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Wittgenstein’s Legacy: The Principles of the Private Language Arguments (2018) (doi.org)
106 points by tokyoseb 4 months ago | hide | past | web | favorite | 54 comments

If you’d like to read Wittgenstein but don’t know where to start I would recommend reading “How to read Wittgenstein” by Ray Monk, as an introduction before moving to “Philosophical Investigation” (rather than starting with his first book, the Tractatus, which is really cryptic). I saw this advice on another HN thread a while ago and for me it was it spot on. I also read Ray Monk’s bio of Wittgenstein but found it a lot less interesting.

I can’t pretend I understood 100% of his Philosophical Investigations but it definitely made me see things differently. I like his approach to try to “turn unobvious nonsense into obvious nonsense” and show that a lot of the seemingly “natural” ideas we rely on to describe our mental activity rest on very shaky grounds.

I’ll let professional philosophers try to peel apart every nuance of the Investigations. It is a thoroughly enjoyable and approachable—if not chaotich—book for anyone used to reading academic papers in CS, math, or linguistics. The topic is deeply scrutinizing our everyday language, especially language about mental states. He is a very persuasive and poetic writer. Some excerpts:

- To utter a word is to strike a note on the keyboard of the imagination.

359. Could a machine think? ... Well is the human body to be considered such a machine? It surely comes as close as possible to being such a machine.

583. ... And the word “hope” refers to a phenomenon of human life. (A smiling mouth smiles only in a human face.)

When I first read about Wittgenstein in some junior encyclopedia, it said that he discovered that many problems in philosophy were meaningless because words might mean different things. I imagined he was talking about words like "socialism" or "equality" -- words that are obviously slippery. But it turns out that words like "is" and "have" cause just as much trouble.

Wittgenstein is famously hard to read. I have the book (translated by a group including the author of this article) with side-side German-English text, the better to puzzle over his more inscrutable pronouncements. But this article is worth your time.

Wittgenstein somehow managed to suck all of western philosophy into his head and came up with this. I don't think it's necessary for us to follow in his footsteps to realize the truth of what he's saying; this is much like we don't have to understand thermodynamics to build a campfire, even though we're using a lot of its principles. He can be "right enough" for our purposes, which is ironically the point of much of his work.

The good news is that humans are little language-creating monsters; so much so that we do it all the time without realizing it. (This is one of the reasons Wittgenstein's conclusions were so notoriously hard for us to reach. Whenever anybody got close, we without-realizing-it created new usages and kept on going. It wasn't until the self-contradictions reached almost crisis levels and there was enough thought put on paper that we could step back and see what we were doing)

Not only do "is" and "have" cause trouble, they can have multiple meanings at multiple levels between the same two closely-knit people in the same social context. A lot of comedy is prefaced on two people who know each other really well getting mixed up on what one word might mean.

Wittgenstein somehow managed to suck all of western philosophy into his head and came up with this.

That's not true if you mean it in the literal sense, that he was a student of philosophy. He really wasn't; he hadn't read much philosophy (having been an engineer/mathematician), but he did jump in and criticize contemporary ideas and managed to very much impress Bertrand Russell, who became his mentor. Later in his life, towards his final days, he did start to read philosophy from the ground up, like an undergrad or grad student would.[1]

What's amusing is that he wrote the Tractatus, then "retired" from philosophy, believing he'd solved it all, before getting back into it again and producing Philosophical Investigations. During this time I believe he was either a monk or a teacher and gardener.

1 - Source for this is a talk given by Professor A C Grayling at Cambridge University (on YouTube) about Wittgenstein's life

What does it mean for Wittgenstein's philosophy to be true in light of his analysis of philosophy, since truth is one of those heavily scratched philosophical itches?

Wittgenstein has noticed a common pattern among sentient beings such that knowledge of that pattern leads to accomplishing goals that otherwise could not be accomplished.

I'll give you that for "truth". We could poke further; we would just get a bigger bowl of word salad.

