[lit-ideas] Sraffa's Gesture

  • From: "" <dmarc-noreply@xxxxxxxxxxxxx> (Redacted sender "Jlsperanza" for DMARC)
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  • Date: Sat, 28 Nov 2015 05:56:14 -0500

We are considering two passages. One by Witters, cited by McEvoy -- from
the Preface to "Philosophical Introductions":

"Even more than to [Ramsey's]—always certain and forcible—criticism I am
indebted to that which a teacher of this university, Mr. P. Sraffa, for
years unceasingly practised on my thoughts. I am indebted to this stimulus
for the most consequential ideas of this book."

The other from Norman Malcolm:

"Witt[ers] was insisting that a proposition and that which it describes
must have the same 'logical form', the same 'logical multiplicity'. Sraffa
made a gesture, familiar to Neapolitans as meaning something like disgust
or contempt, of brushing the underneath of his chin with an outward sweep
of the finger-tips of one hand. And he asked: 'What is the logical form of

The standard interpretation, I understand, by palaeo-Wittgenteinians and
neo-Wittgensteinians, is that Sraffa's gesture made Witters realise that
there is more to language than _STATING_, the only 'function' he had
considered in the "Tractatus".

McEvoy opts for an exegesis along the lines that there is SENSE that can
only be SHOWN, not _STATED_ or SAID.

So, I was exploring an answer to Sraffa's question IN THE TERMS OF THE
"Tractatus". McEvoy was considering Witters's analogy between psychological
language ("Infuriated, Geary kicked him.") and mere physical language ("Geary
kicked him."). Surely Sraffa's gesture allows for a 'physicalist'
explanation, but apparently Witters was not into that. He was not into a
analysis alla, "By uttering the gesture, Sraffa meant that he felt disgust
for Witters" (Malcolm's paraphrase). Sraffa, who was not a philosopher, was
using 'logical form'. This reminds me of a philosopher of I knew who used
'mercury' (a chemical element) every four other words!

"The most consequential ideas of" Witters's "Philosophical Investigations"
are stimulated, Witters says, to "a teacher of this university", i.e. a
professor? No, lecturer. In Oxford they call them readers, because they read
(rather than write). More specifically, this 'teacher of this university"
was a cafeteria regular.

The "cafeteria group" was an informal club at the University of Cambridge
consisting of John Maynard Keynes, Frank P. Ramsey, Piero Sraffa and Ludwig
Wittgenstein. The group discussed Keynes's theory of probability,
particularly his 1921 treatise, and Friedrich Hayek's theory of business

English Heritage has now placed a blue placque next to the table where they
met. It reads that Sraffa was "often late," which infuriated Keynes. As
Ramsey notes, "Since Keynes was almost always gone when Sraffa arrived, it is
controversial to call the 'cafeteria group' a group." But the idea was
Sraffa who just imported the idea of the cafeteria from his meetings back in
Milan at the famous café in the Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II.

But while the standard interpretation sticks to this idea that Witters
changed his conception of lingo, Grice would disagree, for while Sraffa's
gesture MEANS, it is not lingo. A lingo needs more than that. To wit, Grice
lists in his conceptual analysis of what a 'lingo' is: (a) it has to be
productive (and Sraffa's gesture is not); (b) it has to be compositional (and
Sraffa's gesture is not: it is not composed of more basic 'units' alla Alan
Danto), (c) this more basic elements of which lingo is composed have to have
'sense' of their own, and Sraffa's gesture does not display this feature,
either. C. A. B. Peacocke explored this further, adding further conditions:
it has to be conventional in a population, and while Sraffa's gesture may be
conventional in Naples (although I'm not sure 'conventional' is the right
word) it cannot count as being part of the "Italian" language -- or the
"Neapolitan" dialect for that matter.

So to go back to Malcolm's memoir:

"Witt[ers] was insisting that a proposition and that which it describes
must have the same 'logical form' --"

i.e. if I say "It is raining"; "It is raining" is true iff it is raining.
Or to use Tarski's example, 'snow is white' is true iff snow is white. There
is a satisfactoriness here, and a correlation between 'snow' and snow and
'white' and white. None of this applies to Sraffa's gesture.

"the same 'logical multiplicity'."

-- or structure. There is a isomorphism between 'snow is white' and snow is
white, and 'grass is green' and grass is green. Witters never cared to
give examples of his p's and q's -- he never MINDED his ps and qs -- but he is
the inventor of the truth tables, so he was well aware that say, 'snow is
white or grass is green' is true iff snow is white or grass is green, and
so on. None of this truth-functionality reflecting an isomorphic structure
in the things we say applies to Sraffa's 'out-of-the-blue' rude display of
Neapolitan folklore.

Malcolm goes on:

"Sraffa made a gesture, familiar to Neapolitans"

Malcolm's use of 'familiar' may be a reference to the high status of the
family as unit in Neapolitan society -- or not.

"as meaning something like disgust or contempt, of brushing the
underneath of his chin with an outward sweep of the finger-tips of one hand.
he asked: 'What is the logical form of that?'"

Witters took it as a joke. They remained silent for the rest of the trip
(this happened on a journey) but friends for the rest of their lives. While
Keynes's patience couldn't compare, Witters would stay at the cafeteria till
Piero arrived. "Where is Keynes?". By the time Sraffa arrived, Keynes was
back in London -- he couldn't stay in Cambridge for more than his
tutorials! "Very unlike his father," the famous logician. But still, a good
time was
had by the remaining trio: Ramsey (who liked to whistle in the cafeteria
to caught the waiter's attention), Witters, and the ever late-arriving
Sraffa, of the "Neapolitan" gesture fame.



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