Wednesday, February 10, 2021

Six rounds with Wittgenstein (part 1)

Charles Sheeler, Flower Forms (1917)*

Not long ago, the incomparable Taras T. showed me a couple of critical essays he wrote about Scott McCloud, which drew from the Philosophical Investigations (1953) of Ludwig Wittgenstein.¹ The very day after he recommended I read the book for myself, a coworker happened to mention Wittgenstein in conversation, and I asked him if he had a copy of Philosophical Investigations he'd be willing to lend me for a while.

And so now here we are.

Until now I've known next to nothing about Wittgenstein or his work. I seem to recall Apostolos Doxiadis portraying him as a temperamental clown in his graphic novel Logicomix (2008), and the impression I got from any number of times Wittgenstein's name fizzed up out of the ether is of a polarizing figure. Depending on who you ask, he's either the most important philosopher of the twentieth century or a pompous hack.

Come to think of it, these propositions are not mutually exclusive.

I don't know quite how I feel about Philosophical Investigations, and I have a hunch it was a bad introduction to Wittgenstein's work. The book isn't a treatise, but a mass of notes and remarks on several different themes compiled into a volume. Wittgenstein makes no effort to systematize his ideas (and in fact disdains systematization), and isn't half as focused a critical philosopher here as, say, David Hume is in An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding (1748). There are kernels of marvelous insight, but between them is a lot of dross. Often I get the sense Wittgenstein gets his jollies from being deliberately obscure (if not obtuse), and then sometimes I have to wonder if he's playing the role of a Socrates who understands more than he lets on and feigns ignorance as a method of challenging his audience to reassess and rethink their assumptions. I'm never sure how generous I should be in interpreting a given remark.

A few lines in the preface may be adduced as evidence for the "Socrates" interpretation:

I make [this book] public with doubtful feelings. It is not impossible that it should fall to the lot of this work, in its poverty and in the darkness of this time, to bring light into one brain or another——but, of course, it is not likely.

I should not like my writing to spare other people the trouble of thinking. But, if possible, to stimulate someone to thoughts of his own.

I should have liked to produce a good book. This has not come about, but the time is past in which I could improve it.

Maybe it's out of sympathy for a writer who failed to realize an intended project, but I'd like to give Wittgenstein the benefit of the doubt and treat his book not so much as as a philosophical text in itself, but more like a collection of prompts for intellectual exercise.

I'll warn you in advance to expect swaths of texts about Skinnerian behaviorism. This is par for the course around here, sure, but when reviewing this particular book of Wittgenstein's, it can't be avoided. His questions and observations about cognition and language routine skirt the anti-dualistic, anti-reductionist position from which behaviorism proceeds, and yet he makes a point of disavowing behaviorism:

307. "Are you not really a behaviourist in disguise? Aren't you at bottom saying that everything except human behavior is a fiction?"——If I do speak of a fiction, then it is of a grammatical fiction.

308. How does the philosophical problem about mental processes and states and about behaviourism arise?——The first step is the one that altogether escapes notice. We talk of processes and states and leave their nature undecided. Sometime perhaps we shall know more about them——we think. But that is just what commits us to a particular way of looking at the matter. For we have a definite concept of what it means to learn to know a process better. (The decisive movement in the conjuring trick has been made, and it was the very one that we thought quite innocent.)——And now the analogy which was to make us understand our thoughts falls to pieces. So we have to deny the yet uncomprehended process in the yet unexplored medium. And now it looks as if we had denied mental processes. And naturally we don't want to deny them.

To be fair, he was writing at a time when John B. Watson still presided over the field, and about a decade before the rise of Skinnerian "radical behaviorism," which integrated thought and emotion into its universe of discourse (after undergoing translation into physicalist terms). But given the frequency with which Wittgenstein courts a behavioristic standpoint, only to slink away out of an apparent fear of commitment, I don't feel I'm being too unduly impertinent when I criticize him for deliberately missing what's right in front of his face. (This was, after all, a person who quit philosophy for a decade after claiming to have resolved its every quandary with the publication of his first book. I think he can stand to have his nose rubbed in what he failed to anticipate.)

