Can you step in the same river twice? Wittgenstein v Heraclitus


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David Egan | Aeon Ideas

‘I am not a religious man,’ the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein once said to a friend, ‘but I cannot help seeing every problem from a religious point of view.’ These problems that he claims to see from a religious point of view tend to be technical matters of logic and language. Wittgenstein trained as an engineer before he turned to philosophy, and he draws on mundane metaphors of gears, levers and machinery. Where you find the word ‘transcendent’ in Wittgenstein’s writings, you’ll likely find ‘misunderstanding’ or ‘nonsense’ nearby.

When he does respond to philosophers who set their sights on higher mysteries, Wittgenstein can be stubbornly dismissive. Consider: ‘The man who said one cannot step into the same river twice was wrong; one can step into the same river twice.’ With such blunt statements, Wittgenstein seems less a religious thinker and more a stodgy literalist. But a close examination of this remark can show us not only what Wittgenstein means by a ‘religious point of view’ but also reveal Wittgenstein as a religious thinker of striking originality.

‘The man’ who made the remark about rivers is Heraclitus, a philosopher at once pre-Socratic and postmodern, misquoted on New Age websites and quoted out of context by everyone, since all we have of his corpus are isolated fragments. What is it that Heraclitus thinks we can’t do? Obviously I can do a little in-and-out-and-back-in-again shuffle with my foot at a riverbank. But is it the same river from moment to moment – the water flowing over my foot spills toward the ocean while new waters join the river at its source – and am I the same person?

One reading of Heraclitus has him conveying a mystical message. We use this one word, river, to talk about something that’s in constant flux, and that might dispose us to think that things are more fixed than they are – indeed, to think that there are stable things at all. Our noun-bound language can’t capture the ceaseless flow of existence. Heraclitus is saying that language is an inadequate tool for the purpose of limning reality.

What Wittgenstein finds intriguing about so many of our philosophical pronouncements is that while they seem profoundly important, it’s unclear what difference they make to anything. Imagine Heraclitus spending an afternoon down by the river (or the constantly changing flux of river-like moments, if you prefer) with his friend Parmenides, who says that change is impossible. They might have a heated argument about whether the so-called river is many or one, but afterwards they can both go for a swim, get a cool drink to refresh themselves, or slip into some waders for a bit of fly fishing. None of these activities is in the least bit altered by the metaphysical commitments of the disputants.

Wittgenstein thinks that we can get clearer about such disputes by likening the things that people say to moves in a game. Just as every move in a game of chess alters the state of play, so does every conversational move alter the state of play in what he calls the language-game. The point of talking, like the point of moving a chess piece, is to do something. But a move only counts as that move in that game provided a certain amount of stage-setting. To make sense of a chess game, you need to be able to distinguish knights from bishops, know how the different pieces move, and so on. Placing pieces on the board at the start of the game isn’t a sequence of moves. It’s something we do to make the game possible in the first place.

One way we get confused by language, Wittgenstein thinks, is that the rule-stating and place-setting activities happen in the same medium as the actual moves of the language-game – that is, in words. ‘The river is overflowing its banks’ and ‘The word river is a noun’ are both grammatically sound English sentences, but only the former is a move in a language-game. The latter states a rule for using language: it’s like saying ‘The bishop moves diagonally’, and it’s no more a move in a language-game than a demonstration of how the bishop moves is a move in chess.

What Heraclitus and Parmenides disagree about, Wittgenstein wants us to see, isn’t a fact about the river but the rules for talking about the river. Heraclitus is recommending a new language-game: one in which the rule for using the word river prohibits us from saying that we stepped into the same one twice, just as the rules of our own language-game prohibit us from saying that the same moment occurred at two different times. There’s nothing wrong with proposing alternative rules, provided you’re clear that that’s what you’re doing. If you say: ‘The king moves just like the queen,’ you’re either saying something false about our game of chess or you’re proposing an alternative version of the game – which might or might not turn out to be any good. The trouble with Heraclitus is that he imagines he’s talking about rivers and not rules – and, in that case, he’s simply wrong. The mistake we so often make in philosophy, according to Wittgenstein, is that we think we’re doing one thing when in fact we’re doing another.

