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Friday, August 19, 2005

Metaphysical MacGuffin

Posted by John Holbo on 08/19/05 at 11:35 AM

It’s Friday night. You need something not too heavy, but heavy enough to keep you from binge drinking, then driving into a thick fog, unawares.


Now someone tells me that he knows what pain is only from his own case! - Suppose everyone had a box with something in it: we call it a “beetle”. No one can look into anyone else’s box, and everyone says he knows what a beetle is only by looking at his beetle. - Here it would be quite possible for everyone to have something different in his box. One might even imagine such a thing constantly changing. - But suppose the word “beetle” had a use in these people’s language? - If so if would not be used as the name of a thing. The thing in the box has no place in the language-game at all; not even as a something; for the box might even be empty. - No, one can ‘divide through’ by the thing in the box; it cancels out, whatever it is. (PI, §293)

So on a certain conception the mind is a MacGuffin. (See also this.) Hitchcock:

It might be a Scottish name, taken from a story about two men in a train. One man says, ‘What’s that package up there in the baggage rack?’ And the other answers, ‘Oh that’s a McGuffin.’ The first one asks ‘What’s a McGuffin?’ ‘Well’ the other man says, ‘It’s an apparatus for trapping lions in the Scottish Highlands.’ The first man says, ‘But there are no lions in the Scottish Highlands,’ and the other one answers ‘Well, then that’s no McGuffin!’ So you see, a McGuffin is nothing at all.

The meaning of a MacGuffin is its use. If a Highlands lion could speak, we would not understand him.

What other metaphysical MacGuffins does the history of philosophy present: Plato’s Heaven? Kant’s Ding an Sich?

The solution of philosophical problems can be compared with a gift in a fairy tale: in the magic castle it appears enchanted and if you look at it outside in the daylight it is nothing but an ordinary bit of iron (or something of the sort). (CV, p. 11)

I think Wittgenstein does see philosophers as like characters contending over something that is, oddly, not what they really end up contending over. The real problems drop out and we are left with pseudo-problems. What should be a serious matter takes on the air of a comedy of manners. I’ve been writing a lot about mannerism as an aesthetic failure that tracks philosophical failure. “I think I summed up my position on philosophy when I said: philosophy ought really to be written only as a form of poetry ... I was thereby revealing myself as someone who cannot quite do what he would like to be able to do” (CV 24). At this point I would have to say a lot about Schopenhauer; that’s too heavy for Friday night.


In ascending order of MacGuffinry?

Use value?
Meinongian objects?

By on 08/19/05 at 07:45 PM | Permanent link to this comment

The “beetle in the box” issue exemplifies the problem of other minds, or solipsism: how do we know that our experiences of pain are the same or even nearly so, or that a blue sky looks blue to the person down the block? Only by the language games-- including I would say objective tests, standards of science and education etc.-- that are realized/situated in the public sphere. Nothing might be said about mind except for how “it” is realized in terms of common, public perceptions and criteria. As some scholars (Ryle) have noted, that appears close to a type of behaviorism (i.e., Skinner routinely attacked philosophical “mentalism"): in other words, the solution to the problem of other minds--verifying that humans operate with a map that is somewhat similiar--cannot be resolved without recourse to socially-defined linguistic practices. 

But Witt.’s discussions of pain behavior and sensation are a bit outmoded.  Cognitivists and neurobiologists are beginning to map sensations and perceptions, and when they can correlate “qualia” with specific neural areas, processes, biochemistry, etc. many of these Wittgensteinian issues may be significantly altered, if not discarded. Neurologists could at some stage identify a biochemical process (a tracing of a meme to both genetics and perceptions/stimulation and a memory “bio-file” or something like that) common to serial murderers, say, and then prevent it or block/remove the process. Psych. meds already do this to some extent, and the success of psych. meds with many patients seems to refute, at least in part, any radical skepticism towards the biological status of mind. 

Additionally, did you not Herr Hobo, suggest the possibility of a platonic realm in relation to logical connectives--"and"? Wittgenstein, in both the TLP and PI, eschews the normal discourse of philosophical disputes, so I don’t think one will discover a straightforward answer from Witt. to the question of whether universals actually exist (in “mind” or independently of mind), though I would agree with your indications here that the PI does not offer much support for platonic “reals” nor for any type of essentialism.

By snake on 08/19/05 at 08:29 PM | Permanent link to this comment

"The “beetle in the box” issue exemplifies the problem of other minds, or solipsism”.

In other news, New York is a large urban settlement, and oceans contain water.

Peter: I’d Mcguffin Nagelian or Blockean qualia, but Chalmersian qualia is at least a post-McGuffin, or Meta-McGuffin.
Thought maybe that’s why you put it at the beginning.

By on 08/20/05 at 12:30 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Thought = Though.

And just to turn the tables a little, though I’m not yet sure whether I believe that, may I suggest
“way of life” as a post-wittgensteinian, maybe even wittgensteinian, McGuffin?

