December 29, 2014

“Marriage is between a man and a woman”



As in many countries before it, the Finnish parliament recently passed a law making same-sex marriage possible, based on a citizens’ initiative (this was the first time a citizens’ initiative succeeded in becoming law). The margins were narrow, there was serious opposition to the law in several parties, most of all among the Christian Democrats. (The law may yet be overturned by the next parliament).
A recurrent argument, or slogan, of the opponents of the reform, was “Marriage is between a man and a woman”.
            I find this an interesting formulation. It is hard to pin down how it is to be understood. Even so, I think it would be wrong to conclude that it is a meaningless claim, or to argue that it shows that opponents of the reform are thoughtless. This is so even though I do not agree with them (I was one of those who signed the initiative). In political debates one should resist the temptation to think that logic is on one’s side. Thinking that it is is (normally) an indication that one has misconstrued one’s opponents’ position.
            Clearly, the intended force of “Marriage is between a man and a woman” can’t be that of a definition. The fact that a linguistic convention exists does not preclude going against it. (Legal terminology, in particular, is not necessarily bound by common usage.) Furthermore, as a description of an existing linguistic convention the claim would not even be true. The word “marriage” has traditionally been employed in speaking about polygamous relations. In fact, one would be unable to explain what “polygamy” means without allowing for the conceptual possibility of a marriage involving something other than one man and one woman. And, of course, the word is now being employed in speaking about same-sex marriages with regard to all those countries in which the practice has been instituted.
            (Neither, of course, can the point simply be that of asserting a fact of history: “up until now, marriage in our culture has always been between a man and a woman.” Using that as an argument would entail that change in itself is a bad thing, which would of course be nonsense.)
            It may seem more plausible to interpret the claim as saying “Marriage ought only to be between a man and a woman”. But that reading would hardly satisfy those who advance the claim, since it would then reduce it to an expression of opinion. It would be a way of marking where the speaker stands, but that by itself entails acknowledging that other stands are possible. In other words, it would push the position out into the arena of argument and counter-argument, but I do not believe that is true to the intention of those who voice the claim: they wish to claim a sort of necessity for their position, they consider the supporters of same-sex marriage to be not so much mistaken as confused.
            It should be pointed out that opinions among the opponents to the law are quite varied. Some of them would grant the same legal rights to registered same-sex couples as to married couples; in effect, they simply want to reserve the word “marriage” for heterosexual couples. (This is not to say that the disagreement is simply verbal for them.) This is the position, for instance, of the Finnish president, Sauli Niinist√∂ (who can voice his opinion but has no power over legislation).
            (At the same time Niinist√∂, like many others, does slip into argument, claiming that the reform should have been resisted because the idea of same-sex marriage offends people’s sensibilities. One should note, first of all, that this does not explain what is meant by the slogan “Marriage is between a man and a woman”. It is rather an argument for the position that marriage ought to be only for a man and a woman. One should also note that this argument has a false ring of neutrality about it. To say that a practice offends somebody’s sensibility is to bestow some degree of legitimacy on the reaction – as distinct from saying that a way of behaving irritates or angers or disgusts people – the latter would not be adduced as grounds for outlawing a practice. Again, most of us would frown upon someone who said, for instance, that interracial marriage might offend people’s sensibilities; we wouldn’t consider that an acceptable way of describing people’s resentment. Clearly those who invoke people’s sensibilities in connection with same-sex marriage consider the negative attitude acceptable, whether or not they share it. --- In some countries appeals are made to the Bible, but this would not carry much weight in most European countries. Aside from parties like the Christian Democrats in Finland, there is a large consensus that religion and public decision-making should be kept separate.)
            What makes the proposition “Marriage is between a man and a woman” philosophically interesting is that it shows that people may say things that do not fit into any of the standard categories philosophers commonly use in classifying utterances. It is neither the expression of a linguistic convention, nor a statement of empirical fact, nor a normative claim. One might say it is an attempt to express the essence of marriage, to say what a real marriage is. Some people will agree and others won’t. There seems not to be any argumentative “solution” to the disagreement.
            (In this respect I see an analogy here with the disagreement about capital punishment. Some people think, as I do, that it is a form of murder, others think of it as a form of punishment that may occasionally be justified. But I do not think there is anything that the latter have overlooked. They are not victims of sloppy thinking. They are simply wrong – that is my conviction.)

