Wittgenstein, Language and an easy hardness

Wittgenstein’s a bit of a difficult one. In a funny way what he is saying is so simple, so in your face that you can’t quite grasp it. My grand-dad had an aphorism about maths that seems to fit Wittgenstein: “Maths is so easy it’s hard”.

I’ll give a quote and riff from there.

“504. But if you say: “How am I to know what he means, when I see nothing but the signs he gives?” then I say: “How is he to know what he means, when he has nothing but the signs either?” Philosophical investigations.

Say I have an image in my head and I try to communicate it to you what do I do? I may describe green trees and such and this description would be vague but it would be the way I would talk to myself about the image.

I could even go into minute detail by giving an exact mathematical description of the image. Like a computer graphic and the binary code that produces it.

I could even draw the image for you.

The thing is that the very means I use to see this image in my head are those that I can use to give you the image. There isn’t something hidden behind the image or the words just various degrees of exactness in the description.

There’s the old problem of how do I know that you mean what I mean when you say what I say. For example when you say you are in pain are you experiencing the same thing as me?

I think Wittgenstein would agree that you cannot be certain in the philosophical sense but he would then shrug his shoulders and say so what.

When you experience pain you act in a certain way. When you were young and being taught language when you behaved in this way you were given a particular training and treated in a particular way.

People would have said things like “Ahh does it hurt” and given you some paracetamol.

It could be that you exhibited this behaviour in response to a different sensation to the sensation I have when I behave this way.

We can also imagine that the treatment has the same effect – it stops you behaving in that way – as it does with me. If all this was the case then it doesn’t matter whether or not you experience the same thing as I do when you act out pain.

“If there is a bit of a machine that has no effect upon any other bit then it isn’t part of the machine” (It’s not verbatim but it is another quote from Wittgenstein.


Experience and inference

One of the problems that you encounter when you first come across ideas like non-duality is that on some level you believe that in order for you to understand it the world must appear other than it has up until then.

You’ve been thinking dualistically and straining your experience through that experiential sieve.

Since dualistic thinking is the only thinking you have been subjected to and lived in you find it hard to disentangle your thoughts about reality from reality itself.

The one fact of our existence that we cannot doubt or change is that we experience. Not that we experience stuff. The stuff is an inference from experience.

But to leave the sentence at “we experience” troubles us because experience is playing the role of a verb in that sentence. It is something we are doing and seems to need an object.

“I experience taste” and such.

Even the sentence “we experience” is an inference because there is nothing else but the experience that isn’t an inference.

We infer from experience ourselves as the experiencer.

I know this sounds a bit circular but if you look at your own experience and ask yourself “Where/what am I?” You’ll see you never experience yourself as the experiencer; you just experience.

This isn’t to say with Berkeley that “esse ist percipi” or that the essence or being is the perception or experience because this is also an inference.

All we can say with certainty is that there is an experience.

Even that we can only say when there actually is an experience occurring though we couldn’t even say it if there weren’t an experience occurring. This is because knowing is an experience.

Now there are many interpretations and explanations for experience. All of them “fit” experience because all of them are trying to explain the same set of data. This is essentially the purpose of metaphysics.

This means that whatever one is true makes no difference to your experience. Everything is Brahma pretending to be separate things accounts for the same experience as materialism.

This leads most people to justifiably shrug their shoulders in disinterest concerning metaphysical questions because in terms of how you live it doesn’t really matter which is true.

Which is why a lot of religions create a stake in the metaphysical terrain as a means of investing people in their systems. The typical stake is something like karma or heaven/hell.

Numbers, language and meaning

I noticed something a while ago. I was cleaning at school and came across a table with 3 columns. In the first column were the numerals 1 to 10, in the second column the binary values for 1 to 10 and in the third column the hex values for 1 to 10.

The curious thing I realized as I studied the table arose from the question “What do these symbols stand for?”

If I were to ask you what the binary value 10 stood for you would probably say “That stands for 2” and this wouldn’t give you too much trouble.

But what does 2 stand for? 2 is as much a symbol as 10.

The French word (read: symbol) for pineapple is ananas.

The English word for ananas is pineapple.

Ananas and pineapple are both symbols that mean the same thing as 2 and 10 mean the same thing. The difference is that the referent of the symbols for pineapple can be pointed to.

