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Language Games

October 12, 2018

Thanks to Alissa Simon, HMU Tutor, for today’s post.

Communication is awfully complicated. How does anyone know, for certain, when they are communicating? For meaning to occur, two parties must have some knowledge in common. Ludwig Wittgenstein wrote many pages about the way that language is structured. Today, I want to investigate his idea of the language game and then apply it to Heidegger’s idea of Being.

According to Wittgenstein, the language game begins with, but does not include, names. He refers to the action of naming as “preparation for description” (329B). That a name for something exists only means that we have a shell of reference. So, I can mention a cat, which will give you a categorical reference devoid of specifics. Once we have assembled some names, we begin a discussion by adding descriptors. Wittgenstein likens this to a chess board. Names are the pieces that we can move around the board, but they are not the game itself. Now that we have these categories, we can begin to communicate about them, describe them, fill them in, move them. Wittgenstein writes, “[A] great deal of stage-setting in the language is presupposed if the mere act of naming is to make sense. And when we speak of someone’s having given a name to pain, what is presupposed is the existence of the grammar of the word ‘pain’’ it shews the post where the new word is stationed” (Philosophical Investigation #257). So, the language game takes concepts and places them within a structure.

The knowledge of concepts, however, is of crucial importance. Wittgenstein continually warns the reader that meaning is not a given. In example after example, Wittgenstein describes how difficult it actually is to make meaning. He writes, “[I]t is difficult to see that what is at issue is the fixing of concepts…. A concept forces itself onto one” (425B). What he intends here, I believe, is that the concept itself has been defined by culture, society, norms, etc. In the chess analogy, the knight’s movement has been defined for you. You can only move it in an ‘L’ shape according to the rules of the game. Say, for example, that your language game intends to discuss the idea of a cat, “cat” will already have an agreed-upon definition. This concept, however, is fixed only in terms of this specific game. Once you exit the game, cat may contain more or less meanings, more or less descriptions. Meaning, then, depends upon the group involved in a single discussion as well as the terminology that the discussion utilizes.

Furthermore, Wittgenstein discusses anomalies, such as mistakes, calculations, guesses, hypotheses, etc. Upon what foundation do we make a mistake? Is it fair to call a lion a cat? Though it fits the category, it may not actually represent the idea or concept driving the speech-act. For instance, if I make the statement: “The cat is cute,” in what sense would lion make sense and in what sense would it not?

Now that we have a basic idea of the language game, we can move from Wittgenstein’s Philosophical Investigations into Heidegger’s “What is Metaphysics?” Near the end of this piece, Heidegger claims:

“Obedient to the voice of Being, thought seeks the Word through which the truth of Being may be expressed. Only when the language of historical man is born of the Word does it ring true. But if it does ring true, then the testimony of the soundless voice of hidden springs lures it ever on. The thought of Being guards the Word and fulfils its function in such guardianship, namely care for the use of language. Out of long-guarded speechlessness and the careful clarification of the field thus cleared, comes the utterance of the thinker. Of like origin is the naming of the poet. But since like is only like insofar as difference allows, and since poetry and thinking are most purely alike in their care of the word, the two things are at the same time at opposite poles in their essence. The thinker utters Being. The poet names what is holy.” (310B)

This passage strikes me as thought-provoking (and complicated) for many reasons. Heidegger mentions a cleared field, which is an important aspect behind his idea of essential Being and Word. This field is, in fact, a Nothing through which we come to understand Being itself. If we think of the cleared field as a field of possibility, we are able to project our Being into it. And then, Being(s) exist because we do. According to Heidegger, this constant process of understanding the world through a removal of everything is the first step in thinking. Heidegger writes, “Being is not a product of thinking. It is more likely that essential thinking is an occurrence of Being” (309A). In other words, once the field is cleared, a Being can focus on a field which allows for contemplation of a thing or things, but not everything simultaneously. He asks that we focus on the Word, meaning a specific idea devoid of self and other baggage. From there, we will find thought.

The final line of his long quote above mentions the difference between a poet and a philosopher. Basically, according to Heidegger, they both work toward the same goal. However, the poet stands at one end of this spectrum while the philosopher at the other. The difference arises in the mode of expression. So, the philosopher seeks a discursive, direct expression of thought, whereas the poet seeks truth through metaphor. In other words, the poet attempts to fully remove Being itself, and focus on the thought, focus on embodiment of the other. In this way, the poet arrives at a similar, but different, idea of the moon (for example), or whatever body you would like. For this reason, Heidegger claims that the philosopher arrives at an understanding of Being, whereas the poet finds what is holy.

Much remains unpacked in this short commentary on Wittgenstein and Heidegger. However, we have arrived at an idea of Being as represented by Heidegger’s very specific terminology. Heidegger is known for co-opting or creating words and phrases for his own purpose, devoid of their everyday meaning. In some cases, these phrases are untranslatable (as we find in the passages regarding Da Sien). That does not mean, however, that nothing can be gained. In fact, I hope this short experiment has granted some window of insight into a discussion of language itself.

*All citations are from the Great Books Anthology number 55, 20th Century Philosophy and Religion, 1990.


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A Hobbesian Philosophy of Technology

August 25, 2017

Thanks to David Seng, HMU doctoral student, for today's post.

One of things I admire most about the Great Authors is how relevant their ideas are to our particular time and place. Sometimes this relevancy shows up in surprising ways. As one who works in the intersection of philosophy and technology I was surprised to see how the ideas of Thomas Hobbes applied to the twenty first century issues of technology and our digital culture.

