josh blog

Ordinary language is all right.

One could divide humanity into two classes:
those who master a metaphor, and those who hold by a formula.
Those with a bent for both are too few, they do not comprise a class.

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31 Dec '15 08:54:38 AM

What more would recognizing the role of 'believing in' entail? It's instructive to consult ordinary language again. Recall some of the contrasts from the case of God: believing in him, believing that he exists, proof of his existence as against lived belief. In the case of the world, hardly anyone asks whether we believe in it (though our acquaintance with reality is often questioned), and it takes something like a philosopher's constructions—'belief in the existence of the world', or better, 'belief in the existence of the external world'—to make disbelief sound abstruse rather than mad. The analogous contrast to philosophical proof of existence as against lived belief in it is not quite that the one misses the other, which is readily lacking (as in the case of God), but that it's hard to believe in the need for the one because the other seems to take care of itself, in the ordinary course of living. And if we would only with some oddity talk of not believing in the world, it is a sad fact that we not only sometimes do not believe in life, but that when this is so, the words to say so fail us. In the shadow of this fact, disbelief is not yet mad, but sick, and the long distances between needless proof, a matter-of-fact existence in the world, and a troubled one are cause for everyone's despair. Since one tradition of complaint against the philosopher's proof of existence (that practice dispels a doubt at best theoretical, that the vita activa has no use for this particular deliverance of the vita contemplativa) contends basically that philosophy does not believe (without proof) that the world exists because it does not believe in (practical) life, this suggests a convergence: the counterpart to 'believing in God' in the case of the world's existence is belief in life, itself just as much (as the melancholic's position shows) susceptible to disappearance, contraction, and expansion as a lived belief in God is, and just as liable to be distant from (or its absence concealed by) explicit affirmations of belief in the world's existence.

The philosopher and the melancholic are both as it were set apart from others. The philosopher steps aside, the melancholic falls away from them. But both show how not believing in life means not sharing in it, and this suggests a way in which belief that the world exists can be conceived as a sort of dogma of ordinary life, for the philosopher to be questioned and hopefully replaced by a sort of orthodoxy, and for the melancholic, simply not believed in, not in his life. 'Belief in', just as much as 'belief that', can be 'what we believe (in)'—just as the religious case already shows—and to lack it or not to affirm it would seem accordingly to have implications for one's community with others.

But world and life are not one. Perceiving the affinities between this pattern and the more clear-cut religious case does not itself show the way to make the case for lived 'belief in' the existence of the world as against philosophical proofs of existence that one may affirm but can't believe in, because, as it were, the terms are too far apart. We talk about believing in life, not believing in life; we talk about knowledge of the world's existence, and about proof for it. But it's not obvious how to infuse those proofs with our belief in life, not obvious how or that they don't believe in life (that's just life's complaint against philosophy, and philosophy has its answer: when you stop and think about this, it says, you'll see). Ordinary language seems to permit this discrepancy, and does not offer straightforward guidance as to how to remove it.

(from an old draft to an old draft)

30 Dec '15 10:07:11 AM

What does the interlocutor of §28 say the person to whom one gives a definition doesn't, might not, know? He 'weiß ja dann nicht, was man mit »zwei« benennen will; er wird annehmen, daß du diese Gruppe von Nüssen »zwei« nennst!'. Literally, the stress on 'what' just refers to various possibilities, a name, a color, a number. It would be clearer to say, the name of the nuts, the color of the nuts, the number of the nuts, in which form the question would be, which of those 'things' the one defining the word meant. But by stressing 'what' the interlocutor emphasizes the essence of the error he has in mind. Not to know 'what one wants to call "two"' is as it were to have no clue which of the things that could be meant, one means at all. To assume one means this, this particular pair of objects right here, being pointed at, is to see nothing else that could be meant about them than their name, nothing else than that the sound "two" is a name. 'Man meint, das Lernen der Sprache bestehe darin, daß man Gegenstände benennt' (§26). The interlocutor is hung up not on the ambiguity of ostension but on a literalization of it. When Wittgenstein goes on, perhaps counterintuitively, to confirm the ambiguity of ostensive definitions ('die hinweisende Definition kann in jedem Fall so und anders gedeutet werden') or even to assert its greater extent than that proposed by the interlocutor, he does it by asserting a possibly less-literal sense for what the interlocutor supposes to be the most-literal acts of ostension, those involving names (of nuts or people). Thus where the interlocutor appears drawn to a picture of ostensive definition in which one 'form' of pointing, and its associated type of word, is primary, with the potential for misunderstanding arising from the other forms' 'literal' resemblance to it, Wittgenstein maintains that no one of those forms need be primary. Still, they all 'look the same'—so is that the basis for the ineluctable possibility of ambiguity?

In §27, Wittgenstein introduces a 'language-game in its own right', asking for and explaining names ostensively (in connection with language-games [2] and [8]). His remarks there suggest a focus on proper names and common nouns (block, slab, etc.), but §28 naturally makes the transition to other types of word—without, however, marking the likelihood that a 'name' might be asked for, and given, not just in the context of the ostensive naming game alone, but in connection with some other game, some other use of words which may thus require words of its own to be played.

29 Dec '15 08:25:44 PM

'Wie hast du es gemacht?' (§33): compare to 'Wie weiß er aber, wo und wie er das Wort ›rot‹ nachschlagen soll und was er mit dem Wort ›fünf‹ anzufangen hat?' (§1). 'How do you know?', 'how does he know?'.

