Wittgenstein on Mind and Language

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Sophomore and above—Year

Would it be possible to know anything if we grew up isolated from one another on desert islands? Would we be able to think? Would we have emotions? Would we be able to invent our own language? Would we have minds? The answers to these questions would be “yes” if a basic assumption of much of Western philosophy were true, viz. that human consciousness has its origins in the individual and only later becomes social and communicable with the learning of language. Some philosophers, such as Descartes, have gone so far as to claim that even the learning of language cannot make consciousness communicable; for we could never know, for example, whether we each see the same when we describe what we see as “red” or “blue,” or whether we feel the same when we describe ourselves as “happy” or “sad,” or even whether other people have minds at all. A major thinker of the 20th century, Ludwig Wittgenstein, has seriously undermined these assumptions concerning the nature of mind and language. His work has profound implications not only for philosophy but also for psychology and anthropology. In dealing with these issues, we will closely read Philosophical Investigations, a text unique in the history of philosophy for being “therapy” instead of “theory.” Mastering Wittgenstein’s technique of philosophizing will reveal to us our own conceptual confusions, as well as those of the Western philosophical tradition, and will give us the experience of dismantling or deconstructing what he calls the “pictures that hold us captive.” Readings will be from Descartes, Wittgenstein, and other 20th-century philosophers.