By on 08/20/05 at 12:34 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Wittgenstein’s beetle analogy-argument could surely be questioned (Ayers provides some fairly decent critiques of these PI themes). And Wittgenstein was supposedly quite well-acquainted with Wm. James “Principles of Psychology”; James also rejected mentalism and metaphysical accounts of mind and consciousness (while granting that mental processes do exist), and since James is generally considered one of the founders of the American behaviorism, it’s not much of a stretch to perceive some affinities there. 

Chalmers may be arguing for the proverbial ghost in the machine, but said Ghost surely likes to eat, screw, drive Lexuses, make beaucoup cash, etc. and his biological foundation is indicated fairly clearly with a few vodkas and tonics.  Were there some grounds for immaterialist or dualist views the interaction (retrofitting Descartes’ pineal gland-soul channel as it were) has never been at all proven nor even hinted at.

By snake on 08/20/05 at 02:23 PM | Permanent link to this comment

So Herr Holbo seems to argue that the Beetle-in-a-box analogy implies “mind” is a fictional entity (a MacGuffin).  Apart from questioning the analogy-as-argument itself--and though it’s not real literary or sexxay to mention it, it might be recalled that Karl Popper, Russell, Tarski and other fairly serious analytical philosophers dismissed the PI as obscure, trivial and/or irrational--I’m not sure that is Witt.’s view, or I suspect, as with much of Witt., conflicting material could be found.  But assuming mind (is it both our own and others’ minds or only others’?) is a fictional entity, the relationship of mind to the sprachspiele is not clear. Does language then express, indicate or correlate with mental states or not?  Obviously the common sense view is that writing can and does indicate a person’s mental states, and I doubt Wittgenstein disputes this (I m not sure).

And apart from that issue, it seems that inferences about mental states are going to be useful and needed, certainly in pscyhological or legal contexts. The defense attorney is not permitted to raise an objection to murder charges based on the fact that we don’t know for sure that Laci Peterson did not want to be murdered, right.

A 15 yr old kid pulls his daddy’s SUV up on the sidewalk in Santa Monica and ran down a few people, killing 5 or so. He’s arrested and put on trial for manslaughter. While inside the detectives search his room and his computer and find a long manuscript, something like “Im gonna run down their chi chi azzes” which describes in detail his fantasy of murder by way of a Chevy Suburban; and he’s kept the diary for years. Doesn’t the judge in the Wittgensteinian courtroom have to declare that inadmissable since it attempts to show some mental state--premeditation really--which correlates with the writing? The law obviously doesn’t take the view of mind--as MacGuffin--that Witt. does.

By snake on 08/20/05 at 05:34 PM | Permanent link to this comment


And as far as my MacGuffin rankings go, it was all very scientific and objective.  MacGuffin score = size of the box * the size of its lock.

I’ll have to think about the Chalmers’ “Meta-MacGuffin” a bit before replying and futher exposing my ignorance.  Nonetheless, the ghost in my machine had a double Meta-MacGuffin for breakfast this morning, and I’ve been feeling it ever since.

By on 08/20/05 at 10:44 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Only enough time for a brief reply today. Snake, Wittgenstein’s view most certainly is NOT that the mind is a MacGuffin. His point is rather that, on certain conceptions, there is nothing to keep it from being one. Which is absurd. So those conceptions are wrong. (The conceptions in question are those that treat mental items - e.g. sensations - as private, in a very metaphysically strong sense.)

By John Holbo on 08/20/05 at 11:38 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Thanks for response.  I am assuuming you believe that Witt. does put forth arguments/claims in the PI which can be discussed in a rational fashion. If not, and it’s some type of poetry or mysticism (I don’t think it is) there’s really not much to be said.

You might have tied this in a bit more neatly to the Private Language argument. If you are saying the private language argument is plausible and that it does not deny mind, but only denies the possibility of a private language pertaining to subjective sensations I think most will agree. But I do think there is material in addition to the beetle in the box analogy indicating a rejection of not only private language but of the possibility of any metaphysical or phenomenological account of mind which does not proceed from language or public behavior.  That doesn’t necessarily put Witt. in the empiricist-behaviorist camp, but the PI doesn’t offer much if any support for Platonic or theological explanations. And the skepticism towards knowing how other humans perceive or interpret the world apart from their part in the language game is not necessarily resolved. 

307. “Are you not really a behaviorist in disguise? Aren’t you at bottom really saying that everything except human behavior is a fiction?”—If I do speak of a fiction, then it is of a grammatical fiction.” (PI)

By snake on 08/21/05 at 12:15 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Perhaps it is worth noting that the MacGuffin story has an alternative ending:

“...The first man says, ‘But there are no lions in the Scottish Highlands,’ and the other one answers ‘That shows how effective it is!’”

By David on 08/24/05 at 03:52 AM | Permanent link to this comment

I don’t know no Wittgenstein, but it seems to me that the original Pragmatists—Peirce, James, Dewey, George Herbert Mead, guys like that—apply this McGuffin critique to all previous philosophy. If the term that holds a philosophy together is some universal abstract that you try to define over and above a simple enumeration of its possible practical consequences, then it’s a McGuffin. Does that seem right?

By on 08/25/05 at 10:40 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Citing this in reference to Elkin to up your MacGooglerank from mid50s ...

By nnyhav on 12/16/06 at 06:17 PM | Permanent link to this comment

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