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Stuart W. Mirsky
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Language Idling

In a comment following an earlier blog post, one of Sean's about "Club meanings,' I suggested "investigative philosophy" as a way of signifying Wittgenstein's way of branching off from what we might agree to call "analytic philosophy," a branch that originally welcomed him as one of its own.

Wittgenstein himself encourages an investigative mindset, drawing from anthropology but also detective work. One must look for clues hiding in plain sight as it were. We are only blind to the workings of language because we are so untrained to really look at it, versus idly fantasizing about hidden mechanisms, fantasies taken up by neuroscience in our own day (2013).

Where there's police work, there must be crime, or in the medical paradigm, a condition in need of healing, and in Wittgenstein's later philosophy that sin is "language idling" or "doing no work". Cambridge is an "influenza zone", presumably infectious as he can only withstand abbreviated visits before he's running off to Norway or Russia or the wars to get cured.

"Language idling" is not the same thing as idle play or nonsense poetry or Alice in Wonderland. Rather, it has the appearance of working, perhaps of doing something profound. It's aspect is of something broken, but not obviously so, something hollowed out and rotten, but appearing to bear a load. As such, it might be dangerous, as "the next thing to really fail" (overtly, not just by failing to pass some subtle smell test). Wittgenstein had a background in engineering, aeronautical in particular, and was no doubt sensitive to the kind of catastrophic failure a more serious investigation might have prevented.

Another way of describing Wittgenstein's approach then, is one of relieving broken language games of load-bearing responsibilities, which in this metaphor would be any responsibilities whatsoever. A language so released from duty might feel newly light and a legitimate target for jibes, whereas earlier its exalted "seriousness" made it untouchable by the mere layman.  A sign of healing is when an older, less admirable form of life becomes risable.  We're out from under its death grip.  We need no longer suspend our disbelief.

In this sense then, Wittgenstein's branching away from the analytic approach, is also his way of starting to lay it to rest as a serious workingman's tool. You may need to learn computer languages but you won't need to obsesses about who cuts the barber's hair. Logicism, positivism, and scientism were all close affiliates of 1900s analyticism. In helping to usher in their demise as serious languages, Wittgenstein is injecting an air of levity, telling jokes, busting myths.

We don't have to let "philosophy" itself go down with that ship. He keeps a firm grip on the word itself, using it for what he's doing (a serious business, this undertaking). We just look over the side and wave, as the good ship Analytic sinks to the bottom. Good riddance.


Oral Traditions, Gospels & Accuracy 

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A Horse of a Different Color

An exploration of what it means to understand the meaning of symbols, words, and gestures and how the mind manifests this.

A symbol inscribed in some long forgotten language, when unearthed by an archaeologist, would have no meaning attached to it unless and until someone uncovers the key to it. It might not even be recognizable as something meaningful at all until the key is discovered. Absent that, we should take it for nothing more than random markings or the like. But with a key for decoding we find meaning there. What is this meaning we have unlocked?

Wittgenstein might have said it's just the use to which the symbol was put by its long ago makers, a use we discover for ourselves by effective exercises in decoding (possibly through reliance on some standard, e.g., a Rosetta stone, or by using mathematical means to discern linguistic frequencies and deduce, from these, the role the markings once played for their makers in the long lost language). Words and other physical signifiers get their meaning because we give it to them by coming to understand their intended uses.

But what does it mean to understand the use? . . .

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On Jesus and Philosophy of Love

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Can Machines Get It?

Considers the nature of understanding and meaning in light of John Searle's argument (in the CRA) against the possibility of computational cognition.

It's long seemed to me that one of the serious flaws in [John Searle's Chinese Room Argument] . . . is its failure to elucidate [the] mysterious feature he calls semantics (i.e., the meaning of a symbol, word or statement, etc.). After all, if machines like computers can't have semantics, we ought to at least know what it is we think they are unable to possess. It can hardly be enough to suppose that what we find in ourselves, at moments of introspection, when we are aware of understanding a symbol, word or statement, isn't available to computers merely because we can't imagine it . . .

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On The Club's Meaning of "Analytic Philosophy"

(Below is some additional discussion that became separated when I changed the publish date on the blog entry:)

Wittgenstein's On Certainty Reconsidered

An overview and analysis of the insights and implicit arguments in Wittgenstein's On Certainty with attention to the philosophical background which rendered radical skepticism such a compelling challenge to generations of western philosophers

G. E. Moore once claimed that he knew there was an external world (beyond his own mind, i.e., his perceptions, conceptions, etc.) because he could raise a hand and show it when asked (the physical body being part of the external world, the thoughts and our awareness of it being the "internal"). 'I know I have a hand,' he said (I'm paraphrasing), 'because here is one hand and here is another' at which point he held up his second. Moore's was an argument from common sense. Wittgenstein, as he lay dying, was asked to say something about that . . . The text was eventually published as On Certainty [and] takes off from Moore's "argument" to explore what it means to say we are certain of anything. . . .

To be certain is a state of mind, a condition of unwillingness to doubt, whatever the basis for that unwillingness. In that book he shows that there are different reasons not to doubt different things and that, just because we cannot be certain of something for one kind of reason, it doesn't follow that we cannot be certain for another, often quite different, sort of reason.

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