(These comments represent a journey in my understanding of Wittgenstein's Philosophical investigations. As I read Wittgenstein more closely, I have sometimes discovered certain preconceived ideas that had to be revised or discarded. 1-6 may sound like a plausible reading of Wittgenstein, but as I pay closer attention to the actual text and am able to set aside my previous ideas about Wittgenstein, the more mistaken these early comments appear to be. Still, they seem to have some value -- at least, as a caution to those who think they know what Wittgenstein is about in his Philosophical Investigations without close reading of the actual text in its entirety.)
1. “I shall also call the whole, consisting of language and the activities into which it is woven, a ‘language-game’.” (PI, 7)
Is not Wittgenstein’s philosophical activity also one of the many language activities (games) that are woven into the whole (game)? How could it not be? Wittgenstein’s philosophical activity clearly involves techniques or skills that can be mastered and, like other games, can be played at different levels of sophistication. An example of such a skill in Wittgenstein’s game is what he calls a “grammatical investigation”:
“Understanding a world”: a state. But a mental state? – We call dejection, excitement, pain, mental states. Carry out a grammatical investigation as follows: we say
‘He felt dejected the whole day'
‘He was in great excitement the whole day’
‘He has been in pain uninterruptedly since yesterday’. –
We also say, ‘Since yesterday I have understood this word.’ ‘Uninterruptedly’, though? – To be sure, one can speak of an interruption of understanding. But in what cases? Compare: ‘When did your pains get less?’ and ‘When did you stop understanding that word?’ (PI, 149)
This manner of looking at our actual use of words like ‘pain’ is repeated over and over again throughout the Philosophical Investigations. Wittgenstein’s game, of course, is not restricted to one such gambit. There are many others that must be mastered. It is perhaps enough to say here that even the formatting of this critique of Wittgenstein’s philosophical activity is to play the Wittgensteinian game. Of course, it is a poor attempt, but like any game, Wittgenstein’s can be played on all levels of mastery.
2. But even if this critique of Wittgenstein’s philosophical activity is correct, what has been achieved? Does it invalidate or weaken Wittgenstein’s work? Of course not. For what is good or useful or true or well done has only relevance within the game that is being play. And certainly the fact that we have identified Wittgenstein’s philosophical activity as one language-game among others does not mean that it is frivolous, trivial or merely diverting. (Here it is important to remember that W explicitly states that he intends his use of “game” to be not a definition of anything or a valuation but rather an analogy that will help us understand how we use words. Further discussion of this ‘analogy’ is required.)
3. One consequence of identifying Wittgenstein’s philosophical activity as a “game” is that we are able to recognize that it has “affinities” and “family resemblances” with other philosophical activities, such as Plato’s or Aristotle’s. There are a great many of these “affinities” to be explored, but for now, it is enough to recognize how familiar Wittgenstein’s resort to everyday usage is to Aristotle’s discussion of happiness or how familiar Wittgenstein’s use of analogy is to Plato’s.
4. But on what ground can Wittgenstein’s “game” be considered superior to those of other philosophers who appear, despite their “affinities”, to be playing games as different as checkers, chess, ring-around-a-rosy, poker, or GO. The play in each of these can only be evaluated within the individual games themselves. The one fault we might find with Wittgenstein’s game is the same one we find in those of other philosophers: that their game is presented as the game, the one by which all others are to be measured.
5. That Plato is playing a different game from that of Wittgenstein can be demonstrated by an investigation into the former’s use of analogy. Plato uses his analogies (the cave, the divided line, the chariot, the theory of recollection which leads to the further analogy of the slave-boy) to bump up against the barriers of language: an attempt to say the unsayable. To turn any one of these analogies into Platonic doctrine is to forget the purpose within any given dialogue that these analogies serve. In the case of recollection and the slave-boy episode, Plato employs these analogies to help us move beyond Meno’s paradox that it is senseless to search for what one does not know. Indeed, at the end of the slave-boy analogy, Socrates offers this qualification:
I shouldn’t like to take my oath on the whole story, but one thing I am ready to fight for as long as I can, in word and act – that is, that we shall be better, braver and more active men if we believe it is right to look for what we don’t know than if we believe there is no point in looking because what we don’t know can never be discovered."
