Philosophy as Good for Nothing: A Manifesto

1. “What is philosophy?”— What kind of question is that? I’ve long found it fascinating and of huge importance that, “What is philosophy?” is itself a philosophical question. This is not the same for other fields. That is, “What is science?” is not a scientific question. Perhaps if it is read as asking, “What do people called ‘scientists’ do?” it could be read as an empirical question, though that is not enough to make it scientific. I take the questions, “What is philosophy?” and “What is science?” to be asking about how we should think of them, which may or may not correspond to how anyone actually does think of them. This is not to say that there is a single correct answer to either question, though that in itself is controversial. However, if Wittgenstein’s denial of essences and his alternative picture of family resemblance has a place anywhere, I’d say it is here, with how we should conceive of philosophy (and most likely science).

As Wittgenstein realized, this could be seen as “taking the easy way out,” as it might seem to avoid the hard work of figuring out that one thing that philosophy is supposed to be. However, while I want to put forward a certain conception of philosophy—write its manifesto—without taking that to mean it is the only way philosophy should be conceived or pursued this does not mean that just anything goes. Much less that things will be easy. It is a potentially misleading analogy, but just as the possibility of a variety of legitimate interpretations of a poem does not mean that just any interpretation is of value, so with philosophy: not just anything will do.

2. There are many ways one can divide up the (meta-) philosophical terrain. A distinction that is vital for my purpose here is that between conceptions of philosophy that see it as something that could or should be brought to an end (at least in theory) and conceptions of philosophy that do not see it as something that could or should be brought to an end (theoretically or no). There are a variety of ways one might conceive of philosophy as “endable.” For example, in a well-known passage from 1931, Wittgenstein writes:

People say again and again that philosophy doesn’t really progress, that we are still occupied with the same philosophical problems as were the Greeks. But the people who say this don’t understand why it has to be so. It is because our language has remained the same and keeps seducing us into asking the same questions. (Culture and Value, Tran. Winch, 16)

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Not So Single-Pointed Philosophical Activity

Meditation, particularly in the tradition of Dōgen, is the paradigm for single-pointed activity. Whether you follow your breath or “just sit,” openly aware of the present moment in its entirety, Dōgen makes clear that you are not to judge whatever arises as good or bad. And when thoughts, images, desires, etc., arise, you let them go and return to the “object” of meditation. In so doing you are contributing to the re-habituation of your mind, getting “better” at letting go of everything that tries to pull you out of awareness of the present moment, letting go of judgments of good/bad, and thereby establish a foundationless foundation of calm in the ever fluxing and flowing waters of experience.

I want to leave aside issues here having to do with the sitting just-to-sit and not sitting so-as-to-achieve-a-future-enlightenment-experience. Rather, I’d like to continue with the theme of my earlier piece on single-pointed activity. That is, leaving aside the problematic nature of speaking of progress in the context of Dōgen’s Zen, the assumption behind continued, regular meditation practice seems to me to be that the more you do it, the better you will become at being present and letting go of what arises, letting go of habitual patterns of judging everything moment to moment in terms of its pleasantness, etc. In other words, the longer you do it, the calmer your mind will become, the less often thoughts will come up unbidden, until there is just the moment in all of its transitory, interdependent oneness.

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Thoughts on “Private Language” and Natural Expressions

I like a look of agony,
Because I know it’s true;
Men do not sham convulsion
Nor simulate a throe.

The eyes glaze once, and that is death.
Impossible to feign
The beads upon the forehead
By homely anguish strung.

(Emily Dickinson)

An important part of seeing what Wittgenstein is up to is to recognize that his starting point when “doing philosophy” is that there are all of these phenomena of life:  we talk meaningfully about dreams, the future, sensations, chairs, music, numbers, good and bad; we follow rules; we recognize the feelings of others, though sometimes people are good at hiding them; and much, much more.  We succeed in doing all of these things.

We are tempted to say “How is all of that possible?”

We then hypothesize things like intentionality of the mind, hidden mechanisms underlying meaning, reference, and feeling, and much more—ways of trying to explain how all the other stuff is possible, how it works.

Wittgenstein wants to expose the limitations of many of these theories and their pictures.  He employs various methods, e.g., the method of §2 mentioned in §48 of PI (all section references are to PI unless otherwise noted).  Part of that method, I think, is the trying out of what it would mean if X were true.  So, e.g., what if sensations were really private in the super strong sense of §243?

