Lecture 14: Seeing Aspects and Experiencing Meaning
8. Scattered remarks relating to the phenomenon of experiencing meaning occur in Witgenstein’s writings well before the late, late period. In MS 140, probably composed in 1934, he says `In certain of their applications, the words “understand”, “mean” refer to a psychological reaction while hearing, reading, uttering etc. a sentence’ (PG, 3, p.41) and he continues `In that case understanding is the phenomenon that occurs when I hear a sentence in a familiar language and not when I hear a sentence in a strange language’. If I hear a sentence in Schwäbisch then (I regret to say) it means nothing to me, whereas if, while passing two people gossiping in the street, I overhear one of them say `After he had said this, he left her as he did the day before’, then I would experience a kind of recognition absent in the Schwäbisch case, even though I had no idea whom the speaker was talking about nor what exactly she meant.
9. In The Brown Book, dictated in 1934-5, Wittgenstein notices that `[t]here is something remarkable about saying that we use the word “strain” for both mental and physical strain because there is a similarity between them’ (BB, 133). We do not find it strained to use the word for mental strain even though this involves nothing physically straining, and we quite naturally make use of a whole family of related metaphors: `He pushed her to breaking point, and she finally snapped’. Likewise, though literally the word `deep’ applies to physical things like wells, we find it natural to talk of a deep sorrow and a deep sound. (BB, 137). Wittgenstein invites us to consider a situation in which we have taught someone the use of the words `darker’ and `lighter’, and that that person can now carry out an order such as `Paint me a patch of colour darker than the one I am showing you’. But then you say to that person: `Listen to the five vowels a, e, i, o, u and arrange them in order of their darkness’. That person may then arrange the vowels in the order i, e, a, o, u -- as most of us do (BB, 135-6). Strange, but true. It seems to have something to do with the way in which the meaning of the word `dark’ can be naturally extended, just as it seems perfectly natural to extend the word `face’ so that it applies to the surface of an ocean and perfectly unnatural so to extend the word `leg’ (`The spirit of the Lord moved upon the leg of the deep’).
10. An even more bizarre example given by Wittgenstein: `Some people are able to distinguish between fat and lean days of the week. And their experience when they conceive a day as a fat one consists in applying this word together perhaps with a gesture expressive of fatness and a certain comfort’ (BB, 137). It seems that we can intelligibly extend the words `fat’ and `lean’, invest them with a secondary meaning, so that they apply non-metaphorically to such non-physical things as days of the week, but not, for example, to other non-physical things such as numbers or notions.
12. In a soulless language, the meaning of a sentence survives substitution of any of its words by an invented one that speakers have agreed to use instead; we understand the replacement sentence. But, according to Wittgenstein, we speak of understanding a sentence `also in the sense in which it cannot be replaced by any other. (Any more than one musical theme can be replaced by another.) In the one case, the thought in the sentence is something common to different sentences; in the other, something that is expressed only by these words in these positions’ (PI 531). He adds, in parentheses, `Understanding a poem’. That might convey the impression that what he is talking about here are those `idea[s]…often saturated with feeling’, the `mood, fragrance, illumination …. what is portrayed by cadence and rhythm’ that Frege says do not belong to the meaning or to the thought expressed. But that impression would be incorrect. Wittgenstein is here talking about experiencing meaning, something that occasionally happens when, for example, we hit on the mot juste (PI, p.218). He does talk about the `if-feeling’, but insists that this is not a feeling which accompanies the word `if’ (PI, p182). `The if-feeling would have to be compared with the special `feeling’ which a musical phrase gives us. (One sometimes describes such a feeling by saying “Here it is as if a conclusion were being drawn”, or “I should like to say `hence….’”, or “here I should always like to make a gesture ----“ and then one makes it.)’ Thus the experience of meaning is a `special’ feeling – it is sui generis, but can be compared with a kind of natural shared reaction to certain musical phrases.
