Sunday, September 20, 2009

Digression: Seeds of Wittgenstein, Watts, and Alexander (transition)

I have promised to relate my comments in the last post about walking to the topic of meaning, or understanding. Before doing that in depth, I would like to provide a quick analogy based on a recent critique given as a comment to an earlier post.

It can sound as if I'm arguing that meaning (and by extension understanding, knowledge, etc.) doesn't exist. Wittgenstein has been accused of making similar claims. This perception is understandable, but misses the point of what I'm trying to do. I am attempting (based on Wittgenstein's work) to question the whole idea of what it is to say that meaning exists, or is real, or not. I hope that an analogy to walking will help make this clearer.

Suppose someone asks, "Is meaning real?" or "Does meaning exist?" To answer "No" would seem to be to deny the obvious. Of course words have meanings; of course we mean things by what we say; of course when I'm talking about something I (at least usually) know what I mean.

However, in the context of philosophy, answering "Yes" seems to commit us to a particular, misleading picture about language and the way words function. It seems as though we could pin down exactly what meaning is, where meaning resides, how meaning is determined, as if meaning were some sort of thing. (Or at least, as if particular meanings — e.g., the meaning/concept/knowledge of the word "dog" — were things.) The simple, commonplace notion that the idea of meaning has some sense to it gets blown up into a metaphysical or epistemological claim.

Now consider an analogy to walking. I ask you, is walking real? Does walking exist? Well, of course walking happens. People really do walk. In fact, I personally am quite sure that I walk all the time. Should you ask me at any given time whether I am in fact walking, I would be able to answer with certainty. I think I can safely guess that you share the same experience.

So far so good. The problems start only if we go further and try to understand walking as an isolated thing. When I walk, where does the walking reside? I do not possess a discrete, self-contained computational program for walking, so that when it is running I am walking and when it is idle I am not. It's impossible to pinpoint the exact moment when I learned to walk. (See the previous post.) Moreover, when I walk now it's impossible to say precisely when the walking begins and when it ends. And you can't just look at the movement of my legs to define the walking process, since in different contexts those same movements wouldn't constitute walking at all (say, if I were floating on my back in a swimming pool). The closer we look at the phenomenon of walking, the more we see that the idea of its being an isolated thing is incoherent.

In talking about a sensation, Wittgenstein comments "It is not a something but it is not a nothing either!" (Philosophical Investigations, section 304). We could say the same thing about walking — as well as about meaning, or knowing, or understanding.

I believe Alva Noë is making a similar point when he compares consciousness to a dance. He argues against the conception of experience as something that happens solely inside our heads, or even inside our bodies as a whole. "Our ability to dance depends on all sorts of things going on inside of us," he points out, "but that we are dancing is fundamentally an attunement to the world around us." Likewise, he encourages us to consider that "seeing, hearing, thinking, and feeling… isn't something going on inside of you, but is something you do." (Two interviews with Noë on this and related topics can be accessed here: Interview 1, Interview 2. These excerpts are taken from the first one.)

The same is true with meaning and knowing and understanding. Yes, we human beings do mean, and know, and understand. But these are things that we do, ongoing processes we engage in — not things that we have or states we are in. Furthermore, we do not engage in these activities in isolation. In any given instance, the specific actions or experiences associated with walking or dancing or meaning or understanding (the particular movements of our legs, thoughts that come to our mind, things we say, or other actions we take) only constitute walking or dancing or meaning or understanding given many other features of the larger, social-cultural-environmental-lingustic-etc. context.

I'm guessing it's that last part, about the context, that will be least clear to everyone. I hope to do it justice in the next post.