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8: Wittgenstein on Reference and Relativism

I have been discussing the suggestion that Wittgenstein thought that religious language is non-cognitive (even if he doesn't explicitly say so). But what can “non-cognitive” come to when one suggests that “religious language is non-cognitive”? The traditional realist way to spell out the suggestion that religious language is non-cognitive would be to say that ordinary descriptive terms like “my brother” and “America” and “the Arc de Triomphe” all refer to something, but words used in the religious contexts Wittgenstein discusses do not. Isn't Wittgenstein hinting that when one speaks of the Eye of God or the Last Judgment one is merely using a picture, that is to say, one isn't referring to anything?

Well, strangely enough, Wittgenstein interrupts his third lecture to talk about the phenomenon of a thought's being about “my brother in America” (Wittgenstein also speaks of “referring”; that is, he speaks both of the thought as being “about” his brother in America and of words as “referring” or “designating”). Now, there is no indication in these notes as to why Wittgenstein interrupted a lecture on religious belief to discuss this subject. The notes for this lecture fill eight pages of the volume edited by Cyril Barrett, and almost three of these pages are occupied by this discussion of reference. The discussion is set off by extra space before and after, so the editors themselves evidently recognized it as some kind of digression.

Moreover, the textual evidence suggests a digression. What precedes the digression is a question about two phrases, “ceasing to exist” and “being a disembodied spirit”. Wittgenstein says, ‘“When I say this, I think of myself having a certain set of experiences.’ What is it like to think of this?” He comes back to this question after what I am calling the digression on reference. But no examples from either religious language or from spiritualism (which Wittgenstein contrasts with religion) occur in this digression. The only example used is thinking of Wittgenstein's “brother in America”. Yet I don't think this digression Can possibly be an accident. It speaks to just the fear that I suggested may lie behind Smythies’ remark, the fear that Wittgenstein is at least hinting at a fundamental difference between religious language and non-religious language, namely that religious language does not refer to (or is not “about”) anything. The worry is that in ordinary language we have pictures (and, of course, words) and uses of pictures and words, and something beyond the words and pictures, while in religious language we have only pictures and words and uses of pictures and words.

I want to suggest that when Wittgenstein said “Rubbish” in response to Smythies’ comment, and then hastily added that all he meant to make was a “grammatical” remark, Wittgenstein's initial impatience is accounted for by the fact that Wittgenstein felt that he had already dealt with the issue Smythies was raising (not on that occasion, but in much of his lecturing and philosophical conversation during the thirties), at least implicitly.

The first point that Wittgenstein makes is one that sounds odd today when there are so many discussions of “causal theories of reference”. Wittgenstein is struck by the fact that he can think of his brother in America even though there is no causal interaction between him and his brother taking place now. Indeed, Wittgenstein assumes that we don't even think of reference as a causal relation. Our natural temptation is to think that the intentionality of our words is something given in the experience of thought itself. “If you're asked: ‘How do you know that it is a thought of such and such?’ the thought that immediately comes to your mind is that of a shadow, a picture. You don't think of a causal relation. The kind of relation you think of is best expressed by ‘picture’, ‘shadow’, etc.”1 And Wittgenstein goes on to talk in a way familiar to readers of the Investigations about how we simultaneously tend to think of thoughts as mental pictures and to ascribe to them powers that no actual picture could possibly have.

The word “picture” is even quite all right—in many cases, it is even in the most ordinary sense, a picture. You might translate my very words into a picture.2

But the point is this, suppose you drew this, how do I know it is my brother in America? Who says it is him—unless it is here ordinary similarity?

What is the connection between these words, or anything substitutable for them, with my brother in America?