13. The concept of meaning-blindness plays an important rôle in Wittgenstein’s initial exploration of the phenomenon of experiencing meaning. The notion is related to that of mental blindness discussed by William James, which consists `not so much in insensibility to optical impressions as in inability to understand them’ (James, The Principles of Psychology, p. 59). In the 1946-47 lectures on philosophical psychology, (WLPP) when he was trying out various ideas on his students, the notions of aspect-blindness and meaning-blindness were used interchangeably (WLPP, pp.105, 334). The reason for this may have been that `Bedeutung’ in non-technical German means `significance’, where not just words, but also objects, situations and events can be interpreted (deuten); they have Bedeutung. But, in writing done subsequent to those lectures, Wittgenstein usually reserves the expression `Bedeutungsblindheit’ for a certain inability to experience words, so that meaning-blindness is a species of aspect-blindness.
14. One important difference between seeing simpliciter and seeing-as is that the latter involves comparison; it is the difference between, say, seeing a face and seeing a similarity between two faces. There is, as Wittgenstein puts it, a `difference of category between the two “objects” of sight’ (PI, p.193). If you look at a face, you cannot not see it, but you can look at two faces, not notice a similarity and then suddenly be struck by it. Or you may see a picture of a glass cube, then suddenly see it as a picture of an inverted open box or of a wire frame. The suddenness of being thus struck is itself striking, and Wittgenstein draws attention to cases where the comparison becomes apparent in an instant, and the observer may exclaim `Now I get it’. An aspect-blind person is someone who never gets it. This is a rather sad condition, for noticing an aspect is often a pleasurable experience, and is sometimes accompanied by a slight frisson. And it is not just visual aspects that can be noticed. I can hear a snatch of music as a variation on a theme, as an introduction, as organized in a certain way. We can also taste aspects. It just so happened that, as I was sitting writing the first section of this paper, I absent-mindedly sipped what I thought was a cup of tea. For an instant, it tasted vile, but then I realized that it was coffee, and it tasted fine. The liquid itself did not change, but I experienced the dawning of an aspect when I tasted it as coffee. There may be people who have never had and perhaps physically could never have such an experience.
15. Meaning-blindness, in Wittgenstein’s sense, is, similarly, not a matter of being unaware of how words are normally used, but is a particular experiential deficit. And, again, it can be characterized in terms of `not getting it’, of never being suddenly struck. Wittgenstein writes: `If you say “As I heard this word, it meant … for me” you refer to a point of time and to an employment of the word. – The remarkable thing about it is of course the relation to the point of time. This would be lost on the “meaning-blind”’ (RPP I, 175; cf. PI, p.175). What are the sorts of substitution instances that Wittgenstein has in mind for the quoted statement-schema? Fairly clearly, he does not intend anything like `As I heard the word “generous” it meant “generous” to me’, for meaning-blind people are not ignorant of the standard meanings of words; but they would not be able to understand the report `When I heard the word “generous” on that occasion, the word was crammed full of its meaning’ (see LW I, 785). The sort of cases that Wittgenstein intends are `As I heard the word “thin” it meant to me how I sometimes regard Tuesday’ and `As I heard the word “plant” it meant “vegetation” to me’.
16. In the latter case, one context of employment that illustrates the relation to a point in time is set up in an episode of the TV comedy show Cheers, where various strange events have conspired to raise the suspicion among his workmates that Woody, the simpleton barman, is a spy:
Diane (to Carla): `Do you think Woody’s a plant?’
Carla: `Only from the neck up’
17. This exchange would leave a meaning-blind person cold. Although such a person knows the relevant two senses of the word `plant’ and can use the word perfectly capably in both the relevant senses, he cannot experience the sudden transition induced by Carla’s rejoinder. At the point of time when we experience the `vegetable’ meaning of the word `plant’, we break into laughter, much to the chagrin of those of our viewing companions who are meaning-blind.
