Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Wittgenstein's sign 'S'

To: Larry B.
From: Geoffrey Klempner
Subject: Wittgenstein's sign 'S'
Date: 19 December 2001 17:42

Dear Larry,

Thank you for your e-mail of 8 December, with your essay for the Philosophy of Language program on the topic of Wittgenstein's 'S'.

This is a well structured essay. You have obviously worked hard at understanding Wittgenstein's text, and have not been afraid to criticize, and defend your criticisms. However, I do not agree with your interpretation of Wittgenstein, and I am going to explain why.

I agree with your remark, 'Wittgenstein...is taking one back to the building blocks of language. He is establishing the elemental components of language...'.

Where I disagree is that for Wittgenstein in the 'Philosophical Investigations', the elemental components are NOT, 'the sign, and the meaning through the connection with the sensation.' This was a view held by fellow members of the 'Vienna Circle' who in the 20's met to discuss Wittgenstein's first book 'Tractatus Logico Philosophicus' - such as Moritz Schlick, Rudolph Carnap. Although in the 'Tractatus' Wittgenstein refused to explain how signs first acquire content, regarding that as a question of psychology, not philosophy, the others in the Vienna Circle took him to be implying that the elementary signs must gain their meaning by being associated with simple experiences. In this way, all our vocabulary is logically analysable into elementary statements about experiences. This was one of the basic tenets of the school of 'Logical Positivism'.

For the later Wittgenstein, there are no 'elemental components' of language in the strict sense. However, there is something which serves a similar purpose, namely language games.

In the 'Philosophical Investigations' Wittgenstein sets out to attack a number of views of language held by philosophers, including the logical positivist view about sensations. What is significant about the logical positivist view, is that it is one whose starting point we find easy to accept. That is why his criticisms seem so shocking. He seems to be denying the most obvious truth, that we notice, recognize and record our experiences!

One thing that easily misleads the reader, is Wittgenstein's statement that 'no definition of the sign can be given'. He understands 'definition' in a wider sense, which includes not only verbal definitions, but also cases where one demonstrates the meaning of a term in a practical context, or trains someone in the use of the term. If you think about it, you will see that this rules out all of the words we actually use, such as blue, itchy, cold, giddy etc. All these are learned in circumstances where the teacher is able to see that the learner is experiencing the named sensation. Wittgenstein is asking the reader to imagine a case which is not like this, where the name for the experience cannot be learned in this way.

Now, we are tempted to say that the names we publicly agree on are one thing, but the actual experience as it occurs in you or me is one that cannot be communicated. So Wittgenstein says, 'Suppose that was true. Then it would be possible to invent a private name 'S' to stand for such an 'actual experience', in a case where there is no commonly agreed word which can be used, such as blue, itchy, cold, giddy etc.

His argument is a 'reductio ad absurdum'. Suppose you invented a term 'S' that had this kind of meaning. Then there would be no such thing as using 'S' correctly or incorrectly. Therefore, the supposition is false. It is impossible to give meaning to a term in this way.

In your essay you make points about vagueness and memory.

Wittgenstein is fully in agreement with the points about vagueness. Here, he is criticizing his early views of language, and saying that, Yes, it is possible for words to have a meaning, a use, even though the rules for their use have fuzzy boundaries. If you are in doubt about this, have a look at the early sections of the 'Philosophical Investigations', up to para 100. Sometimes, he seems to be giving the opposite impression, however. This is where states things that a defender of the precise view would say, in order to attack them. (I say more about this 'dialectical' approach below.)

You do make a valid point about memory, with your remark about apples and oranges. The way I would put your point is that, if the capacity for memory makes empirical knowledge possible, then it cannot be the case that we need to empirically prove that our memory is reliable. For then we would be going round in circles. Wittgenstein does say some things in his account of a private language which seem to suggest that he is setting the impossible requirement that memory must be empirically testable. In fact, what he is saying is that on the supposition that 'S' could be given a meaning in the way I have described above, memory would be required to do too much. In the actual world, memory is a source of knowledge which operates alongside other ways of gaining knowledge, such as inference from given evidence. In the world of the imagined diarist, memory operates completely in a vacuum. This is not how things are in the actual world.

One of the things that makes reading 'Philosophical Investigations' so tricky, is that Wittgenstein often declares things, such as, 'Once you know *what* the word stands for, you understand it, you know its whole use.' In fact what is happening here is that Wittgenstein is imagining someone saying this, and then giving his response. In this particular case, the person saying this could have been one of the members of the Vienna Circle, or even his younger self.

In a similar way, right through the discussion of the private language, there is a second voice, an imagined interlocutor, who attempts to defend the story about 'S' by making various all of which Wittgenstein responds to.

Although I have shown why I disagree with your reading of Wittgenstein, it may be some comfort to know that a number of prominent academic philosophers voiced similar objections when the 'Philosophical Investigations' was first published!

All the best,