The value is in the application. At the risk of sounding like Yoda, this is like walking into a large hall with other people and noticing that really good dance music is playing. People are moving around the dance floor. So you say to your partner "This is great!" and being dancing.

What's great about it? "There is a pattern of activity that I find pleasing that I can join in and feel as if I am accomplishing something of value"

Except in Wittgenstein's case, all the people were dancing, but they were all dancing to different songs and in their own invented way of dancing. Now there's nothing wrong with inventing your own songs and dance moves, mind you, but Wittgenstein was the guy that pointed out that this was what was happening.

And now we being discussing "Can we all listen to the same music", and "Who likes Jazz?", and so forth. We've opened up a new class of exploration that didn't exist before.

My guess is that Wittgenstein thought that either you'd play the music loudly enough and one dance would win (unlikely), or that it was impossible for such a large group to agree to much of anything, from the genre of music to the types of moves that looked cool. (more likely) But then you get into even more interesting issues, like how large of a group can agree on anything, what does it mean to agree on language, and so forth. We've joined the social to the philosophical in a way that had never been done before. I could go on at length, and probably would. I'd love to drag Kuhn and Popper into this. I apologize for being so wordy.

> What does it mean for Wittgenstein's philosophy to be true in light of his analysis of philosophy...

I think you have to pull your question apart in to two implications of "truth". There is a "ground truth" question (from plato's shadows on through today) which is not addressed in this essay.

But there's an epistemological enquiry that is at least as important, which is into the validity of our internal states and reasoning/justifications. Search down to the discussion starting with "We are, when philosophizing about experience and its objects, mesmerized by the analogy between having a chattel and having an experience." The author is referring to the deep analogies we quickly use to reason about things and how they can immediately lead us astray, often irrecoverably.

This problem is made worse by the internal private languages we each develop: I generate my utterances in the desire to induce some mental state within you; you respond similarly. What model and process do I use to convince myself that I have adequately induced that state in you? That's also an important sense of "truth"

I don't think the problems are meaningless because words might have different meanings, but because problems are often posed as if the words can't have multiple meanings so questions are often arranged in a way such that any reasonable solution will end up contradicting the meaning of words in the question.

IMO, the best thing to take away from Wittgenstein is that he understood how words acquire meaning -- through usage in context -- and that two people can think they are talking about the same thing but if there is any difference in how they use the terms, or any variation in what contexts they consider them appropriate, then they cannot be talking about the same thing, because they aren't using the words the same way in the same context.

Learning language is like learning a certain kind of morality: which words are 'proper' to use in which order, situation, etc. (And you can always find stark disagreement where any moralities diverge.) The wisdom of all this is to instead focus on where people have agreement, by establishing shared definitions, axioms, or even participation in activities. These kinds of things are 'meaning multipliers'.

Well, Aristotle showed this very thing when talking about “being”, “cause”, “effect”, etc.

Is is a shame that Greek philosophers are thought of as “old” when analytic philosophy is more or less what Aristotle did (when doing philosophy).

> When I first read about Wittgenstein in some junior encyclopedia, it said that he discovered that many problems in philosophy were meaningless because words might mean different things.

That's how I've always intuitively felt about the Ship of Theseus thought experiment. It only seems paradoxical when people try to apply imprecise language to a precise situation. The way I see it, it's technically a new ship with every part that gets replaced. Nothing unusual about it.

> It only seems paradoxical when people try to apply imprecise language to a precise situation.

Yes, but the very notion of precise language is more elusive than at first glance. It could be argued that every language is necessarily imprecise.

It's unusual because our ordinary language does not talk about objects being new with every change. The ship that sets sails is supposed to be the same ship that returns. And yet change is part of life. Everything undergoes change, as Heraclitus noted a long time ago. So why do we talk so imprecisely about objects as if they have permanence? Why is it the same river the next time we step in it?

> So why do we talk so imprecisely about objects as if they have permanence? Why is it the same river the next time we step in it?

Why do most languages allow variables to mutate, rather than forcing us to write in static single assignment style?

