Lewis and Wittgenstein on Facts and Meanings

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And this reminds me, too, of what our first author says of such problems:

These are, of course, not empirical problems; they are solved, rather, by looking into the workings of our language, and that in such a way as to make us recognize those workings; in despite of an urge to misunderstand them. The problems are solved, not by giving new information, but by arranging what we have always known. Philosophy is a battle against the bewitchment of our intelligence by means of language.[6]

Last, but certainly not least, we find a similarity in our two authors when they speak of what results when the confusion between the various senses of words is purposely provoked or explicitly recognized. Our second author says,

The proof of this [i.e., that the context shows the sense in which a word is used] is that the sudden intrusion of any irrelevant sense-in other words the voluntary or involuntary pun-is funny. It is funny because it is unexpected. There is a semantic explosion, because the two meanings rush together from a great distance; one of them was not in our consciousness at all until that moment.[7]

And our first author says, “Let us ask ourselves: why do we feel a grammatical joke to be deep? (And that is what the depth of philosophy is.)”[8]

And what, then, is the aim of each of these men in investigating the meanings of words (and, as I will presently point out, of sentences, paragraphs, whole books)? Our second author says that one of his aims is “to facilitate, as regards certain words, a more accurate reading of old books.”[9] It is fair to suppose that this aim is part of a larger aim: to facilitate accurate reading of any or all books. Our first author has famously said that his aim is “to show the fly the way out of the flybottle.”[10] On the supposition that any reader of his books is at least competent enough to know a metaphor when he or she reads one, we can safely interpret this remark to mean that his aim, too, is to help his readers escape misunderstandings, misreadings-that is, to become good readers and listeners.

Thus, we find our authors aiming at the same end.

For those of you who are familiar with the debate our second author once had with a student of our first author, you will no doubt remember that the debate was focused precisely on the question of the uses of such words as ‘rational’, ‘irrational’, ‘cause’, ‘reason’, ‘explanation’, ‘valid’, ‘invalid’, and ‘naturalism’. This debate has been gone over with the fine teeth of many combs, with varying results, but invariably producing a good amount of static energy. I do not propose to add to the static. Instead, without much in the way of explanation and throwing about my words wildly, I would simply add these two important reminders: First, that the student of our first author, in debating our second author, was not defending the naturalist hypothesis. She herself says, “I do not think that there is sufficiently good reason for maintaining the naturalist hypothesis about human behavior and thought…”[11] Rather, she merely desired to show that “someone who does maintain [the naturalist hypothesis] cannot be refuted as you try to refute him.” Secondly, remember that our second author did, in fact, extensively revise his original refutation of the naturalist hypothesis as a consequence of the debate. Seriously asking the question, “Which of them won?” seems to me to betray a deep misunderstanding of what it was all about.

I really ought to let sleeping dogs lie . . . but I can’t help myself. I have to add two more cents in order to make more sense of this debate. I know it is penny ante. I’m betting it’ll do some good, but it could also make things worse. So it’s a gamble.

In the debate, Miss A reminds Mr. L of just the thing that Mr. L (as we have seen) already knows: that the same word, in different contexts, means very different things, and that nearly all words, if removed from their ordinary contexts for use, appear to be so ambiguous as to be able to mean nearly anything-that is, nearly nothing. Thus, a familiar word can be used in such a way as to appear to make sense without actually making sense. We might call these sorts of cases, “disguised nonsense.” Miss A’s critique of Mr. L’s refutation of the naturalist hypothesis shows that a defender of the naturalist hypothesis, by picking and choosing what he might mean by ‘rational’, ‘cause’, ‘explanation’, ‘knowledge’, and ‘nature’, can escape the traps of any refuter. This might seem like good news to the defender of the naturalist hypothesis. It might seem to him that Miss A is an ally. But it is not so, for her critique cuts both ways: the cost of escaping refutation is nonsense disguised as sense. For such a defender relies on the variety of possible meanings of the very terms he uses in stating his hypothesis, with the result that he cannot know what he himself means.