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Each day grow older, learn something new

That was Solon's way of life in old age. But what should we, who are at death's threshold, seek to learn?

Solon: "I grow old while always learning." (The source of this quotation, according to Will Durant's Life of Greece (1939), v, p. 118, 676, 685n80, which quotes I.M. Linforth's Solon the Athenian (1919), p. 130, is Plato's Amatores 133) "I grow old learning new things."

Topics on this page ...

Context: these are well, hardly, and not so well thought through "logic of language" remarks. Note: words that follow "Query" were search strings found in the server logs of this site.


Can there be a Real Definition of God?

My teacher [I have written a very brief review of his book elsewhere] wrote that, as I understand him, he did not think it necessary, or maybe worthwhile, to try to define the word 'God'.

I believe that God cannot be defined; all attempts to do so are inadequate. When I am asked how I describe or talk about God, many phrases and epithets come to mind. (Paul Trudinger, A Good Word for Jesus (2007), p. 66)

But what kind of "cannot" is this -- is this a question of real or logical possibility? If we wished to report how the word 'God' has as a matter of historical fact been used, then perhaps we could only speak of "its historical definiteness and indefiniteness" -- and in that case we might speak of a "real impossibility" of defining the word 'God'. To recognize folly, however, is one thing, to participate in it yourself quite another. To knowingly utter the word 'God' in an "indefinite sense" -- is that not to unknowingly "obliterate the distinction between a factual proposition and a conventional definition" (cf. Z § 458) -- that is, between real and logical possibility -- i.e. to suppose that there can be a "real definition of God" (an hypothesis about "what God is")?

"... definiteness and indefiniteness". In other words, the word 'God' us used "without a fixed meaning".

Should it be said that I am using a word whose meaning I don't know, and so am talking nonsense?

Say what you choose, so long as it does not prevent you from seeing the facts. (And when you see them there is a good deal that you will not say.) )PI § 79)

I described the notion, for it is no more than that, of "definition by related concepts". But when discussing the concept [i.e. rules for using a word] 'piety', there are phenomena to point to, e.g. there is behavior (words and deeds) we call 'pious'. However, there are no phenomena named 'God'. To begin at the beginning, there is a sign -- i.e. the ink marks, spoken sound of the word 'God', and then our question is: what, if anything, gives that sign meaning? Clearly no object or phenomenon does. So that, if the word 'God' is to have any meaning, it has to be because we have assigned it some work to do -- that it is a tool in our language -- like such words as 'the' and 'and'. Well, just try to give an account of it that way.

"... many phrases and epithets come to mind". -- That resembles what I called "impressionistic definition". For example, "To me, God is ...", or "To me, God means ..." -- i.e. each individual if left to say what the word [i.e. the sign] 'God' suggests to him. But is that how we want to define a word -- by asking each individual what the word suggests to him? That is one meaning of 'meaning' (of which there are countless others) -- but it is not the meaning used in [what in my jargon is called] Wittgenstein's logic of language, because the aim of that logic is to make an objective distinction between sense and nonsense. In that logic, a "subjective definition" is no definition at all. Indeed, a philosophy that employed that meaning of 'meaning' ["subjective definition"] would be a philosophy without logic.

On the other hand, if those "phrases and epithets" say what you mean by the word 'God', then are they not an explanation of meaning, and therefore a definition? But would that be a real or a verbal definition? And, well, can those "phrases and epithets" replace the word 'God' (cf. Just try to replace the word 'philosophy' with a synonym)? I don't know, but that is what I would inquire into -- but that has to be an inquiry into the particular case, and Professor Trudinger does not say which phrases and epithets he is alluding to (Even with Russell's "theory of descriptions", it is still necessary to answer the question as to specifics, "Do you mean ...? Or do you mean ...? etc." A table that wobbles (PI § 79) -- but is such a table useful to philosophy's thoroughgoing use of reason? And of course I am saying here that it is not). In my own case, as I use the word 'God' (maybe more clearly stated here as "all that is true and good" and that life's meaning is a good meaning (although unknown)"), I can make that replacement (Really?)

Nonetheless, if you say "I believe that God cannot be defined", are you not either ignoring the distinction between real and verbal definitions (between "defining a thing" and defining a word) or claiming that there is a real, even if unknowable, "definition of God"? I think the latter. "Are so Wittgenstein is denying that God is real, that God exists" (CV p. 50 [MS 132 8: 11.9.1946])? Well, this is it -- is the word 'God' the name of a person or phenomenon (which you can deny exists), or does it have some other use in our language? (For the concept 'God' does have a place in many a reasonable man's life. Religion -- where unclarity seems not to be a blunder)

Suppose someone came from a country where they spoke a language in which the word 'God' did not exist -- how would you teach that person to use the word 'God'? This is nothing like teaching someone who has come from the tropics what we call 'snow' or what we call a 'the fall' (i.e. autumn when the leaves fall). Or what would you point to? You could point to human behavior, but that's all, and that behavior is not the meaning of our word 'God'. So, strange phenomenon God is, if 'God' is the name of a phenomenon.

It does seems to me that Professor Trudinger is treating the word 'God' as if it were the name of a person or a phenomenon. And about a phenomenon you can have a real definition or hypothesis about what it is (Aristotle's example of thunder). This is not however the case with a concept, and that was why I said that we define words, not "concepts", if the word 'concept' is used as we normally use it to mean nebulous synonyms such as 'idea' or 'notion' (not to mean 'rules for using a word', which is only my jargon). And that is what I say it is, apropos, but as Plato says in the Phaedrus 275c-e, the written word cannot defend itself, and so my old professor is not able to defend his words against refutation in dialectic. (Anyone can refute a straw man, which is what the written word may easily be turned into.)

