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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 proposition (thesis) 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. the only 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); later 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 by 'know' Socrates means 'can be put into words that can stand against refutation in cross-questioning'), but it is the universal standard Socrates set for our philosophical discussions.

That is the background of this site's "logic of language" comments and investigations. The question of meaning (What?) belongs to Wittgenstein (and to Socrates, because unclarity, and not only self-contradiction, is grounds for refutation in cross-questioning); 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 historical 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 a 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. Like the Cheshire cat that vanishes leaving behind only its smile, the something 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 or most words are "meaningless", because they do not name anything (neither anything visible or invisible, nor tangible or abstract). What is the meaning of those words? In Wittgenstein's account their meaning is their use in the language (PI § 43), and that "use" is not to name anything. (In Plato's account of language meaning, the meaning of a word is the invisible essence (common nature) of the thing the word names, which applies to every word from 'clay' to 'justice'. But if induction is not evaded, then many or most words are "meaningless". But we don't normally use the word 'meaning' that way: language that conveys meaning is not meaningless.)

[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

When comparing words to tools, language to a tool chest, Wittgenstein does not name the most important tool the worker has, and that is the worker's imagination, because our language is not static (PI § 23), but new thought -- when words or combinations of words are given a new meaning -- may occur to us at any moment.

But imagination, like any other tool, may be misused: we may imagine e.g. that just as the hammer is used to strike a nail, the saw is used to pound its way through wood -- i.e. we may follow false analogies from other tools. (The language user is sometimes an inept workman, especially in philosophy.)

Does adding imagination to the class 'tools' thus {hammer, saw, glue, ruler, imagination} make a category mistake? 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 be 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!'

A Standard for Logic

We can imagine [invent] a meaning [use in the language] for any normally undefined combination of words, and by doing this we can evade ever distinguishing between sense and nonsense in philosophy. Isaac Newton made a rule to exclude the evasion of induction by "hypotheses" or speculative theories -- and our imagined uses for nonsense would play the role of "hypotheses" in logic of language. That is why the normal use (or its absence) in the language is used in logic as the standard of judgment between sense and nonsense.

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. Thus imagination is better likened to logic as the tool of philosophy; indeed, it is a tool of logic.

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 {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 may have 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, 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 about the world; 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 (natural theology), physics, and nature philosophy, and the history of philosophy, and axiology (ethics, politics, aesthetics), with Aristotle's eccentric exclusion of logic from philosophy. [Aristotle, more scientist than philosopher.] And given that Aristotle came before the Stoics (and became 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.

Ancient and Modern divisions of philosophy, 3 KB

Apparently I imagined that "epistemology" came to be seen as a separate field of philosophy following Descartes (to Hegel), and I imagine that is what "Modern" in my drawing means. But you know I don't know and 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 cake, we may want sharp lines, but most concepts have indefinite borders.

How concepts cut up our thinking

"Our concepts are fluid rather than fixed" (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.


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, if 'nonsense' DEF.= 'undefined combination of words' DEF.= '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

This rule we must follow, that the argument of induction may not be evaded by hypotheses. (Isaac Newton)

Note: "... as we normally use this language -- and what if not that should we discuss" (cf. PI § 246). It may seem that logic of language investigations are impossible for the reason that we can always imagine or invent a use for any sign (spoken sound, written mark) in the language. Therefore, so that logic not be evaded by the philosophical imagination, logic refers to 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 problems).

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 sentence A having the same form as sentence B, sentence A is not like sentence 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 e.g. 'There is never jam on Tuesdays'.

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.

[Two meanings of 'nonsense': absurdity (PI § 282) versus mere undefined combinations of words (ibid. § 500.]

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 maybe does Augustine, because Augustine's 'obvious' = 'self-evident' (although that might be said also about what follows from rules of grammar).

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, other 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 how "in sense" -- if the proposition 'I doubt that I exist' has no sense = 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? Why 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). I am able to know three things: that I exist, that I am alive (for I could not know that I exist if I were not alive), and that I understand that I exist and am alive (Saint Augustine's "method of tautologies").

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.

It might be said that man is aware that he exists, lives and understands, in contrast to a moth (PI § 360) or rock which is not. Would that be a very general fact of nature?

"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; cf. Between facts and grammar.)

No, our question is of logic, i.e. of definable language in the context of counter-factual realities. In our world things come into existence and things go out of existence, but would our concept formation be different in a world where nothing new ever came into existence and nothing already in existence ever ceased to exist (in other words, a world where all existence were from everlasting to everlasting)? In that world 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 world?

Would our word 'exist' have a use in our language if it had no opposite -- 'exist' in contrast to what? Not in contrast to 'cease to exist', but in contrast to 'not exist' -- because that is the distinction our question "Why is there something and not nothing? assumes.

