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Another Wittgenstein-Kierkegaard Connection: Laugh If You Can — Eric Linus Kaplan

It is well known that Wittgenstein admired Kierkegaard, thought he was the greatest thinker of the nineteenth century and a saint, although towards the end of his life he got fed up with how constantly teasing Kierkegaard’s writing is. (Kierkegaard thought this was positive — his writing was teasing the way existence is teasing). I […]

via Another Wittgenstein-Kierkegaard Connection: Laugh If You Can — Eric Linus Kaplan


The Danger of Words; Drury

Yet to purchase the book (I can’t seem to find it anywhere for less than £100), I spent a great deal of Saturday reading this in the British Library.

Of particular interest were his memoirs–  I remember Monk commenting that this work was the most Wittgensteinian of anything written by his students and, as much as this becomes apparent quite quickly in his writing, the memoirs, too, are distinct. There is something that little bit more personal about the recollections and it is the way Drury decides that little things are worth commenting on (Wittgenstein’s comment on the lighting at dusk; the writer’s observation of Skinner delicately returning the bugs and slugs to the garden when washing lettuce; the comment L.W. made when giving him a silver cup as a gift; etc.). These little things that he considers important to mention give a great insight into Drury himself.  Where others (Rhees; Bouwsma; et al.) aren’t sure what made Wittgenstein keen on their friendship, it is very easy to see why these two were friends.

A great deal of their discussions focused on religion, which of course was particularly interesting for me.  Especially the discussions on Catholicism and how Drury was clearly haunted to some extent over his decision in respect to Wittgenstein’s funeral arrangements.  I found myself thinking about it at a funeral at the Brompton Oratory yesterday.  It is a harsh and uncompromising faith.

Reblogged: Wittgenstein & the Mad Tea Party of Wonderland

Source: Wittgenstein & the Mad Tea Party of Wonderland


On 12 June 1940, as the Germans broke through the French lines and
Paris lay open before their advance, [Isaiah] Berlin went on to
deliver a paper on `Other Minds’ to the Moral Sciences club
in Cambridge. In Oxford, the imminent fall of France was on
everyone’s mind. In Cambridge, the otherworldliness of the dons
was unreal.

All of the Cambridge philosophers turned out – Braithwaite,
Broad, Ewing, Moore, Wisdom and a sixth figure, small and handsome of
feature, who appeared surrounded with acolytes in tweed jackets and
white open-necked shirts identical to his own. This was Ludwig
Wittgenstein. Berlin delivered his paper on the problem of how one
could have knowledge of others’ inner mental states. It was, he
remembered `terribly boring’. After a few initial questions,
Wittgenstein became impatient and took over the discussion. Berlin
remembered him saying `No, no, that is not the way to go about it
at all. Let me see. Don’t let’s talk philosophy. Let’s talk business
with each other. Ordinary business. In ordinary circs, I say to
you, “You see a clock. The minute hand and the hour hand are both
nailed to the clock face to certain ciphers. The whole face goes
round, but the time remains the same.” No? That is solipsism.’

It was idiotic, Wittgenstein was saying, to claim that time had
stopped simply because the hands of the clock remained motionless.
Time changed whatever the clocks, whatever the sense data happened to
record. This was a vintage demolition of Ayer’s type of
verificationism. No one else spoke. `Broad sat there like a
boiled lobster looking angry. G.E. Moore, old and decrepit, looked
open-mouthed.’ Isaiah parried as best he could and the acolytes
hung on every word and dared not interrupt. After an hour,
Wittgenstein rose to his feet, his acolytes rose with him, and he
leaned over the table and shook Isaiah’s hands. `Very
interesting discussion. Thank you.’ With that, other participants
crowded around and said how rare it was to be complimented in this
way. But Berlin was not fooled. Wittgenstein hadn’t been much
impressed with the paper or Isaiah’s arguments afterwards. But he
did seem to think that Berlin had been honest and sincere, not trying
to show off, as Freddie Ayer might have done. Wittgenstein’s
judgment was Berlin’s own, and their encounter marked the
symbolic, if not the actual, end of Isaiah’s active philosophical

(Memorandum of interview, Michael Ignatieff with Isaiah 
Berlin, 7 Feb 1990)

Relieving the mental cramp

I hadn’t read this quote in a while until re-reading Malcolm’s memoir. I do very much like it.