Can there be "a real definition of God"? Why shouldn't we respond -- a real definition of what? Cf. Phaedrus 263d: How can one -- i.e. is it logically possible to -- have an hypothesis about [or, make claims about "the nature of"] something one "cannot" -- i.e. that one refuses [judges it unnecessary] -- to identify? .... And so we talk [about "God"], without knowing what we are talking about -- because "if we know then we can put into words, that is, tell others what we know" (Laches 190c). -- Is such talk ("God cannot be defined") the "examined life" Socrates spoke of (Apology 38a)?

It is not philosophical [or, Socratic: it is not a thoroughgoing use of reason] not to demand a definition of a word that is at the center of all our thinking about life -- if that is the place the word 'God' ["the concept God", "God"] has in our life. For, if we talk about "something" [x] without ever saying what the "something" [x] we are talking about is [-- and Note.--If a word is "indefinable", it is only because we ourselves have made it indefinable, because we ourselves have made the rules of the game (cf. Z § 259) --] this amounts to uttering a word [making a noise, a "sound without sense"], not to using a word -- because what type of tool would an undefined sound be? A tool that does no work is no tool at all.

If anything is anti-philosophical, anti-rational, surely the notion of an "indefinable word" is. As I wrote to my old teacher: "In philosophy, we define words, not things." I would say that if we do not uphold that requirement, then we cannot be faithful to the life of reason Socrates called us to. In my view, philosophy [the philosophical way of life] says: "There is no place in my life where I am willing to say: Here I do not use reason." And if we accepted the notion of an "indefinable word", then Socrates' standard would become unattainable, as philosophy drifted back into the realm of "whatever seems correct is going to be correct" (PI § 258) ... which would mean that we could no longer distinguish between sense and nonsense (which would be a distinction without a difference), never mind between truth and falsity.

A relationship with what one has oneself conceived

If "God cannot be defined", then God is -- in that view -- what honor was to Falstaff: air. -- Or, in other words, then the word 'God' is "a sound without sense" (Aristotle). To pray to such a God is to enter into a relationship with a vague creation of one's own imagination. The only "mystery of God" would be self-mystification. (Cf. Schweitzer's remark about forming a relationship with "an unreal creation of thought".)

Aside: I don't remember ever agreeing with my old teacher (but he did teach me several very important distinctions), nor his ever being much offended by that: I was never his disciple. Indeed, when he wrote the "recommendation" that allowed me to attend the philosophically benighted university that I did attend, he noted my refusal to accept the views of my teachers [i.e. that I was a hard-head].

But agreement with his views was not what I found worthwhile in his lectures, nor why I have always regarded him as my teacher. As to what I did find worthwhile, all I can do is to refer to my earlier remarks about "an educated man" and "all my life I have felt surrounded by vagueness and confusion". Maybe I should say: Although I may not agree with what you say, yet I always find something to think about in what you say.

Query: God concept-formation.

"What is God [when it's at home]?" We begin with the word 'God', which is to say with sounds or ink marks on paper, and then the question is: what gives those sounds or ink marks meaning? If you look at "God" from that point of view -- i.e. if you begin there, with the word 'God' -- then you will not assume [take for granted] that the word 'God' is the name of a given something [like a cow in a field]: you will not try to answer the question "What is the nature of God?" before you ask about the meaning, if any, of the word 'God'. The meaning of a word is a human invention (Think of the word 'God' as a tool, that may have some use in our language. Human beings invented our concept 'God', as they invented all our concepts). The word 'God' is certainly enough uttered, but is it ever spoken with sense [rather than merely uttered as nonsense]?

The grammar of 'god' is nothing like the grammar of 'cow'. "God" is not a given (No, it is not the case that "everyone knows what we mean by 'God'"). Which is obvious, but nonetheless of primary importance. Before you can talk about a thing, you must identify [point out] what it is that you want to talk about: before you can talk about "the nature of God" (-- if you can talk about the nature of God --) you have first to define the word 'God'. That first step is not optional; it cannot be brushed aside [passed over] with a babble of words, which is the usual theological dodge ("We cannot say what God is" etc. But you are not being asked to say "what God is", but instead about the meaning of a word). While you might want to say that the word 'cow' stands for a cow or cows, we do not say that the word 'God' stands in for anything. And that is grammatically important, however obvious it should be that it is grammatically important -- and just how profoundly perplexing it is.

And so I am saying that I myself do not use the word 'God'? Oh no, not at all am I saying that. How may a reasonable man use this word seriously? "Life can force the concept 'God' on us" (CV p. 86 [MS 174 1v: 1950 §§ 1-2]). And we must simply have the humility to accept that. But what anyone means by the word 'God' (unless, of course, someone is using the grammar of that word that is naively anthropomorphic), I just don't know. But that is not because God is a mystery, but because aspects of our life, as is our very existence, are.


"The limit of Wittgenstein is ..."

Note: this somewhat supplements the discussion Wittgenstein reduced philosophy to logic -- that is, to [the study of] things that are subject to rules -- and therefore he avoided the most important philosophical questions.

From the public prints, the "public smuts" (Bram Stoker called them) which stain both the hands and the brain:

"Police must hunt the true enemy within"

Words about whose meaning we are at variance (Plato, Phaedrus). [The addition of the adjective 'true' is characteristic of such words, e.g. "true patriotism" ("persuasive definition").] The word 'enemy' is like the word 'suspicious'. Are those words also like the words 'logic' and 'love'? The notion of "phenomena" -- of "definition of a phenomenon" -- That (i.e. seeing the relationship between concepts and phenomena) is the real stumbling block (obstacle) to understanding the logic of our language.