We may say something similar in response to Wittgenstein: the attempt to say what cannot be said about truth, beauty and virtue is not a futile activity even though it will render up only what is nonsense from Wittgenstein’s perspective. The attempt itself has the effect of creating a life that is experienced as deeply meaningful. In playing Plato’s game, we discover that what is of most value is not the answer to the question, What is virtue? but rather the kind of life that silently, invisibly comes about as a consequence of earnestly asking the question.
6. Wittgenstein himself seems to be alive to and find personal value in those games that involve bumping one’s head against the barrier of language. See his “A Lecture on Ethics” as well as the later part of the Tractatus. It may be that Wittgenstein’s problem with Plato and other philosophers is really the problem that has developed with respect to his own philosophical activity: the philosophical activity has become hardened into doctrine, or even worse, dogma. (It is all too often forgotten that Wittgenstein used "game" as an analogy, which like all analogies must eventually fall away.) Socrates is all about the activity itself of philosophy, as is Wittgenstein. As with any game, the value is in the play itself.
(See Journal 7-13 where the above critique is understood as flawed.)
7. “We want to understand something that is already in plain view. For this is what we seem in some sense not to understand.” (PI 89)
“Philosophy is a struggle against the bewitchment of our understanding by the resources of our language.” (PI 109)
“The philosopher treats a question; like an illness.” (PI 255)
What was said in Nos.1-6 is symptomatic of the very illness that Wittgenstein’s philosophical activity endeavors to cure: the will to theorize, to look away from what is in plain sight, from everyday use of language, and to seek logical connections among analogous forms of expressions. Everywhere in the Philosophical Investigations, Wittgenstein is trying to eliminate “misunderstandings concerning the use of words, brought about, among other things by certain analogies between the forms of expression in different regions of our language” (PI 90).
8. Or to put it as Wittgenstein does early on in the Philosophical Investigations, such discussions as Nos. 1-6 are what happen “when language goes on holiday” (PI 38). The particular fault of Nos. 1-6 is the arbitrary use made of the blurriness of the idea of a ‘language-game’, a blurriness that allows us free rein to theorize. Wittgenstein speaks directly to this problem:
But if the colors in the original shade into one another without a hint of any boundary, won’t it become a hopeless task to draw a sharp picture corresponding to the blurred one? Won’t you then have to say: “Here I might just as well draw a circle as a rectangle or a heart, for all the colors merge. Anything – and nothing – is right.” – And is the position in which for example, someone finds himself in ethics or aesthetics when he looks for definitions that correspond to our concepts. (PI 77)
9. It may be that Wittgenstein is responsible for such misunderstandings. He himself strays on occasion into “theorizing” (e.g. PI 7:“I shall also call the whole, consisting of language and the activities into which it is woven, a ‘language-game’.”) The problem is further compounded by the style of the fragments themselves which require careful reading to avoid mistaking a statement that Wittgenstein wants to challenge with one that he is affirming (e.g. see discussion below of the ‘Beetle in the Box’ PI 293).
10. What does Wittgenstein want us to understand as a ‘language game’? He lists examples for us in PI 15, among which are “requesting, thanking, cursing, greeting, praying.” The illness that Wittgenstein is so energetically trying to combat arises when a philosopher attempts to generalize from what are plainly everyday, ordinary speech acts and interpret, for instance, his reference to “praying” as a reference to ‘theology’ as a word game unto itself.
