Thomistic-Wittgensteinian Concept Formation and a Problem For Naturalism

I’m reading Haldane’s and Smart’s debate, ‘Atheism and Theism’, and Haldane makes an interesting point regarding what he takes to be a problem for a materialist/naturalistic metaphysic – that of our formation of abstract and universal concepts – such as square or triangularity. He gives a quick look at the two more traditional options – innatism, where concepts are just, as the name suggests, innate. We’re just born with them.The other option is abstraction – where, again as the name suggests, we abstract our concepts from our experience with objects. He notes problems for each: on innatism, how many concepts are we born with, and why that many? How did they get there? Are we born with the concept of both square and rectangle? Why or why not? On abstraction-ism, he cites Geach’s argument:

‘In the late 1950s Peter Geach produced a powerful argument against this latter thesis [abstraction-ism]. The suggestion that the concept square, say, is acquired by experiencing a variety of square objects and attending to their squarenss, while bracketing their other aspects, is absurd because in order to attend selectively to the squareness of square objects you must already have the concept square: attending to an instance of a feature F as such, is to exercise the concept f.’ (p. 102)

Haldane proceeds to give an answer along Wittgensteinian lines – basically, our concepts are neither innate nor abstracted but taught. The later Wittgenstein more or else held that our language and understanding (and one may reasonably assume concepts to fall under those two headings) are developed, taught and shaped by our actually participating in life and non-linguistic activities – against, say Augustine, Wittgenstein holds that the public is prior to the private in language. As we become part of a community, we learn and acquire language from the community – so our concepts aren’t innate, since we have to be participating in the life of the community, and they aren’t abstracted, since by the same token the concept wasn’t available until it was taught.

Haldane then ties Aquinas in thus:

‘In order for something like the Wittgensteinian explanation to work it has to be the case that the child has a prior disposition or potentiality to form concepts under appropriate influences; it also has to be the case that there is one that is itself already possessed of the concept. Alice will not pick up the meaning of the term ‘cat’ unless she has a relevant potentiality, unless the structure of her receptivity is of the right sort. By the same token, that potentiality will not be actualized except by an intellect that is already active in using the concept, her older brother James, for example…here I am forging a link with Wittgenstein’s linguistic communitarian account of the origins of thinking in the individual, and that suggests diving these aspects of the intellect, at least in the first instance, between the teacher and the taught. In these terms one may say that Alice’s intellect is receptive to, or potentially informed by, the concept cat, while the mind or intellect of James who has already mastered the use of the term is active with, or actually informed by this concept. In teaching Alice the word, James imparts the concept and thereby actualizes her potentiality. This picture grants something both to innatism and abstractionsim. One the one hand, in order to explain possession of concepts a native power has to be postulated; but on the other it is allowed that, in a sense, concepts are acquired through experience.’ (p. 103)

The dilemma that Haldane sees for naturalism can be roughly stated as follows: given that neither innatism or abstractionism provide an adequate account of our grasp and use of concepts, something like the Wittgensteinian picture must be the case so as to avoid the horns of the dilemma. But if the Wittgensteinian picture is the case, then we have a problem of infinite regress: if the explanation of Alice’s conceptual ability is explained by James’ ability, then James’ conceptual ability calls for an explanation, and then that explanation calls for an explanation, and so on and so on. While the Wittgensteinian picture escapes the innatism/abstractionism dilemma, it opens itself up to the charge of infinite regress unless it can be shown coherently how concept-formation may have arisen.

Haldane forsees a possible way out by arguing for a kind of ‘fading conceptuality’ history of language:

‘…no history of thought or language can be philosophically adequate if it tries to meet the genesis problem by postulating ‘fading conceptuality’. Though it is not put in there terms, or indeed very often discussed at all, something of this sort is presumably part of a naturalistic versiuon of Wittgenstein’s linguistic theory. On this account the history of concept-formation and use is the history of language; a history that leads us back to pre-lingustic activities, back further to pre-mental life, to pre-replicating life and ultimately to pre-animate matter…what needs to be accounted for is a natural transition from the non-conceptual to the conceptual and that is not the same distinction as one between degrees of conceptual complexity. Doubtless Stone Age cave dwellers made fewer and less abstract discriminations than a contemporary physicist, but that is irrelevant; the point is that the ability to make any general classifications is a conceptual power.’ (p. 106)

While this line of argument isn’t a bullet-proof argument against a naturalistic theory of concept-formation, there do seem to be some genuine difficulties here.

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Reading Notes 7/19/2014

I’ve almost exhausted the Lovecraft volume I have.  I’m not really sure which Lovecraft story has proven to be my favourite, though. Possibly ‘The Colour Out of Space.’ His use of ‘blasphemous’, ”unspeakable’, ‘unnameable’, and ‘infinite’, do get a bit old though – especially since it’s already difficult to picture exactly what is supposed to be so mind-numbingly horrifying. I’m gearing up to read Stephen King’s ‘The Stand’, now. Not just any old version, though – this is the unabridged and expanded version, coming in at roughly 1200 pages. I’ve started reading it (only about a dozen pages in so far) and I can already tell it’s going to take me a good minute to get through this one.