Two last notes: last year I finished reading BF Skinner's epochal Verbal Behavior (1957) just before picking up Kant's Critique of Pure Reason (1781–7), and I didn't give myself the time or opportunity to write much about it, or to stress test its ideas by applying them to other topics. Philosophical Investigations provided a perfect occasion to pull Verbal Behavior back off the shelf, reread some of my notes, and see how well Skinner's ideas about language serve to complement or correct Wittgenstein's.

The short answer is "pretty well." The long answer is that I've noticed some obscurities and tangles in Verbal Behavior, and have begun reading Stephen Hayes, Dermot Barnes-Holmes, and Bryan Roche's Relational Frame Theory: A Post-Skinnerian Account of Human Language and Cognition (2001) to see if modern research and scholarship building upon Skinner's theories has made any progress in fixing some of the glitches. The answer seems to be yes, though I haven't even gotten past the point of acquainting myself with relational frame theory's basic tenets and terms. The reason I mention this is because many of my responses to Wittgenstein (many of which were composed before I began reading Relational Frame Theory) employ Skinnerian terms that I might see fit to discard if relational frame theory holds up to its promise—and also to point out that I'm not a dogmatist (or don't believe myself to be one, at least). There's little reason to hold any one intellect or body of ideas as sacred and exempt from revision.

With that being said, let's get down to it. As you might have noticed from the title, I've split what ended up being an unreasonably large post into six segments in an effort to make this thing more digestible. I'll post the next five in the days ahead.

Charles Sheeler, Star (1955)

7. ...I shall call the whole, consisting of language and the actions into which it is woven, "the language-game."

I've cut out most of the remark for brevity and clarity, since it much of it refers to earlier remarks. (Curiously, the early pages treating language games is the section of Philosophical Investigations that most seems like a complete and integrated text; I'd guess they represent the rudiments of an attempt at one.)

Most of the rest of this post was composed in advance; I'm adding this at the last minute just to say one thing about Wittgenstein's language games. This is another of those topics about which somebody could write an entire dissertation, so I'll limit my own remarks to just this: I believe the reason Wittgenstein's language games seem so exciting to readers is that for most of them, this is the first time they've been made to consider language in functional terms rather than structurally. And it's undoubtedly why I was underwhelmed here: since I'd already read Verbal Behavior, the idea that the "meaning" of language is bound up in the actual contexts of human activity in which it is used didn't exactly come as a revelation, and Wittgenstein's considerations of the matter are exceedingly sparse compared to Skinner's.

19. It is easy to imagine a language consisting only of orders and reports in battle.——Or a language consisting only of questions and expressions for answering yes and no. And innumerable others.——And to imagine a language means to imagine a form of life.

Taras cited the final sentence in one of his essays, and it was what made me prioritize reading Philosophical Investigations over cracking open my copy of Pascal's Pensées (1670). It's a brilliant insight, absolutely true, and deserves many, many pages of unpacking and elaboration.

Unfortunately, it set my expectations for the rest of the book a little too high.

66. Consider for example the proceedings that we call "games". I mean board-games, card-games, ball-games, Olympic games, and so on. What is common to them all?——Don't say: "There must be something common, or they would not be called 'games'"——but look and see whether there is something common to all.——For if you look at them you will not see something that is common to all, but similarities, relationships, and a whole series of them at that. To repeat: don't think, but look!——Look for example at board-games, with their multifarious relationships. Now pass to card-games; here you find many correspondences with the first group, but many common features drop out, and others appear....

69. How should we explain to someone what a game is? I imagine that we should describe games to him, and we might add: "This and similar things are called 'games'". And do we know any more about it ourselves? Is it only other people whom we cannot tell exactly what a game is?——But this is not ignorance. We do not know the boundaries because none have been drawn....

75. What does it mean to know what a game is? What does it mean, to know it and not be able to say it? Is this knowledge somehow equivalent to an unformulated definition? So that if it were formulated I should then be able to recognize it as the expression of my knowledge? Isn't my knowledge, my concept of a game, completely expressed in the explanations that I could give? That is, in my describing examples of various kinds of game; shewing how all sorts of other games could be constructed on the analogy of these; saying that I should scarcely include this or this among games; and so on.

Let's try to answer en masse the questions posed here. (What is a game? What does it mean to know what a game is? And so on.)

The behaviorist might frame a reply in terms of stimulus generalization, stimulus induction, tact extension, and community control. The first two terms probably read as jargon and may need some explanation.

