Lewis and Wittgenstein on Facts and Meanings

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Suppose, for example, some defender of the naturalist hypothesis counters Mr. L’s refutation as follows: “Mr. L’s refutation involves the view that thoughts, such as inferring the conclusion of an argument, are mental events, mental phenomena, on the same order as physical events. His whole refutation hinges on this view, for these are precisely the sorts of ‘events’ that he argues cannot be accounted for by the naturalist hypothesis without involving the naturalist in self-contradiction. But, as Miss A reminds us, the meanings of a word can be various and distinct. This is the case with the word ‘event.’ Though we might use this word in connection with both nature and thought, the uses are distinct. Thus, so-called ‘mental events’ are not necessarily (nor actually) a part of what I mean by ‘nature,’ and therefore cannot be used as a basis for refuting the naturalistic hypothesis.”

I take it that this is an adequate response to the refuter. But, of course, it involves giving a definition of nature which may be different from what the refuter had in mind. And is there anything to prevent the defender from giving such a definition? No. Not in this case, for there are contexts in ordinary language where the word ‘nature’ is used in the sense in which it excludes so-called ‘mental events.’ The refuter, at this point, would have to concede that the refutation has failed, but he is also likely to be irked. He may say, “Yes, I concede the point: nature can be defined in the way you’ve defined it. But if that’s what you mean by ‘nature,’ then there’s really nothing to argue about. You have simply removed the problem by stating something like a policy-a policy that stipulates what you and your fellow defenders will and will not mean by ‘nature.’ If you had simply presented your hypothesis as a statement of policy on how you will use the word ‘nature’ rather than as an hypothesis about nature and how it must be known, we could have avoided this philosophical mess.” And the refuter would be quite right. What looked like an hypothesis was not really being used as an hypothesis. This is why it can neither be proven true nor proven false: that’s not how you judge policies. But both defender and refuter were bewitched by the form of the statement into thinking it was an hypothesis. Not a scientific hypothesis, of course, but what we might call-oxymoronically-a ‘metaphysical hypothesis.’ That is, an ‘hypothesis’ for which there is no criterion of proof.[12]

But enough about the debate. My purpose in discussing it was this: just as the various meanings of individual words are seen and differentiated by the particular contexts and occasions of their use, so it is with sentences, paragraphs, and even larger portions of language. If there is danger in falling under the illusion that a word is being used meaningfully, sensibly, when, in fact, it is not being so used, then there is also danger in falling under the illusion that a sentence is being meaningfully, sensibly used when the surroundings that would give it a clear sense are lacking. And what is the danger? The danger is misunderstanding. I should point out that not all such misunderstandings are equally dangerous. When my wife returns from the grocery store and says to me, “The groceries are in the trunk,” and I take her to be merely giving a report (“FYI”), my misunderstanding may be dangerous. She may scowl at me. But it is not as dangerous as similarly misunderstanding the man who (truthfully) says “There’s a bomb in the closet!” The most dangerous misunderstandings are those that are costliest-not those that lead to the loss of bodily life, but those that would lead us astray or prevent us from living our lives meaningfully and happily-the loss of life in the moral or spiritual sense. Thus, as both of our authors are keenly aware, it is essential to not misunderstand-i.e., to rightly understand-the words, sentences, speeches, books and so on of those who can and desire to lead us into such a life. These authors therefore are concerned to show us how to read, how to listen, for it is this capacity to rightly understand that makes it possible for us to learn what it means to live as we were made to live.

The examples I have already given will help illustrate why this is the case. Following my wife’s suggestion that I carry the groceries in (or was it more of an order?) or heeding the warning of the man who says there’s a bomb in the closet will, of course, contribute to my quality of life. They have each given me some kind of instruction for my good, but not for the good of my soul. How much more important would instructions-and, I may add, encouragements, expressions of concern, reminders, and warnings-that were meant for the good of my soul, my life as a human creature, be? Such sentences are at least as susceptible to misunderstanding as the others: what was meant as an instruction-or an encouragement, an expression of concern, a reminder, or a warning-is mistaken for a statement of the facts. So, instead of following the instruction, the misunderstander embarks on a quest to see if (or prove that) the statement is true or false. After all, isn’t that what we should do with purported statements of fact? The particular insight of our first Cambridge man was to recognize that it is just these sorts of sentences, mistaken as statements of facts, that are common in philosophy. Ironical, isn’t it-that so much of what we call ‘doing philosophy’ is precisely a misunderstanding of those questions that are philosophical?