Errol Morris on Wittgenstein, or someone like him in certain respects

by Dave Maier

A few months ago, on the New York Times Opinionator blog, filmmaker Errol Morris posted a remarkable five-part series of articles, which dealt with a wide range of fascinating topics, all in search of an understanding of a traumatic incident in his past. This is a time-honored literary exercise, and Morris is a knowledgeable and skilled writer. Yet not everyone was pleased with his efforts, and some harsh words were exchanged in the ether before all became quiet once again.

Not one to let sleeping dogs lie, but also in the hope that tempers have cooled enough for us to take a sober look at the matter, I would like today, for what it is worth (and if you find it worthless, your money will be cheerfully refunded) to throw in my own two cents.

Perhaps you remember the story. As he tells it, in 1972 Morris was a graduate student at Princeton studying with Thomas Kuhn. During a heated discussion, Kuhn, a chain-smoker, threw an ashtray at Morris, missing his target but searing an unforgettable image into the young man's soul: “I see the arc, the trajectory. As if the ashtray were its own separate solar system. With orbiting planets (butts), asteroids and interstellar gas (ash).” Below this description, Morris provides for the reader a specially reenacted photograph (photo credit: Errol Morris).

Morris_ashtray7-blog427 What concerns me in this fantastic apologia cum vendetta is not the terrible wrong that was done to Morris (which included not simply the threat of bodily harm, but also ejection from the graduate program), but the rather more boring issue of the philosophical corners Morris necessarily – and unnecessarily – cuts in telling his story.

Just be glad this isn't a five-part series.

In 1972 Thomas Kuhn was a controversial figure with a controversial view, and it is not surprising that he inspired strong feelings both pro and con. The spark which ignited this particular conflagration, Morris tells us, was a paper he had written for Kuhn, but he suspects that an underlying issue was Morris's attendance, against Kuhn's wishes, of philosopher Saul Kripke's lectures on reference and names (published later as Naming and Necessity).

Why had Kuhn forbidden Morris to go to Kripke's lectures? Because Kripke's devastating argument utterly undermines Kuhn's views. Or so Morris argues; which leads us to our subject today. I have to be brief here, so you may have to go back to Morris (or Kripke) for the full story, but here goes.

Kripke According to Morris, Kuhn's central idea is that “truth is culturally determined and depends on your “frame of reference.”” In contrast, Kripke believes that “words are attached to things in the world through an historical (or causal theory) of reference [which is] a decidedly un-postmodern idea of meaning, reference and truth.” As he puts it: “For Kripke, there is such a thing as reference; for Kuhn, there may be no such thing. For Kripke, there are necessary truths (and essential properties); for Kuhn, there are no truths, let alone necessary ones. And on and on and on.” On and on indeed: throughout the series, Morris takes pains to roll out every anti-postmodernist barb he can think of, painting a horrific picture of what awaits us if we abandon what he presents as the merest common sense. Resisting this Orwellian fate, he boldly takes a stand: truth does exist! There is a real world! Words do have meanings!

Kripke's target is actually a bit more boring than this makes it sound. As Morris explains, Kripke argues against the “descriptivist” view of meaning, according to which the meaning of our terms is exhausted by a description of the things to which they are to apply. But that seems to mean that a name will change its referent if that thing changes in the relevant way. As Kripke points out, that can lead to some mighty counterintuitive consequences. In Morris's example, if the name “Goldie” just means “the fish that is golden in color,” then when the golden-colored fish whom I thus dub “Goldie” changes her color to green, we may no longer say, as it seems we would like to, that Goldie has become green. Kripke's theory is designed to overcome this problem. Once I name her, for whatever reason, “Goldie” refers to that fish, whatever characteristics she may have later on.

The uncompromising realism of this view is easily seen as a strong bulwark against the corrosive tides of postmodern relativism: words refer to things in the world, not other words (or our intentions, or any other subjective or “socially constructed” thing). However, the truth is not so simple. While the descriptivist theory seems to disallow a particular way of talking, Kripke's theory seems instead to require it. But it would be better to say that at any time, what a word means (which thing in the world it picks out, if you like), depends not on the requirements of some philosophical doctrine, but instead on how the speaker uses it. In this case, a perfectly natural use of the name might very well be to pick out what is at the time a golden fish, regardless of its color in the past (and thus what I called it then). If I want you to bring me a golden fish for some tests, I may very well ask you to bring me “Goldie” – and I may do this every day, knowing full well that their colors change. In such circumstances, to bring me a green fish (even one whom I called “Goldie” in the past) would be perverse.

