Sunday, March 21, 2021

Six Rounds with Wittgenstein (Part 6)

Max Ernst, Compendium of the History
of the Universe

Whoops. I was having so much fun earning a wage and having a panic attack over a glitch in the cover text of The Reunion that went completely undetected for months that I forgot to post the final entry to this series. So: final comments on Wittgenstein's Philosophical Investigations (1953):

579. This feeling of confidence. How is this manifested in behavior?

How is it manifested otherwise? It's a safe bet that someone who spends most of his day lying in bed and staring at the wall wouldn't report feeling very confident.

Confidence is not a cause of behavior, but a product of it.

591. Am I to say that any one who has an intention has an experience of tending towards something? That there are particular experiences of 'tending'?'——Remember this case: if one urgently wants to make some remark, some objection, in a discussion, it often happens that one opens one's mouth, draws a breath and holds it; if one then decides to let the objection go, one lets the breath out. The experience of this process is evidently the experience of veering towards saying something. Anyone who observes me will know that I wanted to say something and then thought better of it. In this situation, that is.——In a different one he would not so interpret my behavior, however characteristic of the intention to speak it may be in the present situation. And is there any reason for assuming that this same experience could not occur in some quite different situation——in which it has nothing to do with any 'tending'?

In this case it's probably no more than a quirk of the translation, but terms like "tending" or "tends to" should be regarded with suspicion. A tendency is a longitudinal description, not an explanation. Skinner wrote critically of Freudian psychologists who fall into circular reasoning involving the concept of "instinct." One might state that a "death instinct" is responsible for a patient's self-destructive behavior. How do we know the death instinct exists? Because people tend towards self-destructive behavior. Why do they do so? Because of the death instinct. And so on.

What Wittgenstein describes here might be better framed as competing responses. On the one hand, the verbal response "to hell with you!" may exist in some strength on the occasion of an (unspecified) verbal stimulus or social event. (Lest we be accused of reification, when we say a response "exists," we mean that we can predict its imminent occurrence or infer its latency based on our observation of prior occasions.) But if Wittgenstein has been punished for mouthing off to this person in the past, or for mouthing off to people in similar contexts (say, he's in a faculty meeting at Cambridge), then "displacing" behavior reinforced under the contingencies of punishment will also exist in some strength. Wittgenstein's account specifies this behavior as drawing in and holding his breath; the "tendency" to which he refers is an operant response (conditioned by every time in his life that telling off somebody has had reinforcing consequences), and the "feeling" he describes is that of its displacement by an incompatible response shaped up by prior contact with punishing contingencies. 

Skinner notes that punishment does not affect the strength of the punished response per se: it is overpowered, but not weakened. We could interpret Wittgenstein opening his mouth as evidence that the behavior of making a vocal outburst was not entirely displaced, and certainly not extinguished.

Wittgenstein mentions that the behavior of holding in his breath might be interpreted differently in other contexts.

...I made four attempts to elaborate the previous sentence, but what can I say other than "well, yeah?" We might add that a functional account of behavior that examines forms of behavior independently of context isn't worth much. On what other occasions has opening his mouth and holding his breath been reinforced, and by what consequences? What stimuli in what contexts acquired control over that response? Etc., etc.

601. When I talk about a table,——am I remembering that this object is called a table?

In a sense, yes.

Admittedly, radical behavioristic treatments of memory leave something to be desired, particularly if we are looking for a non-dualistic accounting of recall. We typically reserve the words "memory" and "recall" for private events—for instance, when I "see" the face of somebody I haven't spoken to in a long time, or "hear" a television jingle that aired during my childhood, I say that I "remember her face" or "recall the tune." In these cases, there's not much an empirical philosophy of behavior can do except fit these events into its general framework, reminding us that cognition is behavior, and as such, it is subject to the three-term contingencies of stimulus, response, and reinforcement. Since we can't observe what happens in the event that somebody privately "hears" the tune from a Pizza Bagels commercial, there's really not much we can say about it one way or the other, unless the covert behavior "scales up" to some overt form which we can be certain is contingent on the private stimulus of "hearing" the jingle. (An introspective study of its occurrence in ourselves would be flawed: our watching out for moments where we "hear" the song, and then being reinforced for "hearing" it, would subvert the experiment.)

At any rate, acts of "memory" no longer seem quite so special when we consider them in terms of the individual's overall locus of behavior across time.

For instance: I can subvocally "recite" the code to skip right to the last bout in Mike Tyson's Punch-Out!!. When I do so, I am said to be "remembering" it. We would also use the same term to characterize what's happening when I visit a friend who's got his old NES plugged in and I enter the code for the first time in many years ("he still remembers the code").

