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Tag Archives: Rule Following

Some Nonsense Thoughts: Wittgenstein’s Nonsense

For those worn thin by my constant investigation into Spinoza’s lens-grinding, a discussion developed over at Methods of Projectiona Wittgenstein weblog, some of it is perhaps worth repeating. There are more complex ways of talking about this, but these were some of my general thoughts off the top of my head (a few edits here and there). Here is my response to Quirinus Quine from Philosophical Pontifications.

Q.Q: “Something I’ve wondered about for a while is why Wittgenstein doesn’t consider metaphysics, or at least certain parts of it, to be a language game of its of its own on a par with others.”

This is really the key, I believe. The reason I suspect that certain uses of language are denied PROPER language game status [technically, “language games” are much more simple than what we are talking about, but any conceptual construction must rest upon a complex of its games one supposes] is that Wittgenstein has a slightly hidden Puritanism in his approach. He, out from his engineer’s background, wants to take language off holiday, and put it back to work doing what it is supposed to be doing. Buried in this play vs. work conception is that real games are mechanistic and rule-following (that is what gives them traction, connecting them to solid ground and keeping them off the ice).

It just so happens that historically in the fields of philosophy, when you spend time thinking about thinking, this isn’t really how things work. There is something about metaphysical conception (those kind of games) that is between Language being at Work (like the Slab Language), getting things done, and Wittgenstein’s alternate, language being like gears turning emptily without connection to the rest of the mechanism (the world), as if pure unadulterated ritual [rituals have purposes too!]. There simply are not only two positions, that of pure sense and that of pure nonsense, which Wittgenstein would like to propose. Metaphysical conceptions, arguments, debates, even if we grant them the status of complete and utter grammatical nonsense and confusion, end up producing empirical observations about the world and ourselves, for instance how Hegelian nonsense spinnings about the negation and the sublimation lead to all kinds of sociological descriptions which are definitively measurable. The conceptual refinement leads to research and focus. As such, metaphysical debate helps to organize communally shared perceptions, (which is not to say that metaphysical truths have authority over perceptions). To imagine that a game of words has only one kind of use, a use which grammatical confusions supposedly radically undermine, simply turns a huge blind eye to the actual historical processes that have employed metaphysical language games, all the while. In a sense, Wittgenstein’s empirical/grammatical distinctions is as cut off from solid ground (the path of history, concrete analysis of language use and its products), as any metaphysical word game.

In the end it is just that Wittgenstein (really more his followers than he himself, for he remained more playful than most of his adherents), neglected to apply the word game analysis to his own language use, hoping I suspect, to be able to achieve a vantage point where he could judge as good or bad, by category, some games (sense makers) as better than others (nonsense makers). One may of course take such a distinction as informative, even revealing, but it too rests on analogy, metaphor and perspective, all of which can be called into question.

 

Two worthwhile essays on the issue of Wittgenstein Nonsense are: “Wittgenstein’s Exclusion of Metaphysical Nonsense” and “Wittgenstein’s Grammatical-Empirical Distinction” each by Philip P. Hallie

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The Production of Constraints: Work and Annealing as “Freedom”

A thought-quote train, widestepping across peaks

Stuart Kaufmann, a theoretical biologist and complex systems researcher, inspired by Wittgentein’s Philosophical Investigations, writes in his own book Investigations, this about physical “work”:

“Work is more than force acting through distance; it is, in fact, the constrained release of energy, the release of energy into a small number of degrees of freedom.  It is the constraints themselves – with as Phil Andersons point out, a kind of rigidity – that largely constitute the organization process. But – and here will be the hook – in many cases it takes work to construct the constraints themselves. So we come to a terribly important circle, work is the constrained release of energy, but it often takes work to construct the constraints.”

This bootstrapping notion of work and freedom can be put into relation with two other quotes. On the notion of constraint which produces freedom,

Nietzsche writes,

Tethered heart, Free Spirit – If one tethers one’s heart severely, and imprisons it, one can give one’s spirit many liberties: I have said that once before. But one does not believe me, unless one already knows it –

Section 87, Beyond Good and Evil

And on degrees of freedom:

Spinoza wrote:

Whatever so disposes the human Body that it can be affected in a great many ways, or renders it capable of affecting external Bodies in a great many ways, is useful to man; the more it renders the Body capable of being affected in a great many ways, or of affecting other Bodies, the more useful it is; on the other hand, what renders the Body less capable of these things is harmful (E4p39)

The notion of constraint as vector of increase is ancient of course. One should add the voice of the Eumenides from Euripides’ play,

ξυμφέρει

It bonds

σωφρονεῖν ὑπὸ στένει.

To temper under strain.

And Klytemestra:

ἄλγησον ἧπαρ ἐνδίκοις ὀνείδεσιν·

Sting your heart with real reproach,

τοῖς σώφροσιν γὰρ ἀντίκεντρα γίγνεται.

For in sobriety, spurred it is born to be.

Lastly, the computational process of Simulated Annealing, here described by Kauffman, and then Daniel Dennett:

Annealing is just a gradual cooling. Real physical annealing corresponds to taking a system and gradually lowering its temperature. A smithy hammering red-hot iron, repeatedly plunging the forming object into cold water and then reheating it and hammering it again, is practicing real annealing. As the smithy anneals and hammers, the microscopic arrangements of the atoms are rearranged, giving up poor relatively unstable, local minima and settling into lower-energy minima corresponding to harder, stronger metal. As the repeated heating and hammering occurs, the micoscopic arrangements in the worked iron can first wander all over the space of the configurations, jumping over energy barriers between all local energy minima. As the temperature is lowered, it becomes harder and harder to jump over these barriers…

– At Home in the Universe

The right level of explanation is the algorithmic level: As the metal cools from its molten state, the solidification starts in many different spots at the same time, creating crystals that grow together until the hold is solid. But the first time this happens, the arrangement of the individual crystals is suboptimal – weakly held together, and with lots of internal stresses and strains. Heating it up again – but not all the way to melting – partly breaks down these structures, so that, when they are permitted to cool the next time, the broken-up bits will adhere to the still-solid bits in a different arrangement. It can be proven mathematically that these arrangements will get better and better, approaching an optimum or strongest total structure, providing that the regime of heating and cooling has the right parameters.”

– Dennett, Darwin’s Dangerous Idea

In annealing most important is the “cooling schedule” the methodology of driving energy into the system, and then letting it fall. This is what Nietzsche called tempo, “the patient ear to every staccato and every rubrato” (BGE, 246). What those that strain for the non-naturalization of rationality might have is the loss of the meaning of tempo, the “cooling schedule” of work and rule-following, semantic understandings.

How much is the thought process, and the life lived, like sword-making? How much is “understanding” and communication, even the most clear communications, a methodology of the heated and the cooled?-

The Buttle Principle

A Beetle in the gears of knowing and the notion of the Press of the Mind

Wittgenstein has a beautiful and striking analogy which he folds into his (No) Private Language argument. He compares any fact checking one would do in using a so called private language, to attempting to check for an error by buying several copies of the same edition of a paper. Such a process is cursed by its reflexivity. This analogy is specific to the example of an imaginary table of terms who’s check is only in the imagination:

If the mental image [recollection] of the time-table [for the departure of trains] could not itself be tested for correctness, how could it confirm the correctness of the first memory? (As if someone were to buy several copies of the morning paper to assure himself that what is said were true) (PI, section 265).

