December 08, 2013

Everyday Language and Workday Language

What is the ”everyday” of the everyday language Wittgenstein talks about in the Philosophical Investigations? Actually, there are several contrasts between the everyday and the non-everyday that seem to be of relevance in connection with Wittgenstein’s thought.
In most cases in the Philosophical Investigations where the English has ”everyday” it’s a translation of “alltäglich” (§ 106 “alltägliches Denken”, § 116 “alltägliche Verwendung”, § 134 “alltägliche Sprache”, § 412 “alltäglicher Sinn”). In § 81 Wittgenstein uses the word “Umgangssprache” [literally “the language of social intercourse”]. The contrast in most of these cases is with a metaphysical use (§ 116) or with an ideal language (e.g. §§ 81, 106, 134); as we might put it, with a language imagined by philosophers, a language in which things are expressed, as it were, in a mode true to their real essence; this could also be something like Frege’s concept script which, although it may not be intended for actual use, is supposed to express thoughts in a logically transparent way. This idea exerted a powerful attraction on philosophers of the day, but Wittgenstein at this stage considered its attraction to be insidious: the idea that such an imagined language might somehow deepen our understanding of our concepts was illusory. To get clear about them we should attend to their actual uses.


§ 18 hints at a different contrast:

Our language can be regarded as an ancient city: a maze of little streets and squares, of old and new houses, of houses with extensions from various periods, and all this surrounded by a multitude of new suburbs with straight and regular streets and uniform houses.

Here the contrast is between different areas of our actual language. The suburbs, it would appear, are mainly symbolic of the technical terminologies used in science and in various professions, words like “ionized”, or “erythrocyte”, or “conditioned reflex”, or “Alzheimer’s disease”, or “eminent domain”. These are well-regulated terminologies, often created by means of stipulative definitions, and hence their use is mostly easy to survey, in distinction to that of the central parts of the city with its mixture of old and new buildings, and a street pattern that has developed more organically. It is because the organic, “vernacular” parts of language (we might call it the language of everyman, and every woman) are difficult to survey that they tend to give rise to philosophical problems. The suburbs hold less of philosophical interest. They are a kind of artifical language. (Though sometimes seemingly clean and straightforward technical terms carry a subconscious burden inherited from the areas of language out of which they have been created. Or they may take on a life of their own, perhaps returning to the contexts of everyday conversation.)
                      Many, though not all, of the words belonging to what might be called the ageless core of our language are philosophically problematic because they have a variety of different but related uses, and thus tend to recur in a large variety of contexts: I am thinking of words such as “see”, “know”, “think”, “will”, “feel”, “mean”, “time”, “because”, “just”. (In some passage that I have been unable to retrieve, Strawson, I believe, refers to this vocabulary as words without a history. In some sense, we might say, they have always been there. Indeed, what would it be to imagine language without them?)
                      Wittgenstein makes a related point, in Remarks on the Philosophy of Psychology, Volume II: 

§ 216 ... our concept “thinking” is widely ramified. Like a ramified traffic network which connects many out-of-the-way places with each other.

§ 218 Couldn’t the same be said of “believing”, “doing”, “being glad”?

Between the “ageless” and the artificial lie words with a history, words such as “religion”, or “citizen”, or “intelligence”, or “literature”. They too give rise to philosophical bewilderment, but maybe not as deep or intractable as the other kind. (This trichotomy is not intended to be exhaustive, simply to point to some characteristic differences between types of words.)


A third contrast is that between thinking about a word or sentence in isolation and thinking about its role in human interaction; holiday vs. workday. This of course is the theme of two oft-quoted remarks in the Philosophical Investigations:

§ 38: Naming seems to be a strange connection of a word with an object. – And such a strange connection really obtains, particularly when a philosopher tries to fathom the relation between name and what is named by staring at an object in front of him and repeating a name or even the word “this” innumerable times. For philosophical problems arise when language goes on holiday. And then we may indeed imagine naming to be some remarkable mental act , as it were the baptism of an object.

§ 132: ... a reform for particular practical purposes, an improvement in our terminology designed to prevent misunderstandings in practice, may well be possible. But these are not the cases we are dealing with. The confusions which occupy us arise when language is, as it were, idling, not when it is doing work. 

Here the idea is that our bewilderment is dissolved when we attend to the actual functioning of our expressions. Not because doing so provides answers to our questions, but because it reminds us that in the context of actual conversation, the problems that beset us do not arise. The need to attend to actual functioning, of course, does not simply concern the language of social intercourse, but the languages of the sciences, law, theology, etc as well. The everyday of the language, not just the language of everyday.

October 31, 2013

Questionnaire caution and context oblivion

Pär Segerdahl  provides an important caution against the thoughtless use of questionnaires in his blog.

Opinion poll makers no less than (many) philosophers apparently suffer from an affliction one might dub context oblivion.

