What goes for "Moses" here seems also to go for "ethics" in the Lecture on Ethics. The meaning of the term is 'defined' by giving a series of similar expressions, and the bounds of the incidental are unclear. There are differences though: the expressions given in the Lecture on Ethics are all meant to lie atop one another to produce a composite picture, whereas the facts about Moses might produce a composite picture, but they do not necessarily overlap. We have a cluster rather than a stack in this case. And perhaps the bounds of the cluster are even less precise in Moses' case than they are in the case of ethics. But in each case we seem to be dealing with a kind of family resemblance. In each case the words "Moses" and "ethics" are used without a fixed meaning. The same goes for "good," as far as I can see, in Wittgenstein's view.79. Consider this example. If one says "Moses did not exist", this may mean various things. It may mean: the Israelites did not have a single leader when they withdrew from Egypt——or: their leader was not called Moses——-or there cannot have been anyone who accomplished all that the Bible relates of Moses——or: etc. etc.— We may say, following Russell: the name "Moses" can be defined by means of various descriptions. For example, as "the man who led the Israelites through the wilderness", "the man who lived at that time and place and was then called 'Moses' ", "the man who as a child was taken out of the Nile by Pharaoh's daughter" and so on. And according as we assume one definition or another the proposition "Moses did not exist" acquires a different sense, and so does every other proposition about Moses.—And if we are told "N did not exist", we do ask: "What do you mean? Do you want to say ...... or ...... etc.?"But when I make a statement about Moses,—am I always ready to substitute some one of these descriptions for "Moses"? I shall perhaps say: By "Moses" I understand the man who did what the Bible relates of Moses, or at any rate a good deal of it. But how much? Have I decided how much must be proved false for me to give up my proposition as false? Has the name "Moses" got a fixed and unequivocal use for me in all possible cases?—Is it not the case that I have, so to speak, a whole series of props in readiness, and am ready to lean on one if another should be taken from under me and vice versa?——Consider another case. When I say "N is dead", then something like the following may hold for the meaning of the name "N": I believe that a human being has lived, whom I (1) have seen in such-and-such places, who (2) looked like this (pictures), (3) has done such-and-such things, and (4) bore the name "N" in social life.—Asked what I understand by "N", I should enumerate all or some of these points, and different ones on different occasions. So my definition of "N" would perhaps be "the man of whom all this is true".—But if some point now proves false?—Shall I be prepared to declare the proposition "N is dead" false—even if it is only something which strikes me as incidental that has turned out false? But where are the bounds of the incidental?—If I had given a definition of the name in such a case, I should now be ready to alter it.And this can be expressed like this: I use the name "N" without a fixed meaning. (But that detracts as little from its usefulness, as it detracts from that of a table that it stands on four legs instead of three and so sometimes wobbles.)Should it be said that I am using a word whose meaning I don't know, and so am talking nonsense?—Say what you choose, so long as it does not prevent you from seeing the facts. (And when you see them there is a good deal that you will not say.)(The fluctuation of scientific definitions: what today counts as an observed concomitant of a phenomenon will tomorrow be used to define it.)
Should it be said that when we use one of these words we are using a word whose meaning we don't know, and so are talking nonsense? Surely the Lecture on Ethics and the Tractatus are being echoed here. On the one hand, Wittgenstein explicitly invites us to say what we choose (language is, after all, not a cage), whereas before he had called such uses nonsense. But on the other hand, he insists that what we say should not prevent us from seeing the facts. And he adds that if we do see them then we will not say a good deal that we might otherwise have wanted to say:
SagShould this be translated: "Say what you want, so long as this does not get in the way of your seeing how things are. And when you see this you will not want to say much"? Google translate has: "And if you see that, you will not say much." It seems wrong to take it as saying that there is a lot one could say but that one will choose not to say it. How does Wittgenstein know what others might choose to do? Surely the idea is rather that there is not much to be said, and that if one sees how things are then one will realize this. So Anscombe's "There is a good deal that you will not say" sounds wrong. Hacker and Schulte have "there will be some things that you won't say," and they present this as simply correct (see p. xvi of the fourth edition of the Investigations), but their point is that Anscombe's "good deal" is wrong. I assume they are right about this, but it still makes it sound as though there are things one could say that one will choose not to say. I think these things can only be combinations of words that in fact are meaningless, unhelpful, useless. That is why Wittgenstein is so confident that one who sees things as they are will not want to say them.
