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Philosophy of Language

Mind, Soul, Language in Wittgenstein

Victor J. Krebs

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ABSTRACT: I show that the latter Wittgenstein's treatment of language and the mind results in a conception of the human subject that goes against the exclusive emphasis on the cognitive that characterizes our modern conception of knowledge and the self. For Wittgenstein, our identification with the cognitive ego is tantamount to a blindness to our own nature — blindness that is entrenched in our present culture. The task of philosophy is thus transformed into a form of cultural therapy that seeks to awaken in us a sensitivity to different modes of awareness than the merely intellectual. Its substance of reflection becomes not only the field of conscious rational thought, but the tension in our nature between reason and vital feeling, that is, between culture and life.

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It is well known that Wittgenstein is responsible for two great moments in the philosophy of this century; the first initially and incorrectly identified with logical positivism, and the second even now considered as paradigm of Analytic philosophy. Insofar as identifications, both interpretations seem to me to show an imperfect and only partial understanding of Wittgenstein's philosophical motivations, but I do not intend to discuss that point on this opportunity. What is important to our present purposes is that what separates his two great works is his discovery of a kind of intellectual blindness produced by the almost exclusive predominance of one single conception of knowledge or rationality in our culture.

The first signs of this philosophical shift are found in Wittgenstein's observations not specifically about language but rather about ritual practices, as they were considered in The Golden Bough. In his opinion, Frazer's explanations showed a spiritual narrowness that prevented him from seeing primitive rites as anything other than incipient or failed attempts at science. But Wittgenstein points out that ritual practices do not intend any effect, and are not based on any belief about their causal efficacy. In other words, they are not even attempts at science. When I kiss my lover's photograph, for example — an action of the same type as Frazer's rituals — I do not do so on the basis of any belief in the causal power of my action. It is only if you cannot conceive my action as anytihing other than the result or the expression of an intellectual decision, that you will think that I kiss the picture on the basis of false beliefs, or intending to cause impossible efects.

The point here is that the human subject to whom Frazer attributes the rituals is an exclusively cognitive subject, for whom all activities are the result of intellectual knowledge or are subordinated to that purpose. But Wittgenstein notes that ritual practices cannot be understood in that way, for their purpose is none other than the spontaneous expression of an inner need that is as important as it is different from intellectual articulation.

Now, in his Tractatus Wittgenstein himself had been guilty of the same mistake as Frazer. For there too he had conceived of language in terms of an exclusively cognitive subject. Ignoring the diversity of levels and functions of language that he would emphasize a decade later in his Investigations, the author of the Tractatus had assigned it one single function: that of representation. In this way language too — in the same way as Frazer's ritual practices — had been conceived as the activity of an exclusively cognitive subject, all its expressions being ultimately reducible and analyzable in terms of the ends and purposes of intellectual knowledge.

Thus, in his second period Wittgenstein declares himself against that conception of language, and for the same reasons for which he had criticized Frazer. He recognizes explicitly that language is not merely a means of intellectual articulation, but also, and perhaps essentially, a form of spontaneous human expression, in which is manifested not merely — and sometimes not even — a cognitive relation, but various modes of experience and interaction with the world.

Language, like ritual practice, is the expression of a subject whose purposes go beyond merely representing and manipulating the world. Both phenomena, when seen correctly, show that they derive their meaning from a different source than the intellect. This is why Wittgenstein insists that we will not be able to appreciate them correctly if we try to explain them, that is: to reduce them to causal, historical or logical relations. As he wrote with regard to Frazer and his ritual practices, but we can extend now also to language:

"One can see how mistaken are [these attempts at] explanation... from the fact that the principle according to which these practices are ordered is much more general than Frazer thought, and it is found in our own soul..." (1)

In other words, Wittgenstein is telling us that the principle in terms of which these phenomena acquire their meaning is more general than our intellectual understanding. Wittgenstein locates it here in "our own soul", but later he identifies it with "an instinct we have" (2) and yet in another place with our "thoughts and feelings", (3) and also "with an experience inside us". (4) All these are attempts (5) to articulate a deeper and more complex conception of the self than the purely cognitive subject.

