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Introduction

The Philosophical Investigations of Ludwig Wittgenstein.

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Aphorism 70-75 from
Wittgenstein's Philosophical Investigations
with commentary on the right by
Lois Shawver
 
 
 
Wittgenstein:
(Emphasis in bold is inserted by Shawver to enhance commentary.) 
Shawver commentary:
Now, we will dip into the reason that our local negotiation of language games (the setting up of the accounts in (51) through (69), do not always work and why we have disagreements and confusions.  What is it about langauge that makes it difficult for us to accept any definition of things at all?
70.   "But if the concept 'game' is uncircumscribed like that, you don't really know what you mean by a 'game'." 
 
 

 

Here is the Augustinian (actually, his positivist descendant)  speaking.  The point is simple. You need to define terms to be able to use them.  But Wittgenstein isn't defining "language game" in any clear way, recall, that captures the essence of language games.  Language games form a family resemblance.  There is no essence to tie them together.
-- When I give the description: "The ground was quite covered with plants" --do you want to say I don't know what I am talking about until I can give a definition of a plant?  But, notice, mostly we don't have ready definitions for terms.  Even when we set up the language game by giving accounts, we don't typically know that we are doing it.  We all learned to talk quite a bit before we were even able to generate definitions for the terms we used.
My meaning would be explained by, say, a drawing and the words "The ground looked roughly like this". Perhaps I even say "it looked exactly like this."-Then were just this grass and these leaves there, arranged just like this? No, that is not what it means. And I should not accept any picture as exact in this sense.  Imagine it.  I say, "The ground looked roughly like this" as I point to a front yard of someone's.  But what does "this" mean.  Recall our problem in defining "this" before.  Or pointing to anything.in an effort to define it.  What am I pointing to here?  This is the whole problem with teaching ostensive definitions that we faced in 1-10, and that Wittgenstein elucidated in his remarks 28 and 29..  Just as it is hard to tell if I am pointing to the circle or the color of the circle, so it is hard to tell what I am pointing to here.  And, I said that the similarity beteween this front yard and the one one I am describing is rough, but rough in what way?  Can I be exact in how it is rough?  Without making this "rough" explanation an exact one?
71.    One might say that the concept 'game' is a concept with blurred edges.- Here, LW breaks his usual form and he begins this aphorism in his own voice.  He is suggesting a way to think about things that will be challenged in the next passage.
"But is a blurred concept a concept at all?"- There's the challenge::  The imaginary interlocutor says in effect, "Don't I have to pin my meaning down in order to be precise?"
Is an indistinct photograph a picture of a person at all? Is it even always an advantage to replace an indistinct picture by a sharp one? Isn't the indistinct one often exactly what we need?  The question is whether you want to call an indistinct picture a "picture."  Generally I think we do, unless it is more than just a little indistinct.  But with concepts, don't we often operate with "indistinct meanings" of terms?  And in the case of "language game" isn't that what we need?
Frege compares a concept to an area and says that an area with vague boundaries cannot be called an area at all. This presumably means that we cannot do anything with it. Well, here's a real case of the positivist descedent who makes the complaint that forms the problem for this aphorism to handle.
-But is it senseless to say: "Stand roughly there"? 

Suppose that I were standing with someone in a city square and said that. As I say it I do not draw any kind of boundary, but perhaps point with my hand-as if I were indicating a particular spot. 
 

Clearly we do this all the time.  "I'll be finished about noon," I might tell someone.  Can I call you after that?  "Well", that person says, "I have to leave somewhere around one o'clock.  I'm not sure exactly, but something around one.  So, try to call before then." 

The communication seems sensible and useful in a context like that.

And this is just how one might explain to someone what a game is.  One gives examples and intends them to be taken in a particular way. Isn't this how we explain things often enough?  There are provisional explanations that prepare a place and then more a more sophisticated understandings.  Imagine trying to explain "chess" to a child.  You say, "It's the game that you have seen Daddy play with Uncle Paul.  You know, the one with those funny figures that ove around a board that looks like the floor in our kitchen?"  Oh, the child says, "the one that has soldiers?"  "Yes, kind of."  And that's the first explanation.  Obviously the child does not yet have a very solid understanding of chess, but this initial rough explanation lays a groundwork, prepares a place. 
(31)
 --I do not, however, mean by this that he is supposed to see in those examples that common thing which I --for some reason-- was unable to express; but that he is now to employ those examples in a particular way. Here giving examples is not an indirect means of explaining -- in default of a better. 
 
 
 
 
 
 

 

This is what he does not mean:  He does not mean that somehow this explanation of chess to the child will give the child the essence of chess or that I even knew the essence of chess at the time but simply could not think of it.  My explanation to the child was not merely a faulty explanation, either.  The child could not have understood a fuller one.  Giving him the explanation that I did will however prepare a place for a fuller explanation.  Over the next year or so, imagine him watching his dad and Uncle Paul playing chess and learning a little at a time until, gradually, he has working definition but still does not know quite what a check-mate means, and after that, he has a working definition, but does not know what a Queen's Gambit is, and so forth. -- Wittgenstein is showing us how we can understand language being learned in terms other than the unambiguous pointing and naming that Augustine imagined in (1)
 For any general definition can be misunderstood too. No matter how I point at the blue circle and say "blue" you might misunderstand me (cf. 28).  And no sentences, either, are so accurate and so apt as to prevent all misunderstandings.
 The point is that this is how we play the game. (I mean the language-game with the word "game".) What language game?  The language game of showing others what we mean.  We introduce the concept by preparing the place.  Listeners cannot understand our language until a place is prepared for it..
72.    Seeing what is common. Suppose I shew someone various multi-coloured pictures, and say: "The colour you see in all these is called 'yellow ochre' ".-This is a definition, and the other will get
to understand it by looking for and seeing what is common to the pictures. Then he can look at, can point to, the common thing. 
This voice is persistent, isn't it?  The voice that says we learn by seeing what is common.  Well, we sometimes seem to learn by seeing what is common.  The problem is that we give this way of learning language altogether too much credit.  There are other ways of learning language and LW is showing us a few.

 

Compare with this a case in which I shew him figures of different shapes all painted the same colour, and say: "What these have in common is called 'yellow ochre' ". 
 
 
 
 

 

This is the kind of example the Augustinian in this passage was pondering.  You can imagine it.  There are various shapes and they are all the same color.  Even if the person wasn't quite sure about the concept of 'color' (say didn't know the difference between the concept of 'color' and the concept of 'shade') surely she would understand if she could see the different shapes here, and be told, "What these have in common is called 'yellow ochre'".  Isn't this how we learn to know colors?  by seeing what is common?
And compare this case: I shew him samples of different shades of blue and say: "The colour that is common to all these is what I call 'blue' ". 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

 

But here, things are a bit different.  Different shades of blue might not all be seen as "blue," especially if one didn't know that ordinarily we treat different levels of saturation as the "same color" even though they are different "shades."

In other words, some situations of explanation are easier to grasp perhaps than others.  If we imagine the case of different objects having the same color as being useful to teach people the concept of 'yellow ochre' are we imagining that these different objects have precisely the same shade of 'yellow ochre'?  But don't we use the word in a rougher kind of way to individate a variety of shades?  Take the color blue and notice the vast difference between midnight blue, ice blue, robin's egg blue, babyblue, and so forth.

In other words, we can convince ourselves that we detect the essence of the concept by seeing examples only by thinking of extreme cases in which the ambiguity of what we are pointing to is minimized.  It is hard to imagine what that extreme case would be in the case of "games."

73.    When someone defines the names of colours for me by pointing to samples and saying "This colour is called 'blue', this 'green' ..... " this case can be compared in many respects to putting a table in my hands, with the words written under the colour-samples.-Though this comparison may mislead in many ways.- Well, this is a familiar example.  Think of all of our talk of the table or the file cabinet in the mind.  Yet, it is true that we do teach these words in situations that amount to attaching labels to things, it is just that we have seen that this example, as seductive as it seems to be, is misleading if it leads us to think that such a table must be present in the mind.(cf  54-58)
One is now inclined to extend the comparison: to have understood the definition means to have in one's mind an idea of the thing defined, and that is a sample or picture. So if I am shewn various different leaves and told "This is called a 'leaf' ", I get an idea of the shape of a leaf, a picture of it in my mind.-But what does the picture of a leaf look like when it does not shew us any particular shape, but 'what is common to all shapes of leaf'? Which shade is the 'sample in my mind' of the colour green-the sample of what is common to all shades of green? 

