Regarding Emptiness: More Philosophy of Language

I was determined, as a younger dude, to have some of the same perceptual breakthroughs the professors claimed Ludwig Wittgenstein had had. Some form of enlightenment beaconed, through his aphorisms and koans.

I needn’t be too cryptic about it: LW himself begins Philosophical Investigations with a quote from St. Augustine that sets out succinctly the perception he feels he’s up against. “Let’s try to get away from any name → object picture of meaning” I hear the man saying.

He has his earlier philosophy (Tractatus Logico Philosophicus) for contrast. “Here’s how I went wrong” he hopes we’ll see. But then even that earlier work aimed to point at that which it made no sense to point at. He’s one of those teachers who promises our confusions will fall away even as the teacher’s words cease to contain their own meaning.

What’s paradoxical or maybe just ironic is that after fighting the good fight to free myself of the aforementioned name → object picture book theory of meaning [1], I get to teach a computer language with a highly evolved name → object concept going, the names in namespaces corresponding (because assigned to) objects in object space (or “the heap” as we sometimes call it).

Perhaps there’s no paradox at all, as we see how Python’s assignment syntax, comparable to that in other languages, is feeding our intuitions about naming objects. The noun → thing paradigm is deeply ingrained.

LW’s exercises are more counter-intuitive, more a kind of yoga for turning our heads around to see from a more impossible point of view.

Or maybe not so impossible anymore? In compiling Python source code to bytecodes and running those through a virtual machine, in turn running through a CPU, it’s clear that the name → object abstraction is getting quite lost in the operational “wheels turning”. We have more than just a model of a lower level to our logic, we have computer languages actually running on chips. Wittgenstein didn’t have this ladder down to electrons in silicon.

Our comprehension of the neural fabric remains far more speculative, next to what we count as factual and empirical, gleaned from making our own computers.

That we might be bewitched by certain metaphors and imagery, even with the operational workings right there in front of our faces, is less surprising when we remember how comfortable we’ve become with similar metaphors around computer code.

Perhaps it’s easier now than ever to follow Wittgenstein’s pointing finger to that next chapter wherein they breathe a different air. The operational aspect of language is easier to see, and our need for names does not keep us from appreciating their “emptiness” (in a Buddhist sense).

[1] the view that words mean primarily by naming, the way “horse” means a pictured horse as in some “learn to read” book for children; and the pictured horse in turn represents a generic actual horse, or a fantasy horse if the reader is fiction.

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