Hobbes was a keen student of human nature and focused on the fears, greed, and hubris that drive nearly all social arrangements. Interestingly, the same fears and motivations drive humans today as they did in the seventeenth century. In the world of internet communication technologies (ICTs) and as an important cultural phenomenon, social media has demonstrated that Hobbes’s view of human nature has important implications for our time. Further, Hobbes believes that human nature itself is the driving force behind the actions of both individuals and the states (and firms) that are made up of individuals. From a Hobbesian perspective, technology itself, being a social creation, brings with it all the aspects of human nature and provides a kind of technological realism that helps us develop an interesting conceptual scheme for understanding the social and cultural ramifications of technology and social media. Along the way, we’ll discover that Hobbes sets up the concerns that were addressed later by the Great Authors Karl Marx and Martin Heidegger regarding the effects of technology on society.

Hobbes famously described human nature as “brutish, nasty and short”. The idea is that without an all-powerful sovereign to keep society under control, mankind is essentially in a selfish and brutal war of all against all (he calls this humanity’s “natural state of nature”). According to Hobbes, human beings are simply unable to create free consensual governments based on reasonable laws. An all-powerful political force is therefore needed to keep everyone at bay. In order to overcome this fearful state of existence, individuals will create a social contract with the sovereign in exchange for a strong political power that will provide safety, security, and economic prosperity. Finally, according to Hobbes, the sovereign is clearly above the law. While political theorists debate this picture of human nature and reason presented by Hobbes, I think a very significant social element of his thought is overlooked and provides some interesting warnings to those of us living in the information age.

Long before Martin Heidegger became concerned about the impact and effects of technology on our understanding and view of the world, Thomas Hobbes presents and defends the position that human beings are essentially mechanical, material, and computational. Being overcome with the “new method” of his day, Hobbes essentially converts the scientific method into a new metaphysical system and uses the first six chapters of the Leviathan to explain that individuals are elemental parts of the great machine of the commonwealth. In this sense, Hobbes presents an instrumentalist view of human beings. People exist for the purposes of the state. In short, Hobbes gives us a view of human nature that is essentially greedy, brutal, and mechanistic but if harnessed through an all-powerful sovereign, individuals will collectively serve the state.

Perhaps, a response could be made that things have changed so much in the nearly four hundred years since Hobbes wrote the Leviathan that he has no bearing on cultural reality today. After all, we have the internet that has connected people and families across the world, and communication of all kinds is now nearly instantaneous. In the age of information, we have created new and more knowledge and disseminated it in mind-numbing speeds. Through technological advances, humans have discovered treatments and cures for diseases which before were thought to be impossible to address. We even have global capitalism, driven largely by technology firms, which has created more wealth for most of the people on the planet. Has technology, and the corporations that create our devices shaped humanity into a more rational, thoughtful, and compassionate existence?

In the age of ICTs that transcend geo-political realities and cross borders and boundaries in an immediate manner, social media firms have become Hobbesian states. The Hobbesian state is not simply about the structure of governance in monarchies or consensually governed nation states. It now has properties that apply across national boundaries with global, cultural, and social implications. Sadly, consumer capitalism driven by technology firms that make more money than the GDPs of many emerging countries, are not altogether altruistic. Individuals exist for the purposes of social media firms—a Leviathan that collects data from compliant individuals to be bought and sold. Developing markets understand this phenomenon and is the reason why India recently rejected Facebook’s attempt to be the sole internet provider in the region. India (the world’s largest democracy) neither wanted Facebook’s limited and controlled service, nor—worse—the data collection the social media company would conduct upon its citizens. India did not want its citizens to become instruments in digital colonization.

Interestingly and ironically, those of us in the West, happily give up our property (pictures, documents, music, and other digital files), conversations, and privacy rights to the all-powerful Leviathan of social media firms or various internet service providers. As Hobbes explains it:

"I authorise and give up my right of governing myself to this man, or to this assembly of men, on this condition; that thou give up thy right to him, and authorize all his actions in like manner. This done, the multitude so united in one person is called a Commonwealth; in Latin, Civitas. This is the generation of that great Leviathan, or rather, to speak more reverently, of that mortal god to which we owe, under the immortal God, our peace and defence" (italics in original).

When it comes to social media firms, we seem to give up our rights to our own vital information, privacy, and property in exchange for very little. We may think that the tradeoff is of no consequence, that giving up our most valued information to the mortal god of a social media firm is harmless. However, when users accept the terms of service for a social media account they are immediately mined for their consumer data by eCommerce firms and surveilled by the government. What are users getting in return? Google, Facebook, and Twitter (just to name a few) are famous for changing and discontinuing services at will, leaving the user with no legal recourse. Like Hobbes’s sovereign, social media firms can create the rules and stand above them. From a Hobbesian perspective, social media firms and those that make them up will always act in their own interests

So what can we learn from this Hobbesian state of social media? It is important to remember that Hobbes emphasized one side of human nature to the exclusion of the rationality, creativity, and compassion of the human spirit. Human beings always carry over into their technology and social institutions the most vexing traits of the human condition itself. The fact is, our social and technological efforts are always a mixture of good and evil. That is why, sadly, whatever humans create for good can also be used in the most malicious ways. We should always carefully and rationally think through the claims of digital utopians who state that certain technologies are “good”. We must consider what the “good” is at hand and whether or not that which is new is better. In addition, the instrumentalist view of humans first seen in Hobbes and developed ever since in the West is the source of alienation pointed out by Karl Marx. In his Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844, Marx describes the alienation of the instrumentalist view of human nature as it applies to work and the effects of technology on society. Marx and Heidegger continue this discussion set up by Hobbes and these Great Authors set the tone and issues we struggle with today. Finally, we must seek a balance between the positive and negative sides of technology. While technology can bring about many good and useful things, we must keep a vigilant eye on the Hobbesian and dehumanizing aspects of society that create our technology.

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