And now for something completely different: Jordan B Peterson and the Bible

This post brings to a close last year’s “All Wittgenstein all the time” focus of this blog. I will experiment with it being a place for sharing resources with others (instead of merely a place for me to develop my own thoughts.)

Expect to see a lot of Jordan Peterson material posted here. This series of his which he titled “The Psychological Significance of the Bible” is *not* the best way of finding out quickly what Peterson is about. The entire series is a daunting 30+ hours long, and growing. But there are some who want to explore it. At the time of posting, I am into the fourth of the series.


The Dooyeweerdian Tradition: Roy Clouser

In this series of five videos Roy Clouser introduces the problems with the naive notion of religious neutrality, explicates his definition of divinity according to which every person has at least one divinity belief, and the significance of this in for theorizing.

In the fourth video in the series, he articulates the ontology of Herman Dooyeweerd whom I mentioned in the last post.

Wittgenstein and the Dooyeweerdian Tradition

The philosophy of Herman Dooyeweerd (1894-1977) merits special attention despite his being largely unknown outside of the the Dutch Reformed community. He stands apart from the philosophical tradition of his time in his rejection of two suppositions: (i) that theoretical thought is (or can be) autonomous from presuppositions which are essentially of a religious nature, and (ii) that the meaning of nature can be reduced to any particular facet of nature.

This led him to conceive of nature as being that which discloses itself to us through a sequence of modes which are both mutually irreducible and collectively interwoven, and to conceive of ontology as the study of this irreducible interweaving. The result was a kind of philosophical ontology best understood here as a general science of the various special sciences (of which each mode has its own).

To illustrate: we can name three particular modes by three adjectives (‘physical’, ‘biotic’, ‘economic’); we can note each has its own special science (physics, biology, economics); and (following Dooyeweerd) we can recognize each special science, each with its own special concepts and methods, as mutually irreducible.

Wittgenstein spoke of doing philosophy as engaging in language clarification and that there was no realm of investigation that was philosophical as such:

Bertrand Russell: Are you saying there are no philosophical problems?

Ludwig Wittgenstein: There are… linguistic, mathematical, ethical, logistic and religious problems, but there are no genuine philosophical problems!

Bertrand Russell: You’re trivialising philosophy.

Ludwig Wittgenstein: Philosophy is just a by-product of misunderstanding language! Why don’t you realise that?

Note here that Wittgenstein does speak of different kinds of problems. What he means by ‘problem’ and ‘kind of problem’ needs to be understood in context of the language hame he and Russell are engaged in. But this is just where one could ask Wittgenstein whether he thought that “linguistic problems”, “ethical problems”, “logistic problems”,  were really different kinds of problems. And if they are not, why distinguish them? And if they are, then can we catalog these different kinds, and investigate their differences and interrelationships? And if we can do this, and do do this, would we not be doing something that might be described as philosophical ontology?

It is hardly an accident that “linguistic”, “ethical”, and “logistic” refer to three other of the modes identified by Dooyeweerd, for these modalities are universally perceived. This does not mean that there is no room for disagreements between thinkers on details. What Wittgenstein calls “mathematical problems” might well factor into ‘numerical problems” and “geometric problems” and Dooyeweerd provides reasons for considering ‘the numeric’ and ‘the geometric’ to be distinct irreducible modes of disclosure. It is the ontological approach that is significant, for it provides a common set of new theoretical tools and concepts with which to understand the world regardless of what particular sequence* of modalities are tentatively held at any given time to be mutually irreducible.

* My purpose here was to introduce Dooyeweerd in a Wittgensteinian context without getting into details of Dooyeweerd’s ontological infrastructure. Suffice it here to note that there is an ordering to the modal aspects (aka modes) wherein active functioning in a later mode presumes active functional in a earlier mode (geometric function presumes numeric function, while later in the sequence juridicial function presupposes linguistic function).

Coherence and Cooperation

We have seen a connection between coherence (at least in the context of speech), meaning, and use. We will now turn to purpose and cooperation. If you have been following this series of posts–posts long in vague generalities and short in concrete specifics–you have been patient, and this patience is itself a kind of cooperation with me. It is time for me to better cooperate with you by being more concrete about by own purposes. I am not overly fond of abstractions myself (seriously!) but it was necessary to do some pondering before getting to the concrete, just as it is necessary to till the soil before planting seed.

