In a documentary about religion in India (Extreme Pilgrim, about 25 minutes and 40 seconds in) the British narrator, Peter Owen-Jones, sees a man behaving strangely by the side of the road and asks his Indian guide what is going on. The guide explains that this is a holy man performing some kind of ritual. Roads attract holy men because they are places where energy is concentrated. In one sense this explains the situation, it provides a category in which to place the man's behavior, which had seemed so odd. Do we now understand the behavior or the man himself? Well, in one sense we do, but only in a superficial sense. We understand that he is engaged in religious behavior of some kind, but we do not understand how he comes to be living this way. We are probably not, for instance, tempted to join him in this life. It is not a live option for us. I won't speak for you, but I would not say that I get him or what he is doing. But I can make some sense of his behavior. I know that he is not just crazy (he might be crazy as well as holy, of course) or playing a game, for instance. (Wittgenstein's lion, I imagine, is something like this. We would not recognize it as talking unless we could make some sense of its words, but we would not get the lion itself. An opposite case might be reading the Tractatus and understanding its author but not its propositions. Although in this case, too, we might think that we understand the propositions at first. And in the lion case we might come to think that we had never understood the lion's words either.)
This makes it sound, though, as though there are two kinds or levels of understanding, the superficial and the deep, understanding in the categorizing sense and understanding in the empathizing sense. But that seems oversimple. There are, surely, degrees of understanding, and not just two such degrees but infinitely many shades. Correspondingly, explaining something, providing or enabling understanding of it, comes in different degrees as well. Some cases of explanation might be all or nothing (either you understand now or you don't) but others will admit of degrees. Reshef has said (in his comment at 10:20):
getting others to understand a secondary use is a matter almost of luring them to a place where it would be natural for them to use the term in this way, and then ask them to reflect where they are.This is understanding of the empathetic kind, and it is tricky for several reasons. For one thing, this explanation of what an explanation of secondary use would be is figurative. Secondly, it is offered with that qualifying "almost." Thirdly, what if a person in that kind of place is, by virtue of being in it, not well placed to reflect on where they are? This seems likely to me. So I'm going to try to rely on my memory of being in this kind of place and reflect on that.
First, though, some introduction of the kind of place we're talking about. In the Lecture on Ethics Wittgenstein says:
He is talking about absolute sense here, but this impossibility of simply stating the facts that stand behind the use of words in question is also a feature of secondary sense. It raises the question of what counts as simply stating facts. And that, I think, is not very clear. It isn't that the words cannot be paraphrased (although that might well be true in some cases). Wittgenstein says that the experience of wondering at the existence of the world is:in ethical and religious language we seem constantly to be using similes. But a simile must be the simile for something. And if I can describe a fact by means of a simile I must also be able to drop the simile and to describe the facts without it. Now in our case as soon as we try to drop the simile and simply to state the facts which stand behind it, we find that there are no such facts. And so, what at first appeared to be simile now seems to be mere nonsense.
exactly what people were referring to when they said that God had created the world; and the experience of absolute safety has been described by saying that we feel safe in the hands of God. The third experience of the same kind is that of feeling guilty and again this was described by the phrase that God disapproves of our conduct.So the experiences he uses as examples can all be described in other words. Or so he believes. But these descriptions do not count as simply stating the facts. Even, apparently, "I feel guilty" does not count as a simple statement of fact. Presumably because Wittgenstein has in mind a feeling that could be accurately paraphrased as the feeling that God disapproves of one's conduct. And not in the sense that one might then seek a cure for this feeling. It is a feeling, so to speak, that one buys into. "I am guilty" or "I am conscious of my guilt" might have been a better choice of words. ("How conscious are you of your sin?" is a question asked by another holy man in the Extreme Pilgrim series.) To make another presumption about Wittgenstein, he seems to understand these uses of words well enough to claim to be able to paraphrase them, and to use them to describe his own experiences. He has been there. He gets it. But he still concludes that they really are nonsense. Because they cannot be paraphrased by simple statements of fact. Because they were attempts to go beyond the world, beyond significant language. When he said them he wanted to go beyond significant language. He wanted to talk nonsense. It seems to me that it is perfectly reasonable to call such uses of language nonsense. But what the speaker acknowledges that he wants or means is important (because of first-person authority and because it is rude--not a matter simply of stating a fact--to accuse people of talking nonsense).
