Category: Blogs specifically about Wittgenstein

‘Language as representational’ on my mind

Is language representational?  The question might be more carefully phrased as, need all languages be representational languages?

That question has been on my mind a lot.  Wittgenstein’s theories (if you can call them that) regarding language are close to my own, in some important ways.  Having said that, it’s hard to really say what Wittgenstein thought regarding just how, or when, language ought to be considered as a representational system.  I’ll leave that issue aside since my primary concern in this post is only to introduce what I take to be a very insightful presentation on the matters as I see them.

The author of the Nedcricology blog introduces the problems of representationalism in a very simple but intriguing way.

I. The representational interpretation of language:

In his Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, Wittgenstein claims that all expressions susceptible to the ascription of truth or falsity are propositions. Propositions share the same structure and logic as states of affairs, hence their suitability for one another. Wittgenstein encourages thinking of a proposition as a picture, that we can just as easily communicate in pictoral form – and, of course, events lend themselves to being captured in picutres. Propositions represent various possible states of affairs, and true propositions represent actual states of affairs. We can accurately represent in propositional form whatever actually occurs. And added to that is Wittgenstein’s famous dictum: Whatever can be said, can be said clearly.

A few problems pop up:
a) We don’t always need “clear” pictures; not all pictures are representational or portraits – what about abstract expressionism?

b) Thinking of propositions as pictures does not entail that all meaningful sentences are pictures – what about flipping someone the bird?

c) Besides, how do propositions “match up” with states of affairs anyway?

These three problems suggest that the representational interpretation of language is either somewhat narrow or just downright incorrect. First of all, to capture someone, we (well at least I) don’t merely take portraits of them. I take a variety of pictures, and in fact sometimes even encourage them to take a few of their own pictures with my camera so I can see things from their point of view. Second, many of the ways in which we communicate involve little to no “representation,” such as when I say, “I gotta go!” and run towards the toilet. And finally, whatever connections there are between our more “representational” propositions and the world, they are not metaphysically necessary but are conventionally (and humanely, I might add!) important.

I take the third problem as the most pressing for theorists who support the idea, or rather can’t help but to presume it, that meaningful expressions necessary represent the thing(s) or states of affairs, or objects, they are ‘about’.  On the one hand, it is said that any p is true if it accurately represents the R which it is about; on the other hand, if p represents R, in virtue of what does the ‘representing’ obtain? Is it the relation of p and R, or is it it some property of one or the other only, such that it might be said that p inherently is able to represent R or R-type things?

How about propositions about mathematical entities.  ‘I think it’s a number.’ In what sense does my thought make ‘it’–the thing I am thinking of–a number or in what sense does my thought represent it as a number?  Doesn’t a number represent itself as itself without my thinking about it?  Or is its identity as a number contingent on a thought to express it as such?

Do we learn to use language representationally such that its function as a representional system is somehow more basic to its other possible functions–for instance, as ‘capable of emotive expression’ or ‘as a metaphoric system’ ?  To see how how misplaced this idea is, consider the following exchange:

Billy pointed his finger at the apple and said it look rotten.

OR

Billy: <points finger at the apple> It’s rotten!

OR

Billy says, as he points his finger at the apple, “That’s rotten”

Do all three expressions refer equally to the same state of affairs and if so, just what is that state?  On some level, it might appear that yes, the three expression do equally refer to the same state of affairs–namely, the state of affairs containing the individual Billy, who points to a particular apple and exclaims that it is rotten.

Then again it isn’t clear, is it, that in each case, the order of events is always the same.  For instance, in the third expression, the simultaneity of Billy’s act of saying and his act of pointing is emphasized whereas the matter isn’t completely settled in the first instance.  Does that mean that the first expression is comparatively lacking in descriptive value?

Perhaps the first expression is uttered in a different circumstance than the second.  The second looks as it if it belongs in a play, or in some sort of written dialogue.  The third looks more appropriate to a novel.  The first looks hard to place.  But then maybe they each represent different states of affairs, but if that’s the case, then how could we justifiably say that they mean more or less the same thing?

In any event, please do check out the post on the nedricology blog since it presents the case against ‘language as representational’ in a simple but sophisticated way.

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Wittgenstein’s subtle asserting? Discussion of Gendler’s piece.

E.T. Gendlin of University of Chicago has an interesting paper available online called What Happens When Wittgenstein Asks What Happens When…”? (you can view the article here)

I had originally found it when I was struggling to finish my senior thesis but recently I’ve reviewed it.  I must say that I very much respect Gendlin’s position regarding the issue of whether or not Wittgenstein asserted anything.  Many philosophers assert that Wittgenstein’s didn’t assert anything, that is, didn’t posit anything “as the case”.  I suppose that interpretation makes sense if the prior assumption, that Wittgenstein’s later philosophy flies very much in the face of traditional epistemology, was granted.

