PostmodernTherapies NEWS                 04/01/01
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Philosophy is a battle against the bewitchment of our intelligence by means of language. 
Ludwig Wittgenstein
Philosophical Investigations #109'


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Postmodern Therapies NEWS
May 1,  2001

Is Wittgenstein a Behaviorist?
Part I Review

Is there a Beetle in Our Box? 

Don't laugh!  A lot of posts on PMTH last month had this very subject head :

The Beetle in Our Box. 

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:

307 ˆ±308 "Are you not really a behaviourist in disguise? Aren't you at bottom really saying that everything except human behaviour is a fiction?" -If I do speak of a fiction, then it is of a grammatical fictionˆñ.  And now it looks as if we had denied mental processes. And naturally we don't want to deny them.

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 

255     The philosopher's treatment of a question is like the treatment of an illness. 

and he proposes we treat that illness with a range of therapies:

133 There is not a philosophical method, though there are indeed methods, like different 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 (Click 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.

Want to Read Past Issues of 

Thirty-five prior issues of this newsletter, Postmodern Therapies NEWS(also called  PMTH NEWS), are now available.  You can reach a listing of all prior issues, together with the names of the articles in those issues, by clicking here.

Another way to read articles published in past issues of PMTH NEWS, or to read articles that were published as links from the PMTH NEWS front page, is by doing a search on the topic that interests you.  Justput the word or words you wish to look up in the search engine at the upperlefthand corner of this newsletter.  Notice that there are two kindsof searches.  One is for a search within PMTH NEWS documents and oneis for a search across the internet. 

Meet PMTH subscriber
Scott Cole
Lois Shawver

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 here

Meaning and Postmodernism
Scott Cole

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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Lois Shawver

Would you like to tell someone about PMTH NEWS?  Just fill out the form below  and  click on the "send" button.  The invitation that goes out will include a special link that your friend can click on to arrive at this site.

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Psychological Tests

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:

Few [psychological] tests are ever validated in my opinion except with the most flimsy kind of evidence, and certainly not at the level that supports the psychological testing paradigm for clinical psychology.

I ended that note asking folks what could be done?  George Spears responded with some pretty creative ideas, but he added:

I think the government would frown on an expose' that essentially said that testing is
mostly fraudulent. 

And to this challenging remark, Katherine Gordy Levine responded:

Are we taking a knowing stance that all tests are fraudulent?  Do we then
think all tests are useless?

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:

I do tend to have a knee jerk reaction to any kind of totalizing, and was feeling a need to ask if the list was totalizing.  There did seem to a chorus saying tests are bad.

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:

Believing that the tests are somehow [inherently] more 'valid' [than the client's self-report] is absurd -- because [tests] are measuring a socially constructed inner experience, not something like temperature. We are dazzled by the statistics and the pseudo-science. The very assumptions behind the statistics are questionable, such as normal curves, and the attempts to formalize and reduce a complex mood state like depression into a 'test' is of what purpose anyway? The purpose it seems to me is to categorize people as if that provided us with an explanation... but it is entirely circular. It goes like this: Why does he not want to get up in the morning? Because he is depressed. How do you know he is depressed? Because he doesn't get up in the morning. So we devise a test that asks him if he has trouble getting out of bed in the morning. We then use the results of this test to label the person 'depressed.' So now we have nations of people who, breast fed on the medical model, believe that there is some unitary state called "depression" that can be measured with tests.

I think so, too, Val Lewis.  Thanks for stating it so well.

Is Anybody Else Saying This Stuff?

As Nick Drury pointed out, PMTH friend Ken Gergen  has said much of what you read in this newletter today.  Check out a paper by Gergen by clicking here

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 PMTH NEWS.



Is There a Beetle in Our Box? 
Is Wittgenstein a Behaviorist? 
Part II

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: 

Is Wittgenstein a Behaviorist? Part 1 Review.

But, as I said in that article, last month the topic of 

The beetle in our box?

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:

293 If I say of myself that it is only from my own case that I know what the word "pain" means -- must I not say the same of other people too? And how can I generalize the one case so irresponsibly? 

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?

Wittgenstein continues:

....Suppose everyone had a box with something in it: we call it a "beetle". No one can look into anyone else's box, and everyone says he knows what a beetle is only by looking at his beetle.-- Here it would be quite possible for everyone to have something different in his box. One might even imagine such a thing constantly changing 

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."

-.-But suppose the word "beetle" had a use in these people's language?-- 

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"

would not be used as the name of a thing. The thing in the box has no place in the language-game at all; not even as a something: for the box might even be empty.

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 to say: if we construe the grammar of the expression of sensation on the model of 'object and designation' the object drops out of consideration as irrelevant. 

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. 

Read more about this by reading aphorism 293 and surrounding aphorisms in 
Ludwig Wittgenstein's
Philosophical Investigations


Is There a Beetle in Our Box
What We Said

In discussing Wittgenstein's concept of the Beetle in the Box, Jerry Shaffer told PMTH:

I think [Wittgenstein]  would skeptical of the tendency in psychology to
postulate and theorize about mental events and mental processes which lie hidden from view and which explain human behavior. 

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. 

And Judy Weintraub expanded on this concept.   Following Wittgenstein she said that our grammatical fictions come about because our language gives us

the imagery of an inner object world. It's not that no such [inner objects such as] thoughts occurred but that if they  did [occur], it was not necessary that they occurred 

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 

I like what you have written on this today.  For me it underlines the notion that when we start postulating about preconceptions and hidden mental events we start reifying the mind as some sort of  proto- phenomena, as a physical

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:

Why "preferable"? What's wrong with "I thought there was another step"?
Isn't it clear in its context?

But then Drury explained:

I don't want to see us trying to 'correct' everyday speech and make a perfect language.  I used 'preferable' to indicate a local and
provisional distinction we might make in order to explicate the nature of

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:

Trying to verbally 'analyse' thoughts is like analysing a will o' the wisp. 

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 

How do you describe a
mental event?"

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:  Wittgenstein says:

115. A picture held us captive. And we could not get outside it, for it lay in our language and language seemed to repeat it to us inexorably. 

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".

What about the 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 

no mental event referent but  [merely] an assumption.[that there had been]

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 with Wittggenstein:

112-"But this isn't how it is!"-we say. "Yet this is how it has to be!" 

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.

Want to Join Us?

PMTH is a closed community for professional therapists, as well as scholars,professors and graduate students with specialities related to therapy. We keep our list reserved this way in order to have a special place for people who are concerned with doing good therapy to discuss their personal issues about therapy in some depth.  We go to other lists to discuss things with people who don't fit this profile.  If you want to invite one of us to a list you're on, there is a way to do that.  Or, if you fit the profile for membership to PMTH, you can consider joining us.  Whichever you want, you can write me, by clicking


This will send a post to me, Lois Shawver.  Tell me of your interest. If you are looking to join us, also give me a little information about yourself that tells me how you fit the profile for joining the PMTH online community.  And, in either case, .tell me that you got the idea to write by reading PMTH NEWS.

Where are Elmer and Ellen?

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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