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2022 Week 5 Reading Material


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Lecture 4: Language helps us, and language tricks us.


Ludwig Wittgenstein (1889-1951)


Is “Men desire nothing but pleasure” an empirical proposition?

I told him that I was puzzling these days about hedonism. The hedonist says: “Men desire nothing but pleasure.” As his manner was, is, he does not take nor use any time to consider. “Obviously this is no empirical proposition. The hedonist does not find this out by going about asking people what they want. He has no statistics about this. And yet he knows very well that people want all sorts of things. So it isn’t at all like: Everybody wants a motorcar. If someone wants a motorcar, then he wants pleasure, and if he wants to smoke or to write a letter, then he wants pleasure. Pleasure is another word for whatever anyone wants. In other words it’s a tautology. Everyone prefers the preferable. So pleasure is the desirable, the preferable.


Wittgenstein: “Remind yourself at the right time when doing philosophy with what satisfaction children (also plain folk) hear that that is the greatest bridge, the highest tower, the greatest speed….etc. (Children ask: “what is the greatest number?”) It is impossible for such a drive not to produce various philosophical prejudices & therefore philosophical entanglements.” (PPO, p.167 and p.169)




What is time?

Consider as an example the question “What is time?” as Saint Augustine and others have asked it. At first sight what this question asks for is a definition, but then immediately the question arises: “What should we gain by a definition, as it can only lead us to other undefined terms?” And why should one be puzzled just by the lack of a definition of time, and not by the lack of a definition of “chair”? Why shouldn’t we be puzzled in all cases where we haven’t got a definition? Now a definition often clears up the grammar of a word. And in fact is the grammar of the word “time” which puzzles us. We are only expressing this puzzlement by asking a slightly misleading question, the question: “What is…?” This question is an utterance of unclarity, of mental discomfort, and it is comparable with the question “Why?” as children so often ask it….Now the puzzlement about the grammar or the word “time” arises from what one might call apparent contradictions in that grammar.

It was such a “contradiction” which puzzled Saint Augustine when he argued: How is it possible that one should measure time? For the past can’t be measured, as it is gone by; and the future can’t be measured because it has not yet come. And the present can’t be measured for it has no extension. (Wittgenstein, Blue and Brown Books, p.26)






Take as an example the aspects of a triangle. TRIANGLE (noun) definition and synonyms | Macmillan Dictionary

This triangle can be seen as a triangular hole, as a solid, as a geometrical drawing; as standing on its base, as hanging from its apex; as a mountain, as a wedge, as an arrow or pointer, as an overturned object which is meant to stand on the shorter side of the right angle, as a half parallelogram, and as various other things. ( Philosophical Investigations, Part II, p.200) [debunking the idea of a Form]



J. L. Austin (1911-1960)



The meaning of doing anything


“the phrase ‘the meaning of a word’ is, in general, if not always, a dangerous, nonsense-phrase.” (p.56, J. L. Austin: Philosophical Papers, third edition, 1979, Oxford University Press, ed. J. O. Urmson and G. J. Warnock)


“For example, I ask Old Father William ‘What is the point of standing on one’s head?” He replies in the way we know. Then I follow this up with “What is the point of balancing an eel on the end of one’s nose?” And he explains. Now suppose I ask as my third question “What is the point of doing anything—not anything in particular, but just anything?” Old Father William would no doubt kick me downstairs without the option. But lesser men, raising this same question and finding no answer, would very likely commit suicide or join the Church. (J. L. Austin, Ibid, p.59)”



Karl Marx (1818-1883) and Hannah Arendt (1906-1975)


“The history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggles.” (Karl Marx, Communist Manifesto)

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