Swans Commentary » swans.com November 21, 2005  



Re-Reading Wittgenstein To Grok Now


by Milo Clark





(Swans - November 21, 2005)  Are my experiences of knowing knowledge? Likewise, may my knowing also become someone else's knowledge? Am I mistaken? I don't think so.

I know the sensations of my butt sitting on a chair. Do I? I have senses, sensations that I name as compression or support; sensations that change as I move back and forth on the seat. If I sit long enough in an uncomfortable position, parts of my butt and legs may go numb. If being numb is known, I will move to relieve, to restore circulation, to resume a comfortable relationship with the chair. Is all of this simply experiencing this body? Would that experiencing be knowledge? Do I know my body or am I merely using names which I have learned; that is, names I have been taught?

My butt on this chair cannot be experienced by someone else. Much as I attempt to describe my feelings, how elaborate my words and gestures, how precise and descriptive, my butt's feeling cannot be another's feelings, much less knowledge.

Jumping up the ladders of abstraction, let's try common acceptances of the variety two plus two equals four. Empirically, were I to pick up two seemingly identical objects, small wooden blocks will do, in company with anyone who also counts by decimal systems, we could agree that the two wooden blocks were two wooden blocks from which we may safely abstract as two without further qualification. Two, in this sense, being an abstraction signified by two apparently identical or acceptably similar physical objects. Two being also one object for each hand.

Whether we would need to add the modifiers, "wooden blocks," may be immaterial given we are only trying to show that two objects plus two other objects will equal four objects. Adding two more of the same appearing wooden blocks to the process, under our decimal counting system in its English variants, will equal four such objects associated, hence two wooden blocks placed with two other wooden blocks number four wooden blocks which, for all practical purposes, we take as equivalents. We also are trained to abstract from that demonstrable actuality.

Wittgenstein, among others, asks us to be careful of such facile generalizations.

Notice, however, that sets of agreements have become involved. We agree that two apparently similar objects are two in number. We agree that the number system we employ in this determination is a decimal system expressed in English. We accept that the wooden blocks involved are essentially identical for the purposes of carrying the designations of number and wooden block. We can pick up the wooden blocks involved in our example and move them around in several combinations so that there are always two here and two there and when together they are four wooden blocks. We can do one here and three there and three here and one there. In every case, four objects remain apparent and at hand.

Were these essentially identical wooden blocks to be taken from a child's set in which each block has a number symbol inscribed upon it, would we still be able to mix them up to yield a total of four? Block one with symbol one, block two with symbol two, block three with symbol three, and block four with symbol four would, if the number symbols were added as suggested by an equation of one plus two plus three plus four, equal instead ten. We would have to make distinctions between the number of physical objects, four wooden blocks, and the numbers inscribed on those four objects. The simple and apparently obvious can become complicated.

However, should we move a step more towards abstraction and chalk symbols on a blackboard, as English speaking decimal system adherents, we would make a symbol we are trained to name as "two." Placing a small cross, "+," to the right side of the two symbol, we would recognize through our training to say that this small cross may be pronounced "plus." A second two symbol to the right of the plus symbol would produce a statement, "two plus two." Adding a new symbol, "=" to the right of the two plus two statement changes the statement to an incomplete equation "two plus two equals." The answer to that equation is placed to the right of the "=" symbol. That symbol, "4," we identify as four when pronounced as a word. By using five mutually understood symbols arranged in a mutually understood fashion, we arrive at a statement expressed as "two plus two equals four." Most English speakers having minimal acquaintance with algebra and mathematical symbols would accept our demonstration that two plus two equals four. Many non-English speaking people would relate to the symbols, too.

The generalizations possible therefrom are nearly limitless. But, are they knowledge or habit or learned behaviors? Much like Newtonian or Cartesian approximations of actualities beyond the curiosity of most, we can get along just fine with these types of generalizations perhaps misnamed as knowledge. Habit may a better word.

I can buy tomatoes, apples, cucumbers, onions, heads of lettuce, mushrooms using combinations and extensions of two plus two equals four. I can buys houses, cars, stocks and bonds using the same habits of thought.

I cannot, however, know what it is to be struck by a rocket-propelled grenade, or RPG. I cannot know what it is to be driven from my village in Darfur. I cannot know a day in Guantánamo or Bagram. Shall I add the unknowables of an Aceh beach or Kashmiri mountain village? How about any of the soggy neighborhoods in the path of Katrina, Rita, or Wilma?

I am not trained to recognize a set of commonly available symbols with which to note these experiences. Words can only most roughly be approximated to suggest these experiences. Those words attempted, typically by others, however, are likely to express an external opinion rather than express actuality for an individual experiencing them.

If I am an Arab young man struck by an RPG, the American Army press release would tally an insurgent dead. If an American Marine were so struck, the tally would be death number 2000+ due to insurgent aggression (11/30/05). The Darfur person in a Sudanese government communiqué would be one less person where they are no longer wanted. The person would report herself devastated, uprooted, horrified in whatever language is hers. A UN report, if any, would note one more village decimated by government or paramilitary troops in this stricken region. As official reports from Guantánamo and Bagram may be assumed totally one-sided, we are forced to project our opinions thereon.

There is no place for the complacency of two plus two equaling four in those or related contexts. By simple extension, there is no place for complacency in accepting the depredations being heaped upon the world by those who have usurped power in Washington, D.C. Whether or not current events such as the Plame outing will confound these people to a meaningful degree, they will hold the reins for nearly four more years, during which time great damage can be wrought.

Knowing what is passed off as two plus two equals four, i.e., truth or knowledge, when it is neither truth nor knowledge in actuality, is a vital tool to personal, organizational, and societal survival under present conditions.

Know that what you are sitting on is yours and behave accordingly.

Expect almost anyone to whom you attempt to make distinctions of this type to look at you strangely, move away and change the subject.

Perhaps I understand better why Wittgenstein committed suicide. Turing comes into sharper focus, too. Alan Turing, the man credited with developing the means by which the Nazi Enigma codes were broke. That is, another who chose suicide when harassed by small minds trusted with power.

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Internal Resources

Patterns which Connect

America the 'beautiful'


About the Author

Milo Clark on Swans (with bio).



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Cold Porridge, The Morning After - Robert Wrubel

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End Of Story - Alma A. Hromic

Cinematizing Shakespeare - Charles Marowitz

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Swans -- ISSN: 1554-4915
URL for this work: http://www.swans.com/library/art11/mgc170.html
Published November 21, 2005