Thinking Via Objects


Meaning and Grammar in the Philosophical Investigations

Wittgenstein’s Philosophical Investigations is a compressed version of The Blue and Brown Books with some differences. Meaning is bound up with experience in the latter while in the former the meaning of words has no experience content. What this means is perhaps Wittgenstein's most important concept; namely that at the time one utters a sentence the meaning intended is not felt as an experience at the time of utterance. Intention does not accompany action any more than thought accompanies speech. They happen simultaneously, and as such, are interdependent. A problem here arises with what he calls "the multiplicity of kinds of words and sentences." What happened here with speech and meaning will confuse the listener but not the teller. Each word is correlated with a meaning, he says, and the meaning is the object for which the word stands. In language training we hear words used repeatedly in their proper places in sentences and gradually learn what objects they signify; then we use them to express our own desires.

My two year old knows that our cat wears a collar and it was his natural association to call my necklace a collar as well. This was a thought process/connection he made which he wouldn't have made if he didn't know the word for the thing which goes around a neck. (Thought and speech are simultaneous.) Such a mistake is comprehensible, but what about when we try to make him (or any adult learning a new language) understand that red is a color and also what we do with books? Does he know by the expression we give to the word "Come!" that we want him to move over here by us? How can one word contain the meaning embodied in a sentence? The point is that we make our associations and take our meanings from the one who gives the language training.

Thinking, then, is something which doesn't happen until we are trained in the language from which the meaning springs. It is a process which takes place every time we learn a new word or are confronted with a new problem—so we better get it right! Linguistic training (language games) occurs through a process of ostensive defining but the situations in which definitions are applicable can always be variously interpreted.

Yet it is through just such training that meaning is explained—meaning is explained by use in ordinary language, hence there is no point in searching for shadowy meanings which are right there in ordinary use. The question we want to ask is how are they used? We know their meaning. The use may be harder to grasp than the meaning. When I point to the color red and my two year old says "blue!" he understands the meaning of the word (color) but he hasn't grasped its use. As Wittgenstein says (speech and thinking are simultaneous) neither to intend the definition in such-and-such a way or to interpret the definition in such-and-such a way stands for a process which accompanies the giving and the hearing of the definition. The use is the meaning. Wittgenstein, however, seems lost in placing too much emphases on meaning and not enough on use. He says that the feeling of connection we have when a teacher points to a shape and means that shape that the occurrence of the feelings is not sufficient to make the situation one of intending the shape. This is quite right, but I don't think it matters, unless of course my two year old is never able to grasp the use of the word red. The point Wittgenstein really wants to make about meaning is use through association since, as he says, words do not include special gestures, experiences, and nuances (the meaning and intending) which he thought they did in the Blue and Brown Books. He is very clear on the idea, in Part II, that thinking and speech are one and the same, so that the shadowy feeling of meaning something while we speak is not a process which happens by itself, as we want to think it does by asking the question about intending. Grammar may here take the place of meaning.

Wittgenstein is still very concerned with thought and language as a mirror of the world as he was in the Tractatus. He wants the propositions to fit the facts. But he does not seem to be looking for a hidden structure of logic in language as he did in the Tractatus. He knows in advance that it is there and that the logic may be discovered in ordinary use. In this way he has not given up on analysis. He speaks of language as a game, as if words were the pieces in a game of chess and we needed to be told how each one is used. The structure of words is established at the point of training. The problem is that in the training we can always imagine a case in which there might be a doubt as to how the rule should be applied, or as to whether we were applying the rule correctly. But Wittgenstein shows that there can never be a precise set of instructions with a fixed meaning; rather, meaning is decided by whether the concept is used successfully and by whether there is general agreement.

"It seems clear that where there is sense there must be perfect order—so there must be perfect order even in the vaguest sentence." This makes sense until you get a group of white apartheid leaders agreeing in a courtroom that 37 black prisoners committed suicide even though their bodies showed evidence of torture. That agreement could determine meaning sounds more like a psychological than a philosophical concept. Here, however, Wittgenstein establishes a differences between defining and identifying, as in the use of proper names without a fixed meaning. We are never asked what we understand by  apartheid, but who we mean by apartheid, and in answering, we are not defining, but identifying. This is how he gets around making proper names have a fixed meaning. We all agree that by apartheid we mean the white supremacy in South Africa, but apartheid doesn't define those people, it merely identifies them. Does this mean it could also identify something else?

