Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Wittgenstein's Critique of the Metaphysical View of Language, Part 1

In my last post, I gave a short summary of Plato’s view of language. In the next few posts, I will summarize Wittgenstein’s critique of the metaphysical view of language and then summarize Wittgenstein’s view of language and communication.

Robert J. Fogelin refers to the metaphysical view of language as “referentialism,” which he defines as “the view that the presumptive role of words is to stand for or refer to things, and the presumptive role of sentences is to picture or represent how things stand to each other.”[1] Wittgenstein critiques this view in the opening passages of Philosophical Investigations. Wittgenstein first cites a passage from Augustine’s Confessions in which he describes the way in which he learned language. Augustine says, “When they (my elders) named some object, and accordingly moved toward something, I saw this and grasped that the thing was called by the sound they uttered when they meant to point it out.”[2] Augustine goes onto say that the more his elders pointed out objects with their bodily movements, he grew to learn how to speak in sentences and express desires. Wittgenstein comments on this passage by saying:

These words, it seems to me, give us a particular picture of the essence of human language. It is this: the individual words in language name objects—sentences are combinations of such names.—In this picture of language we find the roots of the following idea: Every word has a meaning. This meaning is correlated with the word. It is the object for which the word stands.

Augustine does not speak of their being any difference between kinds of words.[3]

Wittgenstein proceeds to critique the understanding that all words function in the same way. He does so by telling a hypothetical story:

I send someone shopping. I give him a slip marked “five red apples”. He takes the slip to the shopkeeper, who opens the drawer marked “apples”; then he looks up the word “red” in a table and finds a colour sample opposite it; then he says the series of cardinal numbers—I assume that he knows them by heart—up to the word “five” and for each number he takes an apple of the same colour as the sample out of the drawer.—Its is in this and similar ways that one operates with words.[4]

Wittgenstein does not say that Augustine’s “primitive idea of the way language functions” is completely false, but just incomplete. Wittgenstein illustrates an example in which Augustine’s view is correct. He discusses a builder, named A, and the builder’s assistant, named B. A needs various building-stones, such as “blocks, pillars, slabs and beams.” When A calls out the name of a certain building-stone, B passes that stone to A.[5] Wittgenstein refers to this understanding of words as “ostensive,” for it “establish[es] an association between the word and the thing.”[6] Wittgenstein says, “Augustine, we might say, does describe a system of communication; only not everything that we call language is this system.”[7]

The ostensive teaching of words is even, in a sense, incomplete for the story of the builder and his assistant. For it took a level of training for the assistant to know not only how to identify the certain stone, but also to know that the builder wants the assistant to hand him that stone.[8]

[1] Robert J. Fogelin, “Wittgenstein’s critique of philosophy,” In The Cambridge Companion to Wittgenstein, ed. Hans Sluga and David G. Stern (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996), 37.

[2] As cited in Ludwig Wittgenstein, Philosophical Investigations, 3rd ed., trans. G.E.M. Anscombe (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1967), § 1.

[3] Ibid., § 1.

[4] Ibid., § 1.

[5] Ibid., § 2.

[6] Ibid., § 6.

[7] Ibid., § 3. Wittgenstein also proposes other similar languages, such as “a language consisting only of orders and reports in battle.—Or a language consisting only of questions and expressions for answering yes and no. And innumerable others.—And to imagine a language means to imagine a form of life” (§ 19).

[8] Ibid., § 6.

Friday, October 2, 2009

Plato's View of Language

I'm working on a paper right now for a reading class entitled "Theology After Wittgenstein." In order to work on the paper and keep up with my blog, I decided to post sections of my paper here in order to receive some critique and help me improve the paper. This section concerns the "metaphysical view" of language.

The “metaphysical” or “representational” view of language is largely indebted to the work of Plato. In Book VII of The Republic, Socrates has a conversation with Plato’s brother, Glaucon, which is often called the “Myth of the Cave” or “Allegory of the Cave.” Socrates tells Glaucon to imagine a group of human beings who have lived their entire lives in an underground den, with the mouth of the den behind them. The people’s legs and necks and chained and they can only look in front of them. Behind them, a great fire blazes and between the fire and the people is a raised wall, on which men walk carrying different objects, such as statues and figures. Socrates then says, “Like ourselves . . . they only see their own shadows, or the shadows of one another, which the fire throws on the opposite wall of the cave.”[1] Socrates goes on to propose, “And if they were able to converse with one another, would they not suppose that they were naming what was actually before them?”[2] For, “To them, I said, the truth would be literally nothing but the shadows of the images.”[3]

Socrates goes on to propose that if the prisoners were released and “disabused of their error,” they would at first be pained by experiencing the true objects, particularly the sight of the light of the fire or the sun, until he became accustomed to “the upper world.”[4] Socrates then explains the allegory, saying,

the prison-house is the world of sight, the light of the fire is the sun, and you will not misapprehend me if you interpret the journey upwards to be the ascent of the soul into the intellectual world according to my poor belief, which, at your desire, I have expressed— whether rightly or wrongly God knows.[5]

Socrates argues that while it is difficult, one can, with effort, perceive the world of knowledge and those who can perceive this “beatific vision” of the upper world “are unwilling to descend to human affairs.”[6]

Radoslav A. Tsanoff argues

Plato extended this line of thought to cover the whole range of knowledge. . . . He contemplated the real nature of the universe as a cosmos a system of universal forms, species and types of structure, norms, laws, principles, patterns, essential relations, meanings, ideals and values. Plato called all these Ideas. . . . Plato’s Ideas are the realities known by reason, not merely reasoned ideas or impressions of the mind. . . .

Such Ideas are universal principles, ideal meanings or criteria by which we may test the truth of specific judgments, “this action is just” or “that music is beautiful.” These Ideas are concepts of the mind, and are themselves essentially mental.[7]

Plato’s Ideas are rational and eternal. Plato’s concept of the Ideas or the Forms extends to his understanding of language. So, Tsanoff says when we think or say the words “man” or “horse,” “our reason contemplates the universal Ideas of them, human or equine reality.”[8]

[1] Plato, The Republic and Other Works, trans. B. Jowett (Garden City, NY: Dolphin Books, 1960), 205.

[2] Ibid., 205.

[3] Ibid., 206.

[4] Ibid., 206.

[5] Ibid., 208.

[6] Ibid., 208. Socrates does, however, say that founders of State must demonstrate a willingness to descend again to work among the people (210).

[7] Radoslav A. Tsanoff, The Great Philosophers, 2nd ed (New York: Harper & Row, 1964), 52.

[8] Ibid., 53.

Thursday, October 1, 2009

Witherington's Women in the Ministry of Jesus

I planned on keeping up better with this blog, but since school started, I've been so busy I haven't done it, so I figured I would go ahead and write something.
I just finished reading Ben Witherington's Women in the Ministry of Jesus, which was orginally his PhD dissertation at the University of Durham.
While Witherington has some questionable methodology at times (e.g., applying rabbinic sources to NT context), he does an excellent job of surveying the Gospels as well as the social context of Jesus' ministry and the early Christian communities from which the Gospels were written. Witherington argues that Jesus, as well as Paul and others, did not completely reject, but instead qualified the patriarchy of their setting and critiqued the (moral or ethical) double standard placed upon men and women, and concludes by pointing out "the new equality of male and female disciples beneath the cross of Christ." He does so by looking at the teaching of Jesus, as well as narratives in which Jesus teaches, heals, or ministers to/with women in the four canonical Gospels. I would recommend this book to those interested in gender issues in the New Testament, but suggest that it be read alongside some works that critique his approach in order to qualify or balance out some problems.