Sunday, 27 March 2016

Wittgenstein's Fork

Posted by Thomas Scarborough
The philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein was convinced, from an early date, that philosophical problems would be solved by paying close attention to the workings of language. In this quest, he reached a great fork in the road. We may never know whether he recognised it as a fork – however the direction which he took profoundly influenced generations of philosophers.
Words, ran the dominant theory of Wittgenstein's day, were the 'basic units' or 'atomic elements' of language – much like the little pieces of coloured glass we use to create a mosaic. While the finished mosaic may represent anything we please – ships on the sea, for instance, or flowers on a table – the little pieces of glass are the most basic constituent parts which do not change. Similarly, says the Oxford Dictionary of Lingusitics, words are 'the union of an invariant form with an invariant meaning'. This view remains dominant today.

On this view, it is natural to arrange these basic units or atomic elements in some kind of semantic structure. Such semantic structures have been variously described – yet the basic idea remains the same: whether we speak of tables of binary features, hierarchies of semantic categories, networks of predicators, or taxonomies of concepts – and so on – we imagine the existence of some such structure. By and large, too, these structures work – although not completely. Here follow two examples of semantic chains – which are snippets of semantic structure sometimes called predicator chains:

     Cheshire cat → cat → animal → living thing
     Mountain bike → bicycle → vehicle → non-living thing

Notice that each term in each chain properly belongs only to a limited range of meanings. For instance, one cannot point to a Cheshire cat and say, 'This is a vehicle,' although one might well point to a Cheshire cat and say (rather too obviously), 'This is an animal.' Notice, too, that even at the end of such chains, we may not arrive at anything common. There are terms in these chains which in no way resemble one another, or refer to one another. To put this another way, a Cheshire cat and a mountain bike will rarely turn up in the same conversation.

In fact most of our words do not sit well together. More than that, they repulse one another. Whether we speak about chemistry, ecclesiology, sociology, or anything else under the sun, our words will either fit into the subject at hand – or not. The philosophers Wilhelm Kamlah and Paul Lorenzen noted that words (they spoke of predicators) 'always stand in such a tightly woven nexus that any one tends to appear with others'. For instance, while we are permitted to say, 'The maid carries the pail,' we cannot say, 'The maid carries the moon,' or anything of that sort.

To put this another way, we seem to find no universal structure, where all of our words will fit. Instead, we find structures (plural). In fact, through semantic structures our language is tightly constrained – so tightly constrained that when we put pen to paper, in whichever direction we cast our thoughts, we tend to be able only to construct semantic networks which are agreeable to our starting point. This was hardly a revolutionary insight at the level of linguistics – until Wittgenstein applied it to metaphysics.

Wittgenstein (the later Wittgenstein, that is) recognised that our language is pervaded by structures (plural), and further that no single semantic structure will accommodate words which go by the description of 'the union of an invariant form with an invariant meaning'. Concept words, he noted, may be used differently within different language-games, and all they have in common then is 'family resemblances'. There are therefore, he said, various 'language-games' within the same language, and these may be said to be incommensurate.

Here is Wittgenstein's fork. Wittgenstein could, at this point, have come to one of two conclusions:
• Each semantic structure represents a self-contained world, to be understood only within its own structure – with its own 'form of life' (its context). And as one moves from structure to structure, so the basic units and atomic elements which are words, though they are still recognisable in a way (the family resemblances), become something else. This is the fork, of course, which Wittgenstein took. 
• Alternatively, given his assumptions, Wittgenstein could have concluded that each word in our language may accommodate free-wheeling worlds of associations within – chamaeleons of sorts – so that a single word may combine variously with other words, yet remain the same inside. This would enable us to keep our words within one world, and transcend a plurality of semantic structures. 
To put it in a picture, Wittgenstein stood before the choice, either of studying 'family resemblances', or of studying the DNA. He chose family resemblances – which he based in turn on the prevalent notion of words as basic units and atomic elements. While Wittgenstein saw that these basic units and atomic elements were not immutable (in contrast to the dominant view of his day), he could not quite shake off the notion of little pieces of coloured glass, even though these pieces could not be used universally.

Wittgenstein's view had vast, obstructive repercussions. Above all, it seemed to close the door to the possibility of a new metaphysic – namely, of finding a new, comprehensive explanation of reality. Without a shared language, there can be no common metaphysic, let alone an all-encompassing one. A generation later, Jean-François Lyotard echoed Wittgenstein's sentiments, describing our situation as 'incredulity toward metanarratives' – which, he noted, is rooted above all in 'the crisis of metaphysical philosophy'.

Further Reading:

Ludwig Wittgenstein, Philosophical Investigations (Part I)
Sebastian Löbner, Understanding Semantics (Part II)
Wilhelm Kamlah and Paul Lorenzen, Logical Propaedeutic (Chapter III)
Thomas Scarborough, Revisiting Aristotle's Noun


  1. As Eric Gerlach put it, rather nicely, over at The Philosopher:

    "...Wittgenstein argues we can say something without meaning it, but when we say something and mean it we mean it in saying it, such that the two are not separate, and we are not in a position to make rulings about the intentions of others apart from their words and actions."

    However, as he goes on, the 'later Wittgenstein' argued that the meaning of a thing, word, statement, rule, or practice is not fixed by a single logic, set of rules or final authoritative interpretation, but rather is determined by use in context...

    The two positions seem to be at odds, to me.

  2. Michael Polanyi wrote about “the coherence of commitment”. Once one has formed an opinion about “truth”, one needs to commit to it passionately. There is, however, no one “truth”.

    This would seem to reconcile the two views you refer to: our “truth” is not fixed, yet we mean what we say.

    Needless to say, people have committed to some strange things historically. But Polanyi adds that commitment is a prerequisite for revision. I smell a rat.

  3. The person who possesses the sense of possibilities has the sense of possible reality? The sense of possibility (the alternative), thus of what is not, transfigures reality, in what it is. ... From here, I don't know how to continue ...

  4. The world is either arranged as we think it ought to be, or it is arranged as we think it ought not to be. In the second case, the disjunction motivates us to act. Which means, to use your terms, that the sense of possibility arises. But it is 'possibility' perhaps in the sense of conceptual possibility. Many things are thought to be possible which are not.