There are a few problems if we attempt to take this analogy as a knockdown argument for why one cannot have a recursive sense of rule-following and justification. Wittgenstein wants us to know that “justification consists in appealing to something independent”. You might have the feeling that you have remembered a train-time table right, but you cannot justify this feeling unless you appeal to some other, independent criteria (in which for him independent does not consist in another moment of recollection or thought process). Put another way, one can believe that one is following a rule, but one doesn’t know if one actually is until one is checked by an independent process. What seems to be missing from this appeal to outside criteria is that our memories, and our use of them, are not at all like a bunch of copies from the very same press (ones in which, if their are errors, they will simply be reproduced endlessly as the same). If there is a “press” of the mind, it is much more like one which is in print all the time, and one can watch the results of taking one “edition” as correct, and make provisional adjustments if a set of beliefs fail. That is, if one follows only one’s memory, and one misses the train, one might question if there were a better way of finding out when the train would be there. But checking by glancing again at the physical time-table may help with one’s accuracy, but not categorically so. For instance, how one read that time-table anew might not jibe with one’s strong recollection. One might make sense of this by reasoning that one saw it wrong this time, or that the time-table must be out of date, or even some rather odd conspiracies of the world, and one might choose to simply trust one’s memory all the same. There is no easy, conceptual way out to what is “independent”.

[One could say that checking the truth of a report by looking at the multiple products of a process, only occurs when the truth is of an nature where doubt is necessarily cast, where it is not readily believable.]

This is related to what can be called The Buttle Principle [I give immense credit to my wife here for pointing out the concept, and naming it]. Terry Gilliam’s movie Brazil  opens with the bureaucratically automated typing out of the name of a man to be arrested. A beetle body lands on the typewriting mechanism and changes the printing process of a name of a terrorist from “Tuttle” to “Buttle”; in totalitarian justice the wrong man, an innocent shoe repairman, is arrested, tortured and executed. It becomes the “accident” which drives plot of the entire wistful and humorous critique of modern society. But now, given the metaphor of a printing press and editions of knowledge text, just where would the change from T to B lie? For instance, if you did as Wittgenstein parodies, after seeing in the small print of a newspaper that you, Buttle, were wanted for murder, it might do very well to check several copies of the newspaper to make sure it is so. Did a beetle simply fall into the mechanism at just that one moment of pressing the very copy one has in one’s hands? Suddenly (as is often the case with many of Wittgenstein’s otherwise convincing analogies) what sounds so ridiculous at first, when examined closely in real-world possibilities, is less so. 

One might ask, would the (mis)typing of the name “Buttle” in the movie Brazil  be part of the same press of an edition of knowledge? More exactly, are the given processes by which the name “Tuttle” had been inscribed in the system (an officer’s report, an original secretary’s typing), and the one where the name “Buttle ” is inscribed, to be understood as distinct or homogeneous? And in coordintion, would recalling again and again a train time-table in your mind really be simply running off more copies of the same edition of a newspaper? Would there be any sense of checking one aspect against another (what if you recall now that the time you thought that the train arrived was actually the date of your anniversary)? How much would all this self-referential conception of knowing be approaching what Wittgenstein called “a wheel that can be turned though nothing else moves with it” (section 271)? And when such a wheel turns, what is turning with it?

What is of interest here may be that the mechanism of inscription from the film is indeed tracking an alphabetized, rule-following procedure when it is “interrupted” by the fallen beetle. The name Buttle appears in a long string of T’s. To quote from the screenplay. :

The TECHNICIAN gets up and balances a chair on top of his
desk. He climbs up onto it attempting to swat the BEETLE
still buzzing about the room just out of reach. Beneath
him an automatic type-writing machine rattles away
compiling a typed list of names under the heading
“Information Retrieval, Subjects For Detention &
Interview”. The machine is being fed from a spool of paper
which is being rhythmically chopped by an automatic
guillotine which neatly leaves each name on a separate
sheet, with the title above each name, each sheet
following its predecessor into a holding basket. In CLOSE-
UP we see the names on the sheets of paper building up in
the holding basket: TONSTED, Simon … TOPPER, Martin F.
… TROLLOPE, Benjamin G. … TURB, William K. … TURNER,
John D. … Every name begins with T.

INTERVIEWER
Do you think that the government is
winning the battle against
terrorists?

HELPMANN
On yes. Our morale is much higher
than theirs, we’re fielding all their
strokes, running a lot of them out,
and pretty consistently knocking them
for six. I’d say they’re nearly out
of the game.

The TECHNICIAN is tottering on one leg on the chair on the
desk as he strains to swat the BEETLE. Swish, swash, oops,
WHAP! Gottcha!!

INTERVIEWER
But the bombing campaign is now in
its thirteenth year …

HELPMANN
Beginner’s luck.

The BEETLE’s career comes to a halt … squashed flat on
the brilliantly clean ceiling … or has it? As the
TECHNICIAN clambers down from the rickety heights, the
BEETLE’s carcass comes unstuck from the ceiling and drops
silently into the typewriting machine which hiccoughs,
hesitates and then types the letter “B” and hesitates and
then continues so that the next name is BUTTLE, Archibald.

The TECHNICIAN fails to notice this and the machine
continues smoothly TUTWOOD, Thomas T. … TUZCZLOW,
Peter…

What I suggest is that there indeed is a component of justification (though justification is not reduced to it) which indeed is like checking several copies of the same edition, a self-editing proof, whereby one could internally look at the inscription stages of “Tuttle” and the context of one copy of “Buttle” and say, there is an error there.  I believe that this is the case because even in intersubjective conditions the appeal to something “independent” only ends up being the causal nature of the world. That is, a group of people sharing criteria still have no “independent” appeal for their means of justification, other than the causal results of following them. (What is the ultimately “independent” criteria which is available to the totalitarian system of justice, concerning Mr. Buttle’s innocence?) As a consequence, part of the mechanism for justification is also the internal sense of cohesion betweencriteria events, the special rational character with which beliefs stick together and support each other. Buttle just should not be in the T’s.

In a certain sense, me checking whether I remembered a train schedule right by turning over my own recollections, is like the totalitarian beareucracy in Brazil checking over whether they arrested the right man. If indeed they did pay attention to the internal discrepancy of texts, the Tuttle to Buttle shift, and be self-critical to it, they might have an additional explanation for the constitutive pleas of innocence by Mr. Buttle. The wheel that so turns is always connected to the world, and it is experienced as having its turnings caused by events in the world. The recursivity of an internal cohesion, though not sufficient for intersubjective justification, plays as a grounding for its possibility. The “independence” is always relative to a dependence, which in the end is causal. And coherent self-reference is always open to self- (and therefore other) critique.

This calls to mind another analogy of the printing press, one used by Spinoza to explain Descartes “proof” of God.

For example, if someone were to ask through what cause a certain determinate body is set in motion, we could answer that it is determined to such motion by another body, and this again by another, and so on to infinity. We could reply in this way, I say, because the question is only about motion, and by continuing to posit another body we assign sufficient and eternal cause to this motion. But if I see a book containing excellent thoughts and beautifully written in the hands of a common man and I ask him whence he has such a book, and he replies that he has copied it from another book belonging to another common man who could also write beautifully, and so on to infinity, he does not satisfy me. For I am asking him not only about the form and the arrangement of the letters, which which alone his answer is concerned, but also about the thoughts and meaning expressed in their arrangement, and this he does not answer by his progression to infinity.

