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A Theory of Moral Objectivity (Section 4e - Wittgenstein)

By Robert M. Ellis, originally written as a Ph.D. thesis 'A Buddhist theory of moral objectivity' in 2001. This html version copyright 2008.

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4e)      Wittgenstein

i)                    Grammatical scientism


I shall now turn back to the more fundamental philosophical preoccupations of the earlier part of the last section to consider the possible claim that analytic philosophy has been transformed out of its scientistic assumptions by Wittgenstein. That Wittgenstein has had a huge impact on analytic philosophy (and beyond it), and that in some ways this impact has been positive, cannot be disputed. However, I shall argue that in most respects he represents merely another, yet more sophisticated, twist in the arguments of scientism, nihilism and dualism in which the fundamental assumptions remain unchanged. The kind of scientism which he represents (and indeed, created) is one which I shall call “grammatical scientism”.


Some fundamental scientistic features are evident throughout Wittgenstein’s career. In the earlier Tractatus as much as in his later work, he draws a clear distinction between what can be meaningfully described and what cannot, and thus continues in the spirit of the logical positivist offensive against metaphysics. For this reason, like the logical positivists, he applies what he takes to be a clear philosophical method to assert that knowledge is entirely distinct from ethics, and hence that ethics is beyond the scope of meaningful discussion. Like the earlier analytic philosophers, then, he supports convention through the appeal to a particular form of philosophical analysis which excludes any justifiable ethical challenge.


In some ways Wittgenstein also consistently illustrates (both philosophically and psychologically) the unholy alliance between eternalism and nihilism which I have already noted as a feature of Hare’s ethics and as an outcome of liberal neutrality. He approaches what he takes to be the ineffable nature of ethics and religion not, like Ayer, in a tone of dismissal, but with a sense of awe and reverence. As he wrote in the Tractatus: “There are, indeed, things which cannot be put into words. They make themselves manifest. They are what is mystical”[1]. This sense of awe even turns, in his Lecture on Ethics, into a metaphor of danger reflecting something like the ancient Israelites’ fear of immediate death if they were to touch a holy object[2]: “…if a man could write a book on Ethics which really was a book on Ethics, this book would, with an explosion, destroy all the other books in the world”[3]. For Wittgenstein ethics is purely a matter of feeling, not because it is trivial, but because it is so profound.


This discontinuity between ethics and reason is also evident in Wittgenstein’s character. He seems to have been filled with a sense of constant discontent in which it seems he felt an absolute demand was being made on him which could not be fulfilled in any relative setting. He apparently hated all compromise, social convention or artificiality. His strength of character and dominating presence were legendary, but this often expressed itself as arrogance, impatience, harshness and offensiveness. At other times he could be kind, loyal, and childishly playful. Much of the time he was depressed. He wandered restlessly from place to place, unable either to fully engage in academic life or to fully renounce it[4]. All of this suggests a person for whom a strong sense of ineffable duty remained in conflict with a highly rational ego, and an intuition at odds with a philosophical intensity which was in many respects a torment to him. So long as his thought was unable to overcome the discontinuity between ethics and reason, he remained an unintegrated being, with that lack of integration all the more striking because of the man’s power. This tormentedness gives Wittgenstein’s character a Romantic appeal, but this appeal in itself shows the ways in which he embodies the contradictions in the dominant ideology of his age. Whatever Wittgenstein’s intuitions about the absolute, his conviction of its absolute discontinuity from his role as a philosopher seems to have decisively prevented him from achieving much personal happiness.


Even if in some fundamental assumptions of his philosophy as well as in his character Wittgenstein offers us more of a type of dualism which should already be familiar, the way in which he did so, particularly in his later work, is nevertheless strikingly original in its context. The knowledge to which Wittgenstein appeals to apply the fact-value distinction is neither a priori logical knowledge nor inductive knowledge, but rather the “grammar” or linguistic conventions which provide meaning for language. He aims merely to point out inconsistencies in our use of this grammar, and in this sense he claims that the goal of philosophy is a therapeutic one, consisting in the elimination of philosophical problems so as to “give philosophy peace”[5]. In this sense he resembles the classical sceptics, as Robert Fogelin points out[6]: philosophy is a ladder we can throw away after climbing it (Wittgenstein[7]), or a purgative that expels itself (Sextus Empiricus). As for the Classical Sceptics, a purely critical and unsystematic approach suffices because the aim is to cure oneself of philosophy, not to reach an independent truth.


