Meaning, Knowing and Metaphor: On a Section from Wittgenstein’s “Blue Book”

To my readers: This is two thousand words long, and no, it is not a paper I wrote that I’m posting. This is original, and is meant as a blog post. All the passages that are pertinent are listed in the text below, even if they are a bit out of order, and can be used to assess if my commentary does them justice.

I should say that this commentary could be wholly inaccurate. I am focusing only on one passage of the Blue Book, and while I’ve read the entirety of it before, as well as a considerable amount of other things by Wittgenstein, a thorough commentary on the Blue Book might prove a lot of these thoughts speculative.

for Nancy

1. The library metaphor, and the possibility of progress in philosophy:

“Imagine we had to arrange the books of a library. When we begin the books lie higgledy-piggledy on the floor. Now there would be many ways of sorting them and putting them in their places. One would be to take the books one by one and put each on the shelf in its right place. On the other hand we might take up several books from the floor and put them in a row on a shelf, merely in order to indicate that these books ought to go together in this order. In the course of arranging the library this whole row of books will have to change its place. But it would be wrong to say that therefore putting them together on a shelf was no step towards the final result. In this case, in fact, it is pretty obvious that having put together books which belong together was a definite achievement, even though the whole row of them had to be shifted. But some of the greatest achievements in philosophy could only be compared with taking up some books which seemed to belong together, and putting them on different shelves; nothing more being final about their positions than that they no longer lie side by side. The onlooker who doesn’t know the difficulty of the task might well think in such a case that nothing at all had been achieved. – The difficulty in philosophy is to say no more than we know. E.g. to see that when we have put two books together in their right order we have not thereby put them in their final places.”

– Wittgenstein, “The Blue Book”, pg. 45 of the Harper Torchbook Edition

2. Context of this quote

The immediate context of this passage is that it is situated in the midst of a tricky discussion about “meaning.” The question the Blue Book started with is “How do we account for the meaning of ‘meaning’?” The tricky thing about “meaning” is that to give it a definition, of course, would mean that we already knew what “meaning” meant.

So on BB 43 Wittgenstein reaches this preliminary conclusion:

“Meaning” is one of the words of which one may say that they have odd jobs in our language.

He then uses a metaphor to describe this: Imagine an “institution” with “functions,” like an office (“office” is my idea). If you wanted to know what the office in question does, you’d ask what the employees do there. Some type, some take care of finances, some take care of the mail and mailing. All one has to ask is what is being done, or what numbers the people in the office are working with, or what sort of mail they get, and one knows what the “office” is doing more specifically.

It looks like an “institution,” then, can be defined by “function.”

But we can imagine this office hiring a guy to do other things, right? Things like making pizza runs for the employees working overtime, or emptying out garbage, or working with a special project. Would that “function” define the “institution”? Of course not.

Hence, Wittgenstein says What causes most trouble in philosophy is that we are tempted to describe the use of important ‘odd-job’ words as though they were words with regular functions (BB 44). We expect the uses of “meaning” to deliver the same information that knowledge of what is typed in an office would deliver; the uses of “meaning,” though, refuse to give that info, even as they do many very important but diverse things.

It is after this discussion that Wittgenstein talks about something that seems to be an abrupt change of pace. This “something” resides between the metaphorical discussion of meaning and the quote about the library being organized above:

The reason I postponed talking about personal experience was that thinking about this topic raises a host of philosophical difficulties which threaten to break up all our commonsense notions about what we should commonly call the objects of our experience. And if we were stuck by these problems it might seem to us that all we have said about signs and about the various objects we mentioned in our examples may have to go into the melting-pot.

The situation in a way is typical in the study of philosophy; and one sometimes has described it by saying that no philosophical problem can be solved until all philosophical problems are solved; which means that as long as they aren’t all solved every new difficulty renders all our previous results questionable. To this statement we can only give a rough answer if we are to speak about philosophy in such general terms. It is, that every new problem which arises may put in question the position which our previous partial results are to occupy in the final picture. One then speaks of having to reinterpret these previous results; and we should say: they have to be placed in a different surrounding (BB 44).

The big question is: Where did these two paragraphs come from? The first one talks about “personal experience.” What does that have to do with anything regarding “meaning” and “odd-jobs”? The second one talks about every new problem/advance in philosophy threatening all others – how does that tie into “personal experience,” and all the other topics mentioned?

I think the topic of “personal experience” comes merely from the fact Wittgenstein used a metaphor to describe how “meaning” works. The problem with a metaphor is that it doesn’t define any of the elements it uses; it is not a strict logical accounting that can be analyzed. It depends, rather, on one speaker just “knowing” that his audience has had certain experiences, and trusting that he can build an analogy that can be followed.

Metaphor is quite different from the proto-language games and the other thought experiments which are genuinely analytic, which try to force us to break down the very particular uses of language so we can get a grasp on where the philosophical problem is coming from. Wittgenstein had presumably used these sorts of tactics earlier (I forget, it’s been 4 years since I read the Blue Book entirely), but metaphor, which he’s using to try and resolve this situation right now, is a vastly different method than those others.

