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Is there a Beetle in Our Box?
Don't laugh! A lot of posts on PMTH last month had this very subject
In fact, we had, according to my count, 240 messages last month on this topic alone. And, this was in addition to numerous other "beetle topics" we discussed in passing, such as Katherine Levine's discussion of "The Beetle in Our Children's Box" or the discussion Jerry Shaffer and I had that we called "The Depressed Beetle."
But, never fear, PMTH is not infested with crawling beetles. The "Beetle in our box notion" is just a reference to a very famous passage in Wittgenstein that I'll tell you about in a minute.
But, first, in the article you are reading I want to give you a quick review of last month's PMTH NEWS article that forms the background for understanding our beetle mania. (If you prefer to see the full article from last month, however, just click here.)
Last month in PMTH NEWS I told you about our discussion of the question
"Is Wittgenstein a Behaviorist?" We were looking at a section in
Wittgenstein's Philosophical Investigations in which he addresses this
question about his possible behaviorism. I'll show you. But when
you read his remarks in the section below remember that whenever
Wittgenstein speaks in "quotes" like
this, he is typically telling you what he imagines an interlocutor would
be saying to him so he can address the critique directly. So, addressing
this imaginary interlocutor, Wittgenstein says:
So, in so many words, Wittgenstein tells us that he is not saying that human beings robots without any mental processes. Instead he is saying something that interlocutors sometimes get confused with calling people mindless robots. What gets confused, he explains, is his talk about "grammatical fiction."
So, the central question becomes: What is a grammatical fiction? And, that was a big topic last month. I personally think grammatical fiction is a key concept in Wittgenstein's philosophy of mind and if you want to understand the import of Wittgenstein for the therapy sciences, as far as I'm concerned, it is important that you scrutinize this concept of a grammatical fiction and study its implications.
Last month Jerry Shafer gave us an example of grammatical fictions that I liked a lot: Suppose a person, is going down a flight of stairs, but when the last step is reached she missteps and says, "Oh, I thought there was another step there." The way this sentence is worded (the grammar of the sentence) suggests that the speaker must have experienced a mental event in which she entertained the notion that there was another step to come even before she got to the end of the stairs. But, as we discussed the case it seemed clear that people say things like "I thought there was another step there" without having had such a introspectively discernable thought. If this surprises us, however, that on reflection there is no discernable thought "I thought there was another step there", then this is because we took the expression too literally and thus were drawn into a grammatical fiction.
After discussing grammatical fictions, there was fairly general agreement here last month that Wittgenstein is not a behaviorist, at least in any radical sense that imagines he denies that people have mental processes. So, Wittgenstein doesn't deny we have minds, but what he does deny is that we have introspectively discernable thoughts and emotions everytime we talk as though we do.
Still, in our culture we tend to buy the grammatical fiction that if it is correct language to say "I thought something" that it must be true that we had something happen in our brains or minds that correspond to that "thought". ˆ± it as as though we simply don't make room for the possibility that there are ways of talking that create imaginary objects or "grammatical fictions."
Grammatical fictions are ways of taking language literally. Wittgenstein
feels that our tendency to read language literally is so great that it
is like an illness and he develops his philosophy as a way of treating
this illness. For example, he says
and he proposes we treat that illness with a range of therapies:
The purpose of such therapies would be to help us see past these grammatical fictions so that we become more observant of experience rather than buying into grammatical fictions.
This, then, is a summary of the background article from last month
here for the fuller story from last week and more examples of this important
concept). This topic obviously requires much more thought and
I suspect you will see evidence here in PMTH NEWS that we want to think
more about it. For now, however, let me direct you to the next article
in this series, that I am calling: "Is Wittgenstein a behaviorist? Part
2" Onward now to that article.
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With pleasure I introduce you to the writing of PMTH subscriber Scott Cole. Cole was ia key speaker in a conversation that I was little involved in last month and I have asked him to give us an account of it. As you see below, Cole was kind enough to to oblige.
If you want to know more about Cole, please do check him out by clicking
Does PostModernism lead to meaninglessness, or is it full of meaning? This last mongh, some of us on PMTH began a simple conversation about what words mean, and it evolved into a fascinating journey about meaning in life.
