I was there when Buck Holley beat the Mechanical Man. Back in ’77. Heh, good ole Buckey Holley. Never seen a man so lean, so mean; so full of creatine. Oh boy, I tell ya they pumped ’em back then. They sure did. And Buck had the system of a bull. They shot him up with uppers, downers, swishers and swashers. The whole gamut. Most men couldn’t even take a swisher without seizing up like some epileptic. Not Buck though, no. Man was a bull.
      And the Mechanical Man. Whew, you should’ve seen him. Just bits and pieces – you get it? They say before he was the Mechanical Man he was just another Mickey Davey from the south part of Boston. But you know how it goes. You ship ’em off to war, and when they don’t come back men, you build ’em into something better. And that’s when it started, you know? When we really started building better men. Mickey wasn’t no different, not really. Just had that poor, dumb, Irish luck is all. Most men, you send ’em off, and the unlucky ones get a prosthetic. But Mickey? Man had a new limb for every tour. Funny thing, though. Mickey got the better end of all that switching and swapping. Run faster, jump higher; wicked precise movements. Never complained of fatigue. Oh, the army loved him. They built a Mechanical Man, and he won them the war. All his poor, dumb, Irish luck turned him into a hero. That’s why it was such a shame to see Buck turn him into scrap metal. What’s a soul to do, though? We just keep building better men.
     After the war, Mickey was something of a celebrity. The emblem of a new age. I was in San Francisco at the time, a few years before the Great Exodus. We’d just won the war, the United Nations was in our back pocket, and America was poised to be the presiding nation of our interplanetary enterprise. And so that summer was hot.
      To be young and walk the promenade. To be American and walk the promenade. To be a man and walk the promenade. That sweet summer heat licked that sweet summer sweat right outta everyone. The air was muggy and the evaporation, palpable. And if you stopped to smell its sweet scent, you’d well acquaint yourself with the invocation of the human spirit. We had shuffled off our mortal coils; we had achieved transcendant animalism. There was light and warmth and love and moments sans reflection. We were so damned thoughtlessly happy.
      And I remember the streets were shrieking so – with light and laughter and music. It was the first time I had seen the brass. They were a trio for the modern age – the short black with a missing finger, the tall white with the fake eyes, and the shiny Mexican-Jew tranny with a voice like broken soap. And with them a french horn, flugelhorn, and trombone. Couldn’t tell you about the white or the black, but boy could that tranny play the trombone. She was slick-fingered and wild-eyed. When she closed her eyes and pressed her lips on the brass, that brow, strong, dark, and unapologetic, furrowed and writhed like a cobra. (Not that I ever seen a cobra.) I’d never seen such passion, and it was mesmerizing.
      She caught my ear, first. That trombone would trill and sing. I swear, it was the first time that I had ever heard triumph. But then she caught my eye, and I watched her play for a long time. Never saw a queen pull off that red, white, and blue drag – not ’til her. Now I wasn’t any hawk, but after that third, fourth, and then fifth bar, she had me soaring like the rest of them. And for once, I didn’t feel like just a cheerleader for Uncle Sam and the Mechanical Man. It was my day, too.
      And what a day it was. As long as you didn’t look too closely at the ground. Beer-soaked hamburgers and hot dogs. And after enough feet had tramped over them, they damn near pasted the rents in the walkway (ain’t no need for pavers). And the drains smelled sickly clean. Gutter shots; what a way to drink in the new year.
      And that sweet summer heat – sticky and insidious – it gets under your skin. A pigeon pecked at a balled up shimmer-slick tee, hunting for scraps. And that wasn’t the only tee. By midday, I swear, the promenade was like one of those old flea-markets. Clothes everywhere. Mine, too. But what did I care? I was a fecund youth. And I admired the women, topless and all. Enjoying their freedom, their American freedom, bought and delivered by the Mechanical Man.
      Like I said, the Mechanical Man was a celebrity. But more than that, he’d become an American hero. Out on the pier, they built him an effigy. Whatever scrap they could steal. See that Herculean figure – made of stop signs and yield signs and do not pass signs, the straps and grits and filings of the iron of the old, rotting promenade. I passed by the gift shop and saw a mother and son. The boy was clutching an action figure. Had all sorts of buttons and settings – maybe even program it to fight the Reds or the Muslims or whoever’s keeping us from building better men. And see that kid’s face light up with the voice-activation, I am the Mechanical Man, better built from scraps and man’s handicaps!
      We were just so thoughtlessly happy. So how could I blame him? What with the fervor and the star-studded posters. The Mechanical Man, you’d read, And to think America ever needed Clark Kent. Who were we kidding?
