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.

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