Say I ask you to point out 2 to me. You may direct my attention to a pair of nuts and say “There’s 2: 2 nuts”. If I subtract from the image everything that belongs to the nuts (shape, colour, size, position etc) then I am left with nothing.

There isn’t some entity I can point to and say “Look, there is 2”

This isn’t so much a problem in reality. It is a problem with a picture of language we have developed called the picture theory of language. That is the theory that states that all words have a meaning or that meaning is defined as being a correspondence between a symbol and what it signifies. Numbers are words, components of language that have no signified.

Journal of my journey towards understanding: Wittgenstein 1: Philosophical literature at its best

Wittgenstein’s “Philosophical Investigations” is philosophy literature at its best in my opinion.

One of the greatest features of philosophy is that it takes something we have grown familiar with, think is simple, think we have explained and so finished with; it takes this and explodes it into a complex, unfamiliar, mysterious (because it is unexplained) terrain full of mountains and valleys before which we can stand in awe.

In fact Wittgenstein in his preface to “Philosophical Investigations” describes his remarks as “sketches of landscapes which were made in the course of… long and involved journeyings”.

As far as I have got in the “ Investigations” – I’m on remark 78 – the phenomena he has exploded into its magnificent complexity is language.

A lot of his remarks are questions that he doesn’t answer but asks again and again in various analogies.

I love the way he doesn’t just say that Augustine was wrong with a capital “W”; rather that Augustine describes a language which doesn’t describe all that language does but never-the-less describes a language that could be considered complete.

This is where the concept of language games comes in. The language game that Augustine describes is a game not only in its own right and can stand on its own; but is also part of a larger game.

So it could be said to be complete and incomplete.

Isn’t that ambiguity just beautiful? To be able to say of a thing that it is whole and yet lacking?


I don’t ascribe to any belief.

Or rather a more accurate articulation of my position is that I neither belief nor disbelief anything. I pretend to believe something for a bit to have a little play around with it.

You know explore the world through that lens. Then when I grow bored of that perspective I pretend to belief something else and so on.

I created a game as a means of doing this. I call it the “If-Then-Or-If-Then” game.

For example: if proposition A is true then propositions B,C,D,E are true and propositions F,G,H,I are not true.

Or if Proposition A is not true then propositions B,C,D,E are not true and propositions F,G,H,I are true.

Which has led me to the question: “How do I get from proposition A being true to proposition B being true?”

I mean it seems self-evident but that’s not an answer that’s just another way of saying “I don’t know”.

I think this is the problem that the logical positivists hit against.

Of course we are using the rules we’ve noticed in experience to make these leaps. But as Hume shows we can discover that A causes B but we cannot discover why A causes B.

When ever we think we have discovered why A causes B we have just produced an answer that has the same problem. We just come up with another A causes B which requires an explanation as much as the original A causes B.

I think it’s because language is relational and any explanation of any relation is just another – often more complex – relation or set of relations that require as much explanation as what they are meant to be explaining.

It’s a bit like that skittles advert where everything the guy touches turns into loads of skittles except when he touches a skittle it turns into loads of skittles as well.

It’s funny to think that concept through! He’d end up surrounded by a constantly expanding sphere of skittles. He’d fall to the centre of the earth, the earth would eventually explode scattering skittles everywhere and there’d be this poor man left at the centre of it all with nothing to do but eat skittles. Ha Ha.

Really all we can do is describe relations.

We cannot explain them.

But that’s fine because all we need to do in order to act upon the world is describe the relations. Language is just a tool that enables us to interact with our environment.

“Now my Beef is with you!” Slang is good for language

Recently my sister got caught between our cousin and his ex. This led to my cousin’s ex saying “Now my beef is with her!”

My cousin’s ex said this to me because my sister had blocked her on Facebook. My reply was “I feel sorry for you; the world must be a very dark place where you are.”

Anyway this led to a more constructive debate between me and my sister on the virtues of slang.

She thinks slang is silly; I think slang is how a language grows and becomes richer.

For instance take the word “Beef”.

Originally beef had only one definition; as I like to call it function.

That was to signify a piece of meat from a cow. I think – though I’m not sure – it is only from a bull.


Have you ever seen one of those prize bulls? How muscular they are?