What I give is the morphology of the use of an expression. I show that it has kinds of uses of which you had not dreamed. In philosophy one feels forced to look at a concept in a certain way. What I do is suggest, or even invent, other ways of looking at it. I suggest possibilities of which you had not previously thought. You thought that there was one possibility, or only two at most. But I made you think of others. Furthermore, I made you see that it was absurd to expect the concept to conform to those narrow possibilities. Thus your mental cramp is relieved, and you are free to look around the field of use of the expression and to describe the different kinds of uses of it.

Duck-Rabbit War

Language Games – Notes

Again: nothing exciting I’m afraid. I wrote this the other week in response to what someone wrote (quoted below) and didn’t want to lose track of it. I want to keep it here for future reference. Perhaps it will be of minor interest to some.


“I am currently embroiled in a long discussion that started from how the notion of “two” is abstracted from being shown two nuts, etc.

Wittgenstein seems to favor the position that notions like “two” behave as counters in overarching language games that we internalize from social immersion. I certainly hope this is followed by at least a nominal discussion of other theories, because so far, methods like establishing positive and negative contrasts haven’t even been mentioned.

By positive and negative contrasts, I mean that in theory, two-ness can initially be explained by being shown as many sets of two objects as necessary to clarify the concept, sets that vary along every axis other than number, especially those axes along which misunderstandings are likely. And if negation is understood, then also several sets of nuts that are not two in number, while being told those are not-two nuts. This can then be repeated with all words, until it becomes clear which quality each label is intended to represent.”


On one hand, it’s generally accepted that Wittgenstein doesn’t ‘theorise’. He only has an argument to the extent ‘cogito ergo sum’ is an *argument*. More importantly, on the other: are you sure two-ness can so easily be explained? Is it as straight forward as the method you have just described? To everyone in the modern Western world, yes, of course; but only because our lifestyles are so similarly aligned.

I’m not sure if you have interest in Chomsky et al. but you might find it interesting to explore the work of one of his students, Daniel Everett, with the Pirahã. They’re one example of a culture who have no need, use, and thus concept of cardinal numbers or numerary but their language has uses for quantities (small, large, few, many, etc.). Now, unless you think that they’re intrinsically and naturally incapable of numeracy, the reason that they struggle with these definitions is that they’re seemingly arbitrary because mathematics is a cultural habit that they have never employed and do not employ (along with a lot of other social ‘norms’).

The example of positive and negative contrasts above is of course valid but is analogous to cases where, although the languages are very different, the cultures or societies between the pair are similar enough. For example, as an English speaker approaching a French speaker, I could be forgiven for the fact that when the French person is rapping his knuckles on a wooden table and saying the word ‘en bois’ to me that I presume that ‘en bois’ is the French for table. The Frenchman realises I have misinterpreted when I say ‘ah!’ and start tapping several glass tables in the room, gleefully exclaiming: ‘Enbois! … Enbois!… Enbois!’ To which he starts again: ‘Non, non, non: c’est en bois et ceux-ci NE SONT PAS en bois’. And so on and so forth. I think he means the word ‘flat’; I’m mistaken. I think he means ‘you can eat off this’; I’m mistaken. Eventually, though, what he meant is negatively defined for me, as you suggest. This cannot work if the item (or concept) has no cultural parallel or similarity.

Now, let’s pretend that the infamous French Ortolan dish, unique to their culture, was always eaten with a special dining tool that was, say, a figure 8 made of sterling silver and that our Frenchman refers to as a Pilala (this or something similar isn’t that inconceivable, really, given the religious quirks surrounding the meal). What positive or negative definition process is going to teach the Englishman what this object is? You might get close with ‘eating utensil’ etc., but you are truly and honestly only going to *understand* what the word is if you understand its role within the culture, the rules surrounding its usage, that you can talk about it meaningfully and correctly with other people: “Ah, you see, it’s a dining utensil but it is specifically used for only one meal: the Ortolan dish. A delicacy in France that is considered so sinful to eat that you wear a napkin over your head to shield what you’re doing from God. As such, being such a sacrilegious meal, knives and forks are not permitted; instead one must use a pilala, which is the only implement to be used to eat the bird and which should not be used to eat anything else.”

