17 August 2006

Explanation Comes To An End + The Knife

A few propositions of On Certainty deal with coming to an end.

The series of propositions starting with 24 begin for the first salvo against sloppy usage. Flying in the face of the-enemy-of-my-enemy-is-my-friend logic, Wittgenstein takes issue against a target of Moore’s. (It’s in response to Moore that Wittgenstein writes On Certainty.) Wittgenstein settles his sights on the idealist—a philosopher of little faith—who doubts whether he actually has two hands. Such a doubt, Wittgenstein says, occurs only in a specific language game (I.24). But one shouldn’t take this view too far. For example, it might seem that calculations are unimpeachable; we’re tempted to say that a rule, such as a formula, guides our actions; and such a rule logically excludes our making a mistake (I.26). Wittgenstein is quick to point out any such rule would contain a caveat, “‘in normal circumstance’” (I.27). The very application of such a disclaimer, limited as it may be, shows Wittgenstein’s emphasis: The primary medium of expression is action, not logic. That is, logic does not prescribe actions to which human life needs must fit. There exists the possibility that a rule, which possess the steel-clad rectitude of a logical form, may run afoul in its application; or in its application, a rule may be subverted or adapted. Take for example the expression “2X + 1”. It would seem that this expression gives us a rule for generating odd numbers. If you were to think that, then you were probably raised in a western culture that takes for granted the teaching of simple algebra to its students. A form of life can be imagined, though, for which the expression “2X + 1” is a rule for generating even numbers or nonsense. Even in a western culture, one’s application of the expression “2X + 1” may not generate a series of odd numbers. If, for example, the expression was given on a math test in a question for which X is supposed to equal infinity. Or the expression could be given as a piece of graffiti on the side of a building. If the building on which the expression was scrawled happened to be a mathematics classroom, would the expression have a different meaning if the building happened to be an English classroom? The meaning of the expression as a piece of graffiti is poorly defined.

The point of the argument is that doubts about meaning and certainty appear and disappear depending on the language game in which they’re employed. For this reason one couldn’t say that a particular expression has a fixed, absolute or sublime meaning. The one thing that runs through all use and meaning is action. Wittgenstein offers a cryptic remark,

What is ‘learning a rule’?—This.
What is ‘making a mistake in applying it’?—This. And what is pointed to here is something indeterminate. (I.28).

that I take to manifest the general meaning of the whole work. There’s a tension in the above quote in that it seems both definitive and absolutely vague. The two things Wittgenstein calls “This” to which rule and mistake point are “indeterminate”. This passage, then, doesn’t seem very illuminating. But the next passage sheds light on it; the overall meaning is about as obscure as a full moon. Wittgenstein says, “Practice in the use of the rule also shews what is a mistake in its employment” (I.29). The critical words are “use” and “employment”. The reason why “This” can’t refer to anything in the text is because it refers to not to another piece of text, but rather to another context. Learning a rule is not a logical process that can be prescribed by something higher. Learning a rule is accomplished in a world of action. The process is something like a child who walks underneath the dining room table. He’s playing with a toy, and his attention is wholly spent on his play. He’s short enough to walk underneath the table, and so he doesn’t even bother looking up as he does it. But one day the child is too tall and he his head smacks soundly against the table’s edge. There is no universal, prescriptive rule for when the child will hit his head. But at some point he will hit his head on the table, and he should have learned a rule; this rule will be different for all children. Thinking that a rule can universally prescribe a course of action is like thinking that this child can tell other children not to walk under tables when they reach 1,500 days old.

To return to calculations, one might be certain that given the expression “2X + 1” she could derive all the odd numbers. But, as Wittgenstein says, “One does not infer how things are from one’s own certainty” (I.30). To think that one’s certainty entails a particular action is to get it all backwards. Rather, certainty is manifested by certain actions. If I saw you look both ways and then run across the street, I wouldn’t have to ask you if you were certain of your being able to avoid traffic. Your actions as good as told me. Likewise, in calculating an expression for deriving odd numbers, one doesn’t infer that she’s correct from her being certain of her calculations. Her certainty is tied to a range of experiences. Among those experiences are her training, education and memory. Wittgenstein says,

If someone is taught to calculate, is he also taught that he can rely on a calculation of his teacher’s? But these explanations must after all sometime come to an end. (I.34)

which begins a reductio ad absurdum argument against trying to entail from certainty a particular way of acting (rather than entailing certainty from a particular way of action): Why are you certain of your calculation? One may respond that she’s read about a particular theorem in her textbook. Why are you certain of the textbook? One may respond that her teacher gave her the textbook, and besides which her teacher told her the same thing. Why are you certain your teacher is correct? One may reply that her teacher went to a fine university and her teacher’s teachers are all regarded well in their fields… Etc. All those things can be said to contribute to one’s certainty. But nothing can justify a priori one’s certainty.

Certainty is something of a dirty affair. It cannot be gotten by reason alone. If it could, then explanations for being certain would not “come to an end”. But this expression seems somewhat vague. For it might seem that the foundation of certainty would be one’s final explanation. It seems, maybe, that the final explanation—and not, as I would have it, action—is the foundation of certainty. But what would this final explanation look like? Would it be something like, “I’m certain because my teacher said so” be the final explanation for one’s certainty over a calculation? This explanation doesn’t seem to carry the finality that one would expect certainty to carry. For the question can always be posed: Why? In language such explanations will never come to an end. The whole history of thought can be pointed to as an explanation of why one is certain of a calculation. But when one acts is the point at which such explanations come to an end. One might be asked why he’s certain a particular bridge will hold the weight of him and his automobile. A swarm of explanations can be given; and they will be given to no great effect. This isn’t to discount modern engineering. But after the engineers have been interrogated and all their explanations exhausted, what’s left? The final vote of certainty is to act. You drive across the bridge. Action is the period that punctuates a final explanation.

In other news

I don't get The Knife, recent indie music blog darlings. I think, maybe, that they're this year's version of Annie. I didn't really get Annie, either. The pop-oriented obsession that the P'fork displays is a little too studied, affected, for me: Small-dicked middle managers driving Corvettes; deeply repressed gays who just seethe with homophobia; dance-phobic indie kids that claim to love Annie, The Knife and whatever the latest Top 40 single (Toxic, Get Ur Freak On, Promiscuous etc.)--they've all got something to hide, and this hidden thing naturally expresses itself in some way. Not to get all Freudian, but aren't there a few doctoral theses waiting to be written about indie's love of pop?? No?