September 25, 2014

We make our own fog




Hugh Knott sums up the disagreement between him and me (see my previous blog entry) as follows:

you seem to be assuming that the only context in which “confusion” arises in philosophy is when we are drawn into “going wrong” in the use of expressions when reflecting philosophically. So, using your analogy, my lack of clarity whilst looking at two yonder buildings may be expressed in my judging that the one building is in front of the other when in fact it is the other way about—I have gone wrong. Another situation might be where I am looking at a distant building and somebody asks “what is it like, what kind of roof and windows does it have?”, and I reply “I cannot tell you it is surrounded by fog”. When the fog lifts, I can tell him. Here nothing has “gone wrong”, there has been no error. I call this getting a clear view “in its own right” to distinguish it from the case where there is actual error.

(This image, as Hugh suggests, is in line with Philosophical Investigations § 5, where Wittgenstein speaks about “how much the general concept of the meaning of a word surrounds the working of language with a haze which makes clear vision impossible”.)

For my part, I believe the image of being in a fog is a good starting point for trying to sort out our differences. When a building is covered by a fog there may be certain things we can’t judge about; or we may judge with less certainty than otherwise – or we may, of course, make erroneous judgments, maybe we come to see the building as altogether different than it is (or we judge that there is no building there).  

To my mind what these shortcomings have in common is more important than what distinguishes them.

Where does the fog come from? We are here talking about the difficulty of commanding a clear view of the workings of our language, whether more generally or in some specific aspect. But this is not a thing we are prevented from acquiring by some external circumstance. We are thoroughly acquainted with the workings of our language in practice. If we have difficulty getting a clear view of it, it is a difficulty of our own making - unlike a real fog.

I would imagine that Hugh and I are at one thus far. Where we may differ is on the point that, as I see it, the interest now turns to our own ways of thinking: I feel the need to reflect on what keeps us from commanding a clear view. I should like to say: unless we were tempted by misleading analogies, illusory pretensions, a craving for generality, etc. there would be no fog. This makes me unsure about the notion of a clear view “in its own right”.

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Hugh writes:

Philosophical reflection is not in any case something that only goes on within the community of philosophers (i.e. the academics), but pops up in peoples’ lives all over the place. “To imagine a language is to imagine a form of life” so that (reflective) confusions “within the language” are (if they are not merely trivial ones) confusions within our lives…

Yes, of course: “the use of an expression” already embodies a chunk of life, so there’s no getting clear about its use which is not at the same time a getting clear about its role in life. The reflective confusions of philosophers and non-philosophers may or may not spill over into their lives as actually lived.

September 10, 2014

On philosophical bewilderment: an interchange



With Hugh Knott’s permission I publish an interchange between us, arising out of Hugh’s article “Rush Rhees on Wittgenstein and ‘What Language Is’” (Philosophical Investigations, July 2014), as well as my previous blog entries, http://languageisthingswedo.blogspot.fi/2014/07/rhees-and-knott-on-what-language-is.html and http://languageisthingswedo.blogspot.fi/2014/07/rhees-and-knott-on-importance-of.html.

Hugh’s original remarks (HK) are in roman, my responses (LH) in bold and Hugh’s rejoinders (HK2) in italic. Later on I’ll post a blog reflecting on our disagreements.

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(HK) I think the difference comes down to this. You say “The puzzles grow from a deep-rooted tendency to misunderstand the uses of words like ‘mean’, ‘understand’, etc., etc., from a preconception which prevents our getting a clear overview of the use”. So you distinguish here between the tendency to misunderstand the uses of words and having a clear view of their use. But you seem not to acknowledge the consequences of this distinction. For it’s not clear to me from other things that you say that you accept that there can be any such thing as “a clear overview of their use” in its own right, only a coming to see that there is confusion if we want to use certain expressions in certain ways.

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(LH) My inclination is to say: in using some general expressions like “a clear view” I have in mind a contrast: understanding what having a clear view amounts to depends on some familiarity with the ways in which we are liable to go wrong. (Cp: “can you see that building over there quite clearly?” – well, my response to that would depend on your purpose in asking.) Hence I’d be suspicious about talking about “a clear view in its own right”.