That was absolute sense. Now the related idea of secondary sense:
Given the two ideas 'fat' and 'lean', would you be rather inclined to say that Wednesday was fat and Tuesday lean, or vice versa? (I incline decisively towards the former.) Now have "fat" and "lean" some different meaning here from their usual one?—They have a different use.—So ought I really to have used different words? Certainly not that.—I want to use these words (with their familiar meanings) here.—Now, I say nothing about the causes of this phenomenon. They might be associations from my childhood. But that is a hypothesis. Whatever the explanation,—the inclination is there. Asked "What do you really mean here by 'fat' and 'lean'?"—I could only explain the meanings in the usual way. I could not point to the examples of Tuesday and Wednesday.
Here one might speak of a 'primary' and 'secondary' sense of a word. It is only if the word has the primary sense for you that you use it in the secondary one.
Only if you have learnt to calculate—on paper or out loud—can you be made to grasp, by means of this concept, what calculating in the head is.
The secondary sense is not a 'metaphorical' sense. If I say "For me the vowel e is yellow" I do not mean: 'yellow' in a metaphorical sense,—for I could not express what I want to say in any other way than by means of the idea 'yellow'.We have here cases of the same meaning but different use, different sense. The only explanation of the meaning that can be given is the normal, primary one. That is the meaning that the speaker wants. He does not want to go beyond significant language, at least not explicitly. He wants, on the contrary, to use the usual, familiar meanings of his words. But not in the usual kind of context. If the result is nonsense this seems to be involuntary. And "Wednesday is fat" does sound like nonsense. Especially if, when asked to explain, the speaker gives the usual explanation of what 'Wednesday' and 'fat' mean.
On the other hand, "calculating in the head" does not sound like nonsense at all. It means "doing mental arithmetic." But then paraphrasing 'in the head' as 'mentally' or 'in the mind' is not using a simple statement of facts, is it? "In the mind" is not simple. The word 'calculating' might be used in a secondary sense in the expression "calculating in the head," but are the words "in the head" also used in this way? Unlike the case of the vowel e, you can express what you want to say in another way than by means of the word 'head'. The word 'mind', however problematic it might be, would work perfectly well. Or is this cheating, like saying you could use the word 'buttercup-colored' instead of 'yellow'?
In referring to 'yellow' and 'fat' and 'lean,' Wittgenstein talks about ideas rather than words or meanings. Secondary use involves bringing in a word or idea that you know does not in any ordinary sense belong there but that is nevertheless exactly, and without substitute, what you want. Understanding this kind of use involves understanding what people who make it want. You have to know the primary meaning of a word, not just in the sense that you know how to use it but in the sense that you get the idea of it. And you have to get how that idea could be wanted in this anomalous situation. Now, if somebody does not get all that, how can it be explained to them? As Reshef says, getting them into the same kind of situation would be one way, and perhaps the only way.
Wittgenstein provides a few examples of how this might be done. In his first example of secondary sense he gives you two pairs of words or ideas and asks you how you would match them up (if you had to). His pairs are each of similar types, but they might not have to be. Given the ideas 'whale' and 'cucumber,' would you rather be inclined to say that Jupiter is a cucumber kind of planet and Mars a whale planet, or vice versa? I have no inclinations one way or the other here, but you might. And we can keep going until we find an example that works, that is, an example where you find that you do have a noticeable inclination one way or the other. Now, can you give a reason for this inclination, one that is not a hypothesis about your inclination's cause? Presumably, a priori, not. Reason has no foothold here. In that sense you are talking nonsense. The whole exercise is an exercise in nonsense, or in getting someone to feel inclined to talk nonsense.
The case of the yellow e is not like that, because there is no mention of 'yellow' and 'e' having been picked from a limited range of options. The person who says "For me the vowel e is yellow" may or may not have been asked to associate a color with a vowel. But there is something that they want to say, and only those words with their usual (albeit ill-fitting) meaning will do to express it. Or, at any rate, this is what they say. Whether there really is an it that they want to express remains to be seen. That might sound too skeptical, as if the default attitude to people who speak is doubt, and the onus on them to prove that their words have meaning. I don't think that can be true. [Flag--there seems to be something important here that I am not saying much about.] But it is true that we have not (yet) seen that there is an it that they want to express. Perhaps someone else will say that they get it, that for them e is yellow too. Or they might strongly disagree, and insist that e is purple. Would such a conversation make sense? I don't know. I wouldn't be able to make sense of it, at least at first. Perhaps at some point I would start to get it, start to feel inclined to take one side or the other, or my own third position (e is green!). Not having any inclination to talk like this at all I want to leave this one alone.
