Home > anthropology, consciousness, language, Perception, philosophy, physics > If You See Wittgenstein on the Road… (you know what to do)

If You See Wittgenstein on the Road… (you know what to do)

October 10, 2013 Leave a comment Go to comments

Me butting into a language based argument about free will:

> I don’t see anything particularly contentious about Wittgenstein’s claim that the meaning of a word lies in how it is used.

Can something (a sound or a spelling) be used as a word if it has no meaning in the first place though?

>After all, language is just an activity in which humans engage in order to influence (and to be influenced by) the behaviour of other humans.

Not necessarily. I imagine that the origin of language has more to do with imitation of natural sounds and gestures. Onomatopoeia, for example. Clang, crunch, crash… these are not arbitrary signs which derive their meaning from usage alone. C. S. Pierce was on the right track with discerning between symbols (arbitrary signs whose meaning is attached by use alone), icons (signs which are isomorphic to their referent), and index (signs which refer by inevitable association as smoke is an index of fire). Words would not develop out of what they feel like to say and to hear, and the relation of that feeling to what is meant.

>I’m inclined to regard his analysis of language in the same light as I regard Hume’s analysis of the philosophical notion of ‘substance’ (and you will be aware that I side with process over substance) – i.e. there is no essential essence to a word. Any particular word plays a role in a variety of different language games, and those various roles are not related by some kind of underlying essence but by what Wittgenstein referred to as a family resemblance. The only pertinent question becomes that of what role a word can be seen to play in a particular language game (i.e. what behavioural influences it has), and this is an empirical question – i.e. it does not necessarily have any metaphysical connotations.

While Wittgenstein’s view is justifiably influential, I think that it belongs to the perspective of modernism’s transition to postmodernity. As such, it is bound by the tenets of existentialism, in which isolation, rather than totality is assumed. I question the validity of isolation when it comes to subjectivity (what I call private physics) since I think that subjectivity makes more sense as a temporary partition, or diffraction within the totality of experience rather than a product of isolated mechanisms. Just as a prism does not produce the visible spectrum by reinventing it mechanically – colors are instead revealed through the diffraction of white light. Much of what goes on in communication is indeed language games, and I agree that words do not have an isolated essence, but that does not mean that the meaning of words is not rooted in a multiplicity of sensible contexts. The pieces that are used to play the language game are not tokens, they are more like colored lights that change colors when they are put together next to each other. Lights which can be used to infer meaning on many levels simultaneously, because all meaning is multivalent/holographic.

> So if I wish to know the meaning of a word, e.g. ‘choice’, I have to LOOK at how the word is USED rather than THINK about what kind of metaphysical scheme might lie behind the word (Philosophical Investigations section 66 and again in section 340).

That’s a good method for learning about some aspects of words, but not others. In some case, as in onomatopoeia, that is the worst way of learning anything about it and you will wind up thinking that Pow! is some kind of commentary about humorous violence and has nothing to do with the *sound* of bodies colliding and it’s emotional impact. It’s like the anthropologist who gets the completely wrong idea about what people are doing because they are reverse engineering what they observe back to other ethnographers interpretations rather than to the people’s experienced history together.

> So, for instance, when Jane asks me “How should I choose my next car?” I understand her perfectly well to be asking about the criteria she should be employing in making her decision. Similarly with the word ‘free’ – I understand perfectly well what it means for a convict to be set free. And so to the term ‘free will’; As Hume pointed out, there is a perfectly sensible way to use the term – i.e. when I say “I did it of my own free will”, all I mean is that I was not coerced into doing it, and I’m conferring no metaphysical significance upon my actions (the compatibilist notion of free will in contrast to the metaphysical notion of free will).

Why would that phrase ‘free will’ be used at all though? Why not just say “I was not coerced” or nothing at all, since without metaphysical (or private physical) free will, there would be no important difference between being coerced by causes within your body or beyond your body. Under determinism, there is no such thing as not being coerced.

> The word ‘will’ is again used in a variety of language games, and the family resemblance would appear to imply something about the future (e.g. “I will get that paper finished today”). When used in the free will language game, it shares a significant overlap with the choice language game. But when we lift a word out of its common speech uses and confer metaphysical connotations upon it, Wittgenstein tells us that language has ceased doing useful work (as he puts it in the PI section 38, “philosophical problems arise when language goes on holiday”).

We should not presume that work is useful without first assuming free will. Useful, like will, is a quality of attention, an aesthetic experience of participation which may be far more important than all of the work in the universe put together. It is not will that must find a useful function, it is function that acquires use only through the feeling of will.

> And, of course, the word ‘meaning’ is itself employed in a variety of different language games – I can say that I had a “meaningful experience” without coming into conflict with Wittgenstein’s claim that the meaning of a word lies in its use.

Use is only one part of meaning. Wittgenstein was looking at a toy model of language that ties only to verbal intellect itself, not to the sensory-motor foundations of pre-communicated experience. It was a brilliant abstraction, important for understanding a lot about language, but ultimately I think that it takes the wrong things too seriously. All that is important about awareness and language would, under the Private Language argument, be passed over in silence.

> Regarding Wheeler’s delayed choice experiment, the experimenter clearly has a choice as to whether she will deploy a detector that ignores the paths by which the light reaches it, or a detector that takes the paths into account. In Wheeler’s scenario that choice is delayed until the light has already passed through (one or both of) the slits. I really can’t take issue with the word ‘choice’ as it is being used here.

I think that QM also will eventually be explained by dropping the assumption of isolation. Light is visual sense. It is how matter sees and looks. Different levels of description present themselves differently from different perspectives, so that if you put matter in the tiniest box you can get, you give it no choice but to reflect back the nature of the limitation of that specific measurement, and measurement in general.

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  1. October 14, 2013 at 8:16 pm

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