WITTGENSTEIN ON LANGUAGE-GAMES OF VISUAL SENSATIONS AND LANGUAGE-GAMES OF VISUAL OBJECTS

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  • The Southern Journal of Philosophy (1993) Vol. XXXI, No. 4

    WITTGENSTEIN ON LANGUAGE-GAMES

    LANGUAGE-GAMES OF VISUAL OBJECTS OF VISUAL SENSATIONS AND

    Mark E. Weber Boston University

    In Philosophical Investigations, 244, Wittgenstein asks the following:

    How do words refer to sensations? How is the connexion between name and the thing named set up? This question is the same as: how does a human being learn the meaning of the names of sensations?

    One answer is that we replace natural expressions and behaviors of pain, for example, with linguistic utterances containing the word pain. But not all sensations get named in this way, and Wittgensteins account of the connections between words and kinds of visual sensations, I intend to show in this essay, differs in important respects from his more familiar account of pain. According to Wittgenstein, there are no natural expressions, for instance, going together with having a red-impression which the utterance of red can replace. Red, in fact, is not initially applied to name a kind of visual impression, but is connected originally to the color of external, physical objects from within certain language-games (sets of concepts along with the practices in which these concepts are applied). Only later can red be applied so as to describe a visual impression. When this occurs, a new language-game can be said to come into existence: yet red does not now describe a new property in this new language-game, and the original connection between red and the physical color does not alter, but has a new application.

    For Wittgenstein, asking how the connection between red and a kind of visual sensation is established will provide insight, not only into how people happen to apply

    Mark Weber recently received his Ph.D. from Boston University. He is currently teaching philosophy on a part-time basis at several colleges in Connecticut and pursuing research in Wittgenstein and in the philosophy of psychology.

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  • the sign red, but also into what visual sensations are, into their logical characteristics or criteria of identity (cf., PI 370; RPP II 43-45). (See the last page for a list of Wittgen- steins texts referred to by abbreviation. All numbers refer to paragraph numbers unless preceded by a p. for a page reference.) I n arguing that language-games of visual impressions are second-order, dependent for their existence upon primitive language-games concerning external, public objects and their properties, he thereby intends to perspic- uously represent the identity conditions of visual sensations. His conception of their identity is well summarized in this comment: The sense-datum is an answer to the question: How does it look to you? (LPP p. 217). Far from impugn- ing the reality of visual sensations or analyzing them in some reductive, behaviorist fashion, this conception shows how visual sensations are at once dependent for their identity on who their experiencer is as well as on that creatures practices and environment, while being partially independent in their identity from what is the case in the external world.

    I. What are sensations? Typically, modern, precontemporary

    philosophers have supposed tha t sensations are mental contents, entities that a mind directly experiences. Whether or not they are deemed to be appearances of a n extra- mental realm of objects and properties and/or effects caused by the latter, sensations are construed as just those entities that a mind can (incorrigibly) know by a n immediate acquaintance.2 Modern philosophers, then, have sought to determine what sensations are through introspection; for sensations just are what they appear to be to the inner eye. Here one might look inwards to observe whether the experience of a sensation differs phenomenologically from, for example, the experience of a tendency or the expe- rience of believing,3 or how the sensation of pain differs experientially from that of a color-impression.4

    Against this approach, Wittgenstein claims that [ilntro- spection can never lead to a definition. It can only lead to a psychological statement about the introspector (RPP I 212). In order to introspect ones sensations, one must already know what sensations are; introspection assumes rather than provides for their definition. Though not himself proposing to define sensations by necessary and sufficient conditions (cf., LPP p. 3) , Wittgenstein does wan t to investigate what sorts of posts our sensation-concepts

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  • possess and just how these posts compare to those taken up by other psychological concepts-an investigation that will uncover some of the key criteria of identity of sensations (Essence is expressed in grammar [PI 3711; and grammar tells us what kind of object anything is [PI 373]).5 Below, so as to provide a context for his remarks on visual sensations, I shall give a summary of Wittgensteins broad conclusions about the nature of sensations.

