The Power to Depict

Once again I feel the desire to return to the inspiration for The Literacy Bug: the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein

By this stage, it lies in the distant past that this website was once known as Wittgenstein on Learning, but despite the passage of time Wittgenstein’s influence remains ever present.

The man was preoccupied by how we are able to express anything whatsoever through language. And in his flawed masterpiece Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, Wittgenstein presents us with a conceptualisation of language which encourages us to be amazed by our ability to transfer pictures of the world through our utterances. From this perspective, a function of language is to express propositions of the world to one another. That is, language is powerful because we can use it to propose states of affairs to one another through a system of sounds (to which we attach shared meaning). By propositions, we can take it to mean “sentences on the world”. 

709D150C-7AC0-495B-B7D0-5492C7D43A3C.jpg

Through the lens of the Tractatus, each proposition (or sentence) paints a picture of a state of affairs, and that state of affairs is open to consideration and contemplation (as long as the speaker and the listener share some form of language). In other words, language permits people to generate, communicate and examine possible states of affairs, whether real or fictitious ... declarative or speculative ... true or false. I can convey and receive pictures through language, and there is no necessity that I am able to experience these pictures directly for me to understand them and draw meaning from them. 

The Tractatus is flawed only in the sense that our human language consists of a greater variety of propositions than merely descriptive sentences. We tell jokes. We ask questions. We talk about abstract things. We create rules and so on. Even these paragraphs - the ones you are currently reading - are valuable in that they present a picture of abstractions - languages, propositions, sentences - that may influence your future perception of “how certain things work”. In Wittgenstein’s own words from a later work,

"This picture has a double function: it informs others, as pictures or words inform -- but for one who gives the information it is a representation (or piece of information?) of another kind." (Philosophical Investigations, 280)

If we take a moment to consider descriptive sentences, there is an elegant and meditative quality to the acts of writing and reading. In the acts of writing and reading, we are builders. We are builders of experiences. We are speculators on cause and effect. We are builders of how our concepts are meant to fit together. In writing, we may chisel out an unfolding picture as we lay sentence after sentence onto the page with the aim of describing how something occurred or how something works. We must have the patience, motivation and care to find this recording process beneficial and - in fact - important to how we live our lives. That is, we must find some value in recording an observation for ourselves and others to return to. In reading, we must find some benefit in encountering and constructing a mental image of a state of affairs as we come to navigate texts. Some texts may be more accessible, whilst other texts may be “harder to crack” because they are more difficult for a particular reader to generate pictures from them.

Implied in all of this is a substratum to language: our ability to experience, perceive, notice, visualise, critique and represent aspects of the world or possible words. And whilst we have all read mechanically (focusing merely on decoding) at least once in our lives, we have also had to reread a section of text to get a proper image of what we failed to grasp in the first place. And if I am to demonstrate my comprehension, I’d be compelled to represent my understanding in some way (either in words, images or schematics). And we share these representations with others to determine whether our understanding of a text is shared by others. Have we extracted the right image?

So … amidst The Literacy Bug’s recent focus on the alphabetic principle, I feel it is important to splash a bit of paint on the purpose of our reading and writing, since the acquisition of literacy is a means to an end - not an end in itself. We want learners to become dexterous with the written word so they can discover, debate, and develop knowledge of the world, of themselves within it, and of people around them. And the learners should be deeply motivated to do so, and it is our role as teachers - in whatever capacity we serve - to foster this compulsion to examine, express and explore. This sentiment is elegantly captured by Mr. Stanley Cavell,

"The pupil must want to go on alone in taking language to the world, and that what is said must be worth saying [and writing], have a point (warning, informing, amusing, promising, questioning, chastising, counting, insisting, beseeching, and so on) … If it is part of teaching to undertake to validate these measures of interest, then it would be quite as if teaching must, as it were, undertake to show a reason for speaking [writing and reading] at all." (Cavell, 2005, pg 115)

So … please imagine, explore and enjoy! The path to discovery involves many patient moments of illumination.


References

Cavell, S. (2005). Philosophy the day after tomorrow. In Philosophy the day after tomorrow (pp. 111 – 131). Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press.

Wittgenstein, L. (2001a). Philosophical Investigations (3rd ed.). Oxford, UK: Blackwell Publishing.

Wittgenstein, L. (2001b). Tractatus logico-philosophicus. London: Routledge.

