Wittgenstein vs. Wittgenstein

We are pivoting in the course to the Investigations now. In our first discussion we went too far too fast – that is, we only discussed the first nine propositions, but couldn’t contain our desire to figure out all in one go what the relevance of language-games to sense-making was, and what the differences between the two books were. Impatience led to perplexity. We will try again today.

The Investigations does not always interpret the Tractatus charitably, or even correctly on its own terms. This is partly because of a significant change in direction. What §114 says about “Es verhält sich so und so” is more or less what the Tractatus wanted us to think about it, I think – with the result that we weren’t to affirm it, couldn’t even think it – it’s just another way of writing p, itself a formal concept – more nonsense. (“We make statements.”) But then nonetheless in §115 – “a picture held us captive.” The Tractatus wants to protest: “What picture? Didn’t you read the book? ‘Es verhält sich so und so’ isn’t a picture of anything!” Fair enough; but the picture of language’s working on which just this particular sort of use, assertion, is at the very heart of what we do in communication is now being reconceived as just one piece of a larger whole. (In fact, more than one piece, as what we call ‘asserting’ is not just one linguistic practice, not just one language-game.) The picture in the Tractatus is one on which asserting, describing, contesting, denying are the primary things we do with language, and other uses ones that will “take care of themselves.” (So that a command, say, might understood as a command to p, which in turn is perhaps analyzed in terms of commitment to the truth of a statements like “S performs x at t” and “S’s performance of x at t causes p to be the case at t + Δt,” so that “when fully logically analyzed” commands are “just” imperative-operators on propositions of the ordinary type – Wittgenstein never said anything like this, but one encounters this kind of thing fairly often in philosophy produced over the last half-century or so.) With that picture in place, and also in speech-contexts, language-games, where we are in fact communicating primarily in this manner, much of what Wittgenstein says in the Tractatus is presumably still all right, as far as it goes. But that picture is thought by the Investigations to be a substantial distortion in other contexts.

Moving on to §134 – “surely no one is going to call the letter “p” the general form of propositions” – actually, that’s more or less how I read “Es verhält sich so und so,” and I am somewhat inclined to think that Wittgenstein could have agreed in his Tractatus days. It’s ridiculous because it doesn’t communicate anything – and that’s the point – neither does “Es verhält sich so und so.” In §134 to §136 Wittgenstein is denying the author of the Tractatus the peculiar sort of erasure that overwrites the whole book.

“He explained his position to me, said that this was how things were, and that therefore he needed an advance.” If we interpret this as a meaningful utterance relative to the Tractatus, “this was how things were” means – the actual situation or position that He is in. “He went there” can be a perfectly good Tractarian sentence – it can be a logical picture of the facts – if it’s understood to mean say “Chris went to the Old Main Building.” (If it means anything in the Tractatus, it means something like that. On the other hand, it’s not clear that the Tractatus can handle “Is this really happening now?” as currently under discussion at http://languageisthingswedo.blogspot.com/2013/08/is-this-really-happening-now.html. If we view that question as a request for the truth-value of a proposition, it makes no sense – we gesture at a fact and so in effect assert p in order to ask the question “Is it the case that p?,” but the answer is presupposed in the way we set up question, which makes it in some sense a non-question. So if you agree with Lars that it has a perfectly good sense, there has to be something missing in the Tractatus.)

Wittgenstein though says something about the sentence that is impossible in Tractatus-land – “it is employed as a propositional schema.” There is no such employment in Tractatus-land. A person who knows what his position is puts that position into the sentence as a proposed reason to need money, and a person who doesn’t doesn’t understand the sentence, although he would know what kind of details to ask for concerning “his position” and “this was how things were” in an effort to try to give a meaning to the statement. “x is a black and white dog” is nonsense in the Tractatus, and so is a complex “proposition” which includes propositional variables among its constituents. It’s only the applicable utterance which has sense.

It’s true that if you treat our spoken languages as calculi then something like “E-s- -v-e-r-h-ä-l-t- -s-i-c-h- -s-o- -u-n-d- -s-o” – the spaces being an artificial device to indicate the combination of letters in question, say – could be regarded as a propositional variable, much as pronouns can be regarded as object variables. But in use a pronoun always means a particular person and an expression like “Es verhält sich so und so” always means a particular fact – or it means nothing. The variable structure of the word “his”, say, shows itself in that over here “his” means “Chris’”, over there it means “Greg’s,” etc. – the pronoun is made to take the place of a noun – it is a sign which can serve as more than one name, as it were. But as a symbol it just is one of those names naming one of those objects.

