eGoup post

Letter to Bruce Denner, psychologiest. Originally published to Yahoo's wittgenstein-dialognet, October 23, 2005. Some typos fixed.


Hi Bruce --

Thanks for the overview and I'm glad you enjoy our dialog, which I do as
well.  I'll use this opportunity to provide some overview of my own.  This
switch to a new mode might help us understand each other better.

A theme here of late has been the membranes, however porous, between the
disciplines, and I've been exploring that.  The confluence of philosophy,
psychology, and anthropology is where I'm looking, and yes, those three feed
into police work, but also into diplomacy and law.  

In law, we find people going to extraordinary lengths (using extraordinary
grammar) to "nail it all down" such that there are no ambiguities later,
e.g. when contract conditions come under review, or treaty conditions.  

This attempt to achieve clarity and agreement connects us to the concepts of
rules and rule-based activities.  What's cheating versus what's allowed?
What's meaningful and what's nonsensical?  As I see it, these questions put
us smack in the middle of PI territory.

Whereas one may try to convert the gist of the PI into rather bland and
mundane summary observations -- e.g. "meaning is best understood as a move
in a game" -- what I find in the PI is an approach to real world challenges
e.g. "let's abstract this particular practice as a rule-based game and come
up with a computer model."

    Thanks to Wittgenstein, philosophy has been freed from a quagmire 
    of specialized language games played only behind the walls of the 
    Ivory Tower. The new pragmatism we have gained challenges us to 
    tackle obsolete, broken language games across the board, sometimes
    countering these 'dying worlds' with 'new ways of looking' which 
    bring 'new meaning' into the picture, along with a new sense of 
    possibility and engagement.[1]

In my book, philosophy is about actually designing *new* language games to
do real work in the real world (which, in practice, is what many
philosophers have historically done).  We don't just sit around trading
platitudes about "reality" and "language."[2]  We invent and implement.[3]
Our philosophy is reflected in the quality of our output, in our marketing
campaigns, in our methods of recruiting and cultivating new talent, in our
curricula, in our internal processes and decision-making.

Notice how the law's attempts to nail it all down have gotten awkward in so
many dimensions.  Small print scrolls by at extreme speed during TV ads,
while voiceover technology makes the oral delivery incredibly fast ("some
restrictions may apply, rates subject to change without notice blah blah").
Gigantic multi-volume sets of books define "tax law" and such.  The game is
too big, too twisted, too full of exceptions, for anyone to really grasp
(including the police/monitors/referees in many cases, who are supposed to
trap violations).  The frustration level is very high all around, people are
just fed up, and that translates into a lot of lawyer jokes.[4]
I'd argue this is a core anthropological phenomenon in western civ:  its
legal boilerplate is unable to keep pace with the times.  But that's no
great tragedy, or needn't be.  Humans have proved themselves highly
adaptable over time.  We just need to create some new institutions, keeping
what works and discarding a lot of what doesn't.  We've done it before, we
can do it again.  And philosophy can help, is helping even now.

On another front, we have computer languages, protocols, standards.  Look at
the global success of tcp/ip, http, nntp, smtp, ftp (check wikipedia for
background).  In terms of "energy slaves," our Fuller School has a veritable
army doing its bidding, getting work done.[5]  

Like lawyers, when software engineers talk about modeling APIs (programmer
interfaces) as "contracts", they're often talking about patches of code. And
yes this code cumulatively represents many volumes.  But there's a key
difference:  it's *self-executing* i.e. instead of relying on relatively
slow-moving law clerk interpreters to push paper, we're relying on high
speed electronics to keep up. Instead of only human police trapping
violations, we have robocops (e.g. packet sniffers).

The two trends are related.  Lawyers and their rule books are falling
further and further behind even as software systems, full of embedded
agreements and standards, push global transactions into high gear.
Container shipping has become automated in high degree. Sure, we still have
a lot of longstanding laws, rules, customs to attend to, but more and more
they're being implemented on computer and executed at superhuman speeds.

By this time you're probably wondering what all this has to do with
philosophy as currently practiced in academia by "doctors of philosophy",
e.g. in 1879 Hall at Princeton University (where I studied the writings of
Wittgenstein, Nietzsche, Hegel, Kierkegaard and so on...).  Well, there's a
long tradition of investing in logic, and philosophers at least since
Leibniz have dreamed that some kind of logic engine could be developed that
would play a role in human affairs.  Dr. Vannevar Bush refers to Leibniz in
his milestone essay 'As We May Think' (Atlantic Monthly, July 1945).  That
article was about his futuristic vision of the MEMEX and the mechanization
of our collective memory.  Today, we speak of hypermedia and order pizza

In sum, I see Wittgenstein's language game based philosophy as providing
good training for those working on new language games.  Google Earth for
example.  We need to work out relationships between protocols, human
practices, dreams and desires.  How will RFID fit in?  What level of privacy
should we expect?  What kinds of transactions are unethical?  What kinds of
research?  What is tasteful, in terms of lifestyle, versus ugly
self-indulgence?  These are questions of ethics and aesthetics, long the
province of philosophers, but also of artists, architects and engineers.

In my view philosophy is about *creating* meaning in our lives.  We're not
just sitting back and absorbing the meanings others have already created.  

A lot of the jabber philosophers invented and considered meaningful in the
past, is by now out of date, just as a lot of our contemporary stuff will be
of fading relevance to future generations.  Even though we share many of the
same concerns as our forbearers, post linguistic turn philosophy has a
different look and feel (as manifest in 'Philosophical Investigations').   

4D Solutions

[1] On Ludwig Wittgenstein's Contribution to a Pragmatic Philosophy
by Kirby Urner April 3, 1997:

[2] PI 97:  "...Whereas, of course, if the words 'language', 'experience',
'world', have a use, it must be as humble as that of the words 'table',
'lamp', 'door'."

[3] "We invent, implement.":

[4] Lawyer jokes:

[5] Re "energy slaves" in my blog:

[6] Re history of hypermedia:

Synergetics on the Web
maintained by Kirby Urner