Here I have fallen into the same trap Wittgenstein set in the Tractatus: "Philosophical problems arise when language goes on holiday." He insists that when we consider words in abstraction we miss their meaning, that they can only be understood as they are used, so he invents language-games to parallel their ordinary use. This is what he did in The Blue and Brown Books, but the conclusions he drew there are shadows of his conclusions in the Philosophical Investigations, for what was lacking there was a connection between language, thinking, use, and meaning. The essence of language is that we are able to think by identifying the objects in the world with signs and these processes cannot be separated. "'What is a word really?' is analogous to 'What is a piece in cheese?'" The problem of language is solved not by giving new information, he says, but by arranging, or rearranging, what we already know. The thought that language is something unique is a grammatical illusion.

The jogger who was raped and beaten in Central Park is planning to be a witness for the prosecution, yet she is suffering from complete amnesia. In other words, she can't jog her memory enough to remember that she was raped and beaten, even less, who her attackers were. The defense claims that her testimony is intended to inflame the jury. Presumably she will talk about her injuries. So the defense intends to ask her if she has ever seen the defendants before. If she hasn't, they will claim that the judge is in cahoots with the prosecution. What is interesting here is that the defense is not trying to make an abstract case out of what constitutes amnesia—they will simply ask her if she recognizes the defendants. Such a question amounts to a definition of the malady, a simple arrangement of what is already known, or "tracing round the frame through which we look at it."

What criteria do we use for knowing whether someone has understood the meaning of an expression? For example, I am teaching my two year old how to play ring-around-the-rosy. At first he needs me to show him how to do it every time, he cannot anticipate going around in a circle and falling down. Then suddenly he understands, he knows how to go on. What does it mean to know how to go on? Wittgenstein very brilliantly shows that this is determined by the use the person makes of the word. (Mastery of a technique.) "The grammar of the word 'knows' is closely related to that of 'can', 'is able to'. But also closely related to that of 'understands'." This is fine as long as use of the word corresponds to the other person's meaning. What if, as shown in the example of apartheid, the person doing the training has a warped sense of the meaning of the word? Wittgenstein doesn't concern himself with this problem. Perhaps this problem is psychological or ethical and not linguistic or philosophical. But the application of words are always applied with consequences, right or wrong. It really is a game of language when three white men in a courtroom are able to agree that murder will mean suicide.

He describes use of a word by application as something that happens in a flash, as it were, that "when you meant it your mind flew ahead and took all the steps [of application] before you physically arrived at this or that one." I know that my two year old understood ring-around-the-rosy not because he had a special insight about it's meaning and was able to go on (which he undoubtedly did), but because he continued the game appropriately. He became master of a technique. To obey the rules of ring-around-the-rosy is a custom, a use,  upon which we have all agreed. "To understand a sentence means to understand a language. To understand a language means to be master of a technique." Understanding the rules on one's own then does not require a new insight each time the game is played as it would seem to because the rules have already been understood and applied correctly. "Being able to go on" is characteristic of someone who is under the compulsion of a rule, and nothing else. When a technique is not applied correctly or cannot be remembered we say that the person hasn't learned the rules. Surely this is true because the sense of the rule must be determined by how it is used.

Someone who is under the compulsion of a rule is obeying rules agreed upon in common practice—it would seem impossible to obey a rule privately. Hence to think one is obeying a rule is not to obey a rule. In other words, obeying the rules of meaning and use means that these rules are present in the mind of the person at the time of playing, but that playing and rules happen at the same time. One may intend to play a game (have the rules in mind) and never play it, but the rules and the intention are still simultaneous processes. "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."

The Catholic Church jumped the gun on rules and intentions during the National Conference of Catholic Bishops. They barred a California Assembly woman from receiving communion and the drafters of the resolution and the bishops were immediately called upon to explain the possible interpretations of their language regarding a "pro-choice stand." The California Assembly woman (a Catholic) ha publicly taken a pro-choice stand on abortion. But what does that mean? Does it include moral approval of abortion? Refusal to restrict access to abortion legally? Support for Medicaid payments for certain abortions? The Catholic Church has long opposed abortion as murder except in select cases in which the pregnant woman is in danger. As it turned out, the bishops were not clear on what their abortion language actually meant when related to her "pro-choice" stand. In the debates which followed the bishops displayed ambiguity between their personal convictions and the rules of the Church, neither of which were clear. This is a stunning contemporary example of how meaning, use, rules, and intentions in language may become dangerously confused.