Because it is useful; the imprecise name still communicates something of value to both parties: that variable foo and variable foo', although not identical, are joined by a common purpose.

>So why do we talk so imprecisely about objects as if they have permanence? Why is it the same river the next time we step in it?

Because the concept of river describes a body of water in flow starting from and passing through specific geographical locations.

Those all remain, even if the water at any point X of the river changes...

Those all undergo change as well. In context of the parent, any change whatsoever results in a new object. Which was the point of Heraclitus not being able to step in the same river twice. It's all flux.

That's what motivated Plato and Kant to come up with their philosophical responses to the flux. One with eternal forms and the other with categories of thought.

>Those all undergo change as well

And we are free to disregard small changes, like we do everywhere.

I'm aware of Heraclitus' thought (and other pre-socratics, Aristotle, Plato, Kant, Hegel, and many others besides) but it's not a binding observation (that one should fell compelled to respond by resolving some great paradox).

"Yeah, the river undergoes small changes all the time, and bigger changes from time to time. Still enough remains common for us that we still don't care and will call it by the same name, what are you gonna do about it?" is a nice common sense response...

Right, but the paradox is that a bunch of inconsequential changes lead to major changes over time, such as the ship being replaced plank by plank until it has none of the original material.

> Why is it the same river the next time we step in it?

Maybe because the river bed is more or less still the same location. Location is important for mapping the environment.

>The way I see it, it's technically a new ship with every part that gets replaced. Nothing unusual about it.

That's still unusual because we don't consider a house a "new house" if we replace the door or rebuild a wall or whatever. We don't consider a person a new person when we e.g. give them an artificial leg. We also never consider a ship a "new ship" when we replace a part of the ship. Not instinctively, not casually, and nor "technically" (e.g. as far as the law is concerned).

So not sure why you think there's "nothing unusual about it", and what's your solution. You merely picked a side to a two-sided paradox, you didn't solve it...

So are you technically a different person when your every cell is replaced?

One may argue you are a different person even once some of your cells are replaced.

I imagine your next question might be whether you owe something to now-me if you were to take a loan from a previous-me.

This looks like a pair of mirror bugs. Yeah, the person is already a new one, but if we'd really treat them that way, we'd have to make our laws and morals even more complex. Instead, we just pretend that's the same person.

These are excellent, very much open questions.

I mostly wanted to point to the parent comment and say, "Things are not quite so pat." I should have explicitly said so.

Sometimes I think paradoxes exist to teach us that many things are not precisely true or false.

So, one grain of sand is a heap?

If one cell is enough, than one atom is enough and so on. Then, nothing's really the same. But we use this notion because it's convenient, so we're back at the beginning.

>So, one grain of sand is a heap?

"Is a single grain a heap" doesn't look like a paradox to me. A "heap" is just a word with an ambiguous definition. Once you define it, you'll have your answer :)

>Then, nothing's really the same

If that was the case, intelligence would've been impossible. We need similarities as well as the differences to be able to compare things (including abstract concepts)

>I imagined he was talking about words like "socialism" or "equality" -- words that are obviously slippery.

Even if this were necessarily true, it wouldn't make philosophizing about them useless; for instance, as slippery as the term 'equality' may be, it's also clear (except for 18th century French philosopher Babeuf) that it doesn't literally mean that everyone in society is allocated and has access to an equal amount of resources.

In my own experience talking about these concepts, much greater confusion and misunderstanding comes from simply not reading the source material, rather than the words having potentially different meanings. Most people (including some socialists) talk about socialism without having read just what its foremost proponents (and critics of their own socialism) have to say.

My favorite self-quote: technology development is applied philosophy. Wittgenstein taught it; we're the people living it.

When philosophy and science existed mostly as words handed from one generation to the next in written form, it was possible to amass enough of a web of meaning for any one general field for a body of practitioners to gain useful applicable knowledge for the rest of humanity. But as philosophers found out early enough, and the sciences are learning too, it's also possible to create not only webs but islands of meaning, such that localized progress can appear to be made without having any impact, positive or negative, on mankind as a whole. We mind our knitting so well that nothing ever gets knitted.

