I was lucky enough to be invited to talk to my local U3A philosophy group on Wittgenstein today. Sadly I made the schoolboy error of trying to cover too much and so didn't let discussion develop properly and fully. Many years ago, I was able to spend a weekend introducing Wittgenstein at an adult education centre. A whole weekend, with time for discussion over a coffee or beer, may have contributed to my foolish thoughts about timing today. Anyway, here is a prose introduction to Wittgenstein on the harmony of thought and reality.
Background: what are ‘propositional attitudes’?
attitudes are mental states about things, states of affairs, events etc.
Suppose I am in my
office in Preston and am asked where my cat is likely to be. I say, and think,
Sootica is in the airing cupboard in my house in Kendal. So I have a
thought or belief that Sootica is in the airing cupboard in my house in Kendal
We can generate other
examples of different kinds of thoughts. If asked where she will be later I can
say, and think, I expect
will be waiting by the door in Kendal when I get home. Or if asked where I last
saw her I might say: I remember
she was waiting for a third breakfast by her bowl.
All of these cases
are ‘propositional attitudes’, a posh phrase for a mental state about
something, some state of affairs or possible fact.
are expressed by verbs such as believe, hope, expect,
are express by the phrase after the word ‘that’ which
describes a possible fact. Hence various propositional attitudes given by
different attitudes taken towards different propositions.
I expect that Sootica will be waiting by the
door in Kendal when I get home.
I believe that Sootica is in the airing
cupboard in my house in Kendal.
I remember that Sootica was waiting for a third
breakfast by her bowl.
If I am in Preston
and I believe that Sootica is in the airing cupboard in my house in Kendal then
I am in a mental state in Preston which concerns a possible state of affairs in
Kendal. My mental state is about
possible fact. It represents it. It concerns her and the cupboard and her being
What could such a mental
state possibly consist in? How is it – so much as - possible to be in such a mental
state? What is such aboutness? (In philosophy, the technical word for this is
This isn’t the
question of how one can be justified
thinking such a thing. Perhaps experience or others’ testimony is an answer to
that. Nor is it a question of why
believes or expects something. Perhaps after a run of heads it is natural to
expect the next coin toss is more likely to be tails. That is irrational but a
natural expectation. Still that isn’t the problem. The problem is how
one thinks it.
So not: what
justifies the belief that Sootica is in the cupboard, nor why does one think
it, but what sort of state is that?
There are many
relational states but none seems right for explaining aboutness
(in the way my thought is about Sootica). It is not, for
example, a state of ‘being on top of’ (as a cat on a mat). Nor is it a state of
‘being 50 miles from’ (as Preston is from Kendal, that doesn’t make Preston about
Kendal). Nor does it seem to be a
state of ‘being caused by’. The airing cupboard temperature may be warmer
because Sootica is in there breathing. Or she may be there because it is warmer
than the house. But neither of those causes is ‘about’ Sootica being in the
cupboard. So the attempt to shed light on how a mental state can be about
something is not helped by most of the familiar relations that hold between
The aim of answering
this is not armchair biology but rather to find a way that such a state doesn’t
seem utterly mysterious and impossible.
Two possible solutions sadly fail
Perhaps having a
mental state about something is explained by having a mental picture of that
state of affairs? In other words, since pictures are familiar and unmysterious,
we can use them to shed light on belief and other propositional attitudes.
What’s good about this suggestion?
Pictures are both
about, but also independent of, what they depict. A picture can be of Sootica
in the airing cupboard and it can still exist even if she is not in the
cupboard. (Obviously!) So if a thought is a picture then that may explain how
thought can be both about but also independent of what it concerns. In other
words, it can be true or false, as thought obviously can be. (Similarly, an
expectation can come
true or not.)
But a picture is
what it depicts. It
only represents it to someone who understands its rules of projection. A two
dimensional picture only represents a three dimensional cat in a cupboard given
the right rules of projection.
Now one may try to
fix this problem by saying that thought is explained as having both a mental picture
and a grasp of its rules of projection.
