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[Wittrs] On Languge Being "Open Ended" [message #3533] Thu, 11 February 2010 18:10 Go to next message
Sean Wilson is currently offline  Sean Wilson
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Registered: August 2009
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... reply to this (and a private message of Stuart's): http://groups.yahoo.com/group/Wittrs/message/4288

One of the things I have found about people who cannot become black-belt Wittgensteinians is that their language skills are poor. And it isn't language skills in the sense of being a good grammarian or English professor -- though some of that may be connected -- its poor "radar" for what language is doing. And hence you get the following: (a) a bumper-sticker approach to the issue ("the anything-goes approach to language"); (b) terrible counter-examples ("come over to my can of peas, and we'll lick it over a cup of puke" -- which, of course, still could make sense under given circumstances [can of peas = hobbit house; puke= a putrid drink]); (c) a failure to understand Wittgenstein; and, relatedly, (d) the failure to appreciate how structure exists in the absence of rules, definitions or determinacy. Also, there seems to be this concomitant psychological need to see words as things that bind people in certain ways, or else, "the world
shakes," so to speak.

Hopefully, when I complete the manuscript I am working on, you can both find help with these matters. (Be done in about 2 months). For now, some basics:

1. It is Russellian to say that words mean what dictionaries say or what is "commonly said." It is no coincidence that this view is linked with the view that logic dictates what is said, and that what cannot pass this test is not meaningful. This school of thought was overthrown by Wittgenstein. (Hallelujah).

2. Meaning is use means exactly that. There are no statist or political criteria. Majorities do not determine what people say. Only brains and their behavior do. What this means is that language is as language does. And that if X and Y "score goals" with whatever usages they do, there is no authority structure that can be appealed to that could invalidate the goals. (Cardinal Principle #1: meaning is use).   

3. The ability of people to language, like the ability to do math, is not equal. These are the areas of the brain involved in language. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Surfacegyri.JPG  We can readily imagine that people who are gifted in this respect do not language the way people with ordinary regions language (in terms of capacity and insight -- in terms of "skilty"). (Why the culture understands this with mathematics but not language is only a prejudice) 

4. One of the great problems with people who are language-challenged is that they think that what belongs to "metaphor" is something only the creative do with their spare time, and that this has nothing to do with being a vehicle for understanding. That is, they cannot make good use of the simile. Have you ever noticed that Wittgenstein was brilliant with the simile? Have you ever noticed how powerful similes are when understood? Ask yourself this: those of you who like symbolic logic and definitions -- are you good with simile?

5. Sigh. The issue with characterizing "getting angry" as "blowing up" is not one belonging to metaphor. To treat "blowing up" literally is to invite polysemy into the picture. As I have said several times, polysemy is not family resemblance -- it is the wrong family. And if you want a structure for language that is Wittgensteinian, there is your first law.

6. The reason why language can have the fluid character that it does and still facilitate communication is that brains are quite good at navigating sense. See Pinker in the Language Instinct.  

7.  I believe this thread began with whether Tiger could be called a "bachelor." There being no credible view that such a statement could not, in fact, be meaningful -- and that many might today call him that given his line of behavior for many years -- it is no wonder that this issue then turns ideological. Why a sermon on language when the case at hand falls apart? (see intro paragraph)

8. And now we end with our hero. I'm glad to see some of you saying things like "Wittgenstein had trouble here" and "I'm going further than him." This is so much better than pretending you are Wittgensteinian. Those who cannot handle these ideas need desperately to go to a ship that can bear you. (Preferably one on land).  


"A new-born child has no teeth." -- "A goose has no teeth." -- "A rose has no teeth." -- This last at any rate -- one would like to say -- is obviously true! It is even surer than that a goose has none. -- And yet it is none so clear. For what should a rose's teeth have been? The goose has none in its jaw. And neither, of course, has it any in its wings; but no one means that when he says it has no teeth. -- Why, suppose one were to say: the cow chews its food and then dungs the rose with it, so the rose has teeth in the mouth of a beast. This would not be absurd, because one has no notion in advance where to look for teeth in a rose." PI, page 221.