We technology developers have this problem; but we not only have it, we have had it over and over again with each new domain we absorb. We start with (spoken) languages, jargon, and cultural knowledge, combine various tribes together, create a mezzanine language among ourselves, then translate all of that into math. Hopefully it's provable, rock-solid math. But however we do it, we deal with mapping ideas to bits.

In the history of mankind, nobody else has ever had the job of doing that over and over again across dozens or hundreds of domains. Instead, the typical approach was to become good in one domain, then continue to specialize. In this sense, technology solution development is applied polymathematics.

Because of that, it's been really interesting watching the tech community interact with the academy. I don't think there's much love lost on either side most days, but both groups have important things to offer the other. I've seen several attempts to formally bridge the gap, but it's usually done through some quasi-formal symbolic system such as UML. The light hasn't come on yet. We are getting close, though, as it's a hoot to watch.

History nerd note: when Wittgenstein first began down this road and realized the impact of what he was doing, he announced that he had "solved philosophy". Philosophy was no longer something that needed work. This had to have driven Russell bananas; as he was trying to "solve" it by going down an almost diametrically-opposite path.

While natural languages and mathematics are two important formalisms by which technologists communicate, it seems to me that we also use a much broader set of visual symbolic systems. These include tables of data in various formats and figures that incorporate drawings, diagrams, charts, pictures and videos. These are now as important as the text and formulas. Problems with tables and figures are one of the main reasons for retractions.

It seems that philosophers like Wittgenstein deal with all text communications (like a law book) or at most with text and formulas (like a math book). It not clear how their work relates to something such as a complex, detailed structure diagram of a molecule like a enzyme, such as are frequently published.

I'm using the term "mathematics" in a deliberately hand-wavy fashion because people keep wanting to poke at this from various angles and even though the underlying theory is the same, it can appear that you are receiving different answers simply because you are asking the question from different epistemological frameworks. There's a reason Wittgenstein was the man and I'm not.

If you like, we can assume that different numbers have a concrete, discrete meaning. We can then add commutation and association, maybe induction. At some point, however far down the rabbit hole we want to go, these numbers in a table represent some physical thing: six apples or whatever. These diagrams and other visuals represent some tangible, agreed-upon thing: a diagram of an enzyme, perhaps.

The mapping of various calculii to either physical things or commonly-held concepts is not on the table here. The point is that the concepts themselves can have subtly-different meanings for any two practitioners or observers. A doctor in the middle ages may check your humeurs and a modern nurse may check you blood pressure. Imagining for a second that both operations look similar, even though you may have the same number, you have a completely different understanding of what those numbers mean.

So whatever formal rules of mathematics you'd like to have, and whatever visuals or measurements you'd like to take or produce, the end goal is analysis or language creation around a shared interest. If I hold up a coconut and want to trade it, then you make some odd sound, it means nothing. But then if you hold up two bananas, we may be beginning to converse and exchange meaning. (In this case by way of commerce, but this is just one example of thousands) The visuals enable higher-bandwidth conversations. Do I then think that 1=2, since I had one coconut and you had 2 bananas? I might. I might not. If we're from completely different cultures we have a lot more work to do.

That's an obvious example, the deeper and much more profound truth is that the same thing can happen with a vapor trail in a particle accelerator. I'm reminded of John Wheeler's idea that maybe there's only one electron in the entire universe. Once the web of meaning reaches some degree of complexity, the human brain shuts down and stops evaluating all the possible alternative meaning paths; we are not aware of this. In our mind we've thought through everything and are sitting on top of thousands of years of received wisdom. It has always been like this.

So yes, they are much, much more important than text or formulas, but they're more important because they assist us in the drive for common language creation. Frankly, many times they do a much better job than the others. But the job in both cases is the same.

