Saturday, August 7, 2010

Wittgenstein reads Augustine

First, it would be a mistake to skip the preface to the Philosophical Investigations, but I will note just a few things about it: 1. like the Tractatus, it contains thoughts but is not meant to tell people what to think (rather, Wittgenstein says he wants to "stimulate someone to thoughts of his own"), 2. speaking of ownership, Wittgenstein says that: "If my remarks do not bear a stamp which marks them as mine, then I do not wish to lay any further claim to them as my property," and 3. he expresses pessimism about the quality of what he has produced (it is only an album of halfway decent sketches) and the likelihood of its being understood (the times are too dark and one can understand the thoughts in the book properly only "by contrast with and against the background of" the thoughts in the Tractatus).

After the preface the book begins with a quotation in Latin from Augustine's Confessions. If the preface has not made us go back and read the Tractatus, and if trying to read that book has not made us stop and go back to Frege and Russell, and possibly Schopenhauer, Kant, and others too, then this Latin passage might prompt us to brush up our Latin or read Augustine. Otherwise we have to trust the narrator, who has already warned us that we are unlikely to understand what he has written.

Augustine's words are addressed to God, and they emphasize the role of the body in learning language. Bodily movements and gestures constitute a natural language, and one has to learn to use one's tongue in order to pronounce words. What drives this learning, as Augustine expresses it, is the desire to express one's will in order that one might get what one wills. There is something sinful about this: Augustine takes a rather dim view of babies and their willfulness. It is God's will we should want to be done, after all, not our own. Augustine also writes as if babies have a fully developed will (maybe not at first--when they know only to suck, to enjoy what they like, and to cry at what they dislike--but soon after this), capable of thinking and desiring a range of things. So simply watching what Latin-speakers call by what names enables one to learn Latin. Readers are probably aware that it takes more to understand the quotation from Augustine than a knowledge of the meanings of the main nouns in the passage.

There is something off about Augustine's portrayal of babies, something we might laugh at, except that it is clearly bound up with his religious beliefs. The Confessions is not a funny book. And Augustine's seemingly questionable psychology is perhaps best understood not as psychology at all but as an attempt to express our fallen nature. In this sense it sounds like the kind of thing that, at the end of the Lecture on Ethics, Wittgenstein said he would not ridicule for the life of him. So I doubt we are meant to laugh--or to keep laughing, at any rate--but we might if we fail, or refuse, to take the speaker of these words into account.

Wittgenstein's response is to say that it seems to him (so this is a personal reaction) that these words give us a certain picture of the essence of language. In this picture, he continues, we find the roots of an idea about language. This mixed metaphor might (should?) give us pause. Not to criticize Wittgenstein's writing but to think about what he might mean. What is a picture in this sense? How could it contain roots? How can he know there are these roots in this picture? Is he telling us what he thinks is going on in Augustine's mind? He doesn't say.

The next paragraph points out some things that Augustine does not mention, without any explicit criticism of him for this, and then says what Wittgenstein believes someone who describes learning language like this believes. He is thinking primarily of certain obvious nouns (the names of concrete types of objects, such as chairs) and people's names. Wittgenstein gives no reason to think that Augustine in particular is thinking this way (although it would seem reasonable enough to think this of him), and in general treats Augustine's words as if their author and original context did not matter. Perhaps that is OK, but a case could certainly be made that it isn't. Is context never important? Is Wittgenstein reading into Augustine's work ideas that he previously believed in? We don't have much basis on which to decide yet, but it seems reasonable to ask the questions.

In the next paragraph Wittgenstein changes tack (at least seemingly) and tells us to think of a use of language: Wittgenstein sends someone (who? someone he outranks? a child? a foreigner?) shopping with a piece of paper marked "five red apples." The shopkeeper does not simply hand over the apples--he looks up what colour red is and uses this information to identify which apples he should take from the drawer (!) in which he keeps them. He has memorized the number series, but still has to count up to five to know how many apples to hand over. Then Wittgenstein remarks that, "It is in this and similar ways that one operates with words." Is this claim part of what we are simply being told to imagine? Or is Wittgenstein really claiming that this story is similar to the way we operate with words? Who are "we" though? Is "operate" really what we do with words? And how similar must two things be to count as genuinely similar? Wittgenstein does not say, and there isn't really an answer to any of these questions I can think of that isn't arbitrary.

