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The Augean Stable of Philosophy after 2500 years

The background of this page is the "logic of language", the distinction between language with meaning and language without meaning in the context of philosophy. There are two types of investigations: one an investigation of concepts (language), the other an investigation of facts (reality). Logic says [How?] which type of investigation anything is, including the investigation of the relationship between concepts and facts that may explain concept formation.

Why only two types, because there are many ways to slice a pie? This particular distinction (way of slicing the pie) happens to be the most useful to understanding philosophical problems, as far as I can see.

Topics on this page ...

And so does the good man come to this? (Republic 496c-d)

If one lives in the midst of people intent on viciousness [the opposite of virtue], can one only retire into oneself, like a traveler who shelters beside a wall from a storm, trying to preserve one's own soul ['the ethical mind or aspect of man', in the vocabulary of the historical Socrates] as one who would be a good man? Plato, looking at the example of Socrates and Athens, said that it is this way.

Since not everyone is intent on viciousness, and indeed "a good man, even if as yet unknown, is already a friend", it is not beside a wall but in a circle of like-minded friends that a good man must shelter if he is not to throw away his life as Socrates did when, as Plato believed, the rulers of this world and their supporters are intent on viciousness. (Of course I don't believe that Socrates threw away his life "without doing any good either to himself or others". And if the good man hides himself away like a lazy bones, I don't know what the word 'good' is going to mean, for isn't the good man DEF.= the man who does good?)

Republic 496a-d

And when persons who are unworthy of education approach philosophy and make an alliance with her who is a rank above them, what sort of ideas and opinions are likely to be generated? Will they not be sophisms ... having nothing in them ... worthy of or akin to true wisdom?... the worthy disciples of philosophy will be but a small remnant: perchance some noble and well-educated ... and there may be a gifted few who leave the arts, which they justly despise, and come to her ... Those who belong to this small class have tasted how sweet and blessed a possession philosophy is, and have also seen enough of the madness of the multitude ... Such an one may be compared to a man who has fallen among wild beasts -- he will not join in the wickedness of his fellows, but neither is he able singly to resist all their fierce natures, and therefore seeing ... that he would have to throw away his life without doing any good either to himself or others, he holds his peace, and goes his own way. He is like one who, in the storm of dust and sleet which the driving wind hurries along, retires under the shelter of a wall; and seeing the rest of mankind full of wickedness, he is content, if only he can live his own life and be pure from evil ... and depart [this life] in peace and good-will ... (Plato, Republic 496a-d, tr. Jowett; cf. Plato, Apology 31e-32a)

There is a very small remnant ... of those who consort worthily with philosophy ....... without doing any good to himself or others -- for all these reasons I say the philosopher remains quiet, minds his own affair, and, as it were, standing aside under the shelter of a wall in a storm and blast of dust and sleet and seeing others filled full of lawlessness, is content if in any way he may keep himself free from iniquity and unholy deeds through his life ... (Plato, Republic 496a-d, tr. Shorey)

It is as if in the Republic, Plato has forgotten all about the historical Socrates, the artisan who was the father of philosophy (although Socrates was not that in Plato's eyes) when he deprecates artisans as unworthy of philosophy. Has Plato, the aristocrat whose dialogs center around characters from his own class, forgotten men such as Antisthenes and Simon the Cobbler, both of whom were like Socrates and many of his companions neither "well born" nor "well bred"? Or has he? I think, although I may be mistaken, that Plato's point is simply that those who are drawn to philosophy are few and that even among those most are unworthy of it (although aristocrats are more likely to be worthy of it than anyone else).

Boethius, the unsheltered

Unlike Plato's philosopher in the Republic (496c-d), Boethius had no wall to shelter beside. He was a Roman who was suspected by the Goths of wanting to be free of foreign rule, and for this the Goths put him in prison, and there he was put to death. But it was while in prison that Boethius wrote The Consolation of Philosophy, in which he says that God, not this world (this life), is man's highest (greatest) good, and the proper subject of his thoughts.

One of Theodoric's [the Goth King of Italy] most intelligent statesman was a rich Roman named Boethius [who] was an expert on music, water clocks, astronomy; he was also a patriot who believed that Rome would be better off without the Goths.... Boethius was thrown into prison in Pavia [(circa 524), and while there] he composed a book entitled The Consolation of Philosophy. Philosophy appears to Boethius in the form of a lady; she reminds him of his former happiness -- of his wife, his sons, his honors, his wealth.... Philosophy points out that he still possesses the love of his family and much else that should make him happy, then inveighs against ambition and desire for fame. Boethius begs her to explain to him the nature of true happiness. She replies that it consists in the contempt for all earthly things and in looking to God as the summun bonum. There is in the book no allusion to Christianity ... Boethius' book was the most widely read work of literature during what is conveniently termed the Dark Ages ... in many ways it establishes the mood of Italy during that period ... in a world of brute force and unpredictable tyrants the best thing was to lie low, avoid public life, [cf. Republic 496c-d] and think of the world to come [cf. Phaedo 67e-68a, ibid. 107c]. That this was in fact the most prudent policy was underlined by Boethius' end. [He was put to death by strangulation and being beaten with clubs.] (Vincent Cronin, Italy (1972), iv, p. 73-74)

Socrates as Plato's literary invention

Socrates as a literary invention is quite apparent also in the opening of the Laches (180d-181a), where Plato has taken Socrates' father, the stoneworker, that is to say artisan, Sophroniscus, and made him appear to be an aristocrat, that is, a man of Plato's own social class, whereas there is every reason to believe that the historical Socrates was not.

"I don't like Socrates"

Another query directed to this site. The reply, I'd say, is: which portrait of Socrates don't you like? The query may be another way of saying, "I don't like Plato's Socrates", or maybe "I don't like the Socrates of this or that particular dialog." What has that to do with philosophy? To philosophy as a way of life, it is important: Is the Socrates of Plato the best portrait of a man of rational moral virtue? (But of which dialog, because the Plato's literary character in the later dialogs moves very far away from the Socrates of the Apology.) Or is the more down-to-earth Socrates of Xenophon a better portrait? Or is an eclectic portrait best? I have said, and I think, that "we make for ourselves a picture of Socrates, of who he was."

Would the Socrates of Plato have had the loyal and loving friends and companions of the historical Socrates? Would mere cleverness, as is sometimes found in Plato (as e.g. Republic 345b ff.), have been enough for them? It is a great sadness to me that we do not have the works of Antisthenes, and the dialogs of Simon the Cobbler and Phaedo, who are said to have written down conversations true to the historical Socrates.

But may not even those, e.g. me, whom Plato disdains as unworthy of education slowly grope their way towards the truth (Acts 17.27), and why should they or anyone else be denied this small chance for salvation? In other words, we should care more about the meaning and, where applicable, the truth of Plato's idea about the philosopher sheltering in a storm than about Plato's aristocratic Platonism (cf. Phaedo 91b).

The rarity of Socrates' divine sign

My own case of the internal sign is hardly worth mentioning, for rarely, if ever, has such a monitor been given to any other man. (Republic 496c)

Plato does not explain here what he means by calling Socrates' internal sign a "monitor", or what the sign has to do with philosophy, because forebodings don't decide arguments (regardless of whether man holds discourse with himself alone or also with his companions): only reason and public experience can, and Socrates "inner sign" [presentiment] did not lead him to philosophy but the oracle of Apollo's words did (or at least in Plato's Apology it did).

Socrates' inner sign has the logical status of instinct. (And what does that mean -- "logical status"? Both instinct and Socrates' sign are irrational. That is their logical status.)

Query: self-control is the best way to live in a world full of ignorants.

If "sheltering under the eaves of a wall" requires independent wealth enough to provide for one's earthly needs ("for the body is a source of endless trouble to us by reason of the mere requirement of food"), stoical self-control (self-restraint) may be the more serviceable advice for students of philosophy in their "myriad poverty". [Australian English]

Query: what absolute concepts does Socrates use to subdue Thrasymachus?

The word 'absolute' here means what Plato calls 'Form' [or, in some translations, 'Idea'] (as in Plato's Phaedo where he speaks of "absolute tallness", 65d; see also Plato's Republic 340e ff.). Plato asks Thrasymachus: What is the essence [or Form] of 'being a shepherd' (or "shepherd-ness" or "the shepherd")? The shepherd as such -- i.e. in so far as he is a shepherd -- and nothing less, nothing more than a shepherd -- is, according to Plato, an "absolute concept" [or, Absolute]. What do -- or, rather, "must" because the question is about their essence -- all shepherds have in common: what is the common nature of shepherds?

But by using this tactic, which I would call eristic, Plato diverts us from what is for us the compelling question that Thrasymachus' thesis has suggested: What is the relation between law and justice -- i.e. between human laws and divine justice (as inSophocles' Antigone: "Thy writ, O King, hath not such potence as will overweigh the laws of God")? Plato does "subdue" Thrasymachus ... but, well, does not Plato, when he talks about the good man in the midst of men who are intent on viciousness (i.e. vice, the opposite of virtue), say what amounts to what Thrasymachus has said: that human laws and divine justice often have little relationship (coincidence) at all ..... Which would all be very well, except that: Plato is not talking about our concept 'justice', but about a Greek concept that appears to be foreign to our way of thinking.

Plato, measurement versus opinion in the Republic

Plato contrasts the part of the soul that has opinions but does not use measurement with the part of the soul that uses measurement. He gives examples such as:

The body which is large when seen near, appears small when seen at a distance ... And the same object appears straight when looked at out of water, and crooked when in the water; and concave becomes convex, owing to the illusion about colors to which the sight is liable. Thus every sort of confusion is revealed within us ...

And the arts of measuring and numbering and weighing come to the rescue of the human understanding -- there is the beauty of them -- and the apparent greater or less, or more or heavier, no longer have the mastery over us, but give way before calculation and measure and weight ... And this, surely, must be the work of the calculating and rational principle in the soul ... And the better part of the soul is likely to be that which trusts to measure and calculation ... And that which is opposed to them is one of the inferior principles of the soul ... (Republic 602c-603a, tr. Jowett)

And so just as I would say that Plato wants to measure because measurement is objective, I would say -- I will say -- that logic likewise wants an objective distinction between sense and nonsense, so that what is and is not nonsense is not a matter of opinion. Just as the size of a building is not a matter of opinion if we specify a technique of measurement -- so too meaning is not the a manner of opinion if we use the meaning of the word 'meaning' that Wittgenstein selected. And that is what our method in logic of language studies is: to specify a way to make an objective distinction between defined and undefined combinations of words as well as of a single word in different contexts.

The topic of measurement -- i.e. of a standard of judgment -- is the very topic of Plato's Euthyphro (It is in cases of opinion that we may become angry and fall out with one another (Euthyphro 7d)). But Plato's "Theory of Forms [Archetypes or Patterns]" does not provide such a method of measurement, although it does describe one way -- i.e. by looking for a general definition -- a method of measurement might be sought (whether that seeking is fruitful or not).

Plato's "method of definition" in the Republic | Simples and Blends

SOCRATES: ... shall we begin the inquiry in our usual manner: Whenever a number of individuals have a common name, we assume them to have also a corresponding Idea or Form: -- Do you understand me? ... Let us take any common instance; there are beds and tables in the world -- plenty of them, are there not? ... But there are only two ideas or Forms of them -- one the idea of a bed, the other of a table.... And the maker of either of them makes a bed or he makes a table for our use, in accordance with the Idea [Form, Pattern, Archetype] -- that is our way of speaking in this and similar instances -- but no artificer makes the ideas [the common natures (or, essences) of "table-ness" and "bed-ness"] themselves [in contrast to constructing individual tables or beds that bear the common names 'table' or 'bed']: how could he?

GLAUCON: Impossible.

SOCRATES: Beds, then, are of three kinds, and there are three artists who superintend them: God [the maker of the idea; in Charmides 175b, "the lawgiver"], the maker of the [individual] bed [i.e. the artisan], and the painter [who makes an image of the bed]?... God ... made one bed in nature and only one ... (Republic 596a-597b, tr. Jowett)

But beds are not all identical; the carpenter of a bed can -- i.e. it is grammatically / logically possible to select among many different kinds of beds, and he will base his work on the Archetype (Pattern or Form) of the kind of bed he wants to make, not on a "general idea" of bed -- i.e. essential definition of the word 'bed'. Is there a such a definition of the word 'bed' -- or are there only specific examples of beds or of kinds of beds? For example a general definition such as 'a piece of furniture designed to be slept on' is not helpful; for a folding-cot, a hammock, and a four-poster bed do not much resemble one another (cf. Plato's general definition of 'clay'). As a response to that, I think, Plato, in Sophist 252e, speaks of the "blending" of Forms. Plato elsewhere questions which names -- i.e. nouns -- are the names of Forms and which are not, for it seems that not every noun is the name of a Form. In which case the word 'bed' may not be the name of a Form but instead of a blend of Forms. (Can a blend be the essence of a thing? If so, then essences are not necessarily atomic; absolutes are not uncuttable. The word 'salt' would name a blend of the Forms sodium and chlorine, maybe.)

The presumption that there must be a essential definition of words such as 'bed' and 'table' belongs to Plato's axiomatic method in philosophy, which might also be called his method of preconceptions.

Back to Cleansing the Augean Stable

I don't remember whose comparison this was: Wittgenstein as being at Cambridge for this. Trying to teach people to think in a new way -- i.e. to lead them to a radically new way of looking at things. The following are queries (taken from this site's logs) that illustrate what there is to clean.

Query: words we use frequently, but don't know the meaning of.

Then you don't use them as much as voice them: they are not tools, but more like "blunt instruments", the "unidentified object" in the forensic medical report. If that is, you are using the word 'meaning' the way Wittgenstein did and the word 'know' the way Socrates did.

But if by 'meaning' you mean 'an essential definition of a common name', as Plato did, then most words are "words we don't know the meaning of" -- because most words don't have a "meaning" (in Plato's sense of the word 'meaning') to know, and if that is the case then those words are "meaningless" -- not of "unknown meaning", which is the picture of language in Plato's dialogs: that many words have essential definitions that we are simply unable to discover.

Query: metre stick definition.

