Stanley Cavell, The Claim of Reason: Ch. 7

This will be our reading for the February 10 meeting.  You can find the details on our meetup.com page.

1. This chapter is about Wittgenstein’s account of language, what Cavell calls “the entire body and spirit of human conduct and feeling which goes into the capacity for speech” (168).  The issue here is how words come to have meaning.  A standard account of the meaning of words is that they apply universals to particulars: I apply the universal “table” to this table here.  The upshot of this chapter is that the idea of universals cannot solve the problems that gave rise to the idea of universals in the first place.

2. We learn words in certain contexts and are expected to be able to project them into other contexts.  This ability to project is a good criterion for having actually learned a word.  With this in mind, Cavell wants to handle two issues: what it means to learn a word, and what makes a projection into another context appropriate.  For example, what does it mean to learn what “feed” means, and why is it appropriate to also use the word not only in sentences like “feed the cat” but also “feed the meter”?  The traditional answer to the first question is that it is about grasping a universal, and the traditional answer to the second is “the recognition of another instance of the same universal.”  Cavell will argue these explanations are inadequate.

3. One important point to be kept in mind: Cavell’s claim about language learning about about the learning of a first language.  Learning a second language may have some similarities and some differences, but they are very much incidental to his argument.

Learning a Word

4. When a child learns the name of something, like “cat,” they obviously do not learn that this particular sound goes with that particular object, so what do they learn?  We might say the child learns that sounds like this name objects like that cat. but this is not satisfactory.  This answer could just as easily mean that a sound similar to “cat,” like “rat,” also names objects like cats, but of course this is not what happens. Alternatively, we could say sounds exactly like “cat” name objects exactly like cats, but this is either false or empty—how is one cat similar to another cat? If all we say is that this sound is a word which names cats, we are just repeating what we are trying to explain.

5. The issue here is the question of how much knowing what something is involves knowing what it is called.  When we say point and say “pumpkin” to a child, the child does not then know what a pumpkin is.  To “know what a pumpkin is” is to know it is a kind of fruit and that they come in many shapes and sizes.

6. If you can’t tell a child what a pumpkin is or what the word “pumpkin” means, then how can learning ever begin?  First, we should not assume that we are teaching what we think we are teaching, or that the child is learning what we they they are learning.  He says there is no clear difference between learning and maturation.  We expect a child to “have a vocabulary of a certain size” by a certain age.  When I teach a child the word “kitty” and point at a cat, the child repeats it, and all I really know here is that she repeated me, and I responded with encouragement.  

7. The next time she sees a cat, she repeats the word.  But it is possible that later, she sees a fur piece and calls it “kitty.”  This does not necessarily mean she does not know what “kitty” means; there are many possible interpretations.  Maybe by “kitty” she means soft or furry, or perhaps she means “this is like a kitty.”  We do not have to choose between these alternatives right away, but this is the beginning of learning: it is a leap.  Cavell says, “If she had never made such leaps she would never have walked into speech.  Having made it, meadows of communication can grow for us.  Where you can leap to depends on where you stand” (172).

8. Whether or not she currently knows that “kitty” means cat, if she keeps leaping and I keep encouraging her, she will eventually learn.

A great passage:

I have wanted to say: Kittens—what we call ‘kittens’—do not exist in her world yet, she has not acquired the forms of life which contain them.  They do not exist in something like the way cities and mayors will not exist in her world until long after pumpkins and kittens do; or like the way God or love or responsibility or beauty do not exist in our world; we have not mastered, or we have forgotten, or we have distorted, or learned through fragmented models, the forms of life which could make utterances like ‘God exists’ or ‘God is dead’ or ‘I love you’ or ‘I cannot do otherwise’ or ‘Beauty is but the beginning of terror’ bear all the weight they could carry, express all they could take from us.  We do not know the meaning of the words.  We look away and leap around.  (172-173)

9. Cavell wants to explain why it is wrong to think of learning a language as being taught the names of things, and this involves several points: that all words are names, that learning a word means being told what it means, and that learning a language is primarily about learning new words.  Cavell wants to focus on the second and third.

10. To say that learning a word means learning what it means is to say that we learn what the word labels.  Everything is ostensively defined: I point at a cat, and say “cat” means this thing.  However, in order to know what an ostensive definition is pointing at, one already has to be capable of asking a thing’s name, and to do this, one must already know something else.

11. Attaching labels is actually a small part of language.  When a child pastes paper on to things and says in a childlike way, “I am putting labels on my jars,” is he?  Or when at the grocery store, the child says, “Let me pay,” and he takes the money from you and put it on the counter.  Is he actually paying?  We can answer this question in a variety of ways, but we will probably end up saying there is a sense in which he is paying.  The problem is that it is far from clear what that “sense” is.

