Friday, March 25, 2011

Wittgenstein on "Mental Processes"

306. Why should I deny that there is a mental process? But "There has just taken place in me the mental process of remembering . . . ." means nothing more than: "I have just remembered . . . . " To deny the mental process would mean to deny the remembering; to deny that anyone ever remembers anything.

307. "Are you not really a behaviourist in disguise? Aren't you at bottom really saying that everything except human behaviour is a fiction?"If I do speak of a fiction, then it is of a grammatical fiction.

308. How does the philosophical problem about mental processes and states and about behaviourism arise?The first step is the one that altogether escapes notice. We talk of processes and states and leave their nature undecided. Sometime perhaps we shall know more about themwe think. But that is just what commits us to a particular way of looking at the matter. For we have a definite concept of what it means to learn to know a process better. (The decisive movement in the conjuring trick has been made, and it was the very one that we thought quite innocent.)And now the analogy which was to make us understand our thoughts falls to pieces. So we have to deny the yet uncomprehended process in the yet unexplored medium. And now it looks as if we had denied mental processes. And naturally we don't want to deny them.

(Philosophical Investigations, I)


  1. With both the early and late Wittgenstein there are always issues concerning interpretation, including whether or not he is actually endorsing behaviorism in the Investigations. To tie things into the topic of this blog on visual space, certainly some passages in the Investigations, such as the discussion of the beetle in the box in paragraph 293, can be read as challenging introspective methods by saying that language is public, and thus cannot be used for describing private experiences even if they exist. Perhaps something should be said then about why introspective methods are still legitimate in spite of these concerns.

  2. I think it should be obvious that Wittgenstein is neither endorsing behaviorism nor introspectionism as "-isms," though readers often want to pigeon hole him into this or that camp. As I have mentioned before, he was preoccupied with Gestalt phenomena almost to his dying day--something a behaviorist probably would not have been.

    We don't have to find ways of tying W's writings or thinking into our topic, because he wrote explicitly about it in his "Philosophical Remarks" (pp. 267fff) wherein he specifically talks about visually straight vs. curved lines, Euclidean space, etc:

    What he is criticizing in the excerpts that I quoted above is not the existence of mental processes and states, but how they are described, the language used to describe them, which may be little more than verbally-based analogy. He seems to be saying that we have definite preconceptions about said processes and states--definite concepts about how they are or should be--yet they are based on a lack of empirical evidence for them (what he refers to as the "unexplored medium"--the brain?).

    Remember that his basic line of attack was clarifying the troubles created by linguistic fallacies, and mistaking what are logical propositions for empirical ones (cf. "On Certainty").

  3. You may be right about Wittgenstein here Bill, I don't know, but how do you interpret his discussion of the beetle in the box in paragraph 293 of the Investigations. I at least read it as an attack on introspective techniques, at least if these are taken to involve descriptions of inherently private experiences.

  4. Of course Wittgenstein is partly addressing what today we call the problem of "other minds," that Moore had in so many words also addressed before him.

    Again, it is important to take into account the *context* here, and to recognize that Wittgenstein is talking about *language* not introspective experience, suggesting that for purposes of language in a way it doesn't matter what experience is linked to the word "beetle." What counts is the consistency (yes, the Chinese Box and all that, but with W "language" means understanding it and semantics, not just using it by rote).

    I suppose someone could say he is just talking about "verbal behavior," a la B.F. Skinner, but, no, he is talking about the language of mind, and how it seems to have a sort of consistency and autonomy without people having direct access to each other's consciousness.

    If you read them by way of the Google Books link I provided above, what did you make of W's remarks about visual space, Bob?

  5. I didn't realize that Wittgenstein used the term 'visual space' before, but from what I can see he is actually referring to our visual experience here; his remarks on color also seem to be referring to properties of our color experiences and not their physical causes. Perhaps Wittgenstein was a naive realist, and perhaps all along, I don't know. Evidently he and Russell had a falling out, and at least in my interpretation of the history of 20th century philosophy, there was a bit of a philosophical revolution in the 1950s where Wittgenstein, and ordinary language philosophy, won out over Russell.

  6. Bob, are you distinguishing between visual experience and visual space and, if so, on what basis?

    I think it should be evident from Susan Stebbing's reference to Berkeley's critique of the Cartesian-Newtonian view of perception, that there are theories of perception and then there are theories of perception, by which I refer to her remark that I quoted last September, that Cartesian-Newtonian view "substituted a theory of optics for a theory of visual perception," and that a theory of the visual system does not necessarily constitute a theory of perception, especially a *philosophical* theory of it.

    I seriously doubt that Wittgenstein was a naive realist, and we should bear in mind that he was quite explicit in demarcating what he was doing (especially with his later philosophy) from the work of science.

    As Ray Tallis and I have now both argued, the "scientific" account of perception is actually missing the very thing it is supposed to explain: Our perceptual experience. At best there are correlations between that experience and the workings of sensory neurophysiology, and even those correlations are not nearly as close as we should require to rightly claim that we have a complete causal account of perception, or even have the correct *conceptual* understanding of what that entails--thus why I quoted Wittgenstein above.

