Background and Foreground

When Wittgenstein says that, like our life, our language games are there without a ground (OC, §559), he is not saying that we speak and act unreasonably. We may speak or act without a ground, but not without a background. What we say or do is rooted in habits, institutions, rules, education[1]—in a word, in a Lebensform. Objectivity resides in this ‘we’ which, by remaining in the background, gives sense to our actions and words.[2]

Wittgenstein uses the word Hintergrund and related terms both in the notes of OC and in other writings. In the early 1930s, the background is that against which words and sentences gain meaning, and that against which understanding and expression are possible (BT, p. 116; CV, p. 16[3]). In PI, the background is also described as something deep and not easily accessible, where sense has its roots:

What do I believe in when I believe that man has a soul? What do I believe in when I believe that this substance contains two carbon rings? In both cases, there is a picture in the foreground, but the sense lies far in the background; that is, the application of the picture is not easy to survey. (PI, §422)[4]

In slightly later remarks, Wittgenstein uses this word to highlight the multifarious and complicated pattern of our actions, practices, and ultimately of life, variously intertwined with concepts. ‘We judge an action according to its background within human life,’ he observes, and the background is a bustle so varied and complex that we would not be able to copy it, albeit we are able to recognize it in general terms (RPP II, §§. 624-625).[5] As noticed earlier, through the concept of the background Wittgenstein wants to give voice to ‘the whole hurly-burly’ determining ‘our judgments, concepts, and reactions’ (RPP II, §629).[6] Finally, in OC the background is described as an inherited Weltbild against which we distinguish between truth and falsity (OC, §94),[7] and, in a more limited example, as what we need in order to understand the working of words in particular contexts (OC, §461).[8]

Trying to keep together all these uses of the term, I think one could say that, for Wittgenstein, the background concerns sense, on the planes of both words and actions, and it highlights precisely the interconnection between the two: we understand a word or a sentence only by connecting it with its contexts of use and hence the practices surrounding it, and we understand an action by connecting it with the conceptual, linguistic and cultural meaningfulness which hosts it.

In the philosophical debate, the concept of the background is chiefly linked to the name of John Searle. He used the notion first as an instrument for a linguistic analysis, aimed at opposing the idea that there can be a literal meaning cut off from contextual assumptions (Searle 1979); later he broadened its application to the issue of intentionality in general, connecting it to the notion of know-how (Searle 1983); and he eventually extended the analysis to the sphere of social phenomena (Searle 1995, 2010). But his approach, especially in the later works, is quite distant from Wittgenstein’s. Indeed, Searle assimilates the background to a neuro-physiological category, affirming that background capacities are causally sensitive to the constitutive rules of social institutions. This makes one think of a mechanism which, starting from social rules, shapes habits and background capacities through complex processes which concretize in neuro-physiological features of the brain, and in turn these operate causally on behaviour, producing individual and social actions. As Margolis (2012b)[9] has observed, Searle’s argument is based on two disputable assumptions: that consciousness derives from basic physical facts, and that the social dimension derives from individual intentionality. There is a (double) reductionism here, which overlooks the genuine theoretical shift allowed by the concept of the background. In fact, the concept of the background offers an alternative route avoiding both the mind/body and the individual/social dualisms, and it is in this sense that Wittgenstein himself seems to use it.

I already mentioned that one of the branches of the debate on OC concerns its foundational vs anti-foundational readings. As Hamilton (2014, pp. 98-102) suggests, Wittgenstein talks of ‘foundations without foundationalism’—and without anti-foundationalism too, one might add. The concept of the background is also helpful in this context. Indeed, the defenders of both views seem to be obliged to acknowledge that there is a distance from the canonical philosophical notions of foundationalism and anti-foundationalism. For instance, Conway (1989), who defends a foundationalist interpretation against conventionalist and relativistic readings, underlines that Wittgenstein has moved the analysis from the foundations of objective reality and of the transcendental subject to the idea of justification. Stroll (1994 and 2004) speaks of a ‘rupturalist’, non-traditional foundationalism; Moyal- Sharrock (2003 and 2007, pp. 78-79) speaks of a form of pragmatism

Moyal-Sharrock (2013b).

