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What does it mean? and Is it true? Socrates and Wittgenstein

Now ... I have learned your meaning, but whether it is true or not I have to try to learn. (Plato, Republic 339a-b)

Background / Introduction

The first question is: What do you say you know -- i.e. what is the meaning of the language of your thesis-proposition for discussion? And then second will be, Do you know what you say you know?

If anyone knows anything, he can explain what he knows to others. (Xenophon, Memorabilia iv, 6, 1).

That is not the only possible standard -- i.e. definition of 'know' that it is possible to select, but it is the choice Socrates made for philosophy. "And when I explain to others what I know, I do not tell them less than I myself know" (PI § 208), because "every explanation I can give myself, I can give to others too" (ibid. § 210); that was not a universal standard Wittgenstein set for philosophy (Just try to explain to others how an orange smells (ibid. § 78), and yet you do know how an orange smells, because you can identify that smell e.g. when blindfolded, although of course the words 'know how' is used ambiguously here), but it is the universal standard Socrates set for our philosophical discussions.

That is the background of this site's "logic of language" remarks and investigations. The question of meaning (What?) belongs to Wittgenstein; the question of truth (Is?) belongs to Socrates.

And I have written all this countless times before, but "to call Socrates to mind is always the greatest happiness to me" (as Plato has in Phaedo 58d), the thoughts of the Socrates I have pictured for myself, and next to these are the revisions to the concepts 'logic' or 'grammar' Wittgenstein made, as I understand these. For both these philosophers kept philosophy public and thereby objective: if philosophical knowledge is to be sought, then these are the guides with which to seek it.


Outline of this page ...


Without a meaning, but not meaningless

Query: Riddles. If one does not know what it is, then it is something, but when one knows what it is, then it is nothing.

That picture recalls the false account of our language's grammar (namely "Words are names and the meaning of a name is the thing the name stands for") -- e.g. if you don't know "what an elf is", it seems to be a something, because 'elf' is a noun, but when the meaning of that word is explained to you, then you should understand that the word 'elf' is not the name of a something -- i.e. that an elf is a nothing, so to speak.

The false picture is that the word 'elf' is the name of an "intangible object". But an elf -- i.e. the meaning of the word 'elf' -- is not a ghost; that is not the word's use in the language. Rather, like the Cheshire cat that vanishes leaving behind only its smile, the thing "elf" vanishes leaving behind only the word 'elf' to grasp hold of.

And so that is the meaning of the title "without a meaning, but not meaningless", that if the meaning of a word is the thing the word names, then many words are "meaningless", because they do not name anything, either visible or invisible, tangible or nebulous. (Cf. Plato's way of defining the word 'meaning' as the (invisible) common nature versus defining 'meaning' as 'use in the language', as Wittgenstein does for a large class of cases.)

[Maybe the answer sought to the riddle is silence, although I did not think that in an earlier discussion. ("Shadows of grammar")]


The language-user as workman

The tool chest metaphor. But Wittgenstein has left out [not mentioned] the most important tool the worker has, and that is his imagination, whether active or in the background, for our language is not static, but new combinations of words -- new thought -- may be generated/created at any moment/step.

A workman's most important tool is his imagination, his ability to find more than one way of doing a thing, for example. And that includes everyone when we are using the tools of our language, which like any tool we may misuse: e.g. presuming that just as the hammer is used to strike a nail, the saw is used to pound its way through the wood -- i.e. we follow false analogies from other tools, and analogies just as crude as the example I have given. (The language user as a sometimes inept workman, especially in philosophy.)

Does adding 'imagination' to the class 'tools' = {hammer, saw, glue, ruler, imagination, ...} make a category mistake? But I ask: what is the point of saying that something is a "category mistake" if not that it breaks the defined rules for that category?

We invent classification schemes for our particular purposes. Sometimes the categories are dictated by the facts, e.g. it is a fact about the English language that the word 'hammer' is the name of a tool (and therefore it would be a false account of our language if we failed to place hammer in the tool category). Comparisons are also limited by the facts, e.g. A and B really must be alike in the way the comparison says they are, or the comparison is false. Which is to say, that categories are only more or less arbitrary. Beyond that, however, the classes we define are not dictated by reality but by the inclusion and exclusion rules we make: "This is the basis on which I am placing these things in a single category" (a thing can be a member of as many categories as we can [as logical possibilities] define for it to be a member of).