If we can say what we choose, what are the options to choose from? There appear to be two kinds of things we might want to say:
a) The concepts we use in ethics, such as 'good', have a family of meanings and so cannot be defined. We use them without being able to say what they mean. So our use of them is nonsense. (Recognizing this is likely to reduce our use of them.)
b) The concepts we use in ethics, such as 'good', have a family of meanings and so cannot be defined. We use them without being able to say what they mean. But words no more need to have fixed meanings than tables need to stand firmly on the ground. We should note this feature of ethical concepts but not necessarily call them nonsensical. (Recognizing this is likely to make us more self-conscious, or just conscious, when we use them, which in turn is likely to reduce our use of them.)Wittgenstein talks also about aesthetics here, and in his lectures on that subject he pointed out that words like 'beauty' are very little used, presumably because they aren't useful, when people talk about aesthetic matters. Mostly we use words like 'beautiful' when we don't know what we are talking about, either because we are not experts in the relevant field or because we want to say something generic (or both). If you show off your new house or room or sofa I might say "It's beautiful!" because we aren't engaged in any real critical appraisal. The occasion calls for bullshit, pleasantries, not anything thoughtful (not even thoughtful and perceptive praise--that would be weird in the kind of social situation I'm imagining, a quick house tour before a dinner party, say). 'Good' is like this too.
But Wittgenstein says it doesn't matter if a word lacks a fixed meaning, doesn't he? He certainly seems to say this of the word 'Moses.' So he isn't saying we shouldn't use words like 'good' and 'beautiful'. Right?
Maybe. But here we should consider whether the differences between 'good' and 'Moses' are relevant. The name 'Moses' refers to someone of whom some or all of a set of propositions is true in a straightforward, objective, factual sense. The word 'good' is not like this. What Wittgenstein talks about in the Lecture on Ethics is what we might call the intrinsically good, important, or valuable. Nothing is true of it in a straightforward, factual sense. It is all evaluative. You might think that this fact/value distinction that he uses in the Lecture on Ethics is absent from, and does not belong in, the Investigations, but it is right there, it seems to me, in the contrast between what we might (want to) say and the facts, the way things are, that our words might obscure. Couldn't "how things are" include the evaluative? For instance, couldn't it be a fact that some act was unjust or rude? Yes, I think so. But I don't see how it can be a fact in the same way that something is good or bad. In fact I think "That's good" is precisely the kind of thing one will not say when one sees the facts.
Partly this is obvious: people don't speak like this. We use the word 'good,' of course, but not much when thinking about ethical questions. Typically in ethics the question is "What should I do?" in the context of some dilemma, some situation where several goods or bads are at stake and one cannot (see a way to) avoid all the bads or have all the goods. Perhaps I am thinking about blowing the whistle on my company, which I know to be poisoning rivers or spying on people or lying. If I do I will expose and perhaps help to stop something bad. If I don't, I will get to keep my job and continue to be able to support my family. It is like Sartre's famous dilemma in which a young man must choose between caring for his mother and fighting for his country. Either choice would be good but he can't do both, so either choice is in effect a rejection of a good option, and therefore bad. The question is which is the less bad option. The word 'good' obviously comes in here, it has a place, but the problem is not one of identifying where the good lies. The problem is one of estimating likely outcomes and weighing values. Will my whistle-blowing do any good? Might I get away with it? What matters more: my family or the people harmed by my company? And so on. Facts are relevant, but they only get you so far. In the end you still have a decision to make. A philosophical analysis of 'good' will not make the decision for you. (Solving all the major problems of philosophy really helps us very little, cf. the foreword to the Tractatus).
Why not? Because 'the best thing to do' is not something that we can discover or calculate, but something we must decide or (perhaps better) judge. A philosophical analysis of 'good' might reveal this to us if it helps us to see that 'good' has a family of meanings. Does moral philosophy have any other use? For instance, might it not be helpful to think about an issue from various points of view (the Kantian, the utilitarian, etc.) in order to think it through and gain a fuller understanding of the ethics involved in it? This is the kind of thing people typically do in a course on contemporary moral issues, after all. Are such courses a waste of time? I hope not. But when such courses are taught in the way that I have in mind the philosophical theories are used in an exercise. They are tools, and other tools might be substituted instead. That is, we use theories like utilitarianism to help us think something through. We don't use them to tell us what is right or what to do. And we could think carefully about moral issues without such theories, perhaps with the help of good fiction or actual experience. Not that experience always brings things home or teaches wisdom, but it can. Philosophical theories are only helpful if they direct our attention to real issues, or aspects of real issues, that we might otherwise overlook. To the extent that they abstract from reality, from the facts, from seeing how things are, they will be no use. And the more purely evaluative the concepts involved, the less factual they are, the thinner they are, the less they are likely to help us.
What about the parenthetical remark at the end? I almost ignored it, but it wouldn't be there if Wittgenstein thought it didn't matter. And in fact it seems to point back to the book's motto: The trouble about progress is that it always looks much greater than it really is. I might put it this way: Progress generally looks much greater than it actually is. In relation to the end of 79, perhaps we could say that when we think we have made progress in discovering the essence of something sometimes all we have done is to change the definition. It is wise not to deceive ourselves about ethics, and one way to avoid such deception is to avoid trying to define terms like 'good'. We don't need to stabilize the wobbly or replace the blurry with the sharp.