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.


It Wasn’t Intentional

Intentionality is an interesting thing. Me personally, I find it fascinating how you just can’t get rid of it. If you try and eliminate it or reduce it, you end up shooting yourself in the foot. Now to me, this makes quite a bit of sense since, if you read my blog many moons ago, I spent a little bit of time trying to develop a linguistic and semantic conception of reality (here, for example) which I still pretty much hold to. You could probably get away with calling my view tagmemics, or at least noting that it’s in the same neighbourhood.

When it comes to intentionality, meaning, etc, I generally take a semiotic view (not that I’m any great expert in semiotics). The classic Stoic example is a flushed face, which is a sign for a fever. The flush means fever. But this isn’t the whole story – how does a flush, which at bottom is just a biological phenomenon, mean anything? Well, it depends on how we define ‘mean’. If we see enough flushes in close connection with enough fevers, we start to realize, hey, there’s some connection here. If there is a flush, then he has a fever. Or think of smoke and fire. Smoke doesn’t ‘mean’ fire – smoke is just a collection of particles floating around. The meaning comes from us – when we see enough columns of smoke coming from enough fires, we can confidently say, ‘smoke means fire’. These are what John Searle would call ‘derived’ intentionality – the intentionality is derived from us. It’s not an intrinsic feature of smoke, or flushes. Smoke isn’t ‘about’ fire and flushes aren’t ‘about’ fevers.

Most things in the world have derived intentionality. Words on paper don’t have intrinsic intentionality or meaning – there’s no intrinsic connection between c-a-t and the furry four-legged creature that meows at at my bedside 3AM to be let out. It could just as well be m-a-t, if enough folks went with that.

As-if intentionality is another of Searle’s classification – when we say, ‘boy, that computer just doesn’t want to run that program’, that’s as-if intentionality. The computer doesn’t want or not want to do anything – it has no desires or goals or any kind of conscious life. Another classic example is that of a river – the river appears to want to flow downstream, but the river has no conscious intention or desire to flow. It’s just a river.

The last of Searle’s three types of intentionality is ‘intrinsic’ – intentionality intrinsic to a thing. This is generally associated with the mind – Brentano called intentionality ‘the mark of the mental’. This refers to the ability of the mind to direct itself in thought towards things – to have thoughts ‘about’ things. There are lots of different ways of thinking about intentionality – naturalist, reductionist, eliminativist (of these, eliminativism is perhaps the least coherent) – but for my money, I’m not convinced by any of them for the rather simple fact that no matter what’s done to eliminate it, it always seems to be a very necessary part of how it’s eliminated. Other accounts of intentionality, say the conceptual role theory, do a decent enough job explaining a possible mechanism of intentionality but don’t really offer any actual account of how there is such a thing in the first place.

A basic theme in intentionality is that if it’s physical, it has no fixed meaning:

‘One could never derive the specific meaning of a given physical event from the event itself, not even a brain event, because in itself it means nothing at all; even the most minute investigation of its physical constituents and instances could never yield the particular significance that mind represents it as having.’ (David Bentley Hart, ‘The Experience of God’, p. 195-196)

Meaning, being the mark of the mental, is also the gift of the mental. I’ve expounded (the two links above) a conception of reality in which it’s semantic in nature – call it a field of semantics, out of which meaning can be made (this is different from, say a more general account of ‘purpose’ or ‘meaning’ in the universe that one often hears about). We exist as meaning-making agents because we exist in a reality that is a semantic field.

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?


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?


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.

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.”

Thoughts on Truth and Perspective

‘There is no absolute truth.’ Is there any way to save this statement from its self-refuting?

The obvious riposte would be: is that statement absolutely true? Is it true, in all times and places, for all people regardless of whether or not they believe it, that there is no absolute, objective truth? If it is true, then it is an AOT (absolute objective truth) – it is the very thing it seeks to deny.

Another angle would be to tie the non-knowability of truth to our subjective, perspectivally-bound nature. Perhaps there is or isn’t AOT –but even if there was, our subjective-perspective bound nature prohibits us from knowing it. This would seem to fall prey to the same self-refutation as before – if the above is true, then it would appear that our perspective-subjective bound nature is not so binding as to prohibit us knowing that we can’t know AOT.

A more plausible objection against Truth would be linguistic – perhaps we are trapped within language. Language is notoriously slippery and ineffective at conveying information – Saussere’s ideas on the pure arbitrariness of the sign come to mind when thinking on this matter. With something as relative, culturally conditioned and arbitrary as language, how can we ever come to terms with something absolute?

Wittgenstein on Certainty

194. ‘With the word “certain” we express complete conviction, the total absence of doubt, and thereby seek to convince other people. That is subjective certainty.

But when is something objectively certain? When a mistake is not possible. But what kind of possibility is that? Mustn’t mistakes be logically excluded?’ (Ludwig Wittgenstein, ‘On Certainty’)

I will confess right off the bat that I have no idea what Wittgenstein means by his final sentence here. Maybe I can come to some kind of understanding by working through this proposition.

What kind of fact logically excludes mistakes? The fact that I exist? On Certainty is a sustained mediation on (duh) certainty – the opening line is the famous Moore quote about knowing that there is one hand in front of you. Wittgenstein goes into a very long and in my opinion needless exploration of the mental workings behind certainty on topics such as this. This, I think, is misguided. My response is typically, what reason have I to doubt that my I exist, that I am real, that the world is real? That’s my typical response to what I would regard as scepticism beyond necessity – if one requires hundreds of pages of tortured groping for whether one can be certain that they, or the world or their hand exists, I suspect that there are more important problems for said sceptic to attend to.

However, to think a bit more on this notion: what is meant by logically excluding mistakes? On the surface, it would appear simple: something is certain when its negation is logically impossible. The world exists – this excludes the possibility of mistakes. We may be mistaken as to the nature of the world, or something along those lines, but we cannot be mistaken that there is a world, because if there wasn’t, there wouldn’t be. This seems to me to actually be quite unhelpful – Wittgenstein’s tortured method seems to be contagious.

Wittgenstein on Scepticism

‘6.5 For an answer which cannot be expressed the question too cannot be expressed.

The riddle does not exist.

If a question can be put at all, then it can also be answered.

6.51 Scepticism is not irrefutable, but palpably senseless, if it would doubt where a question cannot be asked.

For doubt can only exist where there is a question; a question only where there is an answer, and this only where something can be said.’ (Ludwig Wittgenstein, ‘Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus’)

This, to me, is one of the most brilliant lines Wittgenstein ever penned, if only for its rhetorical effect. There is more here, however, than brilliant prose. There’s a lot going on in these few lines – the most obvious question provoked here is simply. Is this correct?

What does Wittgenstein mean when he says ‘only where something can be said’? Reading through the Tractatus it becomes apparent that Wittgenstein intends for all speech to be reduced to an atomic language; that is, a language which does nothing but picture reality in a one-to-one ration of propositions/words to ideas. This left no room for any ambiguity in language (which is one of the things Wittgenstein realized in his later period, and can be seen quite clearly in his ‘Blue’ and ‘Brown’ books). Anything that can be said is a picture of reality – therefore, for Wittgenstein, anytime anything could be said (that is, word used in his atomic way) it would be a propositional picture of reality, and if it wasn’t, then it couldn’t be said. This left no room for scepticism in language.

While I would 100% disagree with his logical atomism (as would most folks, I would hope), it is a fascinating way to attack scepticism, and despite logical atomisms failure, Wittgensteins points made above provide some interesting brain food. Broadly speaking, I actually think it makes a decent point: a lot of scepticism is, in fact, senseless.