with foundations, specifying that these foundations are not metaphysical and that coherence is also part of Wittgenstein’s picture of certainties. Conversely, M. Williams (2005) defends the hypothesis of a non-foun- dationalist Wittgenstein but underlines the centrality of justification as an activity carried on in a certain context and according to certain praxes. The conceptual shift from ground to background makes the inconsistency of this debate explicit: the background represents neither the foundation nor the absence of foundations, but the human, practical and cultural nature of the fabric from which meanings stem.[10] The concept of justification is often singled out in this context, but again it seems in need of a reformulation. Weltbild certainties are neither grounded nor ungrounded, and similarly, they are neither justified nor unjustified (OC, §§175, 192, 559, 563). The point is that justification itself is a practice, variously interwoven with the other practices of our form of life.

In pragmatism, too, the opposition to absolute foundations is accompanied by the awareness of the inevitability of background certainties or beliefs, and the mind/body distinction and the individual/social dialectic do not assume the form of a dualism. In a sense, the very origins of the concept of the background can be traced back to James. The Husserlian phenomenological tradition itself, the point of departure for both Searle’s reflection (with the mediation of a slightly misread Wittgenstein[11]) and the reflection of another thinker often associated with the concept of the background, Hubert Dreyfus[12] (with the mediation of Heidegger and Merleau-Ponty), as well as for the more recent enactivist approach, is indebted to James in this respect.


Two aspects of James’ work seem particularly relevant for this theme. First, in the PP chapter on the stream of thought, he underlines the blurredness of our ideas, and how they merge into each other. In describing the continuity of thought, he affirms that the metaphor of the stream aims to suggest that the drops and waves composing the flux are always surrounded by other water, so that every idea in the mind is always in a relationship of continuity with its surrounding environment of ideas, thanks to the fringe that connects and mixes it up with other ideas. In the stream of thought, there are not only distinct ideas or entities but also feelings of a tendency that keep ideas joined to each other. The relevance of this conception is clear if one considers that it is in this context that James announces one of the purposes of his work.

... ‘[Tendencies’ are not only descriptions from without, but... they are among the objects of the stream, which is thus aware of them from within, and must be described as in very large measure constituted of feelings of tendency, often so vague that we are unable to name them at all. It is in short, the re-instatement of the vague to its proper place in our mental life which I am so anxious to press on the attention. (PP, p. 246)

It is very natural to compare this ‘re-instatement of the vague to its proper place’ to Wittgenstein’s desire to ‘grab imprecision conceptually’, instead of ‘reducing imprecision to precision’.[13] The difficulty lies in consigning vagueness as it is—vague—to reflection. James is concerned here with mental life, but, I think, his objective is general because the call to anti-reductionism is a constant element of his work. Moreover, he offers a very general application of the concept of fringe, affirming for instance that ‘the word “real” itself is, in short, a fringe’ (PP, p. 947), because it is not in virtue of a direct perception but thanks to the connections that concepts have with each other that we believe that parts of reality far from us in time and space are real. James speaks of a fringe, halo and horizon, but the affinity with the notion of background is quite evident. Both James and Wittgenstein feel the need to reestablish the vagueness of the contours of concepts and ideas and their relations of familiarity and vicinity with other concepts and ideas (Fairbanks 1966, 335 ff.). Although Wittgenstein would criticize some aspects of James’ vision, the relevance of vagueness and its link with a typical difficulty of expression have a strong resonance on Wittgenstein’s approach.

A second element tracing the theme of the background back to James is his reflection on the basis of rationality, in ‘The Sentiment of Rationality’. While speculating on the possibility of finding a unified system which could explain everything, and supposing that a universal concept be found which ‘made the concrete chaos rational’, James asks: ‘Can that which is the ground of rationality in all else be itself properly called rational?’ (WB, p. 62). It would seem so, he goes on, but after a quick reasoning, he observes:

Unfortunately, this first answer will not hold. Our mind is so wedded to the process of seeing an other beside every item of its experience, that when the notion of an absolute datum is presented to it, it goes through its usual procedure and remains pointing at the void beyond, as if in that lay further matter for contemplation. (WB, p. 63)