The first idea [you have] is that you are looking at your own thought, and are absolutely sure that it is a thought that so and so. You are looking at some mental phenomenon, and you say to yourself “obviously this is a thought of my brother being in America.” It seems to be a super-picture. It seems, with thought, that there is no doubt whatever. With a picture, it still depends on the method of projection, whereas here it seems that you get rid of the projecting relation, and are absolutely certain that this is thought of that.3

Wittgenstein is, of course, not thinking of causal theories of the kind put forward by Fodor, or causal theories of the kind sometimes (incorrectly) ascribed to me and to Saul Kripke.4 The point he is making is, I think, a phenomenological one: if I am a person in England thinking of my brother in America, then I don't conceive of myself as having some occult kind of causal interaction with my brother in America. That reference is not an ongoing causal interaction is, of course, true on any theory of reference. On the other hand, although Wittgenstein is not thinking about this, he is causally connected to his brother in the sense that he has causally interacted with him in the past, the causal interaction has produced brain traces which have remained in his brain to that day, and so on. And he is “causally connected” to America (even if he had never been in America), in the sense of having acquired the word “America” from people who acquired it from people who acquired it from people … who were in America. This story is, of course, very familiar nowadays.

I want to speculate a little about what Wittgenstein might have said about this, because I think it will help us to understand the points he is making both in the brief remarks on reference transcribed in these notes, and at length in Philosophical Investigations. But first I will review some points about reference which were familiar to Frege, and in fact familiar to Kant, but which have been neglected, if not completely forgotten, in current discussions of causal theories of reference.

For this purpose, I want to ignore the fact that Fodor's theory doesn't work. Let us imagine that Fodor's theory did work perfectly—that his counterfactuals were all true, and that they provided a necessary and sufficient condition for a word to refer to a kind of thing—or else that somebody else had succeeded in putting forward a definition of reference in terms of “causal attachment”. What could possibly remain to say about reference?

Well, the first thing to notice is that—although terms like “causal theory of reference” may suggest the opposite—nobody actually thinks that all cases of referring are cases of causal attachment. It is obvious that we can refer to things that we have not causally interacted with. We can refer to future things, for example, the first baby that will be born after the year 3000. I can refer to things outside my “light cone” altogether,5 for example, if there are galaxies outside my light cone, I can refer to the nearest such galaxy in a certain direction, and so on. One causal theorist who explicitly takes account of this in various publications is Richard Boyd.6 Boyd has proposed taking over Russell's distinction between knowledge by acquaintance and knowledge by description, and modifying it in the following way: instead of talking about two kinds of knowledge, we should speak of two kinds of reference, reference by causal connection and reference by description. The idea is that we can refer to things that we are not causally attached to because we can form descriptions of them using terms which do refer via causal attachment.

Another problem—which, as we shall see, is closely related to the problem Boyd addresses—is that the causal connection theory accounts for the reference of individual words but not for the truth of sentences. Even if the word cat gets its reference from the fact that cats cause “cat” tokenings, and mat gets its reference from the fact that mats cause “mat” tokenings, and “on” gets its reference from the fact that instances of the spatial relation of one thing being on another cause “on” tokenings, how does that account for the fact that the whole sentence “the cat is on the mat” has the truth value it does in various situations?

The relation between these two problems is this: although it is individual words that are causally attached, in the sense of being the termini of the kinds of causal chains that Fodor talks about (of course, other theorists talk about different kinds of causal chains), yet it is somehow groups of words organized by syntactic structures that have truth values. To say that if the parts of a referring expression refer, then obviously the referring expression as a whole will refer, is simply too fast. In one sense, in fact, this is false. If we said that whenever the parts of a referring expression refer in the sense of being causally attached to a referent, then the referring expression as a whole will refer in the very same sense—that is, in the sense of being causally attached to a referent—then this is false. In the phrase “the first baby born after the year 3000”, the word “baby” is causally attached to a kind, that is, the speaker and his language community have had causal interactions with babies in which the “property of being a baby” played a relevant causal role (it hurts me to talk this way, but this is the kind of metaphysical language these people speak!), but the phrase “the first baby born after the year 3000” is not causally attached to its referent in the same way, that is, we have not causally interacted with the first baby born after the year 3000, and the “property of being the first baby born after the year 3000” has not yet had any causal influence on us.