The second paragraph, about whether we can make any progress in philosophy or not, ties into the first as metaphor’s depending on “personal experience” forces one to address a radical skepticism. If “personal experience” is going to lead us to Truth, how on earth is it going to do so? After all, I don’t share the same experiences you do, & you don’t share mine. There is no guarantee we actually speak the same language, even. For all I know, an invisible presence around you might shield you from my words and prevent you from hearing anything I speak and tell you something entirely different from what I say, something that only coincidentally prompts a response from you that looks like a perfectly rational response to me.

Wittgenstein does not address this radical skepticism directly. Instead he asserts that yes, difficulties arise. Does that mean we want to throw out everything that has come before?

3. Back to the library

What’s curious about the library metaphor isn’t just that he’s using a metaphor to defend his use of metaphor, but also this:

1. We can take the books one at a time, and put them in the right place on the shelf.

2. We can take several books at once and put them on the shelf, declaring them to be a unit that makes a coherent whole.

Who on earth puts books on a shelf one at a time? It’s not only laborious, but in some sense counterproductive. After all, if philosophy is grammar, and concerned with the use of words, then words don’t work because we utter one – they work because there is a context, because we understand something about a given situation which makes the word make sense. Yet, I think, those who are looking for a logically perfect language have to put books on a shelf one at a time. Each word must have its proper place, and its referents must be accounted for entirely.

It is option #2, books in units, that allows Wittgenstein to say there might be a way to conceive of progress in philosophy. It is a major achievement if one book can be placed next to another, and that place is certainly the right place. It doesn’t even matter if the books get shifted again, as long as they get shifted as a unit, for that is what is a philosophical achievement.

Which makes me wonder: Is progress in philosophy really possible? Wittgenstein has given us a picture of what it might look like, but he has not decisively routed the objection he posed, which is that some philosophical difficulties could cause the whole of past philosophy to be reconsidered. He has suggested that such a momentous happening would occur because of an emphasis on personal experience, but has used another metaphor, one again dependent on personal experience (imagine how hard it is to sort a library) to try to steer clear of the consequences of the other use of metaphor (again, its persuasiveness being reliant on personal experience).

Wittgenstein is very aware of all that is going on: The difficulty in philosophy is to say no more than we know (BB 45). He gives one example of this as understanding that two books, when they most certainly should be together, can still be moved around as a whole. And he is going to go on and say that a lot of other problems arise from “personal experience” as the basis of philosophizing.

But how do we deal with his two great uses of metaphor? And how do they relate to knowing?

4. Metaphor and knowledge

It is obvious to me that the two metaphors make sense, even while they don’t put – esp. the latter one – certain philosophical objections to rest. The first one explains how “meaning” works. The second one explains how progress in philosophy might be possible.

Using the second one, we can see a purpose for philosophy that would create such progress. The trick would be for philosophy to be dedicated not to skepticism, but to keeping us from making claims we shouldn’t make. The philosophy of Wittgenstein’s day was in (like much philosophy today) a pre-Kantian mode in need of critique. Frege and Russell wanted their logically perfect language that was going to make science that much easier and eliminate or prove that there was a God blah blah blah. One way of keeping philosophy in line is to appreciate its power in letting us understand how deeply some things relate, things that we wouldn’t expect to relate. A good example of “two books going together” is the research that shows that strong verbal and mathematical skills are complementary. We know this from Godel’s work in logic: arithmetic is incomplete and of infinite richness not because it is tied to the absolute certainty that attracts many to mathematics, but because of its roots in the richness of language. Math is a language, and we understand that better because of philosophy.

Re: Wittgenstein’s use of metaphor and his inability to completely rid himself of the problems “personal experience” creates – he might be against something deeper than he has conceived. Heidegger would insist that certain questions aren’t just things we ask, but things we are, and they can’t go away. Wittgenstein would concede, I think, and then get caught, at least from these passages. For Heidegger’s questioning runs at just as deep a level, if not deeper, and pushes philosophy in another direction, one that does not look for little results but for purpose itself. Such a direction depends upon the fact that we do think, when we do philosophy, that all prior knowledge is questionable, and all progress to date is questionable. And why shouldn’t we think that?

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  1. Such a direction depends upon the fact that we do think, when we do philosophy, that all prior knowledge is questionable, and all progress to date is questionable. And why shouldn’t we think that?

    Because it’s a tad pointless. That all of philosophy is questionable is just a consequence of the fact that everything is questionable.

    You don’t run around using this kind of skepticism when you’re doing day to day tasks, so why do we have to suddenly remember when that task changes to philosophy?

    Well…do you?

  2. For some reason I know a number of Christians who are Heideggerian. I’m trying to figure out what the connection is there, if there is one.

    My main reason for not getting into Heidegger is just the convoluted language he uses. Something I don’t think Wittgenstein would find appealing either.

  3. meaning of meaning

    two books on a shelf

    go figure

    this is not possible until all the books are in and many have not yet been

    I agree with him

    Put one book in the hand of Christ and another somewhere else

    Give free parachutes to the cognoscenti.

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