    Wittgenstein's critique of Mach's drawing of his visual field in "The Analysis of Sensations" is cogent, because in reality there is a sense in which we can rightly say that we are "unable to see" what is in our peripheral visual field, and that it is not just a case of being blurry in the way Mach drew it. We "cannot make out" much in the periphery, and vision science has simply *substituted* the curious notion of "visual acuity" to explain that, without offering any name for the converse, other than some locution like "lack of acuity."

  7. No, I don't distinguish between visual experience and visual space, since I think that visual experience is spatial in character. I agree that scientific explanations have a tendency to leave out the experiences themselves. As for Wittgenstein's actual position I am really not sure,since it does seem to be possible to read much of what he says in different ways, but I think a lot of what he says can be read as being consistent with a naive realist attitude.

  8. Einstein stressed that objects are spatially extended and that empty space in physics is really a meaningless concept--in other words, spatiality in Einstein's view was only an abstraction. The corollary of this, as I stated some time ago, is that sensations are spatially extended, and that the idea of empty perceptual space is also meaningless.

    Some readers think that both Moore and Wittgenstein were naive realists, but that is because what they were trying to describe was perception *within* the perceptual world itself, not between it and the world as described by physics. (I have made this point previously.)

  9. Perhaps an issue that is worth discussing here Bill is whether Wittgenstein thought of visual space as being a "public" space accessible to more than one person, or as being "private." Since he at least raises arguments against so-called "private languages" in the Philosophical Investigations, I would tend to interpret him as thinking of visual space as being public, which I think also ties in well with the interpretation of him as being a naive realist.

  10. I don't think the question of whether visual space was private or not was one directly addressed by Wittgenstein, except perhaps indirectly in the context of solipsism, which he was against (as I mentioned previously) and also in his remarks about the "privacy" of sense data in the student lecture notes published as "Philosophical occasions, 1912-1951":

    If you search the text for "visual space," you will find specific references for it as well.

    Wittgenstein was perfectly aware of the causal theory of perception as articulated by Russell, but it is important to remember that W was not doing scientific philosophy, but mostly the philosophy of language, and what it tells us about the world. In this regard, my own view expressed here previously that naive realism is not really a bona fide theory per se, seems similar to W's views when he writes in the "Zettel" that "'Naive language', that is to say our naive, normal way of expressing ourselves, does not contain any theory of seeing--does not show you a *theory* but only a *concept* of seeing."

  11. You may well be right about Wittgenstein here Bill, but I find that I still have a question. If Wittgenstein is primarily concerned just with language, and if he also holds (as I at least interpret the private language argument) that the objects of language must be public, then since the phrase "visual space" is a piece of language, wouldn't its object have to be public?

  12. I think the key to answering your question, Bob, is whether the word "public" applies to language and to visual space in the same sense, and this comes back to that awkward locution "intersubjective" that Bill Adams cited and apparently took umbrage to my response that it was a non-starter IMO.

    So I'll answer your question with a question: Does W think sense data are "private"?

  13. First, with respect to "intersubjective," I personally don't have a problem with the term, although I don't take it to be the primary subject matter of physics, which instead I take to be the physical causes of our experiences. Also, I think that issues can be raised as to whether "intersubjective" refers to a numerical identity or a qualitative identity (or even similarity) among our experiences, which obviously ties into the issue of whether visual space is conceived as being public or private.
    Regarding Wittgenstein, you probably know the literature better than I do, but I found very few references to "sense data" per se in the Wittenstin literature that i am aware of, although there were a few in his Philosophical Remarks. In remark 61 for example Wittgenstein says that "it is nonsense to say two people can't have the same sense datum, if by 'sense datum' what is primary is really intended." Thus, as with his discussions of sensations in the Investigations, it looks to me like he is searching hard to find a public usage. I take this to be a similar attitude to that of J. L. Austin in Sense and Sensibilia, where Austin sees talk of sense data as being private as something like a technical misuse by philosophers, and where ordinary language is construed as being necessarily public. In my own opinion this just shows that ordinary language is theory laden, assuming the truth of naive realism.

  14. As I stated before, IMO the term "intersubjective" is an oxymoron, what Ryle would call a "logical howler." Unless one is positing a special (technical) sense of the word "subjective," it does not seem to me that subjectivity is something that is either qualifiable or quantifiable. It tends to be categorical, either something is/is not subjective.

    If that is so, then to postulate that there is some condition or order of existence in which what would otherwise be mutually exclusive "subjectivities" (what a word!) are somehow connected or brought together for purposes of comparison (by whom or what?), the concept is likely vacuous at the outset (a "non starter").

    As I said in response to Bill Adams, of what would its corollary "interobjective" consist?

    W's remarks about "possessing" sense data tend to support the fact that he did not have much use for the whole concept of sense *data* as such, finding it to be a largely artificial contrivance (of philosophers). This is evident where he writes, "When the sense of the word 'sense-data' makes it unthinkable for another person to have them, we are prevented for this very reason from saying he doesn't have them. And it is therefore meaningless to say that *I*, in contrast to the other person *have* them." (PB 90) Whereas I can speak of "my" pain, I would not also speak of "my (sensation of) purple," for example, so there is no semantic basis upon which to ascribe privacy to the whole of the perceptual world.

    So far from "searching hard to find public usage," it is my opinion that W found the whole concept of sense data largely useless.

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