Can imagination be compared to a tool, and on the basis of that comparison placed in the category 'tool'? Or it can be compared e.g. to a stage director: it directs the use of tools as well as the invention/creation of tools, in which case it is not placed in the same category as hammers and saws, but instead in the same class as e.g. a book of rules, illustrations or examples. That is the logic of comparison, i.e. if compare imagination to a tool, we are saying that A and B are comparable in some ways, not in all ways; we are not saying that imagination "really" is a tool of the same kind as hammer and saw.

And so the mistake here would be saying that imagination is a tool, for we don't normally use the word 'tool' (as in 'toolbox' or 'tool chest') that way. And so we should say instead that imagination can be compared to a tool in such-and-such a way/s rather than placing it in the category 'tool'. On the other hand, placing imagination in that category makes the comparison more striking, as if to say not only 'Look' but 'Look!'.

[In so many our thinking risks drifting into the nebulosity (cf. Isaac Newton's prohibition of "evasion by hypotheses" in his natural philosophy) -- i.e. we can always think of a sense (or senses) in which any combination of words whatever can be given a use in our language. Which is the whyever of "the importance of the normal case" to logic of language.]

Do I make a false comparison by calling imagination a tool because, the imagination directs or invents the use of tools, but it does not go in the tool chest with them. On the other hand, it can be an needed tool because a book of rules (instructions) may not be quite applicable in a particular case. Imagination is better likened to logic as the tool of philosophy; indeed, it is a tool of logic. (Round and round the mulberry bush with these remarks.)

If we were to list the "tools" of philosophy, wouldn't imagination be in our list (but would pencil and paper be there too)? Imagination is a tool of criticism, which is part or the whole of logic.

[In which sense can't something be put in a particular category? Sometimes logical possibility: according to the rules/criteria we have set; sometimes real possibility, as e.g. 'the class of green-colored phenomena' to which the sky does not belong. And so if we say that imagination does or does not belong to the category 'tools', which type of possibility would that be?]

The justification for a particular classification system

Suppose someone were told vaguely about infrared light, that it is invisible, and he replied that anyone who talks about 'invisible light' doesn't know what light is (i.e. hasn't learned to use the word 'light' correctly)? Or that the words 'unbounded but finite' are nonsense? Physics has reasons [purpose] for classifying particular selections of phenomena 'invisible light' and 'inaudible sound' (cf. medicine's 'imaginary pain') -- but its classification schemes are not the only ones possible.

Although there are differences between A and B (some essential from the everyday point of view), because A and B share such-and-such qualities that interest us, we are going to place A and B in the same category and call them by the same name. That A and B share particular qualities is a question of facts of reality; but that those particular qualities are defining of A and B is not. That there is invisible light belongs to a scientific theory, and the definition of 'light' used in that theory belongs to the imagination, in contrast to the facts.)

Given the way we are schooled it is easy not to be aware of this. That there is not only a visible light spectrum but also an invisible one -- is only a fact of nature within a particular classification scheme. Goethe: "all fact is already theory".


Other metaphors for the border lines of concepts

Query: the three traditional fields of philosophy are ...?

Who is the tradition? If Aristotle, then: metaphysics, physics, and nature philosophy, and the history of philosophy, and axiology (ethics, politics, aesthetics) [Aristotle, more scientist than philosopher], with Aristotle's eccentric exclusion of logic from philosophy. And given that Aristotle came before the Stoics (and he remained il maestro di color che sanno through the Middle Ages), it seems that in my drawing, I should have added a separate subject list for Aristotle alongside the "Ancient", i.e. Stoic partition of philosophy into metaphysics, ethics, and logic. (I imagine "epistemology" came to be seen as a separate field of philosophy following Descartes, and I imagine that is what "Modern" on my drawing means; you know I don't remember.)

