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Introduction

The Philosophical Investigations of Ludwig Wittgenstein.

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Aphorism 76-80 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:
76.   If someone were to draw a sharp boundary I could not acknowledge it as the one that I too always wanted to draw, or had drawn in my mind. For I did not want to draw one at all. His concept can then be said to be not the same as mine, but akin to it. The kinship is that of two pictures, one of which consists of colour patches with vague contours, and the other of patches similarly shaped and distributed, but with clear contours. The kinship is just as undeniable as the difference.  Consider again the concept of a schematic leaf
In sketching such a schema, one creates something that was not initially there.  I do not picture such a schematic leaf in my mind each time identify a leaf, and if I were to do so, the one that I pictured might not be exactly like yours.  Still, if we were each to create such a schematic leaf, representing all leaves, our creativity would be constrained by our similar understanding of what counted as a leaf.
77.  And if we carry this comparison still further it is clear that the degree to which the sharp picture can resemble the blurred one depends on the latter's degree of vagueness.  For imagine 
having to sketch a sharply defined picture 'corresponding' to a blurred one.
Here is a schematic leaf.  Is that the one you would have drawn?  How similar to a real leaf must this leaf be in order to be a schematic leaf?  Will the point on the right side be enough to make it serve for a maple leaf?  Or should it be more pointed?  And if it were more pointed, would it it also work for a smooth-sided leaf ? 

How would you sketch a sharply defined picture corresponding to this blurred one?

 In the latter there is a blurred red rectangle: for it you put down a sharply defined one. Of course-several such sharply defined rectangles can be drawn to correspond to the indefinite one.-But if the colours in the original merge without a hint of any outline won't it become a hopeless task to draw a sharp picture corresponding to the blurred one? Won't you then have to say: "Here I might just as well draw a circle or heart as a rectangle, for all the colours merge. Anything-and nothing-is right." And this is the position you are in if you look for definitions corresponding to our concepts in aesthetics or ethics.  And here is a blurred rectangle.  suppose your task is to draw a definite one that corresponds with this indefinite one.  And, if you imagined it even more blurred?  At some point wouldn't the task become hopeless?
 In such a difficulty always ask yourself: How did we learn the meaning of this word ("good" for instance)? From what sort of examples? in what language-games? Then it will be easier for you to see that the word must have a family of meanings. The situation is similar when we try to envision the essential features of a game, or of any other concept.  To think in terms of essences, we must visualize a blurred concept, and yet, when we try to apply such a concept to a case before us, we will have the same kind of difficulties we have with the schematic leaf or rectangle.
78.    Compare knowing and saying: 
         how many feet high Mont Blancis- 
         how the word "game" is used- 
         how a clarinet sounds. 

If you are surprised that one can know something and not be able to say it, you are perhaps thinking of a case like the first. Certainly not of one like the third. 

If one knows how high a mountain is, then one would surely know how to say it.  But isn't it possible to know how a clarinet sounds, or how coffee smells, without being able to say what one knows?  And, isn't the case of knowing what a game is rather like the case of knowing how a clarinet sounds?  It is easy to know such things without know how to say what one knows.
79. Consider this example. If one says "Moses did not exist", this may mean various things. It may mean: the Israelites did not have a single leader when they withdrew from Egypt or: their leader was not called Moses or, there cannot have been anyone who accomplished all that the Bible relates of Moses -- or: etc. etc.--  The sentence "Moses did not exist" has blurred boundaries much like the blurred boundaries of a schematic leaf or a blurred rectangle.  Just as a number of different leaf shapes could have been taken from the blurred schema, so a number of different meanings might be drafted onto the statement "Moses did not exist."
We may say, following Russell: the name "Moses" can be defined by means of various descriptions. For example, as "the man who led the Israelites through the wilderness", "the man who lived at that time and place and was then called 'Moses' ", "the man who as a child was taken out of the Nile by Pharaoh's daughter" and so on. And according as we assume one definition or another the proposition "Moses did not exist" acquires a different sense, and so does every other proposition about Moses.-And if we are told "N did not exist", we do ask: 
"What do you mean? Do you want to say ...... or ...... etc.?" 
Even the name "Moses" is not as clearly defined as we are apt to presume.  What if someone not-named Moses was still a person who had done all that Moses is repored to have done.  Would that be the same as Moses?  Or what if he had done some of the ghings, but not all?  How much different from the story of Moses could the historical man have been in order to justify the statement "Moses did not exist?" 
 