And, I think, so far as Wittgenstein's insight is concerned [i.e. what he had to teach about logic-grammar-meaning], if we do not hold fast to the name-of-object versus non-name-of-object distinction, then our philosophy will [and, at this point in our understanding of language, "must"] descend into the primeval chaos [i.e. with respect to language meaning, the superstitious mind-state of a small child awakening to consciousness] of "whatever seems right is going to be right, and that means that we cannot talk about 'right' here" (PI § 258) [of impressions of meaning]: "It seems to me that love is ..." and "I think that logic is ...". And so everything [every "philosophical problem"] will again present itself to us as an empirical [experiential] problem, a problem about "the nature of reality" [the words of our language appearing to us to be the names of "abstract objects" and amorphous phenomena] -- and philosophy will be reduced to mere opinion (and, as such, idle and of no interest to anyone intent on, serious about, the truth [One might as well choose a "life of faith" as choose a philosophical life -- as though the latter simply were not a possibility]).

Wittgenstein identified the first of all problems when he asked: "What is the meaning of a word?" (BB p. 1) [Note: not "What is the meaning of a phenomenon?" ... if the the word 'meaning' has any meaning in that combination of words: a language meaning that can only be guessed at is no meaning. If 'meaning' ≠ 'definition' -- then what will it mean?]


Hearing music versus noise (Bach). "Eclectic Genius" [*]. Nature versus Art.

Albert Schweitzer wrote (Kant's Philosophy of Religion, Ph.D. Thesis on Immanuel Kant (1899)) that Bach's counterpoint, to the ears of other musicians, was noise (rather than music) until Beethoven heard it as music. [cf. Beethoven on "the vox populi", and Robert Schumann: "Perhaps only genius can understand genius."] And that great thinkers are able create a coherent picture ["unity"] where there are contradictions ["disunity"] that stop ordinary thinkers.

Thus, when Bach breathed into counterpoint, which in itself is an empty pattern, the idea of a unified development, by virtue of which all his works possess such a surprising perfection and unity, his music was felt, particularly by capable contemporary musicians, to be noise, and it was Beethoven who possessed the genius to discover art in Bach. (Kant's Philosophy of Religion, ed. and trans. by K. Leidecker as "The Essence of Faith: Philosophy of Religion" (1966), p. 112)

Even to the best musician, at a first hearing, a Bach fugue seems chaos ... (From J.S. Bach, quoted in Seaver's Albert Schweitzer: the man and his mind (1947), p. 240)

A young person once dismissed music as "just numbers". And indeed in classical times there were instructions by which music according to the rules of counterpoint might be "composed" by rolling dice. (Were those compositions music?)

[*] Maybe this should be "Selective Genius". Cf. Wittgenstein said that he only "took up ideas that I found elsewhere for my work of clarification" (CV (1998 rev. ed.) [MS 154 15v: 1931 § 2]; cf. CV (1980), p. 19); was that "eclectic" -- i.e. by 'eclectic' do we wish to mean "pick and choose from here, there, wherever"? But maybe the Greeks meant by that word: someone who regarded the different "schools of thought" as not really having much in the way of "true differences".

Deselecting texts of the Bible

[Wittgenstein to Drury] [very sternly] You mustn't pick and choose just what you want in that way. (Recollections p. 170)

Thus, for Jesus of Nazareth, only that exists in the Old Testament which proves to be in harmony with his religious talent.... In this manner Augustine unites the contradictions of a Neoplatonic world view with Catholicized Christianity into one whole; he establishes the higher unity of both, without feeling the contradictions. (Kant's Philosophy of Religion p. 113)

When Jesus quotes Isaiah he does "pick and choose". Etienne Gilson said of Augustine's finding the Father, the Word and the creation in Plotinus: "That Augustine found them there is an incontrovertible fact. That they were not there is a hardly more controvertible fact." (God and Philosophy (1941) p. 49)

Socrates accomplished this unity in appraising the world of appearances morally without feeling the need for extending this unity to the whole world in a moral evaluation. (Kant's Philosophy of Religion p. 114)

According to Schweitzer, if I understand him, in the individual's desire to understand ethics -- the mistake is to investigate the nature of "the world" rather than focus on oneself as an ethical being. How must I live my life, regardless of the nature of the world (which in any case, Schweitzer says is, in truth, morally unintelligible)?

Woodwinds, cuckoo

Next point. When a bird sings, that is nature [unintelligible ("logically meaningless" -- i.e. undefined) sound]. But when Beethoven recreates the bird's song in his 6th Symphony, that is art.

Query: visual Gestalt, rabbit-duck.

Context. In some circumstances, you could say, "Ah, I thought that was a cuckoo, but it was Beethoven [music]"; and, "Ah, for a moment I thought that was Beethoven [music], but it was a cuckoo". But is this a Gestalt shift as in Wittgenstein's examples? Can we say: although the percept (the sound) does not change, the concept (a bird's cry versus musical instruments) does? What clearly changes is the context, but I don't know whether to call this an example of an aural Gestalt or not. [This is quite unclear to me.]

However, the aesthetic unity can also be constructed for the imitated bird song, as shown in Beethoven's Pastoral Symphony. The imitation of the song in this composition is not felt as a noise [unintelligible sound], but as art because it is incorporated into an aesthetic unity even though only for the one who is able to accomplish the unity intended by the composer. (Kant's Philosophy of Religion p. 109-110)

Query: old woman, young woman illusion, explanation.

