Thursday, July 25, 2013

Mm-mm good

I mentioned here that Wittgenstein makes an odd comment about the word 'good' in his lectures on aesthetics:
A child generally applies a word like ‘good’ first to food. One thing that is immensely important in teaching is exaggerated gestures and facial expressions. The word is taught as a substitute for a facial expression or a gesture. The gestures, tones of voice, etc., in this case are expressions of approval.  
I also said that:
There is much more to be said about how we get from yummy! to appreciation, about the tremendous (because "One wouldn’t talk of appreciating the tremendous things in Art"), and about the significance of all this (its relevance to ethics, for instance). But that will have to wait. 
Presumably Wittgenstein's thinking about the word 'good' being a substitute for a facial expression or gesture that expresses approval is related to Philosophical Investigations 244:
How do words refer to sensations? -- There doesn't seem to be any problem here; don't we talk about sensations every day, and give them names? But how is the connection between the name and the thing named set up? This question is the same as: how does a human being learn the meaning of the names of sensations? -- of the word "pain" for example. Here is one possibility: words are connected with the primitive, the natural, expressions of the sensation and used in their place. A child has hurt himself and he cries; and then adults talk to him and teach him exclamations and, later, sentences. They teach the child new pain-behavior.
"So you are saying that the word 'pain' really means crying?" -- On the contrary: the verbal expression of pain replaces crying and does not describe it.     
Can we infer that the word 'good' replaces cheering (as in hooray, as in the boo-hooray theory, aka emotivism) or saying 'aah!' or 'mmm!' and does not describe it? I (tentatively) think so. But learning new pain-behavior and new approval-behavior (if that's the right term) is learning something new. It isn't just doing the same thing in a pointlessly different way. So what is it? Well, we know what it is. But perhaps it would be good to get re-acquainted with it.

The move from "mmm!" to "That's good" is, among other things, a move from (something that has the form of) expression to (something that has the form of) a report. It's a move into language, away or on from just being a thing. ('Mmm!' doesn't have much meaning or grammar.) It's a move toward articulation, which allows for greater detail or precision and for (more) rational understanding of what is expressed. It allows for disagreement, too, which is part of this rational understanding. The move into language (and reason) is also a move into society or community with others, out of the (more) private world of the pre-linguistic. But it isn't a leap from one sphere into another. It's a growing from one area into a wider area that still includes the point of origin. I can and do still say "mmm!" or cry instead of always saying "This is good" or "I'm in pain."

The first step is being trained to associate the exaggerated facial expressions and gestures with the pleasant sensations of eating. The next is to be trained to say 'good' or 'it's good' or whatever instead of making such gestures (if kids ever do start by simply mimicking the gestures--at any rate they need to be taught to say 'good,' etc.). Then you start working on your pronunciation (not goo or goot but good), your grammar (not just good but This is good, etc.), and applying words like 'good' to other foods, other sensations, other kinds of thing. And that involves being shown, or simply noticing for oneself, similarities between the original paradigm cases and others.

This can be complicated, as Wittgenstein describes in the case of appreciating a piece of music (from Culture and Value, p. 59):
Doesn’t the theme point to anything beyond itself? Oh yes! But that means: the impression it makes on me is connected with things in its surroundings- e.g. with the existence of the German language and its intonation, but that means with the whole field of our language games. If I say, e.g.: it’s as though a conclusion were being drawn, or, as if here something were being confirmed, or, as this were a reply to what came earlier, - then the way I understand it clearly presupposes familiarity with conclusions, confirmations, replies, etc. A theme, no less than a face, wears an expression.     
It's the ability to say things like "it's as though a conclusion were being drawn" (when this is appropriate, of course) that characterizes what Wittgenstein means by appreciation. It involves having a discerning and articulate taste, although there are limits to this kind of articulation. A novice will not understand an expert, at least some of the time. The only way is for the novice to learn more, to develop the ability to see likenesses and connections. Learning to appreciate a piece of music is not so much a matter of coming to see (or hear) that it is good as it is coming to understand it, finding one's way around it, becoming familiar with it. (And what Wittgenstein says about how one does this, e.g. learning from someone else to hear one part as if it were a conclusion, might be regarded as a helpful filling in of details left out of Nietzsche's account of how one comes to love a piece of music, which is not to say that Wittgenstein would agree with Nietzsche. It is, instead, to say that he could do so.)