Oscillating between the ‘datum’ and non-entity, the mind seems to find no peace, until the philosopher has to acknowledge: ‘The bottom of being is left logically opaque to us, as something which we simply come upon and find, and about which (if we wish to act) we should pause and wonder as little as possible’ (WB, p. 64). There is no sense in searching for an ultimate answer, because belief, rooted as it is in the practical and emotive sphere of man, is itself the (back)ground of action. In the end, it is the practical exigency to act, both in the philosopher and in the ‘boor’, that prevails. Yet, this does not mean that rationality is abandoned: it means that the sentimental and practical aspects of rationality are taken into account, so that, given different conceptions of the world, each one satisfying the ‘logical demand’ and consistent with the facts, ‘that one which awakens the active impulses, or satisfies other aesthetic demands better than the other, will be accounted the more rational conception, and will deservedly prevail’ (WB, p. 66).

This amounts to nothing more, but nothing less either, than recognizing ‘how entirely the intellect is made up of practical interests’ (WB, p. 72): it is not renouncing rationality, but investigating what it really comprises.

With his remarks on the ‘datum’, James can obviously be associated with Wittgenstein and Peirce, for whom, too, there is no sense in looking for an ultimate ‘given’, and the analysis must start from vital practices, from ‘men and their conversation’ (CP 8.112),[14] as Peirce puts it, but as Wittgenstein might have put it as well. The search for the ultimate foundation is one of the obstacles that ‘block the way of inquiry’, a cardinal sin in Peirce’s philosophical system. One form that this sin assumes, he says,

consists in maintaining that this, that, or the other element of science is basic, ultimate, independent of aught else, and utterly inexplicable—not so much from any defect in our knowing as because there is nothing beneath it to know (CP 1.139).[15]

Considering something inexplicable, he continues, is ‘no explanation at all’ and ultimately it is ‘a conclusion which no reasoning can ever justify or excuse’ (ibid..).

One could object—with reason, I think—that, in Wittgenstein, there is neither the need for explanations nor more generally the perspective of an unlimited semiosis for which any inference or interpretation can give rise to a potentially infinite process of inferences or interpretations. In this sense, it would be wrong to identify in these themes a similarity between Wittgenstein and pragmatism. Yet, this objection can be counterbalanced by considering two points. First, in Wittgenstein too there is a neat opposition to the idea that it is possible to find an ultimate ground resting on itself:

‘You can’t go on having one thing resting on another; in the end there must be something resting on itself. (The a priori) Something firm in itself.

I propose to drop this mode of speech as it leads to puzzlements (CE,

p. 407).[16]

The cardinal sin that Peirce saw in blocking the way of inquiry is identified by Wittgenstein in ways of thinking that create puzzles; but, so to say, the sinner in this case is the same. It is the idea that something must be firm in itself because ‘there is nothing beneath’, that is, because ‘you can’t go on having one thing resting on another’. Moreover, if it is true that, in Peirce, everything is a sign and points to something else, and that signs are linked to one another in potentially infinite processes, it is also true that the chain of interpretants comes to an end in the final logical interpretant, which is a habit of action.[17] What associates Peirce and Wittgenstein, differentiating the former from an advocate of a sort of hermeneutic anti-foundationalist and the latter from a sort of a behaviourist foundationalist, is precisely the shift towards an idea of the background, which removes at once both traditional foundational- ism and anti-foundationalism.

In this light, the Peircean—but also the Jamesian—reflections on common sense play the same role as Wittgenstein's remarks on the Weltbild. As Broyles (1965, p. 87) observes,

[o]n his [Peirce's] view these common sense beliefs provide the background which makes the very practice of giving reasons possible. It is this backdrop of the familiar, the expected, of ‘the way things are' that determines when reasons are required as well as what sorts of things shall count as reasons at all.

Another description that, like this one, fits perfectly well with Wittgenstein too, is the following by Richard Bernstein (2010, pp. 33-34):

In opposition to Cartesianism and to what Hans-Georg Gadamer calls the ‘Enlightenment prejudice against prejudice’, Peirce insists that all inquiry, including scientific and philosophical inquiry, begins with tacit prejudices and prejudgments.... [W]e never escape from having tacit background prejudgments that we do not question.... In this sense we can speak of a foundation from which any inquiry begins. Peirce an anti-foundationalist when foundationalism is understood as the doctrine that claims that there are basic or incorrigible truths that are not subject to revision. But he is not denying—indeed, he is affirming—that all knowing has a foundation in the sense that there are tacitly held beliefs, which we don’t doubt and take to be the bedrock of truth.

