Saturday, 2 May 2009

Wittgenstein on the Essence of Grammar (Adam See)

In the early notes and lectures entitled The Blue Book that would eventually make up the Philosophical Investigations, Wittgenstein claims that human beings have an inherent “craving for generality” [Blue Book, 20]– that there is something natural in the disposition of mature human beings to seek the essence of things. In the Investigations Wittgenstein continues this line of thought claiming that modern man is “dazzled by the ideal” and – as we recall from Katie’s presentation last week – “seduced” into thinking that an analyzed form of language is essential to our understanding of its ultimate machinations. This word “essence” occurs frequently in sections 65-137 and many commentators (Stanley Cavell, David Bloor, and G.E.M. Anscombe among them) have written that how Wittgenstein deals with this issue constitutes the drive of his later philosophy.

In this blog post, I will be offering a reading of the Investigations to the effect that Wittgenstein’s response to those seeking an “essence” to language leads to what has been called his “linguistic idealism.” From this idea, I believe that the concept of “family resemblance” may be unpacked and clearly differentiated from that of “universals”. I hope that what I have to say about these things will stimulate discussion on some tricky issues in Wittgenstein’s thought.

Section 65 of the Investigations marks an inward turn in the trajectory of the text. Wittgenstein’s interlocutor accuses him of talking about various “sorts” of language games, but never saying “what is common to all these activities” – or, what is the “essence” of language games. Throughout the proceeding sections Wittgenstein responds to various demands for an “ideal” of, and “form” of, language. Further in the text – section 371 – Wittgenstein finally claims that “essence is expressed by grammar.” I would like to rephrase this statement into a question, and ask, “How does grammar express essence?” –or, rather, how does grammar essence? I am here taking Heidegger’s claim that “language essences” – that “essence” should be seen as a verb when speaking of language. I think this is what Wittgenstein is implying when he writes essence is expressed by grammar, namely that language does not latch on to independent “essences” in the world – meaning universals – but rather that language is “self-referential”, entailing that linguistic practices are utilized and authorized by linguistic practices.

In a famous essay entitled “The Question of Linguistic Idealism” Anscombe argues that in Wittgenstein’s philosophy ‘language does not reflect an independent reality, but rather creates what it refers to;’ that when we think we are referring to something in the world (whether an object or an act) we are in fact referring to semantic concepts generated through linguistic practices. There is no truth or meaning inherent in the world; we construct it ourselves and then refer to it as objective reality – this is what Anscombe means by the self-referential character of language. She claims that there is an “active, creative element in concept formation.” I interpret this “creative” element – in line with Heidegger’s thought – as possessing an active quality only in the subconscious – that for all intents and purposes it appears to us as a passive quality. Heidegger claimed that the way an individual or group of individuals determine the essence of a particular object is by selecting from a series of infinite properties a subset that matters to us or concerns us most in relation to how we are disposed towards the world. That way certain properties are salient while others seem trivial. Something thus essences when it moves us or concerns us. Take for example a brick of gold, which may be mere building material to a people living in an environment that abounds with it, or of the utmost value to those for whom it is a rarity. Wittgenstein’s chess piece example works as well – it is a block of wood for a child, perhaps for building, and a piece in a game for others.

Hans Gadamer, taking from Heidegger, expressed this idea as follows: “In truth, the illusion that things precede their manifestation in language conceals the fundamentally linguistic character of our experience of the world.” (Nietzsche expresses a similar view in On Truth and Lie in an Extra-Moral Sense where he claims that reality as we know it is merely a plethora of arbitrary metaphors generated by arbitrary concepts). Wittgenstein uses the word “illusion” – Täuschungen – himself in a similar context in section 110 where he mocks the philosopher’s statement, “Language (or thought) is something unique” to which he claims that “this proves to be a superstition (not a mistake!), itself produced by grammatical illusions.” The grammatical “illusions” here are explained in the next section as stemming from philosophical problems that are misinterpreted as having depth – meaning that they speak of the form or essence of language – this being an illusion and a “grammatical joke.” The claim that language is something unique is not a “mistake” because it is true, however it is a superstition and an illusion to think that this claim expresses its essence.

