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Customer Review

on 6 April 2010
This book is really only useful for lecturers offering a course on Wittgenstein and looking for a book that neatly exhibits a number of misconceptions about his work that can be used for the purpose of discussion in class to clarify what Wittgenstein actually did say.

The book aims to sketch Wittgenstein's early and later philosophies, and then offer an evaluation of them. In what follows, for reasons of space and what I consider to be the most important aspect of Wittgenstein's work, I will only review Grayling's engagement with Wittgenstein's later philosophy. My review will focus exclusively on the criticisms Grayling makes of Wittgenstein in his evaluation of the later philosophy. These concern Wittgenstein's account of meaning in terms of use, the methodological claim that philosophy does not consist of proffering theories or theses about its subject of investigation, and the claim that language (as opposed to empirical, fact-stating claims made in language) cannot be justified by reference to a language independent reality, viz, the remark that grammar is autonomous.

The first criticism Grayling makes is of Wittgenstein's account of meaning in terms of use. Grayling gives two examples which he considers refute Wittgenstein's account. First, he claims that someone can know that the Latin word 'jejunus' means hungry but not know how to use the word. Second, conversely, a person may know how to use 'Amen' and 'QED' without knowing their meanings. These two examples are meant to show that Wittgenstein is wrong to give an account of meaning in terms of use.

These criticisms are not cogent. Firstly, Wittgenstein does not equate meaning and use, but expressly acknowledges that use is broader ("not every use is a meaning" - Last Writings in the Philosophical Psychology, volume 1, remark 289). He would therefore happily acknowledge that there are aspects to the use of words that have no bearing on their meaning, for instance, where I use a word effectively, insolently, or musingly. Secondly, none of these examples (jejunus, Amen and QED) suffice to refute Wittgenstein's account. In the case of the person who learns that the Latin word 'jejunus' means hungry, but is not able to use the word in Latin, that person must nevertheless be able to use the word 'hungry' in English in order to properly grasp the meaning of the word in Latin. He knows what 'hungry' means, and this is why he is able to know what 'jejunus' means. And his knowledge of what 'hungry' means is manifested in his capacity to use the word correctly in English, as well as in his capacity to explain the word correctly to others. In short, it is only because he has mastered the use of 'hungry' in English - he does not, for instance, use the word to indicate that he needs a drink and where others would use the word 'thirsty' - that he is able to understand the meaning of 'jejunus' in Latin. His ability to know the meaning of the Latin word is therefore parasitic on his ability to know the meaning of, and hence use, its equivalent in his native tongue.

In the case of 'Amen' and 'QED', these examples have a ritualistic use, so it is possible to use them correctly without knowing their meaning. We know, for example, that 'Amen' is used at the end of a prayers, and so we can do likewise when we pray. It is therefore no accident that Grayling should choose these examples. Would Grayling say the same thing, however, of 'dog', 'retina', 'supercilious' or 'understanding'? I think not. If I look up the word 'dog' in a dictionary, I find it's meaning. But I haven't grasped its meaning if I apply it to hummingbirds. Similarly, if I look up 'supercilious' and start using it where other people use 'superficial', this is good evidence for concluding that I think that 'supercilious' means 'superficial' and that I therefore do not understand - and hence know - the meaning of the word. Using the word correctly is a criterion for whether I understand the word, that is, for whether I know its meaning. It is for this reason that Wittgenstein highlights the conceptual connections between meaning, understanding and explanation. If you want to know what meaning is, he says, then a good place to start is to look at what we do when we explain the meaning of a word to someone. Instead of asking what meaning is, let's ask what an explanation of meaning is. Once you understand what an explanation of meaning is, you will understand what meaning is. For meaning is what is explained when someone gives an explanation of meaning (if there were theses in philosophy, everyone would agree with them).

