Kennethamy on ordinary language filosofy, and ‘deep, profound questions’

From here.

Kennethamy

Frankly I cannot answer your question about Lancan because I really don’t understand what he is saying. However, let me ask you, in turn, what you think about the following quotation from Wittgenstein’s Philosophical Investigations. I think it is relevant to this discussion.

We are under the illusion that what is peculiar, profound, essential in our investigation, resides in its trying to grasp the incomparable essence of language. That is, the order existing between the concepts of proposition; word, proof, truth, experience, and so on. This order is a super-order between – so to speak – super-concepts. Whereas, of course, if the words “language,” “experience,” “world,” have a use, it must be as humble a one as that of the words “table,” “lamp,” “door.” (p. 44e)

Emil

It is funny that you bring up W. in this, Ken, as he wrote most incomprehensibly! Perhaps he was doing analytic philosophy but it is certainly extremely hard to understand anything he wrote. It’s not like reading Hume which is also hard to understand. H. is hard to understand because the texts he wrote were written 250 years ago or so. W. wrote only some 70-50 years ago and yet I can’t understand it easily. I can understand other persons from the same era just fine (Clifford, W. James, Quine, Russell, etc.).

Kennethamy

W. wrote aphoristically (Like Lichtenstein) so you have to get used to his style. But what of the passage. Do you understand that?

Emil

No, I have no clue what it means. I didn’t read PI yet so maybe that is why. I read the Tractatus.

Kennethamy

Well, he says that philosophers should not think that words like, “knowledge” or “reality” have a different kind of meaning than, and need a different kind of understanding from, ordinary words like “lamp” and “table”. “Philosophical” words are not special. Their meanings are to be discovered in how they are ordinarily used. (That does not, I think, suppose you have read, PI).

Emil

Alright. Then why didn’t he just write what you just wrote? I suppose this is the paradigmatic thesis of the ordinary language philosophy.

Kennethamy

First of all it was in German. And second, it wasn’t his style. But I don’t think it was particularly hard to get that out of it. Yes, it is ordinary language philosophy. But, going beyond interpretation (I hope) don’t you think it is true? Why should “knowledge” (say) be treated differently from “lamp”?

Emil

I think it is. Especially for a person that hasn’t read much of W.’s works. You have read a lot more than I have.

I agree with it, yes.

Kennethamy

There are lots of people who think that words like “knowledge” and “information” are superconcepts which have a special philosophical meaning they do not have in ordinary discourse (and which it is beneath philosophy to treat like the word, “lamp”) That’s why they are interested in what some particular philosopher means by, “knowledge”. They think there is some “incomparable essence of language” that philosophers are “trying to grasp”.

Emil

Ok. But some words do have meanings in philosophical contexts that they do not have in other, normal contexts. Think of “valid” as an example.

Kennethamy

Yes, of course. But in that sense, “valid” is a technical term. “Knowledge” is not a technical term in the ordinary sense. It doesn’t have some deep philosophical meaning in addition to its ordinary meaning, nor is its ordinary meaning some deep meaning detached from its usual meaning. What meaning could Lacan find that was the real philosophical meaning? Where would that meaning even come from? Heidegger does the same thing. He ignores what a word means, and then finds (invents” a deep philosophical meaning for it. But he uses etymology to do that. It is wrong-headed from the word “go”. If you read Plato’s Cratylus you find how Socrates makes fun of this view of meaning (although, Plato here is making fun of himself, because he really originates this idea that the meaning of a word is its essence which is hidden).

Wittgenstein’s positive point is, of course, the ordinary language thing. But his negative point (which I think is more important for this discussion) is that terms like “knowledge” or “truth” do not have special meanings to be dug out by philosophers who are supposed to have some special factual for spying them. Lancan has no particular insight into the essence of knowledge hidden from the rest of us which, if we understand him, will provide us with philosophical enlightenment. Why should he?

Jeeprs

@kennethamy,
There is a risk in all of this that by excluding the idea of the ‘super concept’ in W’s sense, or insisting that it must simply have the same kind of meaning as ‘lamp’ or ‘table’ that you also exclude what is most distinctive about philosophy. Surely we can acknowledge that there is a distinction between abstract and concrete expression. ‘The lamp is on the table’ is a different kind of expression to ‘knowledge has limits’.