Scaffolding deep reading: a personal recollection

I have an entrenched memory of something I experienced in the eighth or ninth grade. One of my friends was taking part in a weekly book club in the library at our school. This weekly book club (or story club, to be more accurate) was being organised by one of our favourite teachers. She was relaxed and casual but asked her students to think deeply about social and civic issues. It’s important to note that my friend was not the best reader, and I was what you would probably call a reluctant reader. I liked the concept of reading, but I often found it an endurance sport. However, since I knew everyone in the group, I thought it was a good way to spend one lunch per week. Have I forgotten to mention that it was a group of five boys discussing stories and none of us were what you would classify as a “strong reader”?

Now, bear in mind, we were all able to read the short stories (i.e. decode and accurately comprehend what we were reading). And the short stories were written in such a manner that we were presented with a controlled amount of challenging vocabulary and other language features. Therefore, we were able to problem solve and discuss new meanings and expressions without becoming frustrated or bogged down. It also helped that these stories were not overly long, and each one clearly probed a moral, social or civic issue, particularly through the confrontation of often adolescent characters. I distinctly remember counting the numbers of pages of each story, though, such was my aversion to reading material that was too long and tedious

I distinctly remember “THE BOOK”. It was a brown paperback book that was divided up into stories of 10 to 15 pages in length (perhaps classics). It may have had the logo “GREAT BOOKS” on the front. Initially, I thought that I was mistaken about the title of the series until a Google search supported my memory. The Great Books foundation (http://www.greatbooks.org) provides books that are meant “to advance social and civic engagement and help people of all ages think critically about their own lives and the world we share.” The book club may or may not have used the Great Books material, but it definitely was designed to provoke deep discussions about justice, fairness, and individuality, whilst providing a platform for weaker readers to practice deep reading and discussion skills.

In the end, it meant that there were five adolescent boys sitting around a table once a week at lunch who all had a shared understanding of the situation that was presented in the story. We all came prepared. We read the weekly story in advance, because it was embarrassing to let the group down. We didn’t debate what occurred in the story. Instead, we debated our interpretations of the situation(s). And that meant that we interpreted macro features, such as how a character acted and whether such actions were fair. It also meant that we interpreted micro features, such as the choice of words and other details which provided information - occasionally ambiguous - on how a character might have been feeling or how the character might have been motivated to act in a certain way. 

These weekly discussions - at times heated - inducted me into deep reading, perspective taking, and evidence-based argumentation. I often had to disagree with a friend, and still respect him as a friend outside of the weekly meetings, even though we were discussing significant issues of moral, social and civic behaviour. I also needed to be in a position to listen and alter my viewpoint of a character or event if someone in the group presented evidence that I initially overlooked and had not appreciated.

Sourced from Olson, C. B., & Land, R. (2007). A cognitive strategies approach to reading and writing instruction for English language learners in secondary school. Research in the Teaching of English, 41(3), 269–303. 

You see — here you have a group of students who had all learned to read proficiently (i.e. decode and understand), but who had yet to learn how to read meaningfully and critically. The teacher provided us with a space where we could learn to read more insightfully, discriminatingly and deliberately, which reminds me now of a quote from Ludwig Wittgenstein, “seeing an aspect and imagining are subject to the will” (PI, Part II, xi). We had to learn to work hard as we read. In other words, one doesn’t comprehend merely because he or she can read. One must put effort into navigating the details of a text to find one’s way about. One has to *deliberate*, and the routines of deliberation are based on experience, practice and guidance in how to engage deeply. One has to ask questions, “where do I begin?”, “what does this mean?”, “am I right?”, “do I agree?”, “do I have the right picture?”, “is anything unclear?”, “do I need to read this again?”, “what am I thinking and feeling?” (See accompanying figure from Olson & Land [2007] for other common ‘mental moves’) This can all be exhausting if one hasn’t had the chance to take a breath and find the time to practice, interpret and discuss increasingly complex information. 

Whilst this next bit may be off topic, I am often struck when I have failed to properly read a bank form or government form. I might only pick up my errors either on a second/third reading or with the help of another person. Imagine the person who struggles to read and who struggles to hold attention on key details. It can be mentally exhausting and stressful to navigate complex material if one is struggling and concurrently lacks confidence and guidance. Everyday documents can be technical jungles if one lacks confidence/experience in navigating multifaceted material. 

