A remarkable feature of Ludwig Wittgenstein’s late philosophical writings, even more so than Bertrand Russel’s, who was a master of writing about and explaining philosophical problems for or to both experts and the laity, is their non-technicality. Although he has been described as and even mocked for being weird and unconventional1, reading his Philosophical Investigations is, at any rate, worth while, since it contains several important philosophical insights, especially as regards language and the nature of both thought in general and in philosophy.
In §71, Wittgenstein, with respect to language, as it is normally applied, explaining, and understanding, writes:
One might say that the concept ‘game’ is a concept with blurred edges.—“But is a blurred concept a concept at all?”—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?
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.—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. 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.—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 no to employ those examples in a particular way. Here giving examples is not an indirect means of explaining—in default of a better. For any general definition may be misunderstood too. The point is that this is how we play the game. (I mean the language-game with the word “game”.)2
In §75 he entertains the concept of knowledge:
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.3
§76 relates this to the metaphor of boundaries:
If someone were to draw a sharp boundary I could not acknolwedge 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 may 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.4
Compare knowing and saying:
how many feet high Mont Blanc is—
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.5
Later §§, such as §103, §116, and §119, connect these observations with the nature of thought and philosophy:
The ideal, as we think of it, is unshakable. You can never get outside it, you must always turn back. There is no outside; outside you cannot breathe.—Where does this idea come from? It is like a pair of glasses on our nose through which we see whatever we look at. It never occurs to us to take them off.6
When philosophers use a word—“knowledge”, “being”, “object”, “I”, “proposition”, “name”—and try to grasp the essence of the thing, one must always ask oneself: is the word ever actually used in this way in the language which is its original home?—
What we do is to bring words back from their metaphysical to their everyday use.7
The results of philosophy are the uncovering of one or another piece of plain nonsense and bumps that the understanding has got by running its head up against the limits of language. These bumps make us see the value of the discovery.8
Evidently, all of the above citations relate to the points I sketched in my article ‘Some Remarks on the Philosophical Analysis of Truth and Knowledge’.9 What philosophers often, if not most often, demand is an analysis yielding clear and only clear results about certain concepts, such as truth, reality, language, meaning, and so forth. In the aforementioned article I pointed out that it appeared to me that what philosophers often do is not so much analysing as rather constructing concepts. This is exactly what Wittgenstein points out. Our language, the natural language, consists of elements with rather blurry than clear and rigid boundaries. An important reason for this is that our natural language has developed – and continues to do so – according to our needs. The world we inhabit is not one with clear, sharp, rigid, inalterable boundaries – both metaphorically and literally, especially in regard to our epistemic condition –; all incoming information can be adopted as an hypothesis as first construed, but, at the same time, needs to be open to reinterpretation and correction. Therefore, as our cognitions need to be flexible – there must be, to borrow an expression from Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, a certain fluidity of thought –, it is not a defect, as, for instance, Gottlob Frege10 or the members of the Vienna Circle11 thought, but rather an advantageous characteristic of natural language(s) to allow for flexible – permeable, as it were – boundaries.
This argument is, needless to say, an empirical argument, indeed, it is one in terms of Darwinian Evolutionary Theory, assigning benefits to, and thereby explaining, seemingly defective characteristics of natural language(s). Wittgenstein has, with the above cited §103, provided us with a reason for which the problem cannot be solved from within philosophy. When we attempt to analyse concepts in search of their ‘true’, that is to say, unambiguous, nature, we start out from false premises, not only presuming but demanding our ideal to exist, and thus be discoverable, in reality. In many situations, particularly in debates, it is, of course, sensible and useful to define how, exactly, we want central terms to be construed; we thus assign to some words a more or less rigid meaning, a definition, so as to prevent misconstruals originating from different uses of the same words. In general, however, there is no such thing as the true meaning of a word, or the true definition, or the correct analysis of a concept.
Nevertheless, this does not simply render knowledge impossible, as it would seem from within philosophy: an a priori enquiry sooner or later necessarily leads to the conclusion which is known as radical, or global, epistemic scepticism – namely, that there is, indeed, can be, no knowledge in principle. The conclusion is logically, that is to say, formally, valid, but empirically false, since it originates from erroneously presuming the necessary existence of an ideal in reality. Not only does global epistemic scepticism contradict itself by entailing both its own truth and the validity of logical inferring; not only does, as Gilbert Ryle points out in his classic work The Concept of Mind12, the ability to detect that one has been wrong entail knowing what it is like not to be wrong; Wittgenstein also demonstrates in §78 that we can actually know something without being able to explain it at all.