18. Wittgenstein regards the meaning-blind as mental defectives who behave rather like automata. They make a less lively contribution than normal people do (RPP I 198; 225). When teaching a normal person to play a certain piece of music, one might give the direction `Wie aus weiter Ferne’ (`as if from far away’ – R. Schumann), or say something like `Play this as if it were the answer’, perhaps adding an appropriate gesture. And similarly, you can say to someone `You must hear this word as …, then you will say the sentence properly’. But, so Wittgenstein claims, you would have no success if you gave such an instruction to a meaning-blind person (RPP I 250, 247). We think of a great artist and, when we see the name, his works come to mind, and vice-versa; we utter that name with reverence. `The name turns into a gesture; into an architectonic form’. These reflections would mean nothing to a meaning-blind person, someone who, in Wittgenstein’s word, is `prosaic’ (RPP I 341, 342).
19. As we have seen, the notion of meaning-blindness looms large in Wittgenstein’s 1946-7 lectures (WLPP) and in his manuscripts of the following year. But, interestingly, the notion seems to have been dropped in subsequent writings. It does not appear in the manuscript source for Part II of PI (MS 144), nor in any other work post the beginning of 1949. The reason is probably because the notion, though colourful, is of doubtful explanatory value. `Meaning-blindness’ was a name for an invented syndrome. It is an affliction suffered by hypothetical individuals who never experience meaning. There is no independent characterization of such individuals. So there is no question of examining either meaning-blind people, or the concept of meaning-blindness in order to find out more about the phenomenon of experiencing meaning.
20. The story, in brief, of the development of Wittgenstein’s views on experiencing meaning seems to be roughly this: Probably under the influence of William James, particularly The Principles of Psychology, Wittgenstein came to acquire an interest in the physiognomy of words (when the word `has taken up its meaning into itself, that it is an actual likeness of its meaning’ (PI, p.218) and how words impact on us when we hear or see them and grasp their meaning. Then, while investigating the concept of seeing-as, he came to realize that there was a connection between the seeing of aspects and the experiencing of meanings. He initially illustrated this connection in terms of the lack of the ability to see aspects – the counterpart to this was supposed to be meaning-blindness. However, he subsequently abandoned this explanatory manoeuvre, and instead found alternative ways of clarifying what experiencing meaning means. Let us tell this story in slightly more detail.
21. In earlier sections, we discussed several themes associated with the subject of experiencing meaning. These included the suddenness of interpretation, the subtle `feel’ of a word, the musicality of a sentence, the experience of hearing without comprehending a foreign language, and the disappearance of the meaning of a word (its soul) when we are exposed to it for too long. It is interesting to observe the bruiting of all of these Wittgensteinian themes in the following passage from William James.
Verbal sounds are usually perceived with their meaning at the moment of being heard. Sometimes, however, the associative irradiations are inhibited for a few moments (the mind being preoccupied with other thoughts) whilst the words linger on the ear as mere echoes of acoustic sensation. Then, usually, their interpretation suddenly occurs. But at that moment one may often surprise a change in the very feel of the word. Our own language would sound very different to us if we heard it without understanding, as we hear a foreign tongue. Rises and falls of voice, odd sibilants and other consonants, would fall on our ear in a way of which we can now form no notion. Frenchmen say that English sounds to them like the gazouillement des oiseaux -- an impression which it certainly makes on no native ear.
….. if we look at an isolated printed word and repeat it long enough, it ends by assuming an entirely unnatural aspect. Let the reader try this with any word on this page. He will soon begin to wonder if it can possibly be the word he has been using all his life with that meaning. It stares at him from the paper like a glass eye with no speculation in it. Its body is indeed there, but its soul is fled. It is reduced, by this new way of attending to it, to its sensational nudity. We never before attended to it in this way, but habitually got it clad with its meaning the moment we caught sight of it, and rapidly passed from it to the other words of the phrase. We apprehended it, in short, with a cloud of associates, and thus perceiving it, we felt it quite otherwise than as we feel it now, divested and alone (James: Principles of Psychology, pp.726-7).
22. James draws attention here to real facts about our experiences, but his way of describing them is hardly scientific. What real scientific sense can we make of the metaphor about the sound of a sentence lingering on the ear until an interpretation kicks in? Or of the meaning being stripped from a word, leaving it abjectly naked? George Miller, in his introduction to James’ Principles, talks of James’ `introspective talent’ and of `the subjective aspect of psychology’ present in James but rejected by his behaviorist successors (James: p. xxi).