To have a meaningful conversation it is not sufficient that we string together sentences that are individually coherent. Our sentences need to gel, so to speak. Each side of the conversation needs to be coherent. What a person say needs to be connected to what that person last said. This requires focus. The focus need not need not be fixed on any particular topic (not every conversation is a topical conversation) but continuity is required, and deliberate discontinuity needs to acknowledged (often through such signals as ‘by the way…’)

To have a successful conversation it is not sufficient that our own sides gel on their own. The conversation as a whole needs to gel. The participants need to be ‘on the same page’. Everything before this is rather easy, but this is hard. People engage in conversation with a host of agenda, presumptions and expectations–often unshared agenda presumptions, and expectations. I am not saying all conversation is difficult.  Given the right people, the right setting, and the right topics (or no topics at all, c.f. small talk) conversation can be downright easy. The degree to which our conversation fail in general is so great though that I have no doubt that my dear reader would be able at this point, without further notice, to supply me with a host of examples of it going wrong. But if broad experience tells us that conversation is hard, this does not tell us why conversation (in general: communication) is hard, and why we so often get it wrong.

One purpose of this blog is to look at some of the ways in which communication goes wrong. More specifically, I wish to show how language itself contributes to our getting it wrong. Ultimately, I hope to shed light on the degree to which language itself contributes to problems not only to our communication with others, but also communication with ourselves, i.e. the talk that takes place in our own heads. One part of the problem is cognitive: we have a propensity to infer to much from what others say (and from what we say to ourselves). Another part of the problem is moral: we have a propensity to infer that which confirms what we want confirmed.

Wittgenstein addresses the first problem. I am mainly interested in the first problem, but I do not wish to merely explore what he has to say in the abstract. This is not an academic blog. I want to apply his approach to my own communication, both internal and external. But the cognitive and the moral problems are intertwined. A certain way of expressing things can lead us to infer certain things about (and make certain commits to) the world; and our certain beliefs (and commitments) lead us to infer certain things from certain expressions. Freeing ourselves from some of the bewitchments[1] of language can require us to take a momentary step back from (if not ultimate turning from) some of the beliefs and commitments we hold dear. My purpose may seem more linguistic and theoretical than what you might find in the ‘self-help’ or ‘management’ or ‘communications’ sections of your local bookstore, but it is meant to be just as practical, which is to say therapeutic, with the difference being that the issues I will me looking at here are not at all the issues you will see addressed in these books.

And so, dear reader, we get to the central purpose of this blog: it is a place where we can come together to reflect on what we mean by what we say and to free ourselves of some of the stupidity to which we allow language to lead us into.

I hope I have been more concrete and specific in this post than I have in the earlier posts. In the next posts we will look at case studies of how our our forms of expressing things can lead us so subtly to get things so deeply wrong. (Even more specific and concrete!)

[1] This is Wittgenstein’s term.


Coherence and Aliens (and the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus)

Language is used for many purposes, and not all of these purpose demand [a high degree of] coherency. Some use is deliberately incoherent. I’m thinking here of nonsense poems, but you may be able to supply other examples in which incoherence is a virtue rather than a vice. Incoherence varies in degree and kind. ‘The moon rattled like a piece of angry candy’ is syntactically coherent, but semantically incoherent. ‘Angry a piece the like’ is not even syntactically coherent. The former might not even be syntactically coherent to a speaker who does not know English, while the latter might be syntactically and semantically coherent to a speaker of some language whose grammar and semantics allows the listener to make sense of it. Without reference to a particular language it is hard to know what one would mean by ‘this fragment of speech is incoherent’, so we need at least a sense of linguistic context to speak coherently of whether someone is speaking coherently.

If an alien makes strange sounds, one should not say ‘the alien is saying nonsense’ but rather ‘what the alien is saying is nonsense to me’ — better still, ‘I am unable to make sense of what the alien is saying’. If you are a prisoner of the alien, and the alien keeps making a grunt and gesturing you to stand, and hits you until you stand, and does this more than one, the alien’s grunt will make sense to you.

What does it mean to say here that the grunt will ‘make sense’ to you? It means is that there has been successful communication. You hear the grunt and you understand what the alien wants you to do. The aliens is using the grunt to get you to comply, and you are using the grunt to anticipate being hit if you don’t comply. If the alien expects you to comply with more complicated demands, he use more complicated grunts, and you will learn them.

In this case ‘making sense’ of a word (or phrase or sentence — in general a fragment) means knowing what the word is used for and knowing how to use it.


