Meaning, Use, and Existentialism



Meaning, Use, and Existentialism


Wittgenstein writes in the Philosophical Investigations: “How can he know how he is to continue a pattern by himself—whatever instruction you give him?—Well, how do I know?—If that means ‘Have I reasons?’ the answer is: my reasons will soon give out. And then I shall act, without reasons.” (211) “When someone whom I am afraid of orders me to continue the series, I act quickly, with perfect certainty, and the lack of reasons doesn’t trouble me.” (212) “If I have exhausted the justifications, I reach bedrock, and my spade is turned. Then I am inclined to say: ‘This is simply what I do’. (217) “I obey the rule blindly.” (219) To anyone familiar with existentialist thought this must sound eerily familiar: actions don’t issue from reasons, justifications, character, upbringing, genes, or any other determinative factor; they come from pure spontaneous free will.[1] Nothing determines our actions but free action itself. So action cannot find a basis in reason or psychological state or logic; it must occur in a vacuum. Wittgenstein is saying that following a rule is not based on any “interpretation”, any inner or outer state or process or symbol that fixes what has to be done at any point in the application of the rule; rather, the will itself must step in to apply the rule. As he says: “It would almost be more correct to say, not that an intuition was needed at every stage, but that a new decision was needed at every stage.” (186) The rule-follower is free from every antecedent fact and must act anyway. The will is primary in producing action, not reason or perception or consciousness. This conception is rightly associated with existentialism and is opposed to rationalist conceptions of action and will construed as the slaves of reason. We could say that Wittgenstein is a semantic existentialist: the use of words is radically free, not dictated by logic, interpretations, subjective states, or anything of the kind. The existentialist holds that action in general, especially moral action, is likewise not grounded in anything perceived by the mind, whether in the empirical world or in platonic heaven. We don’t apprehend the Good and act accordingly, just as we don’t apprehend a Fregean sense and use words accordingly. Instead we simply act—blindly, without guidance, without reasons. Whatever is going on in consciousness cannot determine our actions; we must act from pure will. The deed has no foundation in antecedent facts about the mind—not in what we call personality, and not in mental states preceding or accompanying linguistic use. The will is an autonomous agency.

            Given this analogy, it makes sense to investigate further possible analogies between Wittgenstein and Sartre (taking him to be representative of existentialist thought). In particular, can we find an analogue of Sartre’s notion of Nothingness in Wittgenstein? I will assume familiarity with Sartre’s Being and Nothingness, simply reminding the reader of some salient points. Consciousness (the for-itself) is nothingness because its being is exhausted by its intentional objects—what it is conscious of. It has no more being than that conferred by its objects, but it doesn’t collapse into those objects. Decision thus arises from nothingness, because that’s what consciousness (the mind) is. The essence of the human being is non-being—a kind of structural emptiness. Future actions are not in any way contained in or predetermined by the contents of mind at a given time; the faculty of will steps in to take up the slack, i.e. to make action possible. The will is an autonomous faculty not an obedient servant of reason or even emotion. We are condemned to be free, as Sartre puts it. We exist in time and must act in time, but the past doesn’t determine how we act; every act is really a new decision, a leap in the dark. Values arise from these free acts; the acts are not determined by values. We could say that the human agent is conceived as a pure potentiality, a kind of unconditioned spontaneity, not a collection of actual empirical facts—an empty vessel, a vacuum, a non-being (yet very real). We may try to conceal our freedom from ourselves (bad faith), but it is an undeniable reality. At our heart we are nothing but the bare possibility of acting.