      Wasn’t too long after that, you’d see Mickey Davey on all those talk shows. Asking him all those American questions. How many men were there? What were the odds? Was it your strength or your cunning? And Mickey’d just smile and nod and soak it all up; never eager, never broke a sweat. There were a lot of men. The odds were terrible, just like buying a ticket. And, John, don’t you know? Strength is cunning.
      Then John gets to the real question, right? Ever get scared? I only ever saw him on the TV screen. So in that half-breath before Mickey answered, I never could tell what he was thinking. He had funny eyes, you know? And in the half-breath, in just that moment, they kinda glazed. I don’t know what they saw, right then, but for a moment there, he almost looked like a prophet. And then it’d pass, almost as quick as it’d started. And then he’d crack that wicked, cocksure smile, When you’re built to be better, you just don’t think of that kinda thing. Ain’t no thing to be afraid of. And the audience would roar.

Investigations 154

In §154, Wittgenstein claims that understanding should not be thought of as a mental process.
      We asked to consider when we are justified in saying that a pupil understands some system, or to consider when we ourselves are justified in saying, “Ah, now I understand the system”. That is, what is it that goes on in these situations when one is credited with understanding. Consider four pupils each examining the same series of numbers: 1, 5, 11, 19 …. We say that a pupil understands the series if he can correctly produce the next term of the series; for if a pupil did not understand the series, then he would not be able to correctly continue the series. So we say one understands when they can “go on” continuing the series correctly. The question, then, is what does this understanding consist in?
Suppose each pupil can correctly carry on the series, establishing that the fifth term is 29. What is going on in the pupil’s head when he realizes he can correctly continue the series? It seems there are many processes that could have been at work. For instance, it might “occur” to the first pupil that the first four terms can be united under the formula: a_n = n^2 + n - 1 . The formula did not, in contrast, occur to the second pupil. Instead the second pupil notices a progressive series of differences: 4, 6, 8 …, and infers that the next difference is 10 so the fifth term should be 29. For the third pupil, it could be the case that this series is simply as familiar to him as the ordinary series of natural numbers, and from this familiarity can “go on”. The fourth pupil might have some immediate intuition that the fifth term is 29. Regardless of what particular process occurred in each pupil’s head, we will still credit each pupil with having understood, for they can continue to correctly carry on the series. The moral is that there is not one unique “occurrence” in one’s head that constitutes understanding. Understanding cannot consist merely in having the appropriate formula occur to you; for the pupil who notices the differences and yet doesn’t having a formula occur to him is still credited with understanding. Because of this we cannot say that “Now I understand the series” means the same thing as “the formula occurs to me”. To emphasize this point, consider a pupil to whom the appropriate formula does in fact occur. It could still be the case that they misapply the formula, and fail to correctly carry on the series with 29. Consequently we will say that this pupil does not understand the series, even when the correct formula occurs to him. So understanding must be something besides merely having the appropriate formula occur to you.
     If when I say “Now I understand” I have not said “the formula occurs” to me, what then does it mean to say “Now I understand”? You might think that understanding is a (presumably mental) process which somehow occurs behind or along with the occurrence or utterance of the formula. How are we to think of mental processes? Wittgenstein suggests that a pain’s increasing or decreasing, or the listening to a tune or sentence are mental processes. The pain experience or the auditory experience are mental processes insofar as they are particular occurrences “in one’s head”, so to speak. These processes may be interrupted; for instance, I may be in pain and then fall asleep. When I fall asleep, we do not continue to attribute the mental process of being in pain to me. Or if Barry Stroud falls asleep at the opera, his mental process of listening to the tune has been interrupted; we no longer attribute the listening of a tune to him. In a similar way, the occurrence in your head of the appropriate formula is a kind of mental process. You may be representing the appropriate formula, fall asleep, and so cease to be in a state of representing the formula (or of having it occur to you).
      Understanding does not seem to be a mental process in the same sense as the listening to a tune. Sam, grandmaster of chess, we attribute understanding of chess to. When Sam falls asleep, we do not say that his understanding is interrupted. When Sam is asleep we still say he understands chess. Sam doesn’t understand chess merely when the appropriate chess move occurs to him during a game (as when a particular formula may occur to you during a math problem). Sam’s being in a state of sleep does not strip him of his ability to play chess. In this way, Sam’s understanding cannot be identified with the occurrence of some mental process that happens alongside his action.