Going back to the first step, I am reminded of the opening of the Philosophical Investigations, whose first step is about these first steps, our first learning of language. Wittgenstein begins at the beginning. Not because he's so methodical--it isn't really that kind of book (it's not a textbook)--but because this is where the trouble starts, I suppose. In moving from expressions to uses of language that look like reports we acquire the temptation to think of them as reports. Hence of our inner life as consisting of weird metaphysical objects. But it is more everyday than that. And weirder. After all, as Augustine says, the mind is like God:
[...] a kind of trinity exists in man, who is the image of God, viz. the mind, and the knowledge wherewith the mind knows itself, and the love wherewith it loves both itself and its own knowledge; and these three are shown to be mutually equal, and of one essence 
Book X of the Confessions is surely also relevant here:
15. Great is this power of memory, exceeding great, O my God—an inner chamber large and boundless! Who has plumbed the depths thereof? Yet it is a power of mine, and appertains unto my nature; nor do I myself grasp all that I am. Therefore is the mind too narrow to contain itself. And where should that be which it does not contain of itself? Is it outside and not in itself? How is it, then, that it does not grasp itself? A great admiration rises upon me; astonishment seizes me. And men go forth to wonder at the heights of mountains, the huge waves of the sea, the broad flow of the rivers, the extent of the ocean, and the courses of the stars, and omit to wonder at themselves ...
One of the most wonderful things of all is the human mind, including the faculty of memory, which is a great mystery, and which Augustine seems to have been fooled with regard to in the passage Wittgenstein quotes in PI 1. Augustine cannot remember how he learned language--he is fooled into thinking that he must have learned it as he describes by the form of language itself. We are educated, led out, by and into language, but also corrupted by it. Wittgenstein's response is to do battle against this bewitchment by means of language itself.
Bernie Rhie quotes Wittgenstein saying that: "If I say of a piece of Schubert’s that it is melancholy, that is like giving it a face." Giving it a face helps us understand it, connect it with facial expressions, gestures, and what they express (although this should not be thought of as something we can really make sense of wholly apart from expressions of it). It is like giving us a concept, a category, like a light, under which to see it. It helps us place it in relation to other things, and thereby (perhaps) understand it. 

And, Wittgenstein says, the word 'good' (and others like it) are first learned in connection with a kind of face and as a substitute for that kind of face. The word has a kind of depth because it replaces (but does not stand for) an expression, not just a three-dimensional object (a wide-eyed, smiling face, say) but one that calls for a certain kind of response (or effect) and implies that it is itself the effect of something else, such as the eating of tasty food. In the beginning was the deed, perhaps, but a gesture is the kind of deed that points back or in to something like a cause (that which it expresses) and forwards or out to something like an effect (the kind of response it calls for).


  1. So: learning how to use terms like "good"--how to put a more articulate face on things--is not just giving a report because this process is at the same time one of learning how to judge, and how to become more articulate in judging? (And judging is not just giving a report.) That's the short of what I'm getting from this. (Does the point about "not just a report" get at what's wrong with emotivism?)

  2. I'm trying to think my way through a lot here (at least it seems like a lot--I also wonder if I'm not over-complicating things at times), so I'm not sure there is a thesis or takeaway as such. But I agree with what you say. Learning how to use 'good' is learning how to judge, which in turn is more than learning how to use 'good'. That is, if you only know what's good then you don't really know how to judge. And if you do know how to judge then you probably won't use the word 'good' much. Critics of wine, movies, etc. rarely just say "Good!" And the same goes for ethics. There is a fundamental visceral element, Wittgenstein thinks, but there's far more than that, too. So, yes, emotivism is wrong.

  3. We also had this discussion back in April 2012, on an exceedingly similar theme. I still think there is very much to the idea which I bring to the table there: that "beautiful" (and "good") is typically something you call a thing when you cannot think of anything more interesting to say about it.

    It may be that these words do not strictly speaking replace childish squeals of delight (etc.), but there is surely an internal relation between the squeals and the words' vagueness in terms of judgemental content. They suggest themselves because they are vague, like any boilerplate bromides in any context.

    The words "good" and "beautiful" are learned in early childhood, and in adulthood we use them in those social situations where we are no more able to elaborate on our judgements than we would have been able to elaborate on our squeals. (Even in those cases where we were squealing at something on which we later did learn to elaborate.)

  4. Thanks, Tommi.

    "beautiful" (and "good") is typically something you call a thing when you cannot think of anything more interesting to say about it.

    This seems exactly right.