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Wittgenstein - Bodily Sensations
(Text as at 31/08/2017 19:35:02)
(For earlier versions of this Note, see the table at the end)
This note provides my detailed review of "Wittgenstein (Ludwig) - Bodily Sensations", a passage from the Blue & Brown Books (pp. 48 – 57) set in Philosophy of Mind at Birkbeck during my second-year BA, written as preparation for an essay1.
- Can I know that only I have personal experiences, and not know that others do? Is it an unnecessary hypothesis that others have personal experiences? But is this any hypothesis at all – how could it be backed by meaning – if it transcends any possible experience? It’s no help for someone to say that even though we don’t know that another has pains, we must believe it because we pity him. We shouldn’t pity someone we don’t think has pains, but is this a philosophical, ie. a metaphysical, belief? Wittgenstein asks whether a realist pities him in pain more than does an idealist or a solipsist? He says that a solipsist cannot believe that another is in pain for such an attribution makes no sense.
- The common-sense man is as far from realism as idealism; but, the common-sense philosopher says that there’s no difficulty in imagining that another has the same pain that I have. Wittgenstein thinks that such a realist philosopher doesn’t so much solve but skip the difficulties others see (and don’t solve either). The realist arguing like this just points out the difficulty by ignoring the different usages of words like “to have” or “to imagine”. The fact that A’s gold tooth is in his mouth may account for why I can’t see it, but this is by no means analogous to the case where I say I can’t feel his toothache because it is in his mouth. The trouble arises because of these apparent but inadequate analogies, and the realist fails to notice this aspect of our grammar. Wittgenstein says that it is conceivable that I should feel pain in a tooth in another’s mouth, but that this is not what is being denied by the person who says he cannot feel another’s toothache. To see the grammatical difficulty, we need to explore the case of feeling pain in another person’s body. Otherwise we’re likely to confuse two propositions (a) the metaphysical one: “I can’t feel someone else’s pain” with an experiential one (b) “I can’t have pains in another person’s tooth”. In (b), can’t is used in the sense of “experience shows that … doesn’t” (as in “a (finger-) nail can’t scratch glass”). To show that (b) isn’t necessarily true we need to examine what sort of facts count for a pain being in a certain sort of place. We can easily imagine the case of looking at our hands without being aware of their connection to the rest of my body – ie. seeing my hands moving without seeing the arms that connect them to my torso, or checking on their existence. For all I know, the hand may be attached to the body of someone standing next to me, or to no body at all. Suppose I feel a pain that, with my eyes shut, feels like a pain in my left hand. Someone asks me to touch the painful spot with my right hand, but when I do so, I find myself touching my neighbour’s hand (that is, the hand attached to his body).
- We must ask ourselves how we know where to point to when asked to point to the painful spot. Can this be analogous to pointing, on request, to a black spot on a piece of paper? Suppose someone claims that you know where to point to the painful spot because you knew before you pointed that the pain was there; but, what does it mean to know that the pain is there? In what sense is this a locality? In Euclidean space, so we know how far from the wall the pain is? If I have a pain in the tip of my finger and touch my tooth with it, do I have toothache as well as a pain in my finger? In one sense, the pain is located on the tooth; would it be sufficient for toothache if the pain was situated 1/16” away from the tip of my finger? Many different grammatical games can be played with the word where. Wittgenstein suggests we need to know where something is before we can deliberately point to it, move towards it or (maybe) look at it. Analogously, one can only obey an order if one has understood it.
- So, if I have a pain in my arm, in what sense can I be said to have known its location before pointing to the place? Before pointing, I could have said “in my left arm”. If my arm had been covered with a reference grid, I could refer to the co-ordinates of the pain’s location – was it necessary to know this before pointing? Wittgenstein thinks that the act of pointing determines the place of pain, but points out that this can lead to a different location to finding the place of pain by probing.
- There are innumerable cases in which we might say we had a pain in another person’s body, in a piece of furniture or an empty spot. Wittgenstein mentions the peculiarity of the tactual and kinaesthetic neighbourhood of pains in particular parts of the body. Distances – tactual or kinaesthetic distances – are judged differently to normal – eg. the distance from mouth to eye, or the size of a cavity in a tooth that is being drilled.
