Saturday, 3 December 2011

Words: seeking meaning, seeking action

Recently I made the mistake of making some disparaging remarks about Ludwig Wittgenstein in the presence of one my closest friends who, I’d momentarily forgotten, was a great fan of the philosopher.

I’m the first to admit that my criticism of his thinking is largely based on ignorance. But, in my defence, I would contend that I can do absolutely nothing about that ignorance. It’s not as though I haven’t tried to come to grips with Wittgenstein, but when his statements aren’t simply incomprehensible, they seem to me of such banality is to take us nowhere forward at all. For instance (Philosophical Investigations, Part I, section 43):

For a large class of cases—though not for all—in which we employ the word ‘meaning’ it can be defined thus: the meaning of a word is its use in the language.

OK, is this saying anything else but ‘meaning is generally what we mean to say, but not always’? And, OK again, I may be rather miserably pragmatic about these things, but I really would like philosophy to help understand the world or guide action in it. What I draw from this illuminating insight is that I may not always mean what I think I mean when I talk about meaning but in most cases I probably do.

Ludwig: no way through that I can see...
Enough to make me want to pick up a different book, which is what I generally do. That may explain why I don’t really understand Wittgenstein much.

Now, in one of the books I recently picked up as an alternative to his I read the words:

The expansion of choices to be made is both an opportunity (the choices can be made by oneself) and a burden (the choices have to be made by oneself).

Now that I regard as an insight. And limpid, easy to follow.

We in the West harp on endlessly about freedom, and in particular freedom of choice, but the reality – and I recognise this in myself as much as in others – we frequently want to escape the burden of decision. Not always: in some areas of work and life I vigorously defend my right to take or at least contribute to decision, but much more often I’m happy to fit in with others.

A couple of pages later the same writer picks an example from healthcare, to show that freedom doesn’t have to mean the freedom to control. The fact that someone else controls making it available doesn't make a freedom any less valuable:

... the freedom to live in an epidemic-free atmosphere may be important for us, and given the choice, we would choose to achieve that. But the controls of general epidemic prevention may not be in our hands – it may require national and possibly even international policies. If we do not have control over the process of elimination of epidemics, there is no more to be said, as far as ‘freedom of  control’ is concerned, in this field. But in a broader sense the issue of freedom is still there. A public policy that eliminates epidemics is enhancing our freedom to lead the life – unbattered by epidemics – that we would choose to lead. (65)

Not just clear and insightful, this statement has immediate resonance for me, working in the field of healthcare. In Britain, governments – of either party – have long trumpeted the importance of freedom of choice. You must it seems have the choice of which hospital to go to for treatment.

But it’s a completely false choice. I don’t choose to go to this hospital rather than that one. I choose to be free of my disease. Here where I live, in Luton, 95% of hospital admissions are to our local hospital. Offered the choice, the vast majority of people choose the closest. The only surprising thing about this finding is that some people find it surprising.

My friend challenged me to name a modern philosopher I’d prefer to Wittgenstein. I mentioned a couple, but now I’d like to add a third: Amartya Sen whose refreshing perceptions on freedom I’ve been quoting (want to know where from? Inequality Reexamined, Oxford 1995, pages 63 and 65 respectively).

Amartya: possible antidote?
Why are they so refreshing? Because he uses words to guide action. Words for their own sake strike me as insipid in contrast.

Besides, if the venerable Ludwig is right, and I can’t even know whether I always mean the same thing by ‘mean’, what on earth would be the point in them?

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