Is the metre stick itself a definition: the meter stick is a definition of 'meter'? But only if someone has already learned the concept 'measuring the length of an extension in space'. But not as if a "concept" were something mysterious; what one learns in this case is how to do something with words and objects. A 'concept' is a 'set of more or less strict rules' that we have learned to follow.

And that is of course a rejection of "theory of abstraction", that although the essence of things is hidden from view (otherwise we would be able to put what we see into words), we mysteriously learn the essential definitions of the names of things. (Which connects this query with the query "words we use frequently, but don't know the meaning of".)

Query: necessary conundrum, round square.

"Why do you feel a grammatical joke to be deep?" (PI § 111) An undefined combination of words is not a conundrum; it is simply nonsense -- i.e. a combination of words for which we have no use. There is no conundrum or enigma, and to suppose otherwise is to be mystified [self-mystified] by language, by signs without sense. (It's true that the words 'grammar', 'nonsense', 'sign' and 'meaning' are jargon in Wittgenstein's logic of language -- but only because selecting a specific meaning of a word -- i.e. making a rule fixing limits -- for the sake of clarity does create jargon. For there to be clarity in philosophy, our words must be tools, not blunt instruments, and if you find that a tool of our everyday language -- i.e. a word -- will not allow you to do the work you want to do with it, then you must specify rules to further define that word.)

Query: "Wittgenstein, family resemblance theory of concept formation"

But a theory -- i.e. an explanation -- is exactly what it isn't: Wittgenstein's notion "family resemblances" does not explain (account for) concept-formation. It simply sets the question of concept-formation aside; it does not answer Plato's question of how there can be common names if there are no corresponding common natures. Because note: Wittgenstein gives no criterion for distinguishing one family from another. The word 'family' in fact adds nothing to 'resemblances'. Wittgenstein's "theory" amounts to pointing out similarities (but everything is similar to everything else in some way or another).

People come to philosophy with pre-conceptions: e.g. a philosopher has theories, explanations of phenomena. But in this case, clearly, all Wittgenstein offers is a description -- not of how concepts are learned (formed), but of what we find if we look at the everyday concepts of our language after their formation. Now, how could his family likeness analogy (metaphor, simile, comparison) possibly be a theory, if by 'theory' is meant 'explanation of phenomena' (in this case, the phenomenon of concept-formation)?

How can we look without knowing what we're looking for?

Query: how can we collect instances of beauty if we do not already know what beauty is?

The allusion maybe is to Socrates' method of induction. (But the use of the word 'beautiful' is semantically ruleless. It is a unique case.) The first question is: what does this query mean by the word 'can' -- what kind of explanation is being asked for? The "theory of abstraction" is an explanation that explains nothing: it claims that we do know the common nature [essence] of beauty, but that what we know is hidden from us: we cannot put what we know into words (i.e. according to the theory, we know although we can't say what we know -- which is contrary to the standard Socrates set for philosophy: if a man knows anything, he can explain what he knows to others, and his explanation can be put to the tests of logic and experience to be agreed to or refuted). To "logic of language" what is matters is the facts in plain view, and the fact is that we use common names that there is no reason to believe have essential meanings ("the meaning of a common name is the common nature or essence it names") -- that is, the idea that there must be essential definitions of common names is a presumption, a preconception, not a fact.

Query: how is it shown that an ostensive definition (i.e. based on pointing to an example) of piety will always be an inadequate definition?

That is a misuse of the expression 'ostensive definition' based on a careless use of the expression 'pointing out'. It is a "misuse" because it blunts the tool's edge -- i.e. descends into the chaos of vagueness. Not just any kind of example is an ostensive definition (Review the definition of 'ostensive definition'). Bad teachers make bad students, thoughtless teachers thoughtless students.

I have given an account of one way it may be possible to define the word 'piety' which neither resorts to enumerating examples nor to a presumed unknown essential definition (as Plato assumes there must be in Euthyphro 5d (Well, doesn't one have a "sense" that there is such a definition? But for Socrates whatever one cannot defend against refutation in dialog one does know, and one cannot defend why one "senses" that there is an essence of holiness)) -- namely, definition by related concepts and by short stories. Why "may be possible"? Because the acquisition of foreign concepts -- e.g. learning to use the word 'piety' by someone who has not grown up in a religious community that uses that word -- seems not to be possible for everyone (for me, for example).

Query: the oracle at Delphi told Socrates "Know thyself". What do you think that means?

That would be creative history writing, because the query is partly a rewriting of history, for the words "Know thyself" were inscribed somewhere in Apollo's temple at Delphi and were, in Plato's words, "on everyone's lips" (Protagoras 343b). According to Critias in Plato's Charmides, "Know thyself" was the greeting (command) the god (namely, Apollo) gave to everyone who entered his temple. And Socrates himself may never have visited Delphi (although Aristotle says that he did). There are two parts to know thyself, namely (1) to know oneself as man (the species) and (2) to know oneself as an individual man with his particular limits.

