Wittgenstein: using our world-view to criticise others?

Ludwig Wittgenstein by Fabrizio Cassetta (2017)

Imagine two communities. One community predicts the seasonal weather following the science of meteorology. Another community predicts the same through consulting the trusted indigenous oracle. The two communities could be members of the same society, but this is not relevant to the story.

Suppose it turns out that meteorology is far more accurate at forecasting the seasonal weather than the oracle. The community that uses meteorology to predict the weather cultivates a disdain for the oracle community, and criticises it as foolish and irrational.

Should the oracle community therefore abandon its customary oracle practice?

Even if we grant that the oracle community is irrational in adhering to its oracle practice, this does not mean that the community must discontinue the practice, since its adherence could be based on particular needs, priorities, or others factors.

For example, the oracle practice could be influenced by the previous generations’ observations and experimentation, which are highly valued. The oracle forecasts are derived from local experiences and communicated in local languages by the indigenous oracle, who is well-known and trusted in the community. The practice is simple, recognisable, and coherent to the community, compared with the complex and probabilistic nature of scientific forecasts.

In the Last Writings on the Philosophy of Psychology (Volume I), philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein invites the reader to imagine a tribe unfamiliar with the concept of simulated pain. They

… pity anyone who indicates that he is feeling pain. They are unfamiliar with the suspicious attitude toward expressions of pain. A traveller coming from our culture to theirs frequently thinks that a complaint is exaggerated, indeed, that its only purpose is to generate pity; the natives don’t seem to think that way.

A missionary teaches the people our language; in the process he also educates them and under his tutelage they learn to distinguish between a genuine and a pretended expression of pain … They learn our expression: “to feel pain”, and also “to simulate pain”, and the question is: were they taught a new concept of pain?

Had those people overlooked something, and did the teacher bring something to their attention?

And how could they remain unaware of the difference if sometimes they would complain when they were in pain, and sometimes when they were not? Am I to say that they always thought it was the same thing? – Certainly not. Or am I to say that they didn’t notice the difference? – But why not say: the difference wasn’t important to them? (Last Writings on the Philosophy of Psychology, Volume I, 203-205)

In On Certainty (286), Wittgenstein discusses the possibility that a community could incorporate a different world view into its own practices. Thus, it is possible that the oracle community could use both oracle and meteorological information for weather forecasting. If we assume that agriculture in the community is rainfed and vulnerable to climate extremes and change, meteorological information could help farmers and pastoralists in the community cope with climate variability or adapt to climate change. Still, the community could regard the oracle as superior in relation to specific, important indicators, such as onset of rainfall, or amount of rainfall.

Further, if the oracle community is geographically remote, meteorological weather forecasts may not be downscaled or location-specific, thus less effective in addressing the local needs of community farmers and pastoralists. The forecasts could lack reliability, or capacity in the community to interpret them is limited. Here, the oracle practice would continue to have an essential, or predominant, role in the community.

Why are dreams mysterious?

I wake-up and tell my wife about the dream I had while sleeping. That’s a dream-report.

Dream-reports are given by the dreamer in the first-person present-tense. Even if  I dreamed I had incarnated another person (either a real or imagined person), it is always I (the dreamer) who peers out from the face of the other person during the dream. And that’s what is communicated when I tell my dream to another person.

Why do human beings share dreams? 

Sometimes a dream is amazing. Amazing that I could even dream up such an experience. What is important to human beings in this case is that the dream really did impress me. Dream-reports can be spontaneous responses to what we see during sleep. So: that I dreamt such-and-such is amazing and of more interest to other people than what the dream describes. Dream-reports can therefore function more like exclamations or interjections than descriptions of what the dreamer experienced. 

However, the dreamer may sometimes become frustrated trying to communicate the dream in a dream-report. We try to describe what happened in the dream using the medium of language (the dream-report), but we cannot. The dream eludes the net of language. At least that’s how we feel. The dreamer is frustrated with language and may think that since the dream cannot be described, it points to something beyond itself. But – why must a dream be capable of being described? After all, can you describe all the experiences of your waking life? Try and do it. Why must dreams be any different? In life, human beings are both the way and the wayfarers.

For some reason, we see dream-reports as descriptions of dreams. We see them as fragments of a story we assume can be told in full. Yet, dreams cannot be described to our satisfaction. Frustrating. Frustration leads to puzzlement. Most of the time we are puzzled by dreams (our own, and those of other people). Why? – are dreams seen as mysterious because dream-reports are assumed to be descriptions of dreams?