But if we dismiss the remark about rivers as a naive blunder, we learn nothing from it. ‘In a certain sense one cannot take too much care in handling philosophical mistakes, they contain so much truth,’ Wittgenstein cautions. Heraclitus and Parmenides might not do anything different as a result of their metaphysical differences, but those differences bespeak profoundly different attitudes toward everything they do. That attitude might be deep or shallow, bold or timorous, grateful or crabbed, but it isn’t true or false. Similarly, the rules of a game aren’t right or wrong – they’re the measure by which we determine whether moves within the game are right or wrong – but which games you think are worth playing, and how you relate to the rules as you play them, says a lot about you.

What, then, inclines us – and Heraclitus – to regard this expression of an attitude as a metaphysical fact? Recall that Heraclitus wants to reform our language-games because he thinks they misrepresent the way things really are. But consider what you’d need to do in order to assess whether our language-games are more or less adequate to some ultimate reality. You’d need to compare two things: our language-game and the reality that it’s meant to represent. In other words, you’d need to compare reality as we represent it to ourselves with reality free of all representation. But that makes no sense: how can you represent to yourself how things look free of all representation?

The fact that we might even be tempted to suppose we can do that bespeaks a deeply human longing to step outside our own skins. We can feel trapped by our bodily, time-bound existence. There’s a kind of religious impulse that seeks liberation from these limits: it seeks to transcend our finite selves and make contact with the infinite. Wittgenstein’s religious impulse pushes us in the opposite direction: he doesn’t try to satisfy our aspiration for transcendence but to wean us from that aspiration altogether. The liberation he offers isn’t liberation from our bounded selves but for our bounded selves.

Wittgenstein’s remark about Heraclitus comes from a typescript from the early 1930s, when Wittgenstein was just beginning to work out the mature philosophy that would be published posthumously as Philosophical Investigations (1953). Part of what makes that late work special is the way in which the Wittgenstein who sees every problem from a religious point of view merges with the practical-minded engineer. Metaphysical speculations, for Wittgenstein, are like gears that have slipped free from the mechanism of language and are spinning wildly out of control. Wittgenstein the engineer wants to get the mechanism running smoothly. And this is precisely where the spiritual insight resides: our aim, properly understood, isn’t transcendence but a fully invested immanence. In this respect, he offers a peculiarly technical approach to an aspiration that finds expression in mystics from Meister Eckhart to the Zen patriarchs: not to ascend to a state of perfection but to recognise that where you are, already, in this moment, is all the perfection you need.Aeon counter – do not remove

David Egan is a visiting assistant professor in the Department of Philosophy at CUNY Hunter College in New York. He is the author of The Pursuit of an Authentic Philosophy: Wittgenstein, Heidegger, and the Everyday (2019).

This article was originally published at Aeon and has been republished under Creative Commons. Read the original article here.

Philosophy of Language

Does language affect the way you think about the world?

A radically positive answer to this question is a strong form of the linguistic relativity thesis, which says that the language you speak broadly affects or even determines the way you experience the world, from the way you perceive it, to the way to categorize it, to the way you cognize it. This radical thesis is often associated with the early-to-mid 20th century linguistic anthropologists Eric Sapir and Benjamin Whorf, and sometimes called the Sapir-Whorf thesis (though, for the record, there is a lot of controversy about what Whorf’s views actually were).

This notion might strike many as crazy. You might think that how you perceive the world is simply a relationship between your sensory systems and objective reality. Even if the way you think about the world is influenced by culture, personal experience, and upbringing, the grammar or vocabulary of the language you speak plays no role in shaping your experience. Language is merely how you give voice to what you experience, not a determining force on what you experience.

People like Sapir and Whorf thought that this idea of the relationship between an objective reality and language is a mere illusion. Their thought was essentially that people around the world speak different languages, with difference structural features (grammar, syntax) and different vocabularies (lexicon), and this influences the conceptual system that they bring to each and every experience of the world.