11. For Wittgenstein not all uses of language qualify for what he means by a ‘language game’:
Other illusions come from various quarters to join the particular one spoken of here. Thought, language, now appear to us as the unique correlate, picture, of the world. These concepts: proposition, language, thought, world, stand in line one behind the other, each equivalent to each. (But what are these words to be used for now? The language-game in which they are to be applied is missing. ) (PI 96)
Though it may be that Wittgenstein is himself responsible for confusion over what counts as a language-game, it is nevertheless clear that he directs our attention over and over again to everyday usage, warning us as he goes against the will to theorize, systematize or mistake analogies for logical equivalencies.
12. How easily Wittgenstein’s aphoristic style leads to confusion can be seen in his discussion of the ‘beetle-in-the-box’: (PI 293):
If I say of myself that it is only from my own case that I know what the word ‘pain’ means – must I not say that of other people too? And how can I generalize the one case so irresponsibly.
Well, everyone tells me that he knows what pain is only from his own case! – Suppose that everyone had a box with something in it which we call a “beetle”. No one can ever look into anyone else’s box, and everyone says he knows what a beetle is only by looking at his beetle. – Here it would be quite possible for everyone to have something different in his box. One might even imagine such a thing constantly changing. – But what if these people’s word “beetle” had a use nonetheless? – If so, it would not be as the name of a thing. The Thing in the box doesn’t belong to the language-game at all; not even as a Something: for the box might even be empty. – No, one can ‘divide thought’ by the thing in the box; it cancels out, whatever it is.
Here Wittgenstein is using the language of ‘privacy’ to debunk that very language. His discussion amounts to a reductio ad absurdum, as his conclusion to his aphorism makes clear:
That is to say, if we construe the grammar of the expression of sensation on the model of ‘object and name’, the object drops out of consideration as irrelevant. (PI 293)
It would be a serious error here to suppose that Wittgenstein is arguing for some mystical notion of the ineffable: To do so is to mistake the purpose of his analogy.
13. What Wittgenstein is arguing against in his discussion of ‘privacy’ is the mistake he is everywhere warning us against: of supposing that words are essentially denotative, so that the “I” in “I think” denotes an “I” that exists as some kind of object. We understand the first person pronoun in its everyday usage readily enough: “I am going to the store.” “I am in pain.”; “I am your friend.” The meaning of “I” only becomes problematical when we want to sever the pronoun from its ordinary use. That is the bewitchment of language about which Wittgenstein is warning us. It leads to entanglements that are the origin of “disquietudes” that he would dispel:
The problems arising through a misinterpretation of our forms of language have the character of depth. They are deep disquietudes. . (PI 111)
Here is the fundamental fact is that we lay down rules, a technique, for playing a game, and that then, when we follow the rules, things don’t turn out as we had assumed. So that we are, as it wee entangled in our own rules. This entanglement in our rules is what we want to understand: that is, to survey. (PI 125)
It may be that Wittgenstein would allow that metaphysical languages do count as ‘language-games’. If so, they would be games whose rules end up being self-defeating, creating entanglements such as Descartes cogito, ergo sum in which the “I”, under Wittgenstein’s critique, “drops out of consideration as irrelevant” (PI 293 supra). (There is more to be said on Descartes’ cogito.)
14. Wittgenstein’s method:
The great difficulty here is not to present the matter as if there were something one couldn’t do. As if there really were an object, from which I extract a description, which I am not in a position to show anyone. – And the best that I can propose is that we yield to the temptation to use this picture, then investigate what the application of the picture looks like. (PI 374)
A picture held us captive. And we couldn’t get outside it, for it lay in our language, and language seemed only to repeat it to us inexorably. (PI 115)
When philosophers use a word –- “knowledge”, “being”, “object”, “I”, “proposition/sentence”, “name” – and try to grasp the essence of the thing, one must always ask oneself: is the word ever actually used in this way in the language in which it is at home? What we do is to bring words back from their metaphysical to their everyday use.
