Reply to Tang

This is a reply to an article by Hao Tang (“A Meeting of the Conceptual and the Natural: Wittgenstein on Learning a Sensation-Language”) that appeared recently in Philosophy and Phenomenological Research (Vol. XCI No. 1, July 2015; 105-135). I do not know whether the journal publishes replies, but this is probably too brief for publication anyway. It only discusses a small part of the article; I’ve dealt with the article’s general topic thoroughly elsewhere. So, I’ll just post it here.

Tang accuses me (and “to a lesser extent” Peter Winch) of suffering from “an anxious avoidance of facts, especially facts about ‘human nature’” (128). This anxiety supposedly makes “an extreme manifestation” (128 n. 48) in one of my articles, where I write that when Wittgenstein “talks about natural reactions to training […], reactions to causes […], and similar things, he is not attributing this behavior to our nature” (“Imaginary Naturalism: the Natural and Primitive in Wittgenstein’s Later Thought”, 686). According to Tang, my anxiety has made me unable to see “the incongruity of putting ‘natural’ and ‘nature’ in this same remark: to talk about something as natural to us is to attribute something to our nature” (128 n. 48). Well, I admit the remark might sound odd, taken out of context as it is, but so would Wittgenstein’s “Slab!” entirely removed from context. Tang fails to engage the context of my remark at all; specifically, he does not address my exegesis of the passages in which Wittgenstein uses “natural reactions” and similar terms. His diagnosis of me as suffering from anxiety is based only on a very superficial survey of my symptoms (which also indicate, according to Tang, “a fear of contingency” [128-9], which sounds even more ominous!).

My interpretation of Wittgenstein (which is presented most fully in Wittgenstein on Rules and Language, although Tang claims that it is “mainly” in my 2003 article where it appears, and says that a later article and the book “do not contain substantial addition or change” [127 n. 45]) resolves an apparent tension in his writings between, on the one hand, his apparent identification of a repertoire of human natural reactions and other seemingly substantial empirical claims about human nature and, on the other, 1) his disavowal of theory-building and 2) the lack of evidence he offers in support of these claims. I dissolve the tension by showing that Wittgenstein’s use of language like “natural reactions” is not intended as part of an account of human nature, but serves an entirely different purpose. In the quote from my 2003 article, I am at first referencing this sort of language (“natural reactions”) before summarizing this interpretation (“he is not attributing this behavior to our nature”). This is clear in the immediate context of the quote.

So, I’m not suffering from an anxiety that has advanced to the stage that I’ve become blind to the similarity of “natural” and “nature.” Instead of diagnosing me with made-up psychological disorders, based on bogus symptoms like a context-free quote from one of my articles, Tang would have done better to engage more fully with my interpretation of Wittgenstein. Even if it’s my emotional or psychological condition that ultimately explains what I write, it is still not an appropriate concern of someone defending a competing interpretation; let my psychotherapist deal with it. And while she might diagnosis me with an over-sensitivity to misleading quotations of my writings, I doubt that she’ll find that I suffer from an anxiety of human nature, a fear of contingency, or any other imaginary disorder that Tang might wish to attribute to me.

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