The image of philosophy as divided into fields. Here we would need to mark off the limits -- (i.e. "define" in the Greek sense) -- of the fields. When we slice a pie, how sharp do we want the knife to be: most concepts have jagged edges (cf. "are fluid").

How concepts cut up our thinking

"Our concepts are fluid rather than fixed" (Wittgenstein, PI § 81) -- or, to use a different metaphor: Concepts cut our thinking into parts, as does a knife slicing a pie, sometimes making sharp, but more often, it seems, jagged edges. ("A pie chart shows the parts of a whole.")

Concepts cut our thinking up. -- Can we say that "concepts cut up our perception of reality", as in Kant's "percepts without concepts are blind"? But "concepts without percepts" are not all of them empty, e.g. the propositions of logic: the principle of contradiction is a concept without a percept, and if it is "empty", it is not therefore meaningless [unintelligible, incoherent]; so concepts cut up much more than just our sense perceptions of reality [as we normally use the word 'reality', not reality metaphysically].

Metaphors. The edges of a concept may be sharp or jagged, like the edges of slices of a pie. The frontiers [boundaries] of concept may be sharp (like the lines on graph paper used for Cartesian geometry) or blurry (borderland). Like the coast at high and low tide -- versus the time in between when the coming and going of the water makes the border between coast and sea indefinite. Like the words of a document we have written in ink -- versus when water is spilled on those inky words.


Replies that are not seen or heard (Socrates and the devil)

The replies are neither invisible nor inaudible, although no one sees them, but that they are useful to me, to the development of my own thinking. (The devil in philosophy is every ignorance, every blindness of understanding, but especially "conceited ignorance": thinking one knows what one doesn't know.)

Query: why Plato's wisest man is one who is ignorant.

... and knows that he is ignorant -- i.e. who does not think he knows what he doesn't know = who does not think that he is wise when he is not. This is what Socrates in Plato's Apology discovers when he tries to understand the meaning of Apollo's oracle at Delphi, that Apollo's words mean that (1) "no man is wiser than Socrates" because no man is wise, but that (2) the wisest man is the one who, like Socrates, knows that he is not wise.

Query: why are philosophers different from other people according to Pythagoras?

It was modesty (with meekness = self-knowledge as its source) that invented the title 'philosopher' ("lover of wisdom", in contrast to 'sophist' = "wise man"), and according to one tradition, this was the modesty of Pythagoras. Differences: that while others think themselves wise, philosophers know that they themselves are not wise; that while others think themselves to know, [Socratic] philosophers know that they do not; that philosophers ask rather than answer, and when they answer it is only to ask about their answers; that philosophers seek wisdom above all other things in life, while others it seems do not concern themselves too much if at all about it.

... the knowledge that these easy futile things were not for him. From then on he had been shocked by the dreadful realization that to the majority of the people in the world, the spiritual, the search to correspond with the good and the beautiful thing, simply did not matter at all.... if to grow up meant to condone the ugly things that made for man's huge unhappiness, Father Smith was glad to think that he had not grown up yet. (Marshall, All Glorious Within (The World, the Flesh, and Father Smith) (1945), iii)

And yet most men think those ugly things beautiful, the very good for man itself, and they seem to find human happiness in them, as if the target they had chosen were not merely a misperception of the good (Xenophon, Memorabilia iii, 9, 5). Now, how to account for that -- human beings who lives in vice and are content in their vice, mistaking it for virtue? (As to the "dreadful realization", I've never come to it -- I think, because it is incomprehensible, as in impossible, that "to the majority of people in the world" it does "not matter at all". I seem utterly incapable of believing that. And in my now old age, how could that view change.)

On the other hand, "... that these easy futile things were not for him." But maybe they are for most people, and whether that is a curse or a blessing ... I have this thought, which I think is a beautiful thought, for I overheard some rather simple, worldly people talking, and I thought, for these people it will be as Christ said from the cross, "Forgive them, because they don't know what they are doing." And I thought, "But I do know. And so when they die they will go straight to heaven, because God's mercy is infinite, whereas I shall go straight to hell, because I do know." And so I think that those who seem blessed or cursed to having to live an examined life, that salvation won't come easily to them.