"Given the two ideas 'fat' and 'lean,' would you be rather inclined to say that Wednesday was fat and Tuesday lean, or vice versa? (I incline decisively towards the former). Now have "fat" and "lean" some different meaning here from their usual one? __ They have a different use. -- So ought I really to have used different words? Certainly not that. -- I want to use THESE words (with their familiar meanings) HERE.-- Now, I say nothing about the causes of this phenomenon. They MIGHT be associations from my childhood. But that is a hypothesis. Whatever the explanation, -- the inclination is there."  p. 216 PI.    
"One might speak of a 'primary' and 'secondary' sense of a word. it is only if the word has the primary sense for you that you use it in the secondary one. ... The secondary sense is not a 'metaphorical' sense. If I say 'For me the vowel in e is yellow' I do not mean: 'yellow' in a metaphorical sense, -- for I could not express what I want to say in any other way than by means of the idea 'yellow.' Id.


 “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 … The point is that this is how we play the game. (I mean the language-game with the word ‘game.’).” See ¶ 71.

“If I tell someone ‘stand roughly here’ – may not this explanation work perfectly? And cannot every other one fail too?[1]… But isn’t it an inexact explanation?—Yes; why shouldn’t we call it ‘inexact?’ Only let us understand what ‘inexact’ means. For it does not mean ‘unusable.’ See ¶ 88
“I use [names] 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.)”  See ¶ 79.

“How should we explain to someone what a game is? I imagine that we should describe games to him, and we might add: “This and similar things are called ‘games.’” … But this is not ignorance. We do not know the boundaries because none have been drawn” See ¶ 69.

71. 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?  See ¶ 71.

“But then the use of the word is unregulated, the ‘game we play with it is unregulated.’ ---- It is not everywhere circumscribed by rules; but no more are there any rules for how high one throws the ball in tennis, or how hard; yet tennis is a game for all that and has rules too. See ¶ ??.

“people nowadays think that scientists exist to instruct them, poets, musicians, etc, to give them pleasure. The idea THAT THESE HAVE SOMETHING TO TEACH THEM – that does not occur to them. [all caps substituted for italics – sw] CV, 1939-1940, p.36
 "I think I summed my attitude to philosophy when I said: philosophy ought really to be written as a POETIC COMPOSITION. It must, as it seems to me, be possible to gather from this how far my thinking belongs to the present, future or past. For I was thereby revealing myself as someone who cannot quite do what he would like to be able to do." from Culture and Value, 1933-34, page 24 ...

“I just took some apples out of a paper bag where they had been lying for a long time. I had to cut half off many of them and throw it away. Afterwards when I was copying out a sentence I had written, the second half of which was bad, I at once saw it as a half-rotten apple. And that’s how it always is with me. Everything that comes my way becomes a picture for me of what I am thinking about at the time. (Is there something feminine about this way of thinking?)” CV 1937, p.31
 “Why don’t I call cookery rules arbitrary, and why am I tempted to call the rules of grammar arbitrary? Because I think of the concept “cookery” as defined by the end of cookery, and I don’t think of the concept of  “language” as being defined by the ends of language. You cook badly if you are guided in your cooking by rules other than the right ones; but if you follow other rules than those of chess you are playing another game; and if you follow grammatical rules other than such and such ones, that does not mean you say something wrong, no, you are speaking of something else. PG 184-185 …

[major snipping here -- sw]: “Language is not defined for us as an arrangement fulfilling a definite purpose” (190), meaning the “connections in the mechanisms of language” are such that we get to supply them. (191) [unquoted part my paraphrase – sw]. … “ ‘Language’ is a word like ‘keyboard…’ ” (192) …


[1]“Every other one” refers to others that are more or less exact. His point is that if you specified an exact location, the exactness would only be relevant if the border was exceeded, which in many cases would render the border superfluous and unnecessary, because one only needs to talk with fixed borders for those fixed purposes. Also, in cases where you stand directly on the border, more exactness would seem to be needed. And if you ever did specify a perfectly exact boundary, it would seem to be pointless unless you needed a perfect accounting of something directly on the border. He writes,
“And let us consider what we call an ‘exact’ explanation in contrast with this one. Perhaps something like drawing a chalk line round an area? Here it strikes us at once that the line has breadth. So a colour-edge would be more exact. But has this exactness still got a function here: isn’t the engine idling? And remember too that we have not yet defined what is to count as overstepping this exact boundary; how, with what instruments, it is to be established. And so on.” (See ¶ 88, PI).

Elvis has left the building. 

