## Education and Word and Number Hidden Vagueness

These mini-essays help students of any age to re-understand education in a deeper and more connected way.

They look for “circum-spective” intelligence. (Not in the sense of prudential or cautious but in the sense of “around-looking.”)

One of the things to begin to see is that explaining things in schools is misleading “ab initio” (i.e., from the beginning).

Let’s do an example:

In basic algebra, you’re asked: what happens to (x2 – 1)/(x – 1) as x “goes to” (i.e., becomes) 1.

If you look at the numerator (thing on top), x2 is also 1 (since 1 times 1 is 1) and (1 – 1) is zero. The denominator is also (1 – 1) and zero.

Thus you get 0 divided by 0.

You’re then told that’s a no-no and that’s because zeros and infinities lead to all kinds of arithmetic “bad behavior” or singularities.

You’re then supposed to see that x2 – 1 can be re-written as (x – 1)(x + 1) and since “like cancels like,” you cancel the x – 1 is the numerator and denominator and “get rid” of it.

This leaves simply x + 1. So, as x goes to 1, x + 1 goes to 2 and you have a “legitimate” answer and have bypassed the impasse of 0 acting badly (i.e., zero divided by zero).

If you re-understand all this more slowly you’ll see that there are endless potential confusions:

For example: you cannot say that (x2 – 1)/(x – 1) = x + 1 since looking at the two sides of the equal sign shows different expressions which are not equal.

They’re also not really equivalent.

You could say that coming up with x + 1 is a workaround or a “reduced form” or a “downstream rewrite” of (x2 – 1)/(x – 1).

This reminds us of the endless confusions in high school science: if you combine hydrogen gas (H2) with oxygen gas (O2) you don’t get water (H2O). Water is the result of a chemical reaction giving you a compound.

A mixture is not a compound. Chemistry is based on this distinction.

Math and science for that matter, are based on taking a formula or expression (like the one we saw above) and “de-cluttering” it or “shaking loose” a variant form which is not identical and not the same but functionally equivalent in a restricted way.

A lot of students who fail to follow high school or college science sense these and other “language and number” problems of hidden vagueness.
School courses punish students who “muse” to themselves about hidden vagueness. This behavior is pre-defined as “bad woolgathering” but we turn this upside down and claim it is potentially “good woolgathering” and might lead to enchantment which then underlies progress in getting past one’s fear of something like math or science or anything else.

One is surrounded by this layer of reality on all sides, what Wittgenstein calls “philosophy problems which are really language games.”

Think of daily life: you say to someone: “you can count one me.” You mean trust, rely on, depend on, where count on is a “set phrase.” (The origin of the phrase and how it became a set phrase is probably unknowable and lost in the mists of time.)

“You can count on me” does not mean you can stand on me and then count something…one, two, three.

In other words in all kinds of language (English, say, or math as a language) one is constantly “skating over” such logic-and-nuance-and-meaning issues.

The genius Kurt Gödel (Einstein’s walk around buddy at Princeton) saw this in a deep way and said that it’s deeply surprising that languages work at all (spoken, written or mathematical) since the bilateral sharing of these ambiguities would seem deadly to any clarity at all and communication itself would seem a rather unlikely outcome.

You could also say that drama giants of the twentieth century like Pinter, Ionesco and Beckett, intuit these difficulties which then underlie their plays.

All of this together gives you a more “composite” “circum-spective” view of what is really happening in knowledge acquisition.

## Education and Wittgenstein “Language Games”

It is instructive for a student to get a grip on the whole question of “language games” à la Wittgenstein, who says that these “games” (i.e., ambiguities) are central to thinking in general and thinking about philosophy in particular.

Let’s make up our own example and step back from the meaning of the preposition “in.”

The comb is in my back pocket has nothing to do with the “in” of “he’s in a good mood” or “he’s in a hurry” or “he’s in a jam or pickle” or “he’s in trouble.” Furthermore, in modern deterministic neuroscience language, a good mood is a footnote to brain and blood chemicals so that means that a good mood is in you via chemicals and not you in it.

Does the word “jam” here mean difficulty or somehow the condiment called jam? You don’t know and can never without more information (i.e., meaningful context).

Imagine we take a time machine and are standing in front of the home of Charles Dickens in London in his time say in the 1840s. They say he’s working on a new novel called Oliver Twist.

Someone says: a novel by Dickens is a kind of “fictional universe.” Shall we say that because Dickens is in his home (at home) in London (though in London is itself confusing since London as a city is not like a pocket to a comb or wallet) his fictional universe is “in” the universe which might be a multiverse according to current cosmological speculations? That’s not what we mean. The fictional universe of Dickens is a shared cultural abstraction involving his stories, characters, people absorbing his tales, his mind and our mind, books and discussions. A fictional universe is as “weird” as the other universe. The preposition “in” does not begin to capture what’s going on which is socio-cultural and not “physicalistic.”

We begin to intuit that everyday language which we use and handle as the most obvious thing in the world in constant use, is completely confusing once you look at it more clearly.

Einstein’s friend at Princeton, Kurt Gödel, looked into language as a logical phenomenon and concluded that it’s entirely puzzling that two people could actually speak and understand one another given the ambiguities and open-endedness of language.

A language-game (German: Sprachspiel) is a philosophical concept developed by Ludwig Wittgenstein, referring to simple examples of language use and the actions into which the language is woven. Wittgenstein argued that a word or even a sentence has meaning only as a result of the “rule” of the “game” being played. Depending on the context, for example, the utterance “Water!” could be an order, the answer to a question, or some other form of communication.