- Moving the finger “a little distance” from mouth to eye refers to tactual distance and tactual evidence. The criterion for my finger touching my eye is the particular feeling I have, even without or with contradictory visual evidence. Places lying “a little distance apart” are tactual places. To say that my finger moves from mouth to eye in tactual and kinaesthetic space means that I have the sort of tactual and kinaesthetic experiences normally had when willing to say that I’ve moved my finger from mouth to eye. But, evidence for the latter statement is not just tactual and kinaesthetic because, even though I had these sensations, I might deny this statement if I saw it was not the case, because it is a statement about physical objects2. The grammar of propositions about physical objects admits a variety of evidence – such as my seeing or feeling, other people seeing or telling me … that it moved. Saying that I see my hand move appears to commit me to agreeing to the proposition that my hand moves, but if the visual evidence is only part of the story, it doesn’t entail this – and we might retreat to “it looks as though my hand were moving”. Even this expression seems to imply I have a hand, which just appears to be moving, when we can easily imagine cases where the visual evidence implies I have a hand that is moving whereas other evidence tells me I have no hand. Ordinary language constrains us to talk about tactual (and other) sensations in terms of physical objects whose existence isn’t entailed by the sensations themselves. We have to use circumlocutions for our sensations; our language is still sufficient for our special purposes, but is cumbersome and occasionally misleading. The reason for the peculiarity of our language is the usual co-incidence of our sense modalities – feeling and seeing my hand moving usually go together. A man whose foot has been amputated will describe a particular pain as pain in his foot3. We feel a need for expressions such as “a sensation travels from my tactual cheek to my tactual eye”. The relevance of all this is that if one is aware of the tactual and kinaesthetic environment of a pain, it seems difficult to imagine a toothache other than in one’s own tooth. However, imagining such a case just involves imagining different correlations to normal. We can imagine someone with toothache and the tactual and kinaesthetic experiences normally bound up with seeing one’s hand move from one’s tooth to other parts of the face, but visually correlated to another person’s face. We can also imagine someone with the kinaesthetic sensation of moving his hand, and tactual sensations in hand and face, yet be forced from kinaesthetic and visual sensations to conclude that the hand is moving across the knee. So, we might be unsure whether we were correct in describing a toothache as being in the table were it the case that we had the sensation of toothache, the tactual and kinaesthetic experience of touching tooth and face, yet the visual experience of the hand touching the table. But, Wittgenstein is sure that if we substituted another person’s face for the table, we’d not hesitate, in this story, to say we had toothache in another person’s tooth.
- This is still, however, not another person’s pain, but my pain in his body.
- The propositions “A has a gold tooth” and “A has toothache” consequently differ in grammar.
- Wittgenstein now turns to the word “imagine”. No-one would deny that we can imagine another person’s pain, but do we imagine it as if he had a black eye. Replace imagining by painting an image, which could even be how certain beings do their imagining. Having painted the picture, we can compare it for accuracy with the real eye. When we vividly imagine someone in pain, there may enter into our image a shadow of a pain at the place we imagine his pain to be. However, the sense in which an image is an image depends on the way we compare it to reality, the method of projection. Now how could we compare the image of A’s toothache with his toothache? Saying that the comparison takes place indirectly via his bodily behaviour means you don’t compare them as you would compare a picture of his behaviour with his behaviour.
- If we say we can’t know but can conjecture when A has a pain, we fail to see the difficulties arising from different usages of the words “conjecturing” and “knowing”. In saying you couldn’t know you were thinking of a case similar to not knowing whether someone had a gold tooth because his mouth was shut – ie. where, though you don’t know, you could imagine knowing; it would make sense to say you saw the tooth, even though contingently you didn’t. However, in saying that you can’t know whether a person has pain, you don’t mean that just as a matter of fact they don’t know, but that it doesn’t make sense to say they know (and, therefore, it doesn’t make sense to say they don’t know, either). Hence, using “conjecture” is not in opposition to “know”. It is not that you aimed at knowing, but fell short – rather there was no goal in the game. This is like saying that we can’t count the natural numbers – this isn’t a statement about human frailty, like the impossibility of swimming the Atlantic, but is comparable to “there is no goal in an endurance race4”.
- When expressing anger at the foolishness of someone going out on a cold day with a head-cold, we may say “I won’t feel your cold”, which can mean “I don’t suffer when you catch a cold”, an empirical proposition. We could imagine a radio connection between the two bodies such that one person feels a pain in his head while the other exposed his head to cold air. One could argue that the pains are mine because felt in my head, but suppose I and another person had a part of our bodies in common, say a hand, with both our arms connected to this hand by an operation5. We now imagine the hand stung by a wasp and we both have the same reaction to, and give the same description of, the pain. Do we have the same pain or different ones? Someone could say that, even though we feel pain in the same place in the same body and our descriptions tally, still my pain can’t be his – because my pain is my pain and his pain is his pain. In this case they are making a grammatical6 statement about the use of statements like “the same pain”. We don’t want to use phrases like “he’s got my pain” or “we’ve both got the same pain” but instead would use “his pain is exactly like mine”. Wittgenstein denies that it is a good argument to say that the two pains couldn’t be the same because we might kill or anaesthetise one of the people while the other still felt pain7. If we exclude the phrase “I have his toothache” from our language, we also exclude “I have (or feel) my toothache”. We might express our metaphysical statement in an even more misleading manner by claiming that a man’s sense data are private to himself; misleading because it looks like an experiential proposition, a scientific truth.