12. Cavell gives a different example of a child learning:

And we can also say: When you say ‘I love my love’ the child learns the meaning of the word ‘love’ and what love is.  That (what you do) will be love in the child’s world; if if it is mixed with resentment and intimidation, then love is a mixture of resentment and intimidation, and when love is sought that will be sought.  When you say ‘I’ll take you tomorrow, I promise’, the child begins to learn what temporal durations are, and what trust is, and what you do will show what trust is worth.  When you say ‘Put on your sweater’, the child learns what commands are and what authority is, and if giving orders is something that creates anxiety for you, then authorities are anxious, authority itself uncertain.  (177)

13. The child will also learn other things about these concepts—and everything they have learned will be a part of what these concepts are for them.  When the adult “realizes” what he “believed” about love and trust, will they stop believing in them, and if so, how?  Cavell says, “What we learn is not just what we have studied; and what we have been taught is not just what we were intended to learn.  What we have in our memories is not just what we have memorized” (177).

14. When we echo Augustine and say “The child, in learning language, is learning the names of things,” we are missing the nature of language and learning.  When one learns a first language, one does not only learn the names of things, but what a name is.  And we do not only learn the form of expressing a wish, but what expressing a wish is.  When do not only learn grammar, but a whole form of life.  Instead of telling a beginner what a word means, we initiate them into the relevant form of life.  We have to get them to follow us.  To some extent, all we can say is that this just happens naturally.  This makes language a somewhat shaky thing, which is why philosophers are always hunting for an absolute explanation of it.

15. Many things can go wrong; the child could not grasp what we mean, or take our approval to be disapproval.  This normally does not happen, though—is that just an accident?  We might be thinking the foundations of language are shaky here because we are looking for a particular sort of foundation and not finding it.

16. Cavell says, “Perhaps we feel the foundations of language to be shaky when we look for, and miss, foundations of a particular sort, and look upon our shared commitments and responses—as moral philosophers in our liberal tradition have come to do—as more like particular agreements than they are” (179).  This can give us the idea that our words will continue to be meaningful only so long as others find it worth their while to understand us, and may come to decide we are no longer a part of their world.  It is as if our sanity depends on their approval of us.

17. It is this idea of our relation to the child that makes him want to discuss some phrases philosophers often use, like “When we say … we are implying …” or “We wouldn’t call that (say) ‘recounting’”.  These are “statements of initiation.”  They are the philosopher telling themselves and us how we must do things, not predicting something.  They are telling us something about themselves, or “their world.”  These claims, because they do not appeal to evidence, cannot be refuted by evidence.  We might be wrong about what we say and do,

But that failure is not one which can be corrected with a more favourable position of observation or a fuller mastery in the recognition of objects; it requires a new look at oneself and a fuller realization of what one is doing or feeling … it is countered not by saying that a fact about the world is otherwise than you supposed, but by showing that your world is otherwise than you see. (179-180)

Projecting a Word

18. A word is learned in certain contexts, but it can be appropriately projected into other contexts.

19. If what can be said in a language is not completely determined by rules or universals, and if there are always new contexts and relationships, then in a sense the learning is never over: “we keep finding new potencies in words and new ways in which objects are disclosed” (180).  There are always more “routes of initiation.”  We need to know how we are initiated into new projections, and why we use old words in new contexts.  We do not just limit words to particular contexts with explicit definitions.  For some purposes, we do require precision, so the power of ordinary language to be used across multiple contexts can also be its liability.

20. To say that a word is ambiguous is to say that it can be used in many ways, but this does not mean it is being used in multiple ways in every instance, or that we are typically confused about the use of the word.  In fact, the more uses a word can have, then the more precise we can be.

21. We learn the use of “feed the kitty” and “feed the tiger,” and eventually someone says “feed the meter,” and we understand them.  We could use different words entirely—but what do we gain and lose if we do?

22. We could use a more general verb like “put”—“put the money in the meter.”  There are a few problems with this.  First, this does not discriminate between differences which could be important, like putting material into a machine and adding a piece to the construction of the machine.  Second, using “put” does not reduce the range of projection, but instead increases it.  The word “put” has to be the same one as in sentences like “Put your hands over your head” and “Put on your game face” and “Put the fire out.”

23. On the other hand, we could use a more specific verb than “feed.”  We could use a word already used in other contexts, or invent a new word.  The former returns us to the previous problems, and in the latter, we might end up saying that we “feed lions” “fod swans” and “fid meters.”  If we came across a culture which did that, we could ask why they did it.  What differences are being sensed and prioritized?

24. We would have to see what the natives would and would not accept as “feeding” or “fidding,” and what animals or things can be fed, fidded, or fodded.  If we imagine a language in which every action has its own verb, we would be imagining a language which was completely intolerant of projection.  We would have to assume certain things about their form of life, that they saw no connection between giving food to lions and swans.  These actions would be as distinct as petting the cat or hunting it.