On the other hand, if one says “the word baby refers in one way, and that explains why the whole phrase refers in a different way”, then we need a theory of this different way of referring. Oddly enough, causal theorists don't seem to recognize that any theory is needed here. Hartry Field, for example (who subsequently seems to have moved to an agnostic position with respect to causal theories of reference) suggested in his well-known article on truth many years ago7 that if we can construct a causal theory of what he called “primitive reference”, that is, reference in the case of what would be the primitive terms of English in a suitable formalization of English, then reference in the case of complex expressions can be defined by a Tarski-style recursive definition. Such a definition simply assumes that the result of joining two referring expressions with and produces an expression which refers (in a sense which is not explained) to the intersection of the extensions of the two joined referring expressions; that prefixing a negation sign to a referring expression results in a referring expression which refers (in a sense which is not explained) to the complement of the extension of the expression to which the negation sign is prefixed; and so forth. But surely this can't be part of either the meaning or the nature of reference. There is nothing in the nature of reference to make it the case that joining two expressions with and results in anything at all. If joining expressions with and gives us an intersection of extensions, then this must have something to do with the role of and in the language. In short, we need a theory of “reference by description” as much as a theory of primitive reference.

To sum up: if we accept the Boyd-Field distinction between primitive reference and reference by description for the moment, then a theory of primitive reference is not a theory of reference at all. At best it is a definition of a neologism, that is, it is a definition of a concept made up in the hope that it will aid us in giving a theory of reference. Only if we had a definition of primitive reference and a theory of reference by description could we possibly be said to have a theory of reference at all, and so far none of the causal theorists has really attempted to give a theory of reference by description.

Here is a way of making the problem clear, a way which, in essence, goes back to Frege and even back to Kant: the sentence “the cat is on the mat” consists of exactly the same words as the mere list, “the”, “cat”, “is”, “on”, “the”, “mat”. Yet the sentence has a truth value, in an appropriate situation, while the list has no truth value. What constitutes the difference between a sentence and a list? The phrase “the first baby born after the year 3000” has a referent, while the list consisting of those words in that order does not refer to anything (unless we say it refers to the words listed). Again, what constitutes the difference? In Kant's terminology, a judgment is not just a series of representations but a “synthesis” of those representations; it was just this problem that led Frege to give priority to sentence meaning over word meaning in his theorizing about language.

The answer to this problem is in one sense quite obvious, or at least it is obvious after Wittgenstein: what makes it the case that a sentence can have a truth value or a complex phrase can have reference, whereas a mere list of words has neither truth value nor reference, is that we use sentences and complex phrases in very different ways from the ways in which we use mere lists. This observation totally undercuts the idea of a merely causal theory of reference. Referring, I repeat, is using words in a certain way (or, to anticipate a little bit, in any one of a variety of ways). It may well be that a certain referring use of some words would be impossible if we were not causally connected to the kinds of things referred to; indeed, I believe that this is the case. But that is to say that there are causal constraints on reference, not that the referring is the causal connection. No matter how the word cat is causally connected to the world, if I say “cat, cat, cat, cat …” a hundred times, I am not referring to cats, whereas if I use the word cat in certain ways, I am referring to cats.

In his digression on reference, Wittgenstein speaks of what I am calling a referring use of language as a “technique of usage”, and he suggests that the illusion of intrinsic intentionality, that is, the illusion that reference is a mysterious something that exists while we think and about which nothing can be said, is due to the fact that we pay attention only to our subjective experience and not to the technique of using the word:

[“Is thinking something going on at a particular time, or is it spread over the words?” “It comes in a flash.” “Always?”—it sometimes does come in a flash, although this may be all sorts of different things.]

If it does refer to a technique, then it can't be enough, in certain cases, to explain what you mean in a few words; because there is something which might be thought to be in conflict with the idea going on from 7 to 7. 5, namely the practice of using it [the phrase.]

When we talked of: “So and so is an automaton”, the strong hold of that view was [due to the idea] that you could say: “Well, I know what I mean” …, as though you were looking at something happening while you said the thing, entirely independent of what came before and after, the application [of the phrase]. It looked as though you could talk of understanding a word, without any reference to the technique of its usage. It looked as though Smythies said he could understand the sentence, and that we then had nothing to say.8

At one time, I myself had the hope that what Wittgenstein refers to as the use of words, or in this lecture as the technique of usage, could be completely surveyed and analyzed in a functionalist way; that is, that all the various referring uses of words could be neatly organized and depicted by something like a computer program. In Representation and Reality, I explained my reasons for thinking it overwhelmingly likely that this cannot be done. (The difficulties for Artificial Intelligence I described in Chapter 2 are connected with some of those reasons.) But if we cannot survey all the referring uses of words, then there is a sense in which we don't have a theory of “the nature of reference” at all (not even if we succeed in showing that our words are causally attached to what they refer to in certain ways). If we cannot give some kind of a scientific theory of the nature of reference, that is, of the referring uses of our words, then how are we to look at reference?