October 29, 2013

Redeemable and irredeemable nonsense

 I shall try to do good on my promise to explain why I think there is a form of nonsense – what might be called irredeemable nonsense – to which we are particularly prone in doing philosophy. This has to do with the kind of communicative predicament in which we frequently place ourselves when we attempt to formulate philosophical theses.
                      First, for contrast, let’s consider what I should like to call a case of redeemable nonsense. The following line has been attributed to the formidable baseball player Yogi Berra, famous for his talent for apparent malapropisms and logical slips. One of the things he is reported to have said, commenting on a famous restaurant, is 

Nobody goes there anymore. It’s too crowded.

The remark, on the face of it, is self-contradictory. But it doesn’t seem hard to unpack the sense of what he was saying. Berra may have meant something like, “Nobody who is in the know goes to that restaurant any more”, or, “I and most people I know have started to avoid that restaurant because it is so crowded these days”, or the like. Whether he deliberately chose a paradoxical mode of expression or just happened to hit on a somewhat confusing formulation I don’t know.
                      Of course I’m just surmising what he meant. If we had been present at the uttering, this might have shaped our encounter with his words: at first we might have thought the remark weird or funny, then through widening our perspective we might have got what he was saying.

On the other hand, consider the remark “We can’t know the future”. (This is sometimes rendered in the form “We can’t predict the future”, which is a rather awkward formulation since it is only with regard to future happenings that we speak of prediction.)
For one thing, there is a perfectly normal use for sayings like this, or related ones such as “We never know what may happen / how things will turn out”, etc. A couple are relating their plans for a long and complex journey, and then they add, “Of course, one can never tell how things will work out, we may have to improvise”, “We’ll simply have to hope that neither of us gets sick”, etc. Of course such remarks are not meant to inform the listener of something she wasn’t aware of (nor are they intended as conceptual clarification). The words function as an admonition, as the expression of an attitude towards contingencies. A religious person might say, “We’ll just have to place things in God’s hands”. (A healthy person wouldn’t say things like these when going to the supermarket, unless she had reason to fear something like a terrorist attack or an earthquake.)
                      Sometimes we may say things like these in retrospect, as when some unfortunate (or fortunate) turn of events that we had never (or never really) taken into consideration gives our lives a radical twist, maybe changing the whole frame in which we regard our lives. We may then be struck by our inability to anticipate the twists and turns of fate. Of course, in other cases we may find that things run exactly as we expect them to (and then someone might even complain that life is boring).
                      So far so good. But there is a temptation to turn these kinds of expression into epistemological observations, to argue that the future is unknowable in principle. David Hume, of course, is a famous representative of this idea. One way of expressing this would be to say that the form of words “NN knows / knew that ...” has no genuine application when followed by a clause in the future tense. (Probably an exception would be made for sentences like “I know that Easter Sunday next year will fall on 20 April – trust me, I just checked it in a calendar”. But the claim would apply to what are held to be contingent events, including solar eclipses and suchlike.)
                      Perhaps it is thought that this principle somehow grounds our attitude to the contingencies of life. But that would just be whimsical.
                      In fact we very often use the word “know” in violation of this principle. Joe tells me, “I know there will be a test next Wednesday – Professor Morowski said so himself”, or Jim says , “Molly knows that the sunflowers will freeze if there’s a frost tonight”, or  Sarah says, “You know what will happen if you place Uncle Herbert next to Aunt Agatha – they’ll get into a frightful row!”
                      The philosophical temptation is to say that such a use of “know” is strictly speaking erroneous. Whence the temptation? This may be one source of it: if after the event I ask Joe whether there had been a test, then unless he had evidence that there had actually been one, he would probably say he didn’t know. But how can his relation to the test being held on Wednesday change from one of knowledge to one of uncertainty? It is tempting to conclude that it wasn’t a genuine case of knowledge to begin with. And similarly for the other cases.
                      There is, then, a clash here between how people actually speak and the way they ought to speak according to the philosopher. Suppose in a particular case we get into a disagreement on whether somebody actually knows what will happen. I may tell Sarah, “You don’t know that they’ll get into a row – give them some credit”, or Joe, “Professor Morawski keeps changing his plans, so you can’t really go by his words”. The question is, what bearing is the philosopher’s observation meant to have on these conversations? Should he say,
(1) You’re all confused - there’s no distinction between knowing and not knowing the future so there’s nothing to argue about.
Or perhaps,
(2) It’s all right to speak about knowledge they way you do for everyday purposes, as long as you realize that it’s not really knowledge?
In the first case, the philosopher is telling us to change our practices. He might want us to conclude that there’s no point in scrutinizing the evidence for future happenings, we won’t know what will happen anyway. Or he tells us never to regard anything as settled when it comes to the future: don’t assume the train will depart at five, that the chair won’t break when you sit on it, that this apple tree will not yield pears next year, etc. But that is hardly what he wants to be doing; nor has he provided any grounds for such a change of practice.
If the second case, he would himself be admitting that his principle had no bearing on the discussion.
The philosopher’s principle, then, is a conversational dead end. He has simply registered an impulse to utter a remark about knowledge and the future. There is no way of going on with his remark (other than to repeat his words).
The situation is the opposite of that concerning Yogi Berra’s comment. Here, we believe at first something important has been said, but when we try to widen the perspective we are left empty-handed. The philosopher’s nonsense is beyond redemption.