A Gestalt shift (in this case the Old Woman-Young Woman image) is not an example of what we call an illusion -- (an 'illusion'? Well, "here are examples of illusions": How else are we to define the word 'illusion'? 'something not being what it appears to be' -- but how are we to define 'something not being what etc.' except by pointing to examples of things not being what they appear etc.) -- e.g. an optical illusion ... (Plato may offer examples in Republic 602c-603a.)

Are there are also aural illusions: e.g. cuckoo or the woodwind instruments of the Sixth Symphony? And are there also aural Gestalt shifts? What would be an example? or is "the woodwinds-cuckoo" an example: can you hear that sound as A rather than as B and have an involuntary shift occur between them? Is that a grammatical question or an empirical one? "How can you verify whether or not there is an aural Gestalt shift?" (because is there anything corresponding [comparable] to being able to highlight this or that feature of an image, as one can do with the duck-rabbit?) is a grammatical question. [How can? versus How do? for How do? can select from a variety of possibilities: I know it is raining because I looked out the window. Or, I walked out into the yard, my head uncovered. Or, my friend who has just come in told me. Those are all grammatically possible answers to an empirical question.]


Views of Language as Philosophical States of Mind

While I lay sleeping it occurred [or seemed to occur] me that: There are two types of philosophers [thinkers, philosophical thinkers]:

(1) one type imagines that all words are words about the meaning of which "we are at variance" -- i.e. have "different opinions" (Phaedrus 263a-b) [as if the meaning of a word were a matter of opinion; or, as if all words were names of shadowy phenomena, "thought" e.g., or "abstractions"], while

(2) the other type imagines that there are -- or should be -- no words about whose meanings "we are at variance" [as if the meanings of all words should be as clear as ostensively defined names of objects, as is the word 'cow' e.g.]. These two fundamental attitudes -- frames of mind -- characterize our way of philosophizing.

The first type regards vagueness, vague language, as the normal-natural state of things; the second regards vagueness as intolerable -- inimical to philosophy: indeed, that a vague philosophical statement or conception is not philosophy at all. [Maybe 20th Century British and French philosophers can be contrasted here.]


Short Queries and Replies

Query: Wittgenstein, what is logic?

That is his master question, in a way [or, in this way], because 'logic' = 'meaning' in his Philosophical Investigations. [logic = grammar = meaning]

Query: what does the word 'geometry' stand for?

What does the word 'cow' stand for? It would seem that type of question comes first, then (grammatical) analogies are made from it. A 'cow' is the name of an object, and therefore 'cow' can be said to "stand [in] for" a cow. cf. a proper name like "Bossy". (That is what is called a "paradigm".) But now, what can the word 'time' be said to "stand [in] for"? (It's true, you could -- and should (in order to explain the meaning of [i.e. to describe what we do with (what use we make of this tool)] the word 'time' -- point to clocks, to sunrise and sunset and midday e.g.) -- but rather than point to ways we use the word 'time', our first blush response is to be stunned [struck dumb: silent perplexity: Augustine: "... but if someone asks me, I don't know."]) And this exposes the false grammatical analogy which holds our thinking [imagination] about language captive. The meaning of a word is not -- or, clearly is not always -- some object the word stands for. Nonetheless, because that picture does hold us captive, the notion "abstract object" is invented ("A word "must" stand for some object, and if there is no visible -- i.e. sensible [perceptible to the senses] -- object, it simply must stand for some imperceptible object. But, if we say that, we have robbed the notion of "object" of all vitality -- i.e. usefulness, or, helpful-to-the-understanding-ness). Wittgenstein: the philosopher must cure himself of many illnesses of the understanding (CV [MS 127 76r: 1944]). Trouble is: nothing stays clear for very long! We keep wandering up the same false paths.

Query: defined versus undefined in geometry.

Surely, if you want to know what 'undefined' [or, 'not defined'] is used to mean, you should first ask what 'defined' is used to mean. In which sense of 'defined' can a word by "undefined" and yet not be meaningless?

Query: what can language be compared to?

Now, after Wittgenstein, everyone says "a game", where what characterizes a game is its rules. -- But to what else?

"It is high time we compare these phenomena to something different" -- one may say. -- I am thinking e.g. of mental illnesses. (CV p. 55 [MS 133 18: 29.10.1946])

Inventing worthwhile -- useful, helpful to the understanding -- similes, however, is not easy. Yet that is what a philosopher does.

Query: Wittgenstein, trying to categorize psychiatric problems by grouping the symptoms is akin to grouping clouds by their shapes.

There are "many ways to slice a pie", many possible classification schemes, but not all are useful for our purposes. But, if I understand this query (and I may well not), by 'shape' it means shapes as in Hamlet (iii, 2) where the same cloud is said to resemble a camel, a weasel, a whale -- i.e. by implication, to resemble any animal at all -- (Polonius accepts all three suggestions), and so any categorization of clouds by their shapes would be quite arbitrary. It does not mean the shapes of clouds as in the weather-cloud-categories of 'stratus', 'cumulus', 'cumulonimbus', 'cirrus', etc. (I think that in Aristophanes where clouds are said to resemble the people who stand under them [The Clouds circa lines 330-357], e.g. the cloud above Polonius would surely have the shape of a donkey, that belongs to the literature class rather than meteorology class, for, after all, not everyone thinks that Polonius is an ass.)

The deepest problems and Philosophy

Query: deepest questions, not at all, Wittgenstein.

I wrote: "The deepest questions are not questions at all", but I think that is a summary of the Philosophical Investigations's notion "grammatical joke" (§ 111), not a quote from Wittgenstein himself [although see TLP 4.003].