(Letter to Jelles (40), March 25 1667

I hope that you notice the comparison in printing press analogies. We have in Wittgenstein the “absurd” notion that if we only referred to our own sense impressions and our beliefs about them, we would be like someone who is looking again and again at multiple copies of the same edition of a newspaper. And we have in Spinoza the notion that if we simply refer to the recursivity of actions of the proliferation of copies of a book (rule-followings?), we really have gotten nowhere in answering the larger question for an “independent” (conceptually distinct) cause of their production. The causation, either in the case of a self-referential series of experiences which attest to facts of the world, or a proliferation of rule-following expressions taken as shared criteria which produces formal justification, is “the world” experienced as causing both our experiences and our beliefs, and the experiences and beliefs of others. And writing, as an inscription, is understood to be an affective process. That is, both our experiences and our beliefs cause and condition the inscription process itself. Part of having beliefs is understanding that self-regulation and critique takes in account The Buttle Principle. That is, our experiences of a fact may indeed be the result of non-intentional error (the “beetle” in the system). As such, their cause can lie within physical causation, and ignored. All the same, the The Buttle Principle also allows that errors can be re-inscribed back into the intentionality of the system (Buttle must be guilty if the system finds him so, the train must be late since my memory never fails me). In this way cohesion can, as an autonomic sense of “right”, overide any Intersubjective Critique or Reality Principle that might serve as a correction. This is part of the ballast that subjectivity provides to social forms of knowing.

For Spinoza, if one could encapsulate, this causation ultimately resides in an immanentive expression of a totality which is taken to be vastly causal, which from our perspective is bootstrapped largely through affective (Joy rather than Sadness) and imaginary (picturing what makes us more powerful) means. For Wittgenstein it is much more a case of an immanence of organization which bubbles up, games stacked on games, as criteria become shared and communicated, part of this dependent/independent differential which helps create the “public” nature of language. In the middle, I believe, the two meet.

It should also be of a happy note that the beetle of Terry Gilliam’s film conflates the Ungeziefer of Kafka’s Gregor’s subjectivity, and Wittgenstein’s own Beetle in a box. One could say, two isometric reflections of the same phenomena.

 

 

The Trick of Dogs: Etiologic, Affect and Triangulation, Part II of IV

 ◦                   ◦                   ◦

A Davidsonian Completion of Wittgenstein: Two Pictures of Language 

[continued from Part I, here is Part III]

The second part of this paper seeks to answer the vexing question: Given the widest of views that Augustine’s description offers, that of a panpsychic reality understood and filtered through our linguistic capacities to describe as real, how do we get our footing in the kinds of relations which make up our capacity to language in the first place? Wittgenstein’s critique, designed as it was to level certain Cartesian assumptions, as they had been preserved in the language of philosophy in his day, seems lacking in the ability to be applied beyond the ends of their means. Appeals to images of games played and rules followed only seem to take us so far. This is not due to any failing on his part, but rather to the nature of his project, and the kinds of discourse that he was rebutting. Here I will be concerned with approaches to languaging, and what they imply, such as to more fully embrace Augustine’s deeper vision, that of an active and affective world, in communication. And here will be presented prospective thoughts, not wholly in argument, but in illustration of what is occurring when we speak, both about ourselves and about the world, working towards the possibility of a theory, if only in the widest sense of the Greek word theōrein.

If there is a way to sketch out the bounds of Wittgenstein’s thought, perhaps it can be found in his illustrative examples, the nature of which are designed to bring forth certain aspects of language which he would like to emphasize. They do not really work so much as arguments, but rather conceptual signposts, thought-experiments, highlighting important characteristics of language which otherwise might be missed. In their very nature they must also in their emphasis suppress, or cause to fall into the background, other features not germane to his line of thinking. One could not say that Wittgenstein has brought out every salient point of language in his examples; rather, in taking his method seriously, one must assume that there are other ways of picturing and thinking about language than those he considered. It is my hope to take up just such a position, not as to say that Wittgenstein was wrong in the picture he painted of language, but rather that his explication is necessarily incomplete. By considering alternate pictures of language, a further light may be cast upon Wittgenstein’s own. Hopefully, by bringing into some relief the illustrative choices he made, so too will be made clear the nature and limits of the arguments they supported. So the ambition is to supplement an already rich oeuvre, so as to turn its explanatory power towards something more than what it already has achieved.

If Wittgenstein’s later philosophy could be characterized by a single picture of language, it seems to be that “rule-following” pictures would carry the day. Of course no philosophy can be summed in this manner, but certain thought-pictures can express the kernel of thinking which larger, over-arching arguments then explicate. In Philosophical Investigations, the picture of language that comes to mind, are those presented in the first sections of the book. It is they that establish a conceptual base from which he works. It is that they are not meant to be full or complete explanations of how language works, but as Ur-presentations, they suitably set the reader off in a direction. Perhaps one could say that they form the “ancient city” around which the more straight-lined suburbs of Wittgenstein’s descriptions of language and meaning will be built. Among these are the Five Red Apples game of section one, the Language of the Builders of section 2 (and 8-10, and 19-21). These are both designed to point up the rule-following dimension of language use, and lead up to the general concept of “language game” itself. What they present is a wholly public, and learned-by-rule picture of language. This is central to Wittgenstein’s conception. The question is: Are there other, fundamentally different pictures of language, thought experiments, which might shed other light upon the nature of language itself? And what is it that such pictures, as effective as they are, lose in their emphasis?

What I have in mind to contrast with these is the primary language picture used by Donald Davidson, taken from his professor, Quine: that of the field linguist, which shall be summarized shortly. Like Wittgenstein’s use of elemental language games, such as the Language of the Builders, such a thought-experiment is not here meant to be an argument per se; that is, one that proves Wittgenstein wrong, and Davidson right. Rather, it should be meant to be set beside Wittgenstein’s, so as to draw out the delineations of his thought, as it is presented in such examples that begin his work. As Freud once said of analogies, the do not prove anything, but they help us feel more at home. In proposing an alternate thought-picture of language, one can suggest that there is more than one way to feel more at home, in language.

Instead of a Language of Builders, Davidson, ala Quine, imagines as a fundamental picture of what goes on in language use, the occasion of a field linguist who is exposed to a native speaker whose language he knows nothing about. The reason for taking up such an example for Davidson is simple, we have no defendable account of how language is acquired, so we must make due with something more:

It might help if we knew how language came into existence in the first place, or at least could give an account of how an individual learns his first language, given that others in his environment are already linguistically accomplished. Failing such a knowledge or account, what we can do is instead ask how a competent interpreter (one with adequate conceptual resources and a language of his own) might come to understand the speaker of an alien tongue. An answer to this question should reveal some important features of communication, and throw indirect light on what makes possible a first entry into language (“Three Varieties of Knowledge.” 210)

 

 

 

 

 

When comparing these pictures of language, it is important to note that Wittgenstein’s language pictures of rule-followers operates somewhat rhetorically as mythic “primitive roots” of language use. He asks us for instance to understand The Language of the Builders as a “language more primitive than ours,” which nonetheless is “complete” (PI §8 ). In this way, such an imagined language operates in a mythical domain, one which conflates our unfortunate stereotype of one-word aboriginals who merely point, gesture and shout, with the very process we might ourselves undergo as children in a sufficient account of how we acquire language in the first place: how we might move from “training” to “thinking”. Apart from the cultural bias against such natives seen as “savages,” (perhaps ancient monument stone-stackers), upon which this example builds some of its satisfactory value, it is the way in which it subtly stands as a picture for aspects of language acquisition itself, that makes it both problematic, and effective. Davidson too returns to an idea of primitiveness, a seductive scene, but this time with the idea that whomever the interpreter is listening to (and in Wittgenstein’s example, we are invited to be interpreters, to understand how such a language is both like ours and not like ours, PI § 20), indeed has a complete and functioning, non-“primitive” language, just as we do.