But for this reason Wittgenstein’s approach offers similar weaknesses to those of the Classical Sceptics which I noted in discussing them above. No philosophical approach, even one which works only on the basis of piecemeal criticism, can do without assumptions, and if those assumptions involve a complete renunciation of universal claims then they will rely instead on conventional ones. Like the Classical Sceptics, then, Wittgenstein ended up supporting the conventional values found in his environment by default, and these values in his case were scientistic ones. He served these scientistic values, however, by adopting a different method from that of his predecessors, avoiding the attempt to use logical analysis to purify language to a pure factual descriptivity. He could hardly avoid being involved in the scientistic myth of neutrality, but his supposedly neutral instrument was the description of grammar alone, which he believed to be the proper task of philosophy. “Philosophy may in no way interfere with the actual use of language; it can in the end only describe it….It leaves everything as it is”[8].


Wittgenstein’s philosophical method is thus to confront imaginary interlocutors with a greater awareness of the intuitive grasp of concepts (i.e. “grammar”) they already possess, in order to bring greater coherence to this use of concepts and dissolve the philosophical problems which he believes to be created purely by conceptual entanglements. These entanglements are revealed by the exposition of “depth grammar” to avoid the deceptions of “surface grammar”[9]. The appeal is hence to Wittgenstein’s grasp of “depth grammar” which is understood through “perspicuous representations[10]. In doing this Wittgenstein naturally has to assume the value of dissolving philosophical problems and the value of the ensuing coherence, as well as believing that his method of analysis will actually produce these effects. “Depth grammar” and “perspicuous representations” thus fulfil much the same role for Wittgenstein that a priori analysis plays for the positivist.


In some respects Wittgenstein does succeed here, as his rational method identifies narrow egoistic identifications which take the form of conceptual confusions. These confusions are often ones found in earlier forms of scientism as well as in eternalism: the tendency to substantivise entities because they take the form of nouns in sentences[11], the requirement for rational determinacy in describing objects that are indeterminate[12], the inappropriate application of the Law of the Excluded Middle to objects on the edge of our normal discourse[13], the use of very general statements beyond their proper sphere of applicability[14]. In these sorts of examples Wittgenstein sees a “deep-rooted need to thrust against the limits of language[15], which in the terms of my argument so far can be seen as the projection by the ego of reality onto its own rational constructions, together with the egoistic drive to extend the domain of the ego by extending that of language. In this sense Wittgenstein’s approach can be helpful in making clear the limits of reason. But when the illusions have been cleared, we are merely left with a different rational account based instead on the assumptions found in Wittgenstein’s “perspicuous representations”: on relativism, conventionalism, coherentism and the discontinuity of universal values. It is not clear whether Wittgenstein’s therapy has had any beneficial effect on the patient, because the coherence it has produced is no greater than that of the conventions which surround her, and there is no standard available to judge that coherence against other conventions.


The limitations of Wittgenstein’s assumptions are particularly evident in two areas which I shall examine in more detail in the remainder of this section. These are his theory of meaning in general, and the application of this theory of meaning in his argument against private language. His theory of meaning is the entire basis of Wittgenstein’s later philosophy, including his arguments against Scepticism: I shall argue in this area that, despite his questioning of some fundamental aspects of traditional representationalism, Wittgenstein nevertheless maintains a different version of it and fails to achieve a consistent pragmatism because of his scientistic and rationalistic assumptions. Similarly in the Private Language Argument, I shall argue that Wittgenstein falls victim to one of the errors which he often attacks: that of elevating a metaphor to an absolute basis of knowledge. In the course of this discussion I shall also be attempting to undermine the Wittgensteinian foundations of a likely argument against non-dualism which attacks its psychological assumptions.

ii)                  Theory of meaning


It is well known that Wittgenstein rejects one of the central assumptions of representationalism: that language has meaning because of an isomorphism between representation and reality. He rejects both realism which claims that there is an independent reality to represent, and psychologism of the Humean kind which claims that there are representations which gain their meaning from the process of representing experience alone. Instead, meaning is dependent on entirely conventional and public criteria. This approach in Wittgenstein’s later work represents an important shift from that of the Tractatus, where the meaning of language is still derived from reality itself, and this meaning can be understood more clearly through an atomistic analysis in which the isomorphism becomes clear.


