Sunday, August 4, 2013

105 Wittgenstein

I largely disagree with Wittgensteins early work (of the Tractatus logico-philosophicus), while I largely agree with his later work (of the Philosophical investigations) that on some points constitutes a 180 degree turn from his early philosophy, and which for me has formed a great source of inspiration.

I agree with the early Wittgenstein that we fool ourselves with language. This is the case not only in philosophy, but more widely, in talk of abstract entities such as knowledge, happiness, meaning, etc. In particular, as I argued in item 29 of this blog, we suffer from an object bias, treating abstract notions as if they were objects in time and space. The properties of such objects are used for metaphors to deal with abstractions, and thereby they mislead us. Here I make use of the work of Lakoff and Johnson. This cognitive bias, embodied in language, is inherited from our evolution, so I argue.

I disagree with the early Wittgenstein’s famous dictum that ‘Of which we cannot speak one must remain silent’. As I argued in item 103, it is the job of philosophy to speak of things that go beyond scientific and everyday understanding, notions and meanings, which by definition are difficult to talk about but nevertheless insistently knock on the door of our thought.

In line with my pragmatist philosophy, set out in this blog, I agree with the later Wittgenstein’s notion of words as ‘tools’, where meaning is pragmatic, depending on the use to which they are put, in meaning as use. Words may develop new meanings in the way that a screwdriver might be used as a hammer. I discussed this in the items on meaning (nrs. 32-37).

I try to connect Wittgenstein’s views on meaning with established theory of meaning, derived from Frege, with the distinction between what words refer to (extension, reference) and how this reference is established (intension, sense). We determine reference and truth on the basis of associations in thought, connected to words, that constitute sense, which we develop as we put words to practice, along the line of our life. This private sense may yield a shift of public reference, and hence ‘truth’, along a hermeneutic circle. Universals are to be seen as imperfect and temporary, in imperfection on the move. This has important ethical implications, in lifting the suppressive, regimenting weight of universals and giving more room for individuality.

Related to this I like Wittgenstein’s notion of language games with rules for using words, established in conversations and embedded in culture, in tacit habit.

I also like Wittgenstein’s notion of family resemblance, where entities can resemble each other without having some shared essence. I think this also has ethical implications. People can have affinity or similarity without some shared cultural, ethnic or national essence. Identities can be plural. This may yield an antidote to nationalistic intolerance.

While in his earlier thought Wittgenstein used logic to show up the delusions of language, in his later thought he appreciated words as forms of life that are richer than logic. Language constitutes a category on its own.

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