When I say I want to investigate ‘consciousness’, it appears to me that I am investigating something’. Is consciousness, for instance, some inner mental state that can be observed only from within and is, therefore, private to each of us? Whenever we use the sentence “I am conscious” in everyday speech, it is either a needless affirmation of what is obvious to the person I am addressing or it is bound up in a particular event where I had been temporarily ‘unconscious’. e.g. in a coma. In any case, the meaning of the word is immediately and easily understood by the person with whom I am speaking. Why then does ‘consciousness’ present a problem? Is it not because I think that a word is a name for something somehow inside me? But isn’t the expression ‘inside me’ a metaphor that we are here mistaking for some actual location? But how am I to find that ‘inside’? But, if it is not ‘inside’, where is it? It is neither ‘inside’ or ‘outside’, neither here or there. When I use the word ‘conscious’ in an everyday context it never occurs to ask myself “Where am I conscious?” It is simply a fact of my existence. The word ‘conscious’ only becomes problematic when we take the word out of its everyday usage and ask “But what is this thing called consciousness?” and then seek an answer as if it were the same sort of question as “What is an aardvark?
15. We commit the same error when we attempt to define consciousness as what it is like to be me or a bat or what it is like to be another person.
“You don’t know what it like to be me” as an expressive statement in an everyday situation is significant but to turn it into an argument for solipsism is a mistake. As an expressive statement in the course of our everyday life, it is an appeal to another person. To turn it into a statement of existential isolation is to lift the statement out of that situation and create an illusion of the ‘self’.
16. “Are you saying there is no ‘self’?” Yes and no. “Either there is a ‘self’ or there is not!” Wittgenstein:
At this point, our thinking plays us a strange trick. That is, we want to quote the law of excluded middle and say: ”Either such a an image floats before his mind, or it does not; there is no third.. possibility!” . . . And problem is now supposed to be: does reality accord with the picture or not? And this picture seems to determine what we have to do, what to look for, and how – but it does not, precisely because we do not know how it is to be applied. Here, saying “There is no third possibility” . . . expresses our inability to urn our eyes away from the this picture – a picture which looks as if it must already contain both the problem and its solution . . . Similarly, when it is said “Either he has this sensation, or he doesn’t”, what primarily occurs to us is a picture which already seems to determine the sense of the statements unequivocally: “Now you know hat sin question”, one would like to say. And what’s just what it does not tell you. (PI 352)
When we create a picture of the ‘self’, the rules for its application are not given. The meaning of ‘self’ as used in our everyday language (“I am not myself today.”) is immediately understood in the context in which it is spoken.
17. “Are then the pictures we create inconsequential?” On the contrary! If we but step away from application and see the creating of such pictures as a primary activity, they become important experiences unto themselves and, along with other language activities, provide our life with meaning. No longer are such pictures illusions because no longer do we treat them as pointing beyond themselves.
“A picture tells me itself” is what I’d like to say. That is, it's telling me something consists in its own structure, in its own forms and colours. (PI 523)
Don’t take it as a matter of course, but as a remarkable fact, that pictures and fictitious narratives give us pleasure, absorb us. (PI 524)
We create our images for their own sake; they do their own work within the activities of which they are a part. To seek ‘application’ is actually to reduce their significance. It is application that turns ‘image’ into illusion.
18. The way out of the “bottle” is to find meaning in each language activity in terms of its own structure and rules. “Does this mean that there is no priority among such activities or no judgment to be made among them as to their value?” It is difficult to know where to begin to respond to such questions? It is as though somehow were to ask “Do Hamlet and right triangles exist along with aardvarks and civil liberties?”-- as if one could somehow apply the rules of one language game to those of another. “But what then, are they all equal.” But that statement assumes terms of comparison! Where are we to find them?
19. “Can we make no judgments?” Only this: some language activities create problems where none need be. They do so because they seek to apply the rules of their activity to those of another. Such applications lead, as Wittgenstein tells us, to “deep disquietudes”. It may be that if we gave up ‘application, some of these language activities would no longer trouble us or would lose their interest, much as childhood games like “Go Fish” become vapid. Perhaps not. Perhaps they would take on a new vitality!
