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Wittgenstein's Philosophical Investigations: The Grammatical Fiction of PI §307

James Still

In §307 Wittgenstein is accused of denying that mental processes are an essential element within the individual who experiences a sensation S; only the expressions of S exist while S itself if a fiction. Wittgenstein counters that the only fiction involved in the discussion of S is a grammatical construction that cleverly substitutes itself for the existence of S. I wish to analyze his reasoning for this and, further, to "unpack" Wittgenstein's implicit denial that he is a behaviorist.

In §293 Wittgenstein exposes a weakness in the Cartesian view of inner mental states by pointing out the dilemma in being able to verify such states without slipping into solipsism. The Cartesian view discussed in §293 implies:

  1. If it is only in my own case that I know what sensation S means, then we must suppose that everyone only knows what S is in their own cases.
  2. Since S is known only by self-referential introspection, we do not know what S is for others; it may be something different or even nonexistent for other persons.
  3. Lacking commonality, S "has no place in the language-game at all."

Yet, the Cartesian still wants to be able to give public names to sensations (like "pain," "joy," "excitement" and so on) and, further, we wish to say that we are speaking about a single thing when we use these public names (Kenny, p. 353). If S can only be known by our own introspection--i.e., if we each possess only our own "exemplar" of pain (§272)--it can never be determined if our pain is the same as someone else's pain. (Even my use of the words "a single thing" and "the same" imply some kind of universal Pain from which each of our particular pains derive.) Yet, to deny this universal and accept only our own private experience of S is like employing a wheel that only we can turn but is not connected to anything else (§271). If a sensation, like the wheel of §271, is to be a part of the larger mechanism it must somehow be connected to the public language-game. Rhees (1968) argues along similar lines in a discussion of the private language argument:

[I]f my words are to refer to anything they must be understood. They cannot refer at all except in connexion with a use, a use which you learn when you learn what the word means. They cannot refer to anything unless there is a way in which the language is spoken. That is why there cannot be a private understanding (p. 275).

If we attempt to defend another's private understanding of S by suggesting that he has a "private picture" before him, we make a public assumption that compromises the exclusivity of the sensation (§294). On the other hand, if we deny knowing anything at all about his sensation--admitting only that he has something--then we have now admitted to an ignorance that precludes us from saying anything ostensive about what this something is, or even if it exists at all. In the end, we don't seem to know what, if anything, is inside of someone else's "beetle box" when we insist on holding to the theory that sensations are known only in our own cases.

The interlocutor seeks to escape between the horns of this dilemma by suggesting only the weaker proposition that he knows sensation S "only from [his] own case" (§295). However, Wittgenstein asks whether this proposition is experiential (empirical) or grammatical. Wittgenstein has already answered the former concern; knowledge and understanding are not mental states because they have no temporal duration nor can they be predicated of oneself during the occurrence of S (§154; p. 59e, n.[a]).

What I find interesting here is that Wittgenstein does not deny that S itself is a mental state (which he should do if he wished to be advancing a strictly behaviorist view). He agrees that somehow we are aware of mental states and realize when it is that we have been "in continuous pain since yesterday." A mother does not doubt that her child is in pain when observing the tears, sobs, and the cut on the arm that the child holds up as an indicator and defense of his or her behavior. Similarly, Wittgenstein does not deny that pain-behavior may be accompanied by real pain (§304). It seems that what he is denying is the existence of a "criterion of correctness" §258 and the verification of sensation S by our use of the verbs "to know" and "to understand."

The interlocutor resists Wittgenstein's denial of the usefulness of these verbs and claim to have knowledge of S only in his own case. Wittgenstein suggests that his proposition is a "grammatical fiction" (§307). The verbs "to know" and "to understand" force themselves onto the same stage as mental states because of their nature as action words. When we say that we "know" all of the rules of chess, the grammatical fiction conjures up the image of an action since the verb seems to indicate that something is going on. If "to know" means that some mental activity is taking place, then presumably each and every rule of chess passes before our minds--yet the experiential reality is such that we only signal our belief that we know all of the rules of chess, i.e., we are able to retrieve a contextually-relevant rule as it becomes needed in the circumstances of the game. In such circumstances we will find out whether or not our signal (our intent) was accurately stated. But if we have no criterion of correctness and are not sure that we really know S as it occurs then it is difficult to make the stronger claim that S is incontrovertibly known to us privately.