However, the extent of the shift should not be exaggerated, given that Wittgenstein’s view of the nature and function of philosophy remains fairly steady throughout[16]. As Hacker writes:

“Although the change runs deep, it is instructive to conceive of it as a transformation rather than a substitution….In the Tractatus the structure of language or thought provided the insight into the structure of reality. In the Investigations the structure of language is still the subject of investigation. Moreover it is still isomorphic with the structure of reality, not because language must mirror the logical form of the universe, but because the apparent ‘structure of reality’ is merely the shadow of grammar.”[17]


In Wittgenstein’s later work our understanding of “reality” is shown to be restricted to the conceptual categories of our language, but nevertheless the meaning of our language depends on its representational relationship to this apparent reality. The conventional “language game” in which we are operating provides criteria for the correct use of language, and within that sphere Wittgenstein applies what appears to be a pragmatic understanding of meaning as use. But Wittgenstein does not apply this understanding unequivocally as a definition of meaning, suggesting that it is only appropriate “for a large class of cases – though not for all”[18]. Apart from his characteristic resistance to over-generalisation, Wittgenstein’s equivocation here may be due to the way in which he conceived this pragmatism as framed and limited by representational contexts. A language-game is a set of rules for the use of language, but these rules are dependent on a set of representational assumptions which circumscribe its scope. Wittgenstein recognises the presence of such “presuppositions” about the world in each language-game, even though he thinks they are merely assumed in each language-game and are not part of it[19].


Wittgenstein’s theory of meaning is thus often interpreted in pragmatic terms, but it is not consistently pragmatic because of remaining representationalist assumptions which are usually expressed negatively. These representationalist assumptions are part of his general conception of philosophy as concerned only with a sphere of things that can be meaningfully discussed. This distinction (which shadows Hume’s fact-value distinction) relies on the representationalist framework whereby “facts” consist in language which can be related to representations and “values” do not. The “facts” within a language-game are constructed ones, but this does not prevent meaningful language from being limited to the sphere of that construction for Wittgenstein in the same way that, for verificationists like Ayer, it was limited to the sphere of  representations of empirical reality. That for Wittgenstein these “facts” could not be meaningfully discussed without trying to overstep the proper bounds of language, is, I contend, an instance of his dogmatism rather than that these assumptions are inevitable or that they cannot be meaningfully discussed.


If Wittgenstein had a genuinely pragmatic account of meaning we could expect a rather different account of what is meaningful and/or meaningless. To begin with we would not expect any such dichotomy to be imposed, for the belief that language gains its meaning from use implies that meaning is prior to language and thus may not always be limited to the sphere of language. If meaning is not limited by language, then there is no dichotomy between meaning and meaninglessness, merely degrees of meaningfulness. And if language is the slave of meaning, rather than the other way round, then there can also be language with degrees of meaningfulness rather than clearly meaningful or meaningless language. Such incrementality, however, requires also that we drop the attempt to provide a purely rational account of meaning and appreciate that its emotional component is inseparable from its rational component, for any purely rational account of meaning will introduce determinate criteria. The gates of the citadel of the ego will clang shut again and the walls will bristle with arms poised to repel the rejected barbarians.


Wittgenstein was honest enough to recognise the inescapability of indeterminacy, but this did not prevent him from making determinate judgements. He claimed that the vague boundaries of language-games are no impediment to the sense they provide, and that in any case no absolutely exact boundaries are possible[20]. Consistently, this realisation leads to the sorites problem: if there are no exact boundaries then there are no boundaries, for we do not know where a vague boundary begins and ends or that it does not incorporate everything on either side of it. Owing to his anti-Scepticism, however, Wittgenstein would reject this argument. Wittgenstein’s theory of meaning (at least insofar as it determinately rejects “meaninglessness”) thus stands or falls with his anti-Sceptical arguments.