But if we take
seriously the idea that thought is explained by pictures, thinking about the
rules of projection (understanding them) will also have to be a matter of
having a mental picture
Perhaps we have a
mental picture which is modelled on the following possible actual picture. A
picture of both a real cat and also a person painting a picture of a cat with
dotted lines connecting the former to the latter. (Such a picture might be in a book on the history of perspective in art.) The problem is that this too
is a picture (of a cat and a picture of a cat) and it will only be understood
by someone who understands its
rules of projection.
So begins an infinite
regress (when one calls for a picture of a picture of a picture of a cat…)
Thus thoughts cannot
consist of pictures. We can explain pictures
by invoking thoughts of what they are about but not the other way round. Even
those people who ‘think in pictures’ think either about
pictures or have pictures in their minds when also thinking.
But pictures cannot explain thoughts.
2: Thoughts as (sort-of) perceptions
When I see
(by contrast with think about from
afar) that Sootica is in her cupboard, I am in a complicated state that
involves me, Sootica, the cupboard and me being awake and alert to this fact.
It is a relational state. Sootica herself is part of me seeing her. Seeing is
not merely an inner event. I cannot see what is not there (evidence might be
given in court to show I could not have seen the suspect, eg. Even if I thought
I saw her if she was not there). Of course, I can think I see things that are
not there but let’s focus on actual seeing. Could believing be a matter of sort-of-seeing
, in some spooky way at a
What’s good about this suggestion?
Because seeing is a
relational state that involves, in this case, Sootica herself, that explains
how my state of seeing can be about
Sootica. She is part of the state. It would not count as a case of my seeing
Sootica if she were not about to be seen. So unlike the picture explanation,
this solves the problem of how propositional attitudes can be about actual
states of affairs.
But what happens if
unbeknownst to me in Preston, Sootica isn’t in the cupboard in Kendal? If so,
there isn’t a fact for me to sort-of-see. If my belief (that she is in the
cupboard) is false, there isn’t a fact to explain what it is for me to have the
belief (namely to sort-of-see, in a spooky way, from 50 miles distance, her in
Roughly: the picture
explanation solves for false thought but not true thought and the
sort-of-seeing theory solves for true thought but not false thought.
Are there any other
(One might say that computers
and the web has aboutness. A Google inquiry yields truths about the world. But
the inquiry yields patterns on screens which we interpret as about the world.
In the background, much software and hardware engineering ensures ultimately
through physics that the right patterns are displayed on the screen for a given
use of the keyboard.)
Wittgenstein’s attempt to ease the tension
The above dilemma
plays out in this passage:
442. I see
someone aiming a gun and say “I expect a bang”. The shot is fired. - What! –
was that what you expected? So did that bang somehow already exist in your expectation?
Or is it just that your expectation agrees in some other respect with what
occurred; that that noise was not contained in your expectation, and merely
supervened as an accidental property when the expectation was being fulfilled?
a But no, if the noise had not occurred, my expectation would not have been
fulfilled; the noise fulfilled it; it was not an accompaniment of the
fulfilment like a second guest accompanying the one I expected. Was the feature
of the event that was not also in the expectation something accidental, an
extra provided by fate? – But then, what was not
an extra? Did something
of the shot already occur in my expectation? –
Then what was
extra? for wasn’t I expecting the whole shot.
“The bang was not as loud as I had expected.” – “Then was there a louder bang
in your expectation?”
that the actual event in the future, in all its later detail, cannot actually exist
earlier in my mental state (I could not sort-of-see
it in the future). And yet: that bang is what I did expect.
the bind of the dilemma described above. Wittgenstein sidesteps it.
red which you imagine is surely not the same (not the same thing) as the red
which you see in front of you; so how can you say that it is what you
imagined?” – But haven’t we an analogous case with the sentences “Here is a red
patch” and “Here there isn’t a red patch”. The word “red” occurs in both; so
this word can’t indicate the presence of something red.
