Saturday, February 8, 2014

Visual goings on in Wittgenstein

In PI 122, Wittgenstein famously says that "A main source of our failure to understand is that we do not command a clear view of our use of our words". He goes on to claim that "our grammar is lacking in this sort of perspicuity" and that "a perspicuous representation produces just that understanding which consists in 'seeing connections'".
But, what does 'commanding a clear view', one that enables us to see connections, involve? It has always concerned me that the visual analogies relied on here cannot do the work required of them. For what, when it comes to language, do we see it with? Just our eyes? Surely not. For these can
reveal nothing philosophically interesting without embodying an element of linguistic interpretation. And, when we rely on eyes that are linguistically enhanced, so to speak, then what we see is already infected with the confusions we wish to allay. The assumption here, of course, is that all visual awareness that tells us anything interesting is linguistically saturated.


  1. I take it you are reading Anscombe's translation. The later editions with Hacker and Schulte translate the passage as "That we don't have an overview of our words", rather than commanding a clear view.

    Assuming this is the more apt translation - and not speaking any German at all beyond ordering a beer in a dodgy accent, I couldn't comment sensibly - it seems that the problem of the visual analogy is sidestepped in favor of an essentially topographic one. I understood 122 to complain that we lacked the capacity within language to piece together all of language - that the issue is less our failure to see/perceive language per se, but rather a failure to take in the breadth of a language-project as a whole which leads to errors.

    I'm interested in your thoughts on whether this actually moves away from problems with the visual metaphor.

  2. Thanks for your response Tomas. I don't think the translation you refer to (which I have and prefer) makes much difference. But, I am still thinking through the idea that we are linguistic beings through and through - which means that there is something wrong with claiming that pictures (or anything purely visual) can hold us captive - but it is too soon for me to make a call on this ... and I might be on completely the wrong track. Sorry to be so slow in replying, but the comments section here has been invaded by alien ads and is difficult for me to get into.