Wittgenstein’s argument against Scepticism, however, presupposes a rejection of language which attempts to go beyond language-games. In On Certainty he claims that doubt can only be meaningful given the possibility of certainty, and that certainty is a function of language-games. Sceptical doubts thus cannot meaningfully go beyond the language-game which they take as their starting-point.

The idealist’s question would be something like: “What right have I not to doubt the existence of my hands”….But someone who asks such a question is overlooking the fact that a doubt about existence only works in a language-game. Hence, we should first have to ask: what would such a doubt be like?…[21]  

Part of Wittgenstein’s objection here is justified, since he is pointing to the way in which Sceptical arguments can serve a dogmatic purpose because of their indefeasibility. The appeal to defeasibility seems to have been an important part of Wittgenstein’s anti-Sceptical arguments, since a language-game provides the terms in which defeasibility can be understood. Hacker expresses this in terms of what he calls “The Principle of Natural Epistemic Justice” whereby “a criterially-grounded belief is innocent until proved guilty”[22]. However, the appeal to defeasibility can cut both ways. Wittgenstein’s argument that meaning is limited to language-games can itself be seen as indefeasible, since it will not accept any terms of meaning beyond those which it itself specifies. It shares this characteristic with all other beliefs, since if we apply absolute rational criteria no belief is defeasible, though in relative terms in can be defeated in terms of the criteria we adopt for its possible defeat. Defeasibility, like falsification, can thus only serve as a useful criterion within the sphere of a language-game: it cannot be used to delineate boundaries for it. Since both Wittgenstein’s anti-Sceptical argument and the Sceptical argument against him can be seen as indefeasible, there is no determinate conclusion to the debate as long as we stick to such purely cognitive grounds of argument.


“The Principle of Natural Epistemic Justice” perhaps provides the key to seeing the dogmatic aspects of Wittgenstein’s claims. Hacker would doubtless see the use of the term justice as “merely” metaphorical, but it nevertheless reveals what amounts to a principle of cosmic justice: we should regard beliefs as innocent until proved guilty because in this way we can construct certainty. It is as though we were owed certainty and therefore should step forth to claim it by making this assumption; or perhaps that through making this assumption, maintaining our faith in the intrinsic cognitive structure of the universe, we somehow earn certainty. This is only “natural” if one already begins with scientistic assumptions of a type which go back to Aristotle, and there seems no reason why we should adopt this position beyond wishful thinking.


But Wittgenstein has also usefully illuminated the dogmatic aspect of the Sceptic’s case. To assume that beliefs are guilty until proved innocent is just as dogmatic as the converse. Neither extreme is defeasible. Rather, the two types of assumption reflect different emphases: we need to assume beliefs are innocent in order to act, but we need to assume beliefs are guilty in order to open our beliefs and weaken the boundaries of the ego. Language-games naturally reflect the requirements of action, and a purely practical concern whereby the ego identifies strongly with particular purposes: from this standpoint anything beyond the current sphere of concern of the ego appears meaningless. From the reflective or Sceptical standpoint, however, the idea of doubts reaching beyond the current sphere of concern is meaningful, even if the meaning is of a thin and attenuated kind. This meaningfulness can only be denied on the assumption, found through most Western philosophy, that the ego is identical to the psyche, with its implication that meaning should only be understood in cognitive terms. If we deny this assumption, it does not mean the denial of cognitive meaning within its own sphere, but only the recognition that meaning exists beyond it and that the standpoints of action and reflection need to be recognised as mutually dependent.


