BREAKING: His fork is to the left of his knife!

THURSDAY, NOVEMBER 15, 2018

Until, just like that, it isn't:
Yesterday afternoon, when we left off, Anthony Kenny was explaining "the central doctrine" of the early Wittgenstein's seminal book, the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus (actual name).

According to Kenny, the central doctrine of the book was "the famous picture theory of meaning." Let's recall what Professor Kenny said in more detail:
KENNY: The greater part of [the Tractatus] is concerned with the nature of language and its relation to the world, Wittgenstein's major philosophical concern throughout his life. The central doctrine it conveys is the famous picture theory of meaning. According to this theory, language consists of propositions which picture the world. Propositions are the perceptible expressions of thoughts, and thoughts are logical pictures of facts (TLP 3.5, 4, 4.001).

Propositions and thoughts, for Wittgenstein, are pictures in a literal, not just a metaphorical sense. An English sentence, such as 'Elephants never forget' or 'John is taller than he used to be,' does not look much like a picture. But that is because language disguises thought beyond all recognition (TLP 4.002, 4.011).
According to Professor Kenny, Wittgenstein held that "language consists of propositions which picture the world." According to Kenny, that was the central doctrine of the early Wittgenstein's famous, seminal book.

Kenny foresaw a likely objection. The typical English sentence won't look like a picture, he said. But for Wittgenstein, or so Kenny says, a proposition is a picture in a literal, not just a metaphorical, sense.

(For our first installment in this series, click this. For yesterday's post, click here.)

Fellow citizens, where to begin? As we noted yesterday, a typical English language sentence doesn't look like a picture at all! We often say, metaphorically, that an author has "painted a picture" with his or her words. But why would anyone say that an English language sentence was a picture in a literal sense? And how could this possibly be "the central doctrine" of such a major book?

You're asking excellent questions! As we continue, let's remember that Professor Kenny was a major figure, and that his 1973 book, Wittgenstein, was published by the Harvard University Press.

Remembering that, we may be puzzled when we see where Kenny goes from here. Could an anthropology lesson about our species be lurking between his knife and fork? Here's what the professor says:
KENNY (continuing directly): However, even in ordinary language, there is a perceptibly pictorial element. Take the sentence 'My fork is to the left of my knife.' This sentence says something quite different from another sentence containing exactly the same words, namely 'My knife is to the left of my fork.' What makes the first sentence, but not the second, mean that the fork is to the left of the knife? It is the fact that the words 'my fork' appear to the left of the words 'my knife' in the context of the of the first sentence but not in that of the second. So here we have a spatial relationship between words symbolizing a spatial relationship between things. Such spatial representation of spatial relationships is pictorial in a quite straightforward way (TLP 4.012).
Remember—we're trying to understand the claim, attributed to Wittgenstein, that a typical English language sentence is a picture of some state of affairs, or of some fact, in a literal sense.

What could it mean to make that claim? Kenny suggests that we consider this sentence:
My fork is to the left of my knife.
He says this sentence means that the fork is to the left of the knife because the words "my fork" appear to the left of the words "my knife" in the context of the sentence.

He says this spatial relationship between those words "makes" the sentence mean that the fork is to the left of the knife. In one narrow sense, that's literally true in this particular instance. But let's consider a second sentence which is very much like the first:
My fork is to the right of my knife.
In this utterly pointless new sentence, the words "my fork" are still to the left of the words "my knife." But so what? This sentence means that the actual fork is not to the left of the actual knife. The perceptibly pictorial theory seems to be breaking down.

Reader, please! In written English, we don't assume that the spatial relationship between the various nouns in a sentence are meant to picture the spatial relationship in real life between the objects they name. This example which Kenny offers strikes us as very strange.

That said, let's be fair! According to Kenny, he's simply reporting what Wittgenstein said in the Tractatus. If the presentation doesn't seem to make sense—and we'd have to say it very much doesn't—then the fault would lie with the early Wittgenstein, not with Kenny himself.

Still, if Wittgenstein advanced some crazy ideas, you'd think that Kenny would say so. That said, there is no sign at any point that Professor Kenny thinks this peculiar mishigas doesn't make ultimate sense.

The new paragraph we've posted today strikes us as making no sense. Tomorrow, we'll see where Kenny goes from here—and things won't get any better.

Obedient students around the world are trained to overlook matters like this. Should students possibly be trained, instead, to picture large lessons here?

Tomorrow: It's all downhill from here

9 comments:

  1. It's either you misunderstood something, or this Kenny guy is an idiot. Or both.

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  2. Is this how Somerby wants to roll? Quoting piecemeal excerpts from Kenny’s book, stopping to ridicule each paragraph, when Kenny is obviously trying to lead the reader to an understanding of Wittgenstein’s theory gradually over the course of a rather long book. It’s a dishonest approach to criticism.

    Kenny’s “to the left of” is an attempt to illustrate, in a rudimentary way, the pictorial aspect of language. “To the left of” is an English-language construct that imposes an order on the words used in and around it. Certainly, “to the right of” does as well. But Kenny is trying to introduce the concept, of how language can sometimes mirror spatial reality, in a very rudimentary way in order to build up towards an understanding of Wittgenstein’s deeper ideas about thought and language.

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  3. Kenny’s fork and knife is an example of when language actually seems pictorial by virtue of an accident of English language structure. In general, however, the point is that language *disguises* thought, and it is thought that is described as pictorial by its nature. Kenny is merely illustrating a rare example of language actually being pictorial.

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  4. Bob,
    You are a Jackass.
    Philosophically.

    ReplyDelete
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  6. "Obedient students around the world are trained to overlook matters like this."

    As a professional philosopher I must object. Bob, what do you actually know about how philosophy is actually taught? My experience is that I, and every colleague I've ever known, puts a premium on questioning. That includes questioning ideas put forward by the greatest of philosophers, like Plato, Kant, etc. (Wittgenstein is rarely taught but gets the same treatment when he is.) "Training obedient students to overlook things" is the opposite of what occurs. At least in my experience. You make a serious accusation. What's your actual evidence?

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  7. What stupidity! Neither you or your "authoritative explainer" (neither seeming to have as much intelligence as any of Wittgenstein's toenails) notices that the sentence "My fork is to the left of my knife," presented as arguably "pictorial" because the word fork appears to the left of the word knife, would justify the exact opposite conclusion if written in the notebooks of Leonardo, or translated into Hebrew or Chinese!

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