Wittgenstein on Philosophy, Pt. III

This follows Wittgenstein on Philosophy, Pt II. and Wittgenstein on Philosophy.

We will now explore the reasons Wittgenstein gives for our philosophical misunderstandings. 

“(a) The tendency to look for something in common to all the entities which we commonly subsume under a general term. – We are inclined to think that there must be something in common to all games, say, and that this common property is the justification for applying the general term “game” to the various games; whereas games form a family the members of which have family likenesses.  Some of them have the same nose, others the same eyebrows and others again the same way of walking; and these likenesses overlap.  The instances connects up with other primitive, too simple, ideas of the structure of language.  It is comparable to the idea that properties are ingredients of the things of which have the properties; e.g. that beauty is an ingredient of all beautiful things as alcohol is of beer and wine, and that we therefore could have pure beauty unadulterated by anything that is beautiful.

(b) There is a tendency rooted in our usual forms of expression, to think that the man who has learnt to understand a general term, say, term “leaf”, has thereby come to possess a kind of general picture of a leaf, as opposed to pictures of particular leaves.  He was shown different leaves when he learnt the meaning of the word “leaf”; and showing him the particular leaves was only a means to the end of producing ‘in him’an idea which we imagine to be some kind of general image.  We say that he sees what is in common to all these leaves; and this is true if we mean that he can go on being asked tell us certain features or properties which they have in common.  But we are inclined to think that the general idea of a leaf is something like a visual image, but one which only contains what is common to all leaves…This again is connected with the idea that the meaning of a word is an image, or a thing correlated to the word.  ( This roughly means, we are looking at words as though they all were proper names, and we then confuse the bearer of a name with the meaning of the name.)

(c) Again, the idea we have of what happens when we get hold of the general idea ‘leaf’, ‘plant’, etc. etc., is connected with the confusion between a mental state, meaning a state of a hypothetical mental mechanism, and a mental state meaning a state of consciousness (toothache, etc.).

(d) Our craving for generality has another main source: our preoccupation with the method of science.  I mean the method of reducing the explanation of natural phenomena to the smallest possible number of primitive natural laws; and in mathematics, of unifying the treatment of different topics by using a generalization.  Philosophers constantly see the method of science before their eyes, and are irresistibly tempted to ask and answer questions in the way science does.  This tendency is the real source of metaphysics, and leads the philosopher into complete darkness.”

My commentary:

(a) Language deceives us into thinking that words contain common characteristics or attributes which stand alone.  This is comparable to the discussion on “time” in the last post. We assume a physical existence of a concept where we have no metaphysical business doing so.  Beauty exists in a description of a vase, or in a face, in specific forms – and not as a form in itself. 

(b) The companion consequence of the above is to think that particular words such as “leaf” actually exist beyond any particular leaf.  That there is a universal leaf that can applied to all possible leafs.  But look at the examples…

We could say a leaf is a, as Wikipedia does, “above ground plant-organ that specializes in photosynthesis.”  In this case we have given a scientific definition, and are mixing that with our general usage of the word leaf. 

If it were merely a scientific inquiry, then we would be satisfied.  There is a philosophy behind science which makes it extremely successful – and that is to isolate and define through a universal system into which we all tap. 

But in language there are no such restrictions. 

As Wittgenstein points out: “…we are looking at words as though they all were proper names, and we then confuse the bearer of a name with the meaning of the name.”

Here are several examples of a leaf which clash with Wikipedia’s definition:

This leaf is no longer alive, used for photosynthesis, but instead a reservoir of nutrients.  Pretty innocuous deviation, so let’s continue.

In these two examples the leaf is no longer used by the plant but instead by animals, as a cocoon and then food for a fungus in an agricultural system. 

But…they were at one time a living leaf, we might say.  Here the question of delineation begins to arise.  At one time “we were” just an egg and a sperm cell.  Clearly an oversimplification.  The question of what exists in the present vs. the past becomes relevant.