And indeed, perversity seems to be just as strong an impulse for realists as it is typically thought to be for anarchic postmodern rebels: (imagine someone saying “It's not politically correct [smirk] to say this, but …”); and perversity is the only explanation I can conceive for a particularly egregious misreading, in Morris's fourth post, of Ludwig Wittgenstein. According to philosopher Stanley Cavell – a colleague of Kuhn's and a prominent interpreter of Wittgenstein – Kuhn worried (“and why not,” says Cavell, as the issue is “quite real”) that in stressing the role of human agreement in determining meaning, Wittgenstein was “denying the rationality of truth.”

The idea that human agreement plays an as yet unappreciated role in the workings of our language is implicit in much of Philosophical Investigations, but Morris draws our attention in particular to section 241:

“So you are saying that human agreement decides what is true and what is false?” –– It is what human beings say that is true and false; and they agree in the language they use. That is not agreement in opinions but in form of life.

Morris: “Wittgenstein, notoriously difficult to pin-down, at least in this one instance, seems to be saying what he’s saying. And he opens the door (or the lid of Pandora’s Box) to a relativistic notion of truth. In paragraph 241, it’s agreement between human beings that decides what is true or false. It suggests that we could agree that the earth is flat and that would make it so. So much for the relationship between science and the world. And yet, Kuhn made peace with this idea. He even made it the cornerstone of his philosophy of science.”

I've never been into Kuhn that much – it's too hard to figure out what part is speculation and what part is settled doctrine – but when I am around you grossly misinterpret Wittgenstein at your peril.

Let's back up a bit. As the saying goes, “believing doesn't make it so.” In fact the very notion of belief is designed to capture the difference between what we know about the world and what we think we know but which might not actually be true. When you think you know that such-and-such is the case, but I disagree, I report how you take the world to be by saying that you believe that such-and-such is the case (but really it isn't).

Relativism seems to deny this truism. We often say that relativists believe (or say they do) that there is no truth, but we might just as well put the point by saying that on the relativist view, each of us has our own truth, which pretty much amounts to the same thing. Things don't get any better if we expand the circle of truth-making to groups instead of individuals. We cannot “make it so” by jointly believing it to be so any more than we can by ourselves. In such cases, we simply reinforce what might very well be our delusions. If Wittgenstein were saying that “human agreement decides what is true and false” in this sense, as Morris claims he is, then Wittgenstein would indeed be a relativist. But as we shall see, only perversity can make it seem this way.

The truth of what I say is not determined by my belief, or our agreement, that things are indeed that way. It is determined by two things: the meaning of my utterance, and the state of the world at that time. We may agree about either of these things; but surely agreement about the former can't affect the latter any more than agreement about the latter can. Yet in order for us to speak a common language – or better, for anyone to speak a language (and say anything meaningful, and thus possibly true) at all – we need to see the semantic rules we follow to be communally held (allowing for some variation of course). In this sense, language is a public phenomenon, a communally built bridge, if you like, which allows us to communicate.

When Wittgenstein asks (p. 18e) “Can I say 'bububu' and mean 'If it doesn't rain I shall go for a walk'?”, he invites us to consider that I cannot: “It is only in a language that I can mean something by something” – and thus not something that I can arbitrarily do by myself. Yet a further point is that such a thing could be made possible by the appropriate “stage-setting.” After all, if on some cloudy afternoon Stanley Cavell toys with his walking-stick and, fixing me with a significant glance, intones “bububu,” I might indeed take him to mean just that. This is because we share quite a few of the relevant beliefs: what Wittgenstein said, what walking-sticks are, that clouds may mean rain, and so on. Without these I would continue to have no clue.

Witt picture Wittgenstein thus insists that agreement about semantic matters requires, for such “stage-setting”, a significant amount of agreement about how things are. But this does not at all imply anything so simplistic as that in order to understand my claim that P, you need to agree that P is true. It means instead that if we agreed on nothing, we could not even begin to communicate; in fact, this line of thought, in the hands of later philosophers like Donald Davidson, threatens the idea that speakers of any languages, however different, could be said to agree on nothing. We must attribute some true beliefs to our interlocutors in order to justify even an interpretation of their words on which any particular utterance comes out as (intelligible but) false. In this sense, even when our concern is indeed with speaking the truth about how things are, and thus spurning relativism, we must recognize the role played in this possibility by human agreement.