In Philosophical Investigations Wittgenstein attacks the idea that one can use a word only if one possesses a necessary and sufficient condition for its application. He uses the word “game” as an example (the example has now become famous), and he says that in the case of that word we don't have a necessary and sufficient condition. We have some paradigms—paradigms of different kinds, in fact—and we extend the word “game” to new cases because they strike us as similar to cases in which we have used it before (he describes this as our “natural reaction”). He speaks of games as forming a family, as having a family resemblance, and he also uses the metaphor of a rope. The rope is made up of fibers, but there is no fiber running the length of the whole rope. There are similarities between one game and another, but there is no one similarity between all games.

While the notion of a family-resemblance word has become commonplace, many people miss Wittgenstein's point: as Rush Rhees emphasized a long time ago,9 Wittgenstein was not just making a low-level empirical observation to the effect that in addition to words like scarlet, which apply to things all of which are similar in a particular respect, there are words like game which apply to things which are not all similar in some one respect. Wittgenstein was primarily thinking not of words like game, but of words like language and reference. It is precisely the big philosophical notions to which Wittgenstein wishes to apply the notion of a family resemblance. On Rush Rhees's reading (and I am convinced he is right), what Wittgenstein is telling us is that referring uses don't have an “essence”; there isn't some one thing which can be called referring. There are overlapping similarities between one sort of referring and the next, that is all. This is why, for example, Wittgenstein is not puzzled, as many philosophers are, about how we can “refer” to abstract entities. After all, we are not causally attached to the number three, so how can we refer to it? Indeed, do we know that there is such an object at all? For Wittgenstein the fact is that the use of number words is simply a different use from the use of words like cow. Stop calling three an “object” or an “abstract entity” and look at the way number words are used, is his advice.

Now, the relevance of this to a lecture on the philosophy of religion is as follows: just as I have suggested that Wittgenstein would not have regarded talk of incommensurability as helpful, and would not have regarded talk of certain discourses’ being “cognitive” and other discourses’ being “non-cognitive” as helpful, I suggest that he would not have regarded the question as to whether religious language refers as helpful either. (He speaks of a “muddle”.) The use of religious language is both like and unlike ordinary cases of reference: but to ask whether it is “really” reference or “not really” reference is to be in a muddle. There is no essence of reference. Religious thinkers will be the first to tell you that when they refer to God, their “referring use” is quite unlike the referring use of “his brother in America”. In short, Wittgenstein is telling you what isn't the way to understand religious language. The way to understand religious language isn't to try to apply some metaphysical classification of possible forms of discourse.

Wittgensteinian Relativism?

We are by no means at the end of our interpretative quest. Has Wittgenstein simply immunized religious language from all criticism? Has Wittgenstein made it impossible to be an atheist?

Not entirely. First of all, Wittgenstein presents himself as a non-believer in these lectures. As I have pointed out, he had a very respectful attitude toward religious belief; he seems to me, in a way, to have aspired to but not achieved religious belief; he described himself in conversations as having had a “religious temperament”. Yet there is little doubt that Wittgenstein was telling us the truth when he said that he himself would never say that he believes that there will be a Last Judgment. Indeed, Wittgenstein says—and the one thing I am convinced of is that he was being quite honest—that he doesn't even know whether to say he understands the man who says that he believes there will be a Last Judgment. (And reading more philosophy or more linguistics isn't going to help Wittgenstein decide whether to say he understands or not.)

What is Wittgenstein's attitude toward the other side, that is, toward those who would combat religious belief, fight it fiercely, denounce it? Here we have less to go on. But I will allow myself to speculate. First of all, Wittgenstein does say, in the first lecture, that the line between religious belief and scientific belief is not always sharp, that one cannot think of the two as separated by a chasm. Here Wittgenstein is pretty clearly thinking not of our own society, in which a distinction between science and religion has been institutionalized, but of a so-called primitive society:

We come to an island and we find beliefs there, and certain beliefs we are inclined to call religious … They have sentences, and there are also religious statements.