20. In the Preface to Philosophical Investigations, Wittgenstein invites readers to think for themselves:
I should not like my writing to spare other people the trouble of thinking. But if possible, to stimulate someone to thoughts of his own.
Indeed, Wittgenstein’s style requires the reader to think for himself:
Consider two language games:
(a) Someone gives someone else the order to make particular movements with his arm, or to assume particular bodily positions (gymnastic instructor and pupil). And a variant of this language-game is this: the pupil gives himself orders and then carries them out.
(b) Someone observes certain regular processes – for example, the reactions of different metals to acids – and thereupon makes predictions about the reactions that will occur in certain cases.
There is an evident kinship between these two language-games, and also a fundamental difference. In both, one might call the spoken words “predictions”. But compare the training which leads to the first technique with the training for the second one! (PI 630)
Here Wittgenstein does not tell the reader what the difference in training is between his two examples nor does he comment on the significance of this difference. The reader is left to think this out for himself.
To what ‘training’ is Wittgenstein referring in the first instance (a), that of the one who gives the order or the one who receives it? That there is such a question reveals a significant disparity with the second instance (b). In (a), the one who gives the order and the one who receives the order participate in a common form of life that gives the order its meaning. To speak of ‘prediction’ in this instance (a) is to turn it into an object of thought that is foreign to the activity itself, thereby creating a picture whose application leads us to believe that the action performed is similar to “the reactions of different metals to acid” and that now we better understand the first instance because he have made it ‘objective’. The achievement of this objectivity, however, is illusory, as it has been accomplished by conflating wholly different activities that have wholly different rules of language by which they are played. We have ‘reduced’ one activity to another by subjecting it to the rules of another. If we miss that we have confused the use of ‘prediction’ in (a) and (b) or miss that it is how we use words in particular activities that determine their meanings, we end up bedeviling ourselves with questions like those that the debate over free will provoke.
21. What do we mean when we call something private? It may mean something that I have chosen not to speak of or it may mean something of which I claim ownership as a product of my physical or intellectual work or it may mean something that only I can know. It is only the third of these senses that Wittgenstein questions:
In what sense are my sensations private? Well, only I can know whether I am really in pain; another person can only surmise it. -- in one way this is false, and in another nonsense. If we are using the word "know" as it is normally used (and how else are we to use it?), then other people very often know I'm in pain. -- Yes, but all the same, not with the certainty with which I know it myself! -- It can't be said of me at all (except perhaps as a joke) that I know I'm in pain. What is it supposed to mean -- except perhaps that I am in pain? (PI 246)
The sentence "Sensations are private" is comparable to "One plays patience by oneself." (PI 248)
What can it mean to play patience by oneself but to play patience? What can it mean that sensations are private but that there are sensations?
22. What then are sensations?
"And yet you again and again reach the conclusion that the sensation itself is a Nothing." -- Not at all. It's not a Something, but not a Nothing either! The conclusion was only that a Nothing would render the same service as a Something about which nothing could be said. We've only rejected the grammar which tends to force itself on us here. (PI 293)
There is a temptation here to use the phrase "a Something, but not a Nothing" as though referring denotatively to sensation. But Wittgenstein makes clear that he is talking here specifically about the "service" that such phrases as "not a Nothing" and "a something about which nothing can be said" perform. What service do such phrases serve? They serve to draw the line between what can be spoken of and what cannot. It is necessary to reject the grammar which tends to force a denotative sense on us. As denotative phrases, ‘Not A Something’ and ‘Not a Nothing’ cancel out. And yet, we would make it into a something. Just so language bewitches us. This way leads to mysticism.
23. Can we use "private" as equivalent with "that which cannot be said" as pertains to experience or sensation? Wittgenstein himself never himself does. And if we did, it would serve no purpose. The word "my" has meaning only in what can be talked about and what is therefore potentially accessible to others.