Since our sensation talk is intimately connected with sensation/feeling behavior (groaning, sighing, smiling, laughing, wincing, etc.), and it is through such behavior that we often know others are in pain (or happy, sad, bored, etc.), then a private sensation language would have to be one without sensation behavior (as Wittgenstein says in §256).

Part of what is going on with the consideration of a private language is that Wittgenstein wants to reorient us so that we see the vital importance that our natural expressions of feeling/sensations play in language’s being meaningful.  What are some examples of natural expressions?

Think of the behaviors and the appearances of the body/face when we feel:  tired, angry, happy, surprised, joyous, nauseous, annoyed, ill, wired, distant, etc.

Now let us consider a case that might show the importance of the natural expressions of feeling/sensations.  What if there were beings who had no natural expressions of feeling, who didn’t do or have any of the behaviors and appearances characteristic of the feelings mentioned above?

Can we really imagine the lives of such beings?

What would their language be like?  Could they talk about their feelings and sensations?

We can perhaps imagine them talking about having physical objects, e.g., books, clothes, etc., in their possession and they could describe their properties.

Would they still avoid fire with quick movements backward?

Couldn’t one move away quickly from a fire and another ask why he is doing that?  What could the other one say?  “When my hand is in the fire I have something—something like I have when I smash my thumb under a rock.”  Couldn’t the other reply:  “Ah, I also have similar things when my hand is in the fire and when my thumb is smashed by a rock.”  “Well, let’s call what we are both having in these cases ‘pain’”?

Isn’t the above possible?  Well consider:  with what right can we say of two such beings that they really have the same sensation when their hands are in the fire?

Well, they both back away from the fire and avoid smashing their thumbs.

But what if one did those things because of pain and the other because they cause too intense a sensation of pleasure (worse than being tickled say)?

But wouldn’t the difference come out somewhere?  One remarks that the hand in the fire gives him too much of what he has during sex.  The other says “What do you mean?  They are nothing alike!”  (And we couldn’t say that the one who says sex and fire give different things might possibly be feeling pain instead of pleasure during sex, since he doesn’t avoid sex.)

But can they properly speak of “like” and “unlike” things here?

Well they presumably take these concepts of “like” and “unlike” from their experiences of talking about physical objects—so why not give them “like” and “unlike” for what they have “on the inside”?

Perhaps part of the problem with the above line of thought is that we didn’t count the behaviors of avoidance and fleeing, and preference and embracing as natural expressions of feeling/sensations, but we should have.

So what about beings who have absolutely no behaviors or appearances that express feelings/sensations or that could mark differences of feeling, sensations, etc.?  Even though none would ever see in another’s face any feeling, couldn’t one who feels pain when his hand is in fire and when smashing his thumb ask another if he also has something similar in both cases, and then ask about other similarities and differences?

What if they agreed about all such similarities and differences of “what they have” in all the different cases?  Couldn’t they agree to call the fire and thumb smashing things they have “pain” and the sex and good food things they have “pleasure”?

Well is it possible that they could agree on all the similarities and differences (thumb smashed is similar to a hand in fire, both are different from sex and good food, etc.) and yet still have very different sensations from each other (In the same way we might wonder if whether all the things I see as blue you see as green)?  In which case, it is not the sensations that are important but their relationships of similarity and difference to each other, and that fact that they agree about these.

But couldn’t they say that they want more of what they have during sex and less of what they have when their hands are in fire?

Remember that we said they couldn’t reflect these preferences and aversions in their behavior.  Given that, how much sense would it make to say they want more of that which they have during sex than that which they have from their hand in fire?

And we should also consider what their form of life would really be like.  How would they behave toward each other?  How would a parent know when to feed a baby?  Could such beings actually evolve as a species over time from simpler organisms?  Could they evolve as a social species capable of speaking any language at all?  (What are some of the reasons that groups of social creatures evolve into language users?)

In our imagined case of the beings who could express nothing through non-verbal behavior, have we perhaps encountered a form of life that is so different from our own that we cannot, with justification, draw implications from it to our own?  If that is so, what does it say about language, pain talk, etc., and the place of natural expressions, and a private language?

Well we said that natural expression would keep a language from being private.  So in order to try to make sense of the possibility of a super private language, we imagined beings with no natural expressions.  But two things resulted:

1) Insofar as they could talk about their sensations, they had to use the public language—so they didn’t create a private language of sensation talk.