These statements would not just differ in respect to what they are about. Entirely different connections would make them into religious beliefs, and there can easily be imagined transitions where we wouldn't know for our life whether to call them religious beliefs or scientific beliefs. (p. 58)

I take these remarks of Wittgenstein's as a justification for connecting what Wittgenstein says about religious belief in these three lectures with what he says about the thought of so-called primitive people in his notes on Frazer's Golden Bough.10 In particular, it is clear from those notes that Wittgenstein thinks we tend to approach primitive cultures in a way that is fundamentally supercilious and self-congratulatory; instead of seeing how different the “primitive” language games are from our own, we see them as simply inferior versions of our own. We fail to see the enormous difference between someone who is playing one of our language games and making a blunder, or being stupid, and someone whose form of life is entirely different. In particular, Wittgenstein does not view primitive magic as inferior or failed science. In effect, Wittgenstein accuses us of arrogance, and not just arrogance, but narcissism.

That does not mean that we can never criticize a primitive culture. Here I am going to leave Wittgenstein's Lectures on Religious Belief and turn for the rest of this chapter to his On Certainty. Some of his remarks, especially the remarks about the possibility of combating another culture and the difficulty of giving reasons why one combats another culture, have led some people to see Wittgenstein as an out-and-out cultural relativist. I believe that, in fact, Saul Kripke reads these passages in that way, and I think that this may lie behind the reading that Kripke offers us in Wittgenstein on Rules and Private Language.

The first thing to notice is that Wittgenstein does occasionally offer criticism of a primitive belief; for example, he describes ordeal by fire as an “absurd” way of reaching a verdict.11 But what Wittgenstein says in On Certainty about combating other forms of life, other language games, could give rise to yet another interpretation of the position taken in the notes on Frazer's Golden Bough and in the Lectures on Religious Belief. Perhaps Wittgenstein just thinks that there are a variety of different possible language games, a variety of possible human forms of life, and there is nothing to be said about the rightness or wrongness of one as opposed to another. Indeed, one might add, Wittgenstein doesn't even think one can choose one as opposed to another, since it is clear that we don't choose our form of life in the sense in which Wittgenstein is using “form of life”. Strong support for such a reading might seem to come from the following:12

§608: Is it wrong for me to be guided in my actions by the propositions of physics? Am I to say that I have no good grounds for doing so? Isn't it precisely this that we call a “good ground”?

§609: Suppose that we met people who did not regard this as a good ground, and who did not regard that as a telling reason. Now how do we imagine this? Instead of the physicist, they consult an oracle. And for that we consider them primitive.

Is it wrong for them to consult an oracle and be guided by it?—If we call this “wrong”, aren't we using our language game as a base from which to combat theirs?

§610: And are we right or wrong to combat it? Of course there are all sorts of slogans which will be used to support our proceedings.

§611: Where two principles really do meet which cannot be reconciled with one another, then each man declares the other a fool and a heretic.

§612: I said I would “combat” the other man—but wouldn't I give him reasons? Certainly, but how far do they go? At the end of reasons comes persuasion. (Think what happens when missionaries convert natives.)

This certainly sounds like relativism. (I recall how dismayed I was when I first encountered these paragraphs.) But, on closer reading, the relativist interpretation came to seem less and less supportable. If all we had was §609, then one might say that Wittgenstein was distancing himself from those who say that consulting an oracle is “wrong”. It is not clear that the “we” in “if we call this ‘wrong’, aren't we using our language game as a base from which to combat theirs” includes Wittgenstein himself. But this ambiguity is immediately removed in §612, when Wittgenstein says “I said I would ‘combat’ the other man”. So Wittgenstein isn't just an onlooker here. Wittgenstein himself will at least sometimes combat a different language game. Who wouldn't? (What decent person wouldn't combat a language game that involved ordeal by fire, for example?) We cannot suppose that the things that Wittgenstein would say if he were combating another language game (for instance, that it is “absurd” to try to reach a verdict on anything through ordeal by fire) are in some sense not believed by Wittgenstein, or that they are given a special metaphysical reinterpretation by Wittgenstein, for the whole burden of On Certainty is that we have no other place to stand but within our own language game. If words like “know”, for example, cannot bear a metaphysical emphasis, as Wittgenstein suggests in one place, that is all the more reason for using them where they belong and without that metaphysical emphasis. Wittgenstein simply thinks it absurd to settle questions through ordeal by fire.