29 Dec '15 10:54:29 AM

'—Und worin besteht es denn – ›auf die Form zeigen‹, ›auf die Farbe zeigen‹? Zeig auf ein Stück Papier! – Und nun zeig auf seine Form, – nun auf seine Farbe, – nun auf seine Anzahl (das klingt seltsam)! – Nun, wie hast du es gemacht? – Du wirst sagen, du habest jedesmal etwas anderes beim Zeigen ›gemeint‹'.

I'd like to say that the interlocutor's willingness here to opt for 'meaning' his acts of pointing differently in each case rests on much the same possibility as in §19: 'Wir sagen, wir gebrauchen den Befehl im Gegensatz zu andern Sätzen, weil unsere Sprache die Möglichkeit dieser andern Sätze enthält'. Then, too, that there being the various possibilities of pointing is different from performing any of the various forms of pointing—it would be such a neat way to invoke Wittgenstein's repeated appeal to circumstances as decisive in this part of the Investigations—meaning to point at the form, the color, etc., being different from actually pointing at the form, actually pointing at the color, etc.—as 'moves in a game' (cf. §22). (Thus, the interlocutor's seeming to be cornered by the line of questioning to come.)

But Wittgenstein does prompt these performances with a move of his own, in a type of game typical for him: he gives the interlocutor a command, 'Zeig auf ein Stück Papier!'.

29 Dec '15 10:09:28 AM

'Der, dem man die Definition gibt' (§28)—someone who plays an inconspicuous role in the interlocutor's thinking. There, he's said (by the interlocutor) not to know what the speaker means; two sections later, to know, given certain preconditions. In §29, some occasion for doubt presents itself. —In §§22–27, many of Wittgenstein's example utterances and candidate explanations of utterances make implicit reference to their speakers: signal that it is they who are at issue.

29 Dec '15 02:44:59 AM

'The pleasure is to play, makes no difference what you say'

28 Dec '15 01:40:42 AM

I've kept this blog for sixteen years now. I started the day after Christmas during my last year of college. I was probably lonely, alone. For a long time I've been ambivalent about observances of all kinds; I have few of my own, and dislike being obliged to make them. But I do mark one from year to year.

Most often, after the first few, it's been a private observance. Or, at best, an oblique acknowledgement, maybe implied by the fact of the date and what I saw fit, or found myself able, to say then. Just two years in, I was wishing for perspective on what I was doing, and noting how hard it was to achieve. Six years in, looking back on what little I'd written, I called the entries I liked 'reminders of the writer I wanted to be' that would serve as 'places from which to begin thinking again'. (I hadn't read Thoreau yet.) In many years, I said even less, and was more and more comfortable saying less, though similar feelings—of achievement unrealized and of a need to confer some significance on what I had (nevertheless) been doing—still always came around, still do come around, when the anniversary does. Each attempt to look back amounted only to a little, maybe only could amount to a little. But with time I've been able to look back at those attempts, look back at my looking back.

For the first three years, the blog was effectively a listening diary. It ran along on its own track, but because of its public mode of existence, it could also take the form of almost-constant dialogue with other bloggers, with e-mailing readers, with conversations going on elsewhere on mailing lists, in newsgroups, in chats, on discussion boards. That was normal then—not universal, but widespread enough, and established enough in the variety of ways people made use of the technologies, that it could feel to me like internet culture just was a culture of dialogue, of exchange, of conversation.

To me, it was an old fact, spanning more than one era of my life. When, in the early 90s, my school was one of the earliest in the state to be connected to the internet, one of the first things we did was learn how to talk—Unix talk—with students we didn't know at another school set up like we were, halfway across the state.

The angle bracket is an emblem of that era for me:


It often served to place a cursor on a screen, of course, on a computer awaiting a command or a client awaiting a message, a line, to be sent—a symbol for the moment of communication, composure of one's thoughts—but it was also the public and private sign of the reply, not just marking out who said what (and, when multiplied, who said what when), but marking it all up, so that any choice of where to break up reply quoting, of where to add to or delete from what had already been said, could mean something.

In many spaces, people said as much as they wanted, about (almost) whatever they wanted. And in reply, you could distribute your responsiveness as finely or as coarsely as you chose: a lot here, a little there, keeping this, cutting that. Focusing.

There was a kind of dilation and contraction to exchanges regulated in this way that could sometimes seem to promise to improve upon more usual conversation.

23 Dec '15 08:58:35 PM

On the train, a man, homeless probably, or maybe just a drunk, long blond hair faded dirty white with age, splayed across his seat in the most uncomfortable way, seemingly dead to the world, his legs locked out against the floor to keep him in place. They don't hold; he falls off the seat, onto the floor. A thud.

For some long seconds the nearest passengers in the car were watching cautiously. The train cars are wide, open: spaces with seats in them rather than the filled-up rows of seats of buses which leave no place to fall, be fallen. On a train, to offer any help at all would be to cross the distance, step into the man's situation there alone in the middle of the floor.

No one helped. The man raised himself to a seated position, still on the floor; staring off before him somewhere, face blotted and dark. The passenger nearest to him, standing at the doors of the car, leaned over, said something. The man indicated something, barely, staying where he was, the other man leaving him where he was. He crawled back to his seat eventually, hoisting himself up from his knees, to reclaim the same position.

A few minutes later, at the next stop, three cops suddenly appear from the rear of the car. They stand about the man, obviously in a formation, a triangle. They have the look of linebackers, with wide stances. The lead cop says something. They're going to take him; he doesn't want to go but he seems not to fight it, save for a faint tug in the other direction when they lift him from his seat by his arms. But as they lean in to grab him, the look on his face is fear, complete powerlessness.

23 Dec '15 07:17:04 AM

'Nothing happened today. And if anything did, I'd rather not talk about it, because I didn't understand it.'