My beetle is an elephant

Sciatrix once created an influential metaphor for attraction: it’s like everyone has an invisible elephant that only they can see.  These invisible elephants are apparently very important in society, but hardly anyone can be bothered to describe them because it’s assumed that everyone has their own elephant and can see for themselves.

Ludwig Wittgenstein, one of the most important philosophers of the 20th century, once described a thought experiment: Suppose that everyone has a box with a “beetle” inside it, but each person can only see their own “beetle”.  Wittgenstein argues that when we talk about “beetles”, we are only referring to that which is in the box.  It doesn’t matter if the boxes actually contain different things, or if the things change over time, or if the boxes are actually empty.  (watch this video)

That feeling when philosophical thought experiments become directly applicable to your daily life.

I won’t explain what the thought experiment should mean to you, but I’ll provide some background.

The beetle in the box comes from Philosophical Investigations, published in 1953, after Wittgenstein’s death.  The book is primarily concerned with language and communication, and is considered one of the most important works of 20th century philosophy.  Wittgenstein was previously known for his Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, published in 1918, advancing the picture theory of language.  Believing the Tractatus had solved all philosophical problems, Wittgenstein became a primary school teacher in a remote town of Austria.  When he later returned to philosophy, he was critical of the dogmatism of his Tractatus, and so we have Philosophical Investigations.

Here are just a few ideas contained in Philosophical Investigations:

  • Meaning as use – To find the meaning of a word, you don’t merely think about their definition, you must look at how the word is used.
  • Family resemblance – When a word describes multiple objects, it is because we intuitively see a resemblance between the objects, just as we intuitively see resemblance between family members.  This idea was the direct inspiration for prototype theory, which is a thing I feel obliged to insert into every discussion ever.
  • No private language – Suppose that you invent a language to describe your private feelings (such as pain and other qualia), and that this language cannot be translated or understood by anyone else.  Wittgenstein argues that such a private language is impossible.  (This is significant, since a private language is implicitly assumed by much of philosophy.)

The beetle in the box is part of the discussion of private language.  Wittgenstein argues that since each “beetle” is only privately experienced, there is no way to talk about the beetle itself.  To understand what “beetle” means, we must look at how it is used.  “Beetle” is simply used to refer to that which is in the box, whatever that might be.

The beetle in the box suggests a pessimistic outcome to the problem of attraction.  You can’t talk about what attraction really is, because no one can truly share a private experience.  At best, we can talk about the box containing attraction, and how that box functions.

Of course, it seems that we can describe the experience of attraction, albeit with great difficulty.  I invite you to simply disagree with Wittgenstein.

Personally, I think we aren’t really describing what’s inside the box.  We are simply pointing out that there are many boxes.  We can talk about how the boxes are used (“This feeling makes me want to look, this feeling makes me want to touch”), and we can talk about how one box seems to sit between two other boxes, but still no one can express the feelings inside those boxes.

How do you feel about that?

About Siggy

Siggy is a physics grad student in the U.S. He is gay gray-A, and makes amateur attempts at asexual activism. His interests include godlessness, scientific skepticism, and math. While not working or blogging, he plays video and board games with his boyfriend, and folds colored squares.
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2 Responses to My beetle is an elephant

  1. Pingback: My beetle is an elephant – A Trivial Knot

  2. elainexe says:

    I feel like there are no definable boundaries for which things are boxed and which aren’t. On the most fundamental level….we learn language as tiny children, when we have no other language to refer to. Of course, we have physical objects around us to help. But we have to deduce a lot more than that. And er, I really don’t know much about first language acquisition. But somehow we learned words about emotions and other internal things in the first place.
    I think we can make some approximations. If we talk more and more and more, we can get better examples of ourselves and others. And see what the thing in the box is, or if you have some different things inside. But then, our understandings of ourselves shift all the time. Both the understanding and the actual beetle.
    I think the kind of understanding we’re searching for would take years and probably longer. But at the same time, in the time it takes to talk through what attraction is, what new considerations will pop up? The search may no longer be meaningful. Or it may be meaningful in a different way, so we try to make adjustments in our search adding to the time it would take.
    So in this way I don’t think we’ll ever quite reach what we’re looking for on attraction. But we can understand each other enough to be helpful.

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