Well, what about the rest of §612? I take Wittgenstein here to be simply telling us what is the case: that when we try to argue with, say, the Azande, there are times when we cannot find reasons that are reasons for them; the worldviews are so totally different that we sometimes find that in an argument with an intelligent Azande we cannot resort to ordinary argument based on premises that we share with the Azande but have to resort to persuasion.

But what interests me far more than §612 is the tone of §610 and §611. Wittgenstein has said (§605) that he would combat ordeal by fire, and here makes it clear that he would combat the use of an oracle to make the sorts of predictions that we use physics to make. But the reference to “all sorts of slogans” [“allerlei Schlagworten (Slogans)”] and the statement in §611 that “each man declares the other a fool and a heretic” have, to my ear, a tone of distaste about them. If I am right in reading the Lectures on Religious Belief in juxtaposition with Wittgenstein's notes on Frazer's Golden Bough, then Wittgenstein wants us to stop and think about when we should combat a religious language game or a primitive language game which is not ours or our culture's. If we view other language games as simply stupid or ignorant forms of our own language games, we will be constantly combating and we will be constantly failing to see. If we see more accurately, we may find that there are fewer language games that we want to combat. But even when we do combat, and Wittgenstein does sometimes join us in combating, we don't have to scream “Fool!” and “Heretic!”

Elizabeth Anscombe13 once asked Ludwig Wittgenstein what he would do if a friend of his believed in faith healing; would he try to talk him out of it? And Wittgenstein replied that he Would, but he didn't know why. (In conversation, Saul Kripke once cited this to me as clear evidence that Wittgenstein was a relativist.) I take it that Wittgenstein did not mean, by what he said to Elizabeth Anscombe, that he does not know that sulfa drugs or penicillin are more effective in treating bacterial pneumonia than faith healing is. The point is rather that this is a perfectly useless thing to say to the man who believes in faith healing (it is a premise he doesn't share), and Wittgenstein was, I think, recoiling from using allerlei Schlagworten. Slogans may be part of our language game, but they are by no means the best or noblest part.

Still, what are we to say to the reader who takes these passages as showing that Wittgenstein thought that language games are simply irrational, arbitrary facts of nature? Is such a reading not supported by the following?

§559: You must bear in mind that the language game is so to say something unpredictable. I mean it is not based on grounds. It is not reasonable (or unreasonable).

It is there—like our life.

In German, the next-to-last sentence reads “Nicht vernünftig (oder unvernünftig)”. I cite the German here, because the German vernünftig has a somewhat different flavor from the English “reasonable”. “The language game is not reasonable” suggests that it is not based on reasons, and while this is certainly true, I do not think that this is the point, or at least not the only point, that Wittgenstein is making here. In German the word vernünftig connects with Vernunft, and this particular notion of Reason was given pride of place by Kant, who contrasted Reason in that sense with mere understanding, Vernunft with Verstand. (In the tradition that comes from Hume, on the other hand, reason and reasonableness were contrasted; Hume tells us that reason cannot show that the sun will rise tomorrow, but it would be most unreasonable not to expect it to.) I am inclined to read Wittgenstein in §559 as saying that the language game is like our life in that neither the language game nor our life is based on Vernunft, which is a direct denial of the heart of Kant's philosophy. For Kant human life and human language are distinguished precisely by the unique transcendental capacity that Kant calls Vernunft. Wittgenstein does not deny that we understand things and that we reason; indeed, the whole of On Certainty is a discussion of when we can and when we can't speak of understanding something, knowing something, showing something, having a reason for something, being certain of something, and so on. But, like John Dewey, whose work I will discuss in the next chapter, Wittgenstein has a naturalistic (but not a reductionist) view of man. We are not mere animals, but our capacities for understanding and for reasoning are capacities which grow out of more primitive capacities which we share with animals (Dewey spoke of “biosocial continuity” in this connection). This naturalistic premise of Wittgenstein's is explicitly stated at §475: “I want to regard man here as an animal. As a primitive being to which one grants instinct but not ratiocination. As a creature in a primitive state. Any logic good enough for a primitive means of communication needs no apology for us. Language did not emerge from some kind of ratiocination.”