23. Neither of these Jamesish views (it is not altogether clear how accurate is Miller’s attribution) would have appealed to Wittgenstein. He rejected the conception of a private introspectionist gaze at one’s inner self (PI 412, 413), and wished to describe the experience of meaning in a way that would show it to be different from the surveying of subjective ideas. So, when he got hold of the concepts of seeing-as and aspect-blindness, he had just what he needed. For, when looking at a picture of a duck-rabbit, although different subjects may flip at different times, they flip only between duck and rabbit; this is the objective phenomenon which is quite distinct from any `mood, fragrance, illumination’. Thus, in the special case of meaning-blindness, it is legitimate to talk of the inability to experience meaning. Saying `till’ and meaning it as the noun is quite different from saying the word and having the private image of a Tiller girl, hearing the tinkling of coins in one’s inner ear, feeling as if lightly struck by a drawer in the abdomen or whatever. Any of the latter may happen to us, but investing a word with a particular meaning is something that we do, and something that we can try to do. We can try, for example, to speak the `pas’ in `Je ne sais pas’ with the meaning of `step’ (CV, 55; WLPP, 114).
24. Further, aspect-dawning provided the appropriate model for suddenly grasping a meaning. The written word `till’ stays the same before us, but we may now interpret it as (see it as and feel it as) a noun, now as a verb – unless, of course, it just glazes over, like the unspeculating eye in James’ marvelous figure. Likewise, a compulsive doodler, on hearing the word `till’ in conversation, may sometimes draw a cash register, sometimes a man ploughing a field. If, on one occasion, he draws a cash register when the immediately subsequent conversation reveals that the speaker was talking about ploughing, then the doodler’s doodle might distract him from the conversation (see RPP I 359), whereas his drawing of furrows would not have disturbed, indeed, may have aided, his comprehension of the speaker’s discourse.
25. The right-angled triangle drawn on PI, p.200 has a great variety of aspects. Wittgenstein points out that it `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’. You can regard it now as this, now as that. That we can see an object according to an interpretation may strike us as a queer fact, because it is our seeing tables and ducks, and our seeing something without being able to recognize what it is that are, for us, paradigms of non-queer facts in the dimension of seeing. So seeing-as is seen as an anomaly. Wittgenstein’s diagnosis is that our mistake here is of trying to force seeing- as into a dimension where it does not fit – rather like trying to find a place for the imaginaries in the continuum of real numbers. The imaginaries really are numbers, but they are not real numbers, and likewise, seeing- as is a visual phenomenon but dissimilar in certain important ways to straight seeing (see LW II, 14). But that does not make it a queer or recalcitrant phenomenon -- `no squeezing, no forcing took place here’; it is as everyday a phenomenon as regular seeing (PI, pp.200-1). In the same way, so Wittgenstein wants to say, we are inclined to find the phenomenon of experiencing meaning queer, but, he remarks, `[o]f course it is not queerer than any other; it simply differs in kind from those experiences which we regard as the most fundamental ones, our sense-impressions, for instance’ (PI, p.215). It seems, then, that, between 1947 and 1949, Wittgenstein had talked himself out of the suspicion that the experience of meaning is a mere fancy and came to regard it as no more queer (and, he should have added, no less queer) a phenomenon than other kinds of experience.
26. On PI, p.210, Wittgenstein draws a sign that looks somewhere between the Cyrillic `ya’ and a capital `H’ – the left vertical is strongly curlicued. I might see it as the correctly executed letter of some foreign language, or as the rather slap-dash drawing of an `H’, as a character drawn with typical childish awkwardness, or like one of the flourishes in a legal document, and so on. Wittgenstein says `I can see it in various aspects according to the fiction I surround it with’. He adds `And here there is a close kinship with “experiencing the meaning of a word”’. We can `surround a sentence with a fiction’. For example: David Beckham’s new son is called Romeo. That much is fact. But the son asks David what number shirt he should wear when participating in a football match, and David replies `Romeo, Romeo, wear 4 out there Romeo’. The sentence qua sound (what J.L. Austin calls a `phone’) is suddenly heard as sports advice given by the England captain to his son, rather than as the wistful musing of a besotted Juliet. An entirely new meaning dawns on the hearer (unless he is a hearer deaf to such dawning).