An interlocutor then asks none of these questions but one about how the shopkeeper knows what to do in response to the words "five" and "red." These would be reasonable questions if the shopkeeper were a robot and we wanted to know how he has been programmed, but otherwise they sound a bit odd to me. Wittgenstein (or the narrator) takes them in his stride, though, and brushes them aside with a mere stipulation that the shopkeeper acts as described and that "Explanations come to an end somewhere." The interlocutor then wants to know what the word "five" means (in this story, presumably, but perhaps more generally), but is told that this was not in question. The question was only how the word "five" is used.

So was it unreasonable to ask about the meaning of "five"? Does the story-teller get to dictate what the story was about? Perhaps he does, but then what is the point of the story if it does not answer the questions that other people have?

So far, then, we have been told something that Augustine wrote, told what Wittgenstein thinks in response to words like these, and told to imagine a strange story. We have not been told what we should think about anything, but have been given plenty of food for thought. Which is what Wittgenstein told us he was aiming to do in the preface.


  1. "Does the story-teller get to dictate what the story was about?"

    It seems like you could say that the story-teller gets to say what (he thinks) the story is about (or means for it about). Reflecting on such meta-claims is often an important part of thinking about what the story is "really" about (or, what it's about besides what the story-teller says). As for the way W often uses the interlocutor to raise certain questions and head off certain objections, I would say that this is part of the story. (In some places, it might seem plausible to say that he wants to head off certain objections so that the reader asks other, better (?) questions instead.)

    (As I wrote these comments, I was also thinking about Coetzee's The Lives of Animals/Elizabeth Costello...)

  2. Yes, the story-teller can say what the story was meant to be about. But, as you suggest, a story can "really" be about something else, or can be about things other than what it was intended to be about, or have unintended significance. My thought was that readers have some rights to ask questions. If something doesn't add up, they can ask what's going on. The story-teller can't then just say, "It's my story and I can do what I want with it." Not if he or she is going to be taken seriously, anyway. If I tell a story about language (in the context of a discussion about the meanings of words, among other things) and you ask about the meaning of one of the words in the story, it seems as though you have a right to be answered. At least, if I tell you that you have missed the point, it seems fair for you to question what right I have to dictate what the point is. Perhaps the point of my story was not to address the question of meaning, but if we're having a conversation then I don't get to dictate what the conversation is about.

    Perhaps that's all too meta. But Wittgenstein doesn't say that the meaning of "five" is its use here. He says that he has described the use and that the meaning of "five" was not the question. Has he shown conclusively that meaning is use? Or that meaning is irrelevant? I don't think so. So the interlocutor is likely to be dissatisfied, and the reader is likely to have unanswered questions.

    I'm not saying that Wittgenstein is wrong. Frustration at the absence of explicit and sound arguments in his work is common, and it seems to me that this is understandable, at least in this case. I think it's more likely that this is a deliberate part of his strategy than that it's a mistake, but it seems worth noting.

    If you wanted to know what Elizabeth Costello is about, you would certainly want to know what Coetzee had said about it. But take the discussion of what it is like to be a bat/corpse/animal. Nagel can say that Costello has missed his point, but who gets to say who has missed the point? This issue seems up for grabs to me.

    I agree that Wittgenstein uses the interlocutory voice to raise and head off objections, and presumably this is (at least partly, at least sometimes) to prompt better questions.

  3. if we're having a conversation i don't get to dictate what it's about, but if i tell you a story you also don't get to ignore the point of my telling the story—my point in saying what i said when i said it (which i take it may be a slightly different thing than 'the point of the story'). and i shouldn't ignore your reactions to my telling the story. not, in either case, if we want to have a good conversation.

    what's served here by calling the shopkeeper example a 'story'? it's true that it takes the form of a narrative—in terms of its verb tenses, its description of some sequentially ordered actions a person undertakes—but is its being a narrative doing anything notable? i would have just as soon called it an 'example', which draws attention back to the way it is introduced, as a use of language. not necessarily the only, or the most characteristic, use; and not necessarily one guaranteed to exhibit something essential about language.

    insofar as, apparently, wittgenstein wants to give this example as one of how language is used, is there something bad or defective about his example, say from the perspective of the voice that asks about meaning? is something omitted, or not clearly stated, that makes it fail as a statement of a way of using language?