I have reported Sartre’s position so as to bring out the analogy with Wittgenstein’s: for he too thinks that meaning (rule following, understanding) is essentially a form of emptiness, a mere potentiality. Nothing in my current state of understanding contains or predetermines future use, though we are tempted to think otherwise; it is the potentiality of future use not the guarantor of it. Its being is not like the being of a sensation or an image; in so far as it has being this consists in a capacity to act in certain ways in the future, where this capacity is not grounded in any further psychological fact. That is why the next stage in developing the series is more like a decision than an intuition: it is an act of autonomous free will. The Tractatus tried to find a cognizable fact to constitute meaning (a picturing relation), but this quest turned up nothing, so the Investigations settles for an active potentiality—a bare ability to use words over time. The empirical psychologist tries to identify a set of mental elements that constitute the psyche and determine action (Freud is the obvious example), but Sartre thinks this underestimates human freedom, which is better pictured as an empty spontaneity. Both Sartre and Wittgenstein think that cause and effect should be reversed: use causes or creates meaning; action causes or creates personality. Meaning rests ultimately on a vanishing point of pure will (the unconditioned deed); the self likewise rests upon a pure volitional assertion (the self-created self). Action emerges as foundational in the formation of both meaning and the self—action that springs from pure potentiality. No doubt this notion of the volitional tabula rasa is difficult to comprehend, and is indeed rather mysterious, but we are driven to it by honest reflection on how reason and the will connect, i.e. not very closely. Reason alone cannot dictate action, especially moral action (or so it is thought), and neither can it dictate how to follow a rule or use words. The rationalist view of action must give way to the existentialist view in both ethics and semantics. If this calls for a radical rethinking of metaphysics, in which nothingness and pure potentiality are included in what there is, then so much the better, given that rejection of such ideas leads to distorted pictures of meaning and the self. So, at any rate, these two thinkers might suppose (I am describing not endorsing)—Wittgenstein with some misgivings (see sections 193 and 194 on the potentialities of machines), Sartre with something more like gleeful abandon. Certainly some serious revision of traditional philosophical ideas is called for by both thinkers. One wonders whether followers of either of them realized quite how serious the metaphysical stakes were (I am thinking of analytical philosophers influenced by Wittgenstein and humanists excited by Sartre’s vision of limitless freedom). In point of fact, both are advocating ideas that are deeply mysterious and bordering on the miraculous—the pure will as an agent of semantic and personal construction. For how can an empty will create meanings and selves? The idea seems romantic and far-fetched—that is, guaranteed to appeal to the fantasy driven and thrill seeking. But I digress: my aim is only to investigate the history of ideas not pronounce on their merits. I certainly found Sartre’s ideas about freedom exhilarating in my youth, and Wittgenstein’s voluntaristic view of meaning strangely gripping in my middle age; and I can’t be the only one. The notion of pure creativity is bound to resonate.[2]

            Stepping back, we might bring in developments in physics roughly contemporaneous with the work of Sartre and Wittgenstein—developments that also appeal to the human imagination. I mean the quantum revolution. In Newtonian physics everything is determined by the antecedent state of the world, conceived as a set of hard fixed facts, with nothing “funny” going on. But in quantum theory (under some interpretations) the basic constituents of matter have no determinate nature until their properties are measured; before that they are mere potentialities. Nor do their properties determine what will happen in the future; their future behavior is not “contained” in their present state. So we should adopt an existentialist view of elementary particles: how they behave over time is not fixed by their internal state, which is best viewed as a type of potentiality. They are “free” from anything that precedes them, as if they have a will that permits different possibilities of action. Thus we have what may be called “physical existentialism” to be set beside semantic existentialism and personal existentialism. All three views reject ideas of determinism and determinate nature, replacing these with a new metaphysics of potentiality and openness. The particle too emerges as a kind of nothingness only given determinate reality by freely “chosen” acts. It would be rash to speculate on intellectual influences, but such ideas were in the air when Sartre and Wittgenstein were forging their radical theories; at least there is a common pattern at work here. No longer is the world a totality of well-defined facts, construed as determinate elements of reality, but rather a sea of potentialities waiting to become concretized by free action. The world becomes performance, a freely constructed artifact, not unlike a fictional work: the unconstrained will creates reality from nothing. A performative utterance is one that creates a fact from an act; in this sense the existentialist holds that parts of reality are performatively constructed, i.e. brought about by the will. It’s a bit like God’s ability to create the universe: by pure will alone he can produce realities. Uses create meanings, actions create selves, and measurements create particles: free action is the root of these realities (note that the concept of action is commonly employed in physics). Each is a type of behaviorism in that action is invoked to account for being; there is no essence that is prior to behavior and productive of it. Existence precedes essence—though the existence is of a wispy and elusive nature. It might be more apt to say that non-existence (Nothingness) precedes both existence and essence. The will conceived in the existentialist manner (which is not compulsory) is a remarkably etiolated and elusive thing, yet it is regarded as capable of astonishing feats of construction. It tends to be characterized negatively with little said to explain its productive power.[3]


[1] This paper was stimulated by reading Iris Murdoch’s The Sovereignty of Good (1970), especially the first chapter. Here she draws a connection between Continental existentialism and Oxford-based views of moral conduct, suggesting that they too are existentialist. Both base morality on the will not on perception of the Good or any other rational foundation. She remarks en passant that the Oxford existentialists were influenced by Wittgenstein. This led me to think more systematically about the relation between Sartre’s existentialism and Wittgenstein’s use theory of meaning.    

[2] I studied Being and Nothingness closely as an undergraduate and later gave a graduate seminar on it (as well as writing an encyclopedia entry on Sartre); and I wrote a book on Wittgenstein in the early 1980s (Wittgenstein on Meaning). At both periods I felt the force of their positions. Now I am more reluctant to go along with them. Existentialism is a young person’s philosophy.

[3] Creativity is of course a psychological mystery: we have very little understanding of how the human mind generates anything novel. A mysterian view of how the will creates meaning and the self is not to be lightly dismissed, and gives Sartre and Wittgenstein some needed wiggle room. Existentialist mysterianism might be the indicated position.

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