Early and Late

Here are three principles which seem to remain constant between the Tractatus and the Investigations:

1. You can’t assess (language/thought) from a point of view outside (language/thought); anything you might (say/think) about (language/thought) can only be (said/thought) within (language/thought).

2. (Ordinary language/the propositions of natural science) are fine as they are, and do not stand in need of philosophical foundation or explanation.

3. Linguistic units only have meaning in the context of their significant use.

Here is a big difference:

4T: Significant uses present a picture of the facts.

4I: Significant uses connect words with actions. (“Meaning is use.”)

One magnificent illusion of the Tractatus, if it is that, is its claim that it has no doctrine of sense. Whatever sort of structures we find in our language, whatever pictures of the facts our language presents, are also logical pictures; and logical pictures are the only ones that matter for logic – that the proposition is true if things are the way it says they are (and not otherwise).

But the contrast between 4T and 4I, assuming there is no reconciliation, attacks that way of looking at things head on. If the viewpoint of 4I is tenable, then viewing significant use through the lens of ‘presenting a picture of the facts’ is in fact a doctrine of sense; and a highly distorting one, insofar as (a) there are many things we do with language besides presenting pictures of the facts and (b) when we do use language to present pictures of the facts, it is almost always the case that the facts are presented in particular ways for particular purposes, gaining their significance from the way they are woven into our lives and activities.

From the point of view of the Investigations the Tractatus is trying to build a house with nails and lumber alone, forgetting not only all the other tools you need, but even that you almost always need a hammer to pound the nails.

A few quick interpretative points about these principles:

(A) These are all in some sense debatable theses. I think Wittgenstein can be read as offering good arguments for all of them, albeit perhaps not final and completely decisive ones.

 (B) On the other hand, they are also all fundamental theses, and people are very unclear in general about how to debate fundamental theses. Deductive proof is in a sense off the table, since such a proof would undermine fundamentality, or else establish co-fundamentality with other theses which now would need the same kind of treatment. You are pretty much restricted to (a) showing people who believe that they are denying those theses that they run into some sort of absurdity or contradiction in trying to do so and (b) showing how the fundamental theses provide a satisfying organization of our thought and action (that is, holistic justification – alternately known by the titles “inference to the best explanation” and “affirming the consequent” – but it sometimes effects a kind of persuasion even so.)

Am I missing other options here?

Wittgenstein, quite aware of the problems with defending fundamental theses, deals with the difficulty in two ways. To use a quasi-Tarskian language for momentary convenience, in the Tractatus he primarily moves to the meta-level to illustrate structure at the object level, and then shows how his own move to the meta-level was illicit and in fact it self a form of the very nonsense he was trying to expose, so that his own claims and terminology are put under a certain kind of erasure (‘kicking away the ladder’). His approach in the Investigations, by contrast, is to start out with a (mostly tacit) acquiescence to ordinary use, and then to either (a) cut off attempted philosophical ascent to the meta-level at its base or (b) show how flimsy and parochial the roots and/or applications of such ascents are when they are presented as serious theories of and/or reforms of our everyday forms of understanding.

Philosophers sometimes feel when they read the Investigations that Wittgenstein is somehow ‘playing coy’ or ‘doesn’t have a real argument for his view,’ but it is in some ways more plausible to view Wittgenstein’s rhetorical performance in the later work as manifesting a certain kind of integrity, or honor. That is, since there can be no argument of the standard type for a fundamental thesis, he will not waste your time trying to offer you one; rather he will show you how competing fundamental theses fail, and then will put his view into practice and show you what it leads to.

(C) “So are Early Wittgenstein and Later Wittgenstein saying the same thing, or different things?” The overall views in the early and later work are starkly different. There are principles in common and formal points of contact on certain issues, but the overall conception of language and thought they present are not the same. If anyone ever inferred from the fact that principles of the form (1) – (3) are accepted early and late, or that the early and late work are both critical of something they call ‘philosophy’, etc., that there was a continuity of overall viewpoint, they were incorrect to do so. (I’m not sure anyone ever did so infer, but even so.)

I want to say: one should not, in general, infer from the fact that two philosophical systems accept the same principle that they are in anything more than superficial formal agreement with one another concerning that very principle. Even if the systems are constructed by the same philosopher.

