Wittgenstein’s transitional period: attack on the “mental episodes theory”


Richard Miller’s “Wittgenstein in Transition: A Review of the Philosophical Grammar” represents one of the few commentaries I’m familiar with that explicitly deals with the notion of philosophical grammar.

In assessing this notion quite central to Wittgenstein’s philosophy of language, Miller conveniently breaks up the manuscript of the same name, Philosophical Grammar. The manuscript is composed of two parts. “Part I: The Proposition and It’s Sense” deals with some of the central pillars of epistemology and the philosophy of language. This is the part where Wittgenstein first explicitly rejects many facets of his former view on language and meaning, a view that his mentors Russell, Moore, and Frege shared.

Miller’s describes the view that Wittgenstein attacks as the mental episodes theory. This is certainly an insightful way of describing the view that in all cases of understanding the meaning or truth of a statement, there must accompany a mental episode which re-presents (represents) what the object of the understanding is. We still tend to take this stance towards our sense of what it means to understand something.

We speak of “having a mental image” or “seeing it in our heads” when we’re trying to describe something we think of as “something I understand.” Wittgenstein attacks this in virtue not taking the “in our head” literally. Or rather, he does not take it as indicative of the sense of “location” when we think of the location of a building or the location of our house on a map. When we speak of “meaning in the head” what are using a conventional form of a expression that has many uses.

Similarly, when we ascribe to ourselves a sense of pain–“ouch, my arm really hurts”–the “my arm”, usually taken to be a location in the strict sense, could have been someone else’s arm. Pain is not a function of a location + the feeling of being hurt. Pain, as it is expressed in a grammar, must already be understood to be apart of the grammar in which it appears, in which it makes sense.

The mental episodes theory also presupposes that it is the sign that determines the meaning of itself in a proposition. We tend to think of propositions as combined from simpler atomic linguistic units. We tend to think that the sign for “tree” works in a particular way when it is combined with other atomic linguistic units like “color” and “tall”. “I saw the color of the tall tree”–we think of the meaning of that statement as the resultant of a precise linguistic formula, one that means something in virtue of the parts coming together in some special combination–the workings of this combination is something fully determined in advance via the inherent properties of the linguistic unit we’re talking about.

Wittgenstein rejects this idea in his critique of the mental episodes theory. He points out that the meaning of a word and how it is expressed is a function of use, not of semantic properties. We can use the word tree however we like, it is our use of the expression that goes towards its meaning. When we speak of understanding in terms of mental location, that “I understand this” can imply “the meaning is in my head” is not necessary at all–it simply makes sense to say because of the comfort level we have built up for ourselves in using it in the way we have.

I’ll finish the mental episodes theory later, so stay tuned.

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