Such a social quirk doesn’t have any parallels in England and the only way you would learn it is from gaining familiarity with the culture.

To Y. Smythies, 7.4.[1944]

                                                                                                                c/o Mrs Mann
                                                                                                                10 Langland Rd
                                                                                                                Mumbles Swansea


Dear Smythies,
   Thanks for letter, dated Thursday.  The news of your joining the roman catholic church was indeed unexpected.  But whether it’s good, or bad news–  how should I know?  The following seems clear to me.  Deciding to become a Christian is like deciding to give up walking on the ground and do tight-rope walking instead, where nothing is more easy than to slip and every slip can be fatal.  Now if a friend of mine were to take up tight-rope walking and told me that in order to do it he thinks he has to wear a particular kind of garment I should say to him:  If you’re serious about that tight-rope walking I’m certainly not the man to tell you what outfit to wear, or not to wear, as I’ve never tried to walk anywhere else than on the ground.  Further:  your decision to wear that kind of garment is, in a way, terrible, however I look at it.  For if it means that you’re serious about the thing it’s terrible, even though it may be the best and greatest thing you can do.  And if you’re dressing up and then don’t do the tight-rope act its [sic] terrible in a different way.  There’s one thing, however, I want to warn you against.  There are certain devices (weights attached in a particular way to the body) which steady you on the rope and make your act easy, and in fact no more dangerous than walking on the ground.  This sort of device should not be part of your outfit.– All this comes to saying:  I cannot applaud your decision to go in for rope walking, because, having always stayed on the ground myself, I have no right to encourage another man in such an enterprise.  If, however, I am asked whether I’ld rather you went in for rope walking, or for sham[m]ing, I’ll certainly say: rather anything than the latter.–  I hope you’ll never despair, and I also hope that you’ll always remain capable of despairing.   I sent you a letter yesterday saying why I’ld rather not see you at the present moment.  I should like to see you when my work here is done, or almost done.
   I’m really interested in what sort of a man you are and will be. This will, for me, be the eating of the pudding.
   So long!  Good wishes!
                                                                                                Ludwig Wittgenstein




* As a point of interest, I seem to remember Drury commenting that Wittgenstein was partly responsible for this conversion because the latter had advised the reading of Kierkegaard.

Calling something a ‘tractor’– Language, Meaning, Use, etc.

Nothing particularly exciting or revelatory here;  I have been writing on other subjects, not yet ready, and so in the meantime wanted to record the below.

I revisited an old article from last year written by someone I follow.  Not familiar with Wittgensteinian approach to language and meaning, he posed the below to me:

“To take an absurd example, if I looked at animal of the species canis lupus and decided to call it a tractor, would that mean the definition of a tractor has changed, simply by dint of one person? I would posit that it hasn’t, but I’m not sure how you or Ludwig might respond. Is there some kind of linguistic democracy at play, requiring a majority usage?”

I suggested that he would indeed find Wittgenstein’s writings very relevant if he finds these ideas of interest. And I left it there. I’m not sure what possessed me but yesterday lunchtime, I revisited his comments and impulsively jotted some ideas down. These are the below:


Your right hand could give your left hand money, but has a transaction taken place? Have you given a gift or received a payment?

You approach a group, bringing the animal with you, and explain that this is a ‘tractor’. What are the implications, the consequences here?  If they are familiar with the animal, they might correct you.  If you insisted, they might think you mad.  If they aren’t familiar with the animal, they might accept what you say.  Some might question how you came to acquire your knowledge on this, assess whether you have the authority to make such a claim.  If they are familiar with the use of the word ‘tractor’ but not the animal, some might simply say ‘Ah, how queer that the animal shares the same name as the vehicle!’ and ponder either what the connection is or whether there even is a connection at all!

For the meaning to change, that society would have to adopt it.  By majority?  This is too simplistic;  and by simplistic I mean that this would imply, or assumes, that language is not in fact organic but that it is a mathematical or scientific procedure.  In reality, how would the disagreement of the minority manifest?  They would simply not use the word in their daily life where others would. Perhaps they openly criticise the others for a time but what else?

Think of how in Nottingham, say, people call each other ‘duck’:

“Mi Duck” is thought to be derived from a respectful Anglo Saxon form of address, “Duka” (Literally “Duke”), and is unrelated to waterfowl.[5] Non-natives of the East Midlands are often surprised to hear men greet each other as ‘Mi Duck.’”