I will make another stupid analogy. Ever see the scintillating grid optical illusion?[1] It looks like you can see every other black dot except the one you're looking directly at. Meaning is similar in that whatever the concept under observation, it appears like some analysis can work out the problems. The other ones, farther away, don't need any work. They're all set in stone. But then, given time, when you look at those, you realize that no, actually there's some problems over here. That area you were looking at before? That's all fixed now.

The lesson here is that there is a cognitive limit to the things that you can simultaneously ponder about their meaning, relationships, and relevance to any one situation. After that limit, it's all just "common knowledge" or received wisdom. It has to be this way. (no time to go into why). But then you realize that it's all a web, we're all living in our own constructed grid that's different, and the goal is to align both the concepts under observation and the "given" concepts among several of us such that we can erect a language scaffold sturdy enough to make progress towards some common goal.

I know that sucks, but that's the best I've got in ten minutes. Hope it helped. There's an entirely other conversation about how we construct these grids, how we share them, and more importantly why this is a feature of sentience and not just a stupid primate trick. No time for that.

1. https://www.illusionsindex.org/i/scintillating-grid

Apparently the ideas and mental concepts in one person's brain are roughly similar to those in another's, at least similar enough so that common sets of symbols, semantics, and syntax can be agreed such that communication is possible. The fact that various observers get the same impression of the scintillating grid is evidence for some commonality, although I think that in this case it arises from processing in the retina.[1]

I don't see how this obviates the possibility that individuals can have a private language that is in principle not understandable by others, per Wittgenstein. Consider an oenophile who has a most sensitive palate, and who can describe a wine using a whole set of adjectives that are meaningless to most and which must only vaguely represent the actual sensations being enjoyed by the expert. The expert may have a whole internal vocabulary, and due to imprecision of terms, one expert's internal vocabulary may be different from all others. You could say the same for perfumers, cheese mongers, color experts and others who have extraordinary powers of sensation, and which well might be unique to the individual. And the internal language of the individual may not be intelligible by any other because their olfactory or retinal apparatus may not be exactly alike.

I also suspect that this applies to conceptualization as well as sensation. Quite possibly Einstein's internal language was unique to him.

[1]There was an excellent MOOC on the visual system. "Light, Spike, & Sight: The Neuroscience of Vision" - https://courses.edx.org/courses/MITx/9.01x/3T2014/course/

The universe, fortunately, has a plethora of similarities, such that some basic edge detection and a bit of neural net work in the retinal layers, combined with a bit of proprioception correlation, provides an enormous amount of 90%+ confidence-level shared realities, or at least a good enough fake. Just not 100%. GANS are doing a great job of showing us that not even all of that is required to begin the "faking-out" process.

But the illusion here is the same: that given this natural input we begin processing before birth, that these concepts extend to completely invented terms. Most folks never look there, they never wonder why a car is called a car, and there's no downside at all. It's a pernicious concept and a wickedly-difficult thing to eventually realize.

I don't see where we disagree. The only thing I'd add is that whether you have a completely private language or not, in terms of problem-solving/goal-seeking, is not important. For non-formal, non-tech things, using common words and gestures provides the quickest way forward. Once you start creating a self-consistent system of symbols representing state and behavior, though, you might actually be better off if everybody has completely different private languages. The illusion of common understanding where there is none is more dangerous than misunderstanding. There are no red lights or sirens that go off when human communication failures happen. It's all silence. It could be no other way.

I don't really understand the main argument of this comment. Can someone help me out?

Philosophers and programmers both take hazy cultural ideas and turn them into rulesets.

But to such different ends that the resemblance is very strained, surely? Programmers look to make an approximately useful tool, Philosophers look to discover fundamentals and insights.

But useful tools are built on fundamentals by way of insights.

I disagree. Tools are just based on what is possible and what seems to work. No deep understanding is necessary.

Text messages turned out to be a great tool, created more or less by accident and intended for a completely different purpose.

Twitter is something no-one asked for, but it changed the very landscape of mass communication. Its more like a tool that has shaped the world around it.

