September 10, 2015

A Game with Words: We must run Wittgenstein through Hume

Philosopher friend Dan Kaufman surely would or will disagree if or when he sees this, but I shall explain that header.

On Ludwig Wittgenstein, he does have a lot of insight, but, I don’t ennoble him like Dan does. (Dan might object a bit to the word "ennoble," but ... I'll stand by its sentiment.)

In part, that’s because one can go “meta” on Wittgenstein’s language games idea. I think Walter Kaufmann, with his somewhat contrarian rejection of “guilt” and “justice” as universals or quasi-universals kind of gets at that.

But, there are other issues. And, expanding on a comment I left on a post at Massimo Pigliucci's blog, here are a few of them.

1. Are we talking about descriptive or prescriptive use of a particular word, or words in general?

2. Can we even agree on what “prescriptive” and “descriptive” mean, either in general or with a particular word?

3. How do we make such judgments?

These are just a few of many ideas related to this issue.           

In short, Wittgenstein’s idea on language games, in the real world, must be run through …

Wait for it, those of you know one of my favorite philosophers …

Wittgenstein must in some way be run through Ye Olde Philter of Induction, courtesy David Hume.

Let’s start with the word “game.”

“Game” is not a Platonic Idea, or even close to it. It’s not, per what I said about Kaufmann (two n’s, the professional interpreter of Nietzsche), even a quasi-universal, if you agree with him. And, since I do on “guilt” and “justice,” I certainly do on “game.”

Rather, we learn the idea of “game” from playing actual individual games. No matter how much of a desire for at least physical play is inborn, the idea of games, rather than unstructured play, is not at all a universal.

We then learn about particular subconcepts associated with games. Straight to Wittgenstein, these include rule making for games, rule agreement for games, and more.

Actually, it’s a combination of rote-type learning and social or associational learning, or discovery, or concept crafting.

I can illustrate this with a word better than, but somewhat related to “game.”

Let’s talk about “sport,” and real issues kicked around by American sports fans.

Is golf a “game,” or is it just a “competition”?

If golf is a “game,” what about billiards? What about chess? Per many Olympics watchers, what about synchronized swimming? My particular answers as a sports fan are yes, maybe and no. But, I know I have no rational way of defending them. And, if I pressed Wittgenstein, were he alive and talking to me, he probably wouldn’t either. He’d probably, at some point, in fact, show his Continental philosophical roots, and look for a picture of Hume, or one of his books, to destroy with a fireplace poker.

This is why Wittgenstein on language is not a Rand McNally atlas. Rather, he’s more like a Mercator map. Not a Mercator projection, but an actual Mercator map, by Mercator himself, which shows but rough outlines for much of the world.

Beyond that, after the idea of Noam Chomsky, Steve Pinker and others about massive brain modularity showed itself to not be totally true, which in turn led to some degree of questioning of ideas like Chomsky’s deep grammar and deep semantic structures, we have other reasons for saying that Wittgenstein’s “A Game with Words” needs to be run through an empiricist, induction-based filter.


Thomas Jones said...

Maybe not directly related to your "game" point, but it is rather clear that many mammals engage in "play." So whether one might label such activity as "universal" seems moot to me. It is a common activity that is exhibited and observed. How does it go from "play" to "game"? It may start simply as exercise that blends in socialization among members of a group. And from there to simulations (games) designed to prepare for future outcomes in "real" situations/contexts.

Gadfly said...

First, pun intended, it's probably not my last word on the issue.

Second, I think it is somewhat related. If we agree on a definition of "game" that it must have at least a few rules, contra "play," then few animals engage in games.

Where does "simulation" fit? is the mindset to create a simulation necessarily conscious or not? That's one issue.

Thomas Jones said...

It's largely immaterial, at least to me, whether "play" as "practice" or simulation is evidence of conscious activity in non-human mammals. What are you observing when you witness a pack of wolves stalk their prey? There is pattern, there are roles being played. This is the real thing. But the "play" or "game" is the rehearsal. It is loosely structured at first, of course. But over time rules are employed.

Gadfly said...

I can understand that. That said, especially in light of the thesis presented here, to me, it is more material, in that simulation, at least to me, and when used about carbon-based life and not computers, seems to imply some degree of consciousness aforethought.

Do wolves play roles? Or perhaps instead, "play roles"? Yes. But, per wolf intelligence, a comment on one essay by Massimo (not his comment) and other things, it is possible that a lot of that is unconscious, and not even unconscious within an individual wolf, but as pack animals, a social structure feedback.

Thomas Jones said...

Hi, Steve. I've been out and about and just saw your comment. I'm feeling a tad guilty because I treated my two friends somewhat rudely when one of them said, "We need to promote Christian movies." So I suppose I will email them an apology. I still feel the comment was ludicrous, but I could have been more diplomatic in response, or better yet just have let it pass.

I don't want to go much further into whether certain non-humans have consciousness because to quote the subject of your article "If a lion could speak, we wouldn't understand him." As for Ludwig, especially he of the "Philosophical Investigations," I'm not sure whether than is any agreed upon authority on the man's later writings, including himself. Still, he's an interesting historical figure for more reasons than his philosophic writings alone.

Gadfly said...

Oh, Wittgenstein the man was interesting indeed, or "interesting," because he was tormented, as a good bio of him shows. So does the book "Wittgenstein's Poker," referencing one particular troubled incident in that life.

His ... beyond "noblesse oblige," even, like in his WWI service, his rural teaching despite obviously hating it, are also interesting. One wonders if he had an actual hair shirt, or a Penitente-style whip, in a closet somewhere.