(HK2) Again you seem to be assuming that the only context in which “confusion” arises in philosophy is when we are drawn into “going wrong” in the use of expressions when reflecting philosophically. So, using your analogy, my lack of clarity whilst looking at two yonder buildings may be expressed in my judging that the one building is in front of the other when in fact it is the other way about—I have gone wrong. Another situation might be where I am looking at a distant building and somebody asks “what is it like, what kind of roof and windows does it have?”, and I reply “I cannot tell you it is surrounded by fog”. When the fog lifts, I can tell tell him. Here nothing has “gone wrong”, there has been no error. I call this getting a clear view “in its own right” to distinguish it from the case where there is actual error.  Somebody asks what is time? We use the term and other temporal expressions all the time without trouble. When we try to reflect on it we are all at sea. “All at sea”, “a fog surrounds its use” (I think Wittgenstein says that somewhere), we feel disorientated, all of a sudden we don’t know our way about. We may feel this effect without “going wrong” in any particular way—which is not to say that we may not also “go wrong”. In practice in philosophy these are no doubt run together, but I think the distinction is real—which is my point throughout. I am not sure that you have said anything to show that it is not real.

(LH) I don’t recognize myself in the phrase “confusion if we want to use certain expressions in certain ways”. I don’t know how much store you’re laying by this formulation, but to my mind, philosophical confusion doesn’t – primarily – arise in how people use expressions, but in the account they’re inclined to give of their use. (Of course, philosophers might try going on actually using expressions in accordance with the way they’ve argued they’re actually used, or the way they should - according to them - be used if we are to be attentive their real meanings. But that is not the sort of case I have in mind.)

(HK2) It is already understood that we are talking of the reflective situation—there has never been any question that we are talking of error in our practical employment of language. So my use of this phrase is to refer to the temptation to use expressions in certain ways that arise when we reflect philosophically. It seems perfectly legitimate to say that when we reflect in philosophy we “find we want to use certain expressions in certain [i.e. confused] ways”. I am not sure why you should think I intended this to refer to something arising within daily use (you say something similar in your essay on Hacker—whereas I have always taken it for granted that he is only ever talking about our reflections on our concepts, unless he expressly states otherwise.)
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(HK) Hence, we do not end up with a clear view of their use—there is no reflective understanding of their use—only a return to our use of them without the temptation to misunderstand them. I think this is the espoused view that you share in common with the New Wittgensteinians—although I do not think that this is adhered to in practice since you all have a view of language which informs this attitude and indulge in clarifications not related to any particular confusions.

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 (LH) “Particular confusions” is of course a fairly loose notion. I should make clear that I don’t think philosophical confusions are superficial or easy to disentangle. Nor does the urgency normally lie in the need to disentangle other people’s confusions (as you suggest in one place). On the contrary, the challenge of doing philosophy comes from the fact that the confusions are deeply entrenched within ourselves, and that we constantly keep sliding back into them. Besides, I am not suggesting that the confusions in question are limited in scope – I don’t mean to be dogmatically rejecting any form of generality.

(HK2) I agree that philosophy is primarily a matter of working on oneself rather than on others. But in fact you do talk of the work of philosophers as responding to “interlocutors”, i.e. other people, and as if this were the essential task of the philosopher—which conforms with the idea of philosophy as therapy and the philosopher as the therapist,  e.g.: (from your essay on Hacker) “Similarly, the type of clarification needed to resolve a philosophical puzzle will depend on the nature of our interlocutor’s bewilderment. Thus, we may have to discover what false analogies lead her thinking astray…Where there are no confusions, there is nothing to be clarified, hence no task for the philosopher to carry out.” This seems a pretty clear statement of the “therapeutic” view of philosophy, as the philosopher as the one who dishes out therapy to the lost souls—which is why I took it up in my paper. I do not doubt that you may express your point differently elsewhere.

(LH) On the one hand, a confusion often involves a whole range of connected words (say, “speak”, “say”, “mean”, “understand”). On the other hand, some sources of confusion may concern a whole range of words, as when we assume that to each noun there must correspond an object or a state, to each verb an event or process, etc. At the same time, such generic patterns of confusion tend to take on their specific forms in the case of specific words (the ways we’re inclined to misconstrue the use of the word “think” is not simply a reflection of its being a verb, but of the specific demands we place on the word, e.g. we assume the process or activity in question would have to be of a nature to explain why thinking puts us in a better position to solve various problems, etc, this then branches out to the idea that good thinking can be brought under a pattern which can be conveyed through courses in formal logic or critical thinking, etc: another extension of this confusion is when we are mystified by the question whether animals actually think, which is in turn connected with the idea that thinking is in essence a hidden process, etc.).