Wittgenstein’s view and mine are here each indefeasible in each other’s terms (and I shall be dealing in the next subsection with the grounds on which Wittgenstein would probably reject my psychological assumptions), so some other grounds need to be offered for the rejection of Wittgenstein’s linguistic idealism. One of these might be that it is incompatible with our experience of growth, whereby one kind of cognitive model gradually gives way to another which would earlier have been unimaginable. Thomas Nagel provides an interesting development of this argument in the form of his simile of the nine-year olds[23]. He imagines that there are people living with us who have a permanent mental age of nine and thus “constitutionally lack the capacity to conceive of some of the things that others know about”. If we could imagine such people living with us, we could also imagine them living without us, or our analogous position to higher beings who can conceive things that we cannot. A speculative nine-year-old, he then argues, could suggest that there are things about the world which they are incapable of understanding, which we as adults would know to be significant. An idealist nine-year-old who denied the meaningfulness of such speculations would also be wrong. This analogy can then be transposed to our relationship with putative higher beings.


For Nagel the central point illustrated by such an analogy is that of the significance of the negative complement of a concept, which I have already discussed[24]. For a Wittgensteinian the fact that ideas extending beyond a language-game are necessarily negative, reflecting only what is inconceivable within that language-game, is evidently enough to claim that they lack sense. Negative statements of this kind do not have representational significance because they do not fit within the purposes for which the representation was made. But we require a broader understanding of meaning in order to account for the evolution of representations even within the experience of most adults, as Nagel’s analogy makes clear.


This point becomes even clearer if we adopt Lakoff’s pragmatic understanding of meaning as I have already introduced it[25]. For Lakoff our sense of the meaningfulness of representations relies on the relationships of metaphorical projection these representations have with our basic preconceptual structures. A language-game consists of just such a metaphor, which we need to accept by the process of relating it to our basic-level aesthetic and kinaesthetic categories to provide a framework within which we can act. As Wittgenstein pointed out, this is primarily a socially-constructed framework within which the meaning of language is pragmatically determined. But that pragmatic determination of meaning depends on a prior acceptance of the metaphor on which it rests: a metaphor which determines not only cognitive meanings but a coherence of desires and beliefs which are shared by those participating in the same language-game. On Lakoff’s account, we do have a pre-conceptual sense of meaning prior to the acceptance of a representation, a point which makes that metaphor a movable projective one rather than an inescapable conceptual scheme. Wittgenstein’s rejection of the meaning of language reaching beyond a language-game can hence be seen as the mistaking of a metaphor which helps to shape a set of beliefs for the grounding of meaning itself.


But the refutation of Wittgenstein’s linguistic idealism in the end depends neither on the success of Lakoff’s alternative theory of meaning nor on Nagel’s argument, since neither of these will make any impression on those who will only accept Wittgensteinian terms of discussion. The ego is always able to construct a rationally coherent view, the indefeasibility of which in relation to experience is part of its basic survival mechanism. The choice between a non-dualist view which is indefeasible in egoistic terms and a dualist view which is indefeasible in non-dualist terms is simply one of comparative degrees of openness, which is a comparison of associated psychological states rather than rational positions. A non-dualist view looks outward to development beyond its current limitations, whilst a dualist view looks inward. An emotional link needs to be made with this sense of openness to make the difficult leap (which the non-dualist must make, not once, but again and again) from a narrower conceptual scheme to a more open one.


iii)                Private language


Another area in which Wittgenstein’s scientism and representationalism come to light is in the “Private Language Argument”. This is a particular application of Wittgenstein’s distinction between meaningful and meaningless language, in which it is claimed that private language is meaningless because it lacks the criteria of meaning provided by a language-game. By “private language” is meant a language invented by an individual to label sensations which only he has access to, not the application of public language to private sensations[26].


Wittgenstein’s target here is all those philosophies which assume that solipsism is a coherent idea, and thus either adopt it directly or adopt a realist or idealist strategy in response to it. Whilst an idealist relies directly on solipsistic premises, a realist assumes a correspondence between individual sensations and reality, so that in both cases experience is understood in terms of sensations independently of concepts, the concepts being dependent on the sensations and justified by them[27]. If sensations can be understood independently of concepts, in Wittgenstein’s judgement such an understanding would imply the possibility of a private language.