It is possible to imagine a gold mountain although none exists. By analogy the world can be imagined not to exist, even if it is thought always to have existed. "Thought can be of what is not" (Cratylus 429d, Sophist 237a; PI § 95).

The formation of concepts -- (I am defining 'concept' as 'rules for using a word', which is a more or less assigned meaning) -- 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'?


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

The replies are neither invisible nor inaudible, although no one sees them, but 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 does not know.

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

But only if he knows that he is ignorant -- i.e. only if he does not think he knows what he does not know, only if he 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 no man is wiser than Socrates because the wisest man is the one who, like Socrates, knows that he is not wise.

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

It was modesty, with meekness = self-knowledge as its source, that invented the title 'philosopher' or "lover of wisdom", in contrast to 'sophist' = "wise man", and according to one tradition, it was the modesty of Pythagoras.

Accordingly, differences between philosophers and other people: that while others think themselves wise, philosophers know that they themselves are not wise; that while others think they know what they do not know, philosophers do not think themselves to know what they do not know. That is Socratic philosophy (il maestro di coloro che non pensano sapere ciò che non sanno). Thus philosophers ask rather than answer unless they answer in order to question the clarity and truth of their ideas; they do not mistake their guesses for knowledge. And philosophers seek wisdom above all other things in life, while others seems not concern themselves too much about it. (In any case, that is the Socratic ideal, sparked by Pythagoras.)

... 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)

But most men think those ugly things beautiful, the very good for man, 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 this -- human beings who live in vice and are content in their vice, mistaking it for virtue?

On the other hand, "... that these easy futile things were not for him." But maybe they are for most people, because I have this 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, "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 they do not know and because God's mercy is infinite, whereas I shall go straight to hell, because I do know." And so I think that those who know 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.)

That hasn't stopped us from killing the prophets (Acts 7.52), or the philosophers, voices crying in the wilderness that are heard but not heard, because we reject their admonishments, thinking ourselves wiser (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 believe he knows "what man is", i.e. what the essence of man is, namely his soul (ibid. 36a-c), and that man should direct his reason, which is the specific excellence proper to man, above all towards its care by seeking to know what the good (ibid. 37e-38a) is for man (because moral virtue is knowledge), putting what he thinks he knows about the good for man to the test in cross-questioning, to see whether he really does know what he thinks he knows about how he should live his life.

'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 his body?' But if the word 'soul' (cf. 'mind') is not the name of an object of some kind, but has some other use in the language? That would be Wittgenstein's response, to point to a misleading grammatical analogy (as well as to superstition).

Wittgenstein's response belongs to logic of language. In contrast, Plato wants a philosophical response. There are two pictures: that reality is matter and spirit, or that reality is matter only (materialism), which amounts to this: an affirmation of the unprovable proposition that all reality is in principle perceptible to the senses. In contrast, whatever is essentially imperceptible would be the meaning of the word 'spirit', not the artist's picture (which is not a picture of something picturable; the grammar of such pictures is queer (LC ii, p. 63)).

With regard to an afterlife, both pictures belong to metaphysics (unverifiable speculation); neither is more justifiable than the other. That materialism is metaphysics -- i.e. that it is anomaly or "fact proof" (DW p. 17; cf. "waterproof", "fireproof", "bombproof") -- is shown by this, that there is not even a logical possibility of a material proof of the existence of anything immaterial (spirit). (The views of death of Aristotle and Plato.)

Logic of language and Metaphysics

Materialism is not implicit in Wittgenstein's later logic, although logic of language does describe only the facts in plain view; logic does presume that the meaning of language is shown by verifiable experience (human activity), that language meaning is not hidden in the mind or in a spirit realm as are Plato's Forms, but logic's presumption is a definition of 'meaning', not metaphysics.

"... 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 or plan for our existence. But is the question -- if asked from the philosophical point of view -- a question without an answer, or is it nonsense suggested by a false grammatical analogy? (Which analogy?)

"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 a concept 'death'. And what is their relationship (concept-formation)? Do such very general facts of nature as "No one ever returns from the dead" and "We are all going to die someday" belong to a definition of the word 'death'? Does conjecture in metaphysics about "what death really is" (The statement "I don't know what death is" is already metaphysics)? Does religious doctrine?

Query: philosophy of life and death.

There are, according to Schweitzer, only two things we know, namely that there is one state: being alive, and another state: not being alive. But what else might we know -- what would we call "an explanation of what life is" if that is not a question for natural science? Describing the use of the word 'life' in the language versus "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. the words 'force' and 'energy' are defined by how force and energy are measured (Hertz): "the method of measurement is the meaning"; but that is natural science.


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