Stimulus generalization and induction both presuppose stimulus discrimination. For instance, we might follow Skinner in training a hungry pigeon to press a button by rewarding it with food whenever it does so. Once it has learned to do so, we replace the feeding apparatus with a single button with one that has three: a blue button, a green button, and a red button. We set up our device such that food is only released when the red button is depressed. We would observe the pigeon always (or almost always) pecking at the red button and disregarding the other two. (We might also arrange to have it receive a mild electrical shock whenever it depresses a button that isn't red—though this is typically only useful for the refinement and maintenance of behavior that has already been acquired.)

In the first case, the presentation of a button became a discriminative stimulus. Later on, the discrimination was narrowed to a red button. This happens all the time outside of the laboratory: any bird that lands on a bird feeder and every racoon that knocks over your trash can is demonstrating operant discrimination (provided it isn't the first and only occasion a given bird or raccoon has been reinforced for visiting a feeder or going into a trash can).

We'll let Skinner himself introduce stimulus induction and generalization (from Science and Human Behavior (1953)):

Once we have brought behavior under the control of a given stimulus, we frequently find that certain other stimuli are also effective. If a pigeon has been conditioned to peck a red spot on the wall of the experimental chamber, the response will also be evoked, though not with the same frequency, by an orange or even a yellow spot. The property of redness is important, but not exclusively so. Spots of different shapes or sizes, or spots against different colors of background, also may be effective. To evaluate the full extent of the change brought about through reinforcement, we need to survey the effects of a large number of stimuli. The spread of the effect to other stimuli is called generalization or induction. The process suggests that a discrete stimulus is as arbitrary a notion as a discrete operant. The "identical elements" of a response have their parallels in the values or properties of a stimulus which are separately effective. If we reinforce a response to a round, red spot one square inch in area, a yellow spot of the same size and shape will be effective because of the common properties of size and shape; a square, red spot of the same area will be effective because of is color and size; and a round, red spot half a square inch in area will be effective because of the common properties of color and shape.

For the most part, Skinner uses "generalization" and "induction" interchangeably, but some of the later literature seems to make a very fine distinction between the two.

Moving on: tact extension is a facet of verbal behavior stemming from stimulus induction. Once again, we'll let Skinner define the tact:

A tact may be defined as a verbal operant in which a response of given form is evoked (or at least strengthened) by a particular object or event or property of an object or event. We account for the strength by showing that in the presence of the object or event a response of that form is characteristically reinforced in a given verbal community.

In the traditional classifications of language, "running" and "person" are two different kinds of words. "Run" is a verb, "running" may be an adjective, and "person" is a noun. In a Skinnerian treatment, all three are tacts.

Extension is a facet of verbal behavior related to stimulus generalization. The extended tact occurs when an unfamiliar object or event elicits a conditioned verbal response to an object or event with similar properties (or a similar property). The threshold of unfamiliarity is a steep and somewhat ambiguous one: extension does not occur when we come across a chair we've never seen before and call it a chair. It does occur when a small child sees somebody sitting on an exercise ball at their desk and calls it a chair. (Tact extension becomes increasingly rare as the individual attains fluency in a language.)

This should prompt the question "what is a chair?" We're getting ahead of ourselves, but Skinner gives us a clue:

The property which makes a novel stimulus effective may be the property upon which reinforcements supplied by the community are contingent. This "generic extension" is illustrated when a speaker calls a new kind of chair a chair. The property responsible for the extension of the response from one instance to another is the property which determines the reinforcing practice of the community. Since it is also the important property for the listener upon a novel occasion, the extended response is acceptable and useful.

If the extended response is itself reinforced, as is likely, the stimulus is henceforth no longer wholly novel, and a second instance need not exemplify generic extension. The stimulus class has been enlarged, however, and further extension facilitated. In this manner we eventually come to respond chair to a very large number of objects. To discover the "essence" of chair, we should have to examine the actual contingencies of reinforcement in a given community.

(Would Wittgenstein agree with that last point? Probably. He said as much in 19, though in somewhat less precise terms.)