      So when a pupil thinks “Now I can go on” and utters the correct formula, what can we point to which actually justifies the pupil’s thinking “Now I can go on”? We’ve seen that we cannot point to some unique occurrence in his head, for there were many various occurrences which accompanied each pupil’s ability to go on (e.g. representing the appropriate formula or seeing the sequence of differences). Nor can we point to some mental process, for mental processes can be interrupted in ways that the understanding seemingly cannot. We cannot point to something inside the pupil’s head and say that that’s what the understanding consists in; consequently, we should look at the circumstances of the situation outside of just what is in one’s head. This leads Wittgenstein to suggest that if there is something which justifies the pupil’s thinking “Now I can go on”, it is the particular circumstances which underly the utterance of the formula (or the noticing of the series of differences). There is something about the pupil and the external situation he’s in which determines whether we are justified in saying that he understood. It is not enough for the the formula to occur to the pupil, but the formula must occur to the pupil in the right circumstances, where the pupil reacts in the right way to the given external stimulus (e.g. the series). If the external stimulus had been different but the pupil reacted the same way we would not credit him with understanding. To see that someone has understood, we must look at more than what goes on in their heads, but also what the external stimulus was and what the external reaction on the part of the pupil is. In this way, we see understanding as more of an external process – an ability or a “can-do” – than any particular mental process.

Investigations 32

This post explains §32 of Philosophical Investigations, further explicating the main thrust: that Augustine’s description of how one learns a language presupposes that one already has some kind of language.
      Before examining §32, we should explain ostensive explanation. To give an ostensive explanation or definition of a thing is to “attach a nametag” to it by gesturing toward the thing and producing an utterance (which presumably is the name). For instance, suppose my tutor attempts to provide me with an ostensive explanation or definition of the number two. He points to two black bolts and utters, “this number is called `two’” (18). He does not merely utter “two”, lest he be misconstrued as (a) naming this particular group of bolts “Two”, (b) naming this kind of arrangement of objects “Two”, (c) naming the black color of the bolts “Two”, and so on. By qualifying his explanation with “this number” we specify the role of the word “two” in the language, namely as a counting-word, so that it is not confused with (a), (b), or (c) (18).
             For his ostensive explanation to be successful, however, I must already understand what the word “number” means, or else I will not understand that he meant to define “two” as a counting-word and may miscontrue him in any of the aforementioned ways and I will not come to use the word correctly. If I don’t know the meaning of “number”, then this must be given an ostensive explanation as well; such an explanation will consist, presumably, in other words. And those words would have to be explained via other words, and so on, ad infinitum. The moral is that in order for ostensive explanations to be successful, we must be equipped with some words which we can use to understand the words we are being taught – our minds must already be prepared in a certain way. If we have to resources to understand the role the word plays in language, then we can come to correctly use, and so understand, the word.
      Suppose I am visiting a foreign country. In §32, Wittgenstein observes that I will learn the language of the inhabitants by the ostensive explanations they give me. But we saw that ostensive explanations are given through words, which must be defined in a similar way. He further observes that I will have to guess how to interpret their explanations. If an inhabitant says – in his language – “This number is called two”, but I do not know how the word “number” is used, then I must make a guess as to the meaning of number, if I am to interpret his explanation of “two”. In some cases I may guess correctly and in other cases not. If I guess incorrectly, the inhabitants will take it that I do not understand the meaning “two”.
      The main thrust of §32 is that Augustine describes the manner in which learn our first language as if we were learning a foreign language. That is, in his explanation of the learning of language, he presupposes that we already have a certain “language of thought” or that we can “talk to ourselves” – prior to the learning of any public language (19). Imagine we all in fact have such a language of thought. Then learning our public language (e.g. English) involves something like the following: we learn what English nametags correspond to the words of the language of my thought. This is like the learning of foreign language, where we identify the word of the foreign language with the word we already have command of the use of in our non-foreign language. To have a language of thought is to have a place “prepared” (19) for the learning of language.
      Reconsider my going to a foreign country and recall that I must guess in order to interpret the inhabitants’ ostensive explanations. In order for me to interpret the ostensive explanation of “two”, I must make a guess that “number” (or the inhabitant’s word for it) signifies that “two” is to be a counting-word. In order for me to make this kind of guess, I must already have my own concept of number. This means I must speak some kind of language already; otherwise, I would have no word or sign I could use to represent the concept of number to myself. For me to already be a speaker of a language is for me to have a place prepared for the learning of other words in the foreign language – I am already familiar with the various roles and uses of words. If I did not already have my own language and word for the number concept, I would not be able to guess the interpret the inhabitants’ explanation of “two” as indicating a counting-word. So in order to learn a foreign language through ostensive explanation, I must already have a place in my mind prepared; I must already have some kind of language of thought. And so I am merely connecting the inhabitant’s word with my own way of thinking of things – I am applying a new nametag to an old concept.
   Augustine, in describing the learning of language as a matter of learning what nametags go to what objects, presupposes that we already have some kind of language of thought. In this way, he describes learning language as the same kind of process that goes on when you learn the language of a foreign country via the ostensive explanations of its inhabitants.