(I am thinking here not only of Early and Later Wittgenstein, but also of Later Wittgenstein, Heidegger, and Dewey, specifically in relation to 4I and 4T above. It is true that something like the contrast between these principles figures importantly in all of their work; that that contrast is important to how they set their own work off from that of other thinkers of their time; and I would even agree that they are all reacting to something like the same “Crisis of Western Thought” that occurred after the turn of the last century and that there is a kind of significant negative agreement between them that contributes to the motivating spirit of all of their work. Nonetheless I do not see much in common between their overall views.)

(D) In my last post I said that I had some sympathy for the idea that something like descriptive adequacy, assessing the truth of propositions and the propositional structure of reality, was at least part of the foundation of language and thought.

The argument for that side of the issue, advanced against a Wittgensteinian, might go something like this: “Look! I fully grant that there are such forms of language as asking questions, giving orders, praying, and so on. And I admit that there may be operators (think of the developments in modal logic since Wittgenstein’s time!) which cannot be represented in what one might call ‘the descriptive logic of factual assertion’. But surely, anything we do at all that we characterize as meaningful involves some sort of attitudes towards something – the world or our own thoughts and feelings or both. And these attitudes themselves can’t be characterized without at least potentially descriptively adequate beliefs about that world and/or our self. So while what the early Wittgenstein calls ‘the propositions of natural science’ may not be exhaustive of all the resources of our language, they nonetheless are an indispensible part of every use. Even to go pick up a slab when someone says ‘slab’ involves representing something in my environment as the thing I must pick up in order to satisfy the order, right?”

Expressed more generally we might say that action springs from belief and desire, where beliefs are representational of the world. If that is right, it surely seems that the best case scenario for an Investigations-style interpretation of our language would involve the inclusion of a more Tractatus-style interpretation of it as an at least quasi-autonomous functioning subsystem.

I think the later Wittgenstein has a powerful defense against the type of move I indicated in the last two paragraphs. I’ll try to sketch it in another post soon.


Checking In

(1) There are lots of new things, half-written, that I want to post here. Updating this blog has been the next thing on my list of things to do for more than two weeks. I’ve been too busy.

(“How can that be? Either you have not been doing things, or your list of things to do is misnamed.” I would say neither: rather, grading papers, preparing classes, repainting the outdoor railings before winter and the bathroom before my father-in-law visits, taking care of departmental and family responsibilities, etc. has seized every spare moment. “Why are these things not on your list of things to do, then?” I suppose because they are conditions of maintenance for the kind of life I have, rather than free engagement with matters intellectual, spiritual, and cultural. My list has the things that I do when the conditions of my life permit this sort of engagement. “Then why don’t you simplify your life to minimize its conditions of maintenance, leaving more time for these things that you claim to value?” Good question.)

However, having had some time to reflect, I’ve decided that I really like doing this, so I think I’m in it for the long haul. I’m looking forward to continued discussion!

(2) A long time ago, I heard someone opine that teaching the Philosophical Investigations was “the worst way to introduce someone to Wittgenstein’s later philosophy.” Surely this was hyperbole, but having been teaching the book for a month now, I see the point of the remark.

The hard part of teaching the Investigations is that many of your students either won’t have had very much experience with philosophical problems or won’t happen to be currently exercised by the ones that actually show up in the stretch of text you’re reading. Whereas the methods depend in a certain way on actually being puzzled. You can’t be shown the way out of the fly-bottle if you’re not in it.

But explaining philosophical problems in a way which reaches people takes a lot of class time even when you’re successful, when you manage to get your students gripped at least a little bit by something that they may or may not have ever even considered before. So if you’re lucky, you get to that point – which would be the culmination of a very successful twenty to fifty minutes of an introductory class – and then you have to read Wittgenstein with them, and show them how Wittgenstein is trying to untangle the threads that led to you having that feeling of puzzlement, of being caught in the classic philosophical way between a set of jointly inconsistent claims that all seem plausible – to cut off the problem at (what Wittgenstein sees as) the root, rather than offering a more historically conventional denial or disambiguation of the claims.

Pivoting from motivating philosophical problems to difficult exegesis, without losing track of the philosophical problem that is animating the text you’re interpreting, is one of the most difficult bits of classroom gymnastics I’ve ever tried, and I don’t think I am often succeeding, despite the good group of students I am working with.

Having done all that successfully, one really ought to conclude the classroom discussion by assessing whether Wittgenstein’s really succeeded, whether you’re satisfied enough by his reminders and analogies and hypothetical language-games and intermediate cases to think that there really isn’t a problem there after all.

It is often more than I can do to carry such a line of thinking all the way through at all, let alone in the classroom, never mind bringing any students along with me.