Section 119 expresses this point more clearly: “The results of philosophy are the uncovering of one or another piece of plain nonsense and bumps that the understanding has got by running its head up against the limits of language. These bumps make us see the value of the discovery.” The point as I see it is this: we cannot rupture the everyday semantics of language to find some underlying structure – this is a superstition –, but if we try (as Wittgenstein did in the Tractatus) we realize that language is in fact self-referential. The “limitations” of language do not designate some impenetrable bulwark to logical structure (like in a pseudo-Kantian idealism), but rather demonstrate a necessary circularity inherent in self-referential linguistic practice. David Bloor claims that for Wittgenstein our semantics are circular in the sense that “essences can be created in the course of being expressed,” and if this is the case, “what is it that is being expressed, if it is the expression which does the creating?”[Cambridge Companion to Wittgenstein, 356] This may sound convoluted; the point is simply this: there is no foundation for “essence” to latch on to since essence is both expressed and created at the same time; essence is created via self-referential activity. The reality expressed by the activity of essencing consists in precisely the practices of invoking that reality. Language is performative for Wittgenstein, and this means that language does not find essence in world, but instead in the performance of itself.

Bloor claims that this isn’t a vicious circularity, but rather just an enclosed system.[Ibid.] I think that part of the reason we find this initially confusing is ironically because we possess what Wittgenstein describes as that seduction of foundationalism that I mentioned at the outset. In section 107 Wittgenstein takes on a semi-Nietzschean tone in writing, “We have got on to slippery ice where there is no friction and so in a certain sense the conditions are ideal, but also, just because of that, we are unable to walk. We want to walk: so we need friction. Back to rough ground!” This force that the philosopher feels, that demands a foundation to build up from is what Wilfred Sellars would later call the “myth of the given” and what J. L. Austin called “the pursuit of the incorrigible” – both claiming that there are no such things as non-inferential beliefs.

By this Wittgenstein and his followers do not mean that particulars in language find their meaning by linguistic “universals” though. In section 101 Wittgenstein speaks of the idea that “absorbs” us – that there “must” be something in common between certain concepts that allows us to speak of them as such – games, rules, conventions, or even colors and shapes. Section 100 tells us not to be “dazzled by the ideal,” and section 97 directs us away from the “illusion of the profound;” this leads to Wittgenstein’s idea of “family resemblances,” which I believe can be understood in just this self-referential framework. I think that the notion of family resemblance is absolutely crucial to Wittgenstein’s later philosophy.

In The Claim of Reason, Stanley Cavell writes that, “all the idea of family resemblances is meant to do, or need do, is to make us dissatisfied with the idea of universals as explanations of language, of how a word can refer to this and that and that other thing, to suggest that it fails to meet ‘our real need’. Once we see that the [very] expression ‘what is common’ has ordinary uses, and that these are different from what universals are meant to cover; and, more importantly, see that concepts do not usually have, and do not need ‘rigid limits’.”[Claim of Reason, 187] I think that Cavell is absolutely correct that the notion of spotting a family resemblance and then expressing the commonality of two things is not “an alternative to the idea of ‘essence’,” nor does it directly counter the idea of universals, but rather demonstrates “…that I know no more about the application of a word or concept than the explanations I can give, so that no universal or definition would, as it were, represent my knowledge – once we see all this, the idea of a universal no longer has its obvious appeal, it no longer carries a sense of explaining something profound.”[Ibid, 188] So making salient a family resemblance is a move in a language game; there are no more “profound illusions” to be sought because all such concepts are relative, contextual, many-faceted and historically evolving, and therefore unable to be universalized or declared as an essence.

Since language itself essences, the essence of language is not “hidden from us” as Wittgenstein’s interlocutor declares in section 92, but is instead always in plain sight! We are, remember, not speaking of essence as a noun, but as a performative verb. The “essence” of a “game” then is (1) its self-referring character, and (2) its performative aspect as a “form of life.” What makes a game a game is that it is played or performed in reference to itself – to the parameters and rules that are agreed on by all. Family resemblances are totally unlike universals in that they draw their own boundaries. For example, the essence of gift-giving – as Wittgenstein describes in section 268 – is not achieved by passing an object from one hand to the other, but what makes all occurrences of gift-giving similar is that gifts are given ­as gifts – that there is a moral component in the “spirit” (as we recall from section 36) of the performance.

So if Wittgenstein’s thought is fueled by the self-referential circularity of linguistic idealism – which I believe to be the case – then it can be ultimately described as follows: Wittgenstein does not deny that there is an independent or material reality that we can interact with; the claim is that this reality has no semantic content outside of language – that we understand it as reality only as it is acted out through linguistic practice. The essence of this reality is simply that which we give it in our everyday thoughts and activities. To not see this initially does not surprise Wittgenstein, for as he writes in section 103: “[The idea of the ideal] is like a pair of glasses on our nose through which we see whatever we look at, [yet] it never occurs to us to take them off.”

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