As stated, the picture of language that Davidson begins from is that of a field linguist visiting a land with native speakers whose language is utterly unknown. It imagines a newly arrived anthropologist confronted with a native, who, in the presence of a rabbit which has just run by, shouts the word “gavagai” (Quine 52). Davidson is concerned, much like Quine before him but to much different ends (α), with what is it that is necessary to successfully interpret such a behavior/word. Quine will problematize even the translation of such a word “gavagai” into the one word sentence “Rabbit!,” but only insomuch as show the nature of an essential interdependence that does not rely on rule-following as a grounds for meaning (γ). There can be no appeal to rules between these languages. Davidson will find that what is necessary is not a specific training in language of the native, that is, an ostensive or rule-following pedagogy such that the field linguist can then justify his interpretations according to those rules, within that language, but rather, a generally assumed correspondence and coherence between his own speech (language) and that of the speaker’s (language), and the world it describes or responds to. He will follow a Tarksi-like conception of truth, such that the veracity of a sentence logically relies upon the veracity of another sentence in another language, such as in the classic example: “Snow is white” is true iff schnee ist weiß.

It is this fundamental co-incidence of sentences and effects in the world, which produces translation and meaning (β). What is important for our discussion here are not the immediate details of the justification of such an claim, but rather the elementary divergence between these two fundamental pictures of language. Each picture, those of a primitive language composed of orders and actions, and that of two language users coming to understand each other across the bounds of each of their languages, brings into clarity specific aspects of the nature of language use itself, as each thinker conceived them. Primarily, Wittgenstein’s Builders are rule-followers, Davidson’s linguist is an interpreter. These core pictures in this way allow us to see how much we are like each, rule-follower or interpreters.

Davidson in his “Three Varieties of Knowledge” thus offers a different sort of picture of what is going on at the primitive level of language use. What Davidson sees is that language use itself, even within languages that speakers share, is an occasion of interpretation. We are all, under Davidson’s picture of language, interpreters of others. All field linguists, by analogy. It is important that it be understood, much as Wittgenstein examples of rule-follower and game-players, that it is meant as an illumination, and not as a reduction, something that will “cast light” onto the nature of what we are doing (although Davidson’s example has the advantage of being something that actually occurs). What Davidson presents is a world in which people are not bound together in uses by the reference to shared rules or conventions which fix meanings and provide the sole process of justification, but rather one in which social relations are composed of a kind of immanent rationality, which displaces itself across a triangle of three domains. What Davidson will argue is that there is a trinity of knowledges of which or knowledge itself is composed: knowledge of ourselves, others, and that of the world; and that no one (or two) legs of this triangle can stand on its/their own. Any two assumes the third.

In a certain sense, Wittgenstein can be said to be, because he is arguing against a Cartesian framework of knowledge, still caught in the picture of Self/world, or Self/other, as he uses rule-following to upend one leg of the triangle or another. Adequately he plays one aspect of contiguity against another, but is yet unable to take them up into a whole, partly because he is not concerned with doing so. Philosophy has long found itself run aground upon the reefs of skepticism, either of other minds, or of the world itself, and Wittgenstein points clear of such reefs, articulating the wholeness of our communications, their fabriced interweave of interpenetrations. But perhaps because he seeks to bring out certain features of language, against mistakes made due to Cartesian pictures of bewitchment, he is confined within the space in which he engages others. The triangle cannot be taken as a whole. In a sense, Davidson’s view, when put besides Wittgenstein’s, subsumes it, and makes it more clear. It may be that within Davidson’s conception of triangulation, Wittgenstein’s standard of rule-following makes the most sense (δ).

Again, Davidson, like Wittgenstein, will turn to examples of learning, but here how one learns by what others are reacting to. Much as Wittgenstein’s primitive Five Red Apples language (PI §1) is meant to point up the poverty of ostensive definition explanations, and at the same time illustrate the kinds of elementary rule-following that indeed does appear to go on in language acquisition, Davidson will question, more conceptually, what happens when someone learns the use of words as meaningful in the world. The question is: Is there a fundamental acuity in interpretation, which is not reducible to rule-following? This will hopefully expose a primary facility of triangulation which will underlie rule-following itself.

Davidson begins with a larger description, when speaking about how objects and “aspect of the world’ get classified. All creatures indeed do classify objects, under our description, as one kind or another, but do so without language, in that they “treat stimuli as more alike than others” (212); a wolf is able to react to a sheep, as a kind of thing, just as an amoeba is able to react to either another predator amoeba, or a nutrient grade as a kind of thing. Davidson asks, what is the criterion for us saying that this is so, as observers?

The criterion of such a classifying activity is similarity of response. Evolution and subsequent learning no doubt explain these patterns of behavior. But from what point of view can these be called patterns? The criterion on the basis of which a creature can be said to be treating stimuli as similar, as belonging to a class, is the similarity of the creature’s responses to those stimuli (212)

This should be plain enough. What makes us call the behaviors of these creatures, “classification” is our observation that their behaviors before such stimuli have a similarity about them. When an amoeba is in the presence of what we might call a “predator” it behaves in a certain way, it “flees” or “hides,” but when it is in the presence of a nutrient grade, it “approaches” and “feeds”. But Davidson asks the further question, what is the “criterion of a similarity of responses” themselves? What is the standard by which we can say that their responses are similar to each other?

This criterion cannot be derived from a creature’s responses; it can only come from the response of an observer to the responses of the creature. And it is only when an observer consciously correlates the responses of another creature with objects and events in the observer’s world that there is any basis for saying the creature is responding to those objects or event rather than any other objects and events (212)

Our own classification of the similarity of another creature’s behavior, that is our own similarity of responses to that behavior, and its cause, grounds our interpretation of their behaviors, such that we can at the very least say that they are reacting to something that we too are. We are, in the most primitive sense, in agreement. And this sets up the fundamental conception of triangulation which Davidson uses to illuminate what is happening in language. An event or object in the world is taken to affect both us and another in such a way that we are able to make sense of the behavior of that other, as responding to that shared-world event. Thus there is a primary causal picture wherein the world is seen to affect both us and others.

Davidson goes on, and extends this essential relation to language use and interpretation itself, drawing forth what happens when we as language users encounter a foreign tongue we are attempting to translate:

As would be interpreters of the verbal behavior of the speaker of an alien language, we group distinct verbal acts of the speaker together: ‘Mother’, ‘Snow’, ‘Table’, when repeated as one-word sentences, sound similar if we are appropriately attuned. When we discover kind of objects or events in the world we can correlate with the utterances of the speaker, we are on the way to interpreting in the simplest of linguistic behavior (212)

Note how this picture subtly diverges from the kernel of Wittgenstein’s imagined picture of rule-following. It is not simply a matter of learning to repeat actions under command, but a larger idea of understanding that the world itself causes certain reactions, so much as to set up a connection between them. Like our interpretation of the behavior of an amoeba, what we do is correlate the behavior of the creature with events in the world assumed to be shared. In this view the events in the world have a causal relation to the behavior we are interpreting, even linguistic behavior. This is something that even non-linguistic beings do, in fact it seems, must necessarily do, and something that hence must lie very near the roots of what we do in language. When we interpret the occasions of the pronouncement of an alien word for “Table” in the presence of a regularity of an object of a recognizable kind, we are not just being given a “rule” for how to use the word “table”, as a Wittgensteinian might say. Although descriptively we can call the results of such learned behavior “rule-following” what is involved it is not reducible to such a description; rather, it is perhaps better to say that one is experiencing a causal relationship to the world and others, one in which events in the world are experienced to effect both the speaker and the interpreter. Just as we are able to correlate and interpret the behavior of an ameba as caused by the presence of an object to which we are both oriented, so too we are able to correlate the presence of an object in the world, especially in occasions of learned ostensive definition, such that object causes in some sense the behavior of the speaker. Against such a backdrop, rule-following gains stronger footing.

