This paper discusses in depth Section 184 of Ludwig Wittgenstein’s book Philosophical investigations. 4 pages; 1 source; MLA citation style.
In his Philosophical Investigations, Ludwig Wittgenstein spends a great deal of time trying to understand how we can understand our thought processes, a very challenging endeavor.
This paper considers Section 184 in depth; how it bears on the discussion of the phrase “Now I can go on!” in Section 151; and how other remarks relate back to it.
In Section 184, Wittgenstein attempts the almost impossible task of trying to describe what it is like to suddenly “know” something. The example he uses is a song. If we try to recall a song and cannot, and then it suddenly “pops into our head” and we sing it, what is that moment like? What does it mean for us to suddenly know the song? And if we begin singing only to get “stuck” does that mean we really don’t know it after all? Is it valid to say that we know the song if we cannot sing the whole thing? Or is it a question of knowing it for a moment, and then having part of it “slip away”? In answer to all these questions, Wittgenstein says, “If someone says with conviction that now he knows the tune, then it is (somehow) present to his mind in its entirety at that moment—and this is a definition of the expression ‘the tune is present to his mind in its entirety’.” (P. 64, §184).
In other words, Wittgenstein is setting up parameters for what it means “to know”—at the moment that someone says he knows something, that entire thing is present in his mind. Conversely, it seems logical to assume that if we get stuck half-way through the song, we don’t really “know” it, at least not in the way Wittgenstein defines knowing.
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But if we look back at Section 151 and the discussion of the phrase “Now I can go on!” we can see how Wittgenstein arrives at this conclusion. In section 151, he gives an example of a mathematical progression; in this case, person A writes down a series of numbers: 1, 5, 11, 19, and 29; after watching A for some unspecified time, B says, “Now I can go on!”
What has happened is that B has discerned the way in which the series is of numbers if structured; he might have done this in many different ways. B might have tried various algebraic formulas until he found the one that correctly predicted the upcoming numbers (an = n2 + n – 1); or he might have concentrated on trying to find the mathematical difference between the numbers, and realized that it is a progression of even numbers (4,6,8,10); or he might have seen the series before and recognized it, and known what comes next. In each of these cases, what has happened is that B has found the key that enables him to accurately predict the next number in the series, at which point he says “Now I can go on!”
But this is not the end of the argument, for Wittgenstein wants to know how we can understand the structure of the series. It is not enough to simply say “I recognize the series because I’ve seen it before”—that implies memorization but not necessarily understanding. The key is in the use of language; Wittgenstein, as he often does, makes the point that it is the way we use the words “now I can go on” that gives them a specific meaning at a specific time.
That is, the fact that B is able to finish the series
Because he’s seen it before, or because he knows the formula, while not necessarily implying understanding still does not invalidate his statement “now I can go on,” because clearly he can go on. He has the tools necessary to complete the series, no matter how he has acquired them.
Wittgenstein also allows for the case in which B didn’t think of anything (either formulas or mathematical differences) and still says “now I can go on”—and does, presumably by trial and error, until he works out the series.
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Further, in sections 180 and 181, Wittgenstein explores the case in which B says “now I can go on”—but cannot. (This is analogous to the person who starts to sing the song but gets stuck.) He asks that when B says “he wants to go on … and can’t do it; are we to say that he was wrong when he said he could go on, or rather that he was able to go on then, only now is not?” (P. 62).
He concludes that we cannot make an argument that will encompass both cases, even though they are so very close; each one must be discussed and decided individually, using separate criteria. He points out that the role of such words as “understanding”, “being able to” and “fitting” in the language is extremely involved, and that resolving the roles of such words is necessary if we are to resolve philosophical dilemmas. (P. 63).
The best conclusion we can reach with regard to whether or not we know a song is that we know it at any given moment if—at that moment—we can sing it in its entirety. However, as linguistic criteria for determining meanings of words and phrases change, this conclusion may need to be revisited.
Wittgenstein, Ludwig. Philosophical Investigations. Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing, 2002.