Blind Alley of Linguistic Philosophy -|- Educational Philosophy Theory

Blind Alley of Linguistic Philosophy

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"I am tempted to say of metaphysicians what Scalinger used to say to the Basques: they are said to understand one another, but I don’t believe a word of it." (Nicolas-Sebastien Chamfort, Maximes et Pensees, ch. 7.)

In 1929, Wittgenstein returned to Cambridge from Austria, and promptly did an about-face from the positions he had previously put forward in the Tracticus. Opposing the ideas of logical atomism which he had earlier defended. Thus we have a curious split between the earlier and the later Wittgenstein. Dropping all pretence to represent a "scientific system," he now resorted to loose remarks and unconnected paragraphs, which suggest disorientation, rather than a system of thought. Here we have isolated pronunciations about the philosophy of mathematics, ethics, aesthetics, and much besides.

It was undoubtedly a positive thing that he dropped the untenable idea that language is a simple affair, which can be reduced to a rigid set of rules. Language can be used for the most varied purposes, which cannot be determined by a handful of a priori principles. Russell (and the early Wittgenstein of the Tracticus) took symbolic logic as the model for the underlying structures of language. In fact, formal logic and mathematics are thoroughly bad models for language.

Locke held that, in order to express an idea meaningfully, it is necessary to have in mind a rule for applying it correctly. Wittgenstein pointed out, against this, that a rule by itself was dead. It was like a ruler in the hands of one who had never learnt to use it, a mere string of words. Rules cannot compel, or even guide, a person unless he or she knows how to use them; and the same is true about mental images, which have often been thought to provide the standard for using linguistic expressions.

Wittgenstein argued correctly that:

a) What transpires in the mental life of an individual could only be conveyed in a language that this person alone could understand.
b) Such a "private" language would be no language at all.
c) It is impossible to say anything about this "private" language, since, by definition, it cannot be talked about in a language accessible to anyone but the person concerned.

His later work shows a process of disintegration, consisting of unconnected aphorisms, some useful insights, but lacking any overall view. This was not really a "school" at all. Although some consider themselves "Wittgensteinians" (G. E. Anscombe, Norman Maleon, etc.), it consists mainly of appeals to "common sense," "everyday language," and so on.

The attempts to make language conform to the rules of formal logic can, within certain limits, help to produce a clearer mode of expression. But language is an immensely rich, varied and powerful instrument which has evolved over millions of years. It cannot adequately be reduced to the narrow limits prescribed by formal logic, an extremely limited and ultimately unsatisfactory mode of thought. It is typical of the one-sidedness of this logic that in the formal language worked out by Russell and Whitehead in their Principia Mathematica that it admits only statements which are true or false. "Let your communication be Yea, yea; Nay nay, for whatsoever is more than these cometh of evil."

Now even everyday language is not as restricted as this, and would soon rebel against any attempt to imprison it in such a narrow cell. In our normal speech, we do not limit ourselves to simple "yes" and "no" statements, but we also ask questions, issue commands, make (and break) promises, express beliefs (not all of them logical). We talk about possibilities, probabilities as well as certainties. In addition, there is a whole gamut of expressions expressing feelings and emotions, which may not be written as a mathematical equation, but which certainly play a most important role in the lives of real men and women. A moment’s reflection will suffice to expose the arbitrary, superficial, in short, nonsensical, nature of the whole construction.

Other philosophers have attempted to make good these deficiencies, by developing new and various "systems of logic." But none of them have been prepared to grasp the nettle, tackling the essential defect of formal logic, which lies in the basic laws themselves. One group of logicians have rejected the law of the excluded middle (A is not B). That is an advance, but still does not go far enough. Nor is any real advance possible until it is admitted that the law of identity (A = A) is itself defective, as is the so-called law of contradiction (A is not not-A), which is supposed to be deduced from it.

To be fair to Wittgenstein, having helped Russell in his attempt to force language into his arbitrary system, he subsequently concluded that the whole approach was false, even from the standpoint of how language itself works. Language is a highly complex phenomenon, in which apparently similar statements express a myriad of different—even contradictory—meanings. This was already pointed out by Hegel in The Science of Logic. The detailed study of language is itself a vital task for modern science, closely connected with information technology and the whole question of "artificial intelligence." But it cannot succeed if it is restricted to an abstract study of the structure of language, separate and apart from the study of psychology, physiology, the workings of the brain and the nervous system, and the material world and society which alone imbue the sounds made by our vocal chords with real content and meaning.

The study of language is not purely a question of the structure of sentences. It is necessary to study the social and historical basis of language. Wittgenstein correctly observed that the limits of one’s language are the limits of one’s world. The Inuits (Eskimos) have many more words for snow than in any other language, and therefore a much more precise classification of this subject. This is a reflection of their practical mode of existence and economy. For these people, the varieties of snow are a question of vital importance for hunting, and therefore, survival. Similar examples can easily be found in all languages.

Language is the product of a long period of social development. Its content and forms have been repeatedly transformed, and it is still evolving. The attempt to force upon this extremely fluid and complex phenomenon an arbitrary "logical" straitjacket is, in the best case, restricted and oversimplified, and in the worst, the source of a huge number of philosophical blunders. Language does not operate according to a rigid and simple set of rules. The very attempt to make it do so has only served to reveal the impossibility of such a task. What was supposed to be simple and straightforward has turned into its opposite—a highly complex and contradictory thing.

The school of logical empiricism, represented by Carnap, Reichenbach and others, form part of the general tendency of logical positivism. This is shown by the reduction of philosophy to the logical analysis of language, not just syntactical analysis (as in the 1930s) but also semantic analysis. Implicit in this is the idea that it is impossible to provide objective proof for the existence of the material world. They purport to offer an "empirical language of science," but this does not signify recognition of the objective world, only "purposive" forms of organising the data obtained by the senses. Nevertheless, this school represents a certain advance over the earlier positions. By moving away from sweeping philosophical generalisations, and concentrating on specific areas of research, it has made a positive contribution in some fields of logical research.

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