Saturday, April 01, 2006

Language Games

Good lord, people! I leave you alone for a few days, and a war about words breaks out! It might take me several posts to sort through this all, but, seeing as how I actually wrote several hundred pages about language, I have something to say on this subject.

First off, I do not regard language as separate from practice, any more than I regard mind as separate from body. They are intertwined, at a deep, meaningful level, and efforts to extricate one from the other (classically, in a Cartesian fashion), are only going to make your head hurt. (You'll also notice that I'm talking about language, rather than only words: I think that glances, and acts, and so on, are every bit as meaningful as words.) The last line of the Tractatus that I quoted below is, in my opinion, the beginning of Wittgenstein's later and much more powerful work, the Philosophical Investigations. In the Investigations, Wittgenstein introduces the concept of "language games," by which he means language and the actions into which the language is woven, and throughout, he shows how we interweave language, practice, meaning, and judgment as we live our lives. In the Tractatus he tried to systematize language; he had been working with Bertrand Russell, and the idea of having language be as precise as numbers apparently were was very appealing to both of them, at least for awhile. (I suspect that Kurt Goedel's work would have been problematic for them, and maybe Heisenberg's too, while we're at it.)

After finishing the Tractatus, LW went off to teach schoolchildren somewhere, and, after watching how they learned, decided that the Tractatus was flawed, or wrong, or incomplete. ( I don't really know what HE thought of it; I see it as a kind of failed experiment, and one can learn from those as well as from "successful" experiments.) When he got back down to it, he started trying to elaborate the ways we use language, rather than trying to simplify language down to a mathematical or model-like (and, therefore, knowable) quantity. I'm not going to explicate the whole thing for you, but the Investigations basically enables one to see, and, in some ways, exploit, the dynamic, embedded nature of our language and language games. (By "exploit" I mean specifically "exploit for social science purposes.")

What does this have to do with the fight that broke out? First off, I think that words can, in fact, create reality, and in a short period of time, though I understand your point, Larry. I think that, in our personal lives, giving voice to something, naming something, can be a very powerful act--even if not everyone agrees about the name. However, I do not think words ARE our reality; words are embedded in practice, and vice versa. I do not think that there is a single ultimate reality: I really do think that, for deists, the world has gods, and that my world does not. We can agree about many other cosmological questions, but to try to argue a god or gods into or out of existence, well, that's another enterprise. (I had another friend who thought there was only one reality, but that we were only capable of imperfect, if shared, representations of it, and I can live with that view, at least up to most points.)

kStyle, thanks for the Lao Tzu; that was quite nice. I think that Asian texts, like that one, aren't so dissimilar in important ways from, say, church ritual in Europe--praying the rosary is probably not so different from other forms of prayer and meditation, for example. What I think many of those techniques do--whether or not there's a deity involved--is enable one to access some of the other information we take in on a daily basis. That is, there are more data out there, around us, flooding us, than we can consciously sort; we learn to sort it, and disregard this part or that part, and to pay special attention to this other thing, in order to make our way at all in the world. (Disorders on the autism spectrum seem to have to do with a flaw in that system, i.e., people with autism spectrum disorders have tremendous difficulty sorting and, especially, learning to ignore some stimuli.) But our sorting comes at a price: we may miss something that's important, because we've taught ourselves not to see it, and sometimes we're lazy, too. I think it's why so many people want a drug to treat their stress: that seems easier than exercise and diet change, for example. Our bodies are sending us messages, and we ignore those messages at our peril--even as we have to ignore some or many of them, or we become insufferable hypochondriacs.

And I'm still a fan of pragmatism, no matter one's spiritual take on any matter. I find that figuring out what the next thing to do is, and then doing it, is useful, and it often distracts one from too much thinking. It's why any kind of work is useful, and meaningful or sufficiently complicated work is even better. One runs the risk of doing the wrong thing, of course, or doing something badly, but, at least for me, it beats sitting and stewing. As I've been saying, the croissants won't make themselves.

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