Pointing Fingers and Feeling Pain: Part I of Wittgenstein on mental and physical localities


The following post consists in notes I have taken on a section in The Blue Book.  Here, Wittgenstein deals with philosophical confusions regarding the concept of locality as it it used in:

(1) expressing an intended bodily gesture (like pointing with one’s finger)

(2) expressing subjective knowledge about pain

He points out two standard ways in which philosophers understand the role of locality (which typically amounts to form of reference: ‘what is being pointed to’ is another form of ‘what is being referred to’ just as ‘where the pain is being felt’ is another form of ‘the referant of ‘pain’) and shows how easily our grammar misleads us, leading us to perplexities regarding mental-localities and physical-localities.

The view Wittgenstein is attempting to show as problematic (in a nutshell): “I could be pointing or feeling pain, but in either case, my pointing POINTS to a location or my FEELING PAIN causally or psychologically relates to a perceived (real or unreal) damage to an existing (bodily) location!  I’m using location in the same way!”

“I must know where a thing is before I can point to it.”

  •  Here, the sense of “to be able to point to something” seems to require that the person also have prior knowledge to what he or she is pointing at.  It is only with intention that one can say “I must know where a thing is before I can point to it”; for how can one point to something he or she clearly does not see as this or that (where ‘this’ or ‘that’) is the thing she is pointing to, or rather, is the act that is captured in the expression “I am pointing to an x.”

“If I feel a pain I must already know where I feel it.  To feel pain means to feel pain in a particular area that I can point to and describe.”

  • This kind of characterization of the meaning of “to be in pain” attempts to construct a sense of locality that is analogous to the previous example.  In both cases, a thing’s locality (i.e. where the pointing points to/where the pain is felt in) is a precondition of having that (mental or physical) state in the first place.
  • First: a necessary condition of being able to point to a place (intentionally) is knowing where that place is in the sense of knowing the directionality (think: Brentano’s use of intentionality) of the gesture itself.
  • Second, a necessary condition of feeling a pain (first-person epistemic access we’re talking about here) is feeling a pain in a specific place that one is familiar with and able to describe or point to.  What kind of a toothache is it if it isn’t felt in your teeth?

Wittgenstein’s reply: I can know a pain without requiring that “I feel pain” guarantee the location of that pain!

But, of course, Wittgenstein doesn’t play by such simple rules.  The uses of “locality/location” are distinct and their functions are different! Thus they have different meanings.  We avoid making bizarre claims about the difference between physical and mental localities by constructing cases in which the definition of locality presupposed in these discussions doesn’t work.

How is this done?  What is Wittgenstein’s reply exactly?  You’re going to have to wait until tomorrow because I haven’t edited and made sense of my notes.  I could ramble on, probably come up with a decent ad hoc interpretation, but what would the USE of it be!


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