(HK2) I certainly agree that surface grammatical forms are significantly responsible for prompting confusion (though it is difficult to explain why, unless the way we use expressions is already obscure in reflection for other reasons). When you try to indicate here how the confusions then take more specific forms, you speak of “the specific demands we place on the word”, but I am not quite clear about how you are using this phrase. You say the problems with “think” are not “simply a reflection of its being a verb”; but it looks as if you are still saying that philosophical confusions do originate there but then grow out in other ways. I know Wittgenstein started by blaming philosophical confusions on the influence of surface grammar, but I think the sources of confusion are more diverse than that. For example, what is the source of the idea that thinking is in essence a hidden process? I think this has a lot to do with our tendency to misinterpret subjective states (the “experience of meaning” for example or “I know how green looks to me”, etc)—the way we react to our experiences with words rather than the way we react to words.

In characterising the confusion here, I would be inclined to express this by saying that we end up with a confused idea/notion/concept of “hidden process”; you might prefer to call this a confused use of the expression “inner process”. My preference however remains with the former if only because it keeps more present the connection with our lives as a whole, with our thinking—with how we treat animals, with whether we live our lives in a belief in the after-life, with our values, and so on.  Yes, the problems become manifest when we “reflect philosophically”, but I don’t think one can drive a simple wedge between such reflection and living our lives—which is what I think tends to happen if one gets stuck on expressing philosophical confusion in terms of getting into a muddle over the operation of various signs (or even groups of them) when we reflect on their use. Philosophical reflection is not in any case something that only goes on within the community of philosophers (i.e. the academics), but pops up in peoples’ lives all over the place. “To imagine a language is to imagine a form of life” so that (reflective) confusions “within the language” are (if they are not merely trivial ones) confusions within our lives and so can only be set properly in context using the range of concepts that characterise life as a whole: thought, concept, belief, and so on. (And, by the way, with reference to your remark above, I think you do have to keep these cases in mind when reflecting on the nature of philosophy generally.)

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(HK) It seems that you won’t allow that there might be an intellectual curiosity about our uses of our expressions—a curiosity that might be satisfied by reflection on the many typical contexts in which we use them—that is not prompted by finding oneself tempted to confuse the expression in some particular way. Rather it is prompted by the fact that when we do try to reflect on them, their use simply isn’t clear—whether we are tempted to misconstrue them in some particular way or not. But I don’t see that you have provided any grounds for such a limitation.

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(LH)The way in which I perceive philosophical problems is not a matter to be proved, not a theory with applications; rather it is an outlook, a reflection on how I understand what philosophers are up to (those from whom I feel I’m learning how to do philosophy) and what I myself am trying to do. The worth of this activity – or its lack of worth – is to be shown in the doing and only there. If there’s something I miss out on, I should wish to see how that comes out in individual cases.


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(HK) And I don’t think the limitation you want to impose here is to be found in Wittgenstein, since for much of the time he is not dealing with muddles with particular expressions but describing our language-games. In Zettel 412 Wittgenstein remarks “Am I doing child psychology?—I am making a connexion between the concept of teaching and the concept of meaning”—which I think is the same as wanting to obtain a “synoptic view” of their connection(s). He is not saying that he is dealing only with particular ways of muddling “teaching” and “meaning”.

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(LH) Again, the way I see it the point of these exercises lies in the (mostly implicit) contrast with confused ways of thinking about language learning (e.g. Augustine).

(HK2) Taking these two points together, I take it that you are saying that the only interest you have in such observations is in bringing out that if someone is inclined to reflect on language learning as, e.g., Augustine does, he is confused. Your intellectual curiosity is satisfied by coming to see the confusion in what he was saying. So you do not see coming to a “synoptic view of our concepts” as being of any intrinsic interest, you wouldn’t see the point of it. As I said earlier, I do not see anything wrong with limiting one’s interest in philosophy if one chooses. What does concern me is the implication that if one does have an interest in the “synoptic view” or of “seeing the world aright” to use Wittgenstein’s earlier phrase, one is in some confusion (or perhaps that you are just bewildered by the very idea of it). This is suggested in the first of these responses where the implication is that the alternative to the point as you see it is the confused idea of proving something, or arriving a theory with applications. Whereas seeking the synoptic view is none of these things—it is for example the kind of thing you do in the passage I quoted below, and finding that of interest apart from any particular confusion.