Davidson then turns to the supposed instance of actual language instruction, showing how as instructors we are governed by this sense of causal triangulation, such that the very orientation to a common cause in the world is the thing that helps one understand that behavior as meaningful:

If we are teaching someone a language, the situation become more complex, but more clearly interpersonal. What seems basic is this: an observer (or teacher) finds (or instills) a regularity in verbal behavior on the informant (or learner) which he can correlate with events and objects in the environment…For until the triangulation is completed connecting two creatures, and each creature with common features in the world, there can be no answer to the question whether a creature, in discriminating between stimuli, is discriminating between a stimuli at the sensory surfaces or somewhere further out, or further in (212).

In this way a causal relation to the world becomes principal in our understanding of the behavior of other creatures. The final sentences are paramount. The only thing that tells us that a creature (or speaker) is reacting to things in the world, and not to events occurring on the surface of his/her/its skin, or things below its skin (descriptions of which are readily available in science), is our correlation of their behavior with a causal connection to a shared world. What makes behavior, “behavior,” is that is can shed light upon the nature of the world itself, as an objective thing. And this stems from fundamental triangulation. It is the conceptual triangulation which at its basis gives our thought any content in the first place. Un-triangulated thought would not be “about” anything:

Without this sharing of reactions to common stimuli, thought and speech would have no particular content-that is, no content at all. It takes two points of view to give a location to the cause of a thought, and thus to define its content. We may think of it as a form of triangulation: each of two people is reacting differently to sensory stimuli streaming in from a certain direction. Projecting the incoming lines outward, the common cause is at their intersection (213)

Thus what gives thought its shape and form, and the world its confirmed substantiality is the triangulation of effects between the world, others and ourselves.

This triangulating approach to the nature of thinking, perceiving and interpreting, leads Davidson to a conception of belief that is causal. That is, because we understand others primarily through our ability to see their behavior as in some sense caused by the same things that cause our reactions as well, we come to understand the contents of the thoughts we attribute to others, as caused by events that surround them in the world. Programmed by language, events in the world can cause us to hold beliefs, fears, desires, and reasons (what can be classified as “mental predicates”). It is because we employ these predicates in our ability to get around in the world, and to understand others, this causal connection is fundamental to our knowledge of anything. And in this way, the same mental predicates conceptually act as causes of interpretable behavior themselves. To take one example of a myriad of those available, the fear I had of bees caused me to run into the house. It is core to our interpretations of mental predicates that they be understood as both caused by the world and the causes of our intentional behavior.

Yet there is a distinction to be made, for it does not seem that the way in which we speak of billiard balls is not the same way that we speak of fears and beliefs. Davidson explains that indeed there is a fundamental difference in the way that we relate to causes in the world, and the causal conception of mental predicates which govern our ability to understand the intentional actions of others (ε). Because we read the behaviors of others as interpretations of the world itself, our ability to causally connect those behaviors (the beliefs, desire and reasons) to the world presents a disjunction that makes our concepts about the world distinct from those that govern intentionality. To show how the causes of the world and the causal conceptions we have of beliefs and desires are distinct, he takes up the difference in the kinds of descriptions that may be thought of as causal, for instance those of physical properties such as “the rigidity of the wing caused its failure” and those of mental states, such as “his desire to be healthy caused him to go on a diet”:

In the case of causal properties like elasticity, slipperiness, malleability, or solubility, we tend to think, rightly or wrongly, that what they leave unexplained can be (or already has been) explained by the advance of science…Mental concepts and explanations are not like this. They appeal to causality because they are designed, like the concept of causality itself, to single out from the totality of circumstances which conspire to cause a given event just those factors that satisfy some particular explanatory interest. When we want to explain an action, for example, we want to know the agent’s reasons, so we can see for ourselves what it was about the action that appealed to the agent (216)

In this way, there is a divide in the manner in which we interpret the events of the world, and events of intention, though both are causally understood. “Descriptions of objects, states and events” fall under the capacity for “strict, exceptionless laws,” yet do not contain “causal concepts” (216).  Another way of putting this is that our language games about what occurs outside of us is fundamentally different than that which occurs within or between us, and with this Wittgenstein would have no problem at all-in many senses this is his main point. What Davidson adds to this though, is that these two ways of speaking, that of how the world is, and how we are, are related in that one employs causal laws in one (for instance the Newton’s Law of Gravity), and for the other, causal concepts (that is that our mental states can cause us to act in one way or another, and that these states can be caused by the world).

It is here that we stumble upon a very deep divide between the thinkers, for Wittgenstein makes a rather strong distinction between a reason and cause, in some sense vital to his criterion for what makes a language a language. In his rule-following vision, what is linguistic is the reference to an independent standard for correctness, without which we would not even have the idea of correctness in play. This lies that the core of his so-named Private Language argument. So when envisioning the possibility of a private language, he questions how a distinction one makes for oneself, in a wholly private way, could even be considered a distinction:

But “I impress it on myself” can only mean: this process brings it about that remember the connexion right in the future. But in the present case I have no criterion of correctness. One would like to say: whatever is going to seem right to me is right. And that only means that here we cannot talk about ‘right’ (PI §258 )

Davidson agrees with the impossibility of a private language, but grounds his perspective not on a question of rule-following, and justification, but upon an overall coherence of knowledge about the world and others, one such that enables language to get off the ground in the first place. What Wittgenstein importantly tries to do, instead, is place within the domain of the privately inner, a possible world of causation, events that may or may not happen in the head in a patterned manner, reference to which would only be like “buying several copies of the morning newspaper” to check for error (PI §265), or an empty “ceremony” (PI §258), or “a wheel that can be turned though nothing moves with it, is not part of the mechanism” (PI §271), which is distinct from the world of reasons, that which appeals to an outside, independent standards of use. It is upon this independent criterion of use that the possibility of a private language is foreclosed. In this sense, both thinkers agree that it is the connection with the outside world which makes linguistic distinctions linguistic, but in Davidson’s case it is the entire causal connections between world and fellow users, while for Wittgenstein the argument is narrowed to the idea of rule-following alone, something that requires him to entertain a primary difference between reasons (independently confirmed) and causes (internal events).

 

Wittgenstein puts forth his most clear conception of the difference between a cause and reason in the first pages of  The Blue Book. The difference is between something that just happens to happen in one’s head, in a causal fashion, and the appeal to a rule that has been taught you to:

Suppose I pointed to a piece of paper and said to someone: “this colour I call ‘red'”. Afterwards I gave him the order: “now paint me a red patch”. I then ask him: “why, in carrying out my order, did you paint just his colour?” His answer could then be: “This colour (pointing to the sample) which I have given him was called red; and the patch I have painted has, as you see, the colour of the sample.” He has now given me a reason for carrying out the order in the way he did. Giving the reason for something one did or said means showing a way which leads to this action (11).

Notice the distinct difference in language-picture Wittgenstein holds from Davidson, at this level. Where Wittgenstein imagines an elementary use of “samples” and “rules”, serving as a kind of template for how language operates, Davidson sees a causal picture wherein, for instance, in the presence of the color red, that similarity of stimuli, the subject is caused, due to being conditioned by language, to holding the belief that “that is red,” and hence led to proposing a rule to be followed. The student of red, who in Wittgenstein’s case is merely learning a rule, in Davidson’s case might still be said to be learning a rule, but a rule that is grounded in a larger triangulation of causes, which gives the world its objective appearance, (and also implies a necessary knowledge of other minds).

But let us turn to Wittgenstein’s example of what is not a reason:

[if you ask] “Why did you pain just this colour when I told you to paint a red patch?” you may give the answer: “I have been shown a sample of this colour and the word “red” was pronounced to me at the same time; and therefore this colour now always comes to my mind when I hear the word ‘red'”, then you have given a cause for your action and not a reason (15)

From this distinction one can plainly see the same distinction which works in Wittgenstein’s argument against private languages. The domain of the inner, is that of mental events seems to circulate without justification, or appeal to an outside standard. There is no sense of right or wrong, no difference between merely thinking you are following a rule, and actually following a rule.