At the crucial point of the argument Wittgenstein puts forward the hypothetical case of  the recording of the sign “S” to mark a certain sensation. The sensation is related to the sign by a focussing of the attention on the sensation alone. But, Wittgenstein writes, “…in the present case I have no criterion of correctness. One would like to say: whatever is going to seem right to me is right. And that only means that here we can’t talk about ‘right’”[28]. This lack of a criterion of rightness is not just due to the danger of being wrong, but to the impossibility of distinguishing whether one was wrong or not. The appeal is thus to a particular case of indefeasibility: he has already  claimed that defeasibility is a criterion for meaning as well as for belief[29], and the claim is now that individual sensations do not create defeasible concepts.


I have already argued in the previous subsection that whilst defeasibility may be a criterion for the (cognitive) meaning of language within language-games, the limitation on meaning according to this criterion is itself indefeasible. According to this argument, then, we might experience private sensations as meaningful even if we attached no sign (or no sign with any aspiration to consistency) to them. Wittgenstein might not deny this so long as this private meaningfulness was understood in affective terms alone, and not in terms of cognitive concepts, as it was no part of his intention to reduce inner experience or deny its reality, but he would object to any attempt to remove his neat dichotomy between affective and cognitive meaning or attribute any of the features of one to the other, whereby a sensation by itself is “a something about which nothing could be said”[30].


It is in the sphere of private language, however, that the affective and the cognitive most evidently cross over in a way which indicates the incrementality of meaning most strongly. If, as in Wittgenstein’s example, I focus my attention on a sensation, it thereby becomes highly meaningful to me in an affective sense, even if the relationship of that meaning to the meaning of language becomes attenuated in a way that Wittgenstein evidently found unsatisfactory. Even if it is true that I can’t sustain a consistency of relationship between sign and sensation, I feel it to be meaningful at that moment when I label it. Similarly, if I am listening to some routine piece of  bureaucratic language, like the safety instructions at the beginning of an air journey, the words may be publicly meaningful, and I may listen to them to some extent, but have so little emotional connection with them that even the cognitive impression of the words is minimal. Wittgenstein attempted to deal with the impact of the affective on meaning by apparently suggesting that, although it seems to be directly associated with language, it is perlocutionary rather than illocutionary[31]: but this is just another way of describing an imposed distinction which has already been assumed, since it is only representationalism which in any case distinguishes the effect of language itself from the effect achieved through producing it. Why should we want to apply a strict boundary between cognitive and affective types of meaning at this or any other point, when our experience is of a complex interrelationship?


To make the possibility of  an incremental account of meaning clear, however, it will be necessary to suggest an alternative model, and before doing this it will be necessary to point out some of Wittgenstein’s unnecessary assumptions. If Wittgenstein’s purpose was to attack solipsism, he nevertheless (or perhaps consequently) operated on a model of self and consciousness inherited from the very theories he appears to be attacking. The distinction between “private” and “public” suggests a contrast between two models of application of language criteria: on the one hand the lone self in its world of sensations inaccessible to others, and on the other an articulate and critical set of distinct individuals, each of which constantly checks up on the use of language of the others to make sure it conforms to the rules of the language-game. But the real complexity of experience often presents quite a different pattern: within the mind of one conventionally-defined “individual” there are many voices which may be critical of one another. The ego does not identify consistently only with one voice, as others force their way into consciousness and take their turn as identifications shift and previous desires are rejected. On the other hand, the world “external” to an individual does not necessarily offer a critical environment: perhaps most people would react strongly to breaches of linguistic rules interfering with communication at a basic level, but the more subtle aspects of use go unnoticed except among those who devote careful attention to such issues. The critical voice which regulates an individual’s use of language may come not so much directly from others as from that individual’s idea of what they would approve of: a sort of linguistic conscience or superego.


Many of the features of “internal” and “external” experience thus appear to merge indeterminately into one another, with the features of one being mirrored in the other. Yet, although Wittgenstein rejects the metaphysics of realism and idealism, he continues to apply them here in the assumption that there are features of inner or outer worlds each of which are unique to it and do not extend from one domain into the other. He appears to fall victim to the kind of error against which he often protests: that of taking a metaphor too seriously. In this case the metaphor is that of the opposed pair, internality and externality. Whilst Wittgenstein takes the internality of the mental to be a metaphor[32], he assumes that the converse, the externality of the physical, is non-metaphorical. Since in this case the metaphor consists in a distinction between a pair of words that are logically dependent on each other, one cannot see one as metaphorical without admitting that the other is also: or rather that the distinction between them is a metaphorical distinction. The illusion seems to spring here from the idea of a neutral, non-metaphorical position from which grammar could be described.