If I may take analogy. We come to know our way about a forest (language) by practice. Wherever we want to go, we just go there as a matter of course without reflection. If we are asked to reflect on how we get about or how the forest is laid out (philosophical reflection) we get confused. One type of confusion is where we are tempted irresistibly to give a confused account: we say we turn left here when we turn right, we say this bit is close to that bit, when they are far apart, etc. But there is also another type of confusion or bewilderment. We are asked about the layout of the forest and we reply: I couldn’t tell you, I wouldn’t know where to start, I learnt my way about just by going, by following others, I’ve never had to explain or have an overview of it. Here there is no error, just the fog that descends when we try to reflect.

But you don’t seem to want to recognise the second type; for if you did, you would have to recognise that the interest in these observations may not only be by contrast with the temptations to “go wrong” but by contrast with what one might call the state of reflective ignorance of our life with language.

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(HK) But at this point we can also begin to see that just construing what which we want to get a clearer view of as “the uses of particular expressions” is too limited a way of looking at it. You can if you like say that what Wittgenstein is saying here is the same as wanting to get clear of the use of the expressions “teaching” and “meaning”, but for the reasons, I give in my paper, and which I find throughout Rhees, I think this is misleading since it makes it look as if the issues at stake are merely linguistic or semantic (i.e. are not connected with how we think). More especially it tends to blur the distinction expressed most succinctly by Rhees where he distinguishes the expressions that cause problems in philosophy from the likes of “sitting down” by saying that the meaning of expressions like “language” “lie in the language-game in which we use them, etc.” This shifts the attention from the particular expressions to describing the language-games (yes, in all their variety). This is at the same time to get an overview of the place of language in our lives, our form of life and our ways of thinking—which is why I believe it is more informative to call this trying to get a better understanding of “what language is”, or of the concept language, than just trying to sort out some problems with the use of certain expressions. This reflection is difficult not just because we have seep-seated tendency to confuse certain words, but something deeper still, and on which that tendency is rooted, namely an intrinsic difficulty of reflecting on what “lies in the language-game” (and which itself explains why we are so easily misled about particular expressions—which is otherwise rather difficult to explain).

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(LH) Maybe this tendency comes close to what I was describing above (generic patterns of confusion)?

(HK2) I think it comes close to it but that there is still a critical difference. I don’t think it is just about patterns of confusion. I think Rhees’s point is that we don’t learn the use of “language” in a way comparable with “sitting down”. As a result we have ways of getting confused or unclear about “language” that are not parallel with “sitting down”. And getting clear about how we use it involves different kinds of approaches, and to such an extent that I begins to become unhelpful to call this just a matter of getting clear about the use of the expression “language”—getting clear about the “rule” we are following in using it as one might speak in this way about “sitting down”. It’s about getting a clear view of the different language-games, how they belong together, how they belong to our lives (how they are what they are in the ways they belong to our lives).

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(HK) In responding to Rhees’s notion of “understanding what language is” you refer immediately and exclusively to Wittgenstein’s response to questions like “what the mind is…”. Wittgenstein’s criticisms of “traditional metaphysics” were indeed directed against such questions insofar as the attempted answers took the form of invoking a supervening set of concepts devised by the metaphysician to “explain” the mind, thinking, etc. That there might be such a set of concepts is an illusion. Wittgenstein’s opposition to explanation is, I believe, to be understood in these terms. He replaced this with the “internal” elucidation of our concepts, that is by tracing the connections of sense between the concepts embedded in our language/form of life. His remark about psychology, which I refer to above, is an explicit expression of this. There is no reason why this should not also be called an investigation into the natures of these things or of what things are, just as long as it is clear in context that this is what the philosopher is doing—which I believe it is in Wittgenstein, Rhees, and, dare I say it, myself. I can’t see any grounds have been provided for finding this extension of the notion of investigating “what kind of thing anything is”, or the natures of things, “bewildering”.
By the way I don’t think Rhees was accusing Wittgenstein of not taking seriously enough the question of what language is in favour of concern merely for the confusions of particular expressions. Indeed he is saying that the question of what language is is precisely Wittgenstein’s project. His criticisms of Wittgenstein are mainly that he focussed on some aspects of what language is to the expense of others.
I also don’t recognise at all in Rhees your idea that he thinks there is some “one confusion bound up with the question what language is”. You link this with the question of a supposed “bewilderment shared by us all and inevitable”. And you go on to say that you don’t’ know what to make of it. He is not of course (& neither am I) talking of a bewilderment that plagues our practice of speaking but in reflection. And it seems to me that in fact you are expressing the same (or analogous) point when you speak of a “deep-rooted tendency to misunderstand the use of words…”—which I take it you too assume is virtually universal—“shared by us all and inevitable”. The difference is that I think Rhees has a richer understanding of this bewilderment, as I have tried to explain above.
This brings us back to you own practice. I find it difficult to find much in your writings that I would want to call a concern just with confusions over the uses of particular expressions. The vast majority of your writings are to do generally with “what language is”. In your response to my paper you remark:

