Join 3,516 readers in helping fund MetaFilter (Hide)


Is Philosophy a Language Game?
September 7, 2007 1:10 PM   Subscribe

§7. Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent.
Ludwig Wittgenstein is such a contradictory figure that there are, in professional philosophical usage, two of him. Wittgenstein I had solved every philosophical problem in his Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus (1921); having nothing else to do, he went home to Austria and became, unsuccessfully, a schoolteacher. In 1929, Wittgenstein I returned to Cambridge, where he began his transformation into Wittgenstein II. He was no longer confident in the Tractatus, his certainty in any answers less firm. Wittgenstein II's great, posthumous, work was the Philosophical Investigations. But Wittgenstein the living man was one, not two: musician and architect, reader of mysteries and engineer. "If philosophy has anything to do with wisdom," he once wrote, "there's certainly not a grain of that in Mind, and quite often a grain in the detective stories."
posted by nasreddin (52 comments total) 22 users marked this as a favorite

 
§7. Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent.

that'd be the end of the Internet.

anyway my favorite Wittgenstein pet peeve is his obsession with sitting in first row at the movies to plunge in the action and clear his head right after classes.
fascinating man, despite the huge turnoff of the compulsive masturbation -- I doubt any insights on the universe's very nature by someone who's actually at risk of losing his eyesight because of excessive masturbation
posted by matteo at 1:18 PM on September 7, 2007 [1 favorite]


My favorite Wittgenstein quote is from "Culture and Value":

If people did not sometimes do silly things, nothing intelligent would ever get done.

Pehaps a bit more descriptive of the internet, eh?
posted by King Bee at 1:23 PM on September 7, 2007


§7. wovon man nicht sprechen kann darüber muß man schweigen
The conclusion of TLS was rather hilarious: everything that is of interest to us we should not talk about since such utterances would be meaningless.
No wonder he left that point of view.

What's that about compulsive masturbation Matteo?

earlier mefi discussion of Wittgenstein
posted by jouke at 1:28 PM on September 7, 2007


Talk about coincidences, eh?

I started reading a book yesterday called Wordgloss and in the foreword by John Banville (yes, the Booker Prize guy), he basically based his whole foreword for the book on Wittgenstein's turn of phrase "The limits of my language are the limits of my world" & then went on to develop what exactly Wittgenstein was hinting at here (tying in a connection to the book of course).

In the foreword, one of the wittier passages passed down was the following, which I quote...

"Wittgenstein's first, great work, the Tractatus Logico- Philosophicus, is much concerned with setting the boundaries of what can be said, boundaries beyond which there will be 'simply nonsense'. The book will, he wrote, 'draw a limit to thinking, or rather-not to thinking, but to the expression of thoughts...' The famous, final proposition of the book has the look of a commandment carved in stone: 'Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent.' To all this, Wittgenstein's mentor, Bertrand Russell, gave a tartly witty response: 'What causes hesitation is the fact that, after all, Mr Wittgenstein manages to say a good deal about what cannot be said.'"
posted by jhayes at 1:29 PM on September 7, 2007 [3 favorites]


Heh, very apt jhayes.

Matteo, are you turned off by Wittgensteins compulsive masturbation? Or was he himself turned off by it? Did he compulsively masturbate, lose his eye sight (?), and does that diminish his intellectual authority to you?

You speak in riddles, sir. Ludwig would not approve.
posted by jouke at 1:36 PM on September 7, 2007


Compulsive masturbator? That certainly would have kept me awake in class.

I'm on Popper's side, though.
posted by lucia__is__dada at 1:37 PM on September 7, 2007


I was wholly unimpressed with Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus. It was the logical step that the Vienna Positivists would take, but I think it met its death fittingly when Wittgenstein seemed to delve into mysticism. Popper's objections and his own developments have had far more impact beyond analytical philosophy classrooms. Not that popularity equates to quality, but I always had the feeling after reading Tractatus that Wittgenstein never really figured out what he wanted to say. My biggest gripe with logical positivism is that your original conception is not really invalidated when further information is revealed, that it is simply a different truth -- if that makes any sense.
posted by geoff. at 1:38 PM on September 7, 2007


I've never heard of the compulsive masturbation thing, matteo; what's your source?
posted by nasreddin at 1:43 PM on September 7, 2007


First hand knowledge?
posted by stenseng at 1:46 PM on September 7, 2007 [1 favorite]


guardian review that recounts the purported poker incident.
posted by jouke at 1:47 PM on September 7, 2007


jouke: that book rocks. It's a pretty good example of decent philosophy journalism, which is rare.
posted by nasreddin at 1:52 PM on September 7, 2007 [1 favorite]


Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent.

