WAB: "Fragments" | The following contribution is an excerpt from Eike von Savigny: "Taking avowals seriously: The soul a public affair", in: Alois Pichler and Simo Säätelä (eds.): Wittgenstein: The philosopher and his works, Working Papers from the Wittgenstein Archives at the University of Bergen no. 17, Wittgenstein Archives at the University of Bergen (WAB) 2005, pp. 189-202. Publication on WAB's website with kind permission from the author and the editors (2005.4.7).

Eike von Savigny: Taking avowals seriously: The soul a public affair

Nonverbal expressions of mental states


If one reads Wittgenstein as an author who endeavors not to utter any contradictory rubbish, then one will, in a first step, apply his picture of the establishment of linguistic meaning in language-games to avowals, and will extend this picture in a second step to the meaning of extra-linguistic expressive behavior insofar as this behavior expresses something mental that could also be expressed verbally. And there actually are quite a few clues in the Investigations to the idea that extra-linguistic expressive behavior also expresses what it does thanks to generally accepted understanding. Pretending and simulating can only be done insofar as the accepted reactions of those around fit the expressive behavior in the required way (PI §§ 249, 250).1 A person is able to express what she imagines by imitating the appropriate behavior as if in stage-acting (PI § 391, cf. also PI § 282), and the content of what takes place on the stage is of course dependent upon the generally accepted understanding of the audience. An instance of expressive behavior expresses hope only where, by virtue of convention, it is so understood (PI § 584). An act is intentional insofar as it is mastered, i.e., competently carried out (PI §§ 628, 629), i.e., in accord with the established standards for such actions.2 – True, one does not have to read these passages in this way; however, they acquire their own weight in the light of the interpretation that is required by the above picture of avowals.

The mental for Wittgenstein is public, then, in a much more radical sense than the careful and sympathetic interpreters of his philosophy of psychology assume. They are agreed for the most part these days that with Wittgenstein, the accessibility of the mental goes farther than in logical behaviorism – for Gilbert Ryle, for instance, the mental was indeed perfectly accessible, though still always readable from behavior (the reverse not holding); with Wittgenstein, however, the mental is just as directly perceivable as behavior. (This does not exclude error any more than error is excluded in other perception, and it implies the importance of learning quite as much as learning is necessary for perception in general.) Being public in this way means being accessible to the public; what I have sketched out above means public in the sense of determination through the public. Let me try out some comparisons.

When archaeologists find a stone in the form of a hand-axe that shows the clear marks of workmanship, then they will report the find of a hand-axe. Why is that justified? Because no explanation occurs to anyone other than that people in the Stone Age used the stone as a hand-axe. The hypothesis of this use is just too obvious for anyone to get the idea that the stone was actually used differently, and because of the use, we end up having to regard it as a hand-axe. The same is true for apartment houses – we recognize them immediately, for their use goes without saying, and if it did not go without saying, the buildings would not be apartment houses. Whoever hikes through an area filled with animals such as goats may stop short when the trail branches or leads into a morass of trails, and his question will be: Which trail is the path? That is, on which trail do people usually go? A path is a trail that people use to go from one place to another, and that is the reason why a trail is a path. The stone, the building, the trail have quite objective properties that make them a hand-axe, an apartment house, a path, and they have them for the reason that people go about using them in a certain way. Butter has a completely objective price (PI § 693) for the very reason that people pay a particular amount for it.

One can overlook this fact because the customary use is likely to be connected with other facts that are not constituted by human ways of handling things. Take the social mother and father of a child. It is an entirely objective fact that they are his social parents, for it is generally expected of them that they care for the child, albeit in ways that differ from society to society. This is connected to their generally being his biological parents, but both facts are not the same; rather, it just obviously suggests itself or is simply practical for the biological parents to also be the social parents. Again, when is a person ill? At the time when she has a socially accepted claim of being looked after, cared for, and comforted, and that is connected to the non-social fact that her physiological condition is rather unfavorable considering her age. But both are not the same, as the political debate over the recognition of diseases by health insurance shows. (Mental illnesses offer a fitting example.) It is not by way of social definition that the sick person is in that physiological condition which she is in; but the social definition is necessary for this physiological state to be considered enough of a justification for her being cared for, and thus for her to be sick. And if a person is physiologically impaired, it certainly makes sense for socially living creatures to spoil her with being looked after, cared for, and treated. However, the degree of impairment at which the spoiling is begun will depend on many different circumstances, e.g., on available resources. (We still do not consider age a disease!)

1For a detailed interpretation, see E. v. Savigny 1993, "Why Can't a Baby Pretend to Smile?", in J.V. Canfield, St. G. Shanker eds., Wittgenstein's Intentions, New York (Garland), pp. 104-118; for a critique, see S. Schroeder 1997, Das Privatsprachen-Argument, Paderborn (Schöningh), §§ 58-60.
2I have argued these interpretations in E. v. Savigny 1996, "Psychological Facts: Social Facts about Individuals", in K. S. Johannessen, T. Nordenstam eds., Wittgenstein and the Philosophy of Culture, Wien (Hölder-Pichler-Tempsky), pp. 223-7.