Sunday, November 8, 2009

Wittgenstein's Critique of the Metaphysical View of Language, Part 2

Wittgenstein also critiques the understanding of Plato that meaning is a mental process. In fact, while he opens Part I of Philosophical Investigations with a discussion of Augustine’s explanation of language, in the closing paragraph, Wittgenstein says, “And nothing is more wrong-headed than to call meaning something a mental activity!”[1] Reflecting on this concept, Fergus Kerr says, “That is to say: to think of meaning as some essentially occult state or act inside one’s consciousness, radically inaccessible to anyone else, is . . . to succumb to the appealing thought that the self is concealed inside the man”—a concept Kerr rejects.[2]

The meaning of a word does not stem from a realm of Forms that transcends the world. Wittgenstein for instance argued that a sentence like “Red exists” is not a “metaphysical statement about red.”[3] He also critiques philosophers who attempted to use words like “knowledge” or “being” and attempt to “grasp the essence of the thing” as if bringing “words back from their metaphysical use to their everyday use.”[4] Wittgenstein instead views language as something “internally related to the world.”[5] As Wittgenstein says in The Blue Book, “let’s not forget that a word hasn’t got a meaning given to it, as it were, by a power independent of us, so that there could be a kind of scientific investigation into what the word really means. A word has the meaning someone has given it.”[6]

O.K. Bouwsma discusses the futility of seeking an external meaning of words in his essay “The Mystery of Time.” Bouwsma begins saying,

The occasion of this essay is the remark of a student, which he made after a company of us had tried to assure him that if he know how to answer such questions as: What time is it? and when were you born? and are you going soon? and were you always lazy? etc., that he would also know what time is. He protested, however, that though he certainly did know all these things, he still did not know what time is.[7]

Bouwsma proceeds to tell the story of a man trying to discover what time is who tries to measure time by using objects like a measuring stick or a watermill. After not succeeding, the man visits a clockmaker who informs him that you cannot measure time in the ways that he has attempted. Misunderstanding the clockmaker, the man tries to understand time with a water meter. After failing, he then tried to shake and squeeze a clock to see if he could catch a few seconds falling out. Frustrated, the man decided that time is actually an illusion.[8]

[1] Wittgenstein, Philosophical Investigations, § 693.

[2] Kerr, 42.

[3] Wittgenstein, Philosophical Investigations, § 58.

[4] Ibid., § 116.

[5] Kallenberg, 184.

[6] Ludwig Wittgenstein, The Blue and Brown Books: Preliminary Studies for the “Philosophical Investigations” (New York: Harper & Row, 1958), 28.

[7] O.K. Bouwsma, “The Mystery of Time,” in Philosophical Essays (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1965), 99.

[8] Ibid., 100–106.

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