Friday, December 7, 2007

Wittgenstein and Speech Act Theory

Although some speech act theorists have denied any real connection between their own work and Wittgenstein’s, anyone who reads essays about speech act theory and then Philosophical Investigations will undoubtedly be struck by the similarities between the two ideas about language. Both begin by rejecting the idea that language can do nothing but state facts about the world; instead, they believe that language has many different uses in human activity. Given these significant similarities, I would like to explore the way in which Austin’s notion of felicitous and infelicitous speech acts might clarify Wittgenstein’s thoughts about language.

For Austin, utterances cannot simply be analyzed as either true or false because not all utterances make claims about the world. Thus, he suggests that it is better to analyze utterances as felicitous or infelicitous instead: felicitous utterances are those that succeed in performing the actions that they attempt, while infelicitous utterances are those that fail. Speech acts can become infelicitous for a variety of reasons, including the fact that they are performed in an improper context, the custom to which the appeal is not in place, and they are performed insincerely, in the absence of the proper intentions.

It is clear in Wittgenstein’s writings that the way in which a word is used determines its meaning. However, sometimes it is hard to know whether any use of a word that an individual might invent would then become a part of the word’s meaning, or if there has to be a certain number of individuals using the word in a new way in order for that new use to become a part of the meaning.

I think that Austin’s notion of infelicitous speech acts could really clear up this ambiguity in Wittgenstein because it allows us to talk about people using words in uncustomary ways without having to wonder whether their uncustomary use is an expansion of the meaning of the word. When someone uses a word in a new way, it is as if she is appealing to a custom that does not exist: there is no custom in which she can ground her use of the word, so the action that she is seeking to perform through her utterance fails, thereby rendering her speech infelicitous. Similarly, if someone were to use a word in the wrong context, we could describe her utterance as infelicitous instead of having to wonder whether we should allow that new use into the meaning.

I do not mean to suggest here that Wittgenstein is incapable of dealing with this issue within his own ideas—because there are more Wittgensteinian ways of addressing it—but I think that the analysis provided by Austin is a much clearer and less ambiguous way of solving the problem because it helps us understand exactly when we are justified in saying that some use of a word is illegitimate.

Thursday, December 6, 2007

Religion and False Analogies

Wittgenstein comments on both religion and on the false analogies that people often draw when they use language, but I have yet to read any passage in which he puts those two ideas together. However, I think that bringing the notion of false analogies to bear on religion yields an interesting analysis that is perhaps more revealing than Wittgenstein’s own classification of religion as “nonsense”.

Wittgenstein believes that the same philosophic problems will plague human beings “[a]s long as there is a verb ‘be’ which seems to work like ‘eat’ and ‘drink’; as long as there are adjectives like ‘identical’, ‘true’, ‘false’, ‘possible’” (WR 55). I would argue that the same religious problems (or rather, the same problem of religion) will continue to plague us as well for the same reasons. In another statement of the same problem, Wittgenstein says, “The primitive forms of our language – noun, adjective and verb – show the simple picture to which it tries to make everything conform” (WR 61).

Due to the fact that we almost always formulate our linguistic utterances as arrangements of nouns, adjectives, and verbs, many false analogies arise. For example, we talk about both singing and existing as verbs. However, singing is an action and existence is a state; these two things are very different, but they appear to be connected by a false grammatical analogy. This false analogy, then, leads to the apparently deep (but actually meaningless) question that many philosophers seek to answer, such as, “What is being?”. After all, if we can answer, “What is singing?” we should be able to answer, “What is being?”. Unless, of course, the analogy between them is false.

There is another kind of false analogy that Wittgenstein does not mention explicitly, which deals with nouns rather than with verbs. The fact that we say both, “The cat is in the cupboard,” and “Beauty is in the eye of the beholder,” seems to suggest that both ‘the cat’ and ‘beauty’ are entities that exist, and that have the power to move from place to place. (If beauty is in my eye, couldn’t it conceivably go elsewhere?) However, since cats are entities and beauty is just a concept, the analogy is false. This, it seems to me, is the sort of false analogy that leads to religion.

When we talk about the world and the thoughts that we have about it, we always use nouns. Thus, we say things like, “We must seek justice,” or “Where has kindness gone?”, yet none of the things to which we are referring are actual existents that can be sought or that can leave us. It seems to me that some ideas of the divine might stem from an attempt to combine all of the (non-)entities that are assumed by the false analogies of language into one agent who provides the motive power that our language has implied that these concepts have. Thus, a god becomes the absolute manifestation of love, justice, power, generosity, etc.: by uniting these supposed entities, the god helps people answer the bad questions that Wittgenstein’s notion of false analogies identifies, such as “Where is justice?”. I suppose one could say that religion is a way of dealing with bad questions without allowing them to drive one crazy because it provides simple, all-inclusive answers to them in the form of one or several god(s).

Certainly this insight about religion is in keeping with Wittgenstein’s identification of religion as nonsense. It does, however, add a greater understanding of exactly what kind of nonsense at least some aspects of religion might be, and it makes it much more difficult for Wittgenstein to consistently maintain the kind of respect that he sometimes shows toward religion and other nonsense.

Wednesday, December 5, 2007

Early versus Late

One thing that has always puzzled me is how shocked and indignant some people become when they realize that a philosopher has changed his or her mind about something. It is as if people forget that every philosopher is a human being who lives through a wide array of experiences throughout the course of his or her life and who goes through a continuous process of philosophic (and personal) maturation. Really, we should be surprised when someone doesn’t change his or her ideas over a long period of time because it would be indicative of either extreme stubbornness or an unusually good theory that cannot be improved.

People make a particularly big fuss over the way in which Wittgenstein openly criticizes his own Tractatus in his later writings. There are clear passages in which Wittgenstein criticizes his former views, yet there are other passages that seem to rely on ideas that are at least extremely similar to his early views. Many critics seem to be quite disconcerted by these inconsistencies; they are frustrated because Wittgenstein cannot be reduced to a three-paragraph summary of “his position” (not “positions”) for an introductory textbook. A lot of ink has been spilled over the question of the similarities and differences between the early and late Wittgenstein.

Yet it seems to me that whether or not Wittgenstein changed his mind is neither an important nor an interesting question. What we should really be asking is whether or not he was right in any of his writings; all concerns about how those writings relate to each other must be secondary. It is a strange and parasitic kind of philosophy to sit around arguing about whether someone has changed his mind without actually assessing any of his ideas.

I think that one of things that Wittgenstein said that was right—regardless of when he said it—is that philosophers often make the obvious seem obscure. He does not seem to know whether these philosophers have intentionally “muddied the waters to make them appear deep” (as Nietzsche said of Kant) or whether they are honestly confused; I think that there have been instances of each kind. Philosophers tend to be people who either love knowledge and devote their lives to understanding everything as deeply as possible, or who despise knowledge and enjoy undermining it through sophistry and skepticism. It seems to me that the first type of philosopher might be prone to accidentally overlooking the obvious, while the second type is more likely to obscure the obvious intentionally for the sake of deceiving others.

Hegel strikes me as a philosopher who loved knowledge so much that he tried to see things as deeper than they are. I think Wittgenstein would have agreed with me that Hegel’s philosophy is the kind of nonsense that one cannot help loving and admiring despite its lack of sense. Sartre, on the other hand, sometimes seems to be deliberately complicating that which he writes in order to make other people feel that their existence is somehow unstable or absurd, that somehow there is a question about the fact that we “are”.

Wittgenstein’s notion of philosophers who make things seem deeper than they are provides an extremely helpful way to heal oneself from the potentially dangerous effects of some philosophers, who may or may not have produced those effects intentionally.

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

The Force of Life

In Culture and Value, Wittgenstein makes the statement that “life can force [the concept of God] on us” (WR 266). Wittgenstein thinks that people begin to believe in God not because they are rationally convinced that God exists by some sort of theological proof, but rather because of the experiences they have. With reference to the doctrine of predestination, Wittgenstein says that “[i]t is only permissible to write like this out of the most dreadful suffering” (WR 259). I would like to explore this idea of life and pain “forcing” the concept of God on someone in terms of the connections between this idea and the writings of Paul Tillich as well as the implications for the ways in which frames of reference can be altered.

In the statements quoted above, Wittgenstein seems quite clearly to be saying that religious belief is not an ordinary kind of belief, as when I “believe” that it is raining outside when someone walks in with a wet umbrella. Belief in God is not a matter of the rational assessment of evidence to come to a valid conclusion; rather, it is something that is “forced” upon us by experiences of great suffering. When one has an experience of great suffering that leads to a belief in God, it is “as though someone were first to let [one] see the hopelessness of [one’s] situation and then show [one] the means of rescue” (WR 263). In other words, when a painful experience makes us realize the fragility of our lives and happiness, belief in God becomes entirely plausible and perhaps even necessary to us.