stresses the apparent distinction between an object of thought and a worldly
feature; Wittgenstein replies with a baffling analogy with two contrasting
assertions. So why should one think that colours in the imagination must be
different to physical coloured samples? In this kind of case there is a
plausible motivation. Imagining the colour red might be assumed to involve
having a red mental image before the mind’s eye. If so, the question of whether
the red mental image is the same colour as a worldly sample of redness is
The response, however
– the suggested ‘analogous case’ – looks to concern something quite different,
the meaning of the word ‘red’ in two contrasting sentences. But the second
sentence - “Here there isn’t a
red patch” – functions no less well than the previous sentence even without the
presence of anything red. And hence the suggested diagnosis: if imagining
something red is modelled on a
about redness rather than a
red mental image, the problem of comparing inner and outer reds can be
sidestepped. This line of thought is clearer in the next pair of
444. One may have the feeling that in
the sentence “I expect he is coming” one is using the words “he is coming” in a
different sense from the one they have in the assertion “He is coming”. But if
that were so, how could I say that my expectation had been fulfilled? If I
wanted to explain the words “he” and “is coming”, say by means of ostensive
explanations, the same explanations of these words would go for both sentences.
But now one might ask: what does his coming look like? - The door opens, someone walks in, and
so on. - What does my expecting him |131| to come look like? - I walk up and down the room, look at
the clock now and then, and so on. - But
the one sequence of events has not the slightest similarity to the other! So
how can one use the same words in describing them? - But then perhaps I say, as I walk up
and down: “I expect he’ll come in.” - Now
there is a similarity here. But of what kind?!
Again the passage
concerns the connection between a mental state and a worldly event that
satisfies or fulfils it. This time, the initial worry is with the content of a
first person linguistic expression of an expectation and a description of an
event that satisfies it. But why might one think that the phrase ‘he is coming’
has two different senses depending on whether it is part of the former or an
assertion concerning the latter? One reason would be if one thought that in the
two uses, it stood for two different things: a merely mental object and a
worldly event. This would echo the previous difference between colour as
imagined and actual sample.
switches to language. The connection between a mental state and worldly event holds
in virtue of our use of the same linguistic phrase. ‘He is coming’ can be used
both to individuate the expectation and to report the event or fact that
satisfies it. Hence the climax:
445. It is in language that an
expectation and its fulfilment make contact.
And hence the
official Wittgensteinian line:
agreement, the harmony, between thought and reality consists in this: that if I
say falsely that something is red
, then all the same, it is red
it isn’t. |128| And in this: that if I want to explain the word “red” to
someone, in the sentence “That is not red”, I do so by pointing to something
Answers to homework questions
What general notion does McDowell invoke in Mind and World
explain (or rather to make un-mysterious) thought’s bearing on the world? What
‘-ism’ applies to this (though generally familiar in a slightly different area
and empiricism. In other words, he tries to show how thought is possible by
comparing it to perception. Light enters the mind via experience. That may be
true but what of false thought?
Does McDowell offer a symmetric
account of the cases of truth and falsity?
only directly addresses the case of true thought. This makes false thought mysterious.
Does McDowell’s explanatory notion play any
role in Wittgenstein’s discussion (here)?
Wittgenstein does not mention experience. His key idea is language.
Is there reason to think that Wittgenstein
treats cases of truth and falsity (satisfaction or not) differently?
especially since he attempts to account for the harmony of thought and reality
through the case of falsehood: ‘if I say falsely that something is red
then all the same, it is red
that it isn’t’.
With what other phenomena does Wittgenstein
compare intentional mental states (ie states that are about possible events /
As well as
a range of mental states (expectations, imaginings, wishes, plans), he invokes
orders and descriptive sentences.
In a nutshell, what is Wittgenstein’s account
of the connection between mental states and what they are about?
We use the
same language to describe both facts and mental states. It is merely truistic
that the expectation that he is coming is satisfied by him coming.
What follow up questions does that raise?
So if mental states
hook up to the world by descriptions, how does language hook up to the world? How
do we know what mental state we are in? Does the linguistic connection between
a mental state and what fulfils it create that connection or report one that
was already there? If the latter, in what fact does that connection consist?
Wasn’t that the connection we started with? (I think progress has been made!)