But is this not foolishness? "Here is a combination of words; now think of something we might do with it!" Rather than "Know thyself!" you might as well ask what "Discombobulate thyself!" means. "What does 'x' mean?" As if words had meaning in themselves (their meaning being what they mean): the picture is that words have essential "meanings" which are independent of any context, in contrast to the picture (comparison) that words are tools that have uses in particular contexts. (Are aphorisms foolishness, though?)

Query: language, meaning, use, context, Wittgenstein.

The mere fact that if you are going to know a word's meaning, you need to see that word in context, should suggest to you that the meaning of a word is not the essence of the thing it names; for otherwise you would not need to see that word in context, would you?

Only in the stream of thought and life do words have meaning. (Z § 173)

In the Theaetetus Plato says that the word 'knowledge' is the name of only one thing, everywhere the same. Plato gives an example of the type of definition he is seeking: the essential definition of 'clay' according to Plato. He has also done this in Laches 192a: 'quickness' is 'the quality which accomplishes much in a little time' regardless of which particular thing is quick.

Context and Gestalt shift

Query: seeing a sentence in a new context is a Gestalt shift.

In the drawing below, we might fill the background with a meadow or a lake.

Badling of ducks or colony of rabbits

Is the image a badling of ducks or a colony of rabbits (RPP i § 70)? The background creates a context, and changing background could cause a Gestalt shift. That is an example.

Should a change in the context in which a sign [word, phrase, sentence] is found be compared to a Gestalt shift = pattern snap? In one context a sign means -- no, the sign is used to mean (and it is used by us; it is our tool) -- one thing, in another context something quite different. But is that a perceptual or only a conceptual shift? Suppose we were talking about a pictographic language ... but, you see, neither the pictograph nor any other sign changes its appearance when it is brought into a new context: instead what changes is its meaning (i.e. what it is used to do). The shift is not perceptual (where 'perceptual' = 'of the five senses'). "The sign is the same, but the background changes" -- as when words are printed on papers of different color? No. What exactly is the comparison that is being made by the querier then?

The sign, the physical aspect of language, does not change when the sign's meaning is changed. And the sign's meaning -- if by 'meaning' is meant the sign's use in the language -- is never seen. If by 'Gestalt shift' is meant a visual change, then the query's thesis -- "seeing a sentence in a new context is a Gestalt shift" is false. As a metaphor, nonetheless, is it worthwhile? I wouldn't say it is.

But on the other hand, both 'duck' and 'rabbit' are concepts -- i.e. you can speak only of a concept shift and not of a percept shift in the case of the duck-rabbit. And what's a "percept shift" when its at home. It is nonsense wherever it is.

"Silence means consent"

Query: what is not said has meaning.

Which meaning of 'meaning' might this be? "I shall assume that your silence gives consent" (Plato, Cratylus 435b, tr. Jowett). That is, "silence implies consent"; that would be what "keeping silent" means here: 'I agree', or at least 'I will not object'. So that, in this particular case, the 'meaning of x' = 'what x implies'. (There are many meanings of our word 'meaning', not only the one Wittgenstein selected for his logic of language investigations.)

Xenophanes and if mathematicians had a god ...

Query: James Jeans, God mathematician.

I think Xenophanes would say: and if physicists had a God, they would make Him in their own image too -- i.e. a mathematician (which is indeed what James Jeans did do).

Xenophanes satirized Pythagoras' doctrine of "the transmigration of the soul" in a story that Pythagoras had stopped a dog from being beaten, saying "It's the soul of a friend of mine -- I recognize his voice." (Diels, Fragmente der Vorsokratiker, Xenophanes, fr. 7, in W.K.C. Guthrie, The Greeks and their Gods, rev. ed. 1954, Chapter vii "Apollo")

Wittgenstein and Berkeley

Query: Wittgenstein, if you can't say it, it doesn't exist.

Is that what "to be is to be perceived" means: that anything that is not perceived (and a fortiori anything that is essentially imperceptible to the senses) does not exist? I imagine that Bishop Berkeley did believe in God, as indeed did Wittgenstein in some sense. But neither meant by 'God' anything in any way perceptible.

Query: if you can't say it you do not know it, Wittgenstein.

That is maybe more like Socrates' criterion for 'knowing'. For Wittgenstein, at any time, that would be a grammatical remark, but it would often be a false account of how we use the word 'know' everyday; e.g. "knowing how an apple tastes and smells". What might it mean, in the context of the TLP to say 'I know, because it makes itself manifest (shows itself although it is not perceived), that the mystical [or, the metaphysical-I, ethics and aesthetics, God] exists'? That would not be a false proposition; it would not be a proposition at all -- i.e. it would be an undefined combination of words (i.e. nonsense). In the TLP, if it cannot be put into words, it can't even be thought (and so, presumably, it can't be known either).

