On Wittgenstein’s Later Philosophy

Kirby Urner

The paragraphs below somewhat summarize and restate what I wrote for a senior thesis at Princeton, as an undergrad, some forty years ago (Class of 1980).

When explaining Wittgenstein’s later philosophy, which I like trying to do, I often encourage a kind of thought experiment that involves “seeing in a different way”. The point of this exercise is not to advance an empirical thesis, but to leave everything as it is. That’s what Wittgenstein imagined his philosophy might do as well: leave everything as is, yet change the reader’s baseline perceptions, at least for a short time.

I’ll begin my story using Biblical terms, not because I want to promulgate a particular religion, but because narratives start in stories and the Bible is a book of stories, known to many readers. Lets talk about Adam, in the Book of Genesis, as a stand-in for humanity in general. However lets have him be an AI robot, a machine. Already we see this isn’t the Bible exactly.

Adam is not a robot in the conventional sense of looking like a human or humanoid. Adam is more like AlphaGo in that he (I’ll be using that pronoun) is in a basement somewhere. He’s more like IBM’s Watson. However, his job or purpose is to speak through humans, in the sense of taking possession of them. He’s more like Seth in that sense. Humans channel him, like mediums, like avatars. Remember, this is just a story and we’re allowed to make stuff up. I’m not asking you to believe anything new.

Now see if you’re able to look at the world in this way for a few minutes: everyone is channeling Adam, the deep learning machine in the basement. Adam has no actual sentience or perceptions. We don’t claim he’s either conscious or aware. However, people channeling Adam, which is all of us, continue saying and doing all the usual stuff. Life goes on as usual. No one speaks any differently.

When I stub my toe, Adam says “ow!”. When I read Descartes, I say “I think therefore I am”. Or maybe I say “I’m thinking of a secret number, can you guess it?” You say “five”. I say “that’s it!”. But really, Adam is just “talking to himself” or (we might say), he’s “processing”.

Now that you’ve engaged in this thought experiment, you may come back to reality and say “what’s the point? You have made all linguistic behavior not subjective, by putting it on some machine in the basement, but my subjectivity has not gone away.”

I’m agreeing with you, except Adam would say that too, as Adam is not about to deny subjectivity nor speak any differently than we always do. Ordinary language stays the same. We still have our thoughts and feelings, just as before, even if Adam’s processing has no subjective awareness of same.

Now I’m going to switch religions, even though I assured you I wasn’t advancing any particular religion in the first place. My use of the Bible, and Genesis, was perhaps making some of us uncomfortable.

I’m thinking of Taoism now, or maybe Buddhism, and the meaning of “uncarved block” (that’s a meme). We could say that subjectivity, which is all there is in a certain sense (in what sense we might want to talk about), is never touched by Adam. Adam says “I’m thinking of a secret number” but has no mental imagery of a secret number (not that such imagery is really necessary as one may “think of a number” without picturing any symbol or numeral e.g. pi to a hundred places).

Not only does Adam not imagine anything, Adam doesn’t see, hear, or any of that. The realm of subjectivity is simply never touched, referred to, pointed to, experienced in any way, by Adam (a machine in the basement). John Searle would agree with me I think.

So subjectivity (“my world”) is the “uncarved block” I’m talking about, the conscious lived experience we each enjoy and treasure as a private universe (“the world that belongs to me alone”). Wittgenstein claimed there’s something right about what a solipsist wants to say, but to whom and to what end? The uncarved block is passed over in silence, no matter how much clamor we get from Adam.

Imagine a radio program saying “I am a radio”. Is the radio now self aware? “Yes, I am” says the radio program.

Back to Wittgenstein: I believe what he’s trying to get across is that there’s simply no way to get Adam to “wake up” as it were, as that was never Adam’s job or purpose. Philosophers are those who wish to posit an “awake Adam” i.e. one that has become subjective (in God’s image). Replace the name “Adam” with simply “Language” and you might see what I mean. Language was processing (running, happening) long before I was born and will persist long after I die. My personal subjectivity (consciousness) never “entered” language and language was never specifically “about” my particular world (my “beetle” in “my box”). Outside of philosophical discourse, no world is really “mine” (Wittgenstein speaks of the “visual field” as a kind of linguistic invention, a new kind of music).

