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Wittgenstein's Investigations §120
by Bryan Register

Date: 1 Aug 98
Forum: University of Texas at Austin
Copyright: Bryan Register

Note: The author may or may not still agree with the views expressed in this paper.

In §120 of the Philosophical Investigations, Wittgenstein critiques the attempt to create an ideal language for philosophical investigations, sustaining his view that philosophy cannot learn anything new but is of use to correct the confused use of language - philosophy "leaves everything as it is", as he says in §124. I will try to explain the first four paragraphs of the section by reproducing in italics print short passages - one or a few sentences - and then commenting on them individually.

When I talk about language (words, sentences, etc.) I must speak the language of every day. Is this language somehow too coarse and material for what we want to say?

Wittgenstein wishes to speak plain English (or German) when he discusses questions about language. One might wonder if it is appropriate to use a natural language when discussing the problems which emerge in natural language. If there were, for instance, a systematic confusion within the language which one wished to ferret out, then that confusion would be reproduced in the discussion. Thus, perhaps we should create an artificial language which is perfect (an ideal language) to facilitate the discussion of everyday talk (ordinary language). The ideal language might be cleared of any possible confusion by allowing no nouns which are not logically proper (names of something elementary), by eliminating all vagaries of language-use through a severely regimented grammar, and so forth. Predicate calculus might be the foundation of such a language.

Wittgenstein will disagree with this suggestion.

Then how is another one to be constructed?

But if we want an ideal language, how are we to produce it? Wittgenstein would wish to say that both an ordinary language and an ideal language are language-games. Thus his earlier examples of learning language-games may shed some light here.

A crucial comment appears in §6. Wittgenstein is discussing how children learn language and is transforming the notion of ostensive definition into the notion of ostensive training. "An important part of this training will consist in the teacher's pointing to the objects, directing the child's attention to them, and at the same time uttering a word; for instance, the word "slab" as he points to that shape." That is, children are liable to learn much or even all of language ostensively - Wittgenstein does not specify just how much. So far, this account seems like the traditional empiricist account of learning a language. But Wittgenstein continues to add parenthetically that "I do not want to call this 'ostensive definition', because the child cannot as yet ask what the name is. I will call it 'ostensive teaching of words'." It is very important to Wittgenstein that we distinguish between ostensive 'definition' and ostensive 'teaching'. Since the old 'definition' seems to get the same job done as 'teaching' - getting the child to learn language - Wittgenstein's point does not seem to be substantive but rather grammatical. He hesitates to use the word 'definition' for what we do with children, "because the child cannot as yet ask what the name is". The child's incapacity is a literal inability to ask questions about language. When we are learning our first few basic concepts, we are not yet equipped to wonder "What is the meaning, in the sense of necessary and sufficient conditions for class-inclusion, of 'cow'?" Since the child does not know what a definition is, she cannot ask for one. Nor will she know it when she hears one. Since a child cannot have a definition, we cannot define for them. We cannot interpret the learning of language in terms of the inner grasp of a definition, but rather in terms of outer exhibition of the appropriate behavior. Thus we train children in the use of words, but we do not define words for them. (This holds even though our action - pointing at an object and saying the appropriate word - would be an ostensive definition for an adult, because the adult can ask what the name is.)

How is this relevant to the construction of an ideal language? Let us say that we are trying to define the logically proper names for the ideal language. We are in the position of one who does not know a new language, and is trying to figure out how to use words in it. Thus, like the child, we cannot ask what the name is - not in the ideal language. The logical simples which are the referents of the logically proper names in the ideal language are, presumably, not open to definition (because they are simple ). Thus they must be defined by ostension. But without having such notions already in the ideal language as 'definition', how could we ostensively define a logically proper name? Like the child, we do not know what is a definition. Thus the attempt to formulate an ideal language rests on the pre-inclusion within the ideal language of such notions as 'definition', which do not in fact already exist within the ideal language. This opening circularity must halt the construction of the ideal language.

We could simply import our notions of 'definition' and the like from our ordinary language into the ideal language, but this would be to sacrifice the very artificiality and clarity which we sought.

And how strange that we should be able to do anything at all with the one we have!

