Tag Archives: Wittgenstein

Nothing is Hidden

Wittgenstein famously said “Nothing is hidden.” He’s talking about human behavior. His point is there isn’t some hidden realm of human experience– the mind, the private realm. We talk as if these things exist. That isn’t because we are referring to known phenomena or artifacts. When we talk about this rock right in front of (both) of us, we have an object. When we talk about our sensations, .e.g “this afterimage I see right now,” things are quite different.

Consider this game: I tell you I’m thinking of a number between one and five. You have to guess it.

You first try “One.”
I say “Nope.”
You try “Two.”
You try “Three.”
“Sorry. Still wrong.”
You guess “Four.”
“Jeez, still wrong.”
Finally you say “Okay, five then!”
I Say, “I’m so sorry: still wrong.”
You are pissed. “You said between one and five!”
“I never was thinking of a number.”

Now, during the game, because of the set-up, you acted as if there was this kind of quasi-object, “the number” that was in a weird kind of domain, “my mind.” But I wasn’t playing that game. I was playing a different, “trick you and be annoying” game. So the “picked number object” was just in the game you were playing. Or maybe I was thinking of “1.872.” Again, I was playing a different game.

Wittgenstein says “When our language suggests an object, and there is none, there is, so to speak, a spirit.” The game you were playing had the quasi-object as a feature of the game. That doesn’t mean it really existed in any sense. It was like a paper-thin image or “illusion” that arose from the game. It kind of lurks behind the game. We want to say that to “really” play the game I need to create this object, the chosen number, and keep it fixed, so it behaves in a way analogous to a physical object. The metaphor is that when asked to pick a number I’ve picked up a card with a number on it, from a field of cards with the numbers one through five. This physical analogy is important. It’s the materialist, real situation. The physical analogy is important: the mental operation is kind of a transformation of this operation into “the mind.”

You can imagine that after tens of thousands of years of manipulating physical objects, with the development of language it became became possible and useful to talk about objects that weren’t like this rock, here, but did other useful things. So they exist elsewhere. And when we turn and ask where “elsewhere” is, we end up saying, “in this weird location, the mind.”

There isn’t really space in the physical world for a mental world to exist. There isn’t anything there that can give the mental its “mental” qualities. They are two different sorts of things.

Another game. I take your hand and lay it against mine, so your thumb is against mine, your index finger against my index finger, etc. I ask you to think of a finger. I will probably be able to guess which finger you are thinking of. When you “think” of a finger, to choose it, you tense up that finger. And I can feel this in my finger against it. A card player or con-man knows all about these sorts of “tells.” The point is: to choose the finger you perform a physical ritual of pointing or choosing, and you have to physically do something. Now you can avoid this by “thinking quietly” and just sort of making a “sideways glance” at the finger. But this just amounts to “moving the finger a little.” Or you can get abstract and say “I’ll pick a number between one and five, and that will correspond to the finger, with the thumb as one, etc.’” But this just leaves the “point and connecting” ritual for the future. It is still out there.

A professional poker player tries to not “let his emotions show” while playing. But the point is: you have to make an affirmative effort at this. You have to practice it. Imagine that we devoted all the resources of a small country to reading and analyzing the physical states of a poker player. He was totally wired up and it went to big screens in a control center with hundreds of technicians staring into flat-screens reading all his neural and other physiological activity. Assume we’d studied his reactions for years, his whole life. A huge team that was expert in every twinge of this one person. When he gets a new card from the deck, don’t you think we’d be able to tell quite a lot, just from the reactions of his body?

Another issue with the mental is the fact that it contains two components: an observer or actor, and a field. When we recall a fact we are acting, and we are also the field of action (the thing we search or the place from which we retrieve the information). There is this dual form. But if we are dual in this way, what do we say about the active half? What sort of thing is it? Isn’t it just sort of a reflection of our normal social selves? So we have a whole “self” inside ourselves. And how does it work? Doesn’t it need another whole “self” inside it? Isn’t this an infinite regress. And how does it operate? What is the operation of, say, recalling a phone number? We either remember the number or not. The thoughts and images that may accompany this task are not necessary to the task.

And consider the field, the inner realm. If I ask you “How many windows are there in your home?” you will probably have to sit for a bit. You are moving around your home, in your mind, counting windows. You finally reach a total and tell me. But you could be wrong– maybe you forgot that little window in the corner of the kitchen, or one in the attic, etc. The mental show does not reliably give you the answer because it is not an external source of information . It seems essential, in that you certainly have no idea how many windows there are without taking the mental “tour” of your home. But this dance only gets you in the ballpark of the answer. It is a necessary path to get to any answer, but it doesn’t itself generate the answer.

In summary: The mental is a form of social game. It suggests quasi-objects. When we try to pin these down, we find ourselves in a weird realm “the mind.” We think we can operate here and perform tasks in this realm, but this is just because we’re applying the qualities of a physical location to this mysterious place. When we look at how we use “the mind” we see that it does not actually operate like any sort of location.