenstein Was an Embodied Cognitive Scientist

The theme of Part 4 is that a variety of different disciplines provide compelling, non-representational (radical embodied) accounts of various aspects of mental life. For each one I examine, I’ll illustrate how it is characterized by the four interrelated factors listed below, and give a few examples of the types of explanations it can provide.
  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

I begin with the later works of Ludwig Wittgenstein, specifically his Philosophical Investigations. (The numbers I use as references refer to the various short sections of this publication.) The particular aspects of mental life I’ll refer to are:
  • understanding
  • knowledge
  • thought
  • intention/meaning (what one means by the words one uses)
Some of the Conceptions that Wittgenstein Challenges
The Investigations starts with a quotation from St. Augustine’s Confessions. Analyzing this quotation, Wittgenstein says, “These words, it seems to me, give us a particular picture of the essence of human language. It is this: the individual words in language name objects — sentences are combinations of such names.——In this picture of language we find the roots of the following idea: Every word has a meaning. This meaning is correlated with the word. It is the object for which the word stands.” (1)

He then proceeds to slowly but surely rip that “picture of language” (as well as its mother, father, sisters, brothers, and entire extended family of related ideas) to teeny, pathetic little shreds. He does this in his typical, rather indirect style, so I’ll give a very rough, terribly oversimplified summary here:

  • This kind of picture seems only to take into account a very limited subset of words (“you are, I believe, thinking primarily of nouns like ‘table,’ ‘chair,’ ‘bread,’ and of people’s names, and only secondarily of the names of certain actions and properties; and of the remaining kinds of word as something that will take care of itself” (1)). (This is fairly obvious.)
  • To give this picture the best possible chance of success, let’s come up with the most simplistic ("primitive") type of language we can imagine. We’ll leave out all the tricky types of words, and stick to very basic ones (words for a few simple objects like “slab” and “beam”; a few numbers; and "there" and "this"). Then at least we can get a sense of where this “every word has a meaning/words stand for objects” explanation is valid.
  • Boo-ya! In your face! Even in the simplest, most “primitive” cases you can imagine, when you really break it down, this conception does nothing to help us understand how people come to use words.
Here are a few of the related ideas that Wittgenstein goes on to challenge and, I believe, successfully defeats. (I’ll begin examining how he does this in the next few posts, saving the most compelling arguments for Part 6; the accompanying quotations with each idea below are meant to be merely thought-provoking, not self-explanatory):
  1. Words (or sentences, or other types of combinations of words) have fixed meanings, or correspond to fixed states or processes, that can be pinpointed or isolated — e.g., in particular parts of the brain, in some special relationship with an object, or in a particular type of mental image or experience. Those fixed meanings or correspondences can explain how we come to use words in specific situations.

    “Naming appears as a queer connexion of a word with an object.—And you really get such a queer connexion when the philosopher tries to bring out the relation between name and thing by staring at an object in front of him and repeating a name or even the word ‘this’ innumerable times… And here we may indeed fancy naming to be some remarkable act of mind, as it were a baptism of an object.” (38) [Note: I believe this characterization is supposed to illustrate the absurdity of what can happen when one gets caught up in philosophical modes of analysis; the image of a philosopher staring at something and repeating “this” again and again always cracks me up.]

  2. Understanding, knowing, believing, or intending something can be usefully explained as a purely mental state or process (something that can be isolated within the head at a particular time)

  3. “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’?" (646)

    “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)

  4. There is some deeper meaning underneath our mundane, everyday modes of expressing ourselves. If only we can analyze and get to the roots of our language, we can come up with what our words and expressions really mean.

    “[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)

    “Philosophy [of the sort Wittgenstein is engaging in] simply puts everything before us, and neither explains nor deduces everything. Since everything lies open to view there is nothing to explain. For what is hidden, for example, is of no interest to us.” (126)

    “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)

  5. Language is just a way of expressing meaning or thoughts or something else essentially internal that could exist independently of any language.

  6. “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)

    “[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)

    “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)
In the next post I'll move from this summary of negative observations (the ideas that Wittgenstein shows to be flawed) to a more positive account (what we can piece together about an account of mental life that Wittgenstein could actually agree with), and I'll tie that to the four factors I'm associating with embodied cognition.

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