  4. Thanks j. Let's see. I agree with everything in your first paragraph. Is the point of the story/example clear though? I think it is pretty much left to the read to figure out or see what the point is.

    Nothing much hangs on whether we call this a story or not. As you say, it takes the form of a narrative. That's all I was pointing to about it.

    The question whether there is something defective about the example is a very interesting one, I think. It strikes me as fantastic, not realistic, but that need not be a defect in a thought-experiment, story, or example. Whether it's defective depends on what its point is, and that is not yet clear (at this stage in the book, it seems to me). What seems to be alleged to be missing by an interlocutor (is the one whose words are in quotation marks the same as the one who asks "But what is the meaning of the word "five"?"?) is an account of the meaning of "five" (and possibly "red" and "apples" too). This is not fatal to the story as a description of use, but it is suggested that there is a problem as to how what is described could have got off the ground as a way of operating. The shopkeeper looks up the colour red among his samples of colour, but how does he know to do this? And how does he recognize "five" as a number? Perhaps these are pointless questions, but they would not be pointless if asked about how a robot had been programmed to perform these actions. And the whole example seems to presuppose a rather robotic, programmable conception of the human mind and human life. So in the context, the questions seem at least understandable.

  5. one reason i ask about 'story' is that i think it would be nice if something DID hang on it. it seems to me significant that in order to describe what he shows such consistent interest in describing—uses of language—wittgenstein basically has to give narratives. (and he's responding, initially, to a narrative, at that.) but i have yet to see any useful point to make with that. there seems to be a parallel between what a person being taught a new (use of a) word must go through or be led through or see, and what, after such a sequence of events, someone would say to describe what it was they learned (started learning) how to do. but that's all i've got.

    i think one reason it's so tempting to find wittgenstein saying something substantial in §1 is that later on, there are so many sections where he seems to make a very clearly demarcated / delineated response to something, that it seems he MUST be doing something like that in §1 too. the shopkeeper example seems like it could be saying something that stands out clearly, if only you look at it just right.

    the last time i taught the investigations, i emphasized a point that wittgenstein goes on to make repeatedly in the following sections, that different uses of language are different. then, it looks like perhaps that interlocutor (i really can't tell about their identity there) is asking about exactly the word in the example whose use cannot be imagined to be just like the uses of the other words (specifically, taking augustine's words as a model for the uses of language). taken another way, that interlocutor could be asking about just that word in the example that seems least amenable to being understood on a referential model (which is how it seems most natural to me to read the move to the word 'meaning'—not as a request focused on the content of that concept, but a request that invokes that concept because it seems like the most natural way of giving voice to the interlocutor's question).

  6. (and i can't recall whether mulhall stresses this, but if that last point about the referential model seems unduly focused on parochial problems in philosophy of language, it does seem as if overmuch attraction to that model can easily be accommodated within a mulhall-style emphasis on the picture of infantile desire in the augustine quotation. 'i want THAT.')

  7. I guess if you're describing a use then there has to be an element of time involved. Maybe that's all there is to the narrative question. But I agree that it's worth paying attention to and thinking about.

    What "five" might refer to is an important question in the philosophy of mathematics, especially for Frege ("Bedeutung" is the word the interlocutor uses). If we learn language the way Augustine seems to have in mind then you might expect all the important words to refer to things we can see, or at least sense in some other way. But Frege does a pretty good job of showing that Mill's empiricist account of what numbers mean won't work. So he ends up with a kind of platonism. If we drop the requirement that every word must have a Bedeutung, though, then perhaps we can avoid the idea that some form of platonism must be true. We could still believe in it on religious grounds, say, but such faith would not be forced on us. Perhaps that's what Wittgenstein has in mind. But it isn't what he says at this point.

    I like the connection with the infantile "I want that," and this also connects with Augustine's conception of sin, doesn't it? Since God created everything, everything is good. But focusing on any thing of this world above God is evil. So good and evil relate to what the mind/soul/will attends to. And excessive attention to worldly things (the only kind of attention/thought that make sense, according to a Tractarian view) is sin. But maybe I'm taking this too far.