27. An aspect-blind person could mistake his mother-in-law’s head for a bag of nails, and, when he does so, we normal, non-aspect-blind individuals can say of him that he sees her head as a bag of nails, but he cannot say this of himself, for he never experiences the dawning of an aspect. It is this dawning of an aspect, or the switching between two aspects that happens to normal people and we can also try to induce it. Now, similarly, we can say of the meaning-blind person who hears the Beckham sentence in two different circumstances that, on the first occasion, he interpreted the sounds he heard as a father’s advice to his son, on the second, as the yearning of a lovestruck maiden. But the meaning-blind person could not so describe himself, unless he were simply repeating, uncomprehendingly, the report of a normal person. He can use the sentence (i.e. the phone) one way and use it in another, and so can perfectly well recognize that it has two uses – two meanings. But, because he never experiences either of these meanings, he cannot experience the jolt when one meaning replaces the other.
28. Wittgenstein says that when I see a change of aspect, I am occupied with the object; what dawns lasts only as long as I am occupied with the object in a particular way (LW I, 554-6; LW II, pp.14-15). When not occupied in such a way, one may be aware of a cupboard, but one is typically not aware of the depth of a cupboard, and likewise one might be aware of the words used by a speaker in a conversation, and will typically understand them, but may not experience them unless special circumstances intrude. In circumstances where we are confronted with the secondary meaning of a word (e.g., when I am asked whether, after repeating it several times, I still regard the vowel `a’ as blue (PI, p.202)) the experience of meaning is particularly acute. Another special kind of circumstance: `Suppose I had agreed on a code with someone; “tower” means bank. I tell him “Now go to the tower” – he understands me and acts accordingly, but he feels the word “tower” to be strange in this use, it has not yet “taken on” the meaning.’ (PI, p.214)
29. In learning a language, we acquire, as a result of the experiential dimension of meaning, a feel for words, and this is not at all like grasping a rule for their use. The notion that we learn the words of our mother tongue by grasping rules for their use is incoherent. If the alleged rules are innate, then we must ask: `What could be inside the brain of a foetus that corresponds to, or implements a rule? Presumably, a linguistic rule is of the form `under such and such circumstances, use such and such a word’ (e.g., `In the presence of pigs, say “pig”’). But how could such a rule be encoded in the foetus? Given that the foetus has not yet acquired the word `pig’, what counterpart to `pig’ would be in its head in the encoding of that rule? Could it be a mental word, like `mpig’ that the foetus is inclined to deploy when in the presence of a pig? Given that the foetus has never yet encountered a pig, that would be a remarkable tendency indeed. The problem is not alleviated by dropping the innateness hypothesis and replacing it with the hypothesis that the rules of language are acquired once the foetus is in a position to draw on its experiences of the world. Apart from the fact that these rules are not taught and would have to be learned remarkably quickly (frequently in linguistically impoverished environments) we have the difficulty of accounting for how the infant can learn a rule for the use of the word `pig’ as a means to, and before, learning that very word. The word, after all, appears in the formulation of the rule!
30. Once we entertain the idea that the meanings of words can be experienced, and that infants can come to acquire the `feel’ for words, a plausible alternative account of first-language acquisition comes into view. The key here is that, because of a (more or less) common biological endowment, including our sensory discriminatory powers and the particular sensory processing systems we possess (such as opponent processing in human trichromatic vision) we quickly learn to respond differentially to different types of stimuli. For example, very young infants are equipped to perceive the difference between the /b/-sound and the /p/-sound even though this difference amounts to little more than a tiny puff of air. They can thus discriminate the words `bin’ and `pin’. Further, they can visually discriminate bins from pigs and bins from pins, so that, after a period of making mistakes through overextending and underextending the term, they settle, after a time on the adult distinction between bin and non-bin – they come to see certain objects as bins and, correlatively, the sound `bin’ as bin-involving, and can hence be credited with knowledge of the word `bin’.