In Tractatus-land.

In the Investigations though Wittgenstein isn’t having any of this, except perhaps as a limit case in certain contexts. Rather, the discussion of “Es verhält sich so und so” in §134 to §136 is meant to undermine the idea that there is any one stable thing we mean when we talk about propositions. Is “Es verhält sich so und so” a proposition? Yes, it’s a German proposition, says Wittgenstein. But what does that mean? Well, not that it agrees or disagrees with reality. We use it as a propositional variable. It sounds like a sentence and we can plug it into complex sentences. It follows the rules of sentence formation in German. Wittgenstein doesn’t go this way in the discussion, but we might entertain a notion of ‘indeterminate reference’ – we assume that because money was asked for that there was something about the person’s situation that led him to ask for it, and if we decide it’s important we can look into it and see if that was the case and what it was, etc. You put it together with one set of propositions, it belongs, another, it doesn’t belong. Say what you like, as long as you see what the facts are.

Wittgenstein’s attention to the use of signs in the Investigations is actually baffling from the Tractarian point of view. “Maybe the author of the Investigations is right: language really is an assemblage of different uses in different contexts that don’t all work together, or that work together in some contexts and not in others, and as a result our terms are ambiguous, we get confused, etc. – so what? That’s just a matter of how we use signs. What matters is that you understand, and understanding is being able to see the symbol in the sign and know what it would be to apply that symbol to reality, no matter where it came from. The history might be of epistemological significance, might help us understand where different uses originate, but it’s surely not relevant to what a particular utterance means.”

How does the author of the Investigations respond to this? In different ways, but here’s one that’s useful, which comes up right at the beginning of the book. In what does ‘applying a proposition to reality’ consist? In the Tractatus it mostly consists of verifying and falsifying – checking to see if the thought and the fact match up. We do do this. But it is not what we usually do and often when we do do it it is at the service of, has a role to play in the context of, some other activity. The more usual sorts of application to reality are – we do something. We build something, go down on our knees to pray, play a game, kiss someone, try to predict the result of continuing to do what we are doing now, etc. Understanding in ordinary contexts is more a matter of knowing what to do than assigning a truth-value.

The reversal of perspective that the Investigations attempts is to try to deal with language primarily on these terms – in terms of the role it plays in our lives – and to contextualize and understand assertion and description within language understood in its “lived reality”, I guess, if we have to use terms like that. (It is hard for someone who’s read Heidegger not to think here of his claimed reversal of the customary dependence-relations between the thing as Vorhanden and the thing as Zuhanden, however.) The later Wittgenstein’s supposed “anthropologism,” “behaviorism,” “vulgar semantic Marxism,” etc. really just come to this – why don’t we think about meaning primarily in terms of the way language is involved in the ordering of our lives and activities, instead of primarily in terms of a kind of logical litmus paper held up to the world? There is no question of reductionism here, just of a different (and perhaps in many ways more perspicuous) way of thinking about language, and more particularly about certain kinds of philosophical problems that sometimes arise.

What’s involved in what we do are particular signs used in particular ways. We understand these – but understanding isn’t one thing any more. Sometimes it’s Tractatus-understanding, sometimes it’s do something understanding, sometimes it’s take a different perspective on the same facts understanding, sometimes it’s use-different-words-to-say-that understanding, sometimes it’s perceive the motive behind the action understanding – lots of different possibilities.

The language-games can in part be understood as tools of disambiguation. Sure, we can use the same bit of wood as a king in checkers and chess, but you shouldn’t think that you can’t move the chess king directly ahead for this reason.

I find myself unable to bring this post to a conclusion, but there are some interesting bits here, so I’ll go ahead and put it up.


3 comments on “Wittgenstein vs. Wittgenstein

  1. Interesting stuff. It’s certainly striking how short and cursory the discussion of propositional form is in the Investigations. As a result some have concluded that Wittgenstein had simply forgotten the intricate arguments that lay behind the statements in the Tractatus – or, at least, that he wasn’t being fair to his earlier work. But I think that misunderstands Wittgenstein’s concerns in the Investigations.

    I think the key is when you say (on behalf of Tractatus-Wittgenstein) “What matters is that you understand, and understanding is being able to see the symbol in the sign”. The idea of propositional form is bound up with the idea of truth-functionality – and that, in turn, seems to be given by the mere fact that the proposition pictures a possible state of affairs. What it pictures is its “sense” and understanding it is, therefore, grasping its sense (ie, having something like the picture in your mind). So understanding is a thing – a Something that we come to posses when we understand a proposition.

