Man as the Measure

David Pears

  • Wittgenstein on Rules and Private Language: An Elementary Exposition by Saul Kripke
    Blackwell, 150 pp, £9.50, September 1982, ISBN 0 631 13077 2

The human mind is a measure of nature and, like all such devices, ought to maintain constancy. But it is also part of nature and so it may be affected by the kind of inconstancy that it often claims to detect in the other part which it measures. Wittgenstein in some of his later work was concerned with a fundamental form of this problem. Do the meanings of our words remain stable and unchanged through all the vicissitudes of our lives? If Crusoe talked to himself during his solitary period, may there not have been some slippage, not evident to him, in his use of his vocabulary? Ruskin believed that the growth of industry had dimmed the bright colours of nature that had surrounded him in his early years, and he might have gone further and suspected that the common use of colour-words was shifting in the same direction. The Gypsy Moth acquired a darker camouflage in the industrialised Midlands. Who knew how words would react? Would they remain unchanged and show up the change in the rest of nature or would they change with it?

We may be inclined to dismiss these questions without feeling the need for any very definite reason for dismissing them. We simply remember that we are using our vocabulary this year in the same way as last year and, of course, we are going to keep it up next year.

But do we really know what we are after when we ask ourselves whether our language is a constant and reliable measure of things? We have the standard metre, cast in platinum and kept in the cool of the Louvre, but such physical paradigms are rare. Do the majority of words then have to rely on mental paradigms? But there are so many minds, and, even if we could single out one and preserve it as a permanent repository, what do we suppose that it would house? And how would others gain access to it? Or perhaps this is not the right way to counter the sceptic’s insinuation of inconstancy in the last place where we would think of it, our own minds?

Professor Kripke takes Wittgenstein’s treatment of this unnerving form of scepticism, develops it at length and assesses the merits of what he supposes to be Wittgenstein’s answer to it. His presentation of the problem is characteristically profound and clear and it is likely to convince us of more than he may have intended at first. This is how the problem looks when it is developed in depth, and so this is how it must have struck Wittgenstein.

There are, however, reasons for doubting the inference. Kripke sees the problem as the sceptical paradox, that when someone uses a word, there is at the moment of his use of it no fact about him that distinguishes between his meaning one thing by it and his meaning another, quite different thing by it. If this is right, the speaker’s predicament is worse than his first, superficial encounter with the sceptic might suggest. It is not that his meaning on some earlier occasion was definite but difficult to remember now with certainty, but, rather, that it is never fixed on any occasion by any strictly contemporary fact. This is a deeper and more worrying suggestion. A craftsman might wonder whether his metal ruler had changed its length since he took a certain measurement, but if someone suggested to him that its length on that occasion was not a contemporary fact but a function of its later history, he would think that that way madness lies.

When Kripke develops this sceptical paradox, his target is the same as Wittgenstein’s. They both attack the idea that meaning is fixed and preserved by mental paradigms, and they both argue that the search for some analogue of a physical measuring device cannot possibly succeed. The point at which Kripke’s interpretation might be doubted comes before his exposition of the paradox, when we ask about its place in Wittgenstein’s philosophy rather than about its content.

The paradox strikes Kripke as one that arises immediately from a close investigation of meaning and has to be met on its own terms. Wittgenstein took a different view of its origin. He presented it as a consequence of a mistaken assumption: because we assume that meaning ought to be fixed and preserved by some omnicompetent mental paradigm, we fall into scepticism when we find that it is not. So the paradox that takes the stage throughout Kripke’s dramatisation is only the play within the play for Wittgenstein.

How much this matters will depend on what is sought from Kripke’s book. If we want a development of the paradox, we shall find it beautifully done. When the nervous speaker confronts the sceptic, he feels that all would be well if only there were something in his mind which set the standard for the use of the word that he had ventured, and set it not only in this case but also in every possible case in which it would be correctly applied. So on later occasions he would only have to remember this mental paradigm and refer to it.

This mistaken idea takes various forms, depending on the choice of paradigm. Perhaps it is an image which somehow prefigures every application of a colour-word and contains a ruling on borderline cases whose possibility has not yet even occurred to the speaker. Or the guidance may be supposed to be implicit in an act of meaning which somehow takes all its hurdles before it comes to them. What all the variations have in common is that they are very reassuring until we realise that they are too good to be true.

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