Monday, June 28, 2010

Sentence and context

Many sentences have several interpretations, and even more interpretations when they are divorced from the context. The latter need not be bad, as long as one realizes what one is doing. Interpreting sentences can be a creative act and make the mind open for new ideas. In my blog of April 30 last I explained that a sceptical interpretation of the first part of Wittgenstein’s second aphorism in his On certainty is not correct in view of the context. To remember, Wittgenstein said there: “From its seeming to me - or to everyone - to be so, it doesn't follow that it is so.” He argued that fundamentally we cannot be sceptical because in the end we need a frame of reference (a language game, as he called it) in order to make doubt possible. We need a frame of stable presuppositions, he says, and only within this frame we can doubt. However, as I showed, also such a frame of reference is not beyond doubt, for in the end it is a shared individual frame at most: frames of reference appear to be stable, because many people have them. Then we have dissolved scepticism in a practical way, so it seems.
Nevertheless, a fundamental sceptical interpretation of what we perceive may be useful. Actually it is that what scientists often do when they practise science. One of the problems in science is that a theory might seem to be a good one and still we do not know whether it is true. For how should we know that the theory is true? We only know that it works in the sense that when we apply it, it gives good results. Take a sunset, for instance. For thousands of years people thought that the sun really went down at the end of the day and they lived with it. The idea behind it was that the earth is the centre of the universe and everything in heaven moved around the earth. Okay, a few heavenly objects moved a bit strange and not in circles like the other ones, but who cared? Some people cared, like Galileo and Copernicus, and it was discovered that this problem could only be solved by changing the frame of reference, and putting the earth on a far less important place in universe. Everybody knows this story, but it still teaches us something important: our stable convictions and frames of reference are often not as stable as we might think. It shows also that false thoughts can be stimulating, for the original explanation of the sunset and the central place of the earth was false, but just the fact that it led to some strange phenomena (the apparently strange movements of the planets in the sky) stimulated the development of better ideas. Seen in this way, it need not be bad that sentences are divorced from the context, for Wittgenstein’s anti-sceptical interpretation of the quotation would stop us, where the context ends, but taken as it is its seemingly false sceptical interpretation can be a first step to topple what everybody “knows”. At least so it seems.

No comments: