Saturday, June 21, 2014

Rhees's builders

It's been a while since I read Rush Rhees's paper "Wittgenstein's Builders," which criticizes Wittgenstein's suggestion that a four-word language used by builders ("slab!", etc.) might be a complete language. But re-reading the first pages of the Investigations it struck me that Wittgenstein makes other, (seemingly) related, bizarre claims. Take the first paragraph of §19:
It is easy to imagine a language consisting only of orders and reports in battle. -- Or a language consisting only of questions and expressions for answering Yes and No -- and countless other things.— And to imagine a language means to imagine a form of life.
It is easy to imagine countless forms of life? To imagine a life in which people only talk when giving orders and reports in battle? Do they fight all the time? Is that easy to imagine?

Why is Wittgenstein telling us that this is easy to do?

Surely the careful reader will remember §19 upon reaching §25, which tells us that:
Giving orders, asking questions, telling stories, having a chat, are as much a part of our natural history as walking, eating, drinking, playing.  
This is contrasted with the most primitive forms of language, which even animals might have. The implication seems to be that the builders are not (really, fully) human. So then how easy can it be to imagine their form of life?

Then of course there is the shopkeeper of §1. He comes to mind when reading §53, which reads in part: 
(We don't usually carry out the order “Bring me a red flower” by looking up the colour red in a colour chart and then bringing a flower of the colour that we find in the chart;...)
Presumably Wittgenstein is aware, then, that his shopkeeper is unusual. How unusual is he? As strange as the builders? Wittgenstein does say in §1 that "It is in this and similar ways that one operates with words," but could this be part of what we are asked in this paragraph to imagine? That is, it might not be a claim that Wittgenstein makes. Rather, as with the builders, it might be something that he asks or tells us to imagine, without claiming that the example is realistic. Apart from what he says in §19, that is. 

So back to §19 and what it says about the builders. Can we imagine the language and form of life of A and B? We can picture it. Wittgenstein describes their language, and we could make a cartoon, say, in which they build all day, eat in silence, and then go to sleep. In that sense we can imagine such a form of life. Does it seem oddly inhuman though? Yes it does. In that sense we cannot imagine human beings living like this for long, as a way of life. So can we really imagine such a life or not? Paraphrasing PI 47 we might say: That depends on what you understand by 'imagine.' And that, of course, is not an answer to, but a rejection of, the question. 

It also depends on what you count as a language, or as a form of life. And I don't think that's just a matter of defining form of life as a technical term. It depends on what we count as life or as living. 

In the section of Inheritance and Originality on the builders, Stephen Mulhall calls the words of the PI "treacherous from the very beginning" (p. 52). He notes that Baker and Hacker have pointed out problems with the content of the builders' language, such as its lack of syntax, which we might normally expect to be a feature of any language. And Rhees sees problems with the context of this 'language': it does not connect with other recognizably human concerns, such as most of the ones mentioned in §25. So is it or is it not really a language? It seems to me that we can say what we like, as long as we face the facts. But what that means is not really clear. Is it facing the facts to add all sorts of details to Wittgenstein's picture, providing a background or adding flesh to the skeleton he provides? Or is that a refusal to accept the facts as given, like wondering about irrelevant details of Hamlet's family tree as if they must exist? Is it realistic to make a cartoon more lifelike or, on the contrary, to accept it as a cartoon? It depends on our purpose, surely. The builders' language is introduced in connection with Augustine's account of how he learned language, but the builders' language, bound up with construction, is quite different from anything Augustine describes. 

On pp. 56-57 Mulhall goes through three Cavellian ways of taking the primitiveness of the builders: they are something like Neanderthals, primitive beings; they might be quite sophisticated but their language is primitive; or they are an allegory of modern life. I'm simplifying, but that's roughly it. If we choose one of these options, though, then we are settling a matter that is not, in itself, settled. We are imposing our own ideas. Mulhall writes that, "If we accept for a moment that it is an essential part of Wittgenstein's challenge to us as readers to fill in the unspecified wider context of the builders' lives, then  ..." but why should we accept this, even for a moment? Why not leave the unspecified unspecified? If we insist on specifying certain details, or insist that without them we are not really imagining a language (or not really imagining a language, or a form of life) then we haven't thereby discovered anything about anything but ourselves, about what we are prepared to accept as imagining or as language or as life. 

The contrast with animals is relevant here, too, I think. Do animal forms of communication count as language? That is up to us, at least in part. The essence of language is expressed by grammar, and we have a say in what that means. 

I think I'm largely, but perhaps not exactly, agreeing with Mulhall here. And there is more to read and think about on all this. But I'll leave it here for now.   


