Quotes by James Conant

"A conception of a cognitive capacity can qualify as unrestricted in aspiration and yet be insufficiently capacious in conception. A conception of a capacity, in aspiring not to go outside the order to which the capacity belongs so as to explain the capacity, may unwittingly frame its conception of the target capacity in terms that sever it from the conditions required for its genuine possession.
This is a difficult balance to strike correctly in philosophy. Frege is concerned with not admitting anything psychological into his conception of the logical. This is the mark of the unrestrictedness of his aspiration - his refusal to admit anything external to the order of logic in his account of logic. But he builds his guardrail of protection against falling into the psychological sufficiently far in from the actual danger point that he severs the unity of our capacity for knowledge. Hence the need for a de-psychologizing of Frege's conception of the psychological."

"If Wittgenstein is right—if the capacity to employ and discern signs, on the one hand, and the capacity to employ and discern symbols, on the other, are two aspects of a single capacity—then strictly thinking through the thought-experiment of the logical alien should leave us with someone who is not only a logical alien but also more of a phonological alien than, in initially framing such a thought-experiment, one might at first suppose. Moreover, if Wittgenstein is right, there should be limits on how far either one of these two dimensions of what can be alien in the language of another can vary independently of the other—how far the possibility of the discernment of the repetition of utterly alien signs can come into view apart from some discernment of the actuality of their intelligible use as the sensibly apprehensible aspects of meaningful symbols. Philosophical efforts to imagine the possibility of a logical alien often involve a peculiar combination of intimacy and strangeness: they imagine the logical alien as saying things that, on the one hand, we are in one sense able to understand without difficulty (in the sense of phonemically parse, we are supposed to be able to report straight off—verbally repeat—the utterances of the alien), but that, in another sense, we are unable to understand at all (inasmuch as we are supposed to be unable to make sense of how the different things the speaker says hang together as a coherent logical whole). This requires imagining the logical alien as having mastered the phonological space of our language or our having mastered the phonological space of his, while each of us remains an outsider to the logical space of the other. It requires imagining us as standing in the relation of being logically alien to one another without our being in the least phonologically alien to one another. Can we imagine that? Or does our inability to find a logical foothold in the linguistic behavior of the being with a supposedly logical alien form of thought have the con- sequence that we should be equally unable to find a phonological foot-hold in his supposedly linguistic behavior?"

"Here is another way of putting an aspect of that same parallel: just as The Critique of Pure Reason seeks to show us that the formal conditions of sensory consciousness of an object presuppose a form of synthesis that belongs to the understanding, so, too, the Tractatus seeks to show us that the formal conditions of sensory consciousness of the identity of a sign presupposes linguistic self-consciousness of the logical nexus of the symbol. Just as Kant seeks to show how, on the one hand, the understanding must bear on sensibility in order to have content (for it to represent anything), and how, on the other, the sensible manifold requires conferral of unity through the activity of the understanding to be more than merely blind (for it to amount to more than mere sensory noise); so, too, later Wittgenstein aims to show how, on the one hand, the symbol must find expression in the sign to be more than nothing (for it to say anything), and how, on the other, the form of the sign (in spoken language—its phonological form) presupposes the apprehension of its real possibilities for symbolizing (its logico-grammatical uses in acts of speech) in order for it to come into view as having the form that it does."

"Even if we restrict ourselves to the comparatively limited conceptual repertoire for talking about such matters that early Wittgenstein makes available, we may already say this: in order to learn a first language, the potential speaker needs not only to learn to see the symbol in the sign, she needs the very idea of language to become actual in her. This formal aspect of what it is to be human—the linguistic capacity as such—is something that dawns with the learning of one’s first language, with one’s becoming the bearer of a linguistic practice. We touched above, in the reply to Sullivan, on how the Tractatus inherits and adapts yet a further feature of the Kantian enterprise of critique: it starts with the assumption not only that we already have the very faculty we seek to elucidate in philosophy, but also that the prosecution of the philosophical inquiry must everywhere involve the exercise of the very capacity it seeks to elucidate. The Tractatus does not seek to confer the power of language on us: we already have this and bring it to our encounter with the book. Hence, it does not seek to explain what language is (as it is sometimes put) from sideways-on—from a position outside language—but rather from the self-conscious perspective of someone who already, in seeking philosophical clarity about what language is, seeks clarity about herself qua linguistic being. Through its exercise, however, the book does seek to confer a heightened mastery of that capacity on us—a reflective self- understanding of its logic and its limits, and of the philosophical confusions that arise from misunderstandings thereof. This heightened mastery (like the general power itself) can be acquired only through forms of further exercise of that same capacity. What I just said about the Tractatus, at this level of methodological abstraction, is no less true of the method of the Philosophical Investigations. The author of the Tractatus, however, unlike later Wittgenstein, never pauses for even a moment to reflect upon what it means to learn to recognize the symbol in the sign through attending to contexts of significant use. Nevertheless, early Witt- genstein would certainly agree with his later self on this point: for the learner of language, light must gradually dawn over the whole—over sign and symbol together."

"Before we turn to the Tractarian treatment of logical propositions, it is worth pausing to consider what becomes in that book of the philo- sophical idea that what makes some set of statements true (be they log- ical or empirical) is that they “reflect” a structure intrinsic to a domain of things. If one misunderstands the Tractarian comparison of a picture with a proposition, then one may think its very point is to encourage such an idea. Some commentators tell us that the crucial idea here is that there are two isomorphic “structures”—there is a structure in the world and a structure in language (or thought)—and in order to say (or think) what is true, one of the two structures must “reflect” the other.
This is hopeless both as a reading of the Tractatus and as a conception of truth. As a reading of the book, it is hopeless, since the Tractatus says that it is the proposition that is a logical picture—where, on the conception of the proposition here at issue, it is essential that it be true or that it be false; hence, being true cannot itself be a matter of mere depiction. As soon as we focus on the question of what it is that I am right “about” if I affirm a true negative statement (e.g., “There are no elephants in this room”), it should become clear that the proposed conception is equally hopeless as an account of truth. For if the difference between true and false propositions were simply a matter of “reflecting” or “mirroring” what is the case, then the idea of speaking truth by affirming a negative statement would seem to require something very mysterious: a peculiar “negative” region of reality to which the truth of a negative statement may correspond. It is no small part of the point of the Tractarian deployment of the elucidatory comparison of a proposition with a picture to bring out the hopelessness of any such conception of truth—any one, that is, that tries to explicate the difference between true and false thoughts by appealing to the idea that the true ones “reflect” what is the case and the false ones do not."

Books by James Conant

  • Words and Life
  • 15 ratings
  • August 11th 1995 by Harvard University Press

    (first published 1994)

James Conant
  • James Conant

  • Date of birth: June 10, 1958
  • Born: in Kyoto, Japan.