If we need an ideal language to talk about language, why don't we need an ideal language to talk about everything? Here Wittgenstein harkens back to §97, where he argues that "Thought is surrounded by a halo." Traditionally, the investigation of human thought was intended to lay bare the ultimate structure of the universe: Plato would find that our concepts form the objects of the world, while Kant would show how twelve key concepts order all occurrences. It had been thought that language was somehow the basis for existence and thus the concepts of language were vastly more important than the rest of our concepts; the order of language " a super-order between, so to speak super-concepts" like 'language', 'experience', and 'world'. Wittgenstein demures, saying that if these concepts "have a use, it must be as humble a one as that of the words 'table', 'lamp', 'door'." Language is not the structure of the universe, but an object of study like any other. But if language is just another thing in the world, a human behavior, it can be studied in the ordinary way. We are not tempted to create a whole new language to talk about e.g. boxing, but only perhaps to introduce a few new terms like 'jab' and 'hook'. Language, like boxing, doesn't deserve its own language but only the ordinary investigation that phenomena receive.

In giving explanations I already have to use language full-blown (not some sort of preparatory, provisional one); this by itself shews that I can adduce only exterior facts about language.

What is an exterior fact about language? Presumably, Wittgenstein is continuing the line which he had just been taking. Rather than penetrating to the core of language, he wants to describe it like we do other phenomena. We do not talk, for instance, about acquiring a deeper understanding of boxing except in the following sense: being able to box better. Likewise, we can deepen our understanding of language but only in the sense of being more eloquent, not making certain mistakes (this is Wittgenstein's point), maximizing verbal economy, and so forth.

Yes, but then how can these explanations satisfy us?

This is Wittgenstein's interlocutor, wondering why answers not in an ideal language count as answers to his questions.

Well, your very questions were framed in this language; they had to be expressed in this language, if there was anything to ask!

Why would we need to answer in the ideal language a question asked in ordinary language? Would this not be something like demanding an answer in French to a question from English?

We can, of course, ask questions in one language which must be answered in another. "How do you say, 'Pass the salt', in French?" is an English question to be answered in French, just as "How do you say 'I am the model of a modern major-general' in predicate calculus?" is an English question to be answered in predicate calculus. But these questions are not the ones the interlocutor has in mind.

Such a question might be "How does mind relate to body?" But there is no reason this question requires an answer in an ideal language. There has been no dearth of theories, explained in clear English, intended to solve (or dissolve) this question. Wittgenstein's interlocutor seems to be holding on to the old view out of desperation and inertia.

And your scruples are misunderstandings.

Wittgenstein steps a little out of methodological concerns and makes an extreme claim: all philosophical questions are the products of the confused use of language. Here he refers back to §109, where he says that philosophical problems "are, of course, not empirical problems; they are solved, rather, by looking into the workings of our language, and that in such a way as to make us recognize those workings: in despite of an urge to misunderstand them." Philosophical problems happen when we make some systematic error of language. For example, take the question from last paragraph, "How does mind relate to body?" Without suggesting that Wittgenstein would endorse this particular argument, a Wittgensteinian look at the question might produce the following critique:

What makes you think that mind relates to body?- Only the way you use 'mind'. You use 'mind' and 'I' the way you use 'desk' or 'book'. You say "My mind is wandering" - but do not get confused! To wander is, for the mind, different from wandering for a physical object. When an object wanders, it changes places; when your mind wanders, it changes ideas. You say "I have a headache" the way you say "The book has a pretty cover" - but again, do not be bewitched! Your mind does not have a surface the way a book does. Your language treats mind like a physical object - a gaseous medium - but only when you lose sight of the difference between mind-talk and thing-talk will you forget that the use is only metaphorical. Do not import thing-notions into mind-talk.

Such a critique does not solve the mind-body problem, but when pursued unremittingly, it dissolves it by showing that the problem is a grammatical confusion, not a real question about things in the world.

§120 is a meditation on the capacities and interests of philosophy. Wittgenstein argues that we cannot form an ideal language, that philosophy cannot penetrate deeper into the heart of language, but that philosophy can use language to explain language, with the goal of clarity in language. Philosophy, which is only the dissolution of confusions, thus dissolves itself through creating clarity.

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