Über Gewissheit – On Certainty

“Das Kind, möchte ich sagen, lernt so und so reagieren; und wenn es das nun tut, so weiss es damit noch nichts. Das wissen beginnt erst auf einer späteren Stufe.” Ludwig Wittgenstein, Über Gewissheit – On Certainty, Clause 538, p. 71-71e, Blackwell Publishing, 1969.

[Re-posted from The Old Site. Original dd. 17-12-2007. In itself the message of this one is so simplistic that I was a little bit ashamed to re-post it here, but a. such are the rules, b. simplistic is not necessarily false and c. the conceptions of & within the ‘analytic’ tradition are such that what is simplistically opposed to this is for many still conceived wisdom.]

(Official English translation: “The child, I should like to say, learns to react in such-and-such a way; and in reacting it doesn´t so far know anything. Knowing only begins at a later level.”)
Philosophy of language is mostly known in its synchronic version. The method of language analysis has been extremely productive. The early Wittgenstein – a sentence corresponding to a certain state of affairs …  – is still quoted heavily for his contributions in this vein, however much his name is discredited by the opaque writings (like the one above) of the late Wittgenstein.

I am certainly not original in not buying the dichotomy between early and late versions of Wittgenstein (apart maybe from biographical details which are not specifically interesting to me). Nevertheless, I don´t believe ever having seen the attempt at unifying his thought using the traditional aspects of the study of language: synchronic & diachronic or – as I understand it – static analysis of language & the dynamic analysis of an evolving (grasp of) language.

Most of us reading texts like these will immediately understand the difference we want to convey in talking of dead and of living languages. Dead languages are no longer evolving, they allow being analyzed or dissected – living languages on
the other hand are not as easily analyzed. Although vivisection on them is not as morally questionable as vivisection on animals, the living nature of the language prevents us – in my view – from exhausting all explanations ‘statically’.

[I think the above is interesting: how would you convey a typically 21st century meaning with a Latin or ancient Greek sentence? I think it will prove to be impossible.]

This does not mean that dissecting language into truth/falsity, recursiveness, truth conditions and so on is a wrong or unproductive labour. Far from it, one of the more stupid assumptions of Wittgenstein was that he said all that could be said on the matter [during his time as Wittgenstein I]. Almost a century of further developments in this tradition show not only continueing progress but fundamentally new insights.

It does however mean that this statical analysis is fundamentally insufficient to come to terms with language. Giving lip service – as a great many do – to language evolution and language acquisition is doing a great disservice to us. There is a difference between using a language and knowing something (and expressing this knowledge in a language). This is just one of the differences one needs to appreciate if one wants to study important differences between knowing something and intending for something to be the case (and necessarily putting this intention in a linguistic way for social use). If one persists in not noting and contemplating these differences one is condemned to the false belief that the thing that makes us specifically human is something similar to computer processes that admit exhaustive mathematical analysis.

My guess is that the great Ludwig never attempted an explanation like I did because that explanation is necessarily too static to do justice to what is to be studied. Forgive me my arrogance, maybe one day I´ll be able to reason & argument my case better than an old lady that always forgets where she last put her keys 😉


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s