Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Wittgenstein: mind and soul

I'm not very happy with this, but here's what I have for now:
His observations about private language do not, as has been alleged, make Wittgenstein a behaviorist. He does not deny the existence of sensations or experiences. Pains, tickles, itches, etc. are all part of human life, of course. At Philosophical Investigations Sect. 293 Wittgenstein says that “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.” This suggests not that pains and so on are irrelevant but that we should not construe the grammar of the expression of sensation on the model of ‘object and designation’. If we want to understand a concept such as pain we should not think of a pain as a private object referred to somehow by the public word “pain.” A pain is not “a something,” just as love, democracy and strength are not things, but it is no more “a nothing” than they are either (see Philosophical Investigations Sect. 304). Saying this is hardly satisfactory, but there is no simple answer to the question “What is pain?” Wittgenstein offers not an answer but a kind of philosophical ‘therapy’ intended to clear away what can seem bafflingly obscure. The required clarity is (supposedly) achieved not by looking in at one’s own pain but by looking outward at the use we make of the word ‘pain.’ This is not because there is nothing there when we talk about pain, nor because we are really talking about behavior rather than a sensation or feeling when we do so. A boy who complains of toothache is not telling us about his behavior but about how he feels. To understand him and what he means we need to understand the point of his words, not investigate something inside him that is accessible to him alone.
This puts Wittgenstein at odds with all the best known theories in the philosophy of mind. He opposes the Cartesian idea that a pain (or a belief, memory, etc.) is something in the soul. He opposes the idea that a pain is something in the brain. He opposes the idea that a pain is a something defined by its functional role. And he opposes the eliminativist idea that we should abandon concepts such as ‘pain’ altogether. Instead of proposing any kind of theory about the mind or mental states, he suggests that we already understand them well enough and merely need to be reminded, or to remind ourselves, of what we already know. Most people interested in increasing or improving our understanding of the mind and its states, therefore, find little of interest in Wittgenstein’s work. They would agree with him, however, in rejecting Descartes’s idea that the mind is the soul.
Wittgenstein says in proposition 6.4312 of the Tractatus that there can be no guarantee of the immortality of the soul, if any such thing exists. Within space and time, or just time, one is dealing with phenomena or contingencies. So there can never be a guarantee (or necessity) that something will last for any specific length of time, including all time. More to the point, it is not more life but better that one needs, so such immortality is beside the point as Wittgenstein sees it. And value (whatever might determine what is better) lies outside this contingent world. Wittgenstein is not denying that the soul exists, nor that it is immortal. What he says is that the soul as it is conceived by some psychologists does not exist.
In the Philosophical Investigations §422, he writes that the belief that people have souls gives us a certain picture, but its sense, that is its application, is distant from us or hard to see. The picture of the soul comes up again in section iv of “Philosophy of Psychology – A Fragment” (previously known as Part II of the Investigations). Wittgenstein there contrasts the idea of someone’s being an automaton with the idea of his having a soul. Neither makes sense as an opinion or belief, he says. Rather it is a question of attitude. Words and paintings can equally present a picture of the human being as “having a soul.” What this means though depends on how one uses the picture, on what one does with it. This is very complex, since it is a question of how one lives with other people, including one’s thoughts, feelings, actions, and reactions. The best picture of the human soul, he says, is the human body. Therefore not, presumably, the brain alone, or some non-physical object somehow linked with it.

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