For the world was "about" being good and being bad ... as deep down in their hearts most people knew ... (Marshall, op. cit. xviii)

Perhaps deep down in themselves everybody wanted to love God and be pure and brave and kind, and were deterred only because they were afraid that other people might think them silly if they tried. After all, it was just as likely that the world was "about" loving God and being pure and brave and kind as "about" aeroplanes and cinemas and wireless sets and book-keeping and central heating systems. (Marshall, Yellow Tapers for Paris (1943), iii; the character Bigou is the book-keeper at a central heating business.)

This has not stopped us from killing the prophets sent to us (Acts 7.52), or the philosophers, voices crying in the wilderness that are heard but not heard. We respond to their admonishments with angry rejection, thinking ourselves wiser although we are not (Apology 21c-d).

... and kept smiling as though trying to believe that world's worldliness was an affectation ... and that it was really God that everybody was concerned with when they were alone behind their blinds ... under the aspects of eternity ... (Marshall, Girl in May (1956), vii)

What is man and what is his death?

Query: the importance of knowing what man is, where he came from, how he found himself here, and where he goes after his life.

If all this and more is important to know, then the Socrates of Plato's Apology (23b) knows nothing of much importance, i.e. he is quite without wisdom.

On the other hand, it seems that Socrates does know "what man is", i.e. what the specific excellence proper to man is, namely the ethical aspect of man (ibid. 36a-c), and that man should direct his reason above all towards its care through seeking to know what the good is (ibid. 37e-38a) for man (since virtue is knowledge), putting what he thinks he knows to the test of cross-questioning, to see whether he really does know what he thinks he knows.

'Where does the flame of a candle go to when it's blown out?' 'Where does the light go to?' ... We may say that we are led into puzzlement by an analogy which irresistibly drags us on. (BB § 56, p. 108; cf. PI § 90)

"... and where he goes after his life." And so there is the formation of words into a question: 'Where does man's life go after it has left the body?' But if 'soul' is not the name of an object (cf. 'mind') ... Two pictures: matter and spirit, and matter only, i.e. materialism -- as if the meaning of that doctrine were clear, for Drury asks, what are the sub-atomic particles particles of? What is matter, if the distinction between absolute matter and absolute energy has been lost? (cf. DW p. 69) Materialism amounts to this: a mere affirmation of the unprovable proposition that 'All reality is in principle perceptible to the senses'.

With regard to an afterlife, "matter and spirit" and "matter only" are both metaphysical pictures, none more justifiably the view of the "realist" or "hard-fact man" than the other. (That materialism is a dogma, i.e. that it is "fact proof" (ibid. p. 17; cf. "waterproof"), is shown by this, that there is not even a logical possibility of a material proof of the existence of spirit.) The metaphysical views of death of Aristotle and Plato.

Is "spirit" anything other than imperceptible matter? as in the so-called spirit-matter distinction (which seems to presume that we know what matter is, but "matter" is a notion which belongs to Newtonian physics). How can one distinguish between what exists ("matter") and what isn't even known to exist ("spirit")? By analogy? It says in the Gospel that spirit is like the wind in that both are invisible. That is the picture: "imperceptible matter": the matter not caught in the net of man's five senses.

"... or whether he was disappointed" (Tolstoy, Master and Man)

Many years ago now I asked a woman what happens at the end of Saint-Exupéry's The Little Prince. She answered that she thought nothing happens: "he just dies". And I wonder: Will you feel disappointed if in the end we just die? Will you feel that it had all been for nothing?

Do you feel there needs to be a play after the play, a sequel where all the questions raised by the first play are answered, all its puzzles solved? Franz Schubert compared men to actors who are often assigned parts they are unable to play. Do you feel it will be cruel if we are never given the explanation for our existence -- or that, as Socrates thought, truth and goodness and beauty are in and of themselves worth existing for, and all that is necessary -- despite existence's terrible puzzles -- to make existence not to "all have been for nothing"?