Query: undefined terms and faith. Compare.

Note: there is a related discussion "Why are they called undefined terms when we can in fact define them?" (indeed, when we do and must define those terms), a topic not only in logic of language studies but also in Philosophy of Geometry itself.

There is nothing vague about the meaning -- i.e. how we use the "undefined terms", namely 'point', 'line' and 'plane' in geometry; you do not have to "take on faith" that they have a use as tools in geometry; nor do you have to take on faith that they exist, because they don't "exist", except as "concepts" -- i.e. (important!) as rules for using words. I.e. you don't have to "believe in" the existence of points, lines and planes.

You see this goat that is going by? Does the goat understand what is going on in your head? No! Because it is a goat, and, you, you are men. Because you are men you have other, far higher thoughts than a goat. Isn't that true? As with men, so with God. We cannot understand all the thoughts of God. (Albert Schweitzer, The African Sermons, 20 April 1930 "Easter Sunday", tr. Melamed (2003), p. 63-64)

Do I understand that? It presents a picture. However, it is not a picture that is applicable to the points, lines and planes of geometry: they are not, as it were, thoughts of God that men/man cannot understand.

Compare "What you mean by the word 'point' in geometry is shown by how you use the word 'point' in geometry" with "What you mean by the word 'God' is shown by how you use the word 'God'." What the first has no relation to at all is the notion of "faith" ("belief in").

"Just take it on faith that your geometry teacher is not talking nonsense when he says that points are geometric objects of zero dimensions; just have faith that points exist." Suppose someone said that the word 'God' is an undefined term? "The word 'God' is undefined, but ..." It is nonsense to say 'I have faith that God exists' but not to say 'I have faith that God is our Father'.

Both the notions of "faith" (or "belief in") and "undefined terms" are very often sources of mystification, even of self-mystification. Is it clear what anyone might mean by saying that he "believes in" God or "believes in" a Last Judgment or in divine grace or divine forgiveness? These are pictures that may guide a human life, but if someone says that he "believes in" those things as if they hypotheses, albeit were unverifiable hypotheses ... but is an essentially unverifiable hypothesis an hypothesis? If an hypothesis essentially cannot be put to the test, that is no hypothesis (On the other hand, cf. "questions without answers").

About a religious picture maybe we can say: it makes a difference in the way someone lives or looks at [understands] our life. But if someone says that he "believes in x", must there be a demonstrable difference in how he lives his life from the way someone who say he does not believe in x lives his life? What kind of "must" would this be? (Is there a rule of grammar here?)

What is the correct grammatical account of doctrinal disagreements?

If one man says that Jesus was only a man and another says he believes that Jesus is the Second Person of the Trinity and both think of themselves as Christians -- and, further, if they both live the same way -- what is the difference, I mean the grammatical difference, in what they believe? If it does not lie in anything outward -- whatever is outward is public, verifiable -- then how shall 'believe' in this case be defined? What explanation of meaning can we give? Compare the king in chess with or without a paper hat (BB p. 65) is the identical piece: the paper crown plays no part in the moves of the game. And that is the grammatical status of an inner criterion for an explanation of the meaning of 'believe in'.

An "inner process" stands in need of outward criteria. (PI § 580).

But why shouldn't the only difference be verbal? For that is an "outward" difference.

We say, maybe following Wittgenstein, that different pictures guide their lives ... but even if those pictures guide their lives in the same direction with regard to their behavior, we cannot say that the pictures are therefore identical. So that if we want to explain what 'to believe' means in such cases, what must we describe? One man thinks this, another thinks that -- how do we know? Because the verbal expression of their thoughts = pictures is different.

I am looking for the grammatical difference. (PI II, viii, p. 185)

But where should we look for that here?

The grammatical question is, I think: if different professions of belief do not show (display) themselves in outward signs (behavior), then how will we define the difference? And that question shows that in this case the grammatical difference is not to be looked for in outward signs; it is not to be looked for in the same place we look for e.g. criteria (defining characteristics) for an emotion or a sensation, namely in "outward criteria" (Are beliefs like feelings, like Wittgenstein's beetle in an essentially closed box (ibid. § 293; cf. § 304)?) But if it is not to the behavior we must look for the grammatical difference, then to what are we to look? The doctrines themselves, i.e. their expression in words?

And isn't that just the "language game", the rules of the game, we find when we look at how language is used in this case?

"What is the difference between someone merely saying that he believes [shamming] and his really believing?" If there is nothing in the way he acts to point to as a demonstration [proof] of 'really' here, then that question is not a "move in the language game"; it is instead an undefined combination of words.


Query: why grammar is called philosophy?

Is philosophy mere logomachy, a discussion of the meaning of words ("We are struggling with language", himself said [PI § 109])? I don't know; we do not often hear the Greek word 'logomachy' ("fight about words") nowadays. Note that 'grammar' does not = 'philosophy' in Wittgenstein's jargon, although philosophy in his philosophy often consists of grammatical investigations.