    Now, if you look at the Investigations, Wittgenstein spends remarkably little time on propositional form (134-137) but at 138 the text modulates into a very lengthy discussion of understanding which in turn leads on to rule-following (together they come to about 34 pages). There he argues that understanding is not any kind of inner “thing”; it is more akin to having an ability and is therefore logically bound up with performance (ie, use).

    You could put it like this: the real problem with the Tractarian theory of logical form is the assumption about understanding which lies behind it. The Tractatus is a brilliant attempt to work through the implications of various starting assumptions. In the Investigations, Wittgenstein is not much concerned with the “brilliant attempt” itself. It is the assumptions that are his real target.

  2. seancstidd says:

    Good to meet you! Good comments also. I’ll think out loud for a bit in response…

    In the Builders language-games and elsewhere, the emphasis is on how the words are woven into activities – that is their ‘sense’, as it were. Instead of “a word only has meaning in the context of a proposition” we might say “a word only has meaning in the context of a use” – where the “application to reality” of the Tractatus might be one kind of use, but there are many others, and in addition (as we already see in the Augustine discussion in 1 actually) the ‘saying how things are’ use even in our language is often subsidiary to various practical projects in which description, assertion, etc. are embedded.

    (I think here of the only engineering class I ever took, and Wittgenstein’s training as an engineer. The first problem set we did, the professor lazily said “here we can let infinity = 3”, because for practical purposes that was as far as you needed to take the series. A lot of students besides me were shocked by this, but that professor stuck to his guns. The general solution to the series had no application to reality in the engineering context, as it were.)

    So when you get to Investigations 23 the suggestion is something like: sense-making isn’t just this one thing I thought it was, here are all these different forms of it. The way a punch line fits a joke is a form of sense-making, for example, as is standing at attention in response to a Sergeant’s order.

    As in the Tractatus, sense-making is bedrock as it were; but now our understanding of sense-making is not exhausted by verification (in the broad sense) any more. For a large class of cases, rather, the sense of what we say is shown in how those words are woven into thought and action – what we do with our words and how we use them in the forms of life in which they have a home, etc. (In this paragraph I’m trying to weave together catchphrases and bits of jargon in a way which ties into something I think is actually going on. I’m not sure if that’s a wise approach or not.)

    Also as in the Tractatus there’s a sense in which that’s not doing anything except reminding us of what we already know and clearing up ambiguities, etc.

    But anyway, this ties right in to why the long discussion of rule-following would follow the shortish discussion of propositional form. Rules of conduct, response, etc., social patterns of behavior, would seem to be among the ‘logical forms’ that would ‘show themselves’ in language once we’ve shed the conviction that truth-functionality, ‘application to reality’ understood as something like descriptive correctness, etc. are the core of language.

    So you might try something like this: at a first approximation, what’s wrong with the Tractatus from the point of view of the Investigations is that it’s a special case presented as the whole story – it’s a theory of one kind of sense-making, one ivory tower in the corner of the palace of language as it were. But then as you go on in the Investigations and settle into the new picture, you realize that from within the ivory tower you weren’t even able to clearly perceive what it’s function was, and that in fact there are tunnels and intersections between it and the rest of the palace practically everywhere, and after a while it’s hard to see why you thought just that one corner of the palace had such a privileged position after all. (But it’s still something about that corner that people who sit in it develop such a strong conviction about its centrality – that conviction does not stem just from normal human egoism, although that contributes too of course.)

    It seems like attempts at Tractarian critiques of the Investigations might be a good way to get a better sense of what is going on in both books, though. The other direction is more natural, but also better trodden.

    I am still thinking through all this and am not sure where I stand with it. Thanks again for commenting!


  3. I think a Tractarian critique of the Investigations would be very interesting. And what you say about the Tractatus being just a part of the whole is fair enough, but I’d say the Investigations’ criticism runs a bit deeper than that. The Tractatus mistakes a part for the whole and builds a mythology on top of it. One of the things the Investigations does (or tries to do) is show that that impressive mythology is incoherent.

    Concerning the link between logical form and understanding, I put up a post on my Philosophical Investigations blog a while ago. For what it’s worth, it’s here: http://lwpi.blogspot.co.uk/2013/10/from-logical-form-to-understanding.html

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