Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Justified and ancient

Michael Weston has an interesting paper in the latest issue of Philosophical Investigations. It's about Wittgenstein, the later Heidegger, forms of life, the Zande, Native Americans, Rush Rhees, Peter Winch, and the meaning of life. Right up my street.

At the end of the paper he seems to say that Wittgenstein would reject his view because he, unlike Wittgenstein, thinks that language games can be justified (or unjustified). But this must be wrong. For one thing, Wittgenstein is vague about what counts as a language game, so I would hesitate to attribute any significant or controversial thesis about them to him. For another, I see no reason why Wittgenstein would have to reject any attempt to justify a game, practice, institution, custom, or part thereof. On p. 250 Weston writes that "there cannot be a justification for the rules themselves: that is just what we call "football" or "chess."" If that were true then how could people debate the possible introduction of goal-line technology in football? Or if my son suggests that we alter the rules of chess next time we play, how could I even try to argue that the rules we usually play by are better? This thesis seems obviously false and is not actually proposed by Wittgenstein. Charity suggests we should not attribute it to him. That makes him able to agree with the rest of what Weston says, which is probably what Weston would like anyway. Everybody wins.

Another weird idea in the paper, which Weston (unless I'm misreading) attributes to Rhees, is that unless there is a meaning of life, there can be no meaning in language. This can't be true either. I suppose that people must care about something if they are ever to learn language, and must share some sense of what matters with others if they are to share a language with them. But the fact that things matter to me, or are meaningful to me, does not mean that my life actually does have meaning. If I care very much about putting green books on my roof then my life is actually sadly bereft of real meaning. And as far as I can see, we can generalize this point. The fact that language exists only shows that things matter to us, not that anything is meaningful in any more important sense than this.

I suspect that this problem is more damaging to Weston's case, but there is plenty in the paper to make it worth reading anyway. Here's a vaguely relevant video to celebrate.


  1. even apart from the problem you point out, it seems a person attracted to the prospect of treating things—life, the activities or practices or whatever that comprise it, or whatever—as a plurality or multiplicity of language-games would have to be pretty specific in talking about certain 'games', and their relations to one another, before they could begin to be entitled to say that we don't, or it's not possible to, justify or criticize one game from within, or from the standpoint of, or with respect to the rules or norms of, another. (which i guess could be implicit in your point about reforms to the rules of actual games.) it seems as if many of the putative games such a person would be interested in justifying (or exempting from the need for justification) are hard to imagine without their being part of the whole setting of sometimes closely related, sometimes much more simple, basic, or pervasive 'games'. and the latter seem like the routine place from which we do in fact criticize or justify a lot of things, in the terms of this metaphor.

    'there is no justification… that is just what we call football' is goofy because on the face of it, if there is something we call football, then people can ask why we call THAT football (instead of THIS) or why we call anything football at all, and there are actual answers to those questions (which is no guarantee about how satisfying they might be, but then it seems like you'd have to put yourself into a particular frame of mind, or find yourself in some specific circumstances, to bring a certain expectation you'd like these answers to satisfy and find to fall short of).

    §23 is pretty clear about some things that wittgenstein is willing to call language-games. i wonder what sense weston would make of going down that list and saying in what way each one could, or need to be, justified tout court. and the answers would likely be different: i can imagine someone being asked, 'why are you wasting your time praying', and coming up with some pretty un-mysterious answers which would be acceptable to some and not to others (and only certain people would find this unacceptable, and think that only a justification acceptable by a certain specified class could be acceptable in general). but… what is someone asking for if they want a 'justification' of… describing things?

    oddly enough, i was just listening to a contemporary of the klf, struck by hearing a second-generation fregean idea (via a quote of popper) in the orb's 'oobe'.

  2. Thanks. I've had that song stuck in my head since last night. KLF is gonna' rock ya.

  3. Thanks, j. The Orb passed me by almost completely at the time, but I remember liking "Blue Room," and OOBE sounds good, in a quiet way. A bit Hawkwindy.

    The football example is particularly strange, since there have been lots of discussions along the lines you describe. Rugby v. Association v. American (and NFL v. college), etc. And the Euthyphro is a good example of a discussion of the point of praying. So I think I agree with everything you say.

    Describing things could be justified, though, couldn't it? A poet's description will be different from a quantity surveyor's, which will be different from what you might say if a psychoanalyst showed you an inkblot and asked you to describe what you see. And psychoanalysis, etc, can be justified, at least in theory. I think the point of the description might need to be known in order for one to know what was meant by the command "describe."

    Matthew, I hope that's not a problem for you. The opening of "Shearing Machine" by The Very Things always clears my head of any stuck song, but that might not work for others. (I can't find a good link, I'm afraid, although there are disappointing live versions on youtube.)

  4. hawkwindy, yeah—'dr.' alex patterson (the orb steering force) has a flair for post-hippie nu-age kitsch. i never knew 'u.f.orb' before, just 'the orb's adventures beyond the ultraworld', which has the essential 'little fluffy clouds' and 'a huge ever-growing pulsating brain…' (or something like that).

    well, i'm glad i'm making some sense. sometimes i'm baffled by how work by wittgensteinians can be so casual about allowing themselves to give play to what sound like quite un-wittgensteinian ways of framing their discussions.

    certainly descriptions can be justified, and specialized ways of describing things can be justified (to some extent, to satisfy some standards). but i took it that with 'justifying language-games' as the issue, the question would be justifying the practice of describing—some practice of describing. some of those seem likely to me to be un-specialized enough that the possibility of rationales for special practices of description that you allude to, would readily transfer to the un-specialized ones. like... 'describing a person's appearance'. suppose we were somehow asked to give a justification of that language-game. would we be trying to justify doing it at all (as opposed to nothing, leaving a gap in its place, or something as a substitute?)? or… justifying the particular way (?) of doing it that belongs to that practice? justifying it as against other language-games (for instance in a kind of kantian way, showing that it has its own internal logic that needn't be judged by the standards of other language-games?—which sounds conceivable to me but no longer obviously a matter of 'justification')?

    another example to try to fit talk of 'justifying the language-game' to occurred to me—greeting, saying hello—and it seemed easier to at least imagine someone who refused to practice it, to whom we could try to justify greeting people. perhaps we could even imagine giving such sorts of justifications to people raised in a culture that never found it particularly necessary or worthwhile to greet people. in contrast, my suspicion was that justifying 'describing' might be more like trying to justify the practice of asserting things, or of pointing out things one has noticed. weird. wittgensteinian reminders make sense there; 'grammatical' instruction given as part of a person's upbringing and education make sense; but it's hard to see what could give rise to a legitimate need for justification (and thus meet that need).

  5. I think you've got it on the head there at the end of your post. Thanks.

    Some language games can be justified more easily (or it's easier to see how you might try with some) than others, but in the case of those that it seems hard to justify, the difficulty is in seeing what the point is, what "could give rise to a legitimate need for justification." So it isn't anything like a metaphysical impossibility, or even a logical one in the way that "A is not A" is logically impossible. Weston seems to interpret Wittgenstein too tidily to get him quite right. To the extent that it makes sense to talk about justifying language games, you can justify them. To the extent that it doesn't make sense, it also makes no sense to come along and say "I disagree with you, Wittgenstein, I think it can be done." There is no "it", or nothing intelligible for 'it' to refer to.