[lit-ideas] Wittgenstein PI §31 - "This is the king"

  • From: "Phil Enns" <phil.enns@xxxxxxxxxxx>
  • To: "Lit-Ideas@Freelists. Org" <lit-ideas@xxxxxxxxxxxxx>
  • Date: Sat, 29 May 2004 12:08:54 -0400

Richard Henninge expressed interest in a Lit-Ideas 'mini-seminar' on §31
of Wittgenstein's _Philosophical Investigations_.  I know that he was
looking forward to Robert Paul's contribution but I humbly offer the
following as my contribution.

§31 is typical of the style Wittgenstein adopts in _Philosophical
Investigations_.  Several perspectives are examined in order to
circumscribe an object of interest in order to tease out a particular
insight.  In §31, W. focuses on the phrase 'This is the king'.  This
section is part of a series where W. discusses the significance of
ostensive definitions.

W. begins by observing that the simple fact of telling someone that a
particular chess piece is called the king is of no use unless there has
been some stage-setting so that all that is left is to identify the
shape of the king.  But how might one set the stage for identifying
which piece is the king?  Well, several different possibilities present
themselves.  One can imagine someone who has learnt the rules of chess
by reading a 'How To ..' book and merely needs to associate the shape of
the piece to the rules associated with the word 'king'.  In this case,
the individual is being shown the shape of the piece that corresponds to
the word 'king', which in turn corresponds to a set of already learnt
rules regarding the king.

But one can also imagine another case where someone is a board-game
enthusiast and has gradually progressed to the playing of chess.  In
this particular case, the individual has not learnt the rules of chess
but rather has mastered the moves of chess.  That is, the individual
would know the ways in which the pieces move without being able to
articulate those moves in terms of rules.  This individual, confronted
with a unique chess set might need to have someone identify which piece
is the king.  Here, the individual is being shown which piece
corresponds to the word 'king', which in turn corresponds to a set of
moves already mastered.

A further or perhaps more accurately previous instance of stage-setting
now presents itself.  How does one learn about the king in the first
place?  If I am teaching someone the game of chess and I point to the
appropriate piece and say 'This is the king', what is necessary for this
to be a meaningful definition?  Well, the individual would have to know
already what a piece in a game is.  The stage-setting would require that
the individual be familiar, either through watching or actually playing,
other games that involved pieces.  At this point, W. adds a significant
qualifier, namely, that the individual would have to be familiar with
similar things.  It isn't exactly clear to what these things are to be
similar but I would like to suggest that the individual needs to be
familiar with, not a single board game, but similar games.  That is, to
be able to understand what a game piece is requires a general
understanding of how games that include pieces are played.  If I have
only played checkers, I will assume that the king is played like the
pieces in checkers and so it wouldn't even be important to know that
this piece is called the king.  To be familiar with similar games that
involved pieces is to be in a position to understand what a game piece
is.  Furthermore, to understand what a game piece is makes it possible
for one to ask relevantly 'What do you call this?' and to then be told
'This is the king'.  There is, then, a great deal of stage-setting that
goes into making the statement 'This is the king' meaningful.  Or as W.
puts it, one has to know how to do something with a piece in order to
significantly ask for a name.

Having established that the stage-setting that goes into asking for the
name of a chess piece includes understanding what a game piece is and
either knowing the rules of chess or mastering the moves of chess, W.
ends the section with a twist.  To what degree does it matter what the
name is?  If the stage has been set for the playing of chess, can the
game be played without settling on the name of the particular pieces?
If the game were set up, then one need not have the king identified.
And if the game were not yet set up, it still wouldn't matter as long as
there were agreement on which pieces went where.  Having set the stage,
one could manage to play the game of chess without having to be told
'This is the king'.  So what does an ostensive definition contribute?
Or perhaps more accurately, what is involved in an ostensive definition?


Phil Enns
Toronto, ON

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