فصل 34

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فصل 34

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chapter 34

Bewitched by Language

Ludwig Wittgenstein

If you found yourself at one of the seminars Ludwig Wittgenstein (1889–1951) held in Cambridge in 1940 you would very quickly realize that you were in the presence of someone very unusual. Most people who met him thought he was a genius. Bertrand Russell described him as ‘passionate, profound, intense and dominating’. This small Viennese man with bright blue eyes and a deep seriousness about him would pace up and down, asking students questions, or pause lost in thought for minutes at a time. No one dared interrupt. He didn’t lecture from prepared notes, but thought through the issues in front of his audience, using a series of examples to tease out what was at stake. He told his students not to waste their time reading philosophy books; if they took such books seriously, he said, they should throw them across the room and get on with thinking hard about the puzzles they raised.

His own first book, the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus (1922), was written in numbered short sections, many of which read more like poetry than philosophy. Its main message was that the most important questions about ethics and religion lie beyond the limits of our understanding and that if we can’t talk meaningfully about them, we should stay silent.

A central theme in this later work was ‘bewitchment by language’. Language leads philosophers into all sorts of confusion, he believed. They fall under its spell. Wittgenstein saw his role as that of a therapist who would make much of this confusion go away. The idea was that you would follow the logic of his various carefully chosen examples and that as you did this your philosophical problems would vanish. What had seemed terribly important would no longer be a problem.

One cause of philosophical confusion was, he suggested, the assumption that all language works in the same way – the idea that words simply name things. He wanted to demonstrate to his readers that there are many ‘language games’, different activities that we perform using words. There is no ‘essence’ of language, no single common feature that explains the whole range of its uses.

If you see a group of people who are related to each other, at a wedding for example, you may be able to recognize members of the family from physical resemblances between them. That is what Wittgenstein meant by a ‘family resemblance’. So you may look a bit like your mother in some ways – perhaps you both have the same hair and eye colour – and a bit like your grandfather in that you are both tall and slim. You might also have the same hair colour and eye shape as your sister, but she might have different-coloured eyes from you and your mother. There is not one single feature that every member of the family shares that makes it straightforward to see that you are all part of the same genetically related family. Instead, there is a pattern of overlapping resemblances, with some of you sharing some features, and others sharing different features. That pattern of overlapping resemblances is what interested Wittgenstein. He used this metaphor of family resemblance to explain something important about how language works.

Think about the word ‘game’. There are lots of different things that we call games: board games like chess, card games like bridge and patience, sports like football, and so on. There are also other things that we call games, such as games of hide-and-seek or games of make-believe. Most people just assume that because we use the same word – ‘game’ – to cover all these, there must be a single feature that they all have in common, the ‘essence’ of the concept ‘game’. But rather than just assuming that there is such a common denominator, Wittgenstein urges his readers to ‘Look and see’. You might think that games all have a winner and a loser, but what about solitaire, or the activity of throwing a ball at a wall and catching it? Both of these are games, but obviously there isn’t a loser. Or what about the idea that what they have in common is a set of rules? But some games of make-believe don’t seem to have rules. For every candidate for a common feature of all games, Wittgenstein comes up with a counter-example, a case of something that is a game but that doesn’t seem to share the suggested ‘essence’ of all games. Instead of assuming that all games have a single thing in common, he thinks we should see words like ‘game’ as ‘family resemblance terms’.

When Wittgenstein described language as a series of ‘language games’ he was drawing attention to the fact that there are many different things that we use language for, and that philosophers have become confused because they mostly think that all language is doing the same sort of thing. In one of his famous descriptions of his aim as a philosopher, he said that what he wanted to do was show the fly the way out of the fly bottle. A typical philosopher will buzz around like a fly trapped in a bottle, banging against the sides. The way to ‘solve’ a philosophical problem was to remove the cork and let the fly out. What this meant was that he wanted to show the philosopher that he or she had been asking the wrong questions or had been misled by language.

Take St Augustine’s description of how he had learnt to speak. In his Confessions, he suggested that the older people around him would point to objects and name them. He sees an apple, someone points to it and says ‘apple’. Gradually Augustine understood what the words meant and was able to use them to tell other people what he wanted. Wittgenstein took this account to be a case of someone assuming that all language had an essence, a single function. The single function was to name objects. For Augustine, every word has a meaning that it stands for. In place of this picture of language, Wittgenstein encourages us to see language use as a series of activities that are tied up with the practical lives of speakers. We should think of language as more like a tool bag containing many different sorts of tools, rather than as, for example, always serving the function that a screwdriver does.

It may seem obvious to you that when you are in pain and you speak about it what you are doing is using words which name the particular sensation you have. But Wittgenstein tries to disrupt that view of the language of sensation. It’s not that you don’t have a sensation. It’s just that, logically, your words can’t be the names of sensations. If everybody had a box with a beetle in that they never showed to anyone, it wouldn’t really matter what was in the box when they talked to one another about their ‘beetle’. Language is public, and it requires publicly available ways of checking that we are making sense. When a child learns to ‘describe’ her pain, Wittgenstein says, what happens is that the parent encourages the child to do various things, such as say ‘It hurts’ – the equivalent in many ways to the quite natural expression ‘Aaargh!’ Part of his message here is that we should not think of the words ‘I am in pain’ as a way of naming a private sensation. If pains and other sensations really were private we would need a special private language to describe them. But Wittgenstein thought that idea didn’t make sense. Another of his examples may help explain why he thought this.

A man decides that he will keep a record of every time he has a particular kind of sensation for which there is no name – perhaps a specific kind of tingle. He writes ‘S’ in his diary whenever he feels that special tingling sensation. ‘S’ is a word in his private language – no one else knows what he means by it. This sounds as if it is possible. It isn’t difficult to imagine a man doing exactly this. But then, think a bit harder. How does he know when he gets a tingle that it really is a further example of the type ‘S’ he’s decided to record and not another kind of tingle? He can’t go back and check it against anything except his memory of having an earlier ‘S’ tingling experience. That’s not really good enough, though, because he could be completely mistaken about it. It isn’t a reliable way of telling that you are using the word in the same way.

The point he was trying to make with his example of the diary was that the way we use words to describe our experiences can’t be based on a private linking of the experience with the word. There must be something public about it. We can’t have our own private language. And if that is true, the idea that the mind is like a locked theatre that no one else can get into is misleading. For Wittgenstein, then, the idea of a private language of sensations doesn’t make sense at all. This is important – and difficult to grasp too – because many philosophers before him thought that each individual’s mind was completely private.

Although Christian by religion, the Wittgenstein family was considered Jewish under Nazi laws. Ludwig spent part of the Second World War working as an orderly in a London hospital, but his extended family were lucky to escape from Vienna. Had they not, Adolf Eichmann might have overseen their deportation to the death camps. Eichmann’s involvement in the Holocaust and his later trial for crimes against humanity were the focus of Hannah Arendt’s reflections on the nature of evil.

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