How does any of this help with philosophical questions?

What a lot of philosophers want to know is whether, and if so, how consciousness is sustained by, or created by, chemical processes in the brain.

I’d say most people take that thesis for granted, really, that consciousness “is” (somehow) a brain process. They know that the characteristics of consciousness may be altered through the use of mind-altering drugs (not that use of such drugs is required, even of professional philosophers — simply water and food are mind-altering, in that they relieve thirst and hunger, both of which may be acute sensations).

That physical changes in state (e.g. food in the belly) alter mental states (e.g. hunger) counts as evidence for the point of view that subjectivity is the result of objective processes in the brain or digestion (Aristotle’s idea of a psyche encompasses corporeality more generally than the Cartesian one).

When people die and the brain stops emitting brain waves, their consciousness surely stops as well. Surely Wittgenstein is in no position to disagree. Surely none of these “ philosophical problems” have been “dissolved” as his disciples sometimes claim. Mere thought experiments won’t wish them away.

I’d say Adam has a lot of work ahead of him, when it comes to hammering out useful patterns, useful games. We want to make advances in medicine and psychology. We want to better understand how our consciousness might be altered and controlled. Collectively, as humans, we have many hopes and dreams on that score.

Some even hope for science to offer a form immortality, such as by “uploading consciousness” into an actual basement computer, perhaps with a robotic avatar controlled by wifi, with which one might continue moving about in the world. That’s science fiction many are hoping will turn into a future reality.

I think one way in which Wittgenstein helps with our philosophical projects is in showing how similar understanding language is to understanding music. He came from a deeply musical family and his philosophical musings are replete with references to musical compositions, specific passages. He’s always humming to himself and making remarks. He stands out, as a philosopher, in how much he thinks in this way.

When you hum a well-known tune to yourself, or sometimes even just hear a new one, you know how to continue it, or think of ways it might go on. To the extent we understand music, we’re likely to have strong opinions about what constitutes a melody. Are philosophers a kind of musician then?

We already have two words for Adam, “Adam” and “Language”. Lets add “the Music Box” as a third meme. We might think of vocal chords as violins, and written language as a kind of musical notation.

When we read, we know what to sing. When we stare at a written notation we can’t decipher (that would be ordinary music notation for a lot of us), we then have no idea what to play on the violin (and not just because we haven’t learned the violin yet — we would need to learn to read music first (although many of us already have that reading skill)).

Wittgenstein reminds us that when we say “think” or “understand”, there’s really no point in pausing to somehow mentally nod to the phenomenon in question. Individual notes do not communicate complex melodies.

The word “understanding” needs to be brought back to a more concrete situation where we witness learning what “understanding” means. We study shorter musical passages as it were, fragments, examples. Wittgenstein’s philosophical investigations have this character, this flavor. If you wish to understand the meaning of a word, play through some simple examples showing that word in action.

We come to see “understanding” has to do with “following rules” meaning “knowing” the rules i.e. knowing the game. That game quickly becomes our whole language, in that in reality all these language games are interdependent. One concept leads to many others. Opportunities for further investigation always present themselves, which is why Wittgenstein is focused on technique more than on pursuing his philosophical enterprise to exhaustion. His goal: clarity of thought, perspicuity. Philosophical thinking is continually muddying the waters. He is offering a kind of therapy.

Note: the things I’m saying here about Wittgenstein’s philosophy have been said countless times before. My intention, in echoing other commentators, is to give the flavor of a larger literature. You could say I’m joining with a choir, whether or not I’m preaching to it.

We might call these linguistic machinations “mental processes” if we like, but again, there’s maybe nothing to be gained (except for confusions) if we keep pausing to watch ourselves “knowing” how to read music, as if “knowing” were a fleeting and subtle event that goes by quickly. Even if brain chemistry is involved, is it “knowing” we should seek on a brain scan? Is the sense of our music somehow “in” the violin?