Wikipedia is a fantastic tool. It was essentially created on a hunch, that a crowd-sourced encyclopedia would work. Deep analysis of the fundamentals of knowledge and how people work together to shape it was not necessary for it to be built. It was more like 'this is possible, lets try it'.

The internet is basically layers of hacks, each bent to a different purpose from the original design. If you try to design something like the internet and make it philosophically pure, you end up with Project Xanadu. Which doesn't work.

Facebook's model of how human friendships work is laughably simplistic - binary on/off friend/unfriend. There's no insight there. If the Social Network is to be believed, Zuckerberg's main insight was to build something that would help harvard students get laid. But still, Facebook works as a tool. Google Plus tried to have a more accurate model of relationships, and made it too complicated. Perhaps insight is a disadvantage? A good tool should be about the possible.

Your opinion of what an insight is is much too narrow.

"Mezzanine language". Now that is a wonderful evocative phrase. Wittgenstein would approve. Thanks!

Not to diminish Wittgenstein’s influence, quite the contrary, but I for one first heard about the idea of a “private language” while reading the works of Wilhelm von Humboldt [1], written around the 1830s (so about a century before Wittgenstein). I remember Humboldt saying something along the lines of “at the limit, we each speak our own, private language”. I read his work in translation, as I don’t speak German, so I cannot tell how much of a direct overlap there is between von Humboldt and Wittgenstein in terms of the nomenclature they were both using.

[1] https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wilhelm_von_Humboldt

I don't think that anyone credits Wittgenstein with inventing the term 'private language'. Rather for the arguments/observations relating to the idea. He would not have agreed with the Humboldt remark you quoted.

Wittgenstein argues that there is no such thing as a private language.

Wittgenstein didn’t come come up with the idea of a “private language” but in his Philosophical Investigations he famously argued that the concept itself is nonsense (not via a single logical “proof” but using several thought experiments).

The idea that a private language exists (ie. ‘mentalese’) is taken for granted by a lot of authors. I recently read Stephen Pinker’s book The Language Instinct and he never seemed to doubt the concept for instance.

I have not read Pinker so I don’t have a good idea of what he meant by “mentalese”, but Humboldt was using the concept of “private language” more on the lines of two different people having different “understandings” (for a lack of a better word) for concepts bearing the sama name. For example when I think of a “red apple” I might think of a different thing compared to when you think of a “red apple” on your turn (leaving aside the issue that we still need to settle on what “thing” from the previous sentence actually means).

I must admit that I last read some Wittgenstein about 15 years ago, but even so, I don’t find that this understanding of what a “private language” really means is that far off from his writings. If anything, it completely invalidates the 2000-year old platonic “ideas”, as me and you thinking of different things when presented with the words “red apple” practically means that there is no underlying “red” or “apple” idea behind those concepts. That is something very valuable, Plato’s interpretation being debunked, that is.

>practically means that there is no underlying “red” or “apple” idea behind those concepts. That is something very valuable, Plato’s interpretation being debunked, that is.

This is one of my favorite parts in a fictional book Anathem. The question of syntax and semantics is explored there, and even a solution is suggested.

> So the resultant sentence, for example ‘I know I am in pain’, is nonsense

I found this amusing. It's definitely possible to not know one is in pain.

> And if that were so, it would be possible for me to make a mistake about whether I am in pain or not, and it would be possible for me to doubt whether I am in pain, but not to be sure. But none of these are genuine possibilities. So, this route is closed.

But they are, though. I think anyone who has suffered from chronic pain and/or dissociation has experienced these 'impossibilities'. I think this might be beside the point of the argument, that the author chose a naive working example that makes sense to him, but I need to further think about what it means to say "I was in pain" a while after asking myself "Am I in pain?" likewise "I wasn't in pain". It seems to me that the arguments laid out here rest on a transparency of language that doesn't actually exist.

> But it does not describe an impossibility either – for a logical or mathematical impossibility is not a possibility that is impossible. The sequence of words has been shown to have no sense – to be a nonsense.

