« Alex Calinescu - London Exhibition | Main | Rembrandt Today, Radio 4, 11.30 am 26th October 2006 »

September 26, 2006


Richard Mascall

I am struggling with these concepts.

Take the "beetle in the box" analogy. What difference does it make whether one can see what's in other people's boxes ? If I could see the contents, and they always looked liked beetles, they wouldn't mean they were. Some might be decorative objects, others educational items, and others toys, all with the appearance of beetles. So the distinction that Wittgenstein is trying to bring out cannot simply be whether one can see the object or not.

Nor can his distinction be whether one ever could see the object. It is impossible to see lots of objects, perhaps because they are too small (eg. electrons), too far away (quasars), no longer existing (Julius Caesar), or never existed (a clear speaking philosopher - no, no, strike that out and replace with, say, James Bond).

OK, so perhaps he is talking about non-physical things, including feelings, with "pain" often being quoted as an example. But how is pain different from an everyday object, say a bus ? He seems to be saying that person A does not know that what he means by pain is the same as what person B means by pain. But why not ? We know what happens in the body in general, and the brain in particular, when say a heavy weight falls on one's foot. That is going to be the same for everyone. Even if we are talking about mental anguish with no physical cause, say that caused by the loss of a much-loved pet, again we know what physically goes on in the brain and this will be common to everyone, at a general level. (The detail level might vary, of course, but that is like the fact that two reds might differ while still both being red.)

And if mental anguish can be agreed to be the same for different people, so presumably can any emotion or state of mind. Similarly abstract concepts such as truth, failure, intelligence - we can all agree on roughly what they all mean, can we not ?

Now it might be that this is all the point : that our definitions come from our common agreement on what they mean. But wouldn't Descartes have agreed with this ? How does this conflict with saying we obtain information about the world via our senses ?

Richard Mascall

Here is another difficulty I am having.

Take the "there's no such thing as Private Language" assertion. Well groups of people use words all the time which other groups do not understand - non-English-speaking French people and non-French-speaking English people, for example. But Wittgenstein obviously does not mean this. Someone growing up on a desert island with no human contact might develop his own vocabulary for some reason. Presumably his word for Coconut is as meaningful as any other word describing such an object. So what does Wittgenstein mean ? He apparently also said "If lions could talk, we wouldn't understand them." Well, why not ? If a lion said he was hungry, we would know what he meant. Perhaps a lion has need to describe things which we have no need to ? Apparently it's a myth that Eskimos have more words to describe types of snow than English speakers have. But even if it were true, can there be any doubt that Eskimos could explain what the differences of these snow types were to an English speaker ?

Richard Mascall

Aha! Having attended the fourth session in the "Philosophy At the Gallery" course, I now think I understand what Wittgenstein was describing by "Private Language".

It seems that the difference in Private Language between nouns for sensation (eg. "pain") and other nouns (eg. "table") is that for the former there are no external criteria for deciding if the word is being used correctly. With non-sensation-describing nouns, say "table", it is possible to define a set of criteria that can be checked to decide if the word is the right one. By contrast, for sensation-describing nouns, such as "pain", there cannot be such a set of criteria.

True, if you were writhing in agony it would indeed be possible for anyone to confirm you were suffering "pain". But it is possible to suffer "pain" without showing any external signs. So "writhing in agony" is a sufficient but not necessary condition for indicating "pain", and thus is not an adequate criterion.

True, you can do MRI scans to determine brain activity associated with "pain". But MRI scans do not tell us everything that is going on in the brain. So even if they are capable of distinguishing between someone experiencing "pain", or "amusement", or "annoyance" (I don't know that they can do, but just suppose for a moment that they can), it is possible to imagine a mental state which is sufficiently complicated for an MRI scan to be unable to identify. In other words, even if nowadays, because of scientific advances, "pain" is no longer a valid example for Wittgenstein, there will always be mental states which would suffice.

True, you know the feeling produced when banging one's finger with a hammer. It is reasonable to say that this is indeed the same feeling every time the event occurs and for anyone involved. We can label this feeling "pain" and be sure we are all talking about the same thing. However, it is an indirect definition ("the feeling one gets when striking one's finger") rather than a direct definition ("the inanimate constructed object with a flat surface supported by four or more legs.")


To people struggling with this, let me clarify a little:
Let's take pain. As an articulate human being, I have an ability to explain my experience of pain, but this ability is ultimately limited (you try to put to words how it "actually" feels to undergo serious pain).
"Pain," of course, is a word; the word "pain" is not pain itself. As such, the word has meaning within the limits of everything else we can put to words. This is how undescribable elements of pain-- like that "simply horrible sensation you get when..."-- are irrelevant to the meaning of the term.

If I have a beetle, and I tell you I have a beetle, you will tell me that you have one. The word "beetle," as far as I can only see my own, will have to be restricted to meaning "what's in the box" as long as we all have beetles that we can't show the others. This means that, despite the fact tht Mary's "beetle" is actually a gumball, and Jehosephat's box contains a photograph of a duck, the term "beetle" will go on meaning "contents-of-box", as the element that is indescribable (which is something we have to accept purely for the purposes of Wittgenstein's experiment)-- which just so happens to be what's actually in the box in the first place-- is irrelevant to the meaning.
Meaning is only what can be talked about; what cannot be conceptualised through language might as well not exist.

Aah Tea

The only problem with Wittgenstein's proposition is that we can share our experiences, we are similar enough to understand each other even if there is some differences in the way we experience, express and comprehend, we can look into each other's box and we have a tangible idea of a beetle.

We are also so similar, very nearly identical biologically that pain really is the same or so close it makes no difference, so even pain is not distinctly different.

I understand what Wittgenstein means and I thought it myself when I was younger, the "what if what I'm experiencing is not what others experience when they talk of what appears to be what I'm experiencing", etc.

Sorry to say, if it looks like a beetle, if it acts like a beetle, if it smells, tastes and feels like a beetle to you and everyone else, then that's a beetle you have in your box, no need to stretch your grey cells and imagination any further. Sorry.

Verify your Comment

Previewing your Comment

This is only a preview. Your comment has not yet been posted.

Your comment could not be posted. Error type:
Your comment has been saved. Comments are moderated and will not appear until approved by the author. Post another comment

The letters and numbers you entered did not match the image. Please try again.

As a final step before posting your comment, enter the letters and numbers you see in the image below. This prevents automated programs from posting comments.

Having trouble reading this image? View an alternate.


Post a comment

Comments are moderated, and will not appear until the author has approved them.

Your Information

(Name is required. Email address will not be displayed with the comment.)

My Photo

Get Virtual Philosopher by email...

Enter your email address:

Delivered by FeedBurner

My Podcasts

My Art and Photography Weblog

Philosophy: The Classics

Philosophy Bites

Ethics Bites