Wittgenstein on Other Minds


As mentioned in a previous lesson, Wittgenstein is noted for having developed two distinct philosophies. In the early work (like the Tractatus) Wittgenstein tried to spell out precisely what a logically constructed language can (and cannot) be used to say. Its seven basic propositions simply state that language, thought, and reality share a common structure, fully expressible in logical terms.

Seven basic propositions of the Tractatus:

1. The world is everything that is the case.

2. What is the case, the fact, is the existence of atomic facts.

3. The logical picture of the facts is the thought.

4. The thought is the significant proposition.

5. Propositions are truth-functions of elementary propositions. (An elementary proposition is a truth function of itself.)

6. The general form of truth-function is [, , N()]. This is the general form of proposition.

7. Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent.

On Wittgenstein’s view, the world consists entirely of facts. (Tractatus 1.1) Human beings are aware of the facts by virtue of our mental representations or thoughts, which are most fruitfully understood as picturing the way things are. (Tractatus 2.1) These thoughts are, in turn, expressed in propostitions, whose form indicates the position of these facts within the nature of reality as a whole and whose content presents the truth-conditions under which they correspond to that reality. (Tractatus 4) Everything that is true—that is, all the facts that constitute the world—can in principle be expressed by atomic sentences. Imagine a comprehensive list of all the true sentences. They would picture all of the facts there are, and this would be an adequate representation of the world as a whole.

Since propositions merely express facts about the world, propositions in themselves are entirely devoid of value. The facts are just the facts. Everything else, everything about which we care, everything that might render the world meaningful, must reside elsewhere. (Tractatus 6.4) A properly logical language, Wittgenstein held, deals only with what is true. Aesthetic judgments about what is beautiful and ethical judgments about what is good cannot even be expressed within the logical language, since they transcend what can be pictured in thought. They aren’t facts. The achievement of a wholly satisfactory description of the way things are would leave unanswered (but also unaskable) all of the most significant questions with which traditional philosophy was concerned. (Tractatus 6.5)

Thus, even the philosophical achievements of the Tractatus itself are nothing more than useful nonsense; once appreciated, they are themselves to be discarded. The book concludes with the seventh proposition:

“Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent.”

In his later work, Wittgenstein revises this view of the world. Wittgenstein found that the problem with this logical analysis is that it demands too much precision, both in the definition of words and in the representation of logical structure. In ordinary language, applications of a word often bear only a “family resemblance” to each other, and a variety of grammatical forms may be used to express the same basic thought. But under these conditions, Wittgenstein now realised, the hope of developing an ideal formal language that accurately pictures the world is not only impossibly difficult but also ill-conceived. Wittgenstein now believed the hope of developing an ideal formal language that accurately pictures the world is impossibly difficult and wrong-headed. His later work, then, attempted to re-think the nature of language.

The Philosophical Investigations begins with the following quote from St. Augustine, which outlines Augustine’s view of the development of language:

“When they (my elders) named some object, and accordingly moved towards something, I saw this and I grasped that that the thing was called by the sound they uttered when they meant to point it out. Their intention was shown by their bodily movements, as it were the natural language of all peoples; the expression of the face, the play of the eyes, the movement of other parts of the body, and the tone of the voice which expresses our state of mind in seeking, having, rejecting, or avoiding something. Thus, as I heard words repeatedly used in their proper places in various sentences, I gradually learnt to understand what objects they signified; and after I had trained my mouth to form these signs, I used them to express my own desires.”

[St. Augustine, Confessions I.8]

Wittgenstein argues that Augustine’s explanation is inadequate, since it only accounts for proper nouns. Instead, he will suggest, the meaning of language lies in its use.

“For a large class of cases — though not for all — in which we employ the word ‘meaning’ it can be defined thus: the meaning of a word is its use in the language” (Wittgenstein, Philosophical Investigations § 43).

The Beetle in the Box

“If I say of myself that it is only from my own case that I know what the word ‘pain’ means – must I not say the same of other people too? And how can I generalize the one case so irresponsibly?

Now someone tells me that he knows what pain is only from his own case! – Suppose everyone had a box with something in it: we call it a ‘beetle’. No one can look into anyone else’s box, and everyone says he knows what a beetle is only by looking at his beetle. – Here it would be quite possible for everyone to have something different in his box. One might even imagine such a thing constantly changing. – But suppose the word ‘beetle’ had a use in people’s language? – If so it would not be used as the name of a thing. The thing in the box has no place in the language game at all; not even as a something: for the box might even be empty. – No, one can ‘divide through’ by the thing in the box; it cancels out, whatever it is […].

If one has to imagine someone else’s pain on the model of one’s own, this is none too easy a thing to do: for I have to imagine pain which I do not feel on the model of the pain which I do feel.”

(Wittgenstein, Philosophical Investigations § 293)


2 Responses to “Wittgenstein on Other Minds”

  1. 1 Matthew

    Thanks for all your hard work Rob. Its really useful.

  2. You’re most welcome.

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