2) Their form of life is so different from ours that it seems irrelevant to our own.

Now because of 1), we are left to make sense of a private language along the lines of §258, where there are no natural expressions of sensation, nor some other language that can be used to help “create” the private language.  And in §258 there is the problem that one cannot name anything since there is no way to disambiguate the concentration of attention.

But couldn’t one point out now that Wittgenstein was wrong when he insisted that natural expressions were the only way to “connect” words with sensations?

Well, first, we should note that Wittgenstein does not say that natural expressions are necessary for speaking meaningfully about sensations.  Rather, he says that it is one possibility for connecting them (§244).  Second, it happens to be the case that for us (humans), natural expressions play an important role. Wittgenstein need not be seen as offering up the necessary and sufficient conditions for language’s being meaningful.  And moreover, it is just not clear at all in what sense the beings without any natural expressions are a real possibility.  (If they aren’t possible, is it a causal or logical impossibility?  Why should it matter?  Perhaps only insofar as philosophers tend to think they deal only with the “logical must.”)

Lastly, as in §§288-290 (and elsewhere), Wittgenstein seems to say that without natural expressions for sensations we would need a criterion of identity for our sensations, for talking about them, identifying them as the same at different times.  If that is true, then our imaginary beings would face that problem as well.

Regarding this issue of criteria of identity, it seems Wittgenstein wants to suggest that it so happens that we use the natural expressions of sensations to connect the sensations up with language.  We are trained to do so as we learn the language.

Hence we get in §290 the claim:  “It is not, of course, that I identify my sensations by means of criteria; it is rather that I use the same expression.”  By “expression” he means “linguistic expression” I take it.  This passage makes sense when we bring to bear §238:  “The rule can only seem to me to produce all its consequences in advance if I draw them as a matter of course.  As much as it is a matter of course for me to call this colour ‘blue’.  (Criteria for ‘its being a matter of course’ for me.)”  We “identify” our sensations as a matter of course; we don’t need to identify them and then name them just as we don’t identify a color and then say its name:  we just see that it is blue; we just feel that this is pain.  But this relies on the idea he mentions in §244, where the child is taught new pain behavior by replacing the natural expression of pain with pain talk.  This training is what makes it a matter of course that this is pain.

Significantly Updated Translation of Philosophical Investigations

This is the review I wrote on

Even though Wittgenstein’s German is nothing like Kant’s, providing a good translation of his work is a challenge given all that one must bring into consideration. Anscombe’s original translation had its merits, but it also had a number of frustrating flaws.

One of the many problems with Anscombe’s translation of PI, is her translation of both “hinweisende Erklärung” and “hinweisende Definition” as “ostensive definition,” where the former is more literally read as “ostensive explanation” and the latter as “ostensive definition.” See, e.g., §§27 and 28 of an earlier edition. And as one can see from Wittgenstein’s discussion, there are times when he uses “hinweisende Erklärung” to mean “ostensive explanation” as opposed to actually ostensively defining a word, e.g., §31. And sometimes he uses them together almost interchangeably, e.g., the last two lines of §28. One of the most glaring cases of Anscombe ignoring the distinction is in §6 where the German reads, “Dies will ich nicht `hinweisende Erklärung’, oder `Definition’, nennen….” and the English translation reads simply “I do not want to call this `ostensive definition’….”

One way this difference, and Anscombe’s failure to track it, is important is that giving an explanation is a much more open ended activity than giving a definition in a somewhat similar way as the German word for “game,” “das Spiel,” is more open than the English word, since “das Spiel” can also mean the more open concept of play.

One small “problem” presented by the updated translation is that the changes make past expressions no longer so apt, e.g., talk of a “no stage-setting” interpretation of the failure of the private ostensive definition in §258, based on the remarks about stage-setting in §257, is now problematic, since the new translation does not make use of the expression “stage-setting.” This is a small problem, however.

While I respect Hacker’s work, I do not agree with how easily he attributes substantive views to Wittgenstein; so I worry about how Hacker’s methodological assumptions about Wittgenstein influence his input on the revisions. Nevertheless, I do not have a similar worry about Schulte, and I know that both Hacker and Schulte took into consideration the suggestions of other Wittgenstein scholars when making the revisions.

It is too soon to tell now, but I am excited to see what kind of an effect this new edition has on Wittgenstein studies.

Philosophical Investigations, 4th Edition