Monday, May 4, 2015

Thinking, Saying, and Wisdom that Shows Itself

I often quote from Ludwig Wittgenstein’s Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus (see and Philosophical Investigations (see in presentations and papers. In the Tractatus, Wittgenstein remarks that “we picture facts to ourselves” – that is to say, we create internal representations to make sense of our experiences. The closing remark in the Tractatus is this: “What we cannot speak about [clearly] we must pass over in silence.” As it happens, there is much about which we speak that does not fit easily into the framework for meaningfulness described in the Tractatus. Wittgenstein realized that fact and wrote extensively about the concept of a language game in the Investigations (published posthumously). I have spent a fair amount of time considering the evolution of Wittgenstein’s thinking from the more narrow views of the Tractatus and the rich views discussed in the Investigations.
In general, the common thread through those works is the notion that the business of philosophy is to determine the boundaries between sense and nonsense. Language plays a critical role in establishing the boundary between sense and nonsense. The extreme boundary limits between sense and nonsense are formed by propositions that can have no meaning (i.e., contradictions and tautologies), an idea that emerged from the Tractatus. I recall one of O. K. Bouwsma’s favorite examples of a meaningless proposition being this utterance: “Last week, I suffered a fatal heart attack.” One that I developed based on the work of a medieval logician is this: “I just ate the last cannibal.” Bertrand Russell’s example is this: “There is a barber in Seville who shaves all and only those who do not shave themselves,” which I modify to use the noun ‘someone’, the verb ‘love’ and the location ‘this room’.
Apparently, Wittgenstein had much he wished to say that did not fit into the framework of the Tractatus. His oldest brother Hans ran away from home when Ludwig was 12 and apparently died of suicide a year later. Another brother committed suicide a couple of years later. Ludwig served in the Austro-Hungarian army in World War I, and was captured by the Russians. His brother Paul, who was an officer in the Austro-Hungarian, lost his arm due to a bullet wound and was also captured by the Russians. Ludwig was the youngest of eight children; three of his four brothers committed suicide. Perhaps the concept of a language game was part of an intellectual solution to those experiences which did not fit well into his early intense (and somewhat limiting) analysis of philosophy and the nature of thought while studying with Bertrand Russell at Cambridge. I do not know.

I am somewhat sympathetic to the early framework developed in the Tractatus. When a colleague some years ago repeated the claim that wisdom cannot be told (see, I offered up this challenge: “Can you relate an example of wisdom that cannot be told?” That simple challenge left my colleague speechless, because it asks for something that is apparently contradictory – to say what cannot be said. I had in mind Wittgenstein’s closing line in the Tractatus: “What we cannot speak about we must pass over in silence.”

Some years later, I returned to that moment and the challenge that I thought had been so clever. I took up the challenge myself. I now think that there are indirect ways that wisdom can be told. I have arrived at three categories to express wisdom that cannot be told in the straightforward and descriptive way advocated in the Tractatus

The first category is associated with language games. Not only do we create internal representations to make sense of experience, we talk about those representations with others, even though neither we nor others can see those internal representations directly. It is through discourse with others (engagement in a language game) that some ideas evolve and some things that were not directly expressible come to the surface. Some thoughts might be considered as dynamic objects that undergo change and refinement as we engage in discussions and reflect on alternative perspectives. A thought need not be considered a unitary, static expression of a fact frozen in time. Perhaps there is promise in thinking of thoughts as dynamic and somewhat complex objects.

The second category concerns the fact that we often say things indirectly, either intentionally or unintentionally. One example of an intentionally indirect claim I once overheard when visiting an out-of-work friend, was this: “It’s raining.” It was in fact raining at the time. However, he made this remark to his wife to convey the fact that he was leaving the house to go to the grocery store to steal some food (it being easy to conceal purloined food in a raincoat). I did not pick up on the indirect meaning, as I was unaware of how poor they were at the time. His wife understood immediately and replied, “be careful,” which I thought meant that he should drive carefully; she meant that he should be careful not to get caught. Poverty can lead one to do desperate things on occasion. I am sure there are many other examples of intentionally indirect remarks that one can find. This one has little to do with wisdom, but it concerns the notion of meaning being grounded in a situation, in a lived and possibly shared set of experiences, and in a language game played according to rules that those involved in that particular language game know and understand. Meaning involves use and context. The more interesting cases of indirect remarks are those that occur unwittingly. These often reveal a meaning that the speaker might not have realized at the time of the utterance, but which then becomes more evident upon reflection and subsequent discourse.

That notion leads to the third category – namely, thoughts that show themselves in the actions and decisions one takes. The truth can show itself when it might not be easy or appropriate to express in words. According to the Book of Ruth in the Jewish bible, after Naomi’s husband died, her two sons, who were married to Orpah and Ruth, also died. Naomi had the desire to leave Moab and go to Bethlehem. Naomi told her widowed daughters to remain in Moab where they could prosper. Orpah stayed, but Ruth followed Naomi to Bethlehem. In this case, the truth (her love of and devotion to Naomi) showed itself in the following – the action. Perhaps there are cases where the thought becomes evident in what one does.

Then I recalled another one of O. K. Bouwsma’s remarks: “Surely your life [what you do] will show what you think of yourself.”


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