Wittgenstein Contra a Presupposition of Dualism

By | May 20, 2010

“Talk about behavior and talk about mental states are just two different ways of talking, each of which has practical application in appropriate circumstance; but they should not be interpreted as indicative of a dualistic view of personality.”

Paraphrasing an obscure Wittgensteinian scholar.

Most people who think about the question regarding human personality tend to adopt a dualistic view of humans in which the physical-corporeal aspect is distinct from the mental aspect. This seems to be the intuitive view about our existence in the world; after all, what we think, feel, imagine, dream and so on is surely a different process from our overt behavior, whether that behavior is physical behavior (action, movement) or linguistic behavior (our talking, writing, singing, etc.). Who would deny that I often do not express my thoughts or feelings? Who would deny that often what I do or say does not express what I think or feel? Nobody, it seems, from which many people draw the conclusion that dualism is correct: humans have both a physical and a mental aspect; and these are separate realities. The evidence can seem overwhelming.

But some philosophers have argued that the case for dualism is far from conclusive. There are a variety of ways of countering dualism. Some counter-arguments seek direct refutation of the dualist thesis; but some are modest attempts to raise doubts about some aspect of dualism. Before looking at one such modest questioning of dualism by Ludwig Wittgenstein, let us review some reasons for thinking that dualism is the true view of human personality.

We often find ourselves in situations in which we doubt that a person’s overt behavior accurately indicates what they’re really thinking. For example, we’re wise to be skeptical about the statements of an automobile salesman trying to sell us a new car or a politician trying to sell us on his candidacy. Are they being honest? Do their words really represent their thinking? What motives are they keeping hidden from us? Another example we can cite is the world of stage or film acting; surely we know that a good actor on the stage can make us believe that he really experiences specific feelings and emotions: an actress despairing over the loss of child is not really a woman in despair over the loss of a child. She is an actress skilled at simulating that situation for the audience. An actor who acts as somebody who believes his life is in danger is not really a person whose life is in danger. He is someone skilled at making the audience accept that situation as happening in the play. The point is that nobody denies that there are many situations in which we distinguish sharply between a person’s overt behavior and the person’s actual thoughts, feelings, motives; and these are situations in which we would deny that the observed behavior indicates the thoughts, feelings, or motives that are behind the overt behavior.

These kinds of situations can be presented as evidence for the dualist philosophy, which distinguishes between overt behavior and the mental life. According to the dualist, these two ‘realms’ might correspond in some way, but are separate realms of reality. Furthermore, except for a subject’s own report about his mental state, any knowledge we might acquire about another person’s mental state comes indirectly, by way of inference. We observe the overt behavior and infer the internal mental state; e.g., your telling me that you’re hungry allows me to infer that you really feel hunger pangs, although you could be fooling me.

On the other side we find the materialists and behaviorists who are skeptical about a philosophy which attributes dual reality to human personality. There are a variety of reasons for such skepticism, the chief among them being that the relevant sciences can account for human experience without positing a separate mental realm. The skeptics urge that we take a closer look at the doctrine that humans are have dual character, physical and mental. Furthermore, they question, if not reject, the idea that a subject’s overt behavior is an indication of the internal, mental reality; for example, they deny that ordinarily we infer that a person experiences pain from his behavior indicative of someone feeling pain. According to the philosophical ‘behaviorist’ perspective, in ordinary circumstances, a person exhibiting pain behavior is a person in pain.

In twentieth century philosophy two names which we can cite as philosophers who take this perspective are Ludwig Wittgenstein and Gilbert Ryle. However, their philosophical perspective should be kept distinct from the school of psychological behaviorism (e.g., John Watson, B.F. Skinner). Nevertheless, we can surely see a ‘behaviorist’ perspective in Gilbert Ryle’s argument rejecting the “ghost in the machine” and his general thesis in his book, The Concept of Mind, which undermines the relevance of mental processes underlying overt behavior. Likewise, the philosophical position implied by Wittgenstein’s reflections in the Philosophical Investigations seems to promote a ‘behaviorist’ perspective. In this context we can better understand Wittgenstein’s remarks questioning the tendency of the dualist to assume a sharp distinction between talk about inner mental processes and talk about overt behavior.

We find Wittgenstein doing this in Part II, Section V of the Philosophical Investigations. Here Wittgenstein presents a few remarks which can be read as an argument undermining the assumption that observation of a person’s overt behavior is always distinct from what we say about that person’s corresponding mental state; for example, when we observe a man exhibiting pain behavior (he grimaces and cries out) we observe only his behavior and then infer this mental state: his experiencing pain. Wittgenstein’s point is that in ordinary circumstances observation of pain behavior is the same as our observing a person in pain. In short, Wittgenstein raises doubts about the thesis of a dichotomy between our statements of a person’s overt behavior and our statements about a person’s mental states.

Wittgenstein’s style in presenting his arguments is cryptic and not always transparent. So I offer my attempt at a close interpretation and paraphrasing of Wittgenstein’s thesis.