The following passage from Wittgenstein illustrates why it is important that all teaching includes explicit guidance in how we regulate our thinking. This includes teaching that fosters the types of dialogue that govern our activities. As Vygotsky (1978) observed, "every function in the child's cultural development appears twice: first on the social level, and later, on the individual level; first, between people..., and then inside people... All higher [mental] functions originate as actual relations between human individuals." (p.57) In my case, the group discussion with my peers came to shape my internal deliberations as I learned to read deeply on my own.

Let us imagine someone doing work that involves comparison, trial, choice. Say he is constructing an appliance out of various bits of stuff with a given set of tools. Every now and then there is the problem “Should I use this bit?” -- The bit is rejected, another is tried. Bits are tentatively put together, then dismantled; he looks for one that fits etc, etc.. I can now imagine that this while procedure is filmed. The worker perhaps also produces sound-effects like “hm” or “ha!” As it were sounds of hesitation, sudden finding, decision, satisfaction, dissatisfaction. But does not utter a single word. Those sound-effects may be included in the film. I have the film shewn me, and now I invent a soliloquy for the worker, things that fit his manner of work, its rhythm, his play of expression, his gestures and spontaneous noises; they correspond to all this. So I sometimes make him say “No, that bit is too long, perhaps another’s fit better.” -- Or “What am I to do now?” -- “Got it!” -- Or “That’s not bad” etc. (Zettel, #100)

The lunchtime book club was an important part of my growth as a reader. I would still count the pages of the next chapter of my book. I would still often consider reading an endurance sport. However, I became aware of the times when I was “just going through the motions” of reading and when I was reading with my full attention. I also grew to appreciate how important it is to discuss what we read and also discuss what we write. This would became apparent in my later years of high school when I joined a weekly poetry circle at a local bookshop. That - though - is a story for another time.

 

References

The Great Books Foundation - http://www.greatbooks.org

Olson, C. B., & Land, R. (2007). A cognitive strategies approach to reading and writing instruction for English language learners in secondary school. Research in the Teaching of English, 41(3), 269–303. 

Vygotsky, L. (1978) Mind in society: the development of higher psychological processes. M. Cole, V. John-Steiner, S. Scribner, and E. Souberman (Eds.) Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Wittgenstein, L. (2001). Philosophical Investigations. 3rd Edition. Translated by G.E.M. Anscombe. Oxford: Blackwell Publishing.

_____________  (1967) Zettel. Edited by G.E.M. Anscombe and G.H. von Wright. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Could things be other than we see them to be?

From "Google Glass: Artificial Unconscious?" by Neuroskeptic in Discovery Magazine (25 May 2013)

__________________

60 years ago, Ludwig Wittgenstein famously wrote:

Where does this idea come from? It is like a pair of glasses on our nose through which we see whatever we look at. It never occurs to us to take them off.

The “idea” in this case was a particular philosophical theory about language. Wittgenstein saying that other philosophers were making use of this idea without realizing it, unconsciously – so he chose the metaphor of glasses, which are always right before us, filtering what we see, even though we’re rarely aware of them.

Read more at http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/neuroskeptic/2013/05/25/google-glass-artificial-unconscious/#.UaH1HJWCg-Z

Wittgenstein on God and Belief

From "Wittgenstein on God and Belief" from The Bully Pulpit.

___________________

“A proof of God’s existence ought really to be something by means of which one could convince oneself that God exists. But I think that what believers who have furnished such proofs have wanted to do is give their ‘belief’ an intellectual analysis and foundation, although they themselves would never have come to believe as a result of such proofs. Perhaps one could ‘convince someone that God exists’ by means of a certain kind of upbringing, by shaping his life in such a way. Life can educate one to a belief in God."

____________________

Wittgenstein held that religion was a practice that would be justified through the form of life of which it was part. This resonates with the central premise of Alain de Botton's recent popular exploration in Religion for Atheists: A Non-Believer's Guide to the Uses of Religion. In short, it is unfair to judge religion based on the factual basis of its beliefs. Instead, one should curiously explore how a certain belief structure gives rise to a form of life. It is - then - that one can - perhaps - be permitted to judge.

The way you use the word “God” does not show whom you mean — but, rather, what you mean.
— Culture & Value

Nothing is so difficult as not deceiving oneself

From "Rohit Sharma: The Constant Underachiever" by Anjali Doshi of Wisden India Cricket News.