"The deepest of life's problems are not problems at all." -- Wittgenstein would not have said that. But I believe he would have said that life's deepest problems are not philosophical problems -- meaning that they cannot be solved [resolved] by reasoning about them (reasoning means using language: philosophy is discourse of reason). (On the other hand, if there is no "logical" solution [i.e. if we have not set criteria for the solution] to a riddle, does it make sense [meaning] to call it a 'riddle'? "The riddle of existence" .... Well, I would like to have asked Wittgenstein about that, about how a philosopher in his most mature work could not write about that [cf. Plato's Gorgias, "we are discussing no small matter, but how to live"]. Was it really Wittgenstein's "considered opinion" that Philosophy = Logic, PERIOD [FULL STOP]? I don't know. A possible answer to that question, which is not to say a probable one.)

Query: unexamined life is not worth living, by definition.

No, you cannot say that 'unexamined' = 'unworthy'. 'The unexamined cup of tea is not worth drinking' is not a tautology. A dog lives an unexamined life, but why should its life be regarded as not worth living. The question is, I think: What way of life is worthy of a human being, a being endowed with discourse of reason? (Of course reason is not the only thing man is endowed with; he is also endowed -- if this is to be accounted an endowment -- with an appetite for pleasure and other base instincts) But why, given the little man's reason can do for him [as shown by his eternal questions without answers], should one not judge that the unexamined life is not unworthy of man; indeed, might it not be the wisest way? Does not Plato address just this point when he talks about the specifically-human form of excellence (Republic 353b ff.)? If there is such an excellence, then that way of life is "happiness" for man ... but that would be "by definition": The good for man is to live in accord with the specific excellence that is proper to him, as the good for all things is to live in accord with the excellence that is proper to them, and such a life is happiness = the good for man.

When men first wrote grammar books, they did so as anthropologists -- i.e. as outsiders, observers of the language they spoke. As investigators of a natural phenomenon (namely, the language they spoke) they did not, from a philosophical point of view, "understand" ["despite playing the language game well enough"] -- i.e. they had to conceptualize ("concept-formation") their subject. They had to investigate the language they spoke just as -- well, not exactly as ["for nothing is" -- i.e. the grammar-logic of our language is not -- "hidden"] -- they had to investigate the workings of their own bodies. Is it not wonderful that first we spoke, then we learned [or perhaps have learned] to understand what we speak? We are born -- first we had bodies, and only later did we learn what there was under our skin. We are born -- but to ourselves we are like creatures from a distant planet -- how much we must do even to begin to "know ourselves"! [Suppose birds suddenly awakened to self-consciousness -- that which we suppose them not to have -- and longed to make philosophical sense of birdsong ... And so we too, each of us, awakens out of childhood into consciousness, with a desire to know, to understand.]

For a cat, what is human speech if not "birdsong". Is birdsong nonsense? To whom? Is it logically impossible that someday we may figure out [discover] the meaning of birdsong, as if it were a natural [foreign] language -- might we not someday talk with birds? Of course it is not logically impossible ... but neither is a human being flapping his arms and flying like a bird. Wittgenstein: "If a lion could talk ..." The point is of that remark is to recognize that there are profound differences in "ways of life". We do not understand other species; all the rest is fantasy (logical possibility = what can be described [imagination]).

Might birdsong not be [might it not turn out to be] a language [after all] (cf. Herodotus 2.56-7)? A language must have a meaning -- and now, how do you want to define the word 'meaning' in this case?

Naturalizing a Myth

"Interpretation" is another meaning of the word 'meaning', of the expression 'explanation of meaning', one where 'meaning' does not mean 'grammar' in Wittgenstein's sense. Herodotus treated the following story as if it were the cryptic statement of an oracle (What did the god mean by saying that?), not mere fantasy.

Herodotus explains the meaning of the story -- i.e. naturalizes the myth -- about the origin of Zeus's oracle at Dodona in Epirus. The story told in Dodona was that a black dove came from Libya [the ancient name for Africa] and "set up a shire in honor of Zeus, under an oak that grew" in Dodona. Herodotus "accounts for" ["explains"] that story this way: that the woman who was the oracle seemed to the people of Dodona to make sounds [noises] like a bird. But "After a time, they said, "The bird spoke with a human voice", as soon as the woman" had learned to speak Greek. "As long as she talked her own barbarian [unknown foreign] language, she seemed to them to speak like a bird. How, after all, could a dove speak with a human voice! That they said that the dove was black indicates that the woman was an Egyptian", "a handmaid of the temple of Zeus in [Egyptian] Thebes" who had been carried away and sold to the Greeks by Phoenicians, which was the story the Egyptians told of her origin [2.54-57]. (Herodotus, The History, tr. Grene.)

According to Herodotus, Zeus and most of the other gods originated with the Egyptians, from whom the Greeks learned of them. The original gods worshipped by the Greeks were simply natural phenomena, not personalities like Zeus [2.50, 2.52]. On naturalizing myths, cf. Plato's Phaedrus 229c-e. But Aristotle called Herodotus a mythologue ("mythologist") [Grene's note to 2.93].

Further Queries and Replies

Query: if I cannot say it, it is not knowledge.

In Socrates' case we can -- indeed, must -- say: by definition.

Query: children don't understand how to define a word; instead they often give an example of the definition.

Oh, but children do know how to define a word: because giving examples is very often the clearest way to define a word. That is, after all, the way we learn to use a word. (Is there anything more useless, at least from logic's point of view [from the point of view of the love of clarity] than a legal definition, which is a formula of words but without any examples to clearly define the formula's meaning? Jurors are expected to divine what the combination of words 'aid and abet' "means" e.g.)