Lois Shawver asked, "How do we decide what a word means? " Manfred Straehle's view is that the word cannot be separated from its activity based context, and it is in that moment where the meaning, if any, can be derived. Shawver suggested that word meanings may be related to the way words change our experience of life and to the way in which we "give our lives meaning."
I (Scott Cole) feel that meaning, identified by our drive for relationships, our chosen life's work, and other things that bring fulfillment, is expressed by: we don't 'fear death' so much as 'not having lived.' Lee Nichols agreed, saying: "Ask any Senior Citizen. . .it ain't sex or .fear, but a 'feeling that our work isn't finished' that keeps us working....and living."
Manfred Strahle asked, "Would you separate the meaning of the word from the meaning of life? I see them as a totality." Sharon Robins concurred that a discussion of the meaning of a word might inevitably be a discussion of the meaning of Life.
I presented my view that words reflect experience. And usually not just one experience, but a thousand experiences, unpacking endlessly into more and more thoughts and feelings. Do words unpack to 'the meaning of life?'
Sharon Robbins said that if we had been able to pin the meaning of the word down originally (in the logos) we have described the meaning of life in a thousand experiences.
I, too, believe there is not a singular meaning of life, but a plurality of meanings. Theologically, God-logos-word-love may be "the" meaning of life, but finding "the" is accomplished through a multitude of meaningful experiences."
Manfred found a temporal understanding of meaning, saying "the meaning of the word derives from the relational experiences ...without losing its place in history, society, and politics."
Sharon delighted us when she said, "My enjoyment of the notion of words haunting themselves with the shadows of the meanings they try to exclude in order to 'mean,' comes from my delight in a Derridean worldview, and I'm not sure if I'm being obscure in this celebration - Do let me know, as there can be nothing more boring than a lone cult worshipper dancing around her own fire ;->."
PostModernism raises questions about truth and validity. Deconstruction and reconstruction of meaning can be fruitful, but this lack of permanence can be disorienting. Will "analyzing everything to death" eventually arrive at a Truth? This inability to even "know" the problem seemed to Sharon like shaky ground.
I think that we need to make life hold still long enough for us to experience and interpret life from one consistent frame of reference. In contrast, a "Modernist" claim "to know" with certainty prevents deconstruction and renewal - it doesn't reinvent, which to me doesn't reflect our universe of constant change. What then is valid? The "patterns" of experience we see are valid, but subject to individual interpretations of meaning.
Sharon wondered if we become identifiable by the words we choose to stand for us, and there is no choice but to choose? I identify by the dialogue that moves us forward, the methods and goals of deconstruction and reconstruction. Sharon said of problems in South Africa, that they must prepare to nurture another lost generation through a crisis of proportions beyond all conceiving. She identified this as is a position she must be prepared to stand for.
In practical terms, what does this mean? I feel we need to deconstruct
the myths in our society with a healthy dialogue, and then reconstruct
our civilization so that we have a better world. Sharon summed up the implications,
saying, "The danger of theories of cultural relativity is their potential
to ignore. In Africa, my own children are entering adolescence at the same
time as predictions that half of them will be dead in a decade. Theorizing
solutions to the problems .must have potentially beneficial consequences
for how we approach such problems in our own backyards."
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There was a point in our conversation about Wittgenstein
and grammatical fictions that our topic turned to the question of research
and, especially, psychological tests. And it was at that point that
I made this controversial comment:
I ended that note asking folks what could be done? George
Spears responded with some pretty creative ideas, but he added:
And to this challenging remark, Katherine
Gordy Levine responded:
Then, George and I agreed that we had gone too far. Tests, Penn
Hughes reminded us, do not require that we misuse them. So, then
Levine accepted our apology and saying:
True, but we have some criticisms. In fact, as Levine herself makes clear, she has similar criticisms.
And, this morning, Val Lewis brought
it altogether for me with a particularly wonderful note. In fact,
I want to end this article with her note because it does such a very good
job of tying our criticism of psychological tests to Wittgenstein's concept
of a "grammatical fiction." So, here's the heart of what Lewis
said, and please read it carefully:
I think so, too, Val Lewis. Thanks for stating it so well.
Not only does Gergen talk about many things you'll read about in PMTH NEWS, but he brings up some good topics for us to discuss further, the whole topic of "individualism" and "relational responsibility.
