Friday, January 13, 2006

The Questionable Consolations of Philosophy

257. "What would it be like if human beings shewed no outward signs of pain (did not groan, grimace, etc)? Then it would be impossible to teach a child the meaning of the word 'tooth-ache'." - Well, let's assume the child is a genius and itself invents a name for the sensation! - But then, of course, he couldn't make himself understood when he used the word. - So how does he understand the name, without being able to explain its meaning to anyone? - but what does it mean to say that he has 'named his pain'? How has he done this naming of pain?! And whatever he did, what was its purpose? When one says "He gave a name to his sensation" one forgets that a great deal of stage-setting in the language is presupposed if the mere act of naming is to make sense. And when we speak of someone's having given a name to pain, what is presupposed is the existence of the grammar of the word "pain"; it shews the post where the new word is stationed.

665. Imagine someone pointing to his cheek with an expression of pain and saying "abracadabra!" - We ask "What do you mean?" And he answers "I meant toothache". You at once think to yourself: How can anyone mean 'toothache' by that word? Or what did it
mean to mean pain by that word? And yet, in a different context you would have asserted that the mental activity of meaning such-and-such was just what was most important in using language.

But - can't I say "By 'abracadabra' I mean toothache"? Of course I can; but this is a definition; not a description of what goes on in me when I utter the word.

Ludwig Wittgenstein, Philosophical Investigations

And then 'abracadabra' might be a good enough name for the sensation you're left with after the source of a toothache is gone. For what it's worth, Wittgenstein pays a lot less attention to the philosophical issues raised by headaches:

314. It shews a fundamental misunderstanding, if I am inclined to study the headache I have now in order to get clear about the philosophical problem of sensation.

I reckon he's on the money there but it would be a different story had he suffered from migraines.

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