_________________________

"In this post-IPL era in Indian cricket, where fame and money are so easily accessible even to players with limited talent and experience, there are very few who stay grounded and appreciate how illusory the hype, celebrity, success and riches are. 'Nothing is so difficult as not deceiving oneself', as the Austrian philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein said.

A very interesting observation based on events of late, and with that I refer to the events surrounding Lance Armstrong. It seems that sporting success gives rise to self-deception. For many, one's belief in his or her talent propels the individual to strive. For others, there are outsiders who feed the sense of talent. In fact, it would be difficult to achieve the heights of sporting success without succumbing in some way to the hyperbolic narrative of sporting prowess. 

Being Drunk With Time

Wittgenstein would often state that individuals "see the world" through the concepts they construct, particularly on concepts about topics that have no definitive answer.

This observation struck me when I recently read an observation on life and death:

Death is not an event in life: we do not live to experience death. If we take eternity to mean not infinite temporal duration but timelessness, then eternal life belongs to those who live in the present.

The above can only be assumed to be a playful summation of a rendering of life and death. We need to attend to the tone of our language. For instance, the above should be read quizzically, as if the author was playfully proposing an idea ( trying it on for size, so to speak ). In language, we present pictures to ourselves - as if by experiment - to see how how the picture fits with our experience. And we know full well that another picture may just as well coincide with quite different experiences. I'll leave this entry with another pondering about life and death from Paul Auster.

One day there is life. A man, for example, in the best of health, not even old, with no history of illness. Everything is as it was, as it will always be. He goes from one day to the next, minding his own business, dreaming only of the life that lies before him. And then, suddenly, it happens there is death.
— Paul Auster, The Invention of Solitude, page 5

The Manipulated Image


When I look at a genre-picture, it ‘tells’ me something, even though I don’t believe (imagine) for a moment [what] I see in it really exist, or that there have really been people in that situation. But suppose I ask: ‘What does it tell me, then?’
— Philosophical Investigations, #522

The flower above did not exist in the state it appears in the photograph. Like many photos, it has been altered. Can I still not find beauty in it?

Words matter. They are the vehicles of thinking

From "Land-based spells brings crisis" by Reuven Brenner in Asia Times Online.

____________________

Note: The article explores the current economic instability. In doing so, it highlight how our description can have a funny way of confusion the facts. In other words, we can convince ourselves (though our language) that a unstable economic idea can and will work, even though experience and the facts would prove otherwise.

"Words matter. They are the vehicles of thinking: while they can shape accurate perceptions, they can shape misperceptions too. As it turns out, and not for the first time in history, there is not much "real" about this asset class. The question is, what do you do with it?

"John Law and followers, who come up with theories based on 'real' estate', or 'real' bills' doctrines (unconstrained by having a "unit of account" too), make implicit assumptions that they know what is 'real'. But as one can readily see, many things perceived "real" can melt into thin air in a flash. Perhaps we would be far better from now on using the French word for 'real estate' - 'immobilier'. 

"... Ludwig Wittgenstein, the philosopher, was right when he stated that: 'Philosophy is a battle against the bewitchment of our intelligence by means of language.' Indeed, 'real estate' 'QE,' 'bubbles' ( attributed to random variations in people's mood rather than any concrete laws and regulations), erecting statues to heroes of subsidized 'immobility' (unread, unwatched, not listened to statistical 'cultures' being a good example) have all 'bewitched' many for centuries, though 'bothered and bewildered' a few." 

We can also imagine a case where someone goes through a list of propositions and as he does so keeps asking “Do I know that or do I only believe it?” He wants to check the certainty of each individual proposition. It might be a question of making a statement as a witness before a court.
— Wittgenstein, On Certainty, 486

Passion for looking, not thinking

From "Ludwig Wittgenstein’s passion for looking, not thinking" by Ray Monk in the New Statesman on 25 August 2013.

_______________________


"Thus, at the heart of Wittgenstein’s philosophy is what he calls “the understanding which consists in ‘seeing connections’ ”. Here “seeing” is meant not metaphorically, but literally. That is why, towards the end of the book, he devotes so much space to a discussion of the phenomenon of seeing ambiguous figures such as the duck-rabbit. When we “change the aspect” under which we look at the picture, seeing it now as a duck, now as a rabbit, what changes? Not the picture, for that stays the same. What changes is not any object but rather the way we look at it; we see it differently, just as we see a face differently when we look at it, first as an expression of happiness and then as an expression of pride."