I have a pain (TERRY EAGLETON)

I have a pain (TERRY EAGLETON)

In a work like Philosophical Investigations, Wittgenstein was alert to the difference between real questions and phoney ones. A piece of language can have the grammatical form of a question but not actually be one. Or our grammar can misleadus into mistaking one kind of proposition for another. ‘What then, fellow countrymen, once the enemy is vanquished, can we not accomplish in the hour of victory?’ sounds like a question anticipating an answer, but is in fact a rhetorical question, to which one would probably be ill-advised to return the reply: ‘Nothing’. The utterance is cast in interrogative form simply to enhance its dramatic force. ‘So what?’, ‘Why don’t you get lost?’, and ‘What are you staring at?’ sound like questions but aren’t really. ‘Whereabouts in the body is the soul?’ might sound like a reasonable sort of question to pose, but only because we are thinking along the lines of a question like ‘Whereabouts in the body are the kidneys?’ ‘Where is my envy?’ has the form of a kosher question, but only because we are unconsciously modelling it on ‘Where is my armpit?’

Wittgenstein came to believe that a great many philosophical puzzles arise out of people misusing language in this way. Take, for example, the statement ‘I have a pain’, which is grammatically akin to ‘I have a hat’. This similarity might mislead us into thinking that pains, or ‘experiences’ in general, are things we have in the same way that we have hats. But it would be strange to say ‘Here, take my pain’. And though it would make sense to say ‘Is this your hat or mine?’, it would sound odd to ask ‘Is this your pain or mine?’ Perhaps there are several people in a room and a pain floating around in it; and as each person in turn doubles up in agony, we exclaim: ‘Ah, now he’s having it!’

This sounds merely silly; but in fact it has some fairly momentous implications. Wittgenstein is able to disentangle the grammar of ‘I have a hat’ from ‘I have a pain’ not only in a way that throws light on the use of personal pronouns like ‘I’ and ‘he’, but in ways which undermine the long-standing assumption that my experiences are a kind of private property. In fact, they seem even more like private property than my hat, since I can give away my hat, but not my pain. Wittgenstein shows us how grammar deceives us into thinking this way, and his case has radical, even politically radical, consequences.

The task of the philosopher, Wittgenstein thought, was not so much to resolve these inquiries as to dissolve them – to show that they spring from confusing one kind of ‘language game’, as he called it, with another. We are bewitched by the structure of our language, and the philosopher’s job was to demystify us, disentangling different uses of words. Language, because it inevitably has a degree of uniformity about it, tends to make different kinds of utterance look pretty much the same. So Wittgenstein toyed with the idea of appending as an epigraph to his Philosophical Investigations a quotation from King Lear: ‘I’ll teach you differences’.




The Meaning of Life: A Very Short Introduction

Terry Eagleton



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