Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Reasonable atheism (9): Wittgenstein on language

It's possible that my request 'what sort of language is acceptable for talking about wisdom' is unclear [hint: the answer isn't 'English' :) ]

When I am talking about the sorts of language that are possible, I am referring to what Wittgenstein calls 'depth grammar'. We do things with words, and it is the doing (the practice, the form of life) which gives language sense and meaning. So the point of my question is: give me examples of discussions of wisdom (the teaching of wisdom) that you do not think are nonsense. As it happens, I don't believe that such examples can be given which don't then fall foul of the same criticisms made of theology. That is the cancer at the heart of our culture. If the criticisms made of theology are valid, then those criticisms also apply to any sort of wisdom teaching - and the prevalent acceptance of those criticisms is why our culture is so unwise, and why we are in the mess that we are in.

Here is something I've written before, which may help to clarify things.


Wittgenstein once said 'It has puzzled me why Socrates is regarded as a great philosopher. Because when Socrates asks for the meaning of a word and people give him examples of how that word is used, he isn't satisfied but wants a unique definition. Now if someone shows me how a word is used and its different meanings, that is just the sort of answer I want.' Wittgenstein had in mind a passage such as this one, from Socrates' first speech in the Phaedrus: 'in every discussion there is only one way of beginning if one is to come to a sound conclusion, and that is to know what one is discussing... Let us then begin by agreeing upon a definition'. In the conclusion of the Phaedrus Socrates restates this: 'a man must know the truth about any subject that he deals with; he must be able to define it.' For Wittgenstein it is this emphasis upon definability in words which is the source of all our metaphysical illusions, illusions which 'lie as deep in us as the forms of our language'. Wittgenstein's view, in contrast, is that "in most cases, but not in all, the meaning of a word lies in its use in the language game".

Wittgenstein's positive philosophical achievement lies in an understanding of language which is not predicated on this Socratic perspective. The easiest way to get a quick grasp of Wittgenstein's view of language is to talk about the difference between what he calls surface grammar and depth grammar. Surface grammar is the explicit content and form of a sentence: the division into nouns, verbs, adjectives and so on. It is what we normally think of as grammar. Depth grammar is the function that a sentence plays within the life of the person speaking the sentence. In other words, an investigation of the depth grammar of a word will indicate the use that the words have. Think of the expression 'I need some water'. This seems quite straightforward, but depending upon the context and the emphasis placed upon different words, it could have all sorts of different senses. For example, it could be a straightforward description of thirst, or an expression of the need for an ingredient in making bread, or preparing water colours. So far, so straightforward. But think of something more interesting. Perhaps it is an insult: I am a mechanic, and I am working on fixing a car radiator. My assistant knows that I need some fluid, but passes me some left over orange squash: 'I need some water' - where the expression also means: why are you being so stupid? In other words, the surface grammar of a comment may be the same, but the depth grammar is radically different dependent on the situation at hand. For Wittgenstein, true understanding came not from the search for definitions but from grammatical investigation - ie, looking at
real situations and seeing what is being discussed.

Now, for Wittgenstein, the point of this grammatical investigation was that you achieved clarity about any questions that are at issue. If there is a philosophical discussion, then the way to proceed is to conduct a grammatical investigation of the words and concepts that are in dispute, to look at how different words are used in their normal context. For Wittgenstein, philosophical problems are the result of conceptual confusion and to meet these problems what is needed is conceptual clarification. The task of the philosopher is carefully to depict the relationships between different concepts, in other words, to investigate their grammar. The concepts are the ones used in our everyday language, and it is the fact that the concepts *are* used in our language that gives them their importance. A grammatical investigation in the Wittgensteinian sense is one that looks at how words are used within a lived context. Hence there is the need to investigate the nature of "language games" and "forms of life", which are the usual phrases which you hear when people talk about Wittgenstein. This is a method, and it is with this method that Wittgenstein's true genius lies. In contrast to almost all philosophers within the Western tradition Wittgenstein was not concerned with providing answers to particular questions. Rather, he wished to gain clarity about the question at issue, in order therefore to dissolve the controversy. He wrote: 'Philosophy can in no way interfere with the actual use of language; it can in the end only describe it.'

An example might help to make his view clearer. A traditional metaphysical question might be 'What is time'? We want to know what the word means, and because the word is a noun we look to see what it is that is referred to. Yet there is nothing to which we can point and say 'That is time'. Thus philosophers are puzzled, and trying to answer questions such as this is the classic job of a philosopher, or more precisely, a metaphysician. For Wittgenstein, though, the question is without sense. Wittgenstein would say, why do we assume that there must be something to which the word refers? Look at how the word is actually used in our language, and see if that enlightens your consideration. Thus, when we look at the contexts in which we use the sentence 'Time flew by' they would tend to describe moments when we are particularly absorbed in a piece of work, or where we are with friends having an enjoyable evening. The phrase derives its meaning from that context. To then ask, 'What is time?' would be absurd. What we must always have at the forefront of our minds is the organic basis of the language that we use. Language has evolved for particular purposes, it has various distinct uses, and there is no necessity that there is a clear and logical basis for it. One of Wittgenstein's best images is to suggest looking at language as like a tool box, with different tools to perform different functions. Why should there be something which all tools have in common? And why are you so concerned to find it? Wittgenstein is very concerned to ease the philosophical mind away from its tendency for abstract theorising, and to focus it on everyday details, to see what language is actually doing in a given situation.


One of the main reasons why I'm going slowly - and I understand that it might be frustrating - is because of this need to raise the awareness of different sorts of language, and, eventually, to point out what sort of language theology is, and the place it has in our understandings.

To continue to ask for an explanation of theology in terms of other language games - which is what the humourless atheist requests - is to make a category mistake. This is what leads to the criticisms like "standard theological obscurantism, obfuscation and semantic masturbation". I can see why it might appear that way, but the description is false.

Wittgenstein, PI 373: "Grammar tells us what kind of an object anything is. (Theology as grammar.)"

I am - in an image Wittgenstein uses - guiding you around a city, walking from street to street, not in a logical way, but in the way that a local would walk around them. Slowly an understanding of the locale would grow, and you will no longer need a guide. 'Light dawns gradually over the whole'.

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