  1. in my own naive reading I assumed that Witt was making these figures not unlike the sketches that earlier artists did of 'grotesques' as exaggerations made strange to highlight some aspect for us, to make the familiar un-heimlich.

    1. Conferre:

      "Lichtenberg says that very few people have ever seen pure white. So do most people use the word wrong, then? And how did he learn the correct usage? – He constructed an ideal use from the ordinary one. And that is not to say a better one, but one that has been refined along certain lines and in the process something has been carried to extremes.

      And of course such a construct may in turn teach us something about the way we in fact use the word."

      (Remarks on Colour, I, §§3–4)

    2. very good thanks.

  2. It's extremely likely that this is totally off the mark (and I unfortunately haven't read Mulhall on this), but I always understood "form of life" in Wittgenstein as being less about a unified, exhaustive way in which a being could live, and more about different ways or manners of living a being could (at least in theory) be simultaneously involved in, though our "native" languages unify these to a large degree. (This view at least seems supported by $23 where he compares forms of life to activities.)

    "It is easy to imagine countless forms of life? To imagine a life in which people only talk when giving orders and reports in battle? Do they fight all the time? Is that easy to imagine?"

    Probably not. But it is possible to imagine a form of life- i.e. fighting- and a language that goes along with it, so that people only talk in that language when giving orders and reports in battle. I guess this approach would see something like musical notation as a neat example of a complete (primitive?) language, and its relation to "music", more broadly, as a form of life. (Which doesn't exclude the possibility that musicians may also have other forms of life, and other languages that go with them.)

    Under this interpretation what makes this language complete is not that it is possible to live a human kind of life where you only converse in this language, but more that it does not depend on other languages for its existence- that it is not simply a "shortening" of them.

    1. Musicians qua people that is.

    2. it is not simply a "shortening" of them

      I think that's certainly true.

  3. Perhaps its significant that, in the ancestor of Section 2, namely, Section 7 of The Big Typescript, the builder is Wittgenstein:

    "Let's assume for instance that I wanted to build a house out of building blocks that someone else is to pass me; we might first create a convention by my pointing to one block and saying 'That's a pillar' and to another saying 'That's called a cube', 'That's called a slab', and so on. And now the application would consist in calling out the words 'pillar', 'slab', etc. in the order in which I need the building blocks."

    Now, that is easy to imagine. What is accomplished by changing the example to the whole language of people who live much simpler lives than we do?

    1. Yes! This is what I meant with the above.

    2. I think you may be missing just how simple the figures here are, we may know individuals who suffer from such developmental limitations but not whole peoples/communities, the contrast with St.Augustine that Witt makes about language use/acquisition seems pertinent to what I think our good host was gesturing towards but I'm sure he will chime in soon enough.

    3. Thanks for all the comments. Sorry, I'm away from home (in Mississippi, to be precise) and haven't had much time. And now I don't have much to add. But dmf is right that the figures A and B are very simple indeed. The example seems more like an intuition pump than proof of this or that, and I think people might have different intuitions about whether we can imagine such people, about exactly what counts as imagining and as language and as human life, too. Wittgenstein suggests that it might not matter what we say as long as we avoid problems. But what's a problem? And what kind of problems might we run into in philosophy?

  4. I am curious about your use of "form of life." You sometimes contrast the human form of life with animal form of life. But at other times, things you say imply that different humans might live different forms of life. There is no contradiction here. Perhaps you mean that there is a family of forms of life that are human. - is that what you mean?

    Probably more important, however: You say that what counts as a form of life is not a matter of defining form of life as a technical term. - Why then is the term important in the first place? Why does W need it? Why does he think we need it? What will we not be able to do w/o it?

    I'm not sure how to connect all the dots, but suppose someone suggested that W is giving these problematic too-thin examples (the builders, the shopkeeper) in order to generate a perplexity in us, and thus indirectly lead us to see why WE need to be interested in forms of life: that only so we will be able to imagine anything relevant--any linguistic activity for instance. (So, for instance, the upshot of W's argument will be that you are not really imagining someone asking someone else for a slab, if you don't also have an idea how to imagine a whole life surrounding that request.) - Is that different from what Mulhall is saying? Does that seem problematic to you? Or is that what you would say? - I'm trying to better understand what you are saying.

  5. As far as I know, Wittgenstein himself only ever used the words "form of life" once. This was in the lectures on religious belief, where he asked (according to the lecture notes): "Why shouldn't one form of life culminate in an utterance of belief in a Last Judgement?" Everywhere else, he used the German Lebensform, as he was of course writing in German.