31. In the very early stages of learning this word, though they may utter the sound /bin/ correctly, they will not attach quite the same meaning to it as we do. Perhaps the most dramatic example of this process of coming, over time, to attach the correct meaning, is in the learning of our first word, `mama’. Mastery of the production of the sound /mama/ does not coincide with a grasp of the proper meaning of the word. The young infant does not possess the concepts female and parent, and, early on, uses the sound `mama’ simply as a cry for sustenance. If that’s what the use of the word is, at that stage of the child’s development, then that’s what the speaker-meaning is at that stage. There is normally a continuous progression from baby-meaning to the word-meaning that adult speakers possess, and there are at least four points that we can mark in the meaning-maturation process. It is incorrect to say that the infant learns the meaning of the word `mama’ early on, and associates it with nice things, like sucking on its mother’s breast. For a start, we need to distinguish the natural meaning of the word `mama’ in the mouth of the very young child -- when it is a natural sign of contentment -- and the gradually evolving non-natural meaning the sound takes on as the child increases its cognitive powers, to first-order intending, to reacting to a reaction to the sounds it makes, to second-order intending and so on. All the while, it is learning meaning by experience, and on those occasions when, as adults, we experience the meaning of a word, we are presumably recapitulating the learning experience. Our early use of `mama’ is suffused with warmth, safety and security (this is before we get to learn that there are some really evil mothers around). So, we can distinguish the report that Harry asked one of his parents, the female one, to explain to him eccentric forms of sexual behaviour, from the direct report `“Mumsey, tell me about weird love”, begged Harry’. The latter has a distinctly odd `feel’ to it, we experience a dissonance (an amusing rather than an unpleasant one).
32. We enjoy the experience of meaning from a very early stage, as words and actions become interwoven (PI, 7) in our language games. As will be evident from some of the examples already given, Wittgenstein does not think that experienced meaning is confined to nouns. He also considers adjectives, verbs, interjections, the copula, and he discusses whether words that have the same meaning, in the sense that they are intertranslateable, are nevertheless experienced differently – whether, for example, the `wenn’-experience is different from the `if’-experience (LW I, 373-6; LW II, pp.37-8; PI , pp.181-2). Is the English English `rubbish’-experience different from the American English `garbage’-experience?
33. These experiences of which we have been speaking have an aesthetic dimension -- `we choose and value words’ (PI, p.218). Even in scholarly prose, one sometimes finds good writing – good not just in terms of clarity and precision, but in the sense that reading it is a sensorily pleasant experience. There are tone-deaf people but, at the opposite extreme, are individuals with perfect pitch. There are likewise individuals who possess in spades just what aspect-blind people lack. They are expert aspect-seers. And there are individuals blessed with an abundance of whatever it is that the meaning-blind lack. One thinks of poets, for `[a] poet’s words can pierce us’ (Z, 155), but what is most revealing is poetry that misfires, and, in particular, where the verse is leaden. Thus, in their Preface to The Stuffed Owl: An Anthology of Bad Verse ,the editors cite the following sonorous cadences from Samuel Johnson’s London, a Poem, in Imitation of the Third Satire of Juvenal:
Has Heaven reserv’d in pity to the poor
No pathless waste, or undiscover’d shore?
No secret island in the boundless Main?
No peaceful desert, yet unclaim’d by Spain?
But , then we come upon the couplet
Forgive my transports on a theme like this
I cannot bear a French metropolis
Which is so crass, that it is funny.
They raced across the veldt
As fast as they could pelt.
I had often, cowled in the slumberous heavy air,
Closed my inanimate lids to find it real,
As I knew it would be, the colourful spires
And painted roofs, the high snows glimpsed at the back,
All reversed in the quiet reflecting waters –
Not knowing then that Durer perceived it too.
Now I find that once more I have shrunk
To an interloper, robber of dead men’s dream,
I had read in books that art is not easy
But no one warned that the mind repeats
In its ignorance the vision of others. I am still
The black swan of trespass on alien waters.
Yob A: I’m gonna have that laser eye surgery.
Yob B: Why?
Yob A: So I can burn people from 50 yards.