In his final years at Cambridge, Ludwig Wittgenstein postulated that philosophical problems are merely linguistic puzzles wrongly imbued with metaphysical significance. The solution to a philosophical problem could thus be obtained through a grammatical investigation into the puzzle’s articulated statements. He describes a grammatical investigation as one in which ‘we remind ourselves of the kind of statement that we make about phenomena’ (p 90). This extends beyond the traditional usage of the term grammar - as it pertains to ordering well-formed syntactic sentences - to include the structure of our practice of using words, or language-in-use, as a spatial and temporal phenomenon. This emphasis on the dynamic aspect of language differs greatly from his earlier work in the tractatus wherein he treated language isolated from use with reducible essential qualities that could be defined through atomic propositions of logic. This treatment results in the development of an idealized system which focuses on a narrow aspect of language, excluding all non-fact-stating uses. His career after the tractatus marks the end of his peripheral participation in logical positivism, and helps define post-modern skepticism as we know it.
Wittgenstein endorses a grammatical method which ‘simply puts everything before us, and neither explains nor deduces anything, since everything lies open to view there is nothing to explain’ (pi 126). I should mention the grammatical method I speak of is implicit in his lectures and is distinct from ‘method’ as in his delivery of ideas. By ‘grammatical method’ I mean a loose manner of investigation discernible through Wittgenstein’s own pedagogical method. The grammatical method derives its meaning from the form of life of the particular language-game being studied by merely playing out the conclusions inherent in the uses made of the words; as such, the application of the method does not depend upon axiomatic reasoning nor knowledge of universal truths to accomplish its purpose; similarly, the method is not a theorem asserted to refute other theorems (in the way Popper’s falsificationism was), and it is only consequently by reframing the grammatical structure of language-in-use that the method disenfranchises theories of their soundness, revealing their linguistic errors. Unlike dogmatic assertions based on essential claims of truth, Wittgenstein’s method is a loose manner of investigation which encourages a shift in understanding not on the basis of absolute truth but through personal awareness of what is made open to view in the linguistics of the philosophical problem. Wittgenstein considered the method a therapeutic exercise which alleviates the frustration involved in trying to solve philosophic problems that have plagued inquisitive minds for centuries.
One of Wittgenstein’s prominent achievements in Philosophical Investigations is his critique of private language. It is worth noting that the conceptualization of a pre-existing private language, complete and structured inside a child prior to the acquisition of language, had a wide appeal in western thought until Wittgenstein came on the scene; in fact, Descartes’ emphasis on the private realm lead to what historians of philosophy refer to as the advent of ‘modern philosophy’. Very early on in his lectures Wittgenstein quotes a passage of St. Augustine’s Confessions to illustrate the private language notion that has so dominated the western imagination:
Little by little I began to realize where I was and to want to make my wishes known to others, who might satisfy them. But this I could not do, because my wishes were inside me, while other people were outside, and they had no faculty which could penetrate my mind. So I would toss my arms and legs about and make noises, hoping that such few signs as I could make would show my meaning, though they were quite unlike what they were meant to mine
(St. Augustine, 1961, p. 25)
Wittgenstein challenges this conceptualization of an innate private language by correcting the linguistic fallacy evoked in the supposition of an independent, private realm of senses. Before explaining how Wittgenstein reveals the linguistic error of private language I would like to first introduce an offshoot of this fallacy which he sets out to critique: the presumption that learning is contingent upon the ostensive teaching of words. This is to say that the act of giving the meaning of a word is achieved by pointing to an exemplar, in the same way the young Augustine gesticulates to express what he means. An internal complete and structured concept is communicated by pointing to an external exemplar which other individuals, with their own innate hardwired grasp of language, eventually grow to understand and this is how learning occurs between people in Augustinian terms.
Wittgenstein reveals the shortcomings of this method of learning by illustrating various scenarios (language-games) where the act of pointing and defining are alone insufficient for explaining the successful transfer of information between people. For example, it is quite reasonable for a builder to say ‘slab’ to a fellow builder, and point to a particular object, yet based purely on an ostensive grasp of meaning, the understanding of the utterance may be misinterpreted; for example, if this is his first encounter with the word and the object, he could plausibly misunderstand what aspect of the object is being pointed out, and why. Does ‘slab’ refer to the object as a single entity, or the color, or the shape, or the context of the object in the general area it is resting? Furthermore, we are familiar with commands such as ‘slab’ which mean ‘please hand me one of those slabs over there’, but there is no such command discernible on purely ostensive means of understanding. The builder’s inclination to state ‘slab’ and point to an object could be interpreted in various ways without another manner of learning to encourage greater proficiency in understanding. Ostensive definitions, while certainly playing a part in education, cannot alone sufficiently explain our capacity to communicate accurately. What it fails to acknowledge is our dependence on language-games embedded in an overall training within a particular culture, which is to say it lacks contextual sensitivity in the social realm, which imbues language with greater functionality. Wittgenstein offers a long but incomplete list of some of the characteristic language-games that constitute the form of life:
-giving orders and obeying them
-describing the appearance of an object, or giving its measurements
-constructing an object from a description
-reporting an event
-speculating about an event
-forming and testing a hypothesis
-presenting the results of an experiment in tables and diagrams
-making up a story; and reading it
-guessing a riddle
-making a joke; telling it
-solving a problem in practical arithmetic
-translating from one language to another
-asking, thanking, cursing, greeting, praying
At any time in a conversation we are confronted with a recursive variety of language-games (such as those listed above) which we are able to tacitly grasp and then use to evaluate what particular function words are imbued with in the moment and which connotations we wish to employ in the words of our responses. These games could not be hardwired into a private language simply because they are culture-sensitive. Not only are their gaps in translations between languages but there are also culture-specific language-games which challenge the plausibility of an innate private language hardwired a priori; for example, the form of a joke in one culture may be distinctly different according to the cultural context, the role of play-acting may take on different significance in a Victorian era society than it does in an esoteric Peruvian tribe, and similarly the terminology will likewise possess different meanings. The language-games of a particular form of life are software additions which are socially mediated.