Query: what is the relation between logic and philosophy?

The relation of a tool to ... to what? According to WII (which was what Bertrand Russell called Wittgenstein's post-TLP philosophy) maybe: a relation to another tool -- namely, language itself, if all philosophy is a clarification of muddled concepts (language). But in that case, then: logic = philosophy -- i.e. their relationship is: identity.

Query: grammar for the word "beautiful".

Suppose you were trying to teach the word 'beautiful' to someone whose language contained nothing equivalent-in-meaning to it? How would you do that? To a child you might simply "give examples" -- inculcate judgments (train, not teach, the child to see the world the way you do). But to an adult? Then there is of course the possibility that the foreigner ("barbarian") will never learn to play this "language game" (but is it helpful to speak of a game here, because elsewhere we characterize a game by its rules -- and what are the rules here?) Inculcate values is how we train children in right and wrong; we do not teach a child ethics; ethics -- which is philosophical reflection about right and wrong [good and evil] -- is only possible once the child has reached the age of reason; before that age, a human being simply applies the rules he has been trained to live by. (But for using the word 'beautiful' there are no rules, and therefore there is no philosophical reflection about beauty.)

Query: Aristotle natural law versus Albert Schweitzer.

The excellence which is proper to man, namely, reason, does not bow down to "natural laws" (What is amoral, namely nature, cannot teach man morality) -- i.e. the values displayed by nature. Ethics is reflection: it does not obey; it questions.

Reality is Water (Thales)

Related: Thales and the beginning of metaphysical-philosophy.

It is difficult to see how a stone might really be water; but suppose someone had never seen a block of ice -- melt: would it be difficult for him to imagine that a block of ice was essentially water? Is it hard to imagine a rock melting as if it really were water? But in flowing water (a stream), might it not seem that a rock slowly melts away [rather than is worn away], thus reverting to being water?

But a comparison begins somewhere and ends somewhere. Otherwise it is not a comparison, but an identification: A is like B in some particular way or ways, not A is like B in every way. (That is the logic of comparison.)

But why shouldn't a rock be thought to be a block of ice that might melt into water drops. The point is for the rock to really be water [not merely comparable to a block of ice] -- i.e. not merely metaphorically so -- just as ice is "really water", not merely metaphorically so ..... But is ice really water? Here we introduce a new category: states of matter: solid, liquid, gas. But suppose we do not add this new category -- then would ice still essentially be water? Suppose we said that water and ice are different things; well, they are different -- but essentially so? Well, but sometimes essence belongs to grammar -- i.e. to a definition of a word, to the construction of a tool.

Summary of Ethics

"I know I shouldn't, but ..." No, if you knew you shouldn't, then you wouldn't. It's instead a case of You say you know one thing, but you really think you know something else or You say you know, but you only suspect: you have doubts. "I know I shouldn't, but it's really all right if I do ..." What you think you know is in fact something other that what you say you know. And this is again a case of thinking you know what you don't know (Plato, Apology 21d), the cardinal vice in philosophy. And that is what "Virtue is knowledge" means.

Or, rather, that would be a correct summary were not that the bad habits formed in the time of ignorance often determine -- as a learned reflex action does -- what we do. So that, virtue is not only knowledge -- but also habit and an eternal watch over oneself ... but such vigilance is itself a habit and it is not a habit that is at all easy to form. (Habit is akin to instinct, which likeness is what stands in the way of amending bad habits once formed.)

To "know thyself" is to know what the specific excellence proper to man as such and to yourself as an individual are. That knowledge is knowledge of the good for man; that knowledge is ethics.

Is reality confined to what is conceivable?

Note: this supplements the discussion in Questions without Answers: "is reality confined to what is in principle perceptible to our five senses?"

Before the invention of the telescope, man had thought, or may have thought, that he saw everything there is to see in the sky above, that he knew everything -- i.e. all the facts that observation yielded -- there was to know; but with the invention of the telescope he discovered that there was much that he had neither known nor even guessed about the sky above. But, on the other hand, the microscope existed long before Pasteur, but no one saw -- i.e. conceived of -- germs until he did.

So we see that there are two limits to science: (1) perception (what is perceivable or can be deduced from what is perceivable), and (2) concept-formation (conception). "There are more things in heaven and earth than are dreamt of in your philosophy" -- and in natural philosophy as well, and it is not necessarily the case that they will ever be "dreamt of".

Correlation and conjecture

That "concepts without percepts are empty" -- as that conceptions (i.e. hypotheses) without perceptions that verify them are idle -- limits the usefulness of concept-formation to science. What Isaac Newton called "hypotheses" ("I make no hypotheses") try to say more than we know (BB p. 45). When such conjectures are allowed to turn into presumptions, they become an instance of our thinking we know what we don't know (Plato, Apology 21d).