August 16, 2013

Is this really happening now?

Still on nonsense.
In the film Before Midnight, Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy play a middle-age couple, married for nine years, with twins, who get a chance for a one-on-one talk during a walk. I’m reconstructing a bit of dialogue from memory. The Hawke character tells his wife about an experience he sometimes has, in which he is wondering “Is this really happening now?” – referring, presumably, to his own current life. His wife answers “Yep!”
This gave rise to some reflections.

(1) Suppose we took someone to use the Hawke character’s words to ask for information, what information might he conceivably be asking for? (“is what’s happening now happening now?”, “is what’s happening happening at the time at which it is happening?”) It seems clear that the words are a prime example of what philosophers like to brand nonsense, in either the category-clash or failed-to-give-sense sense. I propose to call sentences of this kind ‡nonsense‡. (I’m not assuming that this is a stable category.)

(2) What struck me once again was how naturally some forms of ‡nonsense‡ , philosophers notwithstanding, fit into our (more or less) everyday conversation, for instance (but not only, I think), in expressing how we feel or what we are experiencing. Is this one source of the idea that some experiences are ineffable? Something that pulls us in the direction of the say/show distinction as it is claimed to be present in the Tractatus? The Hawke character, we feel like saying, is “trying to put into words” something that “cannot actually be said”? But actually I don’t think what is going on here is deep or mysterious: he has no difficulty expressing his experience.

(3) The wife’s response seems out of order. She is apparently treating his words as though he was expressing a genuine wonder, which is what alerts one to the fact that his choice of words could be thought to be irregular. I doing so she may be making fun of him – or her response may be a comment on his attitude to life: “Yes, believe it or not you are actually alive.”

(4) The words are more purely a first person expression of experience than Austen’s “[Wednesday] did come, and exactly when it might be reasonably looked for.” I should like to say I’ve had a similar experience myself. Can I say that? I guess I can as far as I’ve wanted to use those same words. The experience is constituted by one’s being inclined to express oneself in this way. (Of course, someone might then go on to articulate the experience in a different way, and to that extent she would not be sharing the same experience.)

July 17, 2013

Mental shortcuts and cognitive biases

There is a branch of study concerned with a range of phenomena called judgmental heuristics, automatic or intuitive thinking, or mental shortcuts (see Wikipedia article). It aims at uncovering ways in which people reach judgments without resorting to articulated argument. There seems to be a consensus among researchers that this form of thinking is often effective – one might suggest inevitable – but that it involves the risk of certain systematic errors (“cognitive biases”); the concept might be considered a latter-day counterpart of Bacon’s idols.
                      These types of error are typically investigated by asking test persons to form judgments about various ficitious situations. It seems to me that in some cases one may question whether the tests actually reveal what they are taken to reveal. They suffer from what might be called the distance between class-room dialogues and real conversations. (On this compare my earlier blog on experimental philosophy.)
                      The following example comes from the work of Amos Tversky and Daniel Kahneman, two leading proponents of this branch of research (quoted in the Wikipedia article). Test persons were given the following character sketch of a woman called Linda: "31 years old, single, outspoken, and very bright. She majored in philosophy. As a student, she was deeply concerned with issues of discrimination and social justice, and also participated in anti-nuclear demonstrations". They were then asked to rank the probability of certain facts about Linda, among others "Linda is a bank teller" and, "Linda is a bank teller and is active in the feminist movement".
                      Test persons tended to consider the latter description more probable. The answer is wrong, we are told, because a single assertion of the form “L is X” is always more probable than a conjunction of the form “L is X and Y”. The error supposedly shows a cognitive bias (of the kind called the “conjunction fallacy”). What trips people up, apparently, is the fact that the description of Linda is more likely to fit someone who is an active feminist than someone who is a bank teller.
                      However, it seems to me that that is not the relevant comparison. We are told that Linda is a bank teller, so the likelihood of her being one plays no role in the context. There seems to me to be a more plausible explanation: if we are given the alternatives (1) “Linda is a bank teller FULL STOP” and (2) “Linda is a bank teller and active in the feminist movement”, the natural way to read (1) is as implying that Linda is not active in the feminist movement. So what we will actually be comparing, in all likelihood, are the descriptions “Linda is a bank teller but she is not active in the feminist movement” and “Linda is a bank teller and she is active in the feminist movement”. In other words, her being a bank teller drops out of consideration altogether: we are simply comparing the likelihoods that she might or might not be an active feminist; and, given her background, the latter comes to sound a fairly plausible alternative. (One might even think that, given that she is a bank teller, she will need other outlets for her civic involvement; maybe she even chose her trade in order to to have time for political activities.)
                      Undoubtedly there are such things as cognitive biases, and some of the tests carried out in this field might accordingly be revealing. But often a kind of smart-alecky attitude shines through in the manner ordinary forms of reasoning are being shown up, as though the only way of judging a claim is in accordance with the principles of propositional logic or probability calculus. This makes for a deafness to the endless subtleties of actual human conversation. That is a serious drawback, for it is, after all, the reasoning of people in everyday contexts that one purports to be studying.