And Wittgenstein clarifies the reasons why he is not concerned with statement of the kind “this colour now always comes to my mind”, a description of causes, that is, because he is not interested in science or natural history: “But our interest does not fall back upon these possible causes of the formation of concepts; we are not doing natural science; nor yet natural history…” (PI p 195). Quite rightly, Davidson would agree with not wanted to do science, for such an approach would be attempting to speak of the intentional, in the language of strict laws which mark out the way we speak of the world. There is a quintessential dividing line there, but such a line, for Davidson, does not cover mental predicates.

Wittgenstein’s strong distinction between reason and cause seems to cover over their relation. We would agree that saying that the this is the color that pops into my mind when I hear the word “red” tells us next to nothing, yet, we should also agree that “His belief that this color is ‘red’ caused him to paint such a color” not only makes sense (ζ), but also is illuminative. This is because, Davidson would tell us, there is a holism of beliefs, that is, we attribute beliefs (and other mental predicates) to others and ourselves in a rational manner, such that they cohere together in such a way that assumed beliefs shed light on other beliefs also attributed or expressed, and these beliefs are largely taken to be true about the world. Assumed beliefs is what positions us in a field of knowledge of others and the world. He puts it this way:

Any particular belief may indeed by false; but enough in the framework and fabric of our beliefs must be true to give content to the rest. The conceptual connections between our knowledge of our own minds [that is, to possess a first person authority] and our knowledge of the world of nature are not definitional but holistic. The same is true of the conceptual connections between our knowledge of behavior and our knowledge of other minds (214)

In the simplest of examples, the mental predication “I fear bees” may be thought of as coherent with other beliefs such as “Bees exist”, “That is a bee”, “Bees will sting me”, “It is difficult to escape bees”, “Bee are unpredictable” and a panoply of unstated others. In principle, it is this shift from definition to holism which allows Davidson to indeed say that our connections between ourselves, others and the world are not fully enough explained by any reference to “sample” and “rule”. Rather, it is the way that we indeed do understand others as having expressed, and very much non-expressed beliefs (desires, fears, etc.), such that they hang together, that gives us to understand “reasons” as caused. We may very well exercise the processes of justification which Wittgenstein champions, pointing to samples, evoking rules which justify our actions, but this can only be done in the larger context of a triangulation in which our beliefs and reasons are seen to be caused by a shared world, and cause (explain) our actions, for only in such a determination are the proper aspects of the world picked out between speakers.

Davidson finalizes his triangulation as an incorporation of both a Correspondence Theory and a Coherence Theory, wherein each plays its indispensable part in stabilizing discourse, an assumption which is regularly and necessarily made in the spirit of charity, maximizes the interpretability of speech.

The Principle of Coherence prompts the interpreter to discover a degree of logical consistency in the thought of the speaker; the Principle of Correspondence prompts the interpreter to take the speaker to be responding to the same features of the world that he (the interpreter) would be responding to under similar circumstances. Both principles can (and have been) called principles of charity (211)

We understand the world, and we understand others because we have formed, within the capacities of language, the possibility to hold beliefs about the world, and attribute beliefs about the world to others, even those with whom we share no language at all (in the case of the field linguist). Indeed there need not be reference to any rule (or sample) at all to understand others (though it can always help). This coherence of beliefs indeed provides something more than knowledge, either of ourselves, or others or the world. It has a normativity, in fact an inescapable normativity, which governs the interpretability of our actions. Apart from our ability to point to samples and rules, in occasions of justification, it is over all our ability to appear relatively coherent in our beliefs, such as others can ascribe them to us, that provides the backdrop for all our communicative action.

Whereas Wittgenstein might turn to the idea of whether indeed someone did or did not follow a rule so as to ascertain whether they were “right,” Davidson would say that the vital difference is between true and false belief about the world, in that, “…an interpreter must separate meaning from opinion partly on normative grounds by deciding what, from his point of view, maximizes intelligibility” (215).  It is not that one has incorrectly pointed to a sample, and played the rules of the game wrong, fundamentally so, but that one has expressed a belief in some way which has shown itself to be false or incoherent with others. Indeed there is an independent standard which justifies our actions, but this is the triangulation of the world, others and ourselves, as it plays out. And this shows itself in Davidson’s principal thought experiment about language, that of the field interpreter alone in a strange land. Missing are any of the recognizable references to rules which make up his own linguistic practices, but in fact he would be able to eventually understand the words and gestures of a native, across conventions. Interestingly, Wittgenstein himself alludes to such a capability at PI §206, “The common behavior of mankind is the system of reference by means of which we interpret an unknown language”. But Wittgenstein only has it partly right, Davidson would say. In invoking a “system of reference” found only in behavior, Wittgenstein is perhaps still a bit too much of a behaviorist, despite his self-inoculations against the position. There is no “system of reference” per se. Such a commonality is, rather than that of behavior alone, the linguistic capacity to hold beliefs, which hold together in a largely rational whole, such that others can ascribe them to us, and we to others; and such that they can be said to be caused by the world, and in turn cause our intentional actions. If Davidson is right, Wittgenstein’s behavioral “system of reference” is none other the capacity to triangulate the world.

  

 


  

Endnotes

α. It is important to note that Quine is an empiricist, and that his thought experiment is designed to isolate specific kinds of stimulus-meaning sentences, as privileged above others. Davidson see no such capacity, and attacks this empiricist line of thinking rather thoroughly in his “On The Very Idea of a Conceptual Scheme” (196).

β. “Consider ‘gavagai’. Who knows the objects to which the term applies are not rabbits after all, but mere stages, or brief temporal segments, of rabbits? In either event the stimulus situations that prompt assent to “Gavagai” would be the same for “Rabbit.” Or perhaps the objects to which “Gavagai” applies are all sundry and detached parts of rabbits: again the stimulus meaning would register no difference. When from sameness of stimulus meaning of “Gavagai” and “Rabbit” the linguist leaps to the conclusion that a gavagai is a whole enduring rabbit, he is just raking for granted that the native is enough like us to have a brief general term for rabbits and no brief general term for rabbit-stages or parts” (52).

γ. Davidson’s crystallization of truth as interpretation, which he calls “Radical Interpretation” runs as follows: “The intrepid interpreter, working without a bilingual trot, seeks to assign a propositional content to the utterances of a speaker. In effect he assigns a sentence of his own to each of the sentences of the speaker. To the extent that he gets things right, the interpreter’s sentences  provide the truth conditions of the speaker’s sentences, and hence supply the basis for the interpretation of the speaker’s utterances. The result can be thought of as a recursive characterization of truth, by the interpreter, of the sentences, and hence actual and potential utterances, of the speaker” (210).

δ. Davidson himself addresses the Wittgenstein origin of such pursuits, but also suggests the incompleteness of that treatment: “Someone who has a belief about the world-or anything else-must grasp the concept of objective truth, of what is the case independent of what he or she thinks. We must ask, therefore, after the source of the concept of truth. Wittgenstein puts us on the track of the only possible answer to this question, whether or not his problem was as broad as ours, and whether or not he believed in answers to philosophical problems. The source of the concept of objective truth is interpersonal communication” (209).

ε. He stakes this difference upon Quine’s essential difference between the Underdetermination of Theory and the Indeterminancy of Translation, a specific argument of differences which I will not approach in detail here.

ζ. That is, sentences of this kind are part of the “grammar” of the word belief.

 

[Part III here]

Savant Rule Following, What Shape is a Number?

A Short Film on Daniel Tammet, mathematical Savant.