Now, finally, let's look at §241 and see what it says. First, note the quotation marks. Far from affirming the simplistic doctrine that “human agreement decides what is true and false” – the doctrine Morris attributes to Wittgenstein on the basis of this section – Wittgenstein is recognizing the possibility of this very misunderstanding and addressing it head-on. A common orthographical convention used in Philosophical Investigations is the use of quotation marks to indicate the objections of an imaginary interlocutor in this way. (This is not to say that the worries so expressed are not Wittgenstein's own; simply that we cannot take them as his own settled view, but instead a view – as Cavell explains in calling the issue “quite real” – to which Wittgenstein feels obliged to respond.)

As we have seen, the quoted attribution is not entirely wrong, but is instead a simplistic and confused worry that Wittgenstein's reference to the role of “human agreement” will lead, or simply amounts to, relativism. Relativism would indeed follow if what Wittgenstein meant was that truth and falsity were determined by our agreement that things really were that way – an agreement in opinion, rather than the broader alignment in what he calls “forms of life.” Instead, he quite explicitly and straightforwardly denies this view. To explain what he does mean, he reminds his interlocutor that even when we retain the anti-relavitist idea that it is the truth about the world at which we aim, we do so by saying things. After all, while in order for a statement to be true, it must depict the world accurately, it makes no sense to say that the world itself is “true.” Again, though, in order for a statement to be accurate in this way, and thus true, it must be meaningful; and this requires “agreement” of a broader kind than mere opinion on the matter at hand.

In the following section, Wittgenstein elaborates his point. Now that the simplistic relativism suggested by his confused interloctutor has been rejected, Wittgestein acknowledges that it can sound “strange” (seltsam) to recognize the necessity – for meaning, and in this way for truth – of some manner of agreement in judgments. (“This seems to abolish logic,” he says, “but does not do so.”) He reminds us again of the commonsense distinction between talking about language and using it to state how things are (“methods of measurement” vs. “results of measurement”, or, as we have been saying, of meaning and belief), and reaffirms the conceptual dependence of the former on – not particular results, but – a “certain constancy” in the latter. Morris's assertion that Wittgenstein here “suggests that we could agree that the earth is flat and that would make it so” is willful misreading born of spite.

Davidson As I mentioned above, the Wittgensteinian idea of the conceptual interdependence of belief and meaning, far from being some Euro-postmodern wackiness, has been developed further by the American analytic philosopher Donald Davidson. Ironically, Morris quotes Davidson himself (as “an early critic of Kuhn”): “Conceptual relativism is a heady and exotic doctrine, or would be if we could make good sense of it. …what sounded at first like a thrilling discovery — that truth is relative to a conceptual scheme — has not so far been shown to be anything more than the pedestrian and familiar fact that the truth of a sentence is relative to (among other things) the language to which it belongs.” [“On the Very Idea of a Conceptual Scheme,” as quoted by Morris in pt. 4] Yet it is this very “pedestrian and familiar” idea, properly construed, that leads directly to the ideas which Davidson and Wittgenstein share.

In other words (his), Davidson rejects the dualism of conceptual scheme and empirical content. Belief and meaning are different things, to be sure; but they are not to be cleanly separated in the relativist manner. Yet this argument applies to realists too, at least of the Kripkean or essentialist stripe – or anyone who, like Morris (or Morris's Wittgenstein!), sees Wittgenstein's reflections on the nature of semantic “rules” to “open the door” to relativism. Realists often talk as if the structure of our language is pre-determined by the (real, so therefore “objective”) structure of the world; so all I have to do – all I get to do – to speak a language is to hook onto this structure at the very edge, by choosing a particular, otherwise meaningless, sound or inscription to denote that thing there (and everything like it, as predetermined by the world while I wasn't looking). Once this has happened, all further uses of the term are pre-interpreted: I cannot refer to that newly-golden fish as “Goldie” even if I want to, and even if you understand. Of course realists allow that people can use words wrongly as well as getting the world wrong. But even this semantic matter is taken as a fact about the world, determined solely by the world and in no way by us (it's the objective world, after all! What are you, a relativist?).

These are difficult matters and (as he has responded to critics) Morris meant his posts as an elementary expression of a particular view for a general audience, not a closely reasoned philosophical treatise. But (as he would surely agree) that's no excuse for getting things badly wrong.