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John J. Ross, Reading Wittgenstein's Philosophical Investigations: A Beginner's Guide - PhilPapers

John J. Lexington Books John Ross Marshall University. Introduction -- Building blocks -- The old way of thinking -- The new way -- The grammar of philosophy -- The grammar of mathematics -- The grammar of experience -- The grammar of psychology -- Part II -- What does it all mean? Ludwig Wittgenstein in 20th Century Philosophy.

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Buy it Again. Neither is the kiss just a substitute for a particular phrase, like "I love you. There might be no substitute that would do. The same might be said of the whole language-game or games of religion, but this is a controversial point. If religious utterances, such as "God exists," are treated as gestures of a certain kind then this seems not to be treating them as literal statements. Many religious believers, including Wittgensteinian ones, would object strongly to this. There is room, though, for a good deal of sophisticated disagreement about what it means to take a statement literally.

For instance, Charles Taylor's view, roughly, is that the real is whatever will not go away. If we cannot reduce talk about God to anything else, or replace it, or prove it false, then perhaps God is as real as anything else. Wittgenstein's view of what philosophy is, or should be, changed little over his life.

In the Tractatus he says at 4. Its aim is to clear up muddle and confusion. It follows that philosophers should not concern themselves so much with what is actual, keeping up with the latest popularizations of science, say, which Wittgenstein despised. The philosopher's proper concern is with what is possible, or rather with what is conceivable. This depends on our concepts and the ways they fit together as seen in language. What is conceivable and what is not, what makes sense and what does not, depends on the rules of language, of grammar. Our investigation is a grammatical one.

Such an investigation sheds light on our problem by clearing misunderstandings away.

Misunderstandings concerning the use of words, caused, among other things, by certain analogies between the forms of expression in different regions of language. The similarities between the sentences "I'll keep it in mind" and "I'll keep it in this box," for instance, along with many others can lead one to think of the mind as a thing something like a box with contents of its own. The nature of this box and its mental contents can then seem very mysterious.

Wittgenstein suggests that one way, at least, to deal with such mysteries is to recall the different things one says about minds, memories, thoughts and so on, in a variety of contexts. What one says, or what people in general say, can change. Ways of life and uses of language change, so meanings change, but not utterly and instantaneously. Things shift and evolve, but rarely if ever so drastically that we lose all grip on meaning. So there is no timeless essence of at least some and perhaps all concepts, but we still understand one another well enough most of the time.

When nonsense is spoken or written, or when something just seems fishy, we can sniff it out. The road out of confusion can be a long and difficult one, hence the need for constant attention to detail and particular examples rather than generalizations, which tend to be vague and therefore potentially misleading. The slower the route, the surer the safety at the end of it. That is why Wittgenstein said that in philosophy the winner is the one who finishes last.

But we cannot escape language or the confusions to which it gives rise, except by dying. In the meantime, Wittgenstein offers four main methods to avoid philosophical confusion, as described by Norman Malcolm: describing circumstances in which a seemingly problematic expression might actually be used in everyday life, comparing our use of words with imaginary language games, imagining fictitious natural history, and explaining psychologically the temptation to use a certain expression inappropriately. The complex, intertwined relationship between a language and the form of life that goes with it means that problems arising from language cannot just be set aside--they infect our lives, making us live in confusion.

We might find our way back to the right path, but there is no guarantee that we will never again stray. In this sense there can be no progress in philosophy. Language sets everyone the same traps; it is an immense network of easily accessible wrong turnings. And so we watch one man after another walking down the same paths and we know in advance where he will branch off, where walk straight on without noticing the side turning, etc.

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Ludwig Wittgenstein (1889—1951)

What I have to do then is erect signposts at all the junctions where there are wrong turnings so as to help people past the danger points. But such signposts are all that philosophy can offer and there is no certainty that they will be noticed or followed correctly. And we should remember that a signpost belongs in the context of a particular problem area.

It might be no help at all elsewhere, and should not be treated as dogma. So philosophy offers no truths, no theories, nothing exciting, but mainly reminders of what we all know. This is not a glamorous role, but it is difficult and important.

It requires an almost infinite capacity for taking pains which is one definition of genius and could have enormous implications for anyone who is drawn to philosophical contemplation or who is misled by bad philosophical theories. This applies not only to professional philosophers but to any people who stray into philosophical confusion, perhaps not even realizing that their problems are philosophical and not, say, scientific. It is quite clear that here Wittgenstein is not offering the general theory that " meaning is use ," as he is sometimes interpreted as doing.

The main rival views that Wittgenstein warns against are that the meaning of a word is some object that it names--in which case the meaning of a word could be destroyed, stolen or locked away, which is nonsense--and that the meaning of a word is some psychological feeling--in which case each user of a word could mean something different by it, having a different feeling, and communication would be difficult if not impossible. Knowing the meaning of a word can involve knowing many things: to what objects the word refers if any , whether it is slang or not, what part of speech it is, whether it carries overtones, and if so what kind they are, and so on.

To know all this, or to know enough to get by, is to know the use. And generally knowing the use means knowing the meaning. Philosophical questions about consciousness, for example, then, should be responded to by looking at the various uses we make of the word "consciousness. The meaning of any word is a matter of what we do with our language, not something hidden inside anyone's mind or brain. This is not an attack on neuroscience. It is merely distinguishing philosophy which is properly concerned with linguistic or conceptual analysis from science which is concerned with discovering facts.

One exception to the meaning-is-use rule of thumb is given in Philosophical Investigations Sect. That is to say, "is" has not one complex use including both "Water is clear" and "Water is H2O" and therefore one complex meaning, but two quite distinct uses and meanings. It is an accident that the same word has these two uses. It is not an accident that we use the word "car" to refer to both Fords and Hondas.

But what is accidental and what is essential to a concept depends on us, on how we use it. This is not completely arbitrary, however. Depending on one's environment, one's physical needs and desires, one's emotions, one's sensory capacities, and so on, different concepts will be more natural or useful to one. This is why "forms of life" are so important to Wittgenstein. What matters to you depends on how you live and vice versa , and this shapes your experience.

So if a lion could speak, Wittgenstein says, we would not be able to understand it. We might realize that "roar" meant zebra, or that "roar, roar" meant lame zebra, but we would not understand lion ethics, politics, aesthetic taste, religion, humor and such like, if lions have these things.

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We could not honestly say "I know what you mean" to a lion. Understanding another involves empathy, which requires the kind of similarity that we just do not have with lions, and that many people do not have with other human beings. When a person says something what he or she means depends not only on what is said but also on the context in which it is said.