At any rate, the extended tact—say, seeing a beaver for the first time and saying "groundhog"—is no different in principle from what happens when Skinner's pigeon pecks at an orange spot on the wall. But the consequences are important: if there are two or three people next to you when you call the beaver a groundhog don't correct you, or if they also start calling it a groundhog, we would no longer qualify the tact "groundhog" as extended. Stimulus induction has occurred and been reinforced; where this miniature verbal community is concerned, there is now reason why we would not call "groundhog" an appropriate response to the visual stimulus of a big, brown, pudgy rodent. Correcting them would essentially consist an appeal to the authority of the much larger verbal community of which they are members—a community that says "groundhog" is wrong and "beaver" is right.²

A more elaborate example:

Imagine you're on an international flight that has to be grounded because of bad weather. You've got a layover at the international airport of an impoverished and comically backwards nation called Turduckistan, a former Soviet republic. (Yes, I know I'm being culturally chauvinistic. I'll make fun of Americans later on, I promise.) You enter the airport lounge, which is full of morose business-class travelers, Turdickistani nationals wearing babushkas and ushankas, and chickens pecking at the ground. In the middle of the room stands an enormous machine made of cast-iron. It shakes and rattles like a washing machine, and ejects steam through three pipe rising from its top. It's sort of an oblong spheroid in shape, and from one of the ends corresponding to its major axis extends a rectangular protuberance. On its face is a square screen, about ten by ten inches, and three men in cossack hats cluster in front of it. The image they're squinting at seems to be of a man sitting at a desk with a piece of paper in his hand; his attitude is consistent with that of somebody reading a public announcement, like a newscaster.

"Television," you might say (or think—which we'd call a covert, private, or subvocal verbal response) with some hesitation. An extended tact has occurred. The response "television" was elicited by some aspect of the bundle of stimuli consistent with those occasions during which you've said the word "television" and were reinforced for doing so.

For a child learning to speak, reinforcement occurs when its parents or caretakers praise it for pointing to it and saying "telebsion" "or "tee bee." Barring some refinements—for instance, consistently correcting the child for saying "telebision" instead of "television"—the behavior acquired will last most of the child's lifetime, given the ubiquity of television sets, the frequency with which they're relevant to themselves and to anyone who might be listening, and the likelihood that the words "television" and "TV" won't be deemed offensive or antiquated. The adult, on the other hand, receives reinforcement simply for the practical effects of communication, and for, we might say, making sense to himself.³ 

Regarding the last point, we might roughly state that the subvocal response "television" will be strengthened every time its emission serves to orient or facilitate whatever else you're in the middle of doing. You think: "Where did I leave my magazine? Oh, on the chair by the...television." In casual language, we might say that the usage is becoming "more natural."

Now imagine you're speaking to somebody else in the lounge and the object comes up in conversation. You call it a "television" to another American traveler, and she responds in a way consistent with what we'd call comprehension. This, as we've already seen, reinforces the tact "television."  

A few minutes later, you speak to a Canadian who's been to Turduckistan before and is familiar with its customs and institutions. You call the object a "television" and he rolls his eyes.

"That's not a television," he corrects you. "It's a flight board, and they're listening to an air traffic controller giving updates on flight delays. You stupid American."

A thoroughgoing treatment of the social processes through which such a stimulus in such a context becomes a conditioned negative reinforcer is, once again, far beyond the scope of a couple of paragraphs in a blog post. Let's take for granted that the Canadian's reply constitutes an aversive consequence to a conditioned response. (Weakly conditioned, we might say, given how recently it began to occur.) What happens afterward depends on how personally you take the insult and how much you trust the Canadian's statement (to phrase both factors in casual terms).⁴ A probable immediate consequence is the verbal response "television" will be superseded by the verbal response "flight board" with regard to the object in the center of the room. Future occasions in which "flight board" is reinforced and "television" is punished (perhaps automatically, by virtue of your dual capacity as speaker and listener) will maintain the strength of the "correct" term and weaken the strength of the "incorrect" term, possibly until its probability of occurrence is effectively extinguished.

Now: let's talk about games.

Just as in the case of the groundhog beaver and the television flight board, the verbal community (or, perhaps, a verbal community) is the ultimate arbiter of what is or isn't a game, and of what properties and/or contexts may constitute the occasions in which the verbal response "game" will be (1) reinforced through the consequences of performing an effective act of communication and (2) not be punished, corrected, and/or frowned upon. The etymology and historical usage of "game" is really an investigation into behavior, and to contingencies of reinforcement on a mass scale.