"Another person can't have my pain." -- My pains -- what pains are they? . . . In so far as it makes sense to say that my pain is the same as his, it is also possible for us both to have the same pain. (PI 253).
24. As Wittgenstein says in his discussion of the 'Beetle in the Box', "If we construe the grammar of the expression of sensation on the model of 'object and name', the object drops out of consideration as irrelevant" (PI 293). It does not belong to the language-game at all. Can 'sensation' be construed otherwise than on the model of 'object and name'? Of course. It acquires meaning by its use in what it is our shared form of life. When you say "I have a toothache", I understand what you mean, not because "toothache" denotes something we can both privately observe in our experience and then conclude our experiences are similar -- rather, that the possibility of recognizing my toothache as a toothache in the first place depends upon a form of life in which what I call a toothache is what everyone else calls a toothache. That is the language-game!
25. It is certainly true that I cannot be conscious of your pain as you are. This is to say no more than you are in pain and I am not. This fact, however, does not imply that your pain is thereby private such that your experience is essentially hidden from me. Your experience of pain is hidden from me only if you choose to hide it.
26. In the Tractatus Wittgenstein manages, as Russell quips, to say a great deal about what cannot be spoken of. In the Philosophical investigations, Wittgenstein appears to acknowledge Russell's point by truly remaining silent on matters that language cannot speak of. The question remains, however, whether W's new beginning in the PI results in the same sort of line to be drawn between what can and cannot be spoken of. Questions of value, for instance, are part of our everyday use of language and as such are meaningful. It therefore appears that what could not be spoken of in the Tractatus can be meaningfully spoken of in the Philosophical Investigations. Indeed, it appears everything relevant to our human form of life can be spoken of meaningfully. We are sometimes silent not because we cannot say what we mean but because we have nothing relevant to say.
27. It has been suggested that the appearance of something new within our established forms of life and the language games that depend on these forms is evidence for the efficacy of that of which language cannot speak. Such an assertion is but a disguised attempt to say the unsayable. It contradicts itself. Accordingly, Wittgenstein has nothing to say about this. Something new appears in language not out of some silent resource but from within the activities of language itself, activities that include empirical investigation, the asking of questions as well as the imaginative use of language. This last includes the activity of drawing analogies, an activity in which W is very skilled and one that allowed him to say something new about philosophy. There is an openness to our language activities that is not bound by rules, just as in tennis, there is no rule on how high to throw the ball or on the spin that is put on a ball. Such openness is not silence and certainly not the unsayable but rather the possibility of saying something that has not been said before but remains meaningful within our human form of life.
28. In what sense are language activities games? 'Game' was first introduced as an analogy to the plurality of speech acts that, like games, are rule-governed activities that share affinities but no essential attribute. However, Wittgenstein appears at times to use 'language-game' as if it were a 'game' like chess or patience. Are speech act games or simply analogous to games? My tentative conclusion is that speech acts are only analogous to games and that to include language activities in the same category as chess or patience is misleading. Language activities do share affinities with games such as chess but the 'form of life' in which most language activities occur is different from that of chess, though speech and debate competitions and crossword puzzles are particular language-activities that would certainly count as games in its customary sense. Our everyday use of language is not just a game. It is in fact no game at all
29. A similar problem develops as to what counts as a language-game. Does 'language-game' refer only to the plurality of everyday speech acts (commands, requests, prayers, confessions, etc.) or are we to include theology, aesthetics, sociology, etc. as well? These later appear to belong to what Wittgenstein would call grammatical fictions because their use of words seeks to be denotative where no denotation is possible. Beauty, truth and virtue are words that acquire meaning from their use within a community and not from supposed mental objects that bear their names. It is as if we mistake the shape of the container of gas for the gas itself or rather we mistake the picture for what the picture is supposed to represent. In the case of virtue, what is to be represented is how we use the word in our everyday speech not in some fictitious realm of the mind.