I'm curious, does anyone think this conclusion is not true?

I am a firm believer in it. How can the mind hold a concept that its language cannot describe or articulate?

For example, I think that much of the confusion and obscurity surrounding relativity and quantum mechanics originates with the inability to understand that the things smaller than atoms, the electrons, protons, photons, quarks, etc, are not in fact things. Because they think of them as things (little balls, whatever screwed up pedagogical device is still suck in their heads), the relativistic or quantum mechanical properties they supposedly have sound nonsensical.

Corollary: Are there concepts, things in the universe that the mind cannot conceive because the bioelectrical and biochemical structure of the brain cannot hold it? For example, can the human brain really conceive of a 4-dimensional object without breaking it up into it's 2-d or 3-d projections? Other example: is there a visual pattern that the human eye can see but which is impossible for any human brain to remember?

Further corollary: If the human brain in fact had such limitations - physical limits on the kinds of concepts it can deal with and on what memory can remember or recall - and if we furthermore learned these limits and constructed a machine brain without them, would we be able to determine whether the artificial intelligence's conclusions were logical or nonsensical?

P.S. If you like this post, nasreddin's blog is beyond awesome.
posted by Pastabagel at 1:53 PM on September 7, 2007


§8 Whereof one becomes Wittgenstein II, one must have a goatee.
posted by Smedleyman at 2:17 PM on September 7, 2007


Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent.

My favorite embodiment of this, and I think it was his, goes thusly:

As a child a boy plants an oak seedling with his father on a hill near their house. Towards the end of his life, the boy, now a man, having experienced love and war, and seen all the changes in his world, returns to that spot and sits under the large tree that has now grown there.

Any words he could use to describe what it is to be reflecting there, could and only subtract from this profound moment of awareness, and never add to it.
posted by StickyCarpet at 2:22 PM on September 7, 2007 [2 favorites]



Any words he could use to describe what it is to be reflecting there, could and only subtract from this profound moment of awareness, and never add to it.


I think Marcel Proust would disagree.
posted by nasreddin at 2:24 PM on September 7, 2007


There'd be (arguably) no ethnomethodology, and thus no ethnomethodologist, without W, but I bought his biography and stopped reading when I got to the "from the wealthiest family in Vienna" part. How many "geniuses" were just incredibly rich and well-connected? How many "geniuses" never had a voice because they weren't rich and well-connected?

Natural language philosophy kicks ass the whole notion of "language game" can end a lot of arguments, but I just can't get past privilege, sometimes.
posted by ethnomethodologist at 2:31 PM on September 7, 2007 [1 favorite]


.
posted by Curry at 2:32 PM on September 7, 2007


Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent.

I'm curious, does anyone think this conclusion is not true?


I always interpreted it as a moral imperative: Shut up already!

For example, I think that much of the confusion and obscurity surrounding relativity and quantum mechanics originates with the inability to understand that the things smaller than atoms, the electrons, protons, photons, quarks, etc, are not in fact things.

I think much of the confusion and obscurity of relativity and quantum mechanics is that they are not entirely trivial mathematical theories that have been explained ad nauseum to a popular audience in non-mathematical terms to the point where everyone thinks they knows something about them (even mathematicians) when they really don't.

I think ultimately it's logical positivism biting it's own tail: knowledge is a set of logical propositions about words which are empty vessels ergo Shut up already and get back to lusting after young men and then punishing yourself for it...

bunch of wankers. it's all been downhill since Kant.
posted by geos at 2:33 PM on September 7, 2007


I just can't get past privilege, sometimes.

Wittgenstein pretty much felt the same way, actually. He was really resentful of the whole Vienna world, and he gave a lot of his money to people like Rilke and Georg Trakl.
posted by nasreddin at 2:34 PM on September 7, 2007 [1 favorite]


I think Marcel Proust would disagree.

I think there was a further point to that story, that art could be created in these conditions, but not logical statements that constitute philosophy.
posted by StickyCarpet at 2:34 PM on September 7, 2007


§8 Whereof one becomes Wittgenstein II, one must have a goatse.

fixed that for you.
posted by geos at 2:34 PM on September 7, 2007



bunch of wankers. it's all been downhill since Kant.

Since Heraclitus.
posted by nasreddin at 2:35 PM on September 7, 2007 [1 favorite]


I'm curious, does anyone think this conclusion is not true?
I'm not sure truth is the best measure here.
It's just a 'law' that excludes most of what's worthwhile communicating about. We'd be some kind of robots if we'd follow that 'law'.