To put it simply: a game is anything that people won't look at you funny for calling a game. You know what a "game" is when you're able to consistently use the word "game" without having a listener ask what the hell you're talking about. There is no way of conveying what is essentially "game-ness" without describing many different types of games. So: Wittgenstein's remarks in 66 and 69 are correct. However, he defers from extrapolating anything definite from these observations, and just goes on giving more examples of nebulous relations between words to referents.

This is my main source of frustration when I read Philosophical Investigations: Wittgenstein raises questions that he has no interest in trying to answer, and gives the impression of believing that an explanatory framework, even a pragmatic one, isn't worth his or anyone else's effort to construct. 

Let's assume that anything we might call a "game" shares some property or set of properties in common with everything else called a "game." For that to be true, our language would have to be far more precise than it really is—which is the inconsistency Wittgenstein to which Wittgenstein wants to draw our attention. Whatever meanings we propose for "game," whatever definitions we extrapolate from the things we call "games," and whatever inconsistencies and exceptions we invariably discover therein, have far less to do with the events or things called "games" than with the people who watch, play, and talk about games. 

Noting that games are "amusing," "entertaining," "exciting," etc., brings us no closer to identifying any particular property or properties controlling the tact "game." The vagaries of internal stimuli typically ensure that the "experience" of an activity is less relevant than its topography to a community's practices of shaping and maintaining relevant verbal behavior. We lack an adequate vocabulary to describe, for example, the different shades "fun-ness" experienced while playing a board game and playing a sport. Most of what we can say about one in distinguishing it from the other will beat about the issue by describing concurrent physical states (sedentary pleasure as opposed to the pleasure of bodily exertion) or surface features (i.e., the rules of play which essentially establish contingencies of reinforcement in the context of that game). Otherwise we might turn to a highly technical and neoteric vocabulary—a few words of which might leak out into the "mainstream" (most of which would be synonymous with existing terms), but ultimately won't provide us with a lexicon of private experience on which we can rely to categorize one game from the other on the basis of its "flavor" of amusement.

The contingencies under which "game" (or any functional analogs in the languages from which English is derived) attained currency and subsequently came to refer (through a gradual process of extension) to a diversity of occasions after the invention and proliferation of new kinds of "game-activities" (there's a glaring circularity here, to be sure) are inaccessible to us. A complete examination of the present-day contingencies under which people are trained to call this or that or these occasion(s) or object(s) "games," and through which the bounds of the word's usage are maintained, would, in theory, require exhaustive data on everybody who uses the word "game" and every occasion in which it is used. As Wittgenstein says, a language is integrated with a way of life, and a way of life is made up of the welter of millions of people living their lives and influencing everybody with whom come into contact. We must approach language with a qualified agnosticism—qualified in the sense that we can observe, describe, and attempt to account for broader patterns and the processes which determine their forms in terms of the ways in which verbal behavior is shaped up on the level of the individual, even though a comprehensive understanding will always be above our horizon.⁵ 

Along these lines, I can offer one bit of speculation: that the "impractical" nature of games may have had some role in providing for the promiscuity with which the word "game" is used. It is hard to imagine any typical situation in which a misunderstanding involving the phrase "he's playing a game with his friends" could have costly or dangerous consequences if the listener assumes he's playing a board game while he is in fact playing four square. Historically, the ubiquity and benignity of unconstructive leisure activities would have precluded any urgency to narrow the occasions acceptable to be called "games."⁶ (The aphorism "necessity is the mother of invention" applied to language before it applied to technology.)

We might discover a rule-proving exception in "sports" and its usage. Doubtlessly basketball would still be exclusively called a "game" (as the game "horse," played with a basketball and a hoop, still is) if the NBA weren't an entrenched institution that generates billions of dollars in revenue, and if its participants didn't enjoy a large measure of social clout. Over the past few years we've seen the spectacle of broadcasted video game matches between highly talented and intensively trained people competing for tremendous rewards referred to by promotors, vendors, participants, etc. as "e-sports" instead of "professional video-gaming." The implication is that the controlling property of "sports," for many speakers, isn't merely the athleticism involved in a competitive spectacle, but the social prestige and legitimacy recognized in such events. (The possible implications for "game" and its usage are easy to infer.)