Earlier this week I started going through part of Torrance’s ‘Incarnation’, specifically the sections where he criticizes liberal theology (Bultmann primarily, but also Tillich, Schweitzer, Dodd, and others). As is par for the course, he’s incisive and occasionally devastating, though I do get the feeling that some of his criticisms are a bit overblown.

I started dipping back into Plantinga and Wolterstorff – ‘Where the Conflict Really Lies’ and ‘Warranted Christian Belief’, from the former and ‘Divine Discourse’ from the latter. WCB is just outstanding – as far as analytic philosophy goes, this is probably some of the better writing out there. Clear, balanced and to the point. Wolterstorff, though he’s one of my favourite philosophers (the breadth of his thought is very impressive, ranging from music, architecture, ontology, metaphysics, politics, human rights, justice, art and more) is not one of my favourite writers. He has a very dense, very academic style – if you don’t pay attention to every single line, you’ll likely get lost. His criticisms of Ricouer are pretty interesting -Wolterstorff argues that there’s no ‘sense of the text’, against Ricouer.

Along those lines, I bought the Plantinga/Wolterstorff volume ‘Faith and Rationality’, yesterday, which is where a lot of Reformed epistemology got worked out. Alston (and others of note) contribute(s) as well, and I’m looking forward to getting into it.

On Meaning, Words, Games, and Problems

I recently read a conversation on Facebook about the conscience – this conversation went on for a good many posts, but it was ultimately an exercise in time-wasting. Why? Because terms were not defined. Not once in the lengthy thread were the terms under consideration defined or even really discussed. This means that the conversation was basically about nothing. It may as well have not have happened.

Sure, that’s a bit extreme of me to say, but I say it to illustrate what I believe to be the most important thing you can do in life: define your terms. What does X really mean? So much of what is said has no meaning simply because meaning is assumed. Don’t assume that the word has some innate meaning, because it doesn’t. But, the objection goes, then everything just becomes (as I typed the word ‘becomes’ I saw that I had typed ‘because’ instead and had to erase it) word games. Yes! Exactly!

It should be no secret to readers of this blog that Wittgenstein is my favourite philosopher, not because he was ‘right’ or whatever, but because of his method – letting the fly out of the bottle by kneading and working through the fogs and mists of our language to show us that the problems of philosophy really aren’t problems at all. I’m convinced that most problems, and not just in philosophy, are problems of language and meaning. By this I don’t mean I’m a logical atomist. I mean that our words and language games do more to hinder us than help us when we try and get to the root of a problem and that if we work through the game, we can often get to the real nub of the issue – maybe even to a solution. Maybe not, though – I don’t believe that philosophy is necessarily about trying to get to a set of certain doctrines. But if we can simply clear away or clear up the conceptual ground, perhaps we can discover that there isn’t really a problem after all – maybe we’ll even find an answer.

Whence Meaning

Words don’t have any ‘innate meaning’, all meaning is given to words by us.

Hm, maybe. When we use a word, it’s not so much the word, the utterance, itself that we’re concerned with but with that to which the word refers, right? To paraphrase Russell, when I say that the sun is shining, I don’t mean that this sentence is logically tight or has no contradictions, but I mean that there is a thing, called the sun, which is shining.

Well, yeah. The actual word doesn’t matter, it’s just a sound we’ve attached meaning to. It stands for something else.

Right, so could we then say that a word has meaning because it refers to something beyond itself?

Yes.

Okay. So the actual sound, the actual utterance itself, is more or less beside the point. So a word has meaning if it refers to something – this seems to necessarily be the case. So a necessary condition for meaning is something beyond the word, right?

Right.

Okay, so then meaning isn’t given to a word by us, but by that to which it refers?

Hold on. Words aren’t eternal and changeless, they evolve – there isn’t a one-to-one language in existence. The words are arbitrary. Cat could have been anything – spaghetti, had the population at large so agreed on it. So no, meaning comes from us – we assign a word to stand for a thing.

Hm. It seems that this isn’t an either-or issue. Words have to refer to something, and we have to assign a word to stand for a thing.

Exactly. So we’re both right.

God’s Revelation as Speech-act

I’ve argued before here that reality is fundamentally linguistic – God spoke the universe into existence. What never occurred to me, for some unknown reason (beyond my own thick-headedness) is that this is a speech-act, or rather, THE speech-act. Duh. Then I thought a bit farther – if Jesus is God’s self-revelation, the Word (or the ‘conversation’, my personal favourite translation of ‘logos’), made flesh, then in a sense, wouldn’t that make Jesus a speech-act as well? This was an odd thought, but a speech-act is an utterance which does what it says – it performs the action it proclaims. Discourse becomes concrete – and is there a better example of (divine) discourse becoming concrete reality?

