Sunday, November 18, 2012

Wittgenstein's Chinese man argument

According to Béla Szabados: "Wittgenstein said to his friend Drury: "It is impossible to say in my book one word about all that music has meant in my life," adding, " How then can I hope to be understood?"" Szabados remarks that, "This is an interesting remark for it surprisingly relates understanding music's significance for Wittgenstein as a person, to understanding his philosophy." This sounds right, but it might be worth looking into why Wittgenstein considered it impossible to say what music had meant to him.

On p. 7 of the 1938 lectures on aesthetics (as recorded in notes taken by some of his students) Wittgenstein is reported to have said: "It is not only difficult to describe what appreciation consists in, but impossible. To describe what it consists in we would have to describe the whole environment." Later, on p. 29, he is reported to have said that:
'The sense of a proposition' is very similar to the business of 'an appreciation of art.'
Neither, he seems to believe, can be explained:
"Then why do we admire this and not that?"  "I don't know." [p. 30]
Szabados's take on Wittgenstein's remark about music, which I think is pretty natural and standard, may well be right. Wittgenstein might have meant that anyone who did not understand him well enough to know what music had meant to him would never understand his philosophical work. But I think a different interpretation might be possible. He might have meant something like this: given that it is impossible to explain x, how will anyone understand my book on y, which is very similar to x?

The very idea of explanation in aesthetics seems almost to be a mistake in Wittgenstein's view, although he may well have meant that it is a mistake to look for the kind of explanation that we tend to look for. There is little to be said by way of explanation in any case (that is, even if there is something to be said). I will return to this, albeit briefly.

Now, what of the Chinese man? Here's the relevant passage:
Thinking is not even speaking with accompaniment, noises accompanied with whatever may be, is not [of?] the sort 'It rains' at all, but is within [the] English language. A Chinaman who makes [the] noise 'It rains' with [the] same accompaniments--Does he think 'It rains'?   [p. 30, note 1]
He only thinks "It rains" if he means what he says, and we have to suppose that the Chinaman in question cannot mean "It rains" because those words mean nothing to him, being in a language that he does not know. If he makes the right sound and has simultaneous mental pictures of rain this does not give the sound the meaning we are talking about. One can think without such an accompaniment, and one can have the accompaniment without thinking, without meaning. What gives words meaning when we say, write, or think them is, it seems, "the whole environment." And this cannot be described. Nor can how or why this context makes words meaningful be explained. This is where the connection with aesthetics lies. Why certain pieces of music make such an impression on us cannot be explained, Wittgenstein seems to have thought. (And he might have put why murder is wrong in the same category, I don't know.)

We tend to want to reduce, to go in, to locate thoughts in the brain (or computer) and feelings in the stomach (or wherever). Wittgenstein wants, as it were, to expand, to go out. If you want to understand the laughter of the audience at a comedy show, attend to what they are laughing at, not to the laughter itself (which will be much like all other laughter) or to things unknown going on inside them. If you want to understand a feeling look at its full expression (the flower, so to speak), not at its origin (a point-like seed, hard or impossible to distinguish from other such seeds). It's almost like Blow-Up in reverse (in order to see the details a photographer magnifies a picture more and more, but all he gets is a big blur). What he needs is greater definition, not magnification. Wittgenstein's view seems to be that we reach for the microscope when we don't understand something, but that this will give us no better focus. Nor do we need to expand, in fact, because the expansion has already been done for us. The expression of the thought or feeling is the magnification that we need. The phenomenon we want to understand includes the inner and the outer, but the inner is, so to speak, tiny, hidden, almost fictional, whereas the outer is open to view and comprehensible. It is this big end of the phenomenon that we should attend to. But we need to do so in the right way. To understand what is funny about a joke we should not look for hidden causes of its funniness but at the joke itself and for the reasons why that would be funny in this context (attending to the context means looking out, taking a broader view, not looking inwards or back to the root of something). To understand what is so great about this painting or music we should not look at what happens in the brain when we see a painting or hear music, but focus on the painting or music itself, and perhaps on the context, which will include art or music history as well as politics, culture more broadly, and the rest. This is how we acquire appreciation. Once you have it you might still be puzzled or mystified by it. I take it Wittgenstein was. But he doesn't seem to think there is anything to say that will explain it. The mystery, a kind of wonder, might be part of it.

I don't mean that one cannot say anything at all in Wittgenstein's view about why certain works move us as they do. But I think he thought that any such explanation will itself be an expression of appreciation. It will be analysis or criticism, not something more obviously scientific or causal. So you couldn't have an anaesthetic explanation of aesthetics any more than you could have an amoral explanation of ethics. Or rather, you could (perhaps), but even then it would not be what we really want. Someone wondering at the greatness of Michelangelo or the terribleness of murder is not looking for facts about the brain or evolution.


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