This position on religion is quite similar to that of Paul Tillich. I am not sure whether Wittgenstein read Tillich’s writings, but it would be very interesting to know Wittgenstein’s opinion of them. Tillich believed that the best way to convince (force?) someone to believe in God was to make her aware of the “threat of non-being”, i.e., of the inevitability of her own death. Once a person was reduced to a state of terror at the thought of dying, she would be able to “ground” herself in God, who is the only thing “ultimate” enough to carry the weight of her existence. Thus, through experiences of suffering and the threat of non-being, Tillich, like Wittgenstein, believes that life can force the concept of God upon us.

But what does it mean for our lives when such a concept as God becomes probable to us because of the suffering that we have experienced? Wittgenstein seems to be certain that religious belief affects the entirety of our existence when he says that “a religious belief could only be something like a passionate commitment to a system of reference” (WR 263). In other words, belief in God changes that which stands fast for us, thereby altering the way we understand and live in the world.

Further, the fact that this shift in the frame of reference occurs as a result of an extremely emotional experience of suffering seems to suggest that the way in which systems of reference can change for an individual is not by means of rational persuasion, but rather by means of emotional experiences. Thus, our forms of life seem to be startlingly precarious in that our entire way of thinking and being could be altered at any moment by an experience of “the threat of non-being”, to use Tillich’s language. To me this situation seems to be a highly dangerous one because it leaves human beings as passive victims of whatever suffering someone else might choose to inflict on them. If Wittgenstein is right, so is Tillich, and all it takes is one encounter with “non-being” for us to be “forced” into a religious and self-sacrificial frame of reference.

It seems to me that the truly human thing to do would be to resist the force of life, however great our suffering might be, and to stay within a frame of reference that uses rational criteria for belief. As soon as we allow ourselves to be mindlessly driven by experiences, we are far less than human, and we are the perfect prey for people like Tillich.

Sunday, November 4, 2007

Family Resemblance and Language Games

Wittgenstein's method of defining "language games" in terms of family resemblances seems to be useful and interesting at first, but a serious problem appears as soon as one tries to make any real use of the concept.

The root of the problem with defining "language games" in terms of family resemblances is that any activity whatsoever can be made to fit into the concept "language game". All that is required for x to be a language game is for it to share characteristics of some kind with some of the other language games. Let x be "organizing my closet". Organizing my closet resembles the language game of a teacher explaining a conceptual error to a student because they both involve a kind of organization or arrangement of a formerly disordered phenomenon (i.e., the things in my closet or the student's thoughts). Organizing my closet also resembles the language game of giving fashion advice to someone because they both involve clothing. So, it seems that organizing my closet is a language game because it resembles other members of the "family".

To deal with this problem, Wittgenstein cannot simply say that turning on a lamp is not a language game because it does not involve language. If Wittgenstein made this claim, he would be identifying an essential feature of all language games, which would mean that he is no longer using the notion of family resemblances to define "language game".

Yet, it seems that there is a form of essentialism present even in the identification of my actual family. There are many people whom I resemble but whom I do not consider to be part of my family; it would certainly be strange if I walked down the street and invited everyone whose hair looks like mine to come over for Thanksgiving dinner with the rest of my family. Rather, the people who are part of my family are the ones who share a genetic similarity to me, or who are married to people who share a genetic similarity to me. There are many people in my family whom I do not resemble at all, but I still consider them to be part of my family because of our genetic similarity. Thus, the essential criterion for fitting into my concept of "family" is genetic similarity, not just any similarity whatsoever.

It seems that, like my family, Wittgenstein's family of language games needs to have an essential feature that unites them so that he can avoid producing a concept that can include any activity whatsoever. The best definition for a language game would be "an activity that is driven by or composed of language use". This definition includes everything that Wittgenstein calls a language game, and it excludes things like organizing my closet or turning on a lamp. The other ways in which the language games "resemble" each other are unimportant as long as they all share this essential feature.

Sunday, October 7, 2007

Thoughts on Reading Wittgenstein

Most of what I’ve been writing about Wittgenstein has been focused on very specific passages or points that he makes, so I’d like to step back a bit and comment on the general experience of reading and studying Wittgenstein’s writing.

The strange thing about reading Wittgenstein is that most of what one reads is not something that he considered publishable (with the obvious exception of the Tractatus). Some sections appear to be pieces of drafts that Wittgenstein might have at least considered publishing, but much of his writing seems to be his notes to and debates with himself. These sections can be extremely difficult to read because Wittgenstein often seems to be simply jotting down fragments as they occur to him, or writing himself reminders for things that he wants to think about later; many of the thoughts that he expresses are incomplete. I sometimes feel like I am having to do his philosophy for him when I am reading because I am the one who has to draw all of the connections; he never makes the connections for me. Interestingly, even Wittgenstein’s one published work, the Tractatus, has a certain air of incompleteness about it. In many ways it strikes the reader as an outline for a philosophic work rather than as the work itself. Yet, despite his tendency not to fully develop his thoughts, Wittgenstein is startlingly consistent throughout his notes on various subjects, and he seems always to connect back to and develop past claims that the reader thought he had forgotten.

