Understanding Wittgenstein: Studies of Philosophical Investigations

By J. F. M. Hunter | Go to book overview

Eleven
THE BEETLE BOX

293. Suppose everyone had a box with something in it: we call it a 'beetle'. No one can look into anyone else's box, and everyone says he knows what a beetle is only by looking at his beetle. -- Here it would be quite possible for everyone to have something quite different in his box. One might even imagine such a thing constantly changing. -- But suppose the word 'beetle' had a use in these people's language? -- If so it would not be used as the name of a thing. The thing in the box has no place in the language-game at all; not even as a something: for the box might even be empty. -- No, one can 'divide through' by the thing in the box; it cancels out, whatever it is.

THIS FAMOUS passage in Philosophical Investigations conceals a multitude of subtleties and mantraps, as we will see if we press questions like the following: (1) Why does Wittgenstein say 'everyone says he knows what a beetle is only by looking at his beetle', rather than just 'everyone knows what a beetle is [that way]'? (2) Why does he say, as if it were a new feature, 'suppose the word "beetle" had a use in these people's language'? Has he not already described its use? (3) What is it to be the name of a thing? (4) If we can 'divide through' by the thing in the box, is that supposed to show something about the use of the English word 'pain', or only to draw a consequence of a use attributed to it by philosophers?

1. It may have been excessive caution that made Wittgenstein say 'everyone says he knows . . .' rather than just 'knows . . .'. In §§246 and 295 he raises objections to saying similar things about pain, and so would not want to be caught saying the same things himself. But is his objection just to a certain way of putting it? Might he say that, however exactly one may

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