Query: does language require symbols and grammar?

Must an elephant have a trunk, tusks, ears, legs -- but must an elephant have a body? ("Defining characteristics" -- of an phenomenon or of a concept. -- Or is to which these characteristics belong not clear in this and other such cases of "words about which we are at variance" (Plato, Phaedrus)?) Does Wittgenstein's builders' language have a grammar ('grammar' in the sense, not of meaning, but of a syntax)? Mustn't language have a physical aspect -- e.g. incisions in wet clay or sounds -- i.e. would we call anything 'language' otherwise? ("The limit of concept-formation -- is human imagination") What is the value of a question like this (about "requirements")? It may make us examine our "concepts" [But the word 'concept' is only usefully defined, or so I have said, as 'rules for using a word'] -- but not as if definitions were "analytic propositions" (as if we had only to look within ourselves [examine our own "thoughts"] to decipher that "essential meanings" ["analytic truths"] of the words of our language). [Double quotes = meaning unclear.]

Query: born blindness.

An eye that does not see, an ear that does not hear. Kant's categories: if every perception is a space-time perception, then space-time belongs to the perceiver not to what is perceived -- i.e. our perceptions belong to a frame of reference rather than to "reality in itself" [whatever that is when it's at home]. Does Kant's notions, as I understand it, amount to anything more than a "picture" [Weltbild]: Man is a being limited by his five-senses [by the limitations, whatever those may be, of his five senses] ..... [This is a note about "conceptual blindness", doubtless misdirected by some search engine or other ...]

Query: Wittgenstein, language mystified.

Maybe 'mystified' is better than 'bewitched' [PI § 109], especially as it allows 'self-mystified' as well. But then perhaps it is only naïveté rather than complicity before one learns skepticism from WII, like the child awakening from the slumber of childhood to philosophical self-awareness (self-consciousness).


"The law is what God commands"

The good is not what God commands (contra Wittgenstein); the law is what God [Yahweh] commands. And that is why God himself can be judged, why God can [logical possibility] be good or evil: because He is only a law-maker -- and we distinguish between law and equity ("fairness", "true justice"), just as Antigone did ("Thy writ, O King, hath not such potence ...", and Yahweh is no more than a "heavenly king" [For those who have been brought up in Catholic Christianity, with its Greek theology, "God" is a rather distant descendant of Yahweh, the icon of a national identity ideology. The notion of "the Gentile" amounts to "we and our god versus they and theirs", or "us" versus "them" by any other name.]

God does not say what is right and wrong, but "lays down the law" like a father governing a child, a child like Abraham, "our father in an eternal childhood". What the god commands is the law -- but the law is not ethics [i.e. human reason applied to our life].

The good is not what God says it is. The law is what -- whatever -- God says it is.

The good is not what God commands; rather, the law is what God commands. (The law versus equity.)

Logic is the study of the interconnection of concepts, the attempt to sort out those interconnections. [Seeing those connections is a matter of "insight", i.e. chance revelation.]

Verification (accountability) divides philosophy from fantasy.

[Fantasy: metaphysical hypotheses, creations of our own imagination. (But is not human imagination a natural phenomenon ... How then can "the theory of evolution" account for delusion -- How does delusion serve "the struggle for survival", the "preservation of the species"?)]


Remarks written in the margin

You have lost your lecture notes? You should have written them on your mind instead of paper. (Antisthenes, Diog. L. vi, 5)

The following are whimsical, if not stupid remarks. I do not believe that the Greek philosophers really drank much wine. Certainly Plato did not. It is not only discretion that is affected by wine but sound reasoning as well, for wine is like unrestful sleep.

The place for a book is in your head, not on your bookshelf. I don't want to possess anything more than I can put in my backpack. I want to wander from town to town, city to city, to be free, to observe and to think. To think I need no more than a pencil and paper, after all, if that.

I want to be an eternal traveler, an eternal "uncommercial traveler" (to use the title of a book I have not read). I wish to be the "flying Dutchman", the man without a home port, if I understand that story / picture (and I may not understand it). I do not want a home ... because a home is incompatible with freedom. Whatever I cannot carry on my back, whether through pack-ice or desert, I do not want. The place for your luggage is (i.e. should / must be) your mind. -- That is what I want to say.

If you find a worthwhile book, take the time -- no matter how much time -- to make its thoughts your own. That is how to read a book, as if you will never have a chance to read it again.

On the other hand, there are books that you must read again and again over many years if you are to learn all that can be learned from them. Philosophy is not easy; it is not like learning directions to go from point A to B: "Turn left after 3 blocks, etc." Albert Schweitzer's philosophy e.g. is deep, rooted in life experience and feeling (and so requires life experience and feeling to be understood). Wittgenstein's philosophy -- i.e. "logic of language" in my jargon, on the other hand, is not deep in that sense; its depth is in (1) its insights into grammar and sense and nonsense, and (2) in its constant challenge "to put the question marks deeper down". Wittgenstein called his work an heir to historical philosophy (BB p. 28) -- not a continuation of it.

[If] one cannot even compare the genre one's work belongs to with that of earlier works, then one can't compare them in respect of their value either. (CV p. 67 [MS 136 110b: 14.1.1948 § 2]

Do I think himself was mistaken? Yes, I do, very much mistaken. Because (1) Wittgenstein's logic of language lies entirely within historical tradition (Plato's Sophist is an outstanding example), and (2) there was no justification for Wittgenstein's having excluded life-philosophy from the contemporary genre. (Schweitzer's philosophy is a vital [living] continuation of traditional philosophy. Himself was only 14 years younger than the doctor of Lambaréné, who actually did what Wittgenstein had only dreamed of doing. A man whose thought and activity shows a unity is not always looking to run away. Schweitzer's life I find inspiring; Wittgenstein's merely irritating .... But all that is by the way, by way of an aside.)