He begins by remarking on the example of a moving point of light on a screen, and exclaims that one can draw a variety of consequences from the behavior of that point of light, depending on those aspects of its behavior that interest us. We might be interested in the velocity with which it moves, or in the path that it takes; or the number and frequency of stops that it makes. In short, the consequences we draw about the light’s behavior depends on how we our focus our attention. We’re selective in our observations taking only some parts of the light’s behavior as relevant and ignoring other aspects. Then he brings in the analogy to the observation of a person’s behavior. As with our observing the behavior of the point of light, so with our observation of a person’s behavior, we can draw a variety of inferences depending on our selective attention. For example, a tourist guide might recite some information about the place we’re visiting, while he seems to find something else humorous. As tourists we would likely ignore the behavior indicating that he finds something to be humorous, and just focus on the information he gives. But if we were a team evaluating his job performance, we might focus on his distracting ‘tics’ of humor or other indicators that he is bored. The inference we draw is not one about the information which he recites, but about the way he recites the information. We draw an inference, not about the place being visited, but about his qualifications to act as a guide.

At this point, Wittgenstein raises the obvious question:

Then psychology treats of behavior, not of mind. – What do psychologists record? — What do they observe? Isn’t it the behavior of human beings, in particular their utterances? But these are not about behavior.

(Philosophical Investigations, trans. By G.E.M. Anscombe, Macmillan Company, 1953, p. 179)
If the data recorded by psychologists are not “about behavior,” what are they about? Wittgenstein’s suggestion is that they are about the person’s state of mind.

“I noticed that he was out of humour.” Is this a report about his behavior or his state of mind? (“The sky looks threatening”; is this about the present or the future?) Both; not side-by-side, however, but about the one via the other.

(ibid., p. 179)
The description of behavior is our way of describing someone’s pain. When we make reference to his behavior we also make reference to his pain, in the same way our description of the sky as threatening is a way of predicting a storm. In short, this is how we talk about his mental state, his feeling of pain.

A doctor asks: “How is he feeling?” the nurse says: “He is groaning”. A report on his behavior. But need there be any question for them whether the groaning is really genuine, is really the expression of anything? Might they not, for example, draw the conclusion “if he groans, we must give him more analgesic” — without suppressing a middle term? Isn’t the point the service to which they put the description of behavior?

(ibid., p. 179)
Here Wittgenstein raises doubts about our inclination to separate observation about overt behavior from remarks about mental states. Ordinarily, when I observe someone groaning, I observe that he is in pain. The pain behavior does not represent internal pain; it is what we understand as a person in pain.

“But then they make a tacit presupposition.” Then what we do in our language-game always rests on a tacit presupposition.

(ibid., p. 179)
Do we have a “tacit presupposition” working here? Do we presuppose that this behavior represents internally felt pain? Wittgenstein asks that we consider whether our language-game of pain description rests on that presupposition. But the presupposition is part of the dualistic way of thinking. Maybe we should not assume that our way of talking is based on a presupposition.

Next he asks that we consider a case in which talk of a ‘presupposition’ makes good sense. This may lead us to think that in ordinary talk we presuppose a connection between behavior and mental state:

I describe a psychological experiment: the apparatus, the questions of the experimenter, the actions and replies of the subject — and then I say that is a scene in a play. –Now everything is different. So it will be said: If this experiment were described in the same way in a book on psychology, then the behavior described would be understood as the expression of something mental just because it is presupposed that the subject is not taking us in, hasn’t learnt the replies by heart, and other things of the kind. —So we are making a presupposition?
Should we ever really express ourselves like this: “Naturally I am presupposing that . . . .”? — Or do we not do so only because the other person already knows that?

Doesn’t a presupposition imply a doubt? And doubt may be entirely lacking. Doubting has an end.

(ibid., p. 180)
His point is that in ordinary circumstances we simply don’t doubt that a person exhibiting pain behavior is a case of a person in pain. Doubt is entirely lacking; but the notion that we presuppose a connection rests on the notion that there might be doubt about the connection, i.e., the notion that doubt has a place. But in ordinary circumstances doubt does not have a place. By noting that ordinarily this ‘presupposition’ business does not even apply, Wittgenstein suggests that implied dualism between our talk of behavior and talk about mental states may not even apply.

He follows with a comparison of our dualistic talk regarding behavior and mental states with the philosophical dualism between physical objects and sense-impressions.

It is like the relation: physical object — sense-impressions. Here we have two different language-games and a complicated relation between them. — If you try to reduce their relations to a simple formula you go wrong.

(ibid., p. 180)
Wittgenstein’s point is that, like the two different language games of physical objects and sense-impressions, which cannot be reduced to a simple relation of sense-impression representing a corresponding physical object (as sense-datum theories tried to do), talk of overt behavior and that of mental states are two language-games which cannot be reduced to a simple relationship of behavior (utterance) representing the mental state. The relationship between them is much more complicated.

But doesn’t this imply a dualistic framework? Only in the sense that can talk about behavior and we can talk about mental states. For the suggestion of a dualism (if that suggestion lurks here) only concerns language-games, i.e., only concerns the various ways we talk about behavior and mental states. And the way we talk about these may or may not reflect a dualistic reality of human personality.

Wittgenstein’s remarks in this section (Part II, Section V) of the Philosophical Investigations do not ostensibly advance a philosophical behaviorism. At most, his remarks raise interesting questions about some of the assumptions of the dualist regarding our talk about behavior and our talk about mental states. The argument that he makes is one that, if successful, undermines some important premises of the dualist thesis.

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