In his work, Philosophical Investigations (1953), Ludwig Wittgenstein regularly referred to the concept of language-games. Wittgenstein rejected the idea that language is somehow separate and corresponding to reality, and he argued that concepts do not need clarity for meaning. Wittgenstein used the term “language-game” to designate forms of language simpler than the entirety of a language itself, “consisting of language and the actions into which it is woven” and connected by family resemblance (German: Familienähnlichkeit).

The concept was intended “to bring into prominence the fact that the speaking of language is part of an activity, or a form of life,” which gives language its meaning.

Wittgenstein develops this discussion of games into the key notion of a “language-game.”

Gödel saw that language has deep built-in ambiguities which were as puzzling as math and logic ones:

Gödel’s (died in 1978) incompleteness theorems are two theorems of mathematical logic that demonstrate the inherent limitations of every formal axiomatic system capable of modeling basic arithmetic. These results, published by Kurt Gödel in 1931, are important both in mathematical logic and in the philosophy of mathematics.

Take any simple sentence: say, “men now count.”

Without a human context of meaning, how would you ever decide if this means count in the sense of numeracy (one apple, two apples, etc.) or something entirely from another domain (i.e. males got the vote in a certain country and now “count” in that sense).

When you say, “count me in” or count me out,” how does that make any sense without idiomatic language exposure?

If you look at all the meanings of “count” in the dictionary and how many set phrases or idioms involve the word “count,” you will immediately get the sense that without a human “life-world” (to use a Husserl phrase), you could never be sure of any message or sentence at all involving such a fecund word.

One task of real education is to put these difficulties on the student’s plate and not avoid them.

Linguistics as such is not what’s at issue but rather a “meta-intelligent” sense of language, written or spoken as highly mysterious with or without the research into vocal cords, language genes (FOXP2, say) or auditory science and the study of palates or glottal stops and fricatives, grammars and syntax.

Seeing this promotes deep education (i.e., where understanding touches holism in an enchanting way).

## Essay 37: The Language Phenomenon in Education

Wittgenstein (1889–1951) identifies language as the principal “confusion-machine” within philosophy:

“Philosophy is a battle against the bewitchment of our intelligence by means of language.”

The philosopher’s treatment of a question is like the treatment of an illness.

“What is your aim in philosophy?—To show the fly the way out of the fly-bottle.”

Education if deep and meaningful would put language itself in front of a student to understand the “bewitchment” and to perhaps “escape from the fly-bottle.” The fly-bottle is roughly “the captive mind syndrome” described by Czesław Miłosz, the Polish poet-thinker.

There are various aspects of this language-watching:

Hans-Georg Gadamer (Heidegger’s successor, who died in 2002) writes:

“It is not that scientific methods are mistaken, but ‘this does not mean that people would be able to solve the problems that face us, peaceful coexistence of peoples and the preservation of the balance of nature, with science as such. It is obvious that not mathematics but the linguistic nature of people is the basis of civilization.’”

(German Philosophy, Oxford University Press, 2000, pages 122/123)

This is readily seeable. Imagine Einstein and Kurt Gödel walking near the Princeton campus. They speak to each other in German, their native tongue which they both “inhabit.” Gödel communicates the limits to logic and Einstein the limits to modern physics such as quantum mechanics. They bring in Bohr and Heisenberg and the “Copenhagen Interpretation” as a counter-view. They refer to equations and experiments and conjectures and puzzles, current papers and conferences.

They take “communicative action” by use of speech using German as a means.

There are two levels here that are always confused: the ontological (i.e., all the why-questions people ask using language) and the ontic level, all the how-questions people pose using mathematics and laboratory results (e.g., Higgs boson).

Gödel once made the observation that if you look at language as a kind of logical system, it’s absolutely puzzling that people can communicate at all since language is so utterly ambiguous and “polyvalent.”

Take the sentence: “Men now count.” Out of context, does it mean count as in the sense of numeracy, one, two, three apples in front of me or do you mean perhaps that men in a certain country were given the right to vote and now “count” politically. Without the context and the ability to contextualize, no sentence by itself makes certain sense at all.

This is partly why Wittgenstein sees philosophy problems as “language games.”

Heidegger coming from “being-in-the-world” as foundational, and calls language “the house of being.”

You inhabit a native language the way you “inhabit” a family home or a home town. You flow through.

When a child of ten plays marbles (as analyzed by Piaget) and his native language (say French) comes pouring out of him in a spontaneous gusher, how can we really explain it since the child doesn’t look up syntactical rules and grammatical definitions when he speaks. The words flow.

Heidegger retorts that language speaks you in other words, you’re channeling the language in a way a songwriter explains how a song comes to him. In the end, it’s something spontaneous and not propositional like grammar is.

A moment’s reflection shows you how “slippery” language is:

A man driving to New York says to you, “the car died on me halfway there.”  He does not mean the car was “on” him physically. To die on doesn’t really mean perish forever, it means, on average, stopped to function in a way that usually can be fixed in the garage.  It means this reparable conking out of the car gave him a big headache and aggravation as he waited for the Triple A people to get there and do the paperwork. You visualize all these layers and twists.

Again, without a human context, the sentence “the car died on me” makes little sense. Without a human context, “the sky is blue” makes incomplete sense too. Does a camel or cricket see a blue sky?

A full education would explore these dimensions of language and this has nothing to do with bringing back Latin or Greek or studying a foreign language to meet a Ph.D. requirement.  Formal linguistics à la Chomsky, Fodor, Katz, etc. is not what’s being discussed, as interesting as all that might be.

It also is not about language genes such as FAP-2 or how vocal cords work since these questions are ontic (i.e., how does it work?) and not ontological (i.e., what does something mean or imply?). Thinking about language in an engineering sense with the human mouth as a “buccal cavity” is quite legitimate and a voice coach might do well to do that.  We are talking about something else:  the centrality of language in human self-understanding, functioning and the making of meaning.