I am trying here to link together notions of making sense, understanding, and coherence, in hopes of showing not only that these notions largely overlap, but that they are notions whose meaning can be conveyed only by showing. They belong to a large class of words for whose meaning cannot in general be explained through words. Wittgenstein showed this most starkly through his Tractatus which culminates with his saying:

“My propositions are elucidatory in this way: he who understands me finally recognizes them as senseless, when he has climbed out through them, on them, over them. (He must so to speak throw away the ladder, after he has climbed up on it.) He must surmount these propositions; then he sees the world rightly.

Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent.”

Fundamental to him is the distinction between saying something and showing something. According to the Tractatus one says things my means of propositions with a certain logical structure, but it turns out that none of the proposition in the Tractatus have that logical structure. The Tractatus seems to be telling us things, but in the end it has shown us that it has told us nothing but has shown us much. What we see implicitly in Wittgenstein’s Tractatus (and which is explicated only in his later work) is that language can be used for showing as well as saying. When he says ‘Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent’ we must not not interpret ‘silence’ too literally. We should read it as: Whereof that which cannot be said, thereof one must say nothing. But what one cannot say one may show, and words can be used to show.

To understand this is to be able to understand the discursive nature of this blog. Much of what I want to be share cannot be said. To speak more accurately: much of what I want to share cannot be be shared through saying things without a host of shared assumptions. These assumptions make up the very heart of what I wish to share, and so cannot be presumed.

(There are mountain peaks to be shown, and vistas that are visible only from the mountain peaks. We are, as yet, only in the foothills.)


On clarity (3)

If you read my last post you will see that I set you up. And you remember that I said this is a good thing.

Who likes being set up? Nobody, right? If I said “Nobody likes to be set up” you would probably all agree with me, yet I am saying that it was good for me to set you up. But if I said “A good teacher sets up his students” some of you would agree with that, and more might be holding back their agreement until they got a better sense of what I meant.

What is a setup? What does it mean to set someone up?

One might ask: what does it usually mean? But what does that mean? What does it mean to ask ‘what does it usually mean‘?  These are questions that Wittgenstein was fond of asking. Now let me ask you: are these silly questions? But then you could ask me what does *that* mean? And we could go around and around and around chasing our tails, and that would be silly indeed. One can play this game forever without ending.

But other than little children and philosophers, no one does. The Wittgenstein who was fond of asking these questions was neither a little child nor was he (in a sense that he would approve of) a philosopher. He did not play this game forever without ending. Indeed he told us: explanations come to an end.

We know what ‘it usually means’ means. It usually means something bad. We know that being set up is usually a bad thing. The phrase ‘he was set up’ provides little context so we assume something bad happened. The phrase ‘your honour, my client was set up’ provides context which reinforces our assumption. But the phrase ‘a good teacher sets up his students’ subverts this assumption.

Wittgenstein calls the context of using a phrase a language game. By this he did not mean simply other words from the textual context (‘your honor’; ‘client’) but something much broader, something that I think [someone fact check me please] what Wittgenstein sometimes called a form of life.

So what language game are we playing here, dear reader? What are our purposes?

There are some things that cannot be told, but can only be shown. Telling is explanation. Explanations come to an end, and in they end in a showing. And there are things that cannot be told, but only shown. Wittgenstein said ‘whereof which we cannot speak, thereof we must be silent’ but this does not mean things of which we cannot speak cannot be shown, and words can show as well as tell.

Is it possible for a person to tell someone who they are?

Is it possible for a person to show someone who they are?

What can be told, and what must be shown?

On clarity (2)

If you read my last post you will see that I started cutesy: sounds suspiciously somewhat supercilious.[1]

And then I was supercilious: I value nothing more highly than clarity in thought.[2][3]

And then I asked: who are you?[4]

And if you did read the my last post you might now have questions of your own like: what’s this fool doing repeating himself? — Can he get to the point? — Why am I reading this? — Where’s the beef?

 If you are asking ‘where’s the beef?’ then you are familiar with a meme from before the days of the Internet memes.

Here’s the beef.

I set you up. 

And that’s a good thing.[5]

[1] What kind of nonsense is that? It sounds seriously silly more than anything.

[2] Actually I am not.

[3] If you are wondering what supercilious means, it means “behaving or looking as though one thinks one is superior to others.”

[4] Knowing your audience… ‘Supercilious’ is a fancy five syllable five dollar word. It is a supercilious word. But that’s not quite right. It is a word one can imagine being used by supercilious people to show off. But I am not trying to show off. So much depends on context. I use the word sparingly. I don’t try to pack my sentences with such five dollar words. But there are times when such words should be avoided and I don’t discern them well.

[5] To be continued…