Limousin Bull Kaprico Donato

From the similarity in appearance between prize bulls and body-builders we got the terms “Beefy” and “Beef-cake” the function of which is to signify men with a very muscular physique.


Now wrestlers – you know the WWE kind – are all beef-cakes; at least the heavy-weights are.


Because wrestling is a combat sport beef came to have a 3rd and 4th function.


That is to signify the desire for a fight with someone or to signify that your relational status towards someone is one of enmity.

So a word that initially had one function now has four!

Don’t you see how this has enriched the English language? How it has given us possibilities for word-play such as puns.

Oh a very beautiful woman also pointed out another route via which beef could have come to have the 3rd and 4th meaning I mentioned.

“ “I’ve got beef with you” derives from the idea that you tenderize beef by hammering it repeatedly”


Naughty Communication

Arbitrary expressions of affection (or any emotion for that matter) come closer to displaying the true purpose of communication than say the form I am now engaged in. We don’t really communicate to convey information; we communicate for the sheer hell of it. But because we’re silly billys we have to create elaborate justifications for communication such as “to convey information” which is a bit like the teenagers caught fucking who said they were testing what they saw in biology class as justification for engaging in their activity.


Both with smirks on their faces too.

Language as virtual reality.

A thought occurred to me the other day whilst out with my friend Martin AKA Merzer.

I was thinking about how we exist in a 3 dimensional representation of the 2 – dimensional representation that is what we actually see.

Anyway I was thinking about how language acts as a kind of virtual reality.

You have experience and on top – or underneath (I don’t really know what direction best fits) – of that you have language.

Now we don’t have a word for every feature that is or could be.

So even if we had some kind of semantic superman who had at his disposable every word in the English language; even then he wouldn’t be able to communicate every aspect of his experience.

Words are a means of communicating experience from one mind to another but because words cannot cover every facet of reality our communication of our experience is going to be necessarily selective in what it conveys.

The virtual reality created by language exists in the conversations we have with ourselves and others.

It is virtual because it is constructed out of mental images.

Imagine I tell you that “I went to the shop and passed a child stuck in a tree and helped him down”. From this you construct an image in your head that is very likely to be radically different to the one I intended to convey.

But even if the image you constructed exactly corresponds to the verbal information given a lot of the components that made up that experience for me will still not be there. The green of the grass, the size of the child, and the way the tree looked.

I selected certain features I thought relevant to the information I was attempting to convey but left out features I considered irrelevant.

Just as a computer game doesn’t exactly mimic reality so the constructs we create from language in-put approximates reality to an even lesser degree.

The problem is that most academic pursuits are an attempt to render in language that which is experienced. This could well be one of the reasons for the failure philosopher’s have had in created an indisputable over-arching description of reality; coupled with their insistence that reality must be consistent.

Just a ramble

What are words but signs that point to concepts in the mind. Concepts not images for images are a sub-set of concepts. That is they can be reduced to each other.

What is language if not a set of pictures and do not these pictures come to express concepts.

There’s a problem here! Do concepts exist as words on a page or as mental content or forms?

If concepts are nothing but words on paper then concepts can be created by pictures. But if concepts are not words on paper. The words on the page being triggers for certain mental states.

But then they both comprise the same informational content.

Making sense of concepts requires a more holistic understanding that expresses the relationship between the Dasein, concepts and images.

Babies are awesome continued.

In fact the visual phenomena – in fact all sensory phenomena – is very similar to language. Think about it. Is the sensation of feeling the thing that is being felt?

Of course here I am playing a certain game. Let us for a bit forget about the uncertainity regarding external reality and pretend that there is an external reality that causes our sensory experience. Given this assumption it follows that all sensory experience is is a language the meaning of which is that which is causing the experience.

Just as the word “tree” is nothing like the collection of sense data it represents so the 2 dimensional image is nothing like the 3-dimensional image we think it represents. It may seem to be similar but I think this is nothing but a trick of familarity.

In fact the process of language acquisition must be similar to the process of image interpretation. Though I believe that it is harder to learn a language for a child than it is to come up with a concept that makes sense of sensory input. This is partly because it takes so long for the child to become competent at language compared to how long it takes the child to make sense of sensory input and partly due to the nature of the two tasks.

In the case of language a concept has to be generated or learnt for each word whereas in order to make sense of the 2 dimensional visual input there only needs to be one concept: 3 dimensional space.