Friday, 13 August 2010

"Propriety and yet strict meaninglessness"

There has been an interesting debate going on on two blogs (here and here) which focus on the philosophy of psychiatry. One passage in a recent post by Richard Gipps nicely summarises a line of thinking I think I share with him.

Whilst I think it is entirely wrong to blithely accept that we know what is meant when someone tells us, or we tell ourselves, that we have had the experience or thought that (e.g.) nothing is real, I really can't accept that what is actually happening is that the someone in question is having a particular experience that they merely happen to thematise (narrativize) in this manner. As N says, the question then remains as to why it is so entirely natural for the someone to thematise it thus... What I would rather urge is that the content of the experience is given precisely through that avowal of it which makes use of the notion of 'unreality'.
But yet, or so it seems to me, this need not cause us to become complacent in assuming that we (could) know (that there could be such a thing as knowing) what it would mean to talk of an experience (as) of everything being real or unreal. We know what it is for a dollar or a smile or a problem to be real; do we really - really - understand what it would mean for the world to be real or not? Isn't "the world" precisely that within which discriminations of the reality of this or that are made? Isn't the world a transcendental precondition for necessarily localised talk of 'reality' or 'unreality'? Isn't it to 'sublime the logic of our language' - to ignore the necessary background context within which the concept of 'real' operates and to try to use it about the context itself - to carry on in this way?
One aspect of the model I would, then, use for making sense of the twin utter propriety and yet strict meaninglessness (although is it really right to call it 'meaningless'? I have a feeling that doesn't quite make the point I'm aiming for) of talk of depersonalisation or derealisation is secondary sense. We are drawn to using the terms in the ways we do by the experiences we have. That we are so drawn is not something which could be justified by reference to the content of the experiences; rather, our being-thus-drawn is the 'beginning, and not the end, of this [particular] language-game'. It is the condition of our finding it intelligible. Wednesday is fat and Tuesday is thin; happiness is up and sadness is down; sopranos are high and basses are low; anger is red and envy is green; and so on. We know how to use the relevant terms in their everyday deployments, and then we redeploy them spontaneously and groundlessly to express or report such further experiences and phenomena. I know how to talk about unreal diamonds, and then I find myself using the same word to characterise the very being of others. The logic of my language is sublimed (I cannot - however hard I try, with however much sincerity - mean it in the way I normally mean 'real'). But, damn it, that really is the only way to describe the experience!

Richard seems here to be probing the same issue I have become interested in. The appropriateness of the use of words in secondary sense seems to play a constitutive role in individuating experiences such as that the world feels unreal. The experience is the experience it is because of the appropriateness of using this set of words. This is how Wittgenstein describes it:

§125. The feeling of the unreality of one’s surroundings. This feeling I have had once, and many have it before the onset of mental illness. Everything seems somehow not real; but not as if one saw things unclear or blurred; everything looks quite as usual. And how do I know that another has felt what I have? Because he uses the same words as I find appropriate.
But why do I choose precisely the word “unreality” to express it? Surely not because of its sound. (A word of very like sound but different meaning would not do.) I choose it because of its meaning.
But I surely did not learn to use the word to mean: a feeling. No; but I learned to use it with a particular meaning and now I use it spontaneously like this. One might say--though it may mislead--: When I have learnt the word in its ordinary meaning, then I choose that meaning as a simile for my feeling. But of course what is in question here is not a simile, not a comparison of the feeling with something else.
§126. The fact is simply that I use a word, the bearer of another technique, as the expression of a feeling. I use it in a new way. And wherein consists this new kind of use? Well, one thing is that I say: I have a ‘feeling of unreality’--after I have, of course, learnt the use of the word “feeling” in the ordinary way. Also: the feeling is a state. [Wittgenstein RPP I]

But despite the fact that just these words are the right words (I think that ‘right’ is the right word), they are not used in the standard, primary sense. And hence Richrd’s ‘twin utter propriety and yet strict meaninglessness’.

Now, however, what seems interesting to me is that there seem to be cases where such a spontaneous use is shared. One might reply: I know exactly how you feel. But what of cases where the use is not shared? What happens if one simply cannot do anything with it? In a paper I wrote some years ago I pushed the line that the only criterion we have for secondary sense is such shared reactions. What I meant was that there was no content to the claim that there was any kind of sense to it once that broke down (by the way: I’m not naturally a communitarian Wittgensteinian). Now whilst I do not wish to say that that’s false it seems to be much less interesting. It is a kind of surd fact that we have no reason to call such a case ‘sense’ rather than a fact that might helpfully explain anything else.

But that still leaves the issue that Neil Pickering raised a year ago: does secondary sense ever impose a rational obligation? Is ‘right’ right?