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In Ludwig Shape

In Ludwig Shape

Ludwig Wittgenstein is widely regarded as the most important Western philosopher of the last century (as it is taught in most universities), and philosophy is broadly regarded to be a core academic subject (as it is taught in most universities.) I am generally of the opinion that, given a reasonable grasp of English and more than a glancing interest in philosophy, you can open Philosophical Investigations (by Ludwig) at any page, at any time, and get something useful out of it. In other words it's limitlessly inspiring/enlightening. Metaphorically speaking, it's a golden goose. It's Mary Poppins' holdall. It's Aladdin's lamp. 

If I tell you this, I haven't proved that it's true - that Ludwig had this kind of influence, that philosophy has such an esteemed status, and moreover, that if you speak the language, you can get so much out of one random page in his book.

You might comprehend the logical structure of what I say to a greater or lesser extent. Whether or not you find it persuasive, it does have a structure. It corresponds to a description of reality - Wittgenstein is a philosopher, philosophy is great, and Wittgenstein's book is a great philosophical text. It might be a false description. But you recognise the shape of the proposition!

I can imagine you have other opinions in the same logical relation in your understanding…like, say, Dave Beckham is a great footballer, football is great, Dave Beckham's football-playing is a thing of skill to be appreciated. I'm not assuming you're a football fan. Or am I? The shape of the assertion is there, whether it pertains to a rugby match, a golf game or a cricket test. You might only be familiar with one sportsperson in this respect (Ronnie O Sullivan's snooker perhaps, if you want to take a contentious angle on what can be termed 'a sport'). Or, indeed, endorse a particular chess champion in the same manner. In this instance I am positing Wittgenstein and his works in the argument. But where is the force of the argument? Is it in the first assumption, that Wittgenstein's philosophy is significant? Is it in the second assumption, that philosophy is important? Is it in the third assumption, that Wittgenstein's book is great? Or is it that when you string them all together they create an argument? Technically, 'P. Therefore: P' is an argument - just not a very persuasive one (the conclusion is assumed from the very beginning.) Let's say you're a cricketer and you tell someone you've been caught out, and they say "How's that?" and you say: 'Because I've been caught out!!" Your answer has very little force (similarly to your batting). You might say your technique is awful(!)

I haven't even argued my position. Or have I? Wittgenstein is important, because his philosophy is taught at university; I seem to be saying he's important because those who are an authority on academia say he is. I guess I could equally convincingly say: "my mate Bob says Wittgenstein is supposed to be the greatest philosopher of the last century." Would it enhance the argument if you met Bob? You might think so. You might find the guy awe-inspiringly interesting and intelligent, and fully compelling as an advocate for philosophical over-achievers. But does that make my argument any the more convincing, simply because I've name-dropped Bob? Bob's past record on telling lies might be a factor…but then, this might be one occasion on which Bob is telling the truth. Or are you calling us both liars? Maybe Bob has no place putting the case forward since he knows nothing about philosophy. Does this make it untrue? Bob, and a thousand more people like him might make the same claim, it wouldn't make it any truer. For the purposes of judging how far he (I) is (am) considered to be correct in his (my) surmise, we might say you have already mastered the rules of engagement.

So what am I explaining, other than rules to a game you already know, and asking you to apply those rules to a particular historical figure? If I were to say, "trust me, Wittgenstein is great", would that be any more convincing than telling you to believe what Bob told me? No. All I do is put certain names in a certain correlation with certain other names…and you play the game.

Having said all that, I do refer you to the character in question. Were I to merely offer the shape of the argument, you could slot in any names you liked and then you would have to do the whole thing on your own!

The following excerpt is taken from Philosophical Investigations by Ludwig Wittgenstein:

31. When one shews someone the king in chess and says: "This is the king", this does not tell him the use of this piece - unless he already knows the rules of the game up to this last point: the shape of the king. You could imagine his having learnt the rules of the game without having ever been shewn an actual piece. The shape of the chessman corresponds here to the sound or shape of a word.
One can also imagine someone's having learnt the game without ever learning or formulating rules. He might have learnt quite simple board-games first, by watching, and have progressed to more and more complicated ones. He too might be given the explanation "This is the king", - if, for instance, he were being shewn chessmen of a shape he was not used to. This explanation again only tells him the use of the piece because, as we might say, the place for it was already prepared. And in this case it is so, not because the person to whom we give the explanation already knows rules, but because in another sense he has already mastered the game.
Consider this further case: I am explaining chess to someone; and I begin by pointing to a chessman and saying: "This is the king; it can move like this,… and so on." - In this case we shall say: the words "This is the king" (or "This is called the 'king'") are a definition only if the learner already 'knows what a piece in a game is'. That is, if he has already played other games, or has watched other people playing 'and understood' - and similar things. Further, only under these conditions will he be able to ask relevantly in the course of learning the game: "What do you call this?" - that is, this piece in a game.
We may say: only someone who already knows how to do something with it can significantly ask a name.
And if we can imagine the person who is asked replying: "Settle the name yourself" - and now the one who asked would have to manage everything for himself.

(Ludwig Wittgenstein, Philosophical Investigations, Blackwell Publishing, 2001, p13)

 

 
 

 

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