When we ‘discuss language’ we are on a different level of explanation to merely ‘using language’. I mean, using language, you can explain many things, especially concrete and specific things, like ‘this is how to fix a lamp’ or ‘this is how to build a table’. But when it comes to discussing language itself, we are up against a different order of problem, not least of which is that we are employing the subject of the analysis to conduct the analysis. (I have a feeling that Wittgenstein said this somewhere.)

So it is important to recognise what language is for and what it can and can’t do. There are some kinds of speculations which can be articulated and might be answerable. But there are others which you can say, but might not really be possible to answer, even though they seem very simple (such as, what is number/meaning/the nature of being). Of which Wittgenstein said, that of which we cannot speak, of that we must remain silent. So knowing what not to say must be part of this whole consideration.

Kennethamy

“Lamp” is a term for a concrete object. “Knowledge” is a term for an abstract object. But the central point is that neither has a hidden meaning that only a philosopher can ferret out. The meaning of both are their use(s) by fluent speakers of the language. It is not necessary to go to Lancan or Nietzsche to discover what “knowledge” really means anymore that it is to discover what “lamp” really means. As Wittgenstein wrote, “nothing is hidden”. Philosophy is not science. It is not necessary to go underneath the phenomena to discover what there really is. It is ironic that interpretationists accuse analytic philosophy of “scientism” when it is they who think that philosophy is a kind of science.

Reconstructo

@kennethamy,
I interpret Wittgenstein as saying that the philosophical language-game is not a privileged language game. To say that something isn’t hidden is not to say that everyone finds it. This is just figurative language. Wittgenstein should be read by the light of Wittgenstein. His game is one more game, the game of describing the game. I interpret him as shattering the hope (for himself and those whom he persuades) for some unified authority on meaning.
Also he stressed the relationship of language and social practice. He finally took a more holistic view of language, and dropped his reductive Tractatus views. (This is not to deny the greatness of the Tractatus. Witt is one of my favorites, early and late.)
I associate Wittgenstein with a confession of the impossibility of closure. I don’t think language is capable of tying itself up.

Kennethamy

To say that “nothing is hidden” is to say that words like “truth” or “knowledge” do not have, in addition to their ordinary everyday meanings, some secret meanings that only philosophers are able to discover. There are no secret meanings. There is no, “what the word ‘really means'” that Lacan or Heidegger has discovered.

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Jeeprs

Well my reason is that a lot of what goes on in this life seems perfectly meaningless and in the true sense of the word, irrational. Many things which seem highly valued by a lot of people seem hardly worth the effort of pursuing, we live our three score years and ten, if we’re lucky, and then vanish into the oblivion from whence we came. None of it seems to make much sense to me. I am the outcome, or at least an expression, of a process which started billions of years ago inside some star somewhere. For what? Watch television? Work until I die?

That’s my reason.

Kennethamy

Just what are you questioning? (One sense of the word, “meaningless” may well be something like “irrational”. But that is not the true sense of the word. What about all the other senses of the word, “meaningless”? ). By the way, I think that “non-rational” would be a better term than “irrational”. And, just one more thing: what would it be for what goes on in this world to be rational? If you could tell me that, then I would have a better idea of what it is you are saying when you say it is irrational or it is non-rational. What is it that it is not? What would it be for you to discover that what goes on is rational?

Jeeprs

Have you ever looked out at life and thought ‘boy what does it all mean? Isn’t there more to it than just our little lives and personalities and the things we do and have?’ You know, asked The Big Questions. That’s really what I see philosophy as being. So now I am beginning to understand why we always seem to be arguing at cross purposes.

Dunno. Maybe I shouldn’t say this stuff. Maybe I am being too personal or too earnest.

Kennethamy

In my opinion, it is the belief that philosophers are supposed to ask only the Big Questions that partly fuels the view that philosophy gets nowhere and is a lot of nonsense, and is a big waste of time. And that would be right if that is what philosophy is.

Where would science have got if scientists had not rolled up their sleeves and asked many little questions.

Jeeprs

@kennethamy,
from what I know of Heidegger, I very much admire his philosophy. There are many philosophers I admire, and many of them do deal with profound questions; and I know there are many kindred spirits on the forum. But – each to his own, I don’t want to labour the point.

Kennethamy

How about “deal with seemingly profound questions”? But one of the philosopher’s seminal jobs is to ask whether a seemingly profound question is really all that profound, and what the question means, and supposes is true.Philosophers should have Hume’s “tincture of scepticism” even in regard to questions.