March 22nd, 2004

Removing a Post-It

I just took the English-only edition of Wittgenstein's Philosophical Investigations off my office bookshelf because I need a copy that's easier to carry around than the hardcover bilingual one. It had one torn Post-It inside, presumably because I was out of tape flags that day. Since the Post-It was marking what is probably the most important entry in the book, I thought I'd better record the passage for posterity:
23. But how many kinds of sentence are there? Say assertion, question, and command? -- There are countless kinds: countless different kinds of use of what we call "symbols", "words", "sentences". And this multiplicity is not something fixed, given once for all; but new types of language, new language-games, as we may say, come into existence, and others become obsolete and get forgotten. (We can get a rough picture of this from the changes in mathematics.)

Here the term "language-game" is meant to bring into prominence the fact that the speaking of language is part of an activity, or of a form of life.

Review the multiplicity of language-games in the following examples, and in others:
Giving orders, and obeying them --
Describing the appearance of an object, or giving its measurements --
Constructing an object from a description (a drawing) --
Reporting an event --
Speculating about an event --
Forming and testing a hypothesis --
Presenting the results of an experiment in tables and diagrams --
Making up a story; and reading it --
Play-acting --
Singing catches --
Guessing riddles --
Making a joke; telling it --
Solving a problem in practical arithmetic --
Translating from one language into another --
Asking, thanking, cursing, greeting, praying.
-- It is interesting to compare the multiplicity of the tools in language and of the ways they are used, the multiplicity of kinds of word and sentence, with what logicians have said about the structure of language. (Including the author of the Tractatus-Logicus-Philosophicus).
The ideas expressed here are the basis for the dominant strain in post-1945 philosophy of language. What strikes me now, rereading the passage, is the extent to which John Searle's codification of Wittgenstein and John Austin suppresses the variety in their respective reflections on language. I understand why Searle might have felt such suppression necessary. But his decision still represents an ideological closure. It's no accident that Wittgenstein chooses to stress the word "countless" here. He wants to keep his account open-ended, with all that implies at both a literal and figurative level. And a big part of the openness he is striving for is resisting the impulse to reduce language to something quantifiable.

Although my own inclination is to create charts and tables -- invisible ones, in my mind -- I recognize that Wittgenstein's approach is both truer to the flexibility of language -- structuration, not structure -- and more helpful for any politics that takes the concept of democracy to heart.
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Try this one on for size:
"I don't hate my job. I hate myself for having my job."
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March 22-25, 1839

Fourth in a series:
A man must consider what a rich realm he abdicates when he becomes a conformist. I hear my preacher announce his text & topic as for instance the expediency of the institution of Fast with a coldness that approaches contempt. For do I not know beforehand that not possibly can he say a new or spontaneous word? Do I not know that with all this affectation of examining the grounds of the institution he will do no such thing? Do I not know that he is pledged to himself beforehand not to look at but one side; the permitted side; not as a man, but as a parish minister in Concord? What folly then to say let us examine, & purse the mouth with the wrinkles of a judge. He is a retained attorney; and this air of judgeship is mere affectation. Even so is it with newspapers; & so with most politicians.
I like that distinction between attorney and judge a lot. Of course, such critiques have a way of eventually coming back at the person making them, like that Australian weapon whose name I dare not speak.
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