It would be vastly better in some respects to start with a group of students, some of whom were genuinely philosophically puzzled about this or that, and just to apply Wittgenstein’s various methods to their puzzles, perhaps contrasting what this approach yields with the kind of resolution you might get from Plato, Aristotle, Hume, Kant, etc. when confronted with similar problems. This hypothetical group of students would have to be convinced that they were being taught about Wittgenstein though, if that was the class they had signed up for. So then you might, having given a preliminary ‘Wittgensteinian’ treatment of your students’ puzzlement directly in the classroom, without referring to Wittgenstein much at all, then go back to the Investigations, notebooks, edited collections, etc. and connect your discussion with things W said and wrote on the same or similar problems, wrapping things up by reflecting both on Wittgenstein and on the ‘therapy’ received.

Hopefully I get to teach this class again someday, and try something more closely resembling that approach.

(3) I have been having some nice exchanges in the comments – thank you! Philip Cartwright of the “Philosophical Investigations” blog (http://lwpi.blogspot.co.uk/) sent the following note:

“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.”

Agreed – I meant that remark more as a gateway into the reading of the Investigations for students coming to it for the first time out of the Tractatus.

This does bring us back to the issue of what stays the same, and what changes, between the Tractatus and the Investigations.

The simplest way I have hit on of expressing the difference is this. In both books, linguistic units only have meaning in the context of a significant linguistic performance; and in both books, there’s no ‘going outside language’ to solve the problems that arise within it. In the Tractatus, what it is to be significant is to be truth-functional, to be a ‘logical picture of the facts.’ In the Investigations, on the other hand, ‘meaning is use,’ which is to say that it is the way in which linguistic units are woven into our patterns of action and forms of life which shows their significance.

Perhaps in both approaches philosophy vanishes as nonsense. But what it is for philosophy to do that is completely different in the two cases – since there’s no ‘going outside language.’ The vanishing of philosophy in the Tractatus is more or less literal, as indicated in 6.53. Whereas in the Investigations, assertions of the philosophical type arise in different ways in different places, where people have gotten tangled up in the rules previously laid down, or where forms of speech are invented out of wholecloth and tacked onto the pre-existing whole, without some sort of ‘practical’ (is this the right word?) significance. But now you can’t just deal with the failure truth-functionally; what you have to do is remind people how the words are ordinarily used in the kind of life we have and show how the contradictions and theories we get into are ‘idle wheels’ (if that is what they are – there’s no guarantee that this approach will always work actually) relative to the work these linguistic units actually do in our lives.

So whereas the Tractarian interlocutor needs to be shown that she wants to say something that can’t be said, the interlocutor of the Philosophical Investigations needs to be shown that the linguistic innovations she is proposing don’t serve any purpose, and thus that what she wants to say needn’t be said, as it were. Different kinds of emptiness.

But then the point of this is to actually do it, or try it and see if it works. Even if the last three paragraphs are in some sense right, they don’t engage with any philosophical problems at all. They are at best the Wittgensteinian version of edifying nonsense.

(From a certain point in late childhood until a little after graduating college I sometimes pointed at things and said out loud “cow” or “grass” or “red octagonal sign” – an oddity of character – no-one except me thought I was making significant utterances. Nonetheless, the feeling that this kind of object-identification and description is absolutely basic to everything else is one I had, that a lot of people who go into philosophy and the sciences have, and it’s still not totally clear to me that there’s not something fundamental about life and thought both that isn’t revealed in this admittedly pragmatically truncated way of relating to our environment. I guess the therapy is still ongoing.)  

(4) It is, I suppose, to be held against Wittgenstein that so few philosophers have been persuaded by him after all this time. On the other hand, perhaps this much can be said in his favor: you meet more than a few philosophers who will say, “Well, what Wittgenstein says about (my area of research) is garbage of course, but he’s very insightful about (this other area I’ve thought about some but which isn’t my primary focus).” Neither reaction is decisive for anything fundamental, but both are interesting.

I still owe Lars Hertzberg (http://languageisthingswedo.blogspot.com/) a reply to his comment on my “Sense of a Proposition” post – that’s coming next (update: it’s done, you can follow the exchange here if you’re interested: https://w5800.wordpress.com/2013/10/16/the-sense-of-a-proposition/#comments ), and then on to finishing some of the new posts I mentioned at the beginning. Thanks to all of you who have stopped by to read – especially the small army that stopped by nine days ago when Mindscent (thank you especially!) mentioned the blog on reddit –  I hope you’ve enjoyed it.

More soon. εὖ πράττε.