25. Further, we’d have to assume that they not only saw them as different, but that they were actually different—and not just different like feeding lions and swans for us.  We don’t drop bread crumbs for lions or use a pitch fork to shovel food at swans.  Rather, they would have to be utterly different: different preparations, different clothing worn, different songs sung.  And we’d have to imagine that these piece of clothing and tools were never used for other occasions (because that would imply a relation between the actions), that the clothing is itself different for them.  It would be an entirely other form of life, with no projections at all.  He asks, “Can everything just be different?” (182)

26. Language is tolerant; it allows projections.  But it is also intolerant: not ever projection can be acceptable.  We can project words into many different contexts.  Which is to say, we can treat many different contexts as the same—but “it is equally true that what will count as a legitimate projection is deeply controlled” (182-182).    You feed peanuts to a monkey and feed coins into a meter, but you cannot feed a monkey with coins.  Just as much, you would not be “feeding” a lion by giving it carrots, and not simply because it would not eat them; it might not eat the meat you give it.  Not every case of “not eating” is “refusing food,” so what counts as “being fed”?  What can a lion refuse is tied to what they can be offered.  He continues, “I might say: An object or activity or event onto or into which a concept is projected, must invite or allow that projection; in the way in which, for an object to be (called) an art object, it must allow or invite the experience and behavior which are appropriate or necessary to our concepts of the appreciation or contemplation or absorption … of an art object” (83).

27. The kind of object which allows for that is no more arbitrary than the kind of object which we can call a “shoe.”  We might fail to recognize an object as a shoe, but this failure can take place in two ways.  It might just be that the shoe was quickly shuffled under the couch, so we did not get a clear look.  The other way is that “we fail to see how the object in question is a shoe (how it would be donned, and worn, and for what kind of activities or occasions)” (183).

28. When we ask “How do we use the word ‘shoe’?”, we are like the child asking “How do you make trees”, or “How do you make a house?”; each question can be answered in a few strokes: “Answered, that is, for the moment, for that question then” (184).

29. But the answer will not say everything about the origin of trees—“But then there is no ‘everything’ to be said.  For we haven’t been asked, or asked ourselves, everything either; nor could we, however often we wish that were possible” (184).

30. There is no such thing as an explanation which is complete in itself.  What applies here to explaining words also goes for giving directions, citing game rules, and justifying behaviour.  You cannot use words “until you are [an] initiate of the forms of life which give those words the point and shape they have in our lives” (184).  When I give you directions, I give exterior facts about the directions: “Not that road, but the one that goes by the school.”  But I cannot say what directions are to get you to the right place.  When I explain the rules of a game, I say a rule applies in such-and-such a situation, but I cannot say what following rules is, or explain how to follow a rule without presupposing that you can follow rules.

31. For those strokes to be the explanations we want them to be, the child must see how the strokes “make” a tree or a house: there is the door, there is the window, and so on.  Or if we want to explain why an action was done in anger, we could say “He was angry at …” or “He doesn’t usually speak sharply to his cat…”

32. These are not the only ways to explain how to make a house or explain, but if you don’t see how this makes a house, you’re probably not going to understand any other explanation either.

33. If we ask “How many strokes do we have to use?” the answer is inevitably “It depends.”  If we ask, “How do we know these ten strokes make a house,” this is like asking “How do we know that those ten words make that question?”  At this level, the only answer is “Because we know the grammar of visual or verbal representation.”

34. The ability to draw a rabbit and the ability to imagine what we would do in certain circumstances both depend on the mastery of a form of representation (e.g., knowing what “that is a rabbit” means).  He says, “To know how to use the word ‘anger’ is to know what anger is” (185).

35. Cavell is trying to show two fundamental facts about human forms of life and the concepts they sustain: “that any form of life and every concept integral to it has an indefinite number of instances and directions of projection; and that this variation is not arbitrary” (185).  We need both the variance and the consistency if a concept is to accomplish its tasks of meaning, understanding, and communicating.  However many instances of a concept there are—however many objects we can call shoes—the word “shoe” can be defined, and so it does have a meaning.  

36. The element of meaning he is trying to get it, the variance and consistency, can be rephrased:

“[T]o say that a word or concept has a (stable) meaning is to say that new and the most various instances can be recognized as falling under or failing to fall under that concept; to say that a concept must be tolerant is to say that were we to assign a new word to ‘every’ new instance, no word would have the kind of meaning or power a word like ‘shoe’ has.  or: There would be no instances, and hence no concepts either.”  (185-186)

37. How do we know when an instance falls under a concept?  If we define a word ostensively—by pointing at something—what points about the object is the ostensive definition pointing at?  What points does the ostensive definition of a “airplane” point at?  There would be definite points only when there are definite alternatives, passenger jets and bombers.