Now, does this plant have “leaves?”  Yes – but they are merely representations of a leaf.  Does that make them any less of leaves?  It begins to look more and more that a leaf has no particular universal characteristic but is instead a host of definitions that could never be crystalized.  This ties into the next point.

(c) Confusing mental states with mental mechanisms.  We assume because we think of a leaf that we have somehow isolated the word leaf as we do when we think of a pain.  Understanding, a mental state, is confused with a mechanism, feeling pain for example.  “Understanding” and “thinking” are action verbs that lead us to believe we have accomplished the act of grasping meaning.  From this it is easy to postulate that:

The thought of a leaf become proof of the existence of a leaf itself. 

But that is far from the case, as is clear even in the previous statement.  The belief in understanding as a mental state leads on to believe that the mind has pinned down or retrieved from memories’ archives a “true” leaf, corresponding to a “true” leaf in the universe.  However, recalling a leaf is not the same as actually grasping a concept or isolating some sort of truth. 

We think of understanding as an action, opening the shutter to reveal the mise en scène – that which lies before the mind’s eye.  Remember, in Wittgenstein’s view meaning is generated solely through use of language.  Understanding is not a mechanism, it does not reveal a greater meaning, it simply exists in itself, and is no more and no less.  The temporal length of understanding does no correspond to the temporal length of feeling a pain.  Therefore the mental picture of a leaf does not produce an experiential truth of leaves, we do not flip through pictures of leaves in our head and recall every single one, but only provides a contextual guideline which is dictated by the particular circumstances of the language game at hand.  Another and more proper way to word the previous statement is that “understanding” is a grammatical attempt to provide causality or an illustration behind language games. 

(d) Wittgenstein’s objection to scientific reasoning is not applicable to science in practice, but instead to the reasoning the scientific mind attempts to pin to logic in the western world.  There is an assumption that knowledge, experience and the like can be defined, as we define species of insects.  We forget that science uses systematic definitions as an expedient, not an end in itself. 

But in philosophy precisely the opposite occurs.  Metaphysics is an end in itself, a validation of the truth of the world, and not a tool with any purpose or utility.  We see this every day in debates about religion, or free will.  The tendency is to assume that there is only one correct viewpoint, as mathematicians used to assume that there is only one elegant form of geometry. 

To argue about the existence of God or destiny vs. coincidence is to be fooled by wordplay, to try to assume a universal existence of a deity or chain of events that can be conceptualized one way or the other.  This is a scientific application of a word in an unscientific setting, as there are no experiments to be conducted or physical phenomena demanding description of concepts. 

It is an arbitrary misunderstanding that can be bypassed by considering the function of language in our everyday lives, admitting how thoroughly our condition is penetrated by these functions.  This was the great philosophical accomplishment of the 20th century, by Heidegger and Wittgenstein, now the challenge is to use these realizations and get things done.

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One Response to Wittgenstein on Philosophy, Pt. III

  1. Cheryl says:

    I’m just finishing reading After the Ecstasy, the Laundry by Jack Kornfield. Your post reminded me of this quotation:

    p. 121: “Zen Abbot Norman Fischer explains the difference between ideals and reality this way:
    Ideals are reflections of our deeply religious nature. But, as we know, ideals can be poison if we take them in large quantities or if we take them incorrectly; in other words, if we take them not as ideals, but as concrete realities. Ideals should inspire us to surpass ourselves, which we need to aspire to do if we are to be truly human, and which we can never actually do, exactly because we are truly human. Ideals are tools for inspiration, not realities in themselves. The fact that we have so often missed this point accounts for the sorry history of religion in human civilization. … If rightly understood, ideals make us lighthearted and give a sense of direction.”

    Also, I’ve just found out about another book I think you’ll want to read: Tribal Leadership: Leveraging Natural Groups to Build a Thriving Organization by Dave Logan (http://www.amazon.com/o/ASIN/0061251305/180-6618021-9169108?SubscriptionId=0AM07842GGE1QVDN6KR2). It appears to relate strongly to the idea of positive deviance/in-group determination we recently discussed. I’ve just submitted an inter-library loan request for it.

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