"... the explanation for our existence." That is, the moral reason (plan) for it. But is "What is the explanation for our existence?" -- if asked from the philosophical point of view -- a question without an answer, or is it nonsense, an undefined combination of words suggested by a false grammatical analogy? (Which analogy?) (The concept 'purpose' is a human concept.)

"An explanation of what life is"

Query: death and its concept.

So we have a phenomenon, namely death. And we have a word and rules for using it, namely 'death'. And -- what else? Conjecture about "what death really is", metaphysics, religion (The statement "I don't know what death is" is already metaphysics). What else? The phenomenon looked at socially: common attitudes (customs of a community), as well as biologically (natural science), medically (which is both of those).

Query: philosophy of life and death.

There are only two things we know about life, according to Schweitzer, but what else might we know? Natural science and hypothesis-formation and the future. What would we call "an explanation of what life is"? Describing the use of the word 'life' in the language vs. "but on a deeper level". A deeper level where one cannot even describe what an answer would look like may be metaphysics -- but here it looks more like nonsense (undefined language). Cf. 'force' and 'energy' are defined by how force and energy are measured (Hertz): "the method of measurement is the meaning". And for 'life' it seems likewise.


The argument of Augustine (and later Descartes)

Query: the answer to universal skepticism, according to the Saint Augustine and Descartes.

That it is impossible to doubt the truth of the proposition 'If I doubt, then I exist', and therefore that it is impossible to doubt everything. But has the proposition 'I doubt that I exist' a use in our language as we normally use that language? because that use, rather than an assigned meaning, would be what Augustine and Descartes are talking about. In other words, is that proposition's meaning absurd (i.e. foolishness, obviously false) -- or is that proposition nonsense (i.e. an undefined combination of words)?

Should it be said that I am using a [combination of words] whose meaning I don't know, and so am talking nonsense? (PI § 79)

In The Story of Peter and the Wolf there are many examples of real impossibilities -- i.e. absurdities: "The duck was so frightened that she jumped clear out of the pond, and the wolf swallowed her in one gulp ..... And if you listen very carefully you can hear the duck inside the wolf's stomach crying, Let me out! Let me out!"

If we call the events of that story "absurd", we don't mean that the language they are told in is without meaning. Rather, we mean that "Such things can't happen: for example a wolf's mouth isn't big enough, and the poor duck will have been torn to pieces and quite dead".

In contrast, if by the word 'today' in the proposition 'Today is Friday and today is Sunday' we mean the very same day, then that proposition states a logical impossibility -- i.e. as we normally use this language -- although individually the propositions 'Today is Friday' and 'Today is Sunday' have a use in our language, their combination does not. 'Today is Friday and today is Sunday' is 'nonsense' = 'undefined combination of words' = 'logical impossibility'.

And so now, in the case of 'I doubt that I exist', by calling that proposition "nonsense" which do we mean -- real or logical impossibility? 'I cannot doubt that I exist' -- which kind of impossibility does that 'cannot' belong to?

That logic not be evaded

[Note: "... as we normally use this language -- and what if not that should we discuss." It may seem that logic of language investigations are impossible because circumstances can be imagined in which any combination of words might be given a use in our language. And therefore, so that logic not be evaded by uses of language invented by the philosophical imagination on the occasion of particular investigations, logic cites the importance of the normal case. Because it is in misunderstanding normal usage -- and why analogies made from it so often go astray -- that the problems of philosophy arise (when those problems are logic of language muddles).]

Basing our statement on the model 'I doubt that I am recovering', we may presume that we can also meaningfully -- [i.e. that this combination of words has a definable use in our language as we normally use that language] -- say 'I doubt that I am doubting'. And that is an example of following a false grammatical analogy -- i.e. despite A having the same form as B, A is not like B with respect to having a use in the language. (Cf. 'I doubt that I am sleeping.' | The logic of comparison.)

Why does the combination of words 'I doubt that I exist' strike us as absurd in meaning rather than as mere sound without sense? Compare Lewis Carroll's proposition 'The rule is jam yesterday, jam tomorrow, but never jam today', which also seems to us to be absurd rather than mere sound without sense. The proposition 'Never jam today' appears as if it had a use in our language by analogy with 'There is never jam on Tuesdays' e.g.