But for more about that, you'll have to wait for another edition of
If the article you are about to read just doesn't make sense to you,
you might consider reading the prior article to your left that is called:
But, as I said in that article, last month the topic of
was really hot on PMTH.
So, this month's story begins with Wittgenstein's
remark about a beetle in his aphorism 293 of the Philosophical
Investigations. I'll break up the 293 aphorism with a little
commentary of my own. In 293, Wittgenstein begins by saying:
Imagine a person saying, "I can only know pain from my own case. And you can only know pain from your own case." Then the question is are we even talking about the same thing. We both use the word "pain" to refer to something but is this something we each feel even the same thing?
Okay, let's suppose I had a beetle in my box, but you had a turtle in
yours. Also, imagine that neither of us had ever seen anything like
a our beetle (or turtle) except in our own private box. Nothing vaguely
compared with it All we could do is stare at our own case and
give it a name. So, we both called our own case a "beetle" -- even
though yours was really a "turtle."
Suppose, for example, every time we said, "My beetle squirmed" everyone
else would knock twice on wood, all at the same time, and say "good luck"
to each others. In that case, Wittgenstein continues, the word "beetle"
Well, I have a beetle, and you have a turtle, but suppose that guy over there has nothing and he is thinking that is what we have, too. Then, for him, having nothing would be what having a beetle was all about.
If we had such variable objects in our individual boxes, objects that
no one else could actually see then whatever was in the box would make
no difference in the way we talked. We would all call them all, and
the nothings, too, "beetles".
That is, if we think of pain as an object we can look at privately sort
of like as we look at turtles or beetles, objects that we can designate,
then the object, the thing in the box, drops out of consideration as completely
irrelevant. I have a beetle, you have a turtle, and no telling what
everyone else has. It makes no difference to our way of talking.
If what I am calling a "pain" is what you are calling "the experience of
a tickle" - we would never be wiser. We would all call it a "the
beetle" in our box. And we would all nod knowingly and wish each
other good luck whenever anyone mentions their beetle squirming.
In discussing Wittgenstein's concept of the Beetle in the Box, Jerry
Shaffer told PMTH:
I think so, too. Just because we use the term "pain" (or "self" or many other terms) doesn't mean that "a pain" is an object in the same sense that a book is an object.
Of course, most people would agree that a pain is not an object like a beetle is an object in a box, but Wittgenstein thinks we tend to reason in psychology about psychological constructs such as pain as if they were concrete objects like this.
Exactly. But our figures of speech suggest that pain is an object,
a thing, and we tend to imagine that this thing is present everytime we
mention it. We imagine it this way even when we think we don't. And
Nick Drury joined this chorus when he
commented on Shaffer's explanation saying
Drury asked, however, if this meant we should change the way we talked.
So, instead of saying "I thought there was another step" (when there was
no moment in which we had such a thought cross our minds), perhaps, we
should word things in less misleading ways. Shaffer said:
But then Drury explained:
Drury's remarks makes sense to me. We need special ways of talking,
at times, to explain the way language creates these grammatical
fictions. This is a far cry from controlling language in general
or trying to construct a more perfect language. (And I agree with
Shaffer that Wittgenstein would not want us to do that - see #98.)
As Drury explained, the point is not to perfect our general language but
to nudge language into working to say things locally that we could
not otherwise say. We need tricks like this, perhaps, because, as
Val Lewis reminded us:
One of the special ways of talking that Wittgenstein, himself, gave
us to help us think about our grammatical fictions is his concept of a
"mental process" or a "mental event". And in discussing grammatical
fictions we talked about mental processes and events and so Penn
Hughes asked us
That's a very key question. So, what's a mental event for Wittgenstein? Think about it as an introspectively discernable event or process, something that happens or happened in time. If you hear a loud noise, that would occur in time so it would be a "mental event." Or if in a flash you had a thought in which you said to yourself, "Hey, I think that's Bobby over there ? He sure looks different with his hair cut!" You wouldn't have to say the words to yourself to qualify as a "mental event" but there would have to be a moment of recognition or awareness. Mental events and processes are experiential occurrences, that happened in time (see #154).
So, the idea is that sometimes we think things are happening mentally,
but when we glance into our minds, nothing is there. So, why do we
think there is something happening? Because our ordinary ways of
talking tell us that it's true. Our ordinary ways of talking contain
language pictures, or stories, metaphors, that simply bewitch our intelligence:
But what are these grammatical fictions that Wittgenstein has shown us can hide in our ordinary ways of talking, like little stories that we listen to over and over again, and that repeatedly mystify us, leaving us feeling confused.