In any case and nonetheless, I don't want to live in a nest, even in a nest lined with bookshelves housing my dearest friends. I want to be free to be everywhere and nowhere at home. (Maybe the Internet will one day eliminate the need for personal libraries.)

Apropos the few notes I wrote defending Schweitzer (as if that were necessary):

One age misunderstands another; and a petty age [kleine Zeit] misunderstands all the others in its own nasty [ugly] way. (CV p. 86 [MS 174 5v: 1950])

But is it a question of eras rather than merely of individuals -- i.e. are there cultural high tides that lift everyone up? What I wrote is inadequate -- not because of the age we live in, but because there are and have always been shallow human ways of life, and the shallow cannot comprehend what is deep. No defense of Schweitzer is needed, but yet it distresses me that queries of that sort are made about a man who was not only a great but also a good human being.

The meaning of a phrase is its soul, but its soul is not a ghost.

Zero is not a number; zero is a place-holder. Zero's place is wherever there is no number; this is shown especially clearly when we write dates, e.g. 08/05/09 [which might also be written _8/_5/_9]. Consider the difference between saying "I have [own] one sheep" and "I have [own] zero sheep" (The word 'zero' does not indicate a number of sheep; it indicates that I have [own] no sheep). When we count, we begin with 1 not with zero. And on the Christian calendar there is no year zero; there is 1 B.C. and 1 A.D.

"As long as there is a verb 'to be' that looks as if it functioned the way the verb 'to eat' does ..." CV p. 15 [MS 111 133: 24.8.1931]; cf. PI II, x, p. 190, para. 11) -- That is, by following a grammatical analogy -- a false one according to Wittgenstein -- it appears as if 'to be' named an act [action], just as 'to eat' [evidently] does.

Tolstoy: "You say I am not free, but ..." But that is a grammatical remark, not an argument? Or is a grammatical remark an argument in this context? Or, "That is not proof of the existence of free will -- it is merely a grammatical remark". So one says, but why wouldn't a grammatical reminder be a proof? Indeed, what else could (logical possibility) serve as proof in this case?

Wisdom -- worldly wisdom -- almost always comes too late. So what is its point? "Live and learn" -- but the lessons we learn no longer have an application in our life. We finally learn how to live, and then we die. What sense is there in that? Well, none. Such is the "how-ness" of the world.

A Second Reformation

Kant's statement, "Two things fill the human mind with awe: the starry heavens above and the moral law within", has become the basis of religious faith for many people. His philosophy marks a line dividing the biblical Reformation heritage of previous eras ... [Kant's] ideas had overthrown the established foundations of ... apologetics ... (Marshall, Poling, Schweitzer: A Biography (1971), p. 25)

[Questions: what do the authors mean by 'religious faith'? The word 'apologetics' I take to mean 'defense' but also 'explanation'.] Can we speak, therefore, of a second Reformation, of an "Enlightenment Reformation", with "liberal Protestantism" as its expression? What was earlier received dogma -- the "word of God" never to be questioned -- must now be subjected to criticism, just like everything else encountered by the human mind. There is no longer a place for dogma, for Medieval piety [as if to say: to question is to reject, to as it were wound, the love of Jesus Christ or of God the loving father], in human life.

Christianity cannot take the place of thinking, but it must be founded on it. (Albert Schweitzer, Out of My Life and Thought, tr. Lemke (1990), Epilogue, p. 240)

Ways of Life versus Forms of Life - Degrees of Choice

Note: this continues the discussion What Wittgenstein meant by Lebensformen.

Olya's Way of Life

The room next to ours [This was a communal apartment in Soviet Moscow] was occupied by two women ... Forty-five year-old Olya, haggard and bony, worked as a charwoman at a movie theater and lived with her aunt, whom she called 'Grandma'. Olya's minor son was in prison for the gang rape of a girl who was also a minor [and when her son was released from prison he came home and hit his mother].

When Olya got drunk, which was almost every night, she would put a tape on her recorder full blast, pound her fist on the table, and shout, "Grandma, I'm drinking! I'm having a ball!"

Toward the end of the tape, the music would be muted a bit, and a heavy male voice, imitating a radio announcer, would be heard saying: "This music was recorded for Olga Vorontsova by the senior projector of the Cadre Movie Theater."

"Listen, Grandma! That music is for me!" Olya would shout.

Grandma's response was blunt: "Blah, blah, blah!"

From Notes of a Revolutionary by Andrei Amalrik, tr. Daniels (1982), p. 6-7 [p. 96]

The Feline Form of Life

In the Japanese fishing village of Tashiro, known as "Cat Island" because it is swarming with cats (For centuries the people have believed that cats invite a big catch; Tashiro fishermen traditionally give part of their catch to cats), Mitsue Tsuda, a 65-year-old avowed cat hater complains of cats sneaking into her house. "They don't wipe their feet even when it's raining," she said.

AFP published on Taipei Times, 31 December 2008 (Text rearranged)

The MAD Way of Life

... in 1961 ... NATO manœuvres were held in Greek and Turkish Thrace. On the latter occasion Khrushchev attacked the Greek government in a speech declaring that his rockets would spare "neither olive-trees nor the Acropolis". (A Short History of Greece (Cambridge, 1965), p. 177)

Hezbollah and the Presbyterian pastor in Beirut, Lebanon

We know you work with the American Embassy.

