Tuesday, 15 December 2009

Transitive and intransitive meaning

Richard Gipps has been trying to persuade me, over the last couple of years, to have a less monolithic attitude to meaning. The moral I’ve taken him to be trying to impress on me is twofold.

First, we need to avoid both the pitfalls of platonism and constructionism about meaning. Wittgenstein should be taken to be opposing a notion of meaning that severs all connection to our meaning-laden reactions (on the opposed platonist picture, rails that lead to infinity take care of meaning without our reactions, eg.). And thus, by extension, Wittgenstein opposes a picture in which one can begin to gesture towards other meaning-driven ways of going on, ways which, however, we can make nothing of – cannot understand or follow – but can still think of, from a detached philosophical perspective at least, as norm- or meaning-driven (cf Lear).

At the same time – and still part of the first aspect – we should not react to this rejection by adopting a view of meaning in which we simply make things up as we go along. We should not think of meaning as a matter of piecemeal construction.

All that is the first part of the moral, I think, that I’m being urged to accept. And I do accept all this. Steering a middle ground between platonism and constructivism seems to me to be a helpful way of characterising whatever is positive in Wittgenstein’s description of meaning [Thornton 1998]. Of course, this isn’t a positive substantial or explanatory theory of meaning.

What I have found harder to accept, until recently, is a second thought: notwithstanding the rejection of platonism – and thus the rejection of the idea, at least, of other ways of going on – this doesn’t imply that we have now fully left the domain of meaning and our meaning-related reactions. It’s possible to maintain the rejection of platonism but still have a more pluralistic response to its absence. Richard and I are finishing a research bid that charts just this space for the case of nonsensical delusional thought and expressions.

Against this background I have been re-reading Wittgenstein’s Remarks on Frazer’s Golden Bough, Peter Winch’s The Idea of Social Science and its Relation to Philosophy and reading Phil Hutchinson, Rupert Read and Wes Sharrock’s There is No Such Thing as a Social Science.

This has forced me to rethink what one might call an intransitive notion of meaning. We can think of this on the basis of what Wittgenstein says in passages of the Brown Book in which he criticises a constitutive theory of meaning (passages which I think that Louis Sass misuses) and distinguishes transitive and intransitive uses of ‘particular’ (in order to criticise the idea that meaning something consists in a ‘particular’ experience). (I should add that using this distinction positively doesn’t undermine my worry that there is something wrong in sass using Wittgenstein’s account of what meaning isn’t and cannot be to shed light on delusional thinking.)

Now the use of the word "particular" is apt to produce a kind of delusion and roughly speaking this delusion is produced by the double usage of this word. On the one hand, we may say, it is used preliminary to a specification, description, comparison; on the other hand, as what one might describe as an emphasis. The first usage I shall call the transitive one, the second the intransitive one. Thus, on the one hand I say "This face gives me a particular impression which I can't describe". The latter sentence may mean something like: "This face gives me a strong impression". These examples would perhaps be more striking if we substituted the word "peculiar" for "particular", for the same comments apply to "peculiar". If I say "This soap has a peculiar smell: it is the kind we used as children", the word "peculiar" may be used merely as an introduction to the comparison which follows it, as though I said "I'll tell you what this soap smells like:...". If, on the other hand, I say "This soap has a peculiar smell!" or "It has a most peculiar smell", "peculiar" here stands for some such expression as "out of the ordinary", "uncommon", "striking". [Wittgenstein 1958: 158]

Now the intransitive notion of meaning might be what’s in play in a passage in which Wittgenstein compares musical and semantic understanding such as:

527. Understanding a sentence is much more akin to understanding a theme in music than one may think. What I mean is that understanding a sentence lies nearer than one thinks to what is ordinarily called understanding a musical theme. Why is just this the pattern of variation in loudness and tempo? One would like to say "Because I know what it's all about." But what is it all about? I should not be able to say. In order to 'explain' I could only compare it with something else which has the same rhythm (I mean the same pattern). (One says "Don't you see, this is as if a conclusion were being drawn" or "This is as it were a parenthesis", etc. How does one justify such comparisons?--There are very different kinds of justification here.)
531. We speak of understanding a sentence in the sense in which it can be replaced by another which says the same; but also in the sense in which it cannot be replaced by any other. (Any more than one musical theme can be replaced by another.)
In the one case the thought in the sentence is something common to different sentences; in the other, something that is expressed only by these words in these positions. (Understanding a poem.)
532. Then has "understanding" two different meanings here?--I would rather say that these kinds of use of "understanding" make up its meaning, make up my concept of understanding. [Wittgenstein 1953]

I have always been suspicious of this because of the use of it which David Bell intends when he suggests that intransitive meaning can serve as the basis for transitive meaning, addressing Kant’s schematism worry (what other than a rule can guide the application of a concept to a particular?). But there is no need to saddle Wittgenstein with Bell’s project. And if not we have a notion of meaning in play but not meaning anything. (‘[I]f, recognizing this, I resign myself to saying "It just expresses a musical thought", this would mean no more than saying "It expresses itself"’ [Wittgenstein 1958: 166])

So what notion of meaning is this?

A recurring theme in the Remarks of Frazer’s Golden Bough is Wittgenstein’s criticism of Frazer’s method of shedding light on the alien cultural practices by looking for underlying causes (such as quasi-scientific attempts to intervene in nature through rain dances). To a first approximation, Wittgenstein suggests instead that the meaning of cultural practices lies open to view (for those, at least, with eyes to see). One comparison he uses is to remind us of our habit of kissing a picture of one’s beloved. This is not the means to any distinct end. (A really helpful comment in the Hutchinson, Read & Sharrock book is to suggest that we are NOT supposed to find our own habit here unsurprising. Although this is what we do, still on reflection, it’s a bit strange. So, I infer, we can find our way to a degree with the aliens even if what they do remains a bit strange.)

(There’s a section which I cannot fit quite into this approach. The Beltane Fire festival, pictured, is a disturbing ritual involving cake eating, buttons and simulated death. Of this, Wittgenstein wants to suggest that part of what makes it disturbing is its ancientness. But that it is ancient is not a Frazer style hypothesis about . Rather its very appearance bespeaks ancientness. That seems rather hard to swallow.)

So we have a notion of understanding which might be put like this. On Frazer’s approach, the rituals described in one way mean something else. A dance that, we know, cannot have any effects on the weather, is nevertheless attempted for that reason. That is the kind of act it, intentionally, is. On Wittgenstein’s approach we can come to an understanding of the rituals (albeit by a potentially painful process of self-transformation) in their own terms. They mean what they mean.

My slight qualm is that I’m not yet fully beyond my monolithic impulses. I’m not sure that this, failing to be transitive, is any sort of meaning. Or better: it is meaning merely in secondary sense. This is part of what I wish to research.

Bell, D. (1987) 'The art of judgment’ Mind 96: 221–44
Hutchinson, P, Read, R., and Sharrock, W (2008) There is No Such Thing as a Social Science, Aldershot: Ashgate.
Thornton, T. (1998) Wittgenstein on Language and Thought, Edinburgh: EUP
Winch, P. ([1958] 1990). The Idea of a Social Science and its Relation to Philosophy, London: Routledge.
Wittgenstein, L. (1953) Philosophical Investigations, Oxford: Blackwell.
Wittgenstein, L. (1958) The Blue and Brown books, Oxford: Blackwell.
Wittgenstein, L. (1978) Remarks on Frazer’s Golden Bough, Doncaster: Brynmill Press