So then I thought about when we talk about Jesus, or preach, or proclaim the gospel – would that then also fall under the speech-act category? Here it wasn’t so clear cut, at least at first. If the gospel is ‘God’s power to save’, then it would seem that the gospel, by which people are saved and God’s kingdom brought about on earth, is also speech-act. The spoken word becomes the concrete reality.

None of this has been thought through very far by me or systematized- it was something that occurred to me on my lunch break. But it seems to me to be plausible.

Linguistic Musings

I’ve tried to write a post on language several times now – but each time I end up simply staring at the screen, unable to formulate my thoughts. One reason for this, I think, is because in a way we are kind of trapped in language – that is, we can’t step outside of it to get an ‘objective’ look at it. It’s different than say, working on a car – you can always step outside the car to get a good look at the whole thing -you’re working on. This isn’t to say that constructive things can’t be said about language, because they obviously can. But, at least for me, anyways, there’s some interesting built-in limits to the study.

In his ‘Tractatus’, Wittgenstein thought he had nailed down language in about 70 pages and a few propositions. He later came to realize that language goes far, far beyond simply picturing the world – one simply has to read the ‘Blue’ and ‘Brown’ books and the ‘Philosophical Investigations’ to see that Wittgenstein came to see language as being a vast, rich, puzzling tapestry – things like context, analogy, language games, culture, syntax all come into play with language.

Heidegger said that language is the house of being – this is one reason why I’m wary of attempts to dissect and analyze language with purely logical tools. To be sure language can be analyzed in this way, often with great results, but language can’t be conceived along purely logical lines.

What Can Be Said

4.116 Everything that can be thought at all can be thought clearly. Everything that can be said can be said clearly.

4.12 Propositions can represent the whole reality, but cannot represent what they must have in common with reality in order to be able to represent it – the logical form.

To be able to represent the logical form, we should have to be able to put ourselves with the propositions outside logic, that is outside the world.

4.121 Propositions cannot represent the logical form: this mirrors itself in the proposition.

That which mirrors itself in language, language cannot be said.

That which expresses itself in language, we cannot express by language.

The propositions show the logical form of reality.

They exhibit it. (Wittgenstein, ‘Tractatus’)

Here Wittgenstein makes some interesting observations: namely that proposition cannot picture the pictorial relationship between language and the world – the logical form is the pictorial relationship between language and the world. The standard example: a mother and daughter share a resemblance. You see the mother and see the daughter, but you don’t see a third thing called ‘resemblance’. That has to be shown – not said. To attempt to put into words the pictorial resemblance between mother and daughter (which must be shown) is to speak nonsense. It is something that cannot be said and must be shown.

This comes, obviously, from Wittgenstein’s early period – when he thought of language as strictly representing the world. Language obviously does much more than just represent the world – speech-acts, for example, don’t represent anything in the world – they don’t have a pictorial relationship with the world. Insofar as language does picture the world, as it obviously does, I think Wittgenstein is broadly right.

I detect some form of Kantianism here – we cannot gain direct access to reality through language/propositions because there is an aspect of reality which cannot be expressed by us in language but must be shown instead. This is the unsayable – ‘There is indeed the inexpressible. This shows itself; it is the mystical’, (6.522). The limit to the world of sense is the limit of language – we cannot go beyond language to reality. We seem to be trapped in language.

The obvious problem is that Wittgenstein’s whole project is nonsensical – fascinating, thought-provoking, brilliant, but nonsensical. He later came to realize this, by realizing what I noted above – that language cannot be restricted to only picturing reality. Language is much more subtle, complex and rich than that – it cannot be pigeonholed into such a narrow area without self-contradiction. If language was only used to picture reality, then Wittgenstein would be right:

4.001 The totality of propositions is the language.

4.01 The proposition is a picture of reality

‘…while it has been known for long before Wittgenstein that ‘we make ourselves pictures of fact” or that “the picture is a model of reality”, the real problem consists in the closer determination of the relationship predicated in the aphorisms, and it is at that point that the contentions of logical atomism turn out to be exceedingly restricting. This was recognized by Wittgenstein in his later years. The painstaking gropings of the Philosophical Investigations are a far cry from the self-assuredness of the Tractatus, where Wittgenstein claimed nothing less than to have formulated “unassailable and definitive” truths. As years went by, he came  to see that the full meaning of human discourse far transcends the realm of propositions that, as he put it, can be said clearly. Beyond what he called “surface grammar,” a “depth grammar’ emerged before his searching eyes. It was a discovery that made shambles of the sanguine hopes of his early days. “No wonder,” he remarked, ‘that we find it so difficult to know our way about.”