My beetle is an elephant

This post was cross-posted to The Asexual Agenda.  Yes, I finally found a way to pass off straight-up analytic philosophy as ace blogging.

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?


3 thoughts on “My beetle is an elephant

  1. The Barefoot Bum February 28, 2016 / 6:57 pm

    To do is to be – various
    To be is to do – various
    Do be do be do – Frank Sinatra

    The question is, what does it mean to be something. I take a functionalist view: if two things do the same thing, then, by definition, they are the same thing. If you have some feelings that cause you to do X, and I have some feelings that cause me to do exactly the same X, then, again by definition, they are the same feelings.


  2. Sm April 3, 2016 / 7:10 am

    Person A (who’s beetle is a stick insect): Yes, my beetle likes to be fed regularly. It likes to eat spinach leaves best.
    Person B (who’s beetle is a matchstick): Fed? Spinach leaves? Is this some sort of really complicated metaphor?

    ie. yes, it is totally possible to talk about your beetle.


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