38. Put another way, what is the difference between taking an object as an individual and as an example?  We can phrase the problem of examples (and so the problem of universals) as this question: “Of what is this object (say what we call a shoe) an example?”  We could answer this by holding up a shoe and saying “It is an example of this.”  If the person says that they now understand what the first shoe is an example of, what have they seen?

39. Cavell says this issue of the simultaneous tolerance and intolerance of words revolves around the question of essence, and Wittgenstein answers this by saying “Essence is expressed by grammar.”  This is not a denial of the idea of essence, but a “retrieval” of it.  If our need for essences is real, then the need is satisfied by grammar.

40. Wittgenstein imagines someone complaining that he has not said what the essence of language is—that is, he has not explained what all linguistic activities have in common and what makes them language.  He grants this is true; he is saying that “these phenomena have no one thing in common which makes us use the same word for all.”  

41. The idea of having something “in common” is supposedly what makes us call things by the same name, but he wants us to stop assuming this is true.  Rather, we should “look and see” if there really are such commonalities.  He thinks when we actually examine the issue, we will see “a complicated network of similarities overlapping and criss-crossing: sometimes overall similarities, sometimes similarities of detail … I can think of no better expression to characterize these similarities than ‘family resemblances’” (PI, §66).

42. It looks as if he is offering the idea of family resemblances as an alternative to the idea of essence, but if he is, the idea is empty.  A philosopher who wants to explain essences will still want to explain family resemblances.  Family resemblance is only an alternative to essences “only if it had been shown that family resemblance is all we need to explain the fact of naming and that objects may bear a family resemblance to one another and may have nothing in common; which is either false or trivial” (187).  

43. It is false if we are asked what three brothers have in common and, not being able to say what, say “Nothing at all.”  We might say “They all have that unmistakable Karamazov quality.”  That would not tell you what they have in common, but only because you do not know the Karamazovs and not “grasped their essence.”  Or it is trivial, because saying “They have nothing in common” has as a specific and ordinary use as “They have something in common.”  Wittgenstein argues that ordinary uses of “what is common” does not necessarily lead us to the idea of essences, and so “there is nothing in common” does not lead us away from essences.

44. The idea of family resemblances is simply meant to make us dissatisfied with the idea of universals as an explanation of language, or of how a word can refer to multiple things.  When we talk about what things have in common in an ordinary way, we see that these commonalities are different from what the idea of universals is meant to cover.

45. We can then also see that concepts do not usually have or need “rigid limits,” so universals are neither necessary or even useful in explaining how concepts apply to different things.  The grasping of a universal cannot explain the function it is supposed to have, because the new application of a concept will still have to be explained in the particular case, and the explanations themselves are sufficient to explain the projection.  And finally, it means we know no more about a concept than the explanations we give.  Cavell thinks once we have all this in hand, the idea of a universal no longer has an obvious appeal.

46. Cavell thinks Wittgenstein’s ultimate point is that it makes no sense to give a general explanation for the generality of language, because it makes no sense to suppose that words in general might not recur, which could entail that we might have a name “chair” that we would apply to nothing else.  If we take Berkeley’s route and say that a particular word becomes general when it is made to stand in for all similar cases, we don’t explain how this word gets used for the various cases.  

47. There is an essence to things, but we do not find it by finding a quality: we learn it by finding the grammatical framework in which the word can be used.

48. To ask for a general explanation for the generality of language would be like asking for an explanation of why a child, as they are acquiring language, take what is said to them as consequential or as expressing an intention or projecting an expectation.  Cavell thinks it is more interesting to ask why we, as adults,

“take what is said and written as inconsequential, as without implication, as not mattering?  It seems to me that growing up (in modern culture? in capitalist culture?) is learning that most of what is said is only more or less meant—as if words were stuffs of fabric and we saw no differences between shirts and sails and ribbons and rags.  This could be because we have too little of something or too much, or because we are either slobs or saints.  Driven by philosophy outside language-games, and in this way repudiating our criteria, is a different way to live; but it depends on the same fact of language as do the other lives within it—that it is an endless field of possibilities and that it cannot dictate what is said now, can no more assure the sense of what is said, its depth, its helpfulness, its accuracy, its wit, than it can insure its truth to the world.  Which is to say that language is not only an acquirement but a bequest; and it is to say that we are stingy in what we attempt to inherit.  One might think of poetry as the second inheritance of language.  Or, if learning a first language is thought of as the child’s acquiring of it, then poetry can be thought of as the adult’s acquiring of it, as coming into possession of his or her own language, full citizenship.”  (189)

49. Finally, Wittgenstein does discuss the difference between the “figurative” use of a word an metaphor.  A projection of a word, even a figurative projection, can proceed “naturally,” while the point of a metaphor is that it breaks up the usual connections and is “unnatural.”

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