Dr. Sean Wilson, Esq.
Assistant Professor
Wright State University
Personal Website: http://seanwilson.org
SSRN papers: http://ssrn.com/author=596860
Discussion Group: http://seanwilson.org/wittgenstein.discussion.html

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[Wittrs] Re: On Languge Being "Open Ended" [message #3553 is a reply to message #3533] Fri, 12 February 2010 10:04 Go to previous messageGo to next message
SWMirsky is currently offline  SWMirsky
Messages: 188
Registered: August 2009
Senior Member
Since you elected to include reference to my off-list e-mailed comment on the issue of language being open-ended with regard to the implication of the idea of rule-following for understanding usages, I suppose there's no reason I shouldn't post some of what I said on-line in a more public way so here, at least, are the relevant portions:

"You know, I actually think Glen has a point, Sean. . . . he is right, on my view, re: the fact that you can't have an anything goes scenario in language. Yes, language is flexible and there are many games we 'play' within it and part of what Wittgenstein wanted to say was that that is how these things work. But he did also point out that terms can be misused and that that causes problems and misuse occurs when we break the rules of the pertinent game. To some extent language is open-ended and we are constantly evolving new games to go with the old but there must be places where words fall into the wrong pool of uses if we are to be able to communicate with one another (there must be right and wrong ways to say things). I think you are sometimes too facile in dealing with this distinction.

"I also think Glen's right about your use of 'brain scripts' and 'languaging'. Yes language is behavioral as Wittgenstein pointed out but there's a reason 'languaging' sounds odd to us, a reason it is not part of ordinary language, not a verb. I don't think much gets added by attempting to turn it into one -- or to refocus behavioral observations on whatever it is brains do (which we don't know and, even if we did in a scientific way, would not be part of the observational criteria toward which our ordinary linguistic usages are directed).

". . . I think I know where you are coming from, that you are pointing out that language is a complex of practices, is highly flexible and is never fixed in any finite fashion. But the way you put some of this is easily misread, lending fuel to Glen's fire."

My point, in the above, was to suggest that perhaps Sean overstates his case at times though I do agree that language rules are not hard and fast and that we err when we try to treat them that way. I'm just not sure as going as far as to say it's all a matter of fences and if we take them down we take them down. Some fences can't be taken down without violating sense. You can't make distinctions without fences in cases like this, even if where we place them is somewhat aribtrary, contingently dependent on a shared consensus within a community of language users.


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[Wittrs] Re: [C] On Languge Being "Open Ended" [message #3560 is a reply to message #3533] Sat, 13 February 2010 19:31 Go to previous message
J D is currently offline  J D
Messages: 51
Registered: January 2010

"In case you have not noticed, JPD leveled exactly the same criticisms against your views as did I, though I am guessing I will get no support from JPD, probably because he finds my rhetorical tactics boorish, and he simply does not like me. So be it. I can live with that."

Nah. Nothing personal. I just don't want to get drawn into cross-talk. I haven't been here long and I've already come to regret that. Here I'll just comment on remarks mentioning me, in case I need to clarify.

"But clearly, much of his latest, undeniably-harsh, viciously-sarcastic reply to you..."

I hope I wasn't all that bad! I was aiming for just enough sarcasm to make my displeasure with certain things known and to convey my point. Apparently, I went overboard!

"...but it makes the same point that JPD did..."

Actually, closer to your point was when I credited him with "a clever seduction" and told him that "I depreciated it." And the point of these were that even when someone still manages to get a point across, they may yet be undeniably incorrect. But irregardless, I could care less. (I hope those are also recognized as examples.)

"...when he challenged you to defend, in court, someone who was married, and cheating, who claimed they were, by some definition, 'a bachelor.'"

Just to be clear, the issue would be perjury (or subornation, ethical violations, and malpractice is his attorney had advised it). Sean seems (I hope) to agree that someone who he might call a bachelor in some "extended sense" would still be married and would still be cheating. But my point was that just by using such misleading language (whether or not one had cheated!) could get one into quite a bit of trouble. With the law as well as one's spouse. And caviling about "family resemblances" would be to no avail.

"It is clear, to anyone but the sycophants that largely populate this list, that JPD has delivered to you a serious spanking."

Again, I hope just enough to get his attention. No gratuitous displays of force.

Not sure who the "sycophants" are. No matter. Never mind. (As Hume didn't say.)


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