The Beyond of Philosophy 2

By Josef Mitterer


1. The philosophical literature presents widely different opinions about whether language describes, reflects, depicts, determines, forms, or even constitutes and constructs the world (reality, objects, states of affairs, the facts).

Underlying/preceding these opinions is another, common opinion that provides an important foundation for contemporary philosophical discourse. It consists in the tacit acceptance of the view that there is a difference between the world and our knowledge of the world, a difference between objects and what we say and affirm about them; and hence also a difference between signs and the objects they refer to, between what we speak and the language in which we speak about it.

2. The most influential dogma of contemporary philosophy of language and knowledge is the presupposition (1) that there are objects distinct from language (though it is, of course, disputed whether these objects are described, reflected, depicted, determined, formed, constituted or constructed by language and what is or should be viewed as an object); and (2) that we (can) speak about these objects with/in language.

3. Presupposing this paradogma as conditio sine qua non of discourse entails that the how of the relation between language and reality, description and object, is open to question, but not that a distinction must be made between language and reality, description and object, etc. (and hence that the one must not be confused with the other).

[Three examples: “The existence of a common, independent world is a precondition of the very intelligibility of discourse itself” (D. W. Hamlyn, Theory of Knowledge [Garden City, NY: Anchor Books, 1970], 178); “The very notion of knowledge requires that there be something independently existing, outside knowledge, for knowledge to be knowledge of, and similarly the notion of a language requires that there be something extralinguistic for expressions to refer to” (Ernest Gellner, Words and Things [London: Gollancz, 1959], 129); “The existence of things referred to by at least some of our words is an unavoidable presupposition of any view we might adopt; it is not a matter of controversy” (Israel Scheffler, Science and Subjectivity [Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill, 1967], 55).]

4. I shall call any way of speaking and thinking that is committed to this dogma a “Dualizing Speech” because its outstanding characteristic is that it has given rise to the idea of an object different and distinguished from language.

5. In being understood as an integral constituent of our language Dualizing Speech remains beyond the scope of philosophical discussion—or until now it was prevented from even being made accessible to discussion. I try to argue, by contrast, that it is a changeable feature of the philosophy of language and of knowledge, and also that this way of speaking is made possible by a number of admittedly practiced, and perhaps established philosophical principles and convictions. These principles will be subjected to a critique which, although facilitated and promoted by the relativistic positions of Wittgenstein, Quine, Winch, Whorf, Kuhn, and Feyerabend, among others, is nonetheless directed above all against these positions. The following sections will examine how deeply the idea of a reality ‘distinct from language’ remains anchored in the work of these philosophers.

6. In section xi of Part II of the Philosophical Investigations, Ludwig Wittgenstein defends the view that we “see an object according to its interpretation.”The interpretations in accordance with which we see things he calls the “aspects of things.” He tries to show using the example of the aspects of a triangle that we see things as we interpret them. 

He thinks that “this triangle 

can be seen as a solid, as an arrow, as a geometrical drawing, as a half parallelogram, etc. (Ludwig Wittgenstein, Philosophical Investigations, trans. G. E. M. Anscombe (Oxford; B. Blackwell, 1953), 200.)

Thus, we can say for example:

      A sees the triangle as an arrow;

      B sees the triangle as a solid;

     C sees the triangle as a geometrical drawing.

When person A sees the triangle as an arrow, then, according to Wittgenstein, she sees the triangle according to an interpretation; she sees an aspect of the triangle. What has happened here? Something, a triangle, is seen as something else, as an arrow, etc. A thing, namely, a triangle, is interpreted as an arrow and is seen as an arrow according to its interpretation. Wittgenstein thinks that there is a thing here, namely a triangle, and that this triangle is (then) seen as an arrow, as a body, etc. In order to be able to reveal the aspects of the triangle, Wittgenstein presupposes that there is a triangle which is (then) seen according to its interpretations. The same triangle, the same object, the same thing, is seen according to different interpretations. The suggestion is that the interpretations start from the triangle; that the interpretations have the triangle as their shared point of departure. When A sees the triangle as an arrow, then this is an interpretation of something, namely, an interpretation of the triangle, and the triangle is seen according to this interpretation.