But still it may be objected that the idea of the “public” domain is not a metaphor, but rather a necessary assumption in providing an account of the meaning of language. This will carry weight so long as a non-incremental representational understanding of the meaning of language is adhered to, so that it is not considered that an account of meaning could be given which incorporates both cognitive and affective features. I will therefore try to provide a sketch of such an account.


This must begin by providing a criterion for meaning which can be applied incrementally across the boundary between public and private, and is not simply dependent on that boundary to structure its account of what is meaningful. Such a criterion can be provided in the notion of a breadth of experience. Where our understanding of meaning is predominantly representational, breadth of experience is the extent of experience of the correlation between sign and experience which is likely to give rise to corrective voices enabling a true or false correlation to be identified as such. The meaningfulness of a sign thus depends on the breadth of experience with which it is associated. My single experience of a sensation S does indeed not provide me with much breadth of experience enabling me to re-identify it, but the degree of attention with which I focus on it may make a difference. A number of private sensations of S may provide me with greater breadth of experience with which to correctly re-identify it, operating consistent conventions as to what constitutes S and what does not, and clarifying the boundary by classifying borderline cases on consistent identifications of sensation. In this case the operation of a “private” language may become consistently meaningful to me: indeed increasingly a matter of unconscious habit rather than conscious effort.


But clearly breadth of experience in this sense is more usually gained in a “public” social context, because the benefit of others’ experience, differing greatly from ones own, can be immediately applied in the form not only of direct correction but of the modelling of correct use of language. The conventions applied will be those of usage within a particular language-game, and not merely those of consistency within an individual’s experience. The breadth of experience applied will generally be much greater, and the “rules” therefore generally clearer.


The notion of breadth of experience can also be applied to the sphere of affective meaningfulness, as the greater ones experience (not only quantitatively but qualitatively in terms of attention), the greater ones engagement with language, the richer its connotations and the more sophisticated ones understanding of its denotations. In some cases the function served by language will be primarily expressive (e.g. in a poem or an emotionally charged conversation), in others primarily representational (e.g. in a scientific report), in others primarily functional (e.g. on a building site), but in any of these cases the meaningfulness of the language will be in proportion to the length and the concentration of experience applied to it. A baby’s cry may be expressive of intense affect and little or no representation, and be as (or more) meaningful, both to her and to those who understand it, as the intense representation of a scientist who tries to eliminate all traces of subjectivity from his language. Perhaps the experience of the new-born baby is comparable in some respects to that of the private linguist: it has one experience which it “signifies” with one sign, but at that point it covers everything and is subject to no linguistic standards. As such we can really only understand it as expressive. Yet no parent who hears it is likely to agree with Wittgenstein that it is meaningless. On the contrary, throughout our lives we struggle to regain the unified sense of meaning found in early infancy[33].


“Breadth of experience”, then, is a criterion of meaning which can cover both representational and expressivist ways of understanding meaning, by uniting them under a general functional requirement we can apply to all types of communication. Our breadth of experience, derived either from the attention with which we survey phenomena in order to correlate them with signs, or from the prior experience of applying them consistently, or from a combination of the two, creates meaningfulness in proportion to it.


More positive development of this non-dualist theory of meaning will follow in 5.c.i. But at this point I shall just mention a few other advantages (apart from avoidance of the public/private and representational/expressive dichotomies that I have already discussed) of this sort of approach to meaning over Wittgenstein’s. Firstly, it makes no clear distinction between language and other sorts of expression, such as the visual arts or music. Our sense of the “meaning” of an abstract painting or a Beethoven string quartet, though not representational, can be understood in this way, and its degree of meaningfulness understood in terms of the breadth of experience applied to it. Secondly, it can apply equally to the experience of the communicator as to that of the recipient: the degree of meaning in each case may vary due to affective causes as well as cognitive ones. Thirdly, it allows a clearer continuous relationship to emerge between desire, meaning and belief whereby each depends in some measure on the others. In chapter five I shall be attempting to explain how integration of desire, degree of meaningfulness of communication and objectivity of belief can all be understood in analogous terms according to a continuous, incremental, psychological model. I shall maintain that it is only in these terms that the discontinuity of ethics with which Wittgenstein confronts us can be overcome.