The problems with quantum mechanics are the result of our lacking evolutionary experience with things smaller than atoms. Our naturally wired cognitive processes aren't made for understanding them.

W. excluded much more than these exotic quatum concepts. If one would follow TLS one would only be able to make mathematical statements. That would make metafilter a pretty blank blue space f.i.

It's pretty much obvious that the human brain is only able to handle what was useful evolutionary to be able to process. But that limitation also applies to our artificial brain building abilities I guess.
posted by jouke at 2:36 PM on September 7, 2007


> How can the mind hold a concept that its language cannot describe or articulate?

I've never tasted Worcestershire sauce. Communicate to me, in words, how it tastes.


> §7. wovon man nicht sprechen kann darüber muß man schweigen

I see, looking through some old class notes, that the first time I encountered this I rendered it "When you've got nothing to say you need to shut up."
posted by jfuller at 2:39 PM on September 7, 2007


A. My dog has no nose.
Q. How does it smell?
A. wovon man nicht sprechen kann darüber muß man schweigen
posted by nasreddin at 2:42 PM on September 7, 2007 [2 favorites]


I think Marcel Proust would disagree.
Nasreddin, you're jumping from Wittgenstein to Proust in one post? How old are you? 22?
posted by jouke at 2:42 PM on September 7, 2007


Nasreddin, you're jumping from Wittgenstein to Proust in one post? How old are you? 22?

I'm 20, but if that was supposed to be an insult I guess I'm not particularly insulted. StickyCarpet's post triggered an association in my head, and I'd just finished the Recherche a few weeks ago. Sorry.
posted by nasreddin at 2:49 PM on September 7, 2007


Pastabagel, I can't speak for the human condition at large, but in my work I regularly visualize 4D objects, (or even 5D), I just constrain them to have only 2 or 3 spatial dimensions, and visualize the extra dimensions in a non-spatial way. For example, have you seen those CAT-scan things where they show you one thin slice of the human body at a time? You are viewing 3D information, but only 2 of those dimensions are in space, one in time. For 5D visualizations, imagine a 3D blob that changes its shape over time, and imagine that the surface of the blob has colors which correspond to the value of the 5th dimension (though in this case, if the blob is a volume as opposed to a surface, you have to go to projections in order to see the middle).

As for thinking of things in which you have no words. As anyone who has had a conversation with me will tell you, my vocabulary and ability to express complex ideas is rather poor... I tend to visualize as opposed to verbalize (I can do very well when I have a whiteboard at hand). It is often the case that I imagine a system which I simply lack the words to describe. Instead, I would have to turn it into a sort of cartoon, and describe that cartoon.

Though I admit fully that when one has words and analogies to describe a system it is much easier to visualize, as you can begin to use analogies and abstract it a bit better. However, there are obvious downsides to this as well, because you might analogize too much and the thing you are imagining will morph into the thing that is similar to it which you were analogizing too.
posted by LoopyG at 3:04 PM on September 7, 2007


Wittgenstein's archives, archivally.
posted by liam at 3:25 PM on September 7, 2007 [1 favorite]


> A. My dog has no nose.
> Q. How does it smell?

(actual quotes from real life)
A. (non-francophone, Brooklyn/Vasser accent) J'ai un chien d'arrêt d'or, très très adorable. Je l'appelle Riesling.
Q. (also non-francophone, Alabama accent) À cause de la couleur? Ou, uh, le bouquet?
posted by jfuller at 3:51 PM on September 7, 2007


§8 Whereof one becomes Wittgenstein II, one must have a goatee.

I read that as "goatse." I fail at intellectual.
posted by Curry at 3:56 PM on September 7, 2007


Looks like geos caught it first, though. I should've remained silence.
posted by Curry at 4:03 PM on September 7, 2007


Wait, I thought his first name was 'Gus'?

/80s movie reference
posted by thanotopsis at 4:27 PM on September 7, 2007


stopped reading when I got to the "from the wealthiest family in Vienna" part. How many "geniuses" were just incredibly rich and well-connected? How many "geniuses" never had a voice because they weren't rich and well-connected?
That always strikes me too--i just re-read Lives of Foucault, and was so struck by how plugged in and connected he was --pulled strings, went to the right schools (which in France is everything), never worried about starving, got diplomatic postings, and cultural ones, etc...

I've never liked Wittgenstein--it always seems to be too unconnected to life and to reality. (i've only dipped tho, and learned a little stupidity about "chairs" in school)
posted by amberglow at 4:40 PM on September 7, 2007


I was disappointed in "Wittgenstein's Poker." The book harps on Witt's "elitism" which I thought was pretty off-the-mark.