Ok, but if something is nonsense, i.e. nothing, then it has no meaning. But the demonstration of an impossibility theorem in mathematics most definitely has non-trivial meaning. It is not obvious that you can't trisect the angle, and there is a minimally complex way to obtain the result which is certainly more complex than, say, the impossibility of 1 = 2 in the integers. But if they're both nonsense (i.e. nothing, as the author says), then I can't ascribe this complexity of proving their impossibility to them, for I would be able to make some sense of nonsense.

Now, even in most constructive logics there is no sense ascribed to a theorem of "A => 0", but this, in my opinion, should be considered a flaw in logic, the absurd does have meaning! No one thinks that Wiles proved that nonsense was nonsense, an immediately obvious statement. Nonsense can appear as sense for so long that you would never know it was any different.


I think my rumination above as I read are very shallow (and I have spared y'all from many more), but I have been wanting to read Wittgenstein for quite some time now and I think this writing will motivate me to do it sooner. At the very least Wittgenstein is irresistible to engage with. I think one of my main problems is with the reliance on logical possibility as fully coherent.

For those who enjoy Wittgenstein, I highly recommend the works of one his greatest students - Elizabeth Anscombe. Possibly one of the most prominent women philosophers of all time.

Thank you for the Recommendation. I have read little of Wittgenstein, but he is on my "to be read" list. I had a quite brilliant but ne'er-do-well friend who opened by eyes to so many great authors and philosophers: Herman Hesse, Idries Shah ( story teller?), Doris Lessing, and quite a few others. These little nudges on HN get me back to reading content more worthwhile than what I am bombarded with in other venues.

This works only if one accepts that philosophical problems (itches) can be dissolved by analyzing ordinary language use to find out where philosophers, scientists or lay people have abused language to create the problem. One example the article gives is of failing to notice the disanalogy of people hiding thoughts behind the curtains of their faces.

> Then someone reports what he thinks, he is neither describing what he thinks, nor is he describing anything he sees.

So what is the person describing? If I was thinking it would be nice to take a break and walk around, and you ask what I was thinking, so I tell you we should take a break to stretch our legs, am I not telling you what I was thinking? This sounds like a denial that I was thinking anything at all in order to block objections to the private language argument that we do have private thoughts and feelings we can tell other people about.

Maybe the "disanalogy" came about because people do have thoughts which are only made public upon telling others. We're not a telepathic species, and I'm as sure about thinking as I am about anything else in experience, including the world and other people.

"This has dramatic implications. For it immediately illuminates venerable puzzles concerning what non-human animals can think or experience, and whether they can reason or act for reasons. It sheds no less light on the question of whether machines can think, or whether we shall be able, sometime in the future, to make machines that can think. It is not surprising that Wittgenstein exclaimed ‘How much one must be able to do before one can be said to think’. It has equally dramatic consequences for theology, both for the belief that we survive, bodilessly, after death and for the idea that there can be a supreme thinking being that has no body."

Wittgentein's ideas have echoes and deep relationships with modern subjects like cognitive science and artificial intelligence (and sensitive ones, like religion and beliefs in the supernatural). In the case of AI, what is interesting is that his ideas do not discuss whether it's possible or not to create a thinking machine (i.e. technically or scientifically), but rather what it would really mean (conceptually).

For someone so obsessed with language, I never understood why his writing is so cryptic. I haven't read the original, but in translation, his writing seems almost purposefully ambiguous. To people here versed in philosophy, was there really a purpose for this? Could his ideas not have been expressed more clearly or explicitly?

The less clearly you write, the more chance you give people to read in your texts what they want to see there. And then they will feel good about you having the same opinion.

Someone expressing himself clearly would not become so famous.

Can you forgive me if I take this opportunity to share a link to the brilliant Avantgarde artist M. A. Numminen singing Wittgenstein?


A professor of mine once referred to Wittgenstein as "Bertrand Russel, through a mirror darkly". I like the analogy, and wonder which of the two it would have annoyed more.

The older I get, and the more I read Wittgenstein, the more I am astonished that we are able to convey ideas to each other other all. Language is lossy, and perilous.

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