Different again is the case of calculating in one's head. This is a perfectly normal expression and, at least it seems to me, not even close to being nonsense. It may be secondary in the sense specified by Wittgenstein--you won't understand what it is unless you know how to calculate--but it is not very different from calculating out loud. It could almost be said to be merely a difference in volume (if you move your lips while doing it). That is how I would teach someone to calculate in their head, anyway, if I had to do so. Start with calculation on paper or a board, then move to calculation out loud, then move to a whisper, then silently. It might not work (calculating in the head isn't just calculating out loud at very low volume even if it is very close to this--it isn't close at all if you can't make the transition from quiet to silent), but those are the stages through which I would try to lead them. And virtually everybody can calculate in their head and does understand what this activity is. How do I know? Well, they say they can do it, they think they can do it, when asked to do it they are not thrown by the question, and they usually come up with the right answer as long as the question is simple enough.
Now what if we apply these criteria to "e is yellow"? Imagine that a large number of people say things like this. They claim to be able to identify the colors of vowels, they are sincere when they make such claims, if asked to say what color u is they react as if to a normal question, and they usually agree in their answers (I mean, let us imagine that all this is the case). Does "the color of a vowel" mean something in this case? I can't say what it means, but it looks as though it has meaning for them, as though they are able to do something that I can't, and that I don't understand. I am on the outside of this game, if it is a game, and cannot get inside it, cannot get it, by means of words because the only meanings they can give of the words they use are the usual ones that I'm familiar with--it's this secondary use that I don't get. What I don't understand is not words but a use of words, a practice or form of behavior. And in a (limited) sense I do understand it, just as I might understand that the holy man in India is engaged in a religious practice. They are naming the colors of vowels. I have a name for the practice and can do something with this concept (namely, most likely, leave them to it). I am like a (completely) blind (from birth) man with the concept seeing--I know it as something I cannot do or imagine, but that seems to have a role in other people's lives. [Flag 2--something feels off here.]
Wonder at the existence of the world is foreign to me, but the feeling of absolute safety is something that I think I understand. I have never wanted to put any experience of mine in quite those words, but I have felt a couple of times that everything is all right and (inevitably) will be all right (no matter what happens). I would at these times have been quite happy to express this with the words "We are safe in God's hands," or something of that sort at least, something referring to God. I feel that I know exactly what kind of experience Wittgenstein is talking about when he talks about these experiences that seem "to have in some sense an intrinsic, absolute value." I am inclined to say that I have felt the same thing. And so are lots of other people. Wittgenstein counts, in his lecture, on members of the audience being able to relate, getting what he is saying, even if it is "nonsense." He doesn't mean nonsense in a technical sense but in the ordinary sense of something whose meaning one cannot explain in terms of simple facts. The word nonsense, in the (or an) ordinary sense, doesn't just mean this though. It means rubbish. "When a sentence is called senseless, it is not as it were its sense that is senseless. But a combination of words is being excluded from the language, withdrawn from circulation." To call sentences like "God created the world" nonsense, then, is to recommend that they be withdrawn from circulation. Qua philosopher I don't think anyone has any business doing this. [Flag 3--I don't think I'm wrong here, but a lot more could be said about it.]
Wait though. Can we be sure that these words (i.e. "God created the world," etc.) are even in the language to begin with, that they do anything there? The fact that many people talk like this is no guarantee that these words mean what these people want them to mean, or that what these people want is to make sense, to operate within significant language. And is that even a fact? I just googled "God created the world" and got nearly 6,000,000 hits. But the only relevant ones are the ones that could equally have said "I wonder at the existence of the world." And that is surely not most of them. Usually when people say that God created the world they are not expressing wonder but repeating a kind of cliche or bit of dogma. They are not describing an experience that they have had. Still people do have this kind of experience. What kind? The kind that inclines them to use expressions like these. Can I explain in words what this is like, beyond repeating the examples? Ex hypothesi, No. I can imagine sitting around with other people who have had such experiences and sharing our stories while someone else looked on feeling very much as I would in a group of people naming the colors of vowels. It might be much like the case of someone for whom "calculating in the head" means nothing, because he can only calculate with perceptible signs. In that case, though, the people who talk of calculating in their heads can at least produce answers to mathematical questions. What can the wonderers at the world and the feelers of guilt do? Not much. Have certain kinds of conversations maybe (if these really are conversations and not orgies of gibberish). Enjoy reading certain kinds of books. Maybe they behave differently from other people. Does this show that their words make sense? No. Cranks have conversations, books, and behavior of their own.