Ray Monk's biography, though, is excellent.
posted by McLir at 4:44 PM on September 7, 2007


The problems with quantum mechanics are the result of our lacking evolutionary experience with things smaller than atoms. Our naturally wired cognitive processes aren't made for understanding them.

This is precisely the point. Does our hard wiring inadvertently exclude understanding or comprehending certain concepts?

I just constrain them to have only 2 or 3 spatial dimensions, and visualize the extra dimensions in a non-spatial way. For example, have you seen those CAT-scan things where they show you one thin slice of the human body at a time? You are viewing 3D information, but only 2 of those dimensions are in space, one in time. For 5D visualizations, imagine a 3D blob that changes its shape over time, and imagine that the surface of the blob has colors which correspond to the value of the 5th dimension (though in this case, if the blob is a volume as opposed to a surface, you have to go to projections in order to see the middle).


LoopyG, this is precisely what I meant when I wrote "conceive of a 4-dimensional object without breaking it up into it's 2-d or 3-d projections". It's not that we can't understand them at all, it's that we have to abstract them it some form we can comprehend. Note that you don't have to go through the mental acrobatics you discuss to conceptualize a sphere.

bunch of wankers. it's all been downhill since Kant.

Since Heraclitus.
posted by nasreddin at 5:35 PM on September 7


Technically it's all been downriver since Heraclitus. And let's face it, after Thales, everyone is just pushing words around.
posted by Pastabagel at 6:21 PM on September 7, 2007 [2 favorites]


When I was in Munich last year, I was told (and I have no idea if this is true) that "wovon man nicht sprechen kann darüber muß man schweigen" is a phrase often used in the Bundestag as a polite way to suggest to your opponent that he doesn't know left from right and should therefore....
posted by Anduruna at 6:23 PM on September 7, 2007


I think it makes more sense to talk about Wittgenstein's early period vs. his later one. In many ways his early and late views are more consistent than contradictory. Treating him as two separate philosophers does a great disservice to attempts to understand his philosophical interests.

The early Witt is greatly influenced by Russell and what was called Logical Atomism. The idea was that the world could be broken into simple parts that constituted all complex wholes. Language was a way of approaching this view. Witt tried to show how language can be broken down into a logical form, which in turn generated complexity. It is by looking at the complexity of the world, and not the simple underpinnings that confuse and beguile philosophers.

What the later Witt realized is that no one logical form could generate all expressions of language. Language is not a monolith, but a endless series of interactions between speakers within a linguistic community. The boundaries of language are not logical, but somehow organic and ever shifting.

What is different between the early and later periods is Witt believed philosophical problems could be addressed through a Russellian approach - that is, analyzed through logic. Later he turned to a ordinary language approach, where language is to be studied in the rough and ready forms of its use. What is consistent, however, is that philosophers are misunderstanding the nature of language, and thus creating more philosophical problems than they solve.
posted by elwoodwiles at 6:32 PM on September 7, 2007 [3 favorites]


This is precisely the point. Does our hard wiring inadvertently exclude understanding or comprehending certain concepts?

I'd certainly think so.
posted by elwoodwiles at 6:38 PM on September 7, 2007


In referring back to the previous archived post about Norbert Davis (who you might find to be lighter reading than Wittgenstein), I would just like to point out that many of Norbert Davis' best works are now available as free e-books. Just google "free e-books by norbert davis".
posted by wittgenstein at 7:13 PM on September 7, 2007


Pastabagel. I still disagree. It is often useful to visualize a sphere in a 2D space. Note that this is what we do when we look at digital images. Really that digital image is a 4D object. There are 2 spatial coordinates, 1 color dimension, and 1 intensity dimension, yet we choose to view it as a 2D object. I do not find viewing a digital image in this way to be mental acrobatics, it is simply the most natural way to do so.

In a similar manner, there are other concepts which are easier to visualize in fewer than 3 spatial dimensions, even though we could visualize them in 3D. For example, you mention a sphere. For a solid sphere, you cannot visualize it in 3D, as you cannot see beyond the 2D surface. Thus, it may be more useful to visualize the sphere on a 2D spatial system, and then visalize the 3rd dimension in another fashion.
posted by LoopyG at 7:50 PM on September 7, 2007


Does our hard wiring inadvertently exclude understanding or comprehending certain concepts?

Suppose the answer to this question is "yes." Then what on earth do you mean by such a "concept"?

Can you describe one? Can you imagine one? If so, please describe it.

"The limits of my language are the limits of my world."
posted by treepour at 8:23 PM on September 7, 2007


I know people who claim to be able to visualize in 4D. I can't, though.

