Wittgenstein on Philosophy, Pt. II

This follows Wittgenstein on Philosophy

We are beginning to plumb Wittgenstein’s concepts deeply.

It took 5 books to get to this point – but I audaciously believe that I can illuminate his intentions better than the several rehashed critical essays I have read, which to me sell his thoughts short.

The best starting point comes from The Blue Book, which is not conventionally considered in the major canon of Wittgenstein, but ought to be.

“It is a typical metaphysical question; the characteristic of a metaphysical question being that we express an unclarity about the grammar of words in the form of a scientific question.”

The philosopher attempts to “fix” the meaning of a word in a certain situation and treat it as general, instead meaning is deeply invested in real world use of language and impossible to distill otherwise.

He proposes: “Consider as an example the question ‘What is time?’ as Saint Augustine and others have asked it.”

Clock Explosion

To ask such a question assumes that there is a “time” that exists outside of our everyday usage of the word. In reality, time can be and is employed in a variety of situations.  These are what Wittgenstein called language games and will be very important in future posts:

Time to go outside.

I don’t have the time.

Time just keeps moving on.

I won’t miss this time.

Time is the 4th dimension.

What time is it?

There is a time and place for everything.

“A man’s future is inherited in that man . . . there is no such thing as was. That time is; and if there is no such thing as was, then there is no such thing as will be. That time is not a fixed condition, time is in a way the combined intelligences of all men who breathe at that moment.” (Faulkner)

All of these phrases express different variations of the word time.  Isolating the word time into a set definition is useful, essential rather, in science, but extremely problematic when used in a philosophical context.  The question “what is time” assumes a general term – which exists in our mythos – but impossible to pin down the way we would in a question of physics.

Wittgenstein continues: “At first sight what this question asks for is a definition, but then immediately the question arises: “What should we gain by a definition, as it can only lead to other undefined terms?”  And why should we be puzzled just by the lack of definition of time, and not by the lack of a definition of ‘chair’?  Why shouldn’t we be puzzled in all cases where we haven’t got a definition?  Now a definition often clears up the grammar of a word.  And in fact it is the grammar of the word ‘time’ which puzzles us.

The vast majority of philosophical problems posit themselves, deceived by the grammar of a word.

Language, grammar, and philosophy are inextricably linked.

The actions “to spell” and “casting a spell” both come from the same root in Old French, espeller.  When creating a word, a sort of magic occurs, conjured into existence as an enchantment is summoned.

But in practical usage the volatility behind a word is lost, glazed over, and its presence confuses one into thinking there is a permanence behind it.  “Time” does not exist except within language; it is a convention used to describe myriad phenomena that could be ordered and formulated in infinite different ways.  The negation of this confusion is the basis of Hindu philosophy.

A philosophical question is described as a phrasing of confusion: “We are only expressing this puzzlement by asking a slightly misleading question, the question: ‘What is…?’  This question is an utterance of unclarity, of mental discomfort, and is comparable with the question ‘Why?’ as children so often ask it.  This too is an expression of a mental discomfort, and doesn’t necessarily ask for either a cause or a reason.  Now the puzzlement about the grammar of the word ‘time’ arises from what one might call apparent contradictions in that grammar.”

This is where particular usage becomes important.

“It was such a contradiction that puzzled Saint Augustine when he argued: How is it possible that one should measure time?  For the past can’t be measured, as it is gone by; and the future can’t be measured because it has not yet come.  And the present can’t be measured because it has no extension.

The contradiction which here seems to arise could be called the conflict between two different usages of a word, in this case of the word ‘measure.’  Augustine, we might say, thinks of the process of measuring a length: say the distance between two marks on a traveling band in front of us.  Solving this puzzle will consist in comparing what we mean by ‘measurement’ (the grammar of the word ‘measurement’) when applied to a distance on a traveling band with the grammar of that word when applied to time.  The problem may seem simple, but its extreme difficulty is due to the fascination which the analogy between two similar structures in our language can exert on us.  (It is helpful here to remember that it is sometimes almost impossible for a child to believe a word can have two meanings.)