One of the benefits to reading a philosopher’s unpublished writings is that there is a striking honesty and lack of ornamentation that can be quite refreshing. Sometimes when I am reading philosophers like Hegel or Sartre, I begin to feel like they are intentionally trying to make themselves confusing in order to appear profound or using ostentatious language when much simpler words would have done nicely. Wittgenstein’s honest struggle with philosophic issues is often quite endearing, and I never feel like he is “muddying the waters to make them appear deep”, as Nietzsche (rightly, in my opinion) accused Kant of doing.

I also think that the complete privacy of these unpublished writings has interesting implications. In his writings on private languages, Wittgenstein emphasizes again and again that no private language is possible; language is a public activity. Of course, Wittgenstein is not using a private language in his writings, but he is expressing thoughts that were meant only for his own private reflection. It is interesting to think about the fact that Wittgenstein so often feels driven to introduce an imaginary interlocutor in order to write down his ideas in the way that he wants to: language use seems, to him, to be a game best played with others.

Reading a philosopher’s private notes also provides a unique perspective of his method of doing philosophy. Wittgenstein’s tendency to write down thoughts and work them out gradually over time is very different from my own method. Usually, I do not write anything down at all until I feel that I have a complete thought; it is almost as though I do not give my thoughts the “privilege” of being recorded until they have earned it by completing themselves. Of course, the consequence of this practice is that I often forget my thoughts before they are complete, and then I never write them down at all. Perhaps reading Wittgenstein’s sometimes incomplete thoughts, as difficult as it may be at times, will expand and improve my own methods of doing philosophy.

Saturday, October 6, 2007


I am more than a little puzzled by Wittgenstein’s discussion of rule-following in the Philosophical Investigations. What puzzles me most is his worry that we can never know what rule we meant when we gave someone a direction.

Wittgenstein’s argument about what rule is meant starts with a scenario in which I tell someone to write “a series (say +2) beyond 1000 – and he writes 1000, 1004, 1008, 1012” (WR 105). I might object that what he wrote is not in accordance with what I meant when I told him to write a series of +2 starting at 1000, but Wittgenstein asserts that I could not have meant each addition of 2 because I was not thinking of each member of the series when I gave the order: “So when you gave the order +2 you meant that he was to write 1002 after 1000 – and did you also mean that he should write 1868 after 1866, and 100036 after 100034, and so on – an infinite number of such propositions?” (WR 106). Since I was not thinking of that infinite set of propositions, I cannot claim to have “meant” any of the steps that I wanted the person to take.

What I do not understand here is why it is not enough that each one of those propositions follows logically from the order that I gave: the order entails each of the infinite set of propositions that Wittgenstein mentioned. It is the very nature of language that it allows us to speak in terms of general concepts that entail an infinite number of specific propositions. Our memories are limited, so we cannot think of an infinite number of things at once, but we can think of one general concept that applies to an infinite number of things. For instance, I can think of or mention my childhood without thinking of my third birthday, the week that I spent in Disney World when I was eight, and the day my sister was born. But certainly when I say “my childhood” I mean each of these events and all of the others that occurred when I was young because they all fit under the concept of my childhood. Without the ability to organize particulars into concepts, Wittgenstein would not have been able even to express his worry about rule-following because he would not be able to use the concept “rule”; he would have begun by simply listing as many rules as he could think of and never gotten past that point. Of course, even stating those rules would rely on concepts as well. Without concepts, we would not be able to use language in a way at all similar to how we use it now.

A rule is just another kind of concept, except (as in the case that Wittgenstein mentioned) we are asking someone to list some of the particulars that fall under that concept. So, when I ask someone to write the series +2, I am asking her to list the particulars that fall under the “concept” of +2 after 1000. It does not matter whether I was thinking of those particulars or not because the concept of +2 entails each of them, just as mentioning my childhood entails each of the events that occurred when I was young.

I realize that this problematic position is simply one that Wittgenstein considers and ultimately rejects. However, I think that the fact that he thought it was a legitimate problem worthy of consideration is very telling. As is so often the case with philosophers who are uninterested in doing epistemology, Wittgenstein seems to be in desperate need of it, despite his assertions to the contrary.