Wittgenstein, “Philosophical Investigations” 2: Blocks and Slabs

[Note: In my Introduction to Philosophy class, I start with Wittgenstein, precisely because he pushes us to explain what we normally take for granted. In the “Lecture on Ethics,” the question is what we mean when we state moral propositions. I want a few other questions of this sort to work through with the class. For example, what assumptions hide within a given use of language? What do we know, or what are we supposed to act like we know, that enables us to operate in the world?]

Désirée Weber observes that “a striking number of Wittgenstein’s examples throughout the Philosophical Investigations (PI) revolve around teaching and learning.” This complicates and deepens readings of PI: it isn’t enough to name the various philosophical or linguistic theories which may be critiqued in Wittgenstein’s thought-experiments. It is only enough to try to grapple with how they “[shed] light on the basis of normativity, the capacity to judge and the role of criteria in guiding our actions and sharing the forms of life that we inhabit” (Weber 1). For this reader, Weber’s citing Wittgenstein on a particular topic strikes as exceptionally powerful. How do we even know we’re in pain? Page 5 of Weber’s “A Pedagogic Reading of the Philosophical Investigations:” “In the case of pain, Wittgenstein ponders the following circumstance: if the immediate access to one’s own pain is not a suitable foundation for judgment, then can the only explanation be that we learn to exhibit and recognize pain behavior…?” We could conclude “norms” aren’t just things political scientists and wannabe pundits argue about—they may be how we know we’re even in the world; they’re about feeling pain in the first place. Accordingly, Weber holds that for Wittgenstein, “our individual self-conception is interwoven with the web of meaning beyond ourselves and in which we learn to understand ourselves” (6).

Earlier in her paper, Weber touches on Wittgenstein’s “complete” language from PI 2. From PI 2, edited by Lois Shawver:

Let us imagine a language …The language is meant to serve for communication between a builder A and an assistant B.  A is building with building-stones; there are blocks, pillars, slabs and beams.  B has to pass the stones, and that in the order in which A needs them.  For this purpose they use a language consisting of the words ‘block’, ‘pillar’, ‘slab’, ‘beam’.  A calls them out; –B brings the stone which he has learnt to bring at such-and-such a call. — Conceive this as a complete primitive language. 

Wittgenstein seems to assert that this thought-experiment has a very specific purpose. He wants to critique a “philosophical concept of meaning” which “has its place in a primitive idea of the way language functions.” Words have meanings, and meanings are objects. Maybe those meanings offer us access to the objects in the world which we sense: perhaps when I say “chair,” an object for sitting appears in my mind, one that I can recognize in my everyday experience. In the thought-experiment above, there is a language with 4 words—”block,” “pillar,” “slab,” and “beam”—which exists for an express purpose, communication between a builder and an assistant. Quite literally, it seems, words are objects. The only thing the assistant is to do is to bring the relevant stone—a “block,” a “pillar,” and so on—when the word is said.

So that’s it, right? We’ve exhausted “meaning” in this primitive language! The meaning of the word is the object the assistant has to pass to the builder. Here, Weber’s focus on teaching and learning comes into full relief. She wants to know how this language gained “traction,” how the interaction between builder and assistant became “norm-governed in the first place” (3-4). Someone might say she’s missing the point, but that’s not at all true—Wittgenstein himself wrote that the assistant learned to bring the appropriate stone at a certain call. How did that happen? For Weber, the “complete” language is complete: it contains worlds despite how simple it is. Because of that, ironically enough, if you say meaning admits of a simple definition in this scenario, that’s not quite going to work.

What strikes me is that we have not begun to exhaust “meaning” even in this extremely primitive scenario. The builder and assistant, to take an example, have different purposes with the same words within the “complete” language. Again, there are worlds stemming from a mere 4 words. The builder needs stones in a specific order to build a certain object. There may be another language he has access to which explains what he may be building and how. The assistant may also have specialized knowledge, another language of his own. What if the differences between a “block” and “slab” are hard to detect? What if the builder himself would have trouble telling the difference between the two, but the assistant can more easily see it? One approach uniting some of these concerns: If you remember Aristotle’s discussion early in the Ethics of a hierarchy of ends of various arts, you know what I’m driving at. Something done for its own sake, with no other end, is what governs all other arts: we commit to political science, then, for the sake of human happiness. Similarly, there’s a hierarchy hiding in the ends of builder and assistant in one way of imagining this scenario. That hierarchy can’t possibly be irrelevant when considering meaning, not because “hierarchy” has any priority over other interpretations, but because it opens questions of power, imagination, and realization. What, in the end, is being built by the builder and assistant?

I am open to the charge that I myself am imagining too much. But I respond that there are potentially two different meanings for “block” and “slab” and each of the other words because the builder and assistant see them from two different perspectives. The so-called higher purpose of building may unite these different meanings, but it does not eliminate them. They are still around and lead to other language-games and other languages.

Wittgenstein, I believe, seems to share a similar idea. He concludes this experiment in PI 3 with this remark: It is as if someone were to say: “A game consists in moving objects about on a surface according to certain rules…” –and we replied: You seem to be thinking of board games, but there are others. You can make your definition correct by expressly restricting it to those games. Someone might say “block,” “pillar,” “slab,” “beam,” on their own, can build a house. All one has to do is call them out and arrange them. But let’s say a house is built, somehow, out of these things. It looks like we’ve described one thing, one sort of game, maybe only one way of building a house.

It is the case I began this post by crediting Weber for opening up, for me, the possibility of addressing the topic of self-knowledge in Wittgenstein’s thought. She uses the phrase “individual self-conception,” which one might consider more specific than self-knowledge. I do believe that being able to identify what pain is and means goes a long way to building one’s identity and understanding how society encourages or stands in opposition to it. “Blocks” and “slabs” do not immediately lend themselves to pain and how we know ourselves. But they do speak to expectation–the builder’s expectation for the assistant, written into the words themselves more visibly, and the assistant’s expectation for the builder, which is silently present. It may sound obvious to say that expectations can be an essential part of norms, but nothing could be less obvious in daily life. Every second of every day we expect people to conform to a number of ideas we quietly hold about them. We are unrelenting in our demand for “blocks” and “slabs,” and the question of what we’re building might not ever be raised.


Weber, Désirée (2015). “A Pedagogic Reading of the Philosophical Investigations: Criteria Judgment and Normativity.” International Wittgenstein Symposium, Kirchberg von Wechsel, Austria. Accessed via https://www.academia.edu/15257487/A_Pedagogic_Reading_of_the_Philosophical_Investigations_Criteria_Judgment_and_Normativity

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