When we talk about according to what interpretations the triangle can be seen, we must not forget that the triangle is also an interpretation, an aspect. For example, the triangle is an aspect of the thing on page 200 of the Philosophical Investigations. We see a thing, namely, the thing on page 200 of the Philosophical Investigations, according to an interpretation as a triangle. But the thing on page 200 of the Philosophical Investigations is also an interpretation, perhaps the interpretation of a visual impression. This visual impression can be seen according to an interpretation as the thing on page 200 of the Philosophical Investigations . In our case, as we can speak of the aspects of the triangle, we can speak just as well of the aspects of the arrow, of the geometrical drawing, etc.; for example,

     D sees the geometrical drawing according to an interpretation as an arrow;

     E sees the wedge as an arrow;

     F sees a geometrical drawing and interprets it as a half parallelogram.

Therefore, we do not see a thing, as Wittgenstein writes, according to an interpretation (for example, a triangle as an arrow), but an interpretation according to an (other) interpretation (for example, a triangle as an arrow).

Of course, it is very tempting to assume that there is a thing there, something uninterpreted, which is interpreted and is (then) seen according to this interpretation. Admittedly, we generally simply say that, when we see the triangle as an arrow, we see an arrow as an interpretation of something. However, we must not overlook that the something (here, the triangle) whose interpretation we see or that we see according to an interpretation is itself in turn an interpretation of something (else). But if all we ever see is only an interpretation in accordance with another interpretation, then we must also be ready to give up the assumption that something, perhaps a thing, is the point of departure for the aspects, something which is not itself an aspect, but something uninterpreted.

Let us now consider another example that Wittgenstein wants to use to illustrate the “tangled” concept of seeing: When playing a game, children say of a chest that it is a house and they see the chest as a house. Let us examine the sentence: “The child sees a chest as a house.” (Ibid., 206.)

If I am to be in a position to make such a statement, I must not be participating in this game myself for the moment. Thus, I say that a child sees a chest as a house when I am watching the child playing and I do not see the chest as a house but see (only) a chest. To put it succinctly and provisionally: The child sees my chest as its house. The child sees a house—this means that the child saw a chest (and did not find it exciting, perhaps found the chest unsuitable for playing purposes) and (therefore) now sees a house. Although the grown-ups (constantly) see a chest, the child sometimes sees a house and sometimes a chest—namely, when it is not at play. But the child does not see the chest as a house. It sometimes sees a chest and sometimes a house. When playing, it sees a house; when it has had enough of this game, it will presumably again see a chest. (Here there is also a deviation from adult language which the child is still allowed; an adult who often played such games would presumably be taken to be crazy.) Perhaps I could now say that the child sees a house where I see a chest. This is justified insofar as there is no reason to assume that the surroundings of the chest that I see and the surroundings of the house that the child sees are different—at least the surroundings are not examined to determine whether they are different. When we claim that the child sees a chest as a house, we overlook that in doing so we combine the language of the child (Wittgenstein might say: the visual experience of the child) with adult language. Out of the two sentences—namely, “I see a chest” and “The child sees a house”—we make so to speak a single sentence: “The child sees a chest as a house.” One might now object: “Granted, the child does not see the chest as a house; but that the child sees a house in no way alters the fact that where the child sees a house there is a chest.” But, like the sentence “The child sees the chest as a house, whereas I see the chest as a chest,” this means nothing more than that we base our interpretation of the child’s language on our language or that we relate the child’s language to our language.

Before we examine this more closely, I would first like to discuss the duck-rabbit story. (See ibid., 194ff.)