How, then, are we to decide whether these uses of language make sense, or what kind of sense they make, or in what ways they do and in what ways they do not make sense? Is "God created the world" said as an expression of wonder at the very existence of a world more like "The letter n is brown" or "Today I did some mental arithmetic"? What kind of question is that? It surely can't be about how many people utter words like these, and yet that seems to be highly relevant. [Flag 4--I suspect that numbers seem relevant because they causally affect what we count as sense. But numbers are no criterion of sense, no grammatical reason to count something as sense. The authors of the OED care about numbers, but it is not part of the concept of 'sentence that makes sense' that such a sentence must be widely used. And "This is nonsense even though everyone says it all the time" is not some kind of self-contradiction. Maybe this is changing though.] The question rather is about what, if anything, people are doing when they use words like these. They are describing experiences that cannot be described, for which normal language has no words. So they are not really, not exactly, describing experiences. They are expressing feelings, but not in the way that people who laugh or cry are expressing their feelings, and not in the way that people who say "I am excited" or "I am afraid" are expressing their feelings. What they are doing cannot be separated, cannot be understood separately, from the words they are using, and these words are not being used in their usual way, but do have (are required to have) their usual meanings. This is something that humans do. Any given instance of it might be nonsense or might be understood, but the general phenomenon is part of human life. A big part of it. Talk about the colors of vowels is a tiny part, at most, of our lives. But talk about what we take to be profoundly important experiences is a bigger part. And talk about such phenomena as calculating in one's head is part of everyday life. It is presumably something that all human beings, or all readers of this blog at least, get. In other words, I can't explain it but you know what I mean. Don't you?
If we now reflect on the times when we talk like this, what do we see? I just don't think it's possible to say very much about this. There are cases of more or less plain nonsense ("I am inclined to say that a is green") and cases of more or less obvious sense ("calculating in one's head"). When we find ourselves talking like this without any trouble, indeed in ways we find useful (e.g. when teaching children to add in their heads), we seem to me to have all we need to call these uses of language meaningful. Might someone point out something that stops us in our tracks and makes us want to stop talking like this? I suppose so. Then we might say that we had been talking nonsense all along. But that hypothetical possibility isn't a reason to be skeptical now.
The in-between cases are perhaps the most interesting. I keep finding myself thinking of the song "Once in a Lifetime" by Talking Heads: You may find yourself in a beautiful house ..., You may tell yourself: This is not my beautiful house..., You may ask yourself, what is that beautiful house?, etc. What does it mean to say that you may find yourself in the house where you live? Here it surely means that you stop and think about something you haven't stopped and thought about before. And when you do it might all seem unreal. Not in the sense that you believe it is an illusion, but in the sense that you have a feeling that you associate with illusions, with unreality. You become aware of the dreamlike or film-like state in which you have done the things that led to your living in this house, with this beautiful wife, etc. Although what seems unreal is not your past decision-making but its results.
Reshef quotes Wittgenstein on this sense of unreality:
Wittgenstein, Remarks on Philosophy of Psychology 1, §§125-126:
The feeling of the unreality of one's surroundings. This feeling I have had once, and many have it before the onset of mental illness. Everything seems somehow not real; but not as if one saw things unclear or blurred; everything looks quite as usual. And how do I know that another has felt what I have? Because he uses the same words as I find appropriate.
But why do I choose precisely the word "unreality" to express it? Surely not because of its sound. (A word of very like sound but different meaning would not do.) I choose it because of its meaning.
But I surely did not learn to use the word to mean: a feeling. No; but I learned to use it with a particular meaning and now I use it spontaneously like this. One might say—though it may mislead—: When I have learnt the word in its ordinary meaning, then I choose that meaning as a simile for my feeling. But of course what is in question here is not a simile, not a comparison of the feeling with something else.
The fact is simply that I use a word, the bearer of another technique, as the expression of a feeling. I use it in a new way. And wherein consists this new kind of use? Well, one thing is that I say: I have a 'feeling of unreality'—after I have, of course, learnt the use of the word "feeling" in the ordinary way. Also: the feeling is a state.The "feeling of unreality" is a lot like "calculating in one's head," it seems to me. We understand the feeling by having it [Flag 5--this sounds odd], or others like it, and we understand those who speak this way because they spontaneously choose the same words we do, despite the novelty of this way of speaking.
I have five flags and have gone on at some length for a blog post, so I'll stop. I also don't know what more I could say except about those flags. But I feel as though I've been saying that all along. So that's another reason to stop.