July 29, 2014

Rhees and Knott on the Importance of Looking Farther

In my previous entry, I discussed Hugh Knott’s presentation of Rhees’s ideas and his critique of Wittgenstein. According to Knott, Rhees thought that Wittgenstein had “failed to follow up adequately the connections between the reality of discourse and our reality as persons”, later he adds, in explicating Rhees, “the situation in which people are making remarks and grasping the connections between them has as its background a life in which words have obtained a currency in multifarious contexts and connections…” (p. 242).

The perspective in the latter quotation is one that I can wholeheartedly embrace. Rhees and Knott are emphasizing the importance of looking farther, of raising our eyes from the immediate situation, in the effort to get a clear view of what goes on when someone is speaking. This is important advice. What makes it important is the fact that it offers an antidote to certain well-entrenched presuppositions of Western philosophy.

One such notion is that all that is relevant for an account of what a person is saying is what is the case with him at the moment of speaking – the mental contents accompanying his words, or the stimuli to which he is responding. To overcome the problems of this (“psychologistic”) view of meaning (which ignores the fact that speaking shapes our lives, that it is something we do together), other philosophers have proposed that we should focus instead on the system of symbols being employed. According to them, to speak is to make moves that are defined by the rules of something like a calculus. The problem of this latter perspective is that it abstracts from the question what a speaker is doing in addressing someone – it ignores the way in which what is to be understood as having been said is dependent on the particular context of speaking. (Rhees, by the way, was quite right in pointing out that the language game metaphor may not do enough to discourage this way of thinking about speech.) In the first case, as we might put it, we get life without logic, in the second case logic without life; the problem is to see the logic in the life.

Rhees writes:

The whole idea of a structure or system, like the idea of a logical connexion, depends on what speaking is. But this is hardly even a statement, because speaking is not one thing, and “having meaning” is not one thing either. This is perhaps the hardest thing to understand about language, and it is for this that [Wittgenstein] refers to the language games. (“Wittgenstein’s Builders”, Discussions of Wittgenstein, p. 75.)

Here I am at one with him.

Knott speaks about “the emphasis [Rhees] gives to the mutually constitutive aspects of the reality of language and our reality as persons” (p. 238, my italics), and Rhees talks about the “reality” or the “possibility” of discourse, or of the “unity of language”. Rhees also writes about our speaking the same language in the different language games. Here I am getting unsure about how to read him. My difficulties have to do with the role of the word “language”. Rhees says that “Wittgenstein did not always distinguish between ‘language’ and ‘speaking’, and sometimes this brings trouble” (“Wittgenstein’s Builders”, p. 71.) I am not sure why Rhees finds this distinction important, or why he needs the concept of language to make his points. Why could he not have made them by talking about speaking? (I think I have an analogous problem with what Knott says about the role of abstraction in learning to speak, p. 240 f. “Entities should not be multiplied beyond necessity.”)

The idea of “a language”, it seems, only comes to have a role when we are confronted with different languages, or different dialects – with cases in which the same thing will be said in different ways (where something that sounds “wrong” to us can still be “right” to others). We could imagine someone who never came across other languages, we could even imagine a world in which nothing like “different languages” existed. We may ask what use there would be in these cases for the word “language” (or what need for the concept), yet speakers would understand as well as we do how what was said in one context might bear on, or depend on, what was said in other contexts.

(It seems to me that the word “language” has a more prominent role at the beginning of Rhees’s essay, whereas “speaking” becomes more central from Section 4 onward. I find what he says in the later part much more striking.)  

It was because I could not see why the unity of language as such is important that I tried to suggest, in my paper on Rhees, that the important unity was that of the speakers’ lives. I’m not sure whether that’s a plausible suggestion. (By the way, Knott is probably right in arguing that what I say about the “moral dimension” of the unity is beside the point. I did express some uncertainty about this myself in the paper.)

In sum: where Knott speaks about the mutually constitutive aspects of the reality of language and our reality as persons, what I would talk of, more modestly, is the connection between what speaking is and what it is to be a speaker.

July 26, 2014

Rhees and Knott on “What Language Is”

In his recent article “Rush Rhees on Wittgenstein and ‘What Language Is’” (Philosophical Investigations, July 2014, pp 228-245, see abstract), Hugh Knott presents Rhees’s critique of Wittgenstein. He goes on to argue that the so-called New Wittgensteinians  have failed to appreciate the deepening of perspective intrinsic in that critique.

Knott’s article is rich in content. I wish to discuss some of his arguments in this and a coming entry. In brief, to clarify the tangle of voices: Knott thinks that Rhees added something important to Wittgenstein, and that this has been missed by a number of philosophers including me. For my part I believe Rhees may indeed have added something, but I find it hard to get clear about what it was, and I see some problems in Knott's view of presenting it.

