Posts Tagged ‘Duck-rabbit’

Some Thoughts About Different Approaches to Pragmatism (pt. 2)

October 15, 2012

The Nietzschean pragmatism is based on this will-to-power; it gives me my goals, and then those goals create the structures by which I construct my reality.  In contrast, the Wittgensteinian approach eliminates this psychological theory, but keeps the idea that the categories by which we construct reality are themselves the creations of human goals and practices.  In Wittgenstein’s philosophy, all language evolves from human practices.  “True” words are those that make sense within a particular practice, in that they allow a person to achieve a goal or communicate/coordinate with others.  In Philosophical Investigations, he presents a very simple example as a thought experiment.  Suppose a group of people were building.  If I want a large, flat rock, I call out “Slab!”  and everyone knows what I want.  If I get the sort of rock I need, that is all the “truth” I need.  So the “language-game” necessary for this simple practice needs a few words such as “slab,” “pillar,” and perhaps a few other basic shapes, together with some prepositions (Slab here!  Pillar there!).  Wittgenstein hypothesizes that all language arises as part of this sort of language-game, where we learn certain words to convey what we mean in order to interact together.  Some of these words may spring from purely private experiences, such as pain.  Strictly speaking, I don’t know if you feel the same thing I feel when I sprain my ankle.  However, when you see me roll around on the ground with tears streaming from my eyes and profanity streaming from my mouth, you act as if you understand.  You ask, “Where does it hurt?” and I tell you or point, you bandage or do something like that, and it reduces my pain.  Taken together, this is “pain behavior,” some instinctual and involuntary and some socially structured; and “pain language” is part of this overall activity.  We don’t know whether we feel the same things, but we know we both act the same ways and respond to the same sorts of assistance, so we both call what we feel “pain.”

Instead of concepts, then, Wittgenstein is more inclined to speak of “language-games” and “the grammar” of an activity.  What are the words used by people who engage in a particular activity, and what are the rules whereby they use those words?  How well do they understand and coordinate with one another?  Some may engage in different language-games, and experience reality differently than others.  And the words, concepts and grammar that one employs can structure how one experiences reality.  To illustrate this, Wittgenstein presents this example:

 

What is this?  You might say, “It’s a rabbit; see its long ears and the little mouth?” I might say, “It’s a duck; see its bill?”  Depending how you look at it, it could be either.  It is a duck-rabbit.  If you had no word for “duck” and had never seen one, you would only see the rabbit; and likewise, if you’d never seen a rabbit you’d have no idea that this duck might be anything else.  The concept you employ shapes your experience; and you cannot see both simultaneously.[1]  You probably are able to switch between seeing it as one or the other animal; if one is particularly close-minded, one might be unable to see it as the other at all.              Like Kant, both Nietzsche and Wittgenstein are interested in how we use our concepts to construct our world.  We filter our reality through our concepts.  Unlike Kant, both these philosophers see our concepts as rooted in our language, not in universal human concepts.  Nietzsche sees our concepts as themselves rooted in the will to power; Wittgenstein largely moots inner psychological considerations and focuses on shared human activities and behavior.  Nietzsche is more deductive; his theory flows from his conception of will, which of course is largely invisible.  Wittgenstein’s theory seeks to be more observational and inductive.

James shares elements of both of these philosophers.  Like Nietzsche, William James was an early pioneer in psychology, and based much of his philosophy on psychological theories and concerns.  Like Wittgenstein, James was more inclined to look to observation, and less judgmental of the different options others might choose.

It is clear that the European pragmatism of both Nietzsche and Wittgenstein, as different as they are in many ways, do have at least one thing in common:  they both follow Kant’s “Copernican Revolution.”  Both Nietzsche and Wittgenstein agree that the object of knowledge must conform to the structure of knowledge, rather than knowledge being determined by the object.  The mind creates useful categories, concepts and connections that serve pragmatic purposes; it then shapes its world and the objects of experience according to those categories.  For Nietzsche, these purposes flow from individual psychological needs, and are (or ought to be) the tools of personal projects.  For Wittgenstein, concepts flow from human activities and the need of humans to communicate with one another; therefore, there are no private concepts.  But whether the concepts are the spawn of individual projects or social projects, both agree that concepts are created by human interests and activity and are “true” insofar as they are useful.  The actual world is little more than the raw material to be shaped by human concepts, interests and projects, and is not really an object of philosophical consideration at all.  How does the American pragmatism of William James compare to these?

To be continued…..


[1] The closest you can come (which I don’t recall Wittgenstein mentioning) is that if you’re a student of Wittgenstein you might see a figure like this and identify it as neither one of those, but as a “duck-rabbit.” When I see it I see an ambiguous figure.  I think I experience this figure as a figure and must make a slight effort to see it as either animal in particular.  That is, I have three concepts and structure the experience in three different ways.