    Lebensform is a common term of ordinary language, where it means the form of life of a biological species (etc.) only secondarily. The primary, everyday meaning would be much better rendered in English as something like 'way of living', 'way of life', 'pattern of existence' or 'pattern of living'. The latter is favoured in "A Farewell to Forms of Life" by E. F. Thompkins, a sadly very neglected article, which is an excellent, detailed discussion of the issue from the viewpoint of German philology. It always merits a reading, or even if one has already read it, a re-reading.

    So Lebensform is not a technical term, and I do not think that Wittgenstein considered it indispensable or even important; he could have easily replaced it with some other German term meaning the same (but untranslatable into English as "form of life"), such as Einrichtung des Lebens or Gestaltung des Lebens, which Thompkins quotes as glosses for it in German dictionaries.

    When Rhees translated the then existing early version of PI for Wittgenstein in 1939, he rendered Lebensform as "way of living". Wittgenstein himself made a very large number of corrections and amendments to Rhees's translation, but it is remarkable that he did not change either of the two instances of "way of living". (See TS 226 in the Nachlass, pp. 10, 15.) Rhees also used "way of living" many times in his own writings, in contexts which suggest strongly that he was then too thinking of Wittgenstein's Lebensform. (Cf. Rush Rhees on Religion and Philosophy, pp. 62, 183; Wittgenstein and the Possibility of Discourse, pp. 72, 74, 98, 142, 143, 279.)

    1. I think that both senses can be in play at various times in his philosophy. And that the matter is handled by being careful when thinking about passages.

  6. (So, for instance, the upshot of W's argument will be that you are not really imagining someone asking someone else for a slab, if you don't also have an idea how to imagine a whole life surrounding that request.) - Is that different from what Mulhall is saying? Does that seem problematic to you? Or is that what you would say?

    I think (perhaps falsely) that it's common for people to take the PI at face value, accepting that we do use language more or less as it is used in the shopkeeper example and by the builders, for instance. But when I recently re-read the first 87 sections of the book this didn't seem to me to be a natural reading of the text at all. That's my main point. Perhaps it only struck me this way because I had previously read Mulhall's thoughts, but perhaps not. I certainly wasn't thinking of them as I read.

    I'm using the words "form of life" here much as Tommi suggests, as meaning something like 'way of living'.

    I don't (right now) think that W's argument is meant to lead to a particular conclusion about what really imagining someone asking for a slab requires. He is, presumably, trying to get people to think, and describing perplexing cases is one way to do that. Very roughly, the point seems to be more about making clear how much depends on how we choose or decide to use certain words, what criteria we accept, than on showing that this or that is the correct use to make. But there is more than that going on, of course.

    I'm afraid I might not be able to comment much, or remind myself what Mulhall and others say, for the next few days because I'm traveling again. But I will return to this when I get back.

  7. It seems to me that e.g. “three Cavellian ways of taking the primitiveness of the builders: they are something like Neanderthals, primitive beings; they might be quite sophisticated but their language is primitive; or they are an allegory of modern life” is going of on a tangent without sufficient reason, nor does it seem very helpful. Why would one even have to assign them to some stage of evolutionary development in order to make sense of the analogy? What sense does it make to do so? As for the language being an allegory of modern life, what does that have to do with what Wittgenstein is discussing in relation to the builders? Is he discussing the problems of modern life?

    I’m glad you took this up by the way because it's made me pick up some old notes and look at them a fresh. And apologies for crashing in, but I am very fond of Rhees and his Discussions of Wittgenstein. It’s a book I turn to quite often, with one exception, namely, “Wittgenstein’s Builders”. What bother’s me about that is what bothers me about the concept “language games”, something I’ve been working on for some time. But, so as not to clog up too much space, I’ll leave any further remarks on my blog.

    1. Thanks, J.Z.

      I am abbreviating and paraphrasing Mulhall a lot here, so no critical conclusions about his work should be drawn on the basis of what I've written. As for whether Wittgenstein is discussing the problems of modern life, I don't know. Not directly, of course, but it seems worth considering the possibility that his book might be meant to address them in some way. I think that both Rhees and Mulhall raise the kind of questions that Wittgenstein wanted his readers to ask. Sometimes I feel that Mulhall might be raising additional questions, too, but a) there needn't be anything wrong with that, and b) I think he brings out a lot that might otherwise have gone unnoticed. But to talk more about Mulhall I would need to re-read that part of his book and probably at least some of the surrounding pages too. I'm not sure I'm going to have time to do that in the near future.