“I want to regard man here as an animal” refers only to the discussion at that particular point in On Certainty; but what follows is a general statement of Wittgenstein's naturalism. Given that naturalism, the claim that the language game is not vernünftig or unvernünftig seems straightforward. Human life is not the empirical manifestation of the transcendental capacity of reason.

Still, vernünftig also has a colloquial use very similar to the Colloquial use of the English reasonable. (I am not quibbling with the translation here.) Isn't there a sense in which we do think that our language game, or a good deal of it, is “reasonable”? Isn't the language game of physics a very reasonable language game, given its goals? Indeed, isn't even the existence of a language game which enables one to tell someone else that one is hungry and thirsty very reasonable? In a sense, I have already answered this objection; the need to communicate in order to satisfy one's hunger and thirst is just the sort of need that Wittgenstein is thinking of at §475. And the kind of reasoning that we see in physics is a later development, a development within language, not a development which makes language possible.

But let me restate the question. The question, as I wish to put it, is: Can we accept what Wittgenstein tells us in the passages I quoted and not go all the way to relativism? Isn't the conclusion from what has been said that when we “combat” the tribe that uses an oracle to make predictions about matters which physics can deal with, or when we combat the tribe which uses ordeal by fire, the scientific things we say are just “true in our language game” but not “true in their language game” (or “warranted in our language game” but not “warranted in their language game”, or “reasonable in our language game” but something else in their language game)? Or better, don't our words “true”, “warranted”, “reasonable” just mean “true in our language game”, “warranted in our language game”, “true in our language game”?

The reason that this cannot be what Wittgenstein is saying is that to say that it is true in my language game that you are reading this book is not to say that you are reading this book; to say that it's true in my language game that I am eating dinner is not to say that I am eating dinner; and Wittgenstein was obviously aware of this. To say something is true in a language game is to stand outside of that language game and make a comment; that is not what it is to play a language game. Whatever it is that makes us want to replace moves like saying “it's true” or “it's reasonable” or “it's warranted” by “it's true in my language game” or “it's reasonable in my language game” or “it's warranted in my language game” (or makes us want to do this when we see that the language game itself is not grounded on Reason) is something that makes us want to distance ourselves from our own language game. It is as if the recognition that our language game does not have a transcendental justification made us want to handle it with kid gloves, or to handle it from a metalanguage. But why is the metalanguage any more secure?

It is important to see that the attraction of relativism doesn't come from its offering us a coherent position from which we can make sense of how we can use language without having a metaphysical foundation; on the contrary, it has often been pointed out14 that as soon as one tries to state relativism as a position it collapses into inconsistency or into solipsism (or perhaps solipsism with a “we” instead of an “I”). The thought that everything we believe is, at best, only “true in our language game” isn't even a coherent thought: is the very existence of our language then only “true in our language game”? So our language game is a fiction?

I think that we get a better understanding of this situation if we see relativism not as a cure or a relief from the malady of “lacking a metaphysical foundation”, but rather see relativism and the desire for a metaphysical foundation as manifestations of the same disease. The thing to say to the relativist is that some things are true and some things are warranted and some things are reasonable, but of course we can only say so if we have an appropriate language. And we do have the language, and we can and do say so, even though that language does not itself rest on any metaphysical guarantee like Reason.

What does it rest on? Wittgenstein gives a shockingly simple answer: trust.

§508: What can I rely on?

§509: I really want to say that a language game is only possible if one trusts something. (I did not say “can trust something”).