‘I write “learning to speak means learning to express oneself by means of words” (p.122). Well, to be sure this is a general observation, but these words hardly express some deep insight into what it means to be a speaker.

On their own, of course they do not. But I quoted them because I think (and still think) they signal the general direction of your thinking. Indeed you capture your overall intent straightaway with your use of the phrase “insight into what means to be a speaker”. I take it that this is what you think we need to understand or get clear about in philosophy. But now I want to ask What is the difference between asking “what it means to be a speaker” and asking “what language is”?—none as far as I can see. Here is an example of an observation that does express “some deep insight into what it means to be a speaker”:

The notion of a primitive expression, then involves a peculiar kind of mutuality or interdependence: regarding something as a primitive expression of pain (in the primary case) is itself a primitive reaction to the expression. In fact, the interdependence goes further: for someone to see another person’s reaction as a reaction to the pain expressed by the third party–or by the observer himself—is in turn, in the primary case, a primitive response to that response, or rather, to the situation consisting of the sufferer’s expression of pain, on the one hand, and the reaction of the person witnessing the expression on the other hand.
Thus I may react with pity in seeing a child witnessing another person’s pain. Where the pain is my own, on the other hand, someone’s compassionate look may give me a sense of relief. And so on. It should be clear that in many cases seeing a form of behaviour as a response to another’s pain is not to be understood as embodying a hypothesis to the effect that the discovery that someone else is in pain tends to be accompanied by behaviour of such and such a description.  In applying a hypothesis we are relying on a correlation between phenomena, each one of which can be identified independently of the others. But the elements involved in a situation where someone is responding to another’s pain will often not be identifiable independently of that situation. Thus, what enables me to see someone’s behaviour as a response to pain may only be the fact that I recognise the expression of pain. Or vice versa: someone else’s response may make me realize that a person is indeed in pain. Or again, it may only be the appropriateness of someone’s response to another’s behaviour that brings it out that it is indeed the other’s pain that he is responding to. In such cases, then, it is not as if I brought the pieces together and concluded that the situation is one revolving around someone’s pain. Rather, I see the situation under the aspect of pain, and this way of seeing it, as it were, brings the pieces together in this particular way.

And later:

The nature of the interdependence between primitive expressions of pain…. (my emphasis)
[These quotations are from Hertzberg, 'Primitive Reactions - Logic or Anthropology?' in Peter A. French, Theodore E. Uehling, Jr och Howard K. Wettstein (eds.), The Wittgenstein Legacy. Midwest Studies in Philosophy, Vol. 17. ]

Is the only interest in such observations to clear up some tendency to misuse some expression in some situation? If so, which? Would it not be better/make more sense/be more natural to say that they express insights into what language is or even into the nature of language or indeed “what it means to be a speaker”? Furthermore, can one not take an interest in these observations in their own right? What account would you now give of the nature of what is written here?

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(LH) Again, I don’t see a problem with my own or anybody else’s use of these expressions, provided the use is understood to be contrastive in the sense I suggested above. I hope this won’t be seen as hedging.

What I reacted to was the idea that we might understand what it means to ask about the nature of language when the idea of a connection with confusion is explicitly rejected.