- Wittgenstein draws an analogy with two books having the same colour – why can’t we object that they can’t have the same colour because this one has its own colour and that one has its own colour? This would be setting a grammatical rule, though in this case contrary to ordinary usage. Is talk of sense data the same as talk of physical bodies? We can meaningfully say that this is not the same chair as the one I saw an hour ago, or argue that two chairs can’t be the same chair because one was in London and the other in Cambridge – they just looked exactly alike. Wittgenstein asks us to consider how we consider different conditions for identity in cases such as same day, word, occasion, etc.
- Above, we have shown that “can”, in a metaphysical proposition, hides a grammatical rule. We destroyed the outward similarity between a metaphysical proposition and an experiential one and tried to find the form of expression which our ordinary language doesn’t fulfil and in that case leads to metaphysical puzzlement. If I say in a metaphysical sense that I must always know when I have pain, I simply make “know” redundant and instead of saying “I know I have pain” I can simply say “I have pain”. Of course, the matter is different if we give sense to the expression “unconscious pain” by fixing experiential criteria for the man who has pain but doesn’t know it. We could then determine as a matter of fact whether someone ever had pains he didn’t know of.
- When we say “I can’t feel his pain” the idea of an insurmountable barrier presents itself to us, such as in the similar case that the same patch can’t be two different colours simultaneously. The picture we have of the physical impossibility of this is not so much a barrier but a feeling that the two colours would get in one another’s way. This is not analogous to the case of three people being unable to sit side-by-side on a bench, simply because they have no room8 - the bench is too small - and we have a physical impossibility. It is analogous to saying that 3 x 18 inches won’t go into 3 feet, a grammatical rule stating a logical impossibility. The two impossibilities are easily confused, just as the two propositions – “he is 6 inches taller than me” and “6 foot is 6 inches taller than 5 foot 6” – look similar but are of utterly different kinds. The reason physical impossibility suggests itself is that, even though we have decided against using a particular form of expression, we are still tempted to use it because (a) it sounds English and (b) there are closely similar forms of expression in use in other departments of our language. We’ve decided against using the phrase “they are in the same place” and have to turn this expression out by force because it would otherwise recommend itself by analogy with other phrases. Hence, we seem to be rejecting a universally false proposition. We invent a picture like that of two colours getting in one another’s way, or of a barrier preventing a person getting closer to another’s experience than observing his behaviour, but on closer inspection we find we can’t apply this picture.
- This wavering between logical and physical impossibility makes us make ask what it means for someone else to feel pain if I can only feel my pain. We need to look at how words are actually used in our language, because in all such cases we are thinking of a usage contrary to the normal but which just then strongly recommends itself to us. When something seems strange about the grammar of words it is because we’re alternately tempted to use a word in different ways. It is especially difficult to diagnose that what is expressed by the metaphysician in words normally used to state a fact of experience is really a statement of discontent with our grammar. When the metaphysician says that only his pain is real pain, he could be saying that other people are only pretending, or when he says that a tree doesn’t exist unobserved, he could mean that it vanishes when no-one is looking. But, the person who says that only his pain is real doesn’t mean that he’s found out by the criteria that give words their common meaning that others who claimed to be in pain were cheating. What he objects to is using this word in a particular way in which it is commonly used, but he’s not aware that all he’s objecting to is a convention. Wittgenstein thinks the case is analogous to someone wanting to divide up the country differently, say assigning the name “Devonshire” to a different area to that normally assigned on the map; no facts of geography are changed by a new notation. Wittgenstein admits that we may be irresistibly attracted or repelled by a notation – a change of names or clothes may mean little or much, and changing a notation is not always as easy as it is in mathematics or the sciences.
In-Page Footnotes:Footnote 2: Wittgenstein denies that he’s trying to distinguish different kinds of object.
Footnote 3: Wittgenstein inserts this remark in brackets without explanation.
Footnote 4: I’m not sure this is true, but the difference between physical and logical possibility is important.
Footnote 5: The case of Siamese twins would be a better example.
Footnote 6: This analysis doesn’t sound quite right – true, we don’t think certain expressions are grammatically correct, but this is because we think there is a conflict with the metaphysics of what is expressed. Or is it even the grammar that we object to rather than, say, a category mistake.
Footnote 7: What’s wrong with this argument?
Footnote 8: This isn’t to be confused with the logical impossibility of three people sitting next to one another.
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