Wittgenstein would plainly not accept a psychological model of explanation for meaning because he assumed that the meaning of psychological terms must be understood synchronically prior to the diachronic explanation of psychological phenomena. This, however, is just another version of Hume’s conviction that criteria of belief must be established prior to those of causation, restated in semantic rather than epistemological terms[34]. It seems no more unquestionably true that we should completely clarify the conventions according to which psychological terms are used prior to using them than that no such clarification should take place. Rather the semantic conventions we apply should evolve as we apply them to phenomena in a fashion parallel to that of the hypothesis and application to experience which occurs in scientific method. The limitations of Wittgenstein’s thought seem to indicate the limitations of his method: one cannot correct the use of language according to any criteria of  correctness separate from the functional, diachronic process according to which we use language to both describe and evaluate phenomena. The result of straining to do so in accordance with “perspicuous representations” beyond a point of psychological balance is the imposition of dogmatic assumptions which impede the heuristic process by which we could come to use psychological terms more precisely by understanding psychological phenomena more fully. More particularly it shuts out ways in which diachronic investigation (doubtless based on the use of terms which are not absolutely grammatically precise) might illuminate the synchronic understanding of grammatical conventions.


[1] Wittgenstein (1961) § 6.522

[2] E.g. Exodus 19:12 & 19:21

[3] Wittgenstein (1965) p.7

[4] See Malcolm (1958)

[5] Wittgenstein (1967) §133

[6] Fogelin (1987) p.226-234

[7] Wittgenstein (1961) §6.54

[8] Wittgenstein (1967) §124

[9] ibid. §664

[10] ibid. §122

[11] Hacker (1972) p.129-130

[12] ibid. p.295-6

[13] Wittgenstein (1967) §352, 356

[14] Hacker (1972) p.134-5

[15] ibid. p.134

[16] As Hacker writes (ibid. p.86): “The conception of philosophy remained relatively constant; the conception of language altered profoundly.”

[17] ibid. p.145

[18] Wittgenstein (1967) §43

[19] ibid. p.179-180

[20] ibid. §71,88

[21] Wittgenstein (1969) §24

[22] Hacker (1972) p.303

[23] Nagel (1986) p.95-7

[24] See 2.c.iv above

[25] See 2.c.iii above

[26] I leave aside Wittgenstein’s much less clear treatment of this area, which, as Hacker argues quite effectively, is separable from the private language argument. See Hacker (1972) ch.9.

[27] Hacker (1972) p.216-7

[28] Wittgenstein (1967) §258

[29] ibid. §241-2

[30] ibid. §304

[31] ibid. §543-6: “Words are also deeds” particularly suggests an interpretation in this passage as making a perlocutionary/illocutionary distinction, but it may alternatively be offering a more straightforward dualistic opposition between representation and expression such as that assumed more clearly in §582.

[32] See Hacker (1972) p.132-3

[33] On the notion of integration and disintegration of meaning, see 5.c.ii & iii

[34] see 4.c.iii above


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A Theory of Moral Objectivity: quick links to other sections


1. introduction

2a. Psychology of belief

2b. Heuristic process

2c. Psychology & philosophy

3ab. Eternalism

3cd. Plato

3e. Stoicism

3f. Christianity

3g. Kant

3h. Hegel

3i. Marx

3j. Schopenhauer

3kl. Utilitarianism

4a. Nihilism

4b. Scepticism & Aristotle

4c. Hume

4d. Analytic Philosophy

4e. Wittgenstein

4f. Pragmatism

4g. Nietzsche

4hi. Existentialists

5. Integration

6. Philosophical Problems

7. Normativity

8. Middle Way Ethics

9. Conclusion

10. Appendix



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