To consider but one example, Benjamin Whorf spent a lot of time studying the Native American language Hopi, which, he claimed, had no mass nouns. Mass nouns are words that describe substances like water, snow, meat, beer, flouras opposed to objects, like a chair, a person, a bottle. While English and other Indo-European languages have many mass nouns as well as count nouns, other languages like Japanese have entirely mass nouns with no or almost no count nouns. Hopi, Whorf claimed, has only count nouns. Whorf thought this difference in language reflected a very different categorization of the physical world. While for the speaker of a European language, the philosophical idea of an underlying substance or matter, which has extension but is not obviously bounded in any way, that can then be formed into an object (e.g. water formed into a bottle of water) is basic, a naïve reflection of language. But for the Hopi the world looks very different: this idea of an underlying substance is foreign; a speaker of Hopi does not see the world as full of water that can be formed into various objects, but, at the basic level, as full of objects like bottles of water, glasses of water, and lakes. (Whorf, “The relation of habitual thought and behavior to language” in Language, Thought, and Reality. MIT Press, 1956, 134-159)

The effect of language on thought is an empirically testable question, and since the time that the Sapir-Whorf thesis became popular there has been considerable work done to put it to the test (and there is still a lot of work being done, currently, and a lot more work to do!). For example, Li, Dunham, and Carey did an experiment on speakers of languages that have all mass nouns (like Japanese) versus ones that have more count nouns than mass (like English). This study found that on tasks that do not involve language, there is no difference in the ways in which monolingual Japanese speakers and monolingual English speakers perform on non-linguistic tasks involving masses of substance and objects. Though this study did not include a language like Hopi, with only count nouns, it is evidence in support of the hypothesis that the way the language categorizes the stuff of the world (into substance or object) has little effect on the way the speaker categorizes or conceptualizes the world.

Few people these days believe something as strong as the strongest version of the Sapir-Whorf thesis – that our experiences are largely determined by the language we speak. But there are many neo-Whorfians doing experimental work to show that the language one speaks has some measurable effect on one’s experience of the world. For example, neo-Whorfian psychologist Lera Boroditsky has run dozens of experiments that seem to point to the conclusion that many different aspects of thought are in fact influenced by language. In one case, Boroditsky and colleagues ran a series of experiments testing whether the grammatical gender associated with a noun had an effect on how people perceive the object named by the noun. Unlike English, many languages have grammatical genders associated with nouns, the most common being feminine and masculine. These genders can manifest themselves in grammatical rules like which article is correct to use with a noun, agreement of adjectives or verbs and more.

Grammatical gender is generally arbitrary – something that is masculine in one language may be feminine in another and vice versa. So what Boroditsky and others tested was whether this arbitrary associated of gender with words had any effect on whether people think of various objects as masculine or feminine. For example, in one such study, they tested native speakers of Spanish and German by asking them to name (in English) the first 3 adjectives that came to mind to describe each of 24 objects (named in English) on a list. The 24 objects each had opposite genders in each language. In general, the participants came up with adjectives that were more stereotypically masculine if the word for the object was masculine in their language and more stereotypically feminine if it was feminine. For example, for the word “key”, which is masculine in German, German speakers said things like hard, heavy, jagged, metal, serrated, and useful. At the same time, the word for key is feminine in Spanish and Spanish speakers came up with adjectives like golden, intricate, little, lovely, shiny, and tiny.

If any part of neo-Whorfianism like this is correct, what consequences does it have for how we gain knowledge of the world (epistemology)? Do experiments like Boroditsky’s imply that German and Spanish speakers actually perceive certain objects differently? And if this is the case, if we do in fact all have different experiences that are affected by the language we speak, can we say that some experiences are more correct than others? Could it be that some languages are more accurate than others? If not, what does this mean for the metaphysical notion of an objective reality?


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The world is my world: this is manifest in the fact that the limits of language (of that language which alone I understand) mean the limits of my world.

– Ludwig Wittgenstein

See Also

Philosophy of Language @ IEP