We can easily expand the scope of vague knowledge by looking at the usual use and construal of adjectives and adverbs. ‘Happy birthday!’, ‘I feel cold’, ‘Thank you very much!’, ‘You are beautiful’, ‘Is it worth while?’, ‘Are they nice?’ are all expressions entailing vague adjectives or adverbs. In what manner, exactly, do we wish someone’s birthday to be ‘happy’? How cold, exactly, is someone who feels ‘cold’? How much, exactly, is ‘very much’? What, exactly, are the standards against which to measure someone’s ‘beauty’? How, exactly, is something worth (one’s) while? What, exactly, are ‘nice’ people like? Although we obviously cannot answer these questions – in fact, we usually should not even entertain them –, it is perfectly clear that we understand the concepts entailed by said expressions, and know how to answer the original everyday questions. That we cannot answer the scrutinizing questions does not mean that we do not know what is meant by the original everyday questions; instead, the reason for this is that there is only a scope of answers, but not one exact answer to them. It is mostly a question of degree, and depends upon concrecte circumstances, whether someone be nice, and when, exactly, they cease being so. Under normal conditions, we know exactly what we are supposed to do when asked the original everyday questions, even though we cannot point to one and only one construal of the entailed concepts.
In a similar but qualitatively even more astonishing vein, we know what an instrument we have heard sounds like, and what a spice we have eaten tastes like; notwithstanding, unless we have any comparison at hand, we cannot tell someone else what the instrument sounds like, or the spice tastes like, we cannot explain our knowledge, despite its being such.
1. In particular Stefan Diebitz, in his book Glanz und Elend der Philosophie (Grace and Disgrace of Philosophy), uses ad hominem arguments against Wittgenstein, as though Wittgenstein’s personality would render his writings and arguments invalid. And notwithstanding that he, Diebitz, himself complains about strict definitions which, in his opinion, ought not to be aspired or used in philosophy, he himself, of course, knows what a ‘true’ philosopher is. Confer, for instance: Diebitz, Stefan: Glanz und Elend der Philosophie; Stuttgart: Omega Verlag, 2007; pp. 10–11.
2. Wittgenstein, Ludwig: Philosophical Investigations; The German Text With a Revised English Translation; Third Edition; Translated by G. E. M. Anscombe; Oxford: Blackwell Publishing, 2001; p. 29e. (Emphases in the original.)
3. Op. cit., p. 30e.
4. Op. cit., p. 31e.
5. Op. cit., p. 31e.
6. Op. cit., p. 39e.
7. Op. cit., p. 41e.
8. Op. cit., p. 41e.
9. Confer: http://wp.me/p1QVNW-kB.
10. Confer the entry in Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy: http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/frege/#FreLan.
11. Confer the entry in Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy: http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/vienna-circle/.
12. Ryle, Gilbert: The Concept of Mind; London: Hutchinson, 1949; pp. 173–174:
However, the menace of universal shamming is an empty menace. We know what shamming is. It is deliberately behaving in ways in which other people behave who are not shamming. To simulate contrition is to put on gestures, accents, words and deeds like those of people who are contrite. Both the hypocrite and the people whom he deceives must therefore know what it is like for someone to be contrite and not merely to be pretending to be contrite. If we were not usually correct in sizing up contrite people as contrite, we could not be gulled into thinking that the hypocrite was really contrite. Furthermore, we know what it is like to be hypocritical, namely to try to appear actuated by a motive other than one’s real motive. We know the sorts of tricks the hypocrite must use. We possess, though we cannot always apply, the criteria by which to judge whether they are being used cleverly or stupidly. So sometimes we can, and sometimes we cannot, detect hypocrisies; but even when we cannot, we know what sorts of extra clues, if we could secure them, would betray the hypocrite. […] To establish hypocrisy and charlatanry is an inductive task which differs from the ordinary inductive tasks of assessing motives and capacities only in being a second order induction. It is trying to discover whether someone is trying to model his actions on what he and we have inductively discovered to be the behaviour of people who are not shamming. When we and the hypocrite have learned how hypocrisy is exposed, we might have to cope with the second order hypocrite, the double-bluffer who has learnt how not to act like a first order hypocrite. There is no mystery about shamming, though it is a tautology to say that skilful shamming is hard to detect and that successful shamming is undetected.
Notice that even though Ryle’s argument deals with the specific problem of other minds, the objection to the sceptic holds true in general. It is not vulnerable to the counter that a change in perception or appearance only indicates a difference, with the result that we cannot tell which perception or appearance be real, and which be illusory; for differences in perception or appearance do not entail that any perception or appearance be wrong. Furthermore, the concept of being wrong can only exist inasmuch as there be a coexisting concept of the opposite, namely, being right. It does not make sense to say that we could actually be wrong about everything in principle, in the same respect, at the same time, although it perfectly makes sense to say that we may be wrong about some, many, or even most things most of the time. Notice, in addition, that the sceptic cannot even argue that we actually are wrong about everything, since this would entail that they themselves were wrong, too.
With this in mind, it is not true that ‘Against this absolute scepticism, no logical argument can be advanced’, as Bertrand Russel concludes in his The Problems of Philosophy (Russel, Bertrand: The Problems of Philosophy; New York: Dover Publications, 1999; p. 110). It is only impossible for us to convince the sceptic – who lives within us –, so long as we accept their premises. Or, to put it metaphorically, we can never defeat the sceptic at their own game, because its rules prevent us by definition from taking the crucial steps.