Our language game rests not on proof or on Reason but trust. Something in us finds this thought hard to bear. How hard we find it to bear, and how we wriggle and turn in search of either a transcendental guarantee or a sceptical escape, is something that Stanley Cavell has traced beautifully in a series of books, starting with The Claim of Reason. Cavell sees all of Wittgenstein's work as concerned with the problematic of scepticism, but scepticism in a very wide sense. The sceptic in Cavell's enlarged sense may indeed not be a sceptic in the usual sense at all. Rather than professing to doubt everything or to relativize everything, he may claim to have a grand metaphysical solution to all of our problems. But for Cavell the pretense that there is a grand metaphysical solution to all of our problems and sceptical or relativistic or nihilistic escape are symptoms of the same disease. The disease itself is the inability to accept the world and to accept other people, or, as Cavell says, to acknowledge the world and to acknowledge other people, without the guarantees. Something in us both craves more than we can possibly have and flees from even the certainty that we do have.

It is not that relativism and scepticism are unrefutable. Relativism and scepticism are all too easily refutable when they are stated as positions; but they never die, because the attitude of alienation from the world and from the community is not just a theory, and cannot be overcome by purely intellectual argument. Indeed, it is not even quite right to refer to it as a disease; for one of Cavell's points is that to wish to be free of scepticism is also a way of wishing to be free of one's humanity. Being alienated is part of the human condition, and the problem is to learn to live with both alienation and acknowledgment.15

I have devoted this much time to the thought of Ludwig Wittgenstein because I think that he gives us an example of how philosophical reflection can be something other than creating new tempests in old teapots, or finding new teapots to create tempests in. At its best, philosophical reflection can give us an unexpectedly honest and clear look at our own situation, not a “view from nowhere” but a view through the eyes of one or another wise, flawed, deeply individual human being. If Wittgenstein wants to make a bonfire of our philosophical vanities, this is not a matter of sheer intellectual sadism; if I am reading Wittgenstein correctly, those vanities, in his view, are what keep us from trust and, perhaps even more important, keep us from compassion.

  • 1.

    Wittgenstein, Lectures and Conversations on Aesthetics, Psychology, and Religious Belief (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1966), p. 66.

  • 2.

    Again we notice that Wittgenstein has no hostility at all to pictures as such, or to the idea of connecting words with pictures.

  • 3.

    Wittgenstein, Lectures, p. 67.

  • 4.

    I should note here in passing that Kripke and I have both denied quite consistently that what we are proposing is a theory of reference in Fodor's sense, that is to say, a definition of reference in causal terms. What Kripke and I have defended is the idea that certain sorts of words can refer only if there is a causal connection between them and certain things or certain kinds of things. But we have never tried to reduce reference to causation.

  • 5.

    In relativity theory, my light cone consists of all the events from which a signal (traveling at subluminal velocity or at the speed of light) could have been sent to me now (my “absolute past”) together with all the events which a signal sent out by me now (at subluminal velocity or at the speed of light) could reach in the future (my “absolute future”). Events outside my light cone are such that they can be neither causes nor effects of what is happening now, since no causal signal can travel faster than light.

  • 6.

    See Richard Boyd, “Materialism without Reductionism: What Physicalism Does Not Entail,” in Ned Block, ed., Readings in Philosophy of Psychology, vol. 1 (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1980).

  • 7.

    Hartry Field, “Tarski's Theory of Truth,” The Journal of Philosophy, 69:13 (1972):347–375.

  • 8.

    Wittgenstein, Lectures, p. 68.

  • 9.

    See Rush Rhees's review of George Pitcher, The Philosophy of Wittgenstein, in Rhees, Discussions of Wittgenstein (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1970).

  • 10.

    “Bemerkungen zu Frazers Golden Bough,” ed. Rush Rhees, Synthese 17 (1967):233–253.

  • 11.

    Wittgenstein, On Certainty (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1969), §605: “But what if the physicist's statement were superstition, and it were just as absurd to go by it in reaching a verdict as to go by an ordeal by fire?”

  • 12.

    Throughout this chapter, references by section number are to On Certainty.

  • 13.

    See “The Question of Linguistic Idealism,” in From Parmenides to Wittgenstein: The Collected Philosophical Papers of G. E. M. Anscombe, vol. 1 (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1981).

  • 14.

    See the discussion of relativism in chap. 5 of Reason, Truth, and History.

  • 15.

    See my “Introducing Cavell,” in Pursuits of Reason: Essays Presented to Stanley Cavell, Ted Cohen, Paul Guyer, and Hilary Putnam, eds. (Lubbock: Texas Tech University Press, 1992).

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