Knott comments on some writings of mine as expressions of a New Wittgensteinian reading (à la Cavell, Conant, Diamond, and others). I’m not sure whether the shoe fits, though it is true I have learnt a great deal not least from Cora Diamond (herself an admirer of Rhees). Anyway that does not matter, as long as my possible misreadings of Rhees are not laid at the door of Diamond et al.

Rhees is someone whose work I’ve long been impressed by. At the same time, I have found some of his central ideas hard to grasp, not in the sense of not wishing to engage with them, but on the contrary being challenged to reflect further. My article “Rhees on the Unity of Language” (Philosophical Investigations 35 (2012), pp. 224–237) was one expression of my effort to understand his thinking; in writing it I was aware of its tentative nature. (An earlier attempt was “Rush Rhees on Philosophy and Religious Discourse”, Faith and Philosophy 18 (2001), 431-442.)

According to Knott, then, I have missed out on something of importance in Rhees. I’ll here try to set out what I take to be the main matters of contention. I’ll sharpen the points made by Knott – appearing as Rhees’s spokesperson – in the interest of trying to get clear about what the issues are.

As Knott correctly notes, I have been arguing that philosophical problems arise out of the confusions individuals may have about the use of certain expressions in our language. Against this idea, presumably to be found in Wittgenstein, Rhees (he says) contended that there is a question about what language is which is not in this way dependent on confusions concerning the use of specific expressions, and which Wittgenstein failed to take seriously enough. According to Rhees, this question is grounded in

a confusion or uncertainty connected with being able to speak, and so perhaps with learning to speak: a confusion in connexion with what it is that one was learning in learning to speak: with what saying something is and what understanding is. This sort of confusion or uncertainty (which is not just a confusion of the grammars of particular expressions) has led men to the scepticism which runs in one way or another into all the big questions of philosophy. (“Wittgenstein’s Builders”, Discussions of Wittgenstein, Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1970, p. 74, quoted by Knott.)

In a different context, Rhees writes (also quoted by Knott):

We cannot understand the central ideas of philosophy – such ideas as reality, truth, things, intelligibility, understanding – we cannot understand the rôle they play in language unless we try to understand what language is. (Without Answers, Routledge and Kegan Paul 1969, p. 135.)

These passages are thought-provoking but at the same time bewildering. Wittgenstein noted that philosophical inquiry has often taken the form of asking “What is X?”, leading up to a “substantive” account of the subject in question: “language is ----“, “reality is ---- “, “the mind is ----“, “thinking is ----“. He wanted to suggest that these types of question are misleading. As I understand him, the problem with them is that they lead us to search for essences, i.e. they presuppose that there is a single answer to them regardless of someone’s purpose in asking them. Against this, he suggested, words like “language”, “reality” etc may give rise to various bewilderments, but not to one big question.

On this view, language, for instance, is not a problem for us as such. We speak it daily and may never be bewildered by the fact that we are able to make ourselves understood and are able to understand what others are saying. It is when we do philosophy that questions about understanding and meaning may come to appear puzzling in various ways. These puzzles grow from a deep-rooted 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. Thus, our picture may be organized around the presupposition that “mean” and “understand” must be names of mental states; the task of philosophical clarification consists in making us see the particular uses for what they really are. (Knott introduces a dichotomy between the simple description of use – say, by means of a simple definition and some examples of usage - and the clarification of a concept, p. 237. The former, something of the kind provided, say, in a language guide, may leave our philosophical preconceptions untouched; the alternative, however, as I see it, is not to study the concept as though that held some kind of unity, but rather to look more deeply a the uses in their variety.)

(It seems likely that the form puzzles about words take is partly conditioned by our culture. Say, by the pre-eminent role of written language, the prestige of intellectual pursuits, the position of science and ideas about science in our society. One could, I think, imagine people whose thinking about language for some reason never ran into these snags.)

Rhees on the other hand appears to think that there is one given confusion bound up with the question what language is, with what one learns in learning to speak. (His words might even be taken to suggest that this confusion makes itself felt in our learning to speak, but I don’t think that can have been his intention.) And I get the sense that for him, somehow, this bewilderment is shared by us all and inevitable. This reading is underscored in Knott’s presentation.

If that is Rhees’s idea, I don’t know what to make of it. I would need to know more about what that confusion or uncertainty are taken to be like, and how they are supposed to lead to skepticism.

Knott argues that, in spite of my protestations, I too put forward general remarks about the nature of language in my writings. Thus, in ”Hacker on Wittgenstein's Ethnological Approach” (in Eric Lemaire & Jesús Padilla Gálvez (eds.), Wittgenstein: Issues and Debates. Ontos Verlag, 2010) 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. Tell this to an ordinary citizen and her response is likely to be: “of course, so what?” It’s only when we’re in a philosophical mood and are inclined to think that learning to speak can only consist in acquiring certain verbal knacks or in learning to name objects that this reminder serves a purpose.

