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”.


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.


  1. I suppose one difference between real fog and its philosophical equivalent is that we all usually recognise real fog as fog. We make allowance up front for the fact that our view is impaired. But in the case of language this need not be so. Indeed, we might think we are seeing things with sublime clarity when we're actually misrepresenting the role of our forms of expression.

  2. Yes, that's certainly an important difference. Once we begin to suspect that our perspective on language is distorted or hampered by a fog, we are on our way to seeing through it.

  3. The thing about PI 5 is that W is there speaking of a very specific ailment, namely that which takes the meaning of a word (name) to be an object that has that name. What follows from that is that if the object is not present (contingent and part of the world) it must be some higher object, or an object belonging to a higher realm.It seems to me that what goes on here lies in the application of a description that is generalized as if it were a rule or law of names. The misuse of an expression that Hugh and you then speak of, I take it, is that of applying "Name = thing named" where it is not applicable, or making a rule (law) of it when it is not that. And of course what follows from that follows.

    The fog/haze analogy is about not having a clear view, and what generates the haze is a very specific misunderstanding of the workings of our language. One might say tha tthere really is no haze, and what has gone wrong is the attempt an an explanation of what is plainly in view.

    Basically, the parts of your discussion that hinge on fine points about the haze/fog and so on extend the analogy to the point of breaking. That is, I don't think the distinction Hugh is making about seeing through a fog and seeing in its own right is correct.

    PI 5, to me, says we have a clear view of things. What goes wrong is when we try to explain what it is that affords us this view (what lies behind it so to speak). Here Rhees' remarks about W's philosophy being about the possibility of saying something from first to last is a good reminder. What goes wrong with A's picture, as per W, is the explanation given—not what is seen, but why it is as seen.

    That's not very clear is it? Sorry.

    1. I agree that the fog metaphor has its limitations.

      If I understand you correctly, you suggest that the haze that is relevant here is one that we imagine, something that covers up the object we assume has to be there if a word is to have meaning, and which explains why we don’t get a clear view of it. E.g. “remember”, “love”, “intend” must refer to some tangible experience, and if we can’t get hold of it, it’s because of the fog. Whereas there need not be anything tangible, all we need to understand the use of these words is in plain view.

      A very interesting thought, whether or not this was what Wittgenstein had in mind.

    2. That stumped me. I'm quite sure it is what W had in mind. The alternative would mean that I might actually have had a thought. Seems unlikely. Anyway, DRichter pointed me towards your discussion with Knott a while back and I'm working on a post about it and the original matter that got him pointing me in your direction.

    3. It's not at all unlikely that you had a thought! Anyway, I'm looking forward to reading your post. (Are you able to get hold of *Philosophical Investigations* where you are? You can of course download Hugh's article from their webiste, but I believe they'll charge you for that.)

  4. I would like to have read Knott's original though.

  5. Thanks for the vote of confidence. I'll have to graft a little but I hope to get a hold of it today. The post should come up over the weekend, hopefully. All the best.