For the sake of the interlocutor's proposition, Wittgenstein assumes for a moment that everyone did say that only they themselves really know about a sensation S (§295). However, even if this is granted it can be seen that due to the problem of uncertain criteria in introspectively knowing S, knowledge about one's own S is an "exclamation" and not a description of S. We cannot ostensively point to the sensation and any kind of definition of the expression "S" eludes us (§258). This recalls the point in §244 in that the verbal expression of pain replaces--but does not describe--the pain-behavior of crying. Even when drawing upon some mental image of what S is, it is still not the sensation itself, rather it is something like an "allegorical painting" which acts as a placeholder for other expressions such as crying, shouting "ouch!" and so on. Wittgenstein argues that we are still no closer to the ostensive location of S itself.

However, the interlocutor presses Wittgenstein by insisting that something must be behind the expression of pain; every effect must be preceded by a cause and so pain is the cause responsible for producing the grammatical effect. Wittgenstein doesn't deny that we know when it is that we experience pain (he in fact cites pain as one of his examples of a mental state in 59e, n.[a])--or to use his analogy, if water boils in a pot and causes steam, then we may confidently assert that water is indeed in the pot even though we don't see it (§297). However, this is a far cry from the suggestion that we know of the experience of pain solely on the basis of the pain-behavior expressions of it such as "ouch!" or "I just know I'm in pain." To do so commits a category mistake because what we are really saying is that we are certain of the empirical pain in the real boiling pot because of the expression of steam coming from the picture pot. For this reason, Wittgenstein rejects the picture of pain as a possible alternative criterion for determining the experiential pain.

The interlocutor falls back to §295 by insisting once again that while he can only believe that another is in pain, he still knows that he himself is in pain. Wittgenstein grants this proposition, conditionally perhaps for the same reason that he empathized with the interlocutor in §195 by agreeing that, in some sense, the use of a word is a priori present in the word. But by granting this he is not affirming that the interlocutor's proposition contains any explanatory power for actual mental states. As an expression, "I believe he is in pain" is a substitution for the observed behavior of the subject who cries, yells, or otherwise displays that he is in pain.

With this last straw, Wittgenstein is accused of denying the existence of sensations altogether. Wittgenstein answers cryptically that sensation S is not a something nor is it a nothing (§304). A "something about which nothing can be said" refers to the dilemma of §293 in which one must admit to an ignorance of the contents of S within oneself and within others as well. This seems to point the way to the flaw in the interlocutor's attempt at finding the essence of sensation S, recalling also §13 in that if we say that every word signifies something "we have so far said nothing whatever." Wittgenstein has stripped the grammatical baggage from the essence of a sensation like leaves from the artichoke of §164 so that nothing ostensive of S is left to discuss. Yet, he is not outright denying essence to the sensation--pain doesn't disappear with the grammatical expressions--only that something about which nothing can be said is meaningless at best and ontologically equivalent to nothing at worst. If Wittgenstein is arguing for the latter, he may be guilty of sliding into the behaviorist camp. However, Wittgenstein doesn't seem to want to outright deny mental processes like pain, joy, or excitement (§308). He only seems to want to point out that whatever it is that we experience is, in some sense, something about which nothing can be said (§306). This is a tough pill to swallow because we want very much to be able to say that we "see" our sensations ostensively and to "point privately to the sensation" even though doing so seems to yield no information (§298). If we do resist the temptation to see grammatical expressions as ostensive indicators of experiential sensations, Wittgenstein feels that we will enjoy the freedom of a fly shown the way out of a fly-bottle (§309).

Works Referenced

Kenny, Anthony. "Cartesian Privacy," in Wittgenstein. George Pitcher, ed. London: Macmillan, 1968. pp. 352-370.

Rhees, R. "Can There Be a Private Language?" in Wittgenstein. George Pitcher, ed. London: Macmillan, 1968. pp. 267-285.

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