This description has the additional merit of shedding light on another crucial element that both approaches underline: the fact that background beliefs and certainties are tacit, or only rarely expressed, and often difficult even to identify. To use Peirce’s words once again, ‘It is the belief men betray and not that which they parade which has to be studied’ (CP 5.444).[18]

That background certainties go sans dire implies a difficult challenge for this kind of inquiry. Putting the background to the fore means trying to focus on what by definition cannot be focused on. Only if we do not look at it directly does the background remain a background: if we concentrate our gaze on it, it disappears, or worse blocks the inquiry in the immobility of a schema or lifeless description. The background fools the observer. What can perhaps be attempted is to train our peripheral gaze, by exercising its capacity to glimpse the limits of the visual field without fixing itself on the scene. We cannot have the whole picture or the whole background, but we may be able to see some details that, if chosen with a happy criterion, suggest what the surroundings may be like. This is the job of someone who draws ‘sketches of landscapes’, as Wittgenstein described himself in the preface of PI, upon realizing, in a


crucial moment for his work, that it was pointless to force his thoughts along a single track. This kind of perspective may appear very distant from pragmatism, and on the whole, it certainly is. Yet, as we shall see in the next chapter, an anti-theoretical strand is also present in Peirce and (especially) in James.

  • [1] See for instance LFM, pp. 203—204, RPP II, §§707—708 (also in Z, §§387—388); see alsoEmmett (1990, p. 223).
  • [2] See the example of the joke in CV, p. 78 (from MS 137, p. 136b, 1948).
  • [3] Respectively from MS 109, p. 185 (1930) and MS 112, p. 1v (1931).
  • [4] From MS 116, p. 283, ca. 1944. See also MS 130, p. 48.
  • [5] From MS 137, p. 54a, 1948.
  • [6] In the manuscript (MS 137, p. 54b), there are some other sentences between the two latterremarks that I have just mentioned, including: ‘Der Hintergrund des Lebens ist gleichsam pointi-liert , the background of life is so to speak ‘pointilled’. The term is quite difficult to translate, but Iguess Wittgenstein is referring to pointillism. Elsewhere he refers to impressionism; see PI, §368 (from MS 162b, p. 49v, 1939-1940) and MS 135, p. 186, 1947.
  • [7] From MS 174, p. 21v., 1950.
  • [8] From MS 176, p. 32r, 1951. Other interesting passages can be found in CE, pp. 406-407 (fromMS 159, pp. 10v, 12r-12v, ca. 1938); RFM, pp. 304 and 437 (from MS 164, p. 5, 1941-1944,and MS 124, p. 199, ca. 1944); RPP I, p. 101, also in Z, §530 (from MS 130, p. 161, 1946).Regarding OC, see also §162 (MS 174, p. 35r, 1950) and §350 (MS 175, p. 52v, 1951).
  • [9] For another critical comment on Searle’s notion of background see
  • [10] See Bax (2013) and Calcaterra (2003a).
  • [11] Searle partly acknowledges the distance in Searle (2011). The vicinity is instead underlined byGoodman (2002, p. 21).
  • [12] See for instance Dreyfus (1982), especially the introduction; Dreyfus (1992), (2002); and theopening chapter of Radman (2012).
  • [13] ‘Scharfe ist Scharfe, Unscharfe ist Unscharfe. Unscharfe will ich nicht auf Scharfe zuru.ckfu.hren;sondern sie als Unscharfe begrifflich fassen’, MS 137, p. 64b, 1948. See also PI, §71 as well asPPF, §356, on indefiniteness.
  • [14] From a review by Peirce of J. Royce’s ‘The World and the Individual’, ca. 1900.
  • [15] From ‘The First Rule of Logic’, 1898.
  • [16] From MS 159, pp. 12r—12v, ca. 1938.
  • [17] See CP 5.491, from ‘A Survey of Pragmaticism’, 1907.
  • [18] Footnote, from ‘Six Characters of Common-Sensism’.
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