LoopyG, it's also possible to visualize a 3D volume without visualizing the occlusion of some parts of the volume by stuff in other parts.

I've always thought it strange that many people feel that the limits of their language are the limits of their world. As a trivial sensual example, my language has very few words for smells, but I am still able to experience scent, and even to think about and "visualize" scents and compare my memories of them and so on, even though my ability to verbalize this is very limited.
posted by hattifattener at 2:02 AM on September 8, 2007


But are there any smells you cannot describe when you are asked about them, Hatti? Say you smell a strange fruit that you have never smelled before, simple saying "it smells like that strange fruit" is an adequate description. You could even event a word for the smell, XYZ, then when you smelled it again you could say it smells like XYZ.

Language is an arbitrary representation of how we experience the world. It has nothing to do with the immediate subjective feeling of that experience. People's ability to visualise in 4D is an interesting psychology question, but it has nothing to do with language. If i understand the concept of 4D, I can talk about it all I want, how I experience the concept does not limit or change this ability.

As long as something is in "my world", There is no limit to what I can say about it except for time.
posted by afu at 4:38 AM on September 8, 2007


This is precisely the point. Does our hard wiring inadvertently exclude understanding or comprehending certain concepts?

No. Say there was a society of colorblind people. When the rest of the world came into contact with these people would they be unable to understand the concept of color? of course not. Non-colorblind people would explain that different objects looked different to them because of the appereance of color on the objects surface. They would be able to prove that they had these sensations by being able to predictably pick between objects of different colors that looked the same to the colorblind people. Colorblind scientists could study light and come to understand that the experience of color comes from an interaction between the wavelength of light and the eyes and brains of non colorblind people. Even though the colorblind people were not hardwired for color, they would be able to talk about and understand it.
posted by afu at 4:50 AM on September 8, 2007


"The limits of my language are the limits of my world."

"If a lion could speak, we still wouldn't be able to understand him." -LW

Also, comedian Steve Martin was a philosophy student, concentrating on the linguistic philosophy of Ludwig Wittgenstein.
posted by StickyCarpet at 5:31 AM on September 8, 2007


Even though the colorblind people were not hardwired for color, they would be able to talk about and understand it.

As long as they accepted the validity of what they were told. They might dismiss this "colour" phenomenon as a mass hallucination, or just gullible people deluding themselves. Some kind of mental aberration or the result of brain damage. Just because these foolish people believe they're experiencing "colours" doesn't mean they exist.

Also:
Although I'm not terribly bright, I've always seen the first line (The world is everything that is the case) and the last line (That about which we cannot speak we must pass over in silence) as connected: that is to say, that within any such endeavour, what can be spoken about is constrained by what is in the (delimited) world of that endeavour. This does not preclude speaking about previously excluded items within a different set of delimitations.
posted by Grangousier at 6:18 AM on September 8, 2007


As long as they accepted the validity of what they were told.

They wouldn't need to accept the validity of color on it's face, they could scientifically test to see if what non colorblind people were saying about color was true or not. And even if they didn't do this they could still talk about color. I can talk about religion as much as I want even though I am an atheist.
posted by afu at 6:54 AM on September 8, 2007 [1 favorite]


what can be spoken about is constrained by what is in the (delimited) world of that endeavour.

I think Wittgenstein's view was that if you said everything that could be said, you defined what can't be said as a kind of negative space figure/ground.
posted by StickyCarpet at 9:21 AM on September 8, 2007


It's not like colorblindness is the total absence of color - a fictional society of colorblind people would still have white and black, and all the grades in between. If someone who could see the colors of the spectrum explained their experience, what would stop the colorblind subjects of associating "red" with a particular shade of "gray"?

The concept of color is present in colorblind people.
posted by elwoodwiles at 10:40 AM on September 8, 2007


elwoodwiles, but it is not perfect. The level of contrast discernable by color-blind people is the same as non-colorblind people. To elaborate, imagine we see color as a combination of Red Green and Blue, and we can tell the difference between 1000 levels of intensity for each, that means we can see 1000^3 or 1 billion different colors.

A colorblind person can only see ~1000 "colors" since they only have 1 color "channel" going to their brain. Thus, they can do a mapping of color X goes to gray-level Y, but there will always be ambiguity, because colors W and Z also map to gray-level Y.
posted by LoopyG at 2:02 PM on September 8, 2007


It doesn't need to be perfect, there just needs to be enough correlation for inferences to be made.
posted by elwoodwiles at 10:13 AM on September 9, 2007


« Older Making a Transformer out of KFC buckets and custar...  |  "In an average August between ... Newer »


This thread has been archived and is closed to new comments