 

He continues to show us the problem with the idea that we deduce the essence of the concept from examples in which the one thing held constant is the essential feature of the concept (as in differently shaped objects all having the color "yellow ochre" in common.

He is countering this Augustinian presumption by referring to some earlier discussions.  In 38, for example he talked about our tendency to solve the puzzle of how we do things by presuming we do things half-unconsciously (or even unconsciously) in the mind that correspond to what we might do physically.  If we can look up a table to see what a color is, we imagine doing this in the mind, unconsciously.

"But might there not be such 'general' samples? Say a schematic leaf, or a sample of pure green?" 
 

 

This is the next move after the Augustinian voice realizes that we do teach general concepts that include considerable variation (and families of variation) under their rubric.  "Maybe,"  the Auegustinian says, we have a kind of schematic leaf in the mind, roughly drawn.  Would that work?"  That is kind of like a table in the mind, (cf. lwref pictures before the mind.)
-Certainly there might. But for such a schema to be understood as a schema, and not as the shape of a particular leaf, and for a slip of pure green to be understood as a  sample of all that is greenish and not as a sample of pure green-this in turn resides in the way the samples are used.  "Yes," LW is saying, there could be such a schema, but how would we know that it was such a schema and not the shape of a particular leaf?"  And, I might add, how would we know how diverse a group of things this schema would apply to? 
Ask yourself: what shape must the sample of the colour green be? Should it be rectangular?  Or would it then be the sample of a green rectangle?-So should it be 'irregular' in shape? And what is to prevent us then from regarding it-that is, from using it-only as a sample of irregularity of shape?  Or, let's reverse the example here to the earlier one: What color would the schematic leaf be?  And how would we know that the term did not apply to the color of the leaf?
74. Here also belongs the idea that if you see this leaf as a sample of 'leaf shape in general' you see it differently from someone who regards it as, say, a sample of this particular shape. Now this might well be so -- though it is not so -- for it would only be to say that, as a matter of experience, if you see the leaf in a particular way, you use it in such-and-such a way or according to such-and-such rules.  Here I think LW confuses things a bit.  He is using the phrase "see the thing in a particular way" in one of its possible senses.  I see him as saying you don't "see things differently" unless it is something like a gestalt picture of the duck-rabbit where it appears like a duck sometimes and like a rabbit at others.  I think we have a related langauge game in which we say that we "see things differently" without this meaning that we actually experience the visual image differently.  Be that as it may, Wittgenstein is, I believe, talking about "seeing things differently" as seeing a different aspect as in the case of the duck-rabbit.  At least, to me, this is the interpretation that makes the most sense.

Of course, there is such a thing as seeing in this way or that; and there are also cases where whoever sees a sample like this will in general use it in this way, and whoever sees it otherwise in another way. For example, if you see the schematic drawing of a cube as a plane figure consisting of a square and two rhombi you will, perhaps, carry out the order "Bring me something like this" differently from someone who sees the picture three-dimensionally. 
And an important point.  The world around us has many aspects and some of those aspects may be noticeable if we see the world in a certain way, and not if we don't.  Both ways may be equally correct (as in the case of the duck-rabbit).  But how we see the world will have an impact on what we do, and on our form of life.
75.   What does it mean to know what a game is? What does it mean, to know it and not be able to say it? Is this knowledge somehow equivalent to an unformulated definition? So that if it were
formulated I should be able to recognize it as the expression of my  knowledge? Isn't my knowledge, my concept of a game, completely expressed in the explanations that I could give? That is, in my describing examples of various kinds of game; shewing how all sorts of other games can be constructed on the analogy of these; saying that I should scarcely include this or this among games; and so on. 
I understand this on the model of people learning to make judgments without knowing the criteria they use to make those judgments and, even, without there being formulateable criteria.  I learn to drive steer a car, turning the steering wheel a little this way or that in response to how the car moves, and I learn to ride a horse by doing something similar, even balance on my feet as I'm standing still by doing little corrections, but this doesn't mean that I would recognize the rule, or even that the rule could be stated in a single formula, no matter how complex.  This is especially clear to me if the judgment is obviously complex like whether my boss is in a good mood, good enough to ask for a raise. 

Next Page





Table of Contents
Shawver Commentary


Aphorisms
Index Page
1-10
11-20
21-30
31-38
39-50
51-59
60-64
65-69
70-75
76-80
81-88
89-100
Reference
Extended Look at 43


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