In both cases what prevented a more adequate vision of these human phenomena, I mean of rituals and language, was what Wittgenstein called "the stupid scientific prejudice of our time", which is nothing other than the belief that positive knowledge is our highest form of relation with the world. All our practices are therefore considered as more or less perfect approximations to that form, which, thus becomes an interpretive principle and universal criterion of validity for any human phenomenon.

But the root of this prejudice is found in the identification of the human subject with the cognitive self. It is against this identification that we can understand Wittgenstein's discussions of language in the Investigations.


When we conceive language as the product or instrument of an exclusively cognitive subject, then it is merely representational. The meaning of our words depends directly on their correspondence to things in the world, and we recognize no other meaning than the literal. Sentences like "this is a chair", or "Macchu Picchu is two thousand meters above sea level", or "the glass broke", all ilustrate this use of language. They are clearly literal, they serve to communicate facts, and they can be verified by direct observation of the facts they register. In these cases there is no problem in ascribing language to a cognitive subject, nor in limiting the sense of its words to the literal mode, nor is there any problem in attributing to these sentences a belief as their base, or a utilitarian action as their purpose. In other words, these are the cases that support the identification of the linguistic subject with the cognitive self.

But Wittgenstein shows us that to a large extent in our ordinary use of language, and especially in our psychological language, it is many levels of consciousness and diverse modes of knowing that are active beyond the rational. In these cases, language functions primarily in a non-literal way. Expressions like: "I have it on the tip of my tongue", or "it breaks my heart", or "I have a great idea" (6) function in a very different way than literal statements. While the latter can be verified by direct observation of the facts they register, the former are verified in a very different way. For, when I say that my heart is broken, or that I have a great idea, or that it is on the tip of my tongue, I am not making a literal assertion. I am not making reference to something in muy heart, or inside my head, or on my tongue (!) but, as Wittgenstein wants to put it, I am making signals that show that my animic state is very poor, or that I am just about to give you a surprise, or almost ready to let you know the name of that author's name. In other words, language helps me to announce a certain state of consciousness which, expressed in that way, allows you (and sometimes makes it clear to me) how I find myself, or how my actions are to be understood, or what you can expect from me....

The diference is even clearer in the case of aesthetic judgments with which Wittgenstein assimilates psychological expressions. When a wine connoisseur tells us that this wine has a slight metallic taste, for instance, we will not try to prove his competence by searching for a piece of metal at the bottom of the bottle. And even if we did find it, this fact would be completely irrelevant to his judgment. (7) It might be relevant for the chemist who is attempting to give us the composition of the wine, but not for the wine taster. And the reason is simply that the aesthetic judgment — just as the psychological expression — is not a literal assertion that refers to something in the world, but rather a signal that locates the wine or the taster's experience within a specific web of linguistic meanings that constitute a particular realm of our world.

Now, in this vision of language arises a very different concept of the inner, or of psychic life, than that which we have inherited from Augustine through Descartes. According to this tradition, the inner is constituted by a private world innaccesible to others. But in Wittgenstein the inner constitutes an area of the person's discourse in which she articulates her animic orientation in the world. Our access to the inner — our own as anybody else's — is not by introspection, but through the word. In language we are able to express our animic state, placing it within the linguistic and cultural coordinates where the possibilities of psychological experience and expression of the human universe are already found. In this way we don't just communicate our animic states to others, but we also make them conscious, clarify them to ourselves, by articulating them in our tongue.

Here we touch upon a second important difference between Wittgenstein's view and that of the Cartesian-Augustinian tradition we find so natural. For, according to the latter, our subjectivity is not only private and hermetic to others, but it is also pre-formed at birth, and the acquisition of language simply provides us with the tools to communicate to others that wich has been inside us from the start. For Wittgenstein, on the contrary, the subject conscious of himself, — that is, the subject with a psychological life — does not exist before his entrance into the linguistic community, except potentially.