Maybe, as I noted before, this is because in one way it isn't mere undefined sound, even though that's what it is in the way that is important to logic-philosophy.

Descartes presumes the words 'If I am thinking, then I know I exist' to be an empirical proposition -- i.e. a statement about reality (in contrast to a rule of grammar, a statement about language rules) -- as possibly does Augustine, because Augustine's 'obvious' = 'self-evident' (although that might be said also about what follows from rules).

Whether 'I cannot doubt that I am doubting' is or is not a rule of grammar depends on what work we use it to do -- (if 'meaning' is defined as 'use in the language', which is the meaning of 'meaning' Wittgenstein selected in order to make the distinction between sense and nonsense in language objective in philosophy) -- or hasn't that combination of words any possible use, as we normally use our language, than as a rule of grammar?

Is 'I doubt that I exist' an example of a proposition type, e.g. contradiction in sense rather than in form? But what sense -- if it has no sense = no use in the language? Augustine seems to use that proposition as a refutation by means of reductio ad absurdum. And can a rule of grammar be used that way? Whyever not -- for isn't that exactly how Augustine does use it? For it does appear that Augustine is doing no more than pointing out a rule of grammar, as if to say, "Evodius, that combination of words is meaningless." And how else is nonsense "refuted" except by pointing out that it is nonsense.

"The impossibility of being mistaken"

Augustine: So I will ask you, to start from the obvious, whether you yourself exist. Don't tell me you are afraid of being mistaken over this question, since there would not even be any possibility of your being mistaken, if you did not exist.

Evodius: Go on to the next point.

Augustine: So then since it is obvious that you are, and since it could not be obvious to you unless you were alive, it is also obvious that you are alive.

De Libero Arbitrio, II, 3 (7) [tr. Edmund Hill] is one of "three texts [that] were often quoted and discussed by Descartes' contemporaries". (Marrou, St. Augustine (1957), tr. Hepburne-Scott, p. 94).

And so it is impossible for me to be mistaken that I exist, but which kind of impossibility is this: logical or real? If logical, then circumstances in which its opposite, namely 'I can be mistaken that I exist', has a use in the language can be described; if real then Augustine's proposition 'I can be mistaken that I exist' can be true or false, regardless of whether its meaning is 'absurd'. I'd conclude that what Augustine (later Descartes) cites is a rule of grammar, which, although curious, is nothing more than grammar: it is not as it were a rule of reality, but only a rule for language use.

"The correspondence between concepts and very general facts of nature"

If the formation of concepts can be explained by facts of nature, should we not be interested, not in grammar, but rather in that in nature which is the basis of grammar? (PI II, xii, p. 230)

No, our question is of logic, i.e. of definable language in the context of counter-factual realities. In our reality things come into existence and things go out of existence, but would our concept formation be different in a reality where nothing new ever came into existence and nothing already in existence ever ceased to exist (in other words, where all existence were from everlasting to everlasting)? In that reality would there be a verb 'to exist'? What would its antithesis be? for would not that word be meaningless without one? Would Augustine be talking about whether Evodius can be mistaken about whether Evodius exists -- because what meaning would that language have in that reality?

Would our word 'exist' have a use in our language if it had no opposite -- 'exist' in contrast to what?

The formation of concepts -- (I am, of course, defining 'concept' as 'rules for using a word') -- in fictitious realities: one where things only come into existence, or one where things only go out of existence. Descartes assumes (he knows) that some things exist while others do not when he affirms his own existence (in contrast to non-existence).

So given this very general fact of the nature of our reality, we say of x, that x exists or does not exist -- but is there a first person present indicative of the verb 'to exist'? Is there in the context of Augustine and Descartes a use in our language for 'I exist' -- other than to characterize a way of life, as in e.g. 'We exist as rational beings within the limits of instinct, habit and ignorance'? For it to have sense to say 'I exist', would it not also have to have sense to say 'I don't exist'?


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