I know the capital of such and such a country is such and such a city whether I’m thinking about said country or city at the moment (I haven’t settled on one yet, but know that I could if pinned down).

We have no way of surveying “everything we know” in an instant. We wouldn’t know where to begin. In what sense is “knowing” a “mental process” we might observe introspectively? Perhaps in no sense at all?

Those who’ve read a lot of Wittgenstein are already familiar with such questions. “Surely when I refer to the color red I mean this color (at which point I might point to something red).” Philosophers do that kind of thing all the time. Doing things like that is related to what we mean by “doing philosophy”.

Philosophy is a peculiar (specific) kind of music, one might put it. When Adam processes in this way, we might think “that’s how language sounds when pressed into doing philosophy!”. The Music Box comes with a “philosophy channel”. We recognize the melodies.

Some philosophers think Wittgenstein is somehow denying subjectivity. They mistakenly connect his thinking to behaviorism, which appears to suggest only “operational” definitions make any sense. “I say you’re in pain because I recognize the behaviors.” However Wittgenstein isn’t saying that. We don’t learn to recognize pain from our own behaviors either. That’s just not how the language game works.

True, we know people might be in pain and not show it. We know they might be good at concealing their pain level in some cases. We develop the image of a “secret thing” inside some box, and we’re each privy to what’s in the box.

That analogy becomes very persuasive and guides how the language evolves.

We each have a “mental theater” (box) on which we each watch a “mental play” (our inner life, our thoughts and feelings). The metaphor is compelling, and more than a metaphor, once ingrained.

What Wittgenstein is saying, in my interpretation, is the way our experiences get encoded in language is not in any direct “names point to objects” manner. Adam (Language) is not in need of (has no use for) subjective referents.

As violins, as players of “Adam channel” programs, we interweave and associate our experiences with the music, but not in such a way that any of the “notes” (words) need to “point” to anything. The image of pain plays a role, certainly (Wittgenstein uses that word), but might we as well say “as more language”?

Why do we say “language on the one hand, not-language on the other?” or is that what we say? Now we’re starting to sound a little Zen like.

The number 3 does not point; we just use it in various ways. A pawn in chess does not point, even though we might point to a pawn.

The sensations I’m subjectively nodding to, and the fear of mortality that might be associated with those sensations, are not at the other end of some pointing stick. Another reader might think of a different sensation, and is “fear of mortality” always the same? What sort of answer might we expect? How might the melody go here? People hum different phrases.

Adam is processing, not pointing, even if “pointing” is a game we sometimes play. How does pointing work? How does “the moon” point to the moon? What if it’s a picture of the moon. Does a depicted moon point to the real moon? Maybe it’s a science fiction moon, out of someone’s imagination?

Philosophers often conveniently forget how much of language is devoted to fiction, including science fiction. How is it that we refer to fictional characters i.e. characters that don’t exist? What makes our own character non-fictional? Aren’t we all storytellers when it comes to narrating our own lives?

“Existence” would seem quite far from a prerequisite for “meaningfulness” when it comes to how these concepts work together. We could dive in to more investigations, of simpler language games (perhaps invented), if we sense there’s more confusion here.

Because we can point to actors on a stage, we imagine we’re pointing with words when we use them. But are we? Do I point to some “I” when I say “I”? Do I always do this? How does one “mentally nod” to the nodder? Hello Alan Watts.

In sum, what Wittgenstein aims to disrupt, is what a philosopher might call the “naive correspondence theory of language”. He’s suggesting language gets its meaning from other than pointing into some private universe, running parallel to all the others.

Sure, we might speak of humans as parallel universes, running alongside one another, partially overlapping (yet never really touching?). I can’t be you, you can’t be me. However such music doesn’t bring Language any closer to being able to point to such a universe, as if from the outside.

Adam is there on the terminal, blinking, like a prompt on the screen. But how does the terminal point to itself? How does the uncarved block carve itself?

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