If I enter the code for the fifth time in as many minutes, most observers wouldn't ascribe the act to "memory"—and this is probably the inconsistency that Wittgenstein is getting at.

An act of "recall" like this is no different from any other operant in my repertoire, except that there has been a considerable lapse of time between now and when I last performed it. I have been conditioned to manipulate a controller to produce a string of numbers (007 573 5963) when presented with some set of stimuli in some context (holding a controller, seeing the title screen, wanting to skip right to Mike Tyson, etc.), and my integral organism is still capable of emitting that behavior when the occasion arises.* The immediate conditioned reinforcer for entering the code correctly helps to ensure the probability that I will be able to do it again in a similar scenario in the future. As we saw earlier, my forgetting the code can usually be taken to mean an absence of variables that typically strengthen its emission. (Operant extinction is also possible, but unlikely; so is cognitive decline, at least at this point in my lifespan. I hope.)

Real-time development: I didn't input the code correctly above. Its fourth digit should have been 3.

This is what we might casually call "getting rusty." Having not been reinforced for inputting the code correctly (or having reinforcement withheld for inputting it incorrectly) in some time, the form of the operant changed due to the lack of the influences responsible for training and maintaining it in its correct "shape." (The causes for the substitution of 3 to 5 might be an increase in the strength of an unrelated intraverbal operant form since the last time I've entered the code.) If Wittgenstein didn't have any occasion to say "table" out loud for over a decade, and seldom "thought" the word during that time, there is an increased probability of his fudging the execution when circumstances finally prompt him to tell somebody "put it on the table."

Afterwards, he might be prompted to observe that he "remembered" how to say it.

610. Describe the aroma of coffee——Why can't it be done? Do we lack the words? And for what are words lacking?——But how do we get the idea that such a description must after all be possible? Have you ever felt the lack of such a description? Have you ever tried to describe the aroma and not succeeded?

((I should like to say: "These notes say something glorious, but I do not know what." These notes are a powerful gesture, but I cannot put anything side by side with it that will serve as an explanation. A grave nod. James: "Our vocabulary is inadequate." Then we don't we introduce a new one? What would have to be the case for us to be able to?))

We've gone far enough that we're treading over familiar ground here.

In English's, there's a term for how coffee smells: "like coffee." That's the only thing the verbal community can agree on. The more distinct the aroma, the fewer other olfactory objects we can compare it to, and the fewer general terms we have available.

It is something we've worked on since Wittgenstein's time, though: a culture that really cares about coffee will expand its verbal repertoire to describe aspects of coffee and their variations more precisely. You'll notice, however, that few descriptors of coffee's aroma are truly neologisms: they're just other scents associated with other objects. ("Nutty," "floral," "citrusy," etc.) A verbal community cannot access the private sensations of its members: it can only observe them reacting to scented objects and construct a vocabulary based on those objects themselves (and generalizations among objects that produce similar responses), taking for granted the consistency of its members' "objective" olfactory experience.

The first humans who spoke of smells were only equipped to communicate the source of a given odor: the "body" of the stimulus, as it were, was inaccessible. Aside from a pile of abstractions we've developed along the way (virtually all of them of metaphorical provenance), we're not much better endowed than they are to speak about aromatic or gustatory subtleties—and to be understood when we do.

I appreciate Wittgenstein's dreamy ambition in the parenthetical second paragraph, but he is mistaken: the same limitations outlined above will invariably stymie the development of a vocabulary to describe emotional or abstract responses to what we might call "the sublime." Sublimity is already hard enough to specify; most of us can only do so by pointing to photographs of mountainous vistas, certain paintings, and symphonic pieces, and expecting the listener to extrapolate the points of contact. And what formal similarities exist between a room of Rothko paintings, Samuel Barber's Adagio for Strings, the view from Niagara Falls, and Euler's identity equation? Few, if any. So our only recourse is to compare their effects upon ourselves—and how how are we to determine that my emotional reaction to any one of these things is identical to yours? 

The obscurity of people's responses to these objects/events—as well as the variability that their personal histories introduce to each individual's response—makes the development of devising and introducing an "adequate" vocabulary as hopeless a task as assigning names to colors that nobody can see.

613. In the sense in which I can ever bring anything about (such as stomach-ache through over-eating), I can also bring about an act of willing. In this sense I bring about the act of willing to swim by jumping into the water. Doubtless I was trying to say: I can't will willing; that is, it makes no sense to speak of willing willing. "Willing" is not the name of an action; and so not the name of any voluntary action either. And my use of a wrong expression came from our wanting to think of willing as an immediate non-causal bringing-about. A misleading analogy like at the root of this idea; the causal nexus seems to be established by a mechanism connecting two parts of a machine. The connexion may be broken if the mechanism is disturbed. (We think only of the disturbances to which a mechanism is normally subject, not, say, of cog-wheels suddenly going soft, or passing through one another, and so on.) 