In the case of Semmelweis, his discovery of a strong positive correlation suggested "hypotheses" about its cause, but those idle conjectures created controversies that stood in the way of the simple recognition of the fact of the positive correlation and acceptance of its practical implications. Doctors resisted doing what had been shown to work due to idle disagreements ("hypotheses") about why it worked.

If religion were based on evidence would it be religion?

The point is that if there were evidence, this would in fact destroy the whole business. (LC p. 56)

"... it would destroy the whole business." -- That is a grammatical remark (which you will not understand until you have understood the meaning of the word 'grammar' in Wittgenstein's jargon). What is the essence of religion? "Essence [or "that without which something would not be what it is", "the defining characteristic of something"] belongs to grammar" (PI § 371). Now what does that mean? (And is it true, always, sometimes, never?)

Query: Wittgenstein on religion is not based on justification.

"Religious doctrine is not empirically justified." That is not a statement of fact unless it is (1) a statement [a report, which may be true or false] about our language (about our common usage [or acceptation] of a word), or (2) an hypothesis based on empirical evidence (induction) about the nature of religion ("If we look at the world's religions, we find that their doctrines are not based on empirical evidence").

But Wittgenstein's "... if there were evidence" is not a statement of fact about the essential nature of religion. It is instead a "statement of grammar" (grammatical remark) about the word 'religion' -- meaning that:

The word 'religion' is our tool: it is our concept [category, class or common name] -- now, what work do we do -- do you want to do -- with that word? -- i.e. what criterion or criteria do you want set to for classifying any particular thing as religion? The boundaries of the concepts of our everyday, natural language are indefinite -- i.e. their limits are not fixed by strict rules. And so, what is your purpose in using the category 'religion' -- with what aim in mind are you dividing up reality, for there are many ways to slice a pie?

If there were evidence [justification or verification], for what reason would you want to call anything 'religion' -- i.e. what distinction would you be making by using that word? Religion -- in contrast to [as opposed or in contrast to or as distinct from] -- what? (In what sense would it "destroy the whole business"? In the sense that the word 'religion' [cf. 'magic', 'superstition'] might lose its reason for being.)

So we are talking about our concept 'religion', but we are also talking about the phenomenon [phenomena] that we call 'religion'. Are we, however, talking about the defining characteristics of that concept or, as it were, the defining characteristics of that phenomenon? [The relationship between concepts and phenomena.] So, is this correct: you cannot say that this is entirely a conceptual investigation, because we are examining facts, and it is difficult here to say what we are regarding as facts about our language and what we are regarding as facts about a phenomenon? Well, which is it which interests us in the Philosophy of Religion -- is it not religion itself, and is it not a fact that we call various phenomena 'religion'? A conceptual investigation of this type -- i.e. of our world as opposed to a fantasy world we might invent -- must have some contact with reality (PI II, xii, p. 230) ... but it is a reality that we are already familiar with -- our investigation is not looking to discover any new facts about religion, but "only arranging what we already know" (ibid. § 109). And that is what in this particular case makes ours a conceptual investigation.

So Wittgenstein's distinction does not fall to dust, but it also is not the simple distinction [formula] that it may appear to be. (It is very easy to fall into a dogmatic attitude in philosophy ... but when that happens you are no longer thinking philosophically.)

Query: why do we not see in four dimensions?

Why so modest -- why not ask for five, or six, or seventeen! But if by 'fourth dimension' you mean 'time' (as if 'time' named a dimension of space), then we do see in four dimensions when we watch an event unfold, such as a child sliding down a sliding-board (which, indeed, can be plotted on graph paper and marked to indicate relative position in time). We can see in however many number of dimensions we define -- i.e. the limit of seeing here is concept-formation. "How many dimensions can God see?" Again, God can see as many dimensions as we define. Language is our tool, our way of life, not God's. (Or do you imagine that God's thoughts amount to "operating with signs" and seeing dimensions in space.)

Socrates' children. The fool of the family.

Thank you for writing to me and for you kind words. I don't know how much of this site anyone actually reads, but it does push me to try to put my ideas into a more rather than a less finished state. So the site is worthwhile for me.

I have no illustrious ancestors; they were all "poor farmers who made the earth fruitful but themselves suffered from hunger" (Ignazio Silone). Sixteen centuries of ignorance and poverty; that is my family. And of my dozens of first cousins and their countless children, I am the only one who concerns himself with philosophy. So I am the black sheep of the family. (About the families of the nobility it used to be said, "And they sent the fool of the family into the clergy." I suppose that would have been me.)

And Socrates, that wise wiseman had children, lyker to theyr mother than their father, As one writeth merily, that is to saie, thei were fooles. (Erasmus, The Praise of Folly (Chaloner edition of 1594))

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