The process by which one acquires an inner life, a consciousness, a sense of self, begins with the substitution of primitive by the word. This, however, is not a matter of finding a word that fits and refers to an inner subjective entity, but rather — as Wittgenstein puts it — of substituting a behavior of sensation, as for instance the baby's crying, for an expression of sensation, (8) that is, for the word "pain". It is at this moment that the psychological realm is inaugurated, and the subject and its subjective life begin to emerge; for it is through this event that the child enters into a world that is built step by step in that living web that is language.

Instead of simply crying the child will learn to describe his pain, distinguish it form other types of discomfort, compare it to other kinds of experience. That is, he will be able to hook his primitive experience and behavior to the net of linguistic connections that provide him with the possibilities of extending and enriching his own awareness. Learning a psychological vocabulary will mean learning to articulate different shades of his experience that become distinct in virtue of a context into which the child is being initiated. What was before a confused and formless experience, he is now able to distinguish and articulate in various ways through new concepts.

In this sense we can understand our subjectivity as a pure linguistic substance. But this does not mean that there is no depth to it, "that everything is just words"; in fact, my words are an extension of my self, which shows itself in each movement of my tongue as fully and a deeply as it is possible. Rather than devaluing our experience to "mere words" this reconception of the self forces us to re-value language. Furthermore, giving primacy to our words instead of to private experience in defining subjectivity does not deny that I am, indeed, the most able to give expression to my inner life. For under normal circumstances, it is still only I who knows fully and immediately, what my psychic orientation — my attitude — is towards the world; only I know directly the form of my reactions, my wishes, desires, and aversions. But what gives me this privileged position is not an inner access to something inside me; it is rather the fact that it is I who articulates himself in this language, with these words. We do not learn to describe our experiences by gradually more and more careful and detailed introspections. Rather, it is in our linguistic training, that is, in our daily commerce with beings that speak and from whom we learn forms of living and acting, that we begin to make and utter new discriminations and new connections that we can later use to give expression to our own selves.

In my psychological expressions I am participating in a system of living relations and connections, of a social world, and of a public subjectivity, in terms of which I can locate my own state of mind and heart. "I make signals" that show others not what I carry inside me, but where I place myself in the web of meanings that make up the psychological domain of our common world. Language and conscioussness then are acquired gradually and simultaneously, and the richness of one, I mean its depth and authenticity, determines reciprocally the richness of the other.

In that gradual constitution of our inner life we will have the possibility of projecting and extending our concepts in new and unexpected ways. When we discover that we feel pain not only in our body, but also "in our hearts" or "in our pockets", or "in our egos", that it is possible to kill someone not merely by blows but also "with kisses" we are broadening our inner life by increasing the range of expression for our animic states. It is thanks to the natural projectability of our words, and to our capacity to invent new projections, and recognize them as new resources in other people's mouths, that we define and constitute our inner life in increasingly more complex and richer ways.

But here we can already see another important point about the linguistic subject and a third difference with the tradition against which Wittgenstein declares himself, for our language learning, as much as the growth of consciousness and inner life that it grounds, depend on a perception of relations and interconnections that goes beyond logic and reason. The tone of voice in which we utter our words, our bodily posture, our facial gestures, and in general the living contexts in which our language acquires its meaning, require for their assimilation a sensitivity that is as much intuitive as it is rational; in other words, a perception that is located in the provinces of what Wittgenstein calls "the imponderables" of language. And this means that the linguistic subject also exercises, and depends on, modes of knowing and rationality that are extemely rich, and very diferent form the intellectual.

The subject is transformed therefore from an inner homunculus into a field of public subjectivity, where there are different levels and diverse dimensions of perception and consciousness, none of which demands primacy over the others. This new awareness is not defined in terms of a center, or a guiding nucleus, but as a multi-levelled space of receptivity, some of which belongs to a subliminal realm at the outer frontiers of consciousness and reason.