Ah, for that you will have to go on to read the article "What we said
about the beetles in our box".
Using Wittgenstein's beetle analogy, the beetle stands for "fictional
mental objects," and as John Walter suggested Wittgenstein pointed
out that there is often
But now I ask you, what about the box? Can that be a fiction, too? I take this "box" to be the metaphorical container of all our mental objects. In other words, in Wittgenstein's analogy, the box is analogous to the "mind." And, Wittgenstein does deconstruct this concept of a mind.
I hear you asking, "How can this be? Wouldn't this mean that, after all of this, Wittgenstein really is a behaviorist in disguise? Someone who doesn't believe at all in mental processes or even minds?"
Well, I think Wittgenstein is not a behaviorist, not in any meaningful sense of that term, but you judge for yourself. Still, at least some of the people here on PMTH seemed to agree with me, so hear me out.
Even though people who speak a western langauge talk about minds as though they exist all the time, we should distinguish between what it means when we say, "Right now in my mind I am having an image of my father," and what it means when we say, "What I had in mind when I asked you over was..." In the first case we had image, that is a mental event that happened in time. But what about the second case? That deserves a more careful look.
Let's flesh out the picture of what it means to say, "What I had in mind was..." . Last Friday, say, you were at loose ends and so you called up your friend "Oscar." You have done this many times before. Oscar is great fun. Whenever you're bored, you just call him up and invite him over.
So, how did you happen to call Oscar and ask him over this time? I mean, what was the mental process? Well, you were watching TV , and it was 5 o'clock on a Saturday night. You had still another TV dinner in the oven. Then, all of a sudden, you had a mental event: It was quite distinct. You said to yourself, "I know, I'll call Oscar." Oscar is aways there when you need him.
Then, your hand simply reached for the phone and you called Oscar up. There was no need to think about this. You didn't have a mental image beforehand of Oscar, or even of your hand reaching over to the phone. You didn't even say the number to yourself before you dialed it. You know Oscar's number by heart, which means you can dial it without thinking about it - and so you did. Then, suddenly, you heard Oscar's familiar voice say, "Hello." That's all there was to the mental process, the best you can recall it.
Then, "Hi Oscar!" you heard yourself saying. "Want to come by?"
"Sure," he told you. "I'll be right there." You knew he would.
Then Oscar arrives and you answer the door. But, to your amazement, he has a suitcase! "I thought I'd stay overnight," he tells you.
"Wow!" you tell him. "That wasn't what I had in mind! I had in mind you'd just stay for a couple of hours, like you usually do"
Now take that as an example of how we sometimes use the phrase "What I had in mind was..."
Then, for some reason, Oscar asks you. "Did you actually ask yourself how long I was going to stay?" And you think. The truth is, when you think about it, you can't 't actually remember having had a single specific thought about it. It wasn't like you had this clear image (a mental event). It just seemed that you probably thought that Oscar wouldn't stay over night ... and so you were really quite surprised when he brought his suitcase.
So there are two ways in which we talk about having things in our minds (at least). In one of them it seems like mental events happen (like the image) and in the other we have a grammatical fiction that the mental events happen at all. At least, when we look, we can't quite find these thoughts.
But there is another grammatical fiction here, too, woven in with the notion that we must have thought something when we didn't. In addition, there is the grammatical fiction that our minds are always present even though the even though there are times when there seems there is nothing there, not even invisible walls.
In other words, not only is the thought sometimes a grammatical fiction, but so is the container of the thought, the mind.
The grammatical fiction says the mind is always there, but introspection
shows no evidence that this is so. Still, you say, it must be always
there. It has to be. That is, it is as though you were saying
And, so, in the end, not only are the mental objects grammatical fictions but so are minds, at least if we think of them as permanently there.
Or, put in other words, not only is the beetle a grammatical fiction,
but so is the box.
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This is the first month in a long time that I haven't told you about Elmer and Ellen? The reason is that this imaginary couple, whose ups and downs we have been both following and creating, were quiet this month as we talked about grammatical fictions.
Will they be back? I don't know. I certainly hope so, but
we have other things to talk about, too, and we'll have to wait and see.
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