Gendlin, on the other hand, rightly points out that Wittgenstein DID assert something (in fact, many things).  Did Wittgenstein’s own grammar trick us into thinking he was really “showing” and not “asserting”?  The passage I’m referring to from Gendlin’s piece looks like this:

It is often said that Wittgenstein dispelled mistakes but did not assert anything. This is not quite so. He said that he could only show, but let us notice: He did assert that he could show. We also find him constantly asking questions and answering them with examples that involve quite affirmative statements. Let me call your attention to some characteristic phrases with which Wittgenstein asks and answers himself. (Gendlin, E.T. What Happens When Wittgenstein Asks What Happens When…”Philosophical Forum, XXVIII. 3, Spring 1997)

It’s a tricky issue, obviously.  The point is that it’s hard to pinpoint which, if any, perspective Wittgenstein actually took in a particular passage.  Sometimes he begins sentences with “I want to say that…” and I get the sense that he means that in the sense that “I want to say that I can afford dinner, but I really can’t.”  Other times, and you’ll have to forgive my lack of examples–PG and Blue/Brown Books aren’t within my reach–Wittgenstein’s use of that same expression makes it seem like he actually is saying such and such, and not merely “wanting to say” in the sense of “hoping” or “semi-intending”.

I appreciate how Gendlin sets up the central tension of the “showing” vs “asserting” problem.

If we talk about Wittgenstein’s showing, we exceed the bounds he set for himself, but if we do not, then we cannot make sense of his position. How to navigate between these two pitfalls is the problem. Rather than pretending to solve it, I will traverse the problem in very small increments, pausing at each juncture to examine exactly what in Wittgenstein we may have violated.

The problem with pursuing the matter “in very small increments” is that one loses the sense that there is a complete picture of Wittgenstein’s intent with respect to showing vs. asserting.  Perhaps at one point (i.e. in one language game) Wittgenstein really means what he says he is only showing (i.e. ‘means’ in the sense of ‘asserts’ or ‘thinks truly of’) while at another point, Wittgenstein’s use of that same clue might be to throw off the reader.  A third possibility is that, similar to the question of whether Plato would actually believe in the Theory of the Forms that is so characteristically attributed to him, the entire discussion of whether or not Wittgenstein actually did ‘posit something he took to be true ‘ is simply an impossible and/or inappropriate discussion.

In any event, I didn’t want this post to be too long, but there are other points I’d like to discuss from the Gendlin piece, so keep your eyes open.  And if anyone else has read it and would like to chime in, please do so.

One final thing I’d like to say for the record: Gendler > Searle with respect to “how one ought to go about discussing Wittgenstein”.  I’m sure the comparison isn’t fair, its just that I can’t get this one interpretation Searle uses of Wittgenstein’s later philosophy; it was in his piece called “Intentionality”, I think.  Anyway, Searle isn’t exactly as into Wittgenstein probably as much as I am, or Gendler (when he wrote it) so  don’t take that assertion (did I mean that as a joke in this context? not sure) TOO seriously.

LOL@ “Philosophical Tribulations”

Simon, over at Wittgensteinforum.wordpress.com, just posted a link to a hilarious application of Wittgenstein’s later philosophy. Here’s my response to it, available here (as in ‘below’) and here:

LOL

Wow, I had to share this with my gf, who knows nothing of philosophy (she’s a chemist) but nonetheless found it rather hilarious.

Its both sad and delightful that Wittgenstein’s method can be emulated in such “trivial” –but not disinteresting–ways.

I think the “I want to say, ARRRGGGGGHH” example sheds a lot of light on what the reader feels when reading Wittgenstein. Of course, the internalization of “ARRRRGGGGHHH” can be as exciting and motivating as it is an ‘expression of frustration’.

By the way, I want to amend my statement regarding my gf’s knowledge of philosophy.  Contrary to what I said originally, she DOES know something about philosophy, at least to the extent that I am constantly talking about her use of a word at one moment as compared to another shows how we ought not to think of ‘meaning’ as a function of the commonality of word-meanings but rather as the way those words can be used in various game-like contexts.

In any event, as my comment no doubt suggests, I probably reflected too much on the “philosophical” significance of the Philosophical Tribulations.  😉

Link to Wittgenstein’s Obituary

Simon van Rysewyk, author of Wittgenstein Forum, has very nicely uploaded a PDF of Wittgenstein’s Obituary.  You can see it here.

I’m glad that it didn’t focus too much on his philosophical ideas.  That is, it did describe his personal life to the extent that Wittgenstein was a religious man, in several ways.

One interesting distinction the obituary contained was of that between “school” and “method” of philosophy.  Doesn’t a new method of philosophy at the least motivate and at the most “is identical with” a new school of philosophy?  But then perhaps are we assuming that, for instance, Existentialism  has one characteristic method?

I’m not sure, but what I do know is that apparently a simple Obituary doesn’t fail to spark my philosophical curiosity where it concerns language games.

Kudos to Simon for that.