Wednesday, August 01, 2018

Wittgenstein's Philosophical Investigations 1

Over the next few weeks I hope to work through Ludwig Wittgenstein's Philosophical Investigations. I know its key ideas. They have deeply impacted my hermeneutics. I recently read a biography of Wittgenstein and I deeply resonated with his sense that a lot of debates result from hermeneutical confusion.

This is certainly true of the Bible. Why are there so many disagreements among Christians over the meaning of the Bible? It's because the overwhelming majority of readers have no sense at all how to read it in context, so they read it in the light of countless differing language games that are foreign to the texts.

Philosophical Investigations
Ludwig Wittgenstein (1889-1951) was an Austrian born philosopher who taught at Cambridge during his philosophical career. An extreme perfectionist, he published very little during his lifetime, yet was regarded as the most influential philosopher of his day. Most of his thought had to be published after his death, and he spent considerable time with some of his favorite proteges with a view to later publication.

The most important of these posthumous publications was his Philosophical Investigations. This work consists of two main parts. Part I is a series of numbered paragraphs or collections of paragraphs. These mainly concern his philosophy of language and meaning. Part I is largely as Wittgenstein wanted it, although he was perhaps only completely satisfied with the first 188 items. Part I was completed in 1945.

Part II is a less well-ordered collection of fourteen sections on the philosophy of psychology. Although he had originally planned for the second Part to be on the philosophy of mathematics, from 1946 to 1949 he became much more interested in the philosophy of psychology. The further one goes in this material, the more editorial work was required by his translator, G. E. M. Anscombe. Anscombe was a professor at Oxford, and Wittgenstein spent a good deal of time with her in expectation that she would later bring his work to publication. He spent some of his final days in her home.

Part I
The first 188 paragraphs of Part I reached their current form in 1938. They are the part of the Philosophical Investigations with whose form Wittgenstein was most pleased.

1. Wittgenstein begins with a quote from Augustine's Confessions in which he sees Augustine presenting a picture theory of language. Words name objects. "Every word has a meaning."

Someone goes to the store with a slip that says, "five red apples." The storekeeper finds a drawer that says apples. Looks at a chart with colors and matches certain apples with the color. He counts to five as he removes apples. But where did these meanings come from?

2. Wittgenstein calls this a "primitive idea of the way language functions." He suggests a complete primitive language of four words where, for example, one person says, "block," and another then brings a block.

3. So Augustine describes something real, but actually very limited.

4. This sense of language is as over-simplified as if the only purpose of a word was the pronunciation of that word.

5. A child may learn some language this way--as training. But it is not really explanation. It presents a rather foggy sense of language.

6. Let us say a child is learning the language of #2 above. A teacher points to a slab and says "slab." This "ostensive teaching of words" creates an association between the word and the thing, perhaps a picture in the mind that emerges with the word. But in #2, this is not the purpose of the word or really the real meaning of the word, which is to bring a slab, not give the name of an object called a slab.

7. So learning the name of the object is a step toward #2. We imagine a game, a "language game," in which someone points to the object and a child says, "slab." It is a kind of primitive language.

Here Wittgenstein has introduced one of his key concepts, the "language game." A language game is the whole set of the words and the uses to which they are put, here one person pointing at something and the other person saying its name.

8. Wittgenstein expands the language in #2. We have four words that refer to four things. Now we add a, b, c, and d, which stand for numbers. We add "there" and "this." And we add samples of colors to which a person can point.

So a person says something like "d - slab - there," points to a color and points to a place on the work site. The other person gets 4 slabs of that color and takes them to the place to which the first person pointed.

9. What does a child need to learn when learning this language game? One is the numerical meaning of a, b, c, d. But the meaning of "there" and "this" in this language game can only be taught while using those words.

10. Key point. The meaning of these words is really in the use they have. This use is what they truly signify. In this language game, the meaning of "slab" does not reduce merely to the name of the object but involves what you are to do with it. The kind of referring is more than just naming the object. And the use of the letters a, b, c, d is a different kind of use than than the objects "block," "slab," "pillar," "beam."

11. He uses the analogy of a toolbox with a number of tools. The use of each tool is far bigger than just the name of the tool. The word hammer looks the same although you can use it to hammer a nail or prop up a book or countless other things. The functions of words are as diverse as the functions of tools in a toolbox, even though each only has one name.

12, You could have several handles in a train. They are all called "handle" but do different things.

13. So to say, "Every word signifies something," does not really say much of anything. We have to distinguish each use of the word from its other uses to know what it signifies on any one occasion.

14. You can try to generalize the meaning of a word, but this venture typically ends up fairly artificial or abstract: "All tools modify something." What does a ruler modify? Our knowledge of how long something is?

15. "Naming is something like attaching a label to a thing." The word "to signify" is easy to understand in such cases.

16. What about the colors in #8 above--are they part of the language? They were not spoken but pointed to. It would seem they are. So language is more than spoken or written words.

If I say, "Pronounce the word the," the second "the" is part of our language game even though its sole purpose is to give the sound someone is to say. It doesn't point to anything or signify anything here other than a sound to say.

17. So in the language game of #8 there are different kinds of word. Those different categories depend on what we are using them for.

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