To sum up: there is no physical property or private sensation in whose delineation we can discover the "essence" of games. Wittgenstein recognizes this, but doesn't go much farther than to point out the bare facts of the word's lability and the difficulty of devising a definition of "game" that includes every kind of game without exception.

We'll close with one last excerpt from Skinner, and suggest that you try substituting "pyramidality" with "games" in the second indented paragraph.

A predilection for things sometimes leads to absurd consequences in the search for defining properties. We try to assemble a set of properties in order to compose a thing. Professor I. A. Richards considers a particularly good example in his Principles of Literary Criticism. The quotation is from G. W. Mackail’s Lectures on Poetry.

Poetry, like life, is one thing....Essentially a continuous substance or energy, poetry is historically a connected movement, a series of successive integrated manifestations. Each poet, from Homer or the predecessors of Homer to our own day, has been, to some degree and at some point, the voice of the movement and energy of poetry; in him, poetry has for the moment become visible, audible, incarnate; and his extant poems are the record left of that partial and transitory incarnation.…The progress of poetry, with its vast power and exalted function, is immortal.

The central theme of this passage is apparently the present point. What is the referent of the abstract tact poetry? Professor Mackail appears to be arguing that it is something that is never quite present in any one stimulus presentation yet characteristic of a long succession of stimuli. But since poetry is a noun, he concludes that poetry must be a thing. A single property is too evanescent. And so word is piled upon word to prove that poetry is both substantial (substance, energy, movement, power, visible, audible) and enduring (continuous, successive, integrated, immortal). We might try to substantialize the referent of pyramidal in the same way:

Pyramidality, like life, is one thing....Essentially a continuous substance or energy, pyramidality is historically a connected movement, a series of successive integrated manifestations. Each builder of pyramids, from Cheops or the predecessors of Cheops to our own day, has been, to some degree and at some point, the voice of the movement and energy of pyramidality; in him, pyramidality has for the moment become visible, audible, incarnate; and the extant pyramids are the record left of that partial and transitory incarnation.…The progress of pyramidality, with its vast power and exalted function, is immortal.

Absurd as this may seem, it is not an unfair example of the reification of entities to correspond with abstract terms.

* Precisionism and organism.

1. I'd recommend checking out Taras's TisTree comics. I hope both him and you will forgive me for plugging it with a meme:

2. I suppose we'll have to assume that they simply don't know what a beaver is, or otherwise haven't gotten close enough to any of their "groundhogs" to notice the distinguishing tail or see them in the water.

3. Every speaker is also a listener, and automatically reinforces and punishes himself. Notice how you react when hear yourself committing a "slip of the tongue" and saying the incorrect word for something or messing up somebody's name. A more pointed case might be found in the event where the socially progressive individual finds himself saying (or on the verge of saying) a slur when somebody of a particular group makes him angry. (From The Boondocks: "oh come on,—ncompoop!")

4. Once again, the "two vocabularies" problem rears its head. Rigorous behavioristic descriptions of what happens when one "takes a remark personally" and "trusts what somebody tells them" would be abstruse even in a glancing treatment, and possibly hundreds of pages if a particular case is being described (since the complete history of the individual is brought to bear on the event). The reductionist everyday description is simply easier to convey and, for most usual intents and purposes, is perfectly adequate to explain what's happening.

5. The effectiveness of advertising should be taken as evidence that "laws" of behavior and language on both the micro- and macro scales can be extrapolated, formulated, and acted upon practically; otherwise, marketers and propagandists wouldn't have so much success in exploiting them.

6. I mean "unconstructive" in the rough sense that their reinforcing effects do not depend on rewards or punishments external to the context of the "game" activities themselves. One doesn't play Minesweeper because he will be reinforced with money, food, sex, etc. for doing so; nor will he play solitaire all evening for any stated purpose of self-improvement.*

*Another difficulty with behaviorism is that any activity that is not immediately rewarded with a primary reinforcer must take into account how the conditioned reinforcer came to be conditioned unless it does not want to be accused of fudging facts. Activities oriented toward self-improvement are an example: spending twenty minutes lifting weights alone in one's living is not immediately reinforcing in and of itself, and requires some conditioned reinforcer(s) of social provenance to maintain the behavior. 

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