The second criticism Grayling makes is of Wittgenstein's claim not be offering philosophical theses. Famously, Wittgenstein claimed that if there were theses in philosophy, everyone would agree with them. Elsewhere, he insisted that philosophy has nothing to do with having opinions about things. At first glance, these claims seem to be naïve, since there is so much disagreement among philosophers. However, the statement is made in the context of Wittgenstein's methodological reflections about the nature of philosophy as he is practising it and, in particular, in the context of a discussion of how philosophy, as an enterprise, differs from science. In philosophy, one is concerned not with factual but with conceptual explanations: "What is time?" and "what is meaning?", for example, reflect an unclarity about our concepts of time or of meaning and are not capable of being answered by scientific investigations. Some of the puzzlement can be removed by reminding ourselves, for example, that time is what is measured by a clock. In the case of meaning, we can remove our puzzlement by reminding ourselves that meaning is what is explained when someone gives an explanation of meaning, and then go on to look at what someone's understanding the explanation of the meaning consists in - how we tell when someone understands the meaning of a word - to shed further light on the question. These questions led Wittgenstein to clarify meaning in terms of rule-following: we know someone understands a word when he can use it correctly, that is, makes his own linguistic practice with that word conform to its rule-governed use. As can be seen, these quasi-tautologous explanations (time is what is measured by a clock, meaning is what is given by someone's explanation of meaning) are hardly controversial - hence the claim that if there were theses in philosophy, everyone would agree with them - yet they do shed light on a domain of inquiry that has consistently generated puzzlement, by opening up further domains of inquiry to which they are conceptually linked (meaning, understanding, rule-following). Further, until someone (i.e. Wittgenstein) points these apparent trivialities out, they are not obvious. No one before Wittgenstein had thought to approach the puzzle of meaning by looking at what is given by an explanation of meaning.

The next step after reminding ourselves of some of important trivialities, is to look around for the source of our puzzlement. Augustine's puzzlement concerning time stemmed from his adoption of a picture of time as a river. In other cases, it may be that the use of a substantive makes us look for a substance that corresponds to it. None of these claims, however, are meant to be controversial (for instance, if Augustine did not acknowledge that he was picturing time as a river, then the search for the source of the puzzlement would not be over). It is here that the analogy with psychoanalysis is important, because the criterion for whether the source of the puzzlement is correctly identified is the person's acknowledgement that a given candidate is the source of their puzzlement. This is another sense in which Wittgenstein is not proffering a thesis - there is no holding onto it in the face of recalcitrant evidence. It is immediately abandoned if it is not acknowledged as the source of someone's puzzlement.

The claim not to be in the business of offering theories in philosophy does not prevent Wittgenstein from giving an account of meaning. That account, however, is a description of concepts, not empirical phenomena, and the aim is to give a perspicuous overview of the relations between a number of concepts in order to resolve puzzlement about some of the concepts in question. In the case of meaning, Wittgenstein did this by exhibiting the connection between meaning and understanding and the following of rules. To that extent, the investigation is conceptual, not factual and so differs from scientific inquiry. In this sense, there are no (scientific) theses/theories in philosophy. In making his criticism, Grayling appears to have missed this dimension of Wittgenstein's philosophy entirely, which, given its centrality to Wittgenstein's later philosophy, is a serious defect in Grayling's evaluation.

The third criticism Grayling makes - of Wittgenstein's remark that language (as opposed to claims made in language, the fact-stating language game, for example) cannot be justified by reference to reality - is puzzling. Wittgenstein's claim is that concepts, unlike statements of fact, are not the bearers of truth, and so cannot be said to be true or false. Statements of fact presuppose the concepts deployed in them. Grayling does not understand Wittgenstein's claim in this way at all. At one point he attributes to Wittgenstein a linguistic version of Berkelean idealism, by claiming that Wittgenstein held "reality is not, as he had thought in the Tractatus, independent of language and thought". He then has an easy time of retorting "if we accept some such view we are obliged to explain what appears to us, in our ordinary experience of it, to be the independent character of the world. Why, if there isn't a genuinely independent world constraining the way we act, think, and talk, does it seem as if there were one?" (p 117). To attribute to Wittgenstein such a claim is astonishing, and anyone familiar with the discussion of solipsism in the Blue and Brown Books, his discussion of Russell's scepticism (the world may have been created 5 minutes ago, complete with records of the past) in the Cambridge lectures, and his discussion of philosophical scepticism in On Certainty, will know that it is ludicrous to attribute this view to Wittgenstein, so much so that it is not worth belabouring the point here, other than to say that, in attributing this claim to Wittgenstein as a claim that Wittgenstein consciously made, Grayling has not demonstrated sufficient familiarity with Wittgenstein's texts and a sufficient standard of exegesis to justify the opportunity he has been afforded to contribute to this otherwise excellent series of introductions.
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