Philosophical Bloggist Anderson Brown, would like to tell us that the calculations of Autistic Savants are somehow the rule-following equivalent of digestion. We may use rules to describe what is happening, just as we can use rules to describe what is happening in our stomachs, but because these calculations are somehow not “out in public” they are not what he calls “literal” rule-following.

There is some problem with this notion of a rule-following distinction, a favorite of those of the Wittgensteinan bent. Somehow Real rule-following must be categorically distinguished from only seeming rule-following (central I believe to Wittgenstein’s Private Language argument). First, is the idea of intentionality, which regards choice. Anderson would like to make the intentionality of persons the vector of their status as literal rule-followers. But there is a problem with this, since Wittgenstein himself, at least to some degree, actually takes choice (intentionality) out of what “rule following” is:

 “How am I able to obey a rule?” If this is in not a question about causes, then it is about the justification of for my following a rule in the way I do.  If I have exhausted the justifications, I have reached bedrock, and my spade is turned. Then I am inclined to say: “This is simply what I do” (PI §217).

When I obey a rule, I do not choose. I obey the rule blindly (PI §219). 
So to separate out “real” rule following under an index of choice alone, is difficult. Indeed, we are all following rules to some degree involuntarily. Just because “our spade is turned” does not mean that we, or Daniel Tammet has fallen into the world of strictly “causes” (as opposed to “reasons”, an important Wittgensteinian distinction).
  
Secondly, I have difficulty with Anderson’s idea that:
“Actual rule-following is done by persons, out in the world. Thus the savant is “rule-following” (computing with his brain), but he is not rule-following (thinking with his “mind’).”
Somehow savants seem to be denied, in such a conclusion, the status of being “real persons”, doing things “out in the world” here, that they are not “thinking”. I don’t know what, for instance, such doing out in the world would consist of. I would say that f I am doing calculations in my head, I indeed am rule-following, even though I am not “out in the world”, whether a Wittgensteinian would allow me that official distinction. A Wittgensteinian may like to tell me that whatever is going on in my head when I add 124 and 28 together may appear to be “rule-following”, but isn’t really rule-following until it is checked by others. For, afterall, I may be halucinating the answer to be correct (leaving aside the logical potential that those checking my answer might be halucinating the answer they think is correct).
I can certainly see the intersubjective aspect of creating a ballast for what is correct or incorrect, but rule-following cannot be broken up merely into the shadowy realm of internal, black-box, pseudo rule-following (in the “characteristic accompaniments” theatre of the mind), and “actual” rule-following which ONLY occurs “in public”. This is too sharp a categorical distinction, I would say, and misses some important aspects of how rule-following works. 
The ballast lies in two places, in a differential. Daniel Tammet the mathematical savant indeed is, I would say, rule-following when he tells you what shape the number 1012 is (this is not the equivalent of digestion). When he tells us that he knows what the answer is because the answer is a certain shape, this is not absolutely different than saying that I know where the town is, because the sign has just pointed me to it. Wittgenstein makes the very good point that these ARE different. What pops into my mind, functions more like a cause, than a reason. But there is a depositional orientation to causes that makes up our experience of intentionality. Tammet does not involuntarily blurt out the answer when a certain shape pops into his head. He evaluates it. He can in fact sculpt it in clay. He looks to it. In this way Wittgensteinian causes can be act like reasons (and reasons can be like causes: see Donald Davidson). This aspectual nature of orientation to own’s own metal events, the way that we can take an orientation to them, epistemically, is the counter-ballast to the public knowing which makes our knowledge intersubjective. One can justify, in part, to one’s self, without such justification being simply “buying several copies of the morning newspaper”.  Because it is not done “out in the world” does not make Tammet’s calculation the rule-following equivalent of “digestion”, as much as Wittgensteinians may like to by-definition, make them so.

White and Black Lists: Evolution and Rule Following

 

A Prospective View Towards Thinking about the nature of Proscription

It is said that one of the primary weakness of the early concept of evolution as adaptation to an environment was the idea that the environment was prescribing changes in an organism or species, that is telling them how to be. What it seems has become clear is that the environment is not prescribing (that is dictating, or determining) the prescriptions of DNA and then phenotypes, but only proscribing, limiting. This means that the development of organisms follow their own prescriptions (rules) only to the extent that the environment proscribed those products. Hence the environment could not tell an organism how to be, but could only tell it how not to be (that DNA/phenotype combination is fatal before reproduction).Now if we extend this metaphor down into chess, taking cue from Wittgenstein example of language game and rule following, we come up with, initially, a very distinct prescriptive environment (the “white list” as one can call it). The game of chess is for the most part composed of move possibilities that are prescribed, i.e. these are the things you can legally do. I think it would be possible to say as well that these hard prescriptions (for instance, the rules of how a pawn moves), are also complemented with softer prescriptions (for instance, one should try to control the center of the board, or one should castle early, or should maintain pawn chain integrity, or even more basically, one should protect one’s King and attack your opponent’s). If we remain at the level of the strict rules though (which is simplest), what we do when we learn chess, is internalize these rules. The prescriptions of chess become our prescriptions for our movements in chess. Our knowledge of those prescriptions is shown in our behavior. But, and this is important, moment to moment we can not just assume that our knowledge or employment of those prescriptions is correct. This is where prescriptions become proscriptions. If one attempted a move, one might be told: “No, that’s not how the knight moves,” or “No, that puts your King in check,” or even, “No, its my move”. In this way, the prescriptions of chess rules, as the environmental domain of your behaviors, communicated by your partner or an official, become proscriptions, that is limitations. What one does with such negative feedback is correct one’s understanding of one’s prescriptive aim, perhaps selecting a different rule to apply, or applying a rule in a different way.

There is no absolute prescription/proscription distinction at the descriptive level, because the proscriptive rule “You must not move your King into a line of attack,” can be alternately prescriptively described as “You must always move your King, when moving it, to a square of safety .” The distinction I think lies in a another way. One internalizes prescriptions and makes them rules for action, yet because we are ever unsure if our prescriptive understanding is optimal, we are ever ready to revise our prescriptions for action before the occasion of a proscriptive limitation. The proscriptive “no” is an event, a moment when whatever line of reasoning or rule application meets up with a limitation which causes us to revise our direction. (It can be anything from an outright impossibility of an action, “No, you can’t make that move,” to an unexpected consequence of a rule-following action, “Damn, it was stupid to castle so early when my pawn center was under such attack”. But while the proscriptive occasion is an event, the prescription of rules (the “white list”) is global. It contains a universizing aspect within a game, capable of being applied in multiple circumstances. It is simply uneconomic to make a “black list” because the list could be infinite. Instead we have a complex system of prescriptions that are alternately selected and/or revised under occasions of limitation. Just as an species is a series of “adaptive” prescriptions before an infinite “black list” which simply signals certain prescriptions to recombine.

 

 

Amanda’s “Private Language”

Pace Wittgenstein?

 

Wittgenstein argued, in a rather slick and convincing way, that there is no such thing as a “Private Language”, a language that in principle cannot be learned by anyone else. He argued that logically the kinds of internal, untranslatable rule followings that anyone might do privately, can only be at most the impression of following rules, and only become, or are called language, when we are able to translate them, setting out the difference between merely thinking you are following a rule, and actually following a rule. When we are able to say, yes that is following a rule, it is then that we grant language status.

Some selections from his Philosophical Investigations which are relevant:

If the distinction between ‘correct’ and ‘seems correct’ has disappeared, so then as the concept of correct. It follows that the ‘rules’ of my private language are only impressions of rules (259).

My impression that I follow a rule does not confirm that I follow that I follow the rule, unless there can be something that will prove my impression correct. And the something cannot be another impression–for this would b “as if someone were to buy several copies of the morning paper to assure himself that what it said was true” (265).