General remark on "willing" and "the will:" most of the times anybody speaks of willing are when something obstructs the emission of behavior. Nobody plops down on the sofa with a six-pack of Budweiser and observes "I'm willing to drink"—he just drinks. The remark might occur if somebody in a place with no alcohol and/or during a time inappropriate to drinking asks him if he'd like to visit a bar in the near future.

It might be better to call "willing" one's observation of his own incipient behavior, or of the preliminary stages of a broader pattern.

Speaking of the will as a power is perhaps an unscientific but not completely faulty way of acknowledging the human organism's continuous activity. The things towards which our behavior is oriented, the forms of our responses, the way we go about solving problems, etc., may be shaped up by contact with the environment, but all of these descriptions take for granted the "vital force" of an intelligent organic system that, for as long as it is composed and functioning as such, cannot exist inertly. The problem with speaking of the will as a "faculty of choice" is the ease with which such a formulation typically glosses over or entirely neglects the role of our material conditions in making our choices for us.

666. Imagine that you were in pain and were simultaneously hearing a piano nearby being tuned. You say "It'll soon stop." It certainly makes quite a difference whether you mean the pain or the piano-tuning!——Of course; but what does this difference consist in? I admit, in many cases some direction of the attention will correspond to your meaning one thing or another, just as a look often does, or a gesture, or a way of shutting one's eyes which might be called "looking into oneself".

There's nothing mysterious here: two different stimuli can control a response of the same form. In this case, the simultaneity of the pain and the noise likely contributed to the strengthening of a response appropriate to them both, as opposed to something like "it will soon subside," or "he'll stop in a few minutes."

I have to repeat a general criticism of Wittgenstein's probes: he seems to willfully disregard the possibility of resolving an ambiguity through further observation. If someone in the room with Wittgenstein cannot determine whether an utterance appropriate to both his toothache and a noisy piano tuner was precipitated by one or the other, he could wait and see whether or not Wittgenstein repeats the statement (or enacts some other form of pain-behavior) after the piano tuner leaves the room. Or he could, I don't know—ask Wittgenstein which he meant.

Of course: it's entirely possible that Wittgenstein wouldn't be able to say for certain whether it was one thing, the other, or both. It might also happen that Wittgenstein could suddenly expire of a brain aneurysm before we get a chance to ask him. Maybe just to screw with us, he'd say "the piano" when it was really the pain of his toothache that prompted him to speak. In cases where additional data is too obscure, unreliable, or unavailable (as is so often the case outside of a controlled setting) to make a confident inference of a functional relationship, we're SOL.

693. "When I teach someone the formation of the series . . . . I surely mean him to write . . . . at the hundredth place."——Quite right; you mean it. And evidently without necessarily even thinking of it. This shews you how different the grammar of the verb "to mean" is from that of "to think". And nothing is more wrong-headed than calling meaning a mental activity! Unless, that is, one is setting out to produce confusion. (It would also be possible to speak of an activity of butter when it rises in price, and if no problems are produced by this it is harmless.)

This is the final remark in the first part of the Philosophical Investigations, and I find absolutely no fault with it. As a matter of fact, he beautifully encapsulates the reason why I whine about mentalistic language or of the hypostatization of abstract concepts. When somebody talks about "the ideas of Mao Zedong" or the the "destructive tendencies of capitalism," little harm occurs: we usually understand the first formulation to mean "things that Mao said," and the second to mean "the long-term changes that a certain form of social organization brings upon the people and institutions of which it is constituted." When problems arise, it is because one acts as though Mao's ideas are efficient causes in and of themselves, or as though capitalism was a force, not a description.

Final thoughts: few. I am still very conflicted about the Philosophical Investigations. I've come past thinking of Wittgenstein as a kind of philosophical Holden Caulfield, but I don't see myself revisiting his book very often. I find Wittgenstein's comportment useful, even valuable—but my sense is that the Investigations' real worth is in the seeds it plants in people who become interested in examining more methodically the concerns it raises (in spite of the author's reservations against systemization). Wittgenstein did, after all, state at the onset that his book's purpose is to goad people into doing some thinking for themselves. For my part, trying to answer some of Wittgenstein's remarks vis-a-vis Skinner's treatment of language and cognition and feeling like I was coming up short compelled me to begin studying relational frame theory to see if the post-Skinnerians have made any progress toward filling in some conceptual and practical gaps. So far, so good, and I do have Wittgenstein to thank for the motivation.

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