I shall address the unity of language in a later entry.

July 15, 2014

What is justified belief? Reliability vs Responsibility

In the extensive discussion of the Gettier cases (see my earlier entry), little attention has been given to the notion of justification. If his critique is to have a point, Gettier needs the justified-true-belief story. But how are we to understand the account that he is attacking? When do we speak of justification, how does talk of justification enter into the context of human conversation? Very often, the issue is discussed as though matters of justification could be debated regardless of why the question arises, who raises it, in what circumstances. (Contextualists are an apparent exception – I hope to get back to them in a later entry.)

Gettier cites Ayer and Chisholm as expressing a similar point by speaking in terms of “having a right to be sure” and “having adequate evidence”, respectively. According to Gettier, these forms of expression can be treated as equivalent.

Consider an example. Martha said, “The water here is deep enough for diving in”. Was she justified in saying this? In one case, our concern is with deciding whether or not we can jump in from here. Here the question of justification is a question of reliability. Is what she’s saying true? This is important, since if there are underwater rocks, diving in would be very risky. We might ask her how she knows, though if she lives here and we know she often goes swimming, we may just take her word for it, provided, of course, we take her to be a reliable person. Either way we may tell one another, “Martha knows the water here is deep enough for diving in”.

Would this be a case of knowledge equalling justified true belief? Well, it would be strange here to speak about the latter as a condition of knowledge. We don’t infer Martha’s knowledge from the truth of what she is saying, rather we reason to the truth from the conviction that she knows. So this doesn’t seem to be a case of what Gettier is criticizing.

In another case, our concern is not with how things stand, but with Martha’s right to say what she said. This is the most likely to be the case when something goes wrong, but then that wouldn’t be the sort of case Gettier was trying to exclude – no “true belief” there. On the other hand we might think that what Martha said was true, but upbraid her for giving her assurance too easily. Suppose she had asked a local whether diving was safe there, and he had told her it was. Then it turned out he had been speaking about a different shore with the same name. Though as it happens both shores are safe. That’s seems more like a Gettier case. We might say she had an excuse for making the mistake – she had a “justification” in that sense. But that is hardly what Gettier was attacking: “knowledge = true belief with an excuse”. (Neither would we say, with Chisholm, that her evidence was adequate, nor with Ayer that she had a right to be sure.)

We haven’t succeeded, it seems, in finding a case in which we are tempted to say what Gettier criticizes us for saying.


In the Gettier debate, there is little consideration for how words are used in actual human conversation (how long will the anti-Wittgenstein, anti-Ordinary Language Philosophy backlash last?). Consequently, what are evidently descriptions of different contexts of use get treated as competing theories. Thus, according to Jonathan Jenkins Ichikawa & Matthias Steup,

Internalists about justification think that whether a belief is justified depends wholly on states in some sense internal to the subject… Externalists about justification think that factors external to the subject can be relevant for justification…
     (TheAnalysis of Knowledge", Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy   (Spring 2014 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.).)

Now, if what is at issue is a person’s responsibility for claiming to know something, it is natural to assume that what will be relevant above all are “states internal to” her, assuming that to mean: the information at her disposal, her previous knowledge and experience, her competence for forming certain types of judgment, etc., whereas when the reliability of the speaker’s claim is concerned, matters independent of the speaker will become important. Thus, rather than internalists and externalists addressing a single question (what might that question be, in a context of regular conversation?), it is plausible to suggest that what we have here are two fairly plausible answers to two different questions.

In fact, neglect of conversation seems almost to have become an ideology. In the article referred to above, speaking about the context-dependence of knowledge-claims,  Jonathan Jenkins Ichikawa & Matthias Steup seem rather dismissive of the relevance of considerations of use for the analysis of knowledge. According to them, the “relationship between contextualism and the analysis of knowledge is not at all straightforward. Arguably, they have different subject matters (the former a word, and the latter a mental state)”, though they admit that “the methodology of theorizing about knowledge may be helpfully informed by semantic considerations about the language in which such theorizing takes place.”  (Presumably, “semantic considerations” are taken to include observations concerning the way a word enters into conversation.)

Getting clear about the use of the word “know” (“semantics”), on their account, can thus be distinguished from study of the “mental state” of knowing. Knowing, as it were, is like a porcupine which can be observed, measured and dissected without our having to pay much attention to the way the word “porcupine” figures in human conversation. What is left open is how this language-independent observation of knowledge is supposed to be carried out. I’m afraid that in practice it will simply consist in the philosopher asking himself, independently of any context, “Would this be knowledge?”, “Would that be knowledge?” , as it were, feeling the taste of the word on his tongue. How reliable is that?