Archive: January 7th, 2009

Wittgenstein: Philosophical Investigations

[Readings] (01.07.09, 9:58 pm)

In Philosophical Investigations, Wittgenstein is primarily concerned with language. He is concerned with words and meanings, and describes the mechanisms of the use of language extensively. The core argument appears to be that ostensive definitions are inherently flawed, and that language may only be understood by use. The proposed mechanism for studying language is through language games. Wittgenstein is very influential on many individuals, and it is important to get a ground on that influence. Here I will try to pick out the elements of the text that are relevant, but leave the more thorough summary to Wikipedia.

Philosophical Investigations is about the method and practice of philosophy. It is written in a manner that embodies the practice. Instead of giving an explanation of his perspective, Wittgenstein presents thought experiments and expects reader to simulate or deduce from them, and reach the same conclusions he has. This approach is troubling to me, because I disagree with Wittgenstein’s initial approach to language. His first step is to look at the idea of word definitions, and to perform a logical refutation of the necessity of definitions. I would argue instead that language comes into being because of human practice, that it is a fundamentally human phenomenon, and any formal meaning that may be attributed to words is due to the phenomenon of the word’s use.

The meaning and definition of words are ambiguous and conflicted. To examine why this is the case, he presents models of languages where definitions are clear, which resemble micro-domains used for problem solving in AI and computer science. The first example is of a person who goes to the store to buy five red apples. How does the shopkeeper know how to iterpret that request? The conclusion reached seems to suggests to focus on the manner in which words are used, not their pure definitions. I would go a step further and say that such a request has a special meaning defined by its use and context. A person in a store knows how to respond to customer requests. The broader philosophical question is how the shopkeeper came to learn that in the first place, but it does not seem to be too difficult of a problem.

Wittgenstein extends the ambiguity problem to the idea of a game. Games and play are intrinsically ambiguous, as scholars have known, and Wittgenstein pulls an interesting trick with it. It is impossible to identify common phenomena that are intrinsic to all games, but the game-like qualities that are present in games are more like “family resemblances.” We can either say that games have many definitions, or that those definitions are incomplete, but people nonetheless know what games are, nonetheless. The idea is that we do not have a definition for “game”, but we use the term correctly anyway. It is not impossible to define game, but such a definition may not be productive.

That said about games, Wittgenstein goes on to argue that language use is inherently gamelike. Patterns of use of language are like different types of games. These games are playful, and operate according to some form of rule structure. These rules are culturally and socially instituted, and are also inescapable. To be aware of a rule is to break it. This is similar to the notion of mediation and immersion. Awareness of the medium stymies the process of communication over it. I disagree with the assertion that awareness of rules implies breaking of the rules, though. Some examples of language games are the following: (p. 11-12)

  • Giving orders, and obeying them
  • Describing the appearance of an object,o r giving its measurements
  • Constructing an object from a description (a drawing)
  • Reporting an event
  • Speculating about an event
  • Forming and testing a hypothesis
  • Presenting the results of an experiment in tables and diagrams
  • Making up a story; and reading it
  • Play-acting
  • Singing catches
  • Guessing riddles
  • Making a joke; telling it
  • Solving a problem in practical arithmetic
  • Translating form one language into another
  • Asking, thanking, cursing, greeting, praying

Wittgenstein makes a vague analogy of (I think) the practice of philosophy to the understanding of a machine, with both observed and potential processes. Like language, machines have both regular operation, and also cases of fallibility. Parts in a machine may bend, break, melt, and so on. To understand a word is to understand an entire process.

Gradually, the entire argument shifts to the matter of personal experience. Personal experiences are internal, and cannot be shared by their inherent nature. Wittgenstein gives the example of pain. One may experience a pain, and see another exhibit signs of pain, but it is impossible to know if the two are the same. This is seen as a major obstacle. I would argue that this is still possible to communicate about these experiences. It is not necessary to share exactly the same sensation as another to identify and sympathize with them. Experience is located in the body, and we can thus locate it, because the body is there and is referrable. We can point to our own bodies and those of others. Considering pain and experience as though they are isolated is fallacious.

The reason why these are identifiable is because people have a common set of experiences, and a common set of relationships to the world. These commonalities that are physiological are universal across the human condition. However, many experiences, especially those that are rooted in language, are culturally derived. With the differences in cultures, it is possible for individuals from different cultures to have dramatically different reactions to the same words or images. Personal experience too yields a diversity of reactions, but a common foundation is still there.

Reading Info:
Author/EditorWittgenstein, Ludwig
TitlePhilosophical Investigations
Tagsmedia theory, philosophy, specials
LookupGoogle Scholar, Google Books, Amazon