The Persistence of Memory

The final point corresponds to rule-making: “Now it is clear that this problem about the concept of time asks for an answer given in the form of strict rules.  The puzzle is about rules. – Take another example: Socrates’ question ‘What is knowledge?’  Here the cases is even clearer, as the discussion begins with the pupil giving an example of an exact definition, and then analagous to this a definition of the word ‘knowledge’ is asked for.  As the problem is put, it seems that there is something wrong with the ordinary use of the word ‘knowledge’.  It appears we don’t know what it means, and that therefore, perhaps, we have no right to use it.  We should reply ‘there is no one exact usage of the word knowledge; but we can make up several such usages, which will more or less agree with he ways the word is actually used.’

The man who is philosophically puzzled sees a law in the way a word is used, and, trying to apply this law consistently, comes up against cases where it leads to paradoxical results.”

In conclusion: “Philosophy, as we use the word, is a fight against the fascination which forms of expression exert upon us.”

Lugubrious Game

*** All paintings are by Salvador Dalí (whose most famous work “The Persistence of Memory” was painted in 1931, “The Blue Book” by Wittgenstein from which the preceding quotes were adduced was dictated in 1933-34.)

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6 Responses to Wittgenstein on Philosophy, Pt. II

  1. Pingback: Wittgenstein on Philosophy, Pt. III « Active Philosophy

  2. M Khan says:

    The most real feel of time “the present” is infinitesimal. It cannot be measured. Measurement of time is mostly an afterthought. Time also has similarity to recording devices where “the present” resembles the sharp recording point like laser and past is comparable to the recorded material while future is the unrecorded portion. In this way past is just a memory. Similar thoughts were expressed by Mc Taggart when he described the similarity between written history and stories in their time characteristics suggesting that past is just like recorded material.

  3. deadondres says:

    Very interesting, I have been thinking about this a lot.

    I wonder what it means to say past is just a memory, or that the present is infinite.

    In many ways this is true…but does that make the past any less real? Especially in practice – when we speak of what has passed we do not describe events as though they are merely memories. We understand that a whole world exists beyond the horizon.

    In this way the past is real even within the context of the present.

    I am a bit deficient when it comes to McTaggart but a quick scan of the internet suggests that he is following a similar line of thought to Wittgenstein. He is deconstructing our linguistic structure as it relates to our telling of time.

    Any effort to say anything at all about “time” will fall into similar trappings, including a grasp at the present, which is where McTaggart’s premise becomes strained.

    We could go on to describe the present as a sort of memory. Even within cognition, the sense-data processed by our brain, when condensed into a single “instant” or “the present”, must occur slightly after the actual phenomena that induced the sense-data. In a sense the present has already passed…

    The filter that bridges observation and reality was described as “quality” by Pirsig in Zen and The Art of Motorcycle Maintenance.

    Another of Wittgenstein’s assertions that I regret not exploring further, because I haven’t quite nailed it down yet, is that thought cannot be considered as a process. McTaggart tenure at Cambridge just proceeded Wittgenstein’s; his influence must have been strongly felt and Wittgenstein is in ways probably directly speaking to the concepts developed in The Unreality of Time.

    When we try to describe an instant we must begin to think of thoughts…as though the thoughts are the “needle” that records the past. Sidestepping the difficulties of considering memory as a sort of recording or bank that archives reproductions, we also must question whether thought can be granted a quality similar to the laser’s ability to effect the present. The mind is not a physical tool, and therefore I don’t feel comfortable looking at it as something that can “write” the present onto the grooves of our brain.

    Thanks for stopping through! Intruiging and well-thought out response and I am interested in exploring McTaggart and other ideas further.

  4. Pingback: A face bani sau a trai? Le poti avea pe amandoua? « Flash Life Magazine

  5. blue says:

    if we believe as the scientist/dali lama etc. state that at one time all things were contained in a singularity, all matter, EVERYTHING …. then time is non existent as matter is infinitely recycled … all matter is connected always, we limit ourselves in creating our being/self as something concrete and we see our bodily/societal transformations as being a measurement of history/time as linear movement from here to there …. we are simply caught in the wave cycles of the infinite now that are not b ound by what we call time …. some saw them as ages but to me are just the ebb and flow of matter conciousness affected by the changing nature of all that is in space which is all connected ….

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