It is obvious, therefore, that the conception of the subject that emerges from Wittgenstein's vision of language and the mind immediately displaces the exclusiveness of the cognitive ego and demands not merely potencies that are foreign to it, but also the recognition of realities that are inaccessible without the cooperation of other modes of knowing that cannot be found in reason alone. But the modern self defines itself as a rational thinking consciousness, and as the organizing and constitutive center of the subject that can only preserve its predominance and sovereignty by denying all reality that escapes the powers of reason, as well as eliminations from our conception of the subject any element that is not reducible to that function. (9)

At this point we are speaking of an attitude that characterizes our present culture. Stanley Cavell refers to it as scepticism, which means: the intellectual suspicion of a reality that refuses to sbmit to our will, and the denial of intimacy with the world because it is invisible to reason. But we are not referring here to philosophical scepticism only, but also, and perhaps especially, to scepticism as an existential attitude which we see every day — in the various ways in which we transform the world into a more efficient, more manageable, more docile, and user friendly place. For instance, in the growing automatization of our daily life, in the massive production of replicas of everything natural — from the plants and flowers that adorn our offices, to our very food —, in the preference for the mechanical instead of the human, and in the implicit argument in its favor that is fast becoming the social standard in the main cities of the world; in the invasion of our public spaces by TV screens that are eternally ON; in the constant and unstoppable flux of information that forces and overwhelms us through the electronic highways; in the enthusiasm that gives unconditional welcome to the advent of virtual reality, and to the titanic prospects of genetic engineering.

However, I am not referring to the advances themselves, but to the unconsciousness with which we adopt and celebrate them, which seems interested in not stopping for even an instant to allow reflection on their meaning for our world. What is being criticized is not intellectual, nor scientific knowledge per se, not even the advances of technology that it has produced, but instead the polarity and partiality of thinking, and in particular, what I would call the loss of soul that they seem to foster at the cultural as much as the personal level.

In this situation we can understand Wittgenstein's redefinition of philosophy as a cultural therapy that fights that attitude and the exclusivist and autocratic thinking that supports it, attempting to re-animate in us that capacity which has been exiled in our culture, that mode of thinking that I want to call of the soul. For Wittgenstein our identification with the cognitive ego causes a blindness or an insensitivity to those other levels of consciousness that are active in all our practices — and in particular in our linguistic practices — that is tantamount to a denial of our own nature.

By carefully describing the detailed context of our concrete linguistc practices, Wittgenstein gradually outlines what we could call a topography of living experience in which we re-member, re-collect, re-cognize those implict shades and nuances, that invisible net of implicit connections, "[those] great animal movements, [those] numbers of the soul, [those] dark nebulae of life, that reside [...] in the imponderables of the verb", (10) and which are an essential part of our nature. He thus makes possible a different attitude towards life and a deeper awareness of language that are often rejected in our present culture as irrelevant to what we believe — or make ourselves believe — to be our important ends and purposes.

If we are to define our moral attitude consistently with the conception of the subject we have identified in contrast to the exclusively cognitive subject, then philosophy as we have understood it on this ocassions, must reject all inclination to literalism and dogmatism, (11) and renew an attentive and careful attitude as well as a loving receptivity to the concrete case in all its irreducible complexity. For what we seek is not Truth, but to think with [the] soul, and this means: to assume as our essential object of reflection the paradoxical dynamics between reason and vital feeling, between culture and life; to admit the irreducibility of the one to the other as a brute fact, and to recognize as substance of thought and place of devotion their incessant, inevitable and essential tension.

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(1) "Remarks on The Golden Bough", (OF), p. 58.

(2) OF, p. 73; Cf. Lectures and Conversations on Aesthetics, II, § 39-40, pp. 84-5.

(3) OF, p. 78.

(4) OF, p. 83.

(5) All these attempts announce what Wittgenstein will call our "form of life".

(6) Cf. Philosophical Investigations II, iv.

(7) This example is derived form Stanley Cavell's discussions in: "Aesthetic Problems of Modern Philosophy" in: Must We Mean What We Say?, Cambridge University Press, 1969.

(8) Remarks on the Philosophy of Psychology, v.1, § 313

(9) Cf. Marcia Cavell: The Psychoanalytic Mind: From Freud to Philosophy, Harvad University Press, Cambridge, 1993, p. 102.

(10) César Vallejo, in El arte y la revolución, Lima, Mosca Azul Editores, 1973, p. 70

(11) Cf. Philosophical Investigations, II, xii

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