Wittgenstein begins: “I shall call the following figure... the duck-rabbit. It can be seen as a rabbit’s head or as a duck’s.” Here I would just like to make the brief observation that of course it would also be possible to see “the following figure” as a rabbit’s head or as a duck’s head; to see the rabbit’s head as a duck-rabbit or as a figure, etc. Particularly interesting here is this part of the story:

      "I may… have seen the duck-rabbit simply as a picture-rabbit from the first. That is to say, if asked ‘What is that?’ or ‘What do you see here?’ I would have replied: ‘A picture-rabbit’. ... I should not have answered the question ‘What do you see here?’ by saying: ‘Now I am seeing it as a picture-rabbit’. … Nevertheless someone else could have said of me: ‘He is seeing the figure as a picture-rabbit’.”

But was Wittgenstein’s only reason for not saying “Now I am seeing it as a picture-rabbit” that it “would have made no sense” because it “would not have been understood”? We should not be satisfied with this explanation. For, the sentence “I may have seen the duck-rabbit simply as a picture-rabbit from the first" involves a contradiction insofar as the expression “simply from the first” precludes the expression “I could see the duck-rabbit as …” If Wittgenstein saw the duck-rabbit simply from the first  as a picture-rabbit, then  all he saw was a picture-rabbit and not (first) a duck-rabbit, which he then saw/interpreted as a picture-rabbit. After all, saying “Now I am seeing it as a picture-rabbit” presupposes that prior to this something else was seen: it, a picture-rabbit, a figure, a duck-rabbit, etc. Seeing something as something (else) means: first seeing something and then seeing something (else). But since Wittgenstein only saw (or wanted to see) a picture-rabbit from the first, there can be no question of his having seen something as something (else), that is, as a picture-rabbit. Therefore, it is not just that this sentence makes “no sense” in this context, as Wittgenstein thinks, but it would pretend something that is not the case, that is, it would speak of a visual (language) experience that did not occur. When Wittgenstein says, by contrast: “Now I am seeing it as a picture-rabbit” and he originally saw what he is now seeing as a picture-rabbit as a duck-rabbit, for example, then the expression “it” in the sentence denotes the expression “duck-rabbit,” whereas previously there was neither a visual-language nor a spoken-language expression to which the expression “it” could have referred. The “other” (in future I will say the ‘observer’), who says: “He sees the figure as a picture-rabbit” connects Wittgenstein's visual-language experience with his own visual-language experience. But this now means that the observer takes his own visual-language experience as a basis for his interpretation of Wittgenstein's visual-language experience. And this is not all. In doing so, he also asserts that Wittgenstein sees his—i.e. the 'observer’s’—visual-language experience (namely, the duck-rabbit as a picture-rabbit). One gets the impression, therefore, that Wittgenstein sees (or perceives and describes) the 'observer’s’ visual-language experience, even though the foregoing specifically makes clear that Wittgenstein is unaware of the visual-language experience of the “observer”.

Let us now consider a variant of the duck-rabbit story: Jack sees the duck-rabbit from the first as a picture-rabbit, Jill as a picture-duck. When asked “What do you see there?” Jack responds: “I see a picture-rabbit” and Jill: “I see a picture-duck.” The observer would now say for instance: “Jack sees the duck-rabbit as a picture-rabbit and Jill sees the duck-rabbit as a picture-duck.”

In this way, the ‘observer’ ascribes his own visual-language experience (assuming that the ‘observer’ sees a duck-rabbit and describes this perception with the expression “duck-rabbit”)—in other words, the observer prescribes his visual-language experience to Jack and Jill and they perceive this perception (and its description) and describe it. (After all, according to Wittgenstein, when Jack and Jill say “I see a picture-rabbit” or “I see a picture-duck” they are describing a perception.)

This view of a perception (and description) of a (different) perception (by a different person), this seeing of a seeing, is what underlies the sentence: “Jack sees the duck-rabbit as a picture-rabbit and Jill sees the duck-rabbit as a picture-duck.” Such views are the result (among other things) of the endeavor to arrive at interpretations, perceptions, descriptions, and observations of something, where this  something is not itself supposed to be an interpretation, perception, description, or observation.

 NEXT: The Beyond of Philosophy 3

Josef Mitterer is an Austrian philosopher.

The Beyond of Philosophy 1 here