Review: Philosophical Investigations, Third Edition

Philosophical Investigations
Philosophical Investigations, Third Edition
Ludwig Wittgenstein
G. E. M Anscombe
Upper Saddle River: Printice Hall, 1958

Review Copyright © 2003 Garret Wilson — 17 July 2003 4:28pm

Ludwig Wittgenstein thought a lot about thinking and meaning. He wrote down a lot of these thoughts in Philosophical Investigations. He thinks about what it is to think, what it means to mean, and what it means to say we say what we mean. He attacks these subjects in little chunks, talking about scenario's we're all familiar with, leaving lots of loose ends that keep getting tied together in various places, making some sort of a network of meaning in itself. One of those scenarios is that of teaching a language to someone who has no knowledge of the language, or perhaps even no previous knowledge of language itself. Some of the points were particularly meaningful to me, as I read a large part of Investigations while in Budapest, Hungary, trying to communicate in a language new to me that is radically different from all other European languages with which I had come in contact.

Two particularly large knots in Wittgenstein's net became prominent to me, and each have their own problems. The first is Wittgenstein's exploration of "meaning" by trying to find out what it means to "understand" a sequence of numbers. That is, if someone knows that after "2, 4" comes the number "6," what is it that they "know?" Do they know some formula? Do they say the sequence to themselves? What if the number "8" comes instead, and the person says, "Oh, the sequence is different, but now I know it," do they really know it now, and what does it mean that they didn't know it before when they said they knew it but gave an incorrect number?

Wittgenstein blends two important concepts that should be unwound. The first is very interesting: what does it mean to represent knowledge? If one "understands" a sequence, where is that knowledge put, how is it stored, and what exactly is being stored wherever? Is it a formula, some feeling of correctness, or some rough outline of a process?

The other concept is no less interesting, but it is unfortunately sufficiently tangled in the discussion that is isn't analyzed separately: how can one ever know for sure that someone actually "knows" something? If someone correctly gives "6" as the next number in the sequence "2, 4", does that person actually know the seqence, or was that a lucky guess? Perhaps the person actually gave the number of a difference sequence that just happened to be the same number in this position in this sequence. (This concept of "proof" is explored by others, notably the "Chinese Room" idea of Searle.)

Granted, these two concepts, meaning and manifestation, are very related. The "proof" of whether meaning exists depends on what it means to "mean" something in the first place. These are nevertheless distinct ideas. Wittgenstein creates similar muddiness when discussing pain. He points out that it is impossible to know what another person is thinking. Experiences are personal. If I see "red" and you see "red," and we're both referring to the same color, how do we know that we both see the same thing? That is, does my vision of red look like your vision of red? Wittgenstein claims that the actual color we see is irrelevant, as long as we refer to the same thing (100). Similarly, Wittgenstein cannot quite understand what pain is outside the outer manifestations, and says that one could not teach a child the meaning of the word "tooth-ache" if there were not outside manifestationf of pain (92). In all this, Wittgenstein isn't clear whether he recognizes that there is an actual thing as pain separate from its manifestations—here also, he doesn't clearly distinguish the concept of determining what pain is and determining the proof of pain from an outer manifestation, although at points he hints that he may believe that there may be meanings separate from expression (102, 218).

The second large group of ideas concerns what has become famous as Wittgenstein's work on "reference". When I point to a table and say, "this," does "this" refer to "table?" Does "this" refer to "brown," the table's color, or to "round," the table's shape? Wittgenstein says that, no matter how much we were to try to clarify "this," there's ultimately no way to completely dereference "this" and know exactly what "this" refers to.

That may be true in the abstract, but in a social context such as language, there are two things that allow dereferencing, and Wittgenstein touches on these things but doesn't quite connect them. The first is the subject—the thing doing the referencing. Each subject (in this case, a human) has a brain that has certain limitations and prejudices. It is not an omnicient knowledge processor. In deciding what "this" is, a human brain through evolution has come to think that certain answers to what "this" references are more likely than others. If I say, "what is this," pointing to a telephone, the human brain thinks first of the object itself, not its color. Other attributes are secondary, unless other contexts are used. Put another way, when a human brain tries to dereference "this," different objects have different weights, just as any other knowledge-processing machine might have. Once certain things are dereferenced, those dereferences can help dereference other things. Only if an information processor is designed to have no prejudices will dereferencing become impossible.

The other concept to save dereferencing is that of a social setting. Out of five people, any of them might incorrectly dereference "this". But if most people's brains are constructed the same way, with the same prejudices, then the majority of people will, through a web of social interaction, allow as a majority correctly dereference "this". The majority's correct dereferences will, as objects are dereferenced on top of other objects, help to override the incorrect dereferences of the minority. At a certain meta-level in this network, true dereferencing becomes complete. Now, whether an actual object exists outside of this social situation (that is, whether there actually is a color red) is irrelevant here—virtually everyone (withing certain parameters of brain design) in the society will eventually come to the same knowledge of when "this" means "the color red"—whether or not red appears the same to each of them. They won't confuse "the color red" with "the round shape," for instance.

The related social concept of "language games", although touched upon in Philosophical Investigations, speaks to meaning as well, and points out that there is more to meaning that simply trying to match a particular symbol (word) with semantics. While in Budpest, after my classmates had left for Prague, I was using a computer lab using my laptop when the lab supervisor came to tell me that I was not allowed to connect my laptop to the network—something I half-expected, as my classmates had left a few days earlier and no one expected any of us to stay longer in Budapest. The lab supervisor asked me in Hungarian, "Are you one of the students from America," to which I answered, "Yes." "Didn't you go to Prague?" "No, I'm staying for another week." In reality, half of the conversation was in Hungarian, and the only words I caught were, "America?" and "Prague?" I still understood the sense of the conversation because of how I expected the conversation to go—the language game of verifying a student's use of a computer lab in a foreign country. The point of this story is that Wittgenstein and other philosophers of language debate subtle differences between the semantics of, for example, "I am from America" and "I live in America" and "I have visited America," but sometimes the meta-concept of social language games makes exact language construction irrelevant.

There is no such thing as "dereferencing this" outside an information processor, and if that information processor has certain prejudices, through a web of social interaction dereferencing thus becomes absolute. Wittgenstein touched on each of these points as well, but never quite tied them together. "We learn this when we come into a strange country with entirely strange traditions; and, what is more, even given a mastery of the country's language. We do not understand the people. (And not because of not knowing what they are saying to themselves.)" Once of his sentences says it all: "If a lion could talk, we could not understand him." (223). Could a human dereference a lion's "this?" Maybe not.