No, that's not true. I have nothing to do with the American Embassy.

But we know you go there.

Yes, I go to get my passport renewed when necessary, but I don't work with the embassy.... I have no political connections.

Maybe you don't work at at the embassy, but we know you are a spiritual advisor.

My friend, that's not true. You don't know much about the U.S. government if you think they have spiritual advisors. I'm not connected with the embassy in any way.

From Benjamin Weir, Hostage Bound, Hostage Free (1987), v, p. 40. (Events of 1984-1985)

"Who was then a gentleman?"

... most of what they have made their habits and their customs are the exact opposite of other folks' .... They knead dough with their feet but mud with their hands and they lift dung with their hands .... The Greeks write and calculate moving their hands from left to right but the Egyptians from right to left .... In the rest of the world, priests of the gods wear their hair long, but in Egypt they shave close. Among other people it is the custom, in grief, for those to whom the grief comes especially close to shave their heads, but the Egyptians, under the shadow of death, let their hair and beards grow long, though at other times they shave. (Herodotus, The History 2.35-36, tr. Grene)

From you blue heavens above us bent,
The gardener Adam and his wife
Smile at the claims of long descent.
Howe'er it be, it seems to me
'Tis only noble to be good.
Kind hearts are more than coronets,
And simple faith than Norman blood. (Tennyson, "Lady Clara Vere de Vere")

Our own community of ideas stretches back to the early 17th century, to Lilburne and the Levellers. Their revolution overthrew, not a mere earthly king, but the "Word of God" in the words of the Apostle Paul: "There is no authority that is not from God, and the existing authorities are appointed by God. For rulers are not a tyrant to well-doing but to ill-doing" (Romans 13.1-7).

"First there are the changes which we [the Church in Viet-Nam] desire to be allowed to make in our liturgy. Black vestments we desire to be allowed to wear on Christmas Day in order to express our joy and white vestments on Good Friday in order to express our sorrow. Also we desire that the Holy Father should permit our menfolk to wear their hats in church." (Marshall, Father Hilary's Holiday (1965), iv)

... white, symbol of pale cheeks, colour of mourning. (Cronin, The Wise Man from the West (1955), v)

In Vietnam, my father told me, to call something "number 10" means it is of the worst, not the best, quality.

"Would the Latin High Mass ... have been recognized by a returning Lord as a representation of His Last Supper? In the Early Church there had been no liturgical costumes: chasubles, stoles, albs, amices and maniples were Roman overcoats, face towels, shirts, mufflers and napkins." (Marshall, The Bishop (1970), xxxiv, p. 164-165)

Those ways of human life are customs to which it seems any child might be "to the manner born" (to adapt Shakespeare), that is to say brought up to regard as normal for man. Communities of ideas are rational (patterns of thought, ways of thinking) and so may vary from time to time and place to place. In contrast irrational forms of life are involuntary. The command "Believe in this!" can be given, but it cannot be enforced or obeyed. Cervantes to his jailor: "You can force me to lie down but you cannot force me to sleep." And no one can be forced, other than outwardly (Cervantes can be forced to close his eyes as well as to lie down), to believe in a religious or ethical doctrine, a "categorical imperative" (Kant) or "absolute value" (Wittgenstein), because those are non-rational (or irrational). "Find this beautiful!"

Alexandro Valignano was Francis Xavier (1506-1552)'s successor in Japan. He wrote in a letter --

The Japanese have rites and customs so different from those of other nations that it looks as if they studied of set purpose to be unlike any other race on earth. It can safely be said that Japan is a world the reverse of Europe.... What I could not get over in all this was that a people so utterly unlike ourselves should yet be so highly civilized. Even in their feelings and natural tastes they are so much our opposites that I would hardly dare to assert it had I not lived long among them. For instance, we hold white to be a joyous and festive colour, but with them it is the colour of mourning and sorrow, and when they want to celebrate and be merry they put on black or purple, our mourning colours. As of the eye so of the ear. Our instrumental and vocal music offends their sensibility, and their music, which they love, is an absolute torment for us to listen to. Again, we take off our caps or sombreros and stand up to greet a visitor, but they remove their shoes and sit down, considering it the gravest discourtesy to receive anyone standing. (James Brodrick, Saint Francis Xavier, abridged by the author (1957) [orig. 1952], xiii, p. 217-218)

Schweitzer said that "society is ephemeral, but man is always man" (Centennial of Goethe's Death, Frankfurt am Main 1932), and with regard to many forms of life, the individual man is always an individual.


Foreword and Afterword

"I grow old learning new things", Solon, one of the Seven Wise Men of Greece, says. But it often strikes me that not only am I growing old learning new things, I am also growing old forgetting old things, many old things, and I am not learning as many new things are I am forgetting old things.

Plato's Lysimachus, who describes the mind in old age (Laches 189c-d), himself seems to have lost both the thread and the needle (i.e. sharpness of mind). It is the latter I hope I haven't lost (What criterion should I set for judging? In philosophy 'sharpness of mind' does not = 'quickness of mind', for the conclusion comes at the end, not at the beginning. What matters is to arrive at an account that stands against refutation, not the time it takes to get there, nor how many times one tries a false path along the way). What is most important is not to stop thinking about a problem too soon ("In philosophy, the winner is the one who comes in last," Wittgenstein wrote).

In philosophy, the winner of the race is the one who can run slowest. [Or without haste.] Or the one who arrives at the finish line last. ("Philosophy" in The Big Typescript)


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