(HK2) What I am rejecting is the idea that the only kind of “confusion” at stake is “….the tendency to misunderstand the use of words like “mean”, “understand”, etc, etc; from a preconception which prevents our getting a clear overview of the use.” The lack of the clear view does not arise only from preconceptions but from the lack of an overview and the intrinsic difficulties of obtaining the overview. I find your observations above interesting and illuminating because they draw to my attention aspects of the use of language, and hence aspects of our lives, which I had not thought of before or had not noticed before. I find it interesting and illuminating because I want to see more clearly what our life is like—your observations here contribute towards that. Your outlook, on the other hand, appears to be that you are not motivated in that way, your only interest in the observations is to provide therapy against the tendency to form “preconceptions”. Or so it seems to me.

But again your point here depends on blurring the distinction between kinds of confusion or bewilderment, that is between the confusion expressed in the temptation to use expressions or to say things that are confused, and the difficulty of obtaining a “synoptic view of our concepts”.

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(HK) It does seem to me that your own practice in philosophy leaves high and dry your assertion that philosophy is only about identifying and correcting other peoples’ tendencies to muddle up their own uses of expression like “meaning” and “language”. It seems to me to be a mistake to get over-preoccupied with the use of expressions like “concept” “what such and such is…”. It is almost as if you have yourself come to treat “concept” as a “meaning kernel”—as if the use of this substantive must mean that the user thinks that there is some one thing corresponding to it or as if “what is such and such …” had to be understood as a search for essences. And the odd thing about this is that the way you react to these words is diametrically opposed to what you (correctly) recommend elsewhere, i.e. that we should be more sensitive to how people use them in context (i.e. Rhees’s, Wittgenstein’s, mine). Any word can of course be misinterpreted; what is important is how it should be interpreted in context by the user.

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(LH) You’re certainly right. In fact I do sometimes use the word “concept” myself. The danger is when it is made to bear too heavy a burden.

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(HK) And when you say “Language is things we do”, I also wonder if you are not treating “do” as a meaning kernel which you are using for and giving a pre-eminent place to explaining “language”. Perhaps one could say that in saying that you are “making a connexion between the concept of language and the concept of doing”. But so far that leaves it entirely open as to the sense of “do” that is at stake. Language is of course making noises or marks on paper. But it is only by making other connections between “language” and other concepts, e.g. “sense”, “thinking”, “abstraction” and so on, that you also qualify the relevant sense of “doing”—that it is not just making noises, etc. So “doing” is not of itself the key to understanding what language is. And of course I also note that in your own use of the expression “Language is…” you are yourself opening an account of “what language is”.

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(LH) Of course “doing” by itself is not a key to understanding what language is; I mean it to be understood in a contrastive sense, reminding us that, when we find ourselves bewildered by the use of some expression (“meaning”, “understanding”, “knowledge”, “thought” etc), and are tempted to propose some highly complex and abstract account of what the expressions mean, those expressions are actually used in ordinary human conversation, and there they are not problematic at all. (Cp PI § 117.)

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(HK) You say elsewhere (a remark which I take it you must now find “bewildering”):

In particular, helping us to understand the nature of our language, its varying roles in the life of human beings, is essential for the philosopher’s concerns, since philosophical problems (as we have said) arise from our failure to understand the workings of language……How can a natural-historic contribute to an understanding of the nature of language? ["Language, Philosophy and Natural History", The Limits of Experience, p. 88.]


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(LH) Well, I wrote that pretty long ago (originally in 1975), but I still think I can stand by most of what I said back then, given that “workings”, again, is understood in the contrastive sense I have been talking about.

(HK2) Again it’s a matter of what it is contrasted with—not just the confusion of “going wrong”. There is of course a difference between the intelligibility of an account and the point of it. Your account is intelligible as an account of aspects of the way that language is a part of our lives—quite apart from any “contrast with confused ways of thinking about language learning” (at least I think I understand it without any such contrast in mind). You may not see any point in it except within the kind of contrast that interests you, but I find it interesting in itself because I am interested just in “what it means to be a speaker” full stop. And I wouldn’t see a lot of point doing philosophy if I didn’t find that interesting—as well as working out how we can “go wrong”..  

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(HK) You now talk as if understanding the nature or workings of language is not itself philosophy, but just some prerequisite to sorting out someone else’s problems with the use of some expressions—that is philosophy. But this is just back to front. That we can get into muddles with certain expressions when we reflect on them signals the need for philosophy, that is for understanding the nature of language, etc.. But we may also arrive at that need—the need for philosophy proper—through a desire to understand “the life of human beings”, our lives. Getting it back to front “can lead to philistinism and generally has”.