Wittgenstein's most important analysis of language may consist in his interpretation of thinking and speaking, that it is impossible that the two can happen independently. Most people accept the idea that animals and infants do not posses the sophisticated thinking power of adults, but no one is able to give an explanation for this. My baby begins to string words together, to make connections, to remember, to play by the rules—to think—essentially because his language is becoming more sophisticated. Before he knew the language he could only wriggle haphazardly and make reaction sounds to his body and environment. Learning a language is what enables us to think. Even intention is embedded in its situation, in human customs and institutions. Wittgenstein says that if the technique of the game of chess did not exist, I could not intend to play a game of chess. That I intend the construction of a sentence in advance is made possible by the fact that I speak the language. "One can only say something if one has learned to talk. Therefore in order to want to say something one must have mastered a language; and yet it is clear that one can want to speak without speaking. Just as one can want to dance without dancing. And when we think about this, we grasp the image of dancing." This interpretation very brilliantly equates the philosophical problem of thinking and language as one problem, which he solves.

Wittgenstein makes it clear, however, that one cannot have thoughts out of context. Having a thought is identified with the occurrence of certain outward and inward imagery as an occurrence in certain circumstances. In order to find out what circumstances are relevant one must establish the criteria used in ascribing thoughts to people. The criteria has something to do with conviction, as in the expression which accompanies a song when it is sung. "Sing this song with expression. And now don't sing it, but repeat its expression—And here one might actually repeat something. For example, motions of the body, slower and faster breathing. Only someone who is convinced can say that." He says that what constitutes thought here is not some process which has to accompany the words if they are not to be spoken without thought. What constitutes thought is its place in the general context of events. In this I think he is quite right. Try to date the occurrence of a thought out of context!

On solipsism, or private language, Wittgenstein believes that one's thoughts are hidden from another person only insofar as that person doesn't understand the spoken language, or when the person having the thoughts has not described them to someone. The reason for this is that the words of the language are supposed to refer to something known only to the private sensations of the person speaking. It seems to me that if other people are able to agree on the rules and play the language games that I play, that this is in and of itself the criteria for the existence of other minds. The assumption is that I associate words with sensations and use these names in descriptions, and that I fix my attention on a sensation and establish a private connection between a word and the sensation. But if we agree with Wittgenstein's idea that what constitutes thought is its place in the general context of events, then how could sensations be private, unknown to and not experienced by other minds? Describing one's thoughts to another person is what Wittgenstein calls "making a confession." He says that the criteria for the truth of the confession that I thought such-and-such are not the criteria for a true description of the process. And here he condenses a whole cloud of philosophy into a drop of grammar when he says that the importance of the true confession does not reside in its being a correct description of the private process. It resides rather in the special consequences which can be drawn from a confession whose truth is guaranteed by the special criteria of truthfulness. This is what is so important to his whole analysis: we must always remember that the confession is composed of words, and that is enough. The sense of a sentence is not a complex of experiences one has in hearing or saying it.

We use our judgement to determine when one is telling the truth, to determine meaning, intention, and the thinking which goes on in another person's mind. We use this judgement in every situation—in a court of law, in writing a thesis, in diagnosing an illness. Judgement is very much like agreement on the rules of certain language games. Wittgenstein says that there are also rules to making judgements, but they do not form a system, and only experienced people can apply them correctly. Dowsers are often heralded as being the only technicians who can find water. Do they find water by using a technique or a judgement? They are called the best judges of a water source. The most sophisticated people among us believe in their judgement. And what about police departments that use psychics to find missing children? Certainly their judgement is also, at least occasionally, reliable. Wittgenstein says that corrector prognoses will generally issue from the judgements of those with better knowledge of humankind. "Assuming that dreams can yield important information about the dreamer, what yielded the information would be truthful accounts of the dreams." Pete Rose, one might suppose, is an advocate of private language: he said they can't prove a negative, they can't prove what I didn't do. And yet the experts agreed, they made their judgement, and Pete Rose couldn't hide behind a wall of solipsism.

Imponderable evidence, Wittgenstein suggests, includes subtleties of glance, of gesture, of tone. Such evidence is what helped convict Diane Downs of shooting her children, and I might add, Lindee Chambers in Australia whose baby was snatched by a wild dingo. Appropriate or not, these are what constitute our thoughts in the context of events, and coupled with these subtleties is our proof of intention and truth.

Copyright 2012, Kathryn Kurtz, ©. This work is protected under the U.S. copyright laws. It may not be

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