 

 


But when I make a statement about Moses,-- am I always ready to substitute some one of these descriptions for "Moses"? I shall perhaps say -- By "Moses" I understand the man who did what the 
Bible relates of Moses, or at any rate a good deal of it. But how much? Have I decided how much must be proved false for me to give up my proposition as false? Has the name "Moses" got a fixed 
and unequivocal use for me in all possible cases? -- 
But if I were to make a statement about Moses, all of these considerations are not in my mind.  I haven't decided beforehand which features of the story of Moses are essential in order for us to say that Moses lived.  But, perhaps you want to say that most of it must be true in order to say that Moses existed.  But how much?
 Is it not the case that I have, so to speak, a whole series of props in readiness, and am ready to lean on one if another should be taken from under me 
and vice versa?
Suppose there were 40 stories of Moses.  If stories 4 through 32 were false, would this be different than if stories 1-28 were false?  Are there any essential stories?  Or can I fall back on any?
 Consider another case. When I say "N is dead", then something like the following may hold for the meaning of the name "N": I believe that a human being has lived, whom I (1) have seen in such-and-such places, who (2) looked like this (pictures), (3) has done such-and-such things, and (4) bore the name "N" in social life. --Asked what I understand by "N", I should enumerate all or some of these points, and different ones  on different occasions. So my definition of "N" would perhaps be "the man of whom all this is true".-But if some point now proves false? --Shall I be prepared to declare the proposition "N is dead" false-even if it is only something which strikes me as incidental  that has turned out false? But where are the bounds of the incidental?-- If I had given a definition of the name in such a case, I should now be ready to alter it.  Although it may seem to us when we speak that our language is unambiguous, even the phrases that at first seem without ambiguiuty are, on reflection, very equivocal, that is, subject to interpretation -- much like the blurred leaf that was to serve as a schematic leaf.  Is "N" dead?  For "N" to be dead, "N" must have lived, but how will we decide that the person I am referring to is a specific person?  If someone lived who had some of the features I imagined for "N" but not all, was that "N?" 
 
 
 
 
 

 

And this can be expressed like this: I use the name "N" without a fixed meaning. (But that detracts as little from its usefulness, as it detracts from that of a table that it stands on four legs instead of three and so sometimes wobbles.)  So, we are driven to notice that words do not have fixed meanings.  At first glance you may think this would reduce their usefulness to us.  But it is not so. 
Should it be said that I am using a word whose meaning I don't know, and so am talking nonsense? - -Say what you choose, so long as it does not prevent you from seeing the facts. (And when you see them there is a good deal that you will not say.) 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

 

When we notice that language is never unambiguous, that is much like the blurred leaf, we might ask "can I use a word [dorrectly] whose meaning I do not know?"  There is a sense in which our understanding of the term is limited.  Shall we count this as a case of not-knowing? 

The problem is that we can see what is known and what is not-known.  Our confusion comes not from not-knowing what the facts are, but rather from the fact that the rule that would determine how we should speak is not definitive enough to tell us how to answer. 

It is the same as if I were to ask: "Is it cold outside?" (since you were standing outdoors) and you might know it was 62° Fahrenheit (imagine having a thermometer), and yet not know whether to count this as "cold" because the word "cold" does not have such well defined boundaries. 

Still, your understanding of the temperature would limit how you answered the question (truthfully).

(The fluctuation of scientific definitions: what to-day counts as a observed concomitant of a phenomenon will to-morrow be used to define it.) 
 
 
 

 

Scientific definitions reduce this ambiguity somewha.  What counts as water in the vernacular is different from what counts as H20.  In he creation of the concept of H20 there has been the systemtic exclusion of seawater, or dishwater, from the concept.  Still, if there are a few molecules that are not "H20" shall we still consider the vial to contain H20?  Even here, there is ambiguity that tends to escape us.
80.    I say "There is a chair". What if I go up to it, meaning to fetch it, and it suddenly disappears from sight.? --"So it wasn't a chair, but some kind of illusion". --But in a few moments we see it 
again and are able to touch it and so on. --"So the chair was there after all and its disappearance was some kind of illusion". --But suppose that after a time it disappears again-or seems to disappear. What are we to say now? Have you rules ready for such cases  ---rules saying whether one may use the word "chair" to include this kind of thing? But do we miss them when we use the word "chair"; and are we to say that we do not really attach any meaning to this word, because we are not equipped with rules for every possible application of it? 
The rules that determine the right way to use language in any given language game are never defined with absolute precision.  We all comfortably call the objects we sit on chairs, but we have no rules to label them if they stop behaving as chairs.  Language is simply not that precise.  There are blurred boundaries that we fail to see and that often do not bother us. 
 
 
 
 
 

 


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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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