    Wittgenstein finds that we apply our diverse concepts for sensations to express or describe certain kinds of mental states or states of consciousness, as opposed to kinds of mental dispositions (e.g., beliefs), moods (e.g., depression), abilities (e.g., understanding), or activities (e.g., calculating) (RPP 11 43-9, 63, 148, 173-5). As states of consciousness, sensations have the logical characteristics of being interruptible by breaks in consciousness and shifts in attention (RPP II 43-50; PI p. 59, footnote (a)), and of possessing genuine duration, measurable by a stopwatch, with a beginning, middle and end (RPP II 51). At the same time, Wittgenstein sharply demarcates sensations (together with mental images) off from other states of consciousness such as seeing, hearing, anger, grief, and fear. Unlike perceptual or emotional states, sensations are something we experience or undergo (RPP I 836); they are contents of experience (RPP I105 , 109). We undergo sensations when we perceive something; we may also experience a typical range of sensations when we are in a state of anger or fear (RPP II 63, 148). As undergoings, sensations have duration, intensity, and run a course (RPP 1836) ; sensations have quantity, quality, mixture (LPP p. 218). Finally, sensations are distinct from other undergoings such as mental visual images, not by a difference in the degree of their experienced vivacity (RPP II 63), but because only sensations, not images, inform us about the external world, and because images are subject to the will whereas sensations are not (RPPII63).6

    The above conclusions do not readily lend themselves to a behaviorist reading of sensations. Besides failing to treat talk of sensations as shorthand for talk of observable behavior, Wittgenstein does not replace talk of consciously experienced sensations with talk of sensory stimuli described from a third person perspective. Nor, despite a strong tradition of interpretation to the contrary,7 does he appear to give a range of behavioral criteria for what sensations are. Why, then, does he deny that we can name sensations simply by associating signs with a range of

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  • sensations first picked out by a kind of focalization of attention?

    11. The later Wittgensteins various positive accounts of how

    we refer to sensations are intertwined with arguments, often called his private language argument, for why one seemingly obvious explanation cannot work. These argu- ments, in turn, do much to explain why we go about naming our sensations in the ways that we do. But though widely discussed, Wittgensteins arguments against this explana- tion have been diversely interpreted and commonly misun- derstood and thus I will briefly state what I take to be the target and nature of his criticisms of it.

    Wittgenstein targets a hypothesis about how signs connect with sensations going something like this: one day a mind concentrates its attention upon a this it is immediately experiencing. Not unlike a primal Adam, it then decides to invent a sign, say S, and associate it with the this it has discriminated by focusing its attention. After connecting S to this, it now applies S by making such judgments as This is S again, verifying their truth by comparing the this to which it now attends to the that to which it attended in the past and labeled S. Such signs and judgments are utterly primitive in that their meaning is not dependent on other words, concepts, or practices (cf., PI 243).8

    Not only does the above hypothesis fail to accord with how our words actually do come to refer to sensations (PI 256), Wittgenstein contends that it fails to explain how our words could do so. First, he argues that the practice of naming something inheres in a complex surrounding of (human) practices, aims, and environments. Only in the context of such surroundings can we understand an activity to be that of naming something, and only along with further surround- ings is what someone does the naming of a sensation and not, say, of a sort of rock. A great deal of stage-setting is presupposed by our use of pain, showing what post this word takes up (PI 256). The idea that someone someday simply attends to her inner objects and associates names with these objects ignores the necessity of such stage- setting; but without it there is no reason to suppose that she has named a sensation, or even a something that she has. Has and something also belong to our common lan- guage (PI 261).

    Second, even supposing that a person possesses the stage- setting necessary to name a sensation, Wittgenstein argues

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  • that the ceremony of attending to an object of immediate acquaintance and associating a name with it fails to set up a connection between a sign and a kind of sensation (PI 258). It is not that this ceremony fails becau