The proof that I am following a rule must appeal to something independent of my impression that I am. If in the nature of the case there cannot be such an appeal, then my private language does not have rules, for the concept of a rule requires that there be a difference between he is following a rule and ‘He is under the impression that he is following a rule’.

Amanda, an autistic who painfully, to many observers, did not possess the capacity of intelligent thought, claims to have a Language of her Own, what she calls her “native language”, one that is not symbolic, and allows her to have “conversations” with water or sounds. She scolds others for having to wait for her to learn their language, before they granted her personhood. Is her Language a Language? Or is she just one more conceptually confused Cartesian? In making this video testament, is she somehow “translating” her language, and relieving it of its potential “private language” status.

This is the transcript of her written text from the film:

The previous part of this video was my native language. Many people have assumed that when talk about this being my language that means that each part of the video must have a particular symbolic message in it designed for the human mind to interpret.

But my language is not about designing words or even visual symbols for people to interpret. It is about being in a constant conversation with every aspect of my environment. Reacting physically to all part of my surroundings. In this part of the video The water doesn’t symbolize anything. I am just interacting with the water as the water interacts with me. Far from being purposeless, the way that I move is an ongoing response to what is around me. Ironically, the way that I move when responding to everything around me is described as “being in a world of my own”. Whereas if I interact with a much more limited set of responses and only react to a much more limited part of my surroundings people claim that I am “opening up to true interaction with the world”. They judge my existence, awareness and personhood on which of a tiny and limited part of the world I appear to be reacting to. The way that I naturally think and respond to things looks and feels so different from standard concepts or even visualization that some people do not consider it thought at all but it is a way of thinking in its own right.

However the thinking of people like me is only taken seriously if we learn your language, no matte how we previously thought or interacted. As you heard I can sing along with what is around me. It is only when I type something in your language that you refer to me as having communication. I smell things. I listen to things. I feel things. I taste things. I look at things. It is not enough to look and listen and taste and smell and feel, I have to do those to the right things, such as look at books and fail to do them to the wrong things or else people doubt that I am a thinking being and since their definition of thought defines their definition of personhood so ridiculously much they doubt that I am a real person as well.

I would like to honestly know how many people if you met me on the street would believe that I wrote this. I find it very interesting by the way that failure to learn your language is seen as a deficit but failure to learn my language is seen as so natural that people like me are officially described and puzzling rather than anyone admitting that it is themselves that are confused not autistic people or other cognitively disabled people who are inherently confusing. We are even viewed as non-communicative if we don’t speak the standard language but other people are not considered non-communicative if they are so oblivious to our own languages as to believe that they don’t exist. In the end I want you to know that this has not been intended as a voyeuristic freak show where you get to look at the bizarre workings of the autistic mind. It is meant as a strong statement on the existence and value of many different kinds of thinking and interaction in world where how close you can appear to a specific one of them determines whether you are seen as a real person or an adult or an intelligent person.

And in a world in which those determine whether you have any rights there are people being tortured, people dying, because they are considered non-persons because their kind of thought is so unusual as to not be considered thought at all. Only when the many shapes of personhood are recognized will justice and human rights be possible.

Amanda Baggs

Amanda’s point is that it is absurd to regard the very narrow band of relevance that which “neuro-typical” people consider “communication,” their “language” as the defining aspect of thought; she claims that she is communicating, and indeed languaging, with a much broader spectrum of differences, that those that “neuro-typical” do. In a sense, she claims to have a language of another order. She resists the idea that if she only pays attention to the “right objects” and ignores the “wrong objects” she is thinking (or languaging).

1. Prospectively,  if one accepts that in making and following the rules of “grammar and semantics” one is just forming more beliefs, more conditions of actions to be taken, then the narrowness of what one may define as a “language” is subsumed in a larger category. Temple Grandin, an autistic who has a doctorate in animal science, claims to be able to most functionally “think in pictures”. Is this “rule following”? Is it a “language” (it depends on your definition: you would like one definition, I might like another). A rule-governed process of the formation of beliefs that help one cope with the world seems to me to be a “language” despite not having all the prerequisites that one might like to impose to make it officially a language. That what would be perhaps because both symbolic/grammatical languages, and perhaps autistic picture languages fall under the same category, the dominant form masking a larger process of interpretation.

2. From a Wittgensteinian, rule-following, Private Language point of view, it Wittgenstein is motivated to deny the logical inability of others to “know” our sensations or thoughts (the notorious Problem of Other Minds), because in order to have them, we must be following rules; and the only thing that qualifies that our rule-following is not just seeming to follow rules, but actually following rules, is our rule oriented interactions with others.

But if we grant Temple Grandin her “thinking in pictures”, the homolous argument would be: when Temple Grandin designs something in her mind, using pictures, the only thing that keeps her from only seeming to design stuff in her mind, and actually designing stuff, is her interactions with others. When in fact this is absurd. What keeps her from only seeming to design stuff, and actually designing stuff, is that when she makes it, it works (with or without the language use that surrounds it). Wittgenstein’s denial of private language (and with it private knowledge of states) is based on the logical grounds of what constitutes “rule-following”. He claims that “private rule-following” has no way of accessing whether it is rule-following or not. This simply does not seem to be the case. The way that it is assessed seems to be the experience of coherence, and the outcome of preditions of future states.

In speaking of concrete example, how does Wittgenstein’s in principle concept of a Private Language fair? All “in principle” falls to analysis of real context. Amanda claims or at least implies, that if she hadn’t bothered to learn our language, she still would have had a “language”. The question would be: Is this language, having learned ours or not, in principle learnable? What would be the standard that it had been learned? She does seem to imply that it can be learned, but it is hard to understand what such a learning would consist of. The bottom line of course is that Wittgenstein’s distinction between only thinking one is following rules and actually following does not exist as a point of logic, but is only a position we take towards our own interpretations. I sense that because Wittgenstein wants so desperately to make “knowledge” public” (that is non-Cartesian) he is seduced into the factuality of this distinction: that there is a real difference between the two, rather than merely an operative and provisional one. The “subjective” experiences that Amanda would have, sans our language, are something more than what Wittenstein calls “characteristic accompaniments”. They are not adornments to “rules”, but of which they consist. And the correctives of whether she is “rule following” or not, is simply the interaction with reality.

3.Amanda’s main aim is not whether her “language” is categorized as “language”, but the way that that categorization conditions her status as a “person” (with attendant rights; and she has physically and emotionally suffered real consequential abuse from not having that status), and as a thinking being. There is an entire framework of moral, legal and cognitive assumptions that follow on with “language” status. Her point is that if she had not learned what she calls “our language” her social status, the status of her thoughts and feelings would be held at a very low level, perhaps just above animal. She is claiming (and a good Wittgenstein might like to argue with her), that if she had not ever learned this language, or more subtly, if she lived in an pre-computer age, she would still have had all these thoughts, or at least thoughts to this level. Her claim to her own “language” is really a moral claim.

And taking up this point. If history had made it such that we never knew what Amanda was “thinking”, because she just went around humming and tapping things, what is the philosophical, and therefore ethical or moral status of that “thinking”? And is there a framework that allows us to include that self-described capacity as “personhood” and “thinking” without ascribing to it “language” status. When Amanda Baggs describes herself, she rejects the idea that she is an impaired person. Yes, there are many things that she cannot do, but from her point of view, there are many things that she can do, which neuro-typical can’t (or won’t). What is the philosophical, and therefore moral status of this claim? Or is she, as matter of logic, necessarily only impaired? Do we simply extend our “citizenship” as in some modified and diluted manner to others, (not just to animals, infants or autistics, but to “blacks” and “jews” and “sunni”) or do we change how we concieve of personhood altogether?