“Mi duck” is what you call folk. It’s rather like calling people “dear”, or “love”.


Now, what is the meaning of duck for these people in their daily use?  Are they all aware of the history of the word? And what would it matter if none of them were? Does this mean they are using the word incorrectly?  Or rather that it is unique, or better yet, relevant, to their culture.  A Nottingham inhabitant might explain the meaning as an affectionate greeting.  The majority of the country might (and do) find it bizarre, nonsensical, be unable to explain it unless familiar with the culture. Some might choose to adopt it, passively or actively, some might actively discourage it (especially in the case of children, etc.).

It is a way of life that gives meaning to the words.  The meaning isn’t a shadow, a ghost, an object, connected to the word.  It does not hang independently for people to consult and to verify.  Language is, after all, intrinsically social.


The ‘God’ problem— revisited


– it must be an idea willingly abandoned, a primitive relic of primitive cultures; and this can only happen through understanding how the misconceptions were born in the first place.


I feel as if I’m in the midst of some sort of transition stage.  I feel uncomfortable.  Not, mind you, a transition in the sense that I’m becoming in any way religious but I can’t help but feel haunted by some of his observations that, only now, are starting to take shape for me.  I had read snippets before but wasn’t truly grasping his point but, following my recent discovery of his notes on Frazer’s Golden Bough, piece by piece, my approach, my perspective has been shifting.

I read the following the other day as a criticism of someone who believes in the power of prayer: 

“I have no beef with a person who thinks god answers their prayers. Having been brought up religious, I can tell you I haven’t had the need to pray since my deconversion and it doesn’t even bother me. This first reason should have been changed to read; I like to talk to myself and think that something is actually happening. Am afraid if I stop talking with myself, I will become a hopeless wreck.

And I would have agreed with this wholeheartedly as recently as a couple of years ago but now I suppose my stance is creeping towards these lines:

“… it is a document of a tendency in the human mind which I personally cannot help respecting dearly and I would not for my life ridicule it.”  


Now, I can’t say I respect it dearly but the fact is I am starting to see it as some remarkable insight into what I suppose is referred to as the human condition.  From my most recent entries before this one, the reader will note the trend of what I have been reading recently and so to borrow again the quotes from an earlier piece I documented:


“Burning in effigy.  Kissing the picture of one’s beloved.  That is obviously not based on the belief that it will have some specific effect on the object which the picture represents.  It aims at satisfaction and achieves it.  Or rather:  it aims at nothing at all; we just behave this way and then we feel satisfied.

[When I am furious about something, I sometimes beat the ground or a tree with my walking stick.  But I certainly do not believe that the ground is to blame or that my beating can help anything. “I am venting my anger”.  And all rites are of this kind.  Such actions may be called Instinct-actions.”


“Really what I should like to say is that here too what is important is not the words you use or what you think while saying them, so much as the difference that they make at different points in your life.  How do I know that two people mean the same thing when each says he believes in God?  And just the same goes for the Trinity.  Theology that insists on certain words & phrases & prohibits others makes nothing clearer. (Karl Barth)

It gesticulates with words, as it were, because it wants to say something & does not know how to express it. Practice gives the words their sense.”


I suppose my change of heart is that I starting to see more and more the wonder in the fact that something as seemingly absurd, to me, as the act or prayer can have the importance it does to so many people.

Don’t get me wrong, I still find religion itself very frustrating and often abhorrent, particularly in Christianity’s case; however, religious belief, or more importantly, religious expression is starting to indicate to me something more profound than simply ‘nonsensical actions’ or ‘the absurd’, a socially acceptable ‘madness’.  I see something very animal about it– as contradictory an idea as that may seem to some– and although I don’t think I’ve mentioned this in any of my previous posts for some reason, I have held the view for many years now that we often forget that we are in fact animals and that language goes some way to obfuscate this fact.

This is why I couldn’t help but wince when I revisited my old post at the final two lines (at the top of this post).  It is in fact quintessential to realise that it is primitive–  and that this in fact more profound than my dismissive label suggested.  I will be thinking on this further no doubt, try as I might not to.


I should add that, although this affects the first part of my original post, there is still much to stand by in that part.