Perpetual Noon and Strained Analogies

Copyright © 2004 Bruce W. Hauptli

     In his “Five O’Clock On The Sun”1 J.L. Mackie maintains an example of Wittgenstein’s which purports to show we can not derive by simple analogy an understanding of “He is in pain,” from our prior understanding of “I am in pain” actually establishes the reverse.  The example in question goes from our understanding of “Its 5 o’clock here” to our lack of understanding of “Its 5 o’clock on the sun.”  Mackie maintains that the latter may be given a clear sense via analogous extension and that the same applies in the attribution of pain.  To assign sense to the temporal ascription, he first notes that ‘5 o’clock’ has an incomplete reference which requires a modifier such as “Greenwich Mean Time.”  Moreover, given an Einsteinian account of simultaneity, distant locales will require an appropriate frame of reference.  The sense he then goes on to provide to the solar temporal ascription is based upon the idea that one might extend the earthly time zones indefinitely outward into space.  Thus anywhere above Greenwich would be on Greenwich Time and anything above New York would be on New York time.  ‘5 o’clock on the sun,’ then, would mean that the sun was above some locale at 5 o’clock that time.

     This straightforward analogical extension of the time zones into a third dimension, one which has all the precedent of clocks in skyscrapers on its side, leads Mackie to conclude:

...if one had a prior understanding of ‘I have a pain’, one could derive from it an understanding of ‘He has a pain’, especially since there is nothing analogous to the complications about a time basis, time zones specified by place references, or distant simultaneity (p. 114).

     We should note, however, that Mackie’s attempt to provide sense to “Its 5 o’clock on the sun” makes this statement perpetually false.  The time at any locale when the sun is overhead is, of course, noon (given standard time).  While it is, indeed, natural to tell time in tall buildings in the same way on the top floors as on the lower ones, Mackie’s analogy fails.  A space city which orbited the earth in a synchronous orbit might run its clocks in parallel with those below.  Were the orbit nonsynchronous, or were the space city to orbit some other planet or sun, there would probably be little temptation to attempt to determine whether the planet was overhead Toledo or London in order to set the clocks.

     I do not wish to maintain that by questioning Mackie’s proposal in regard to solar temporal ascriptions one can establish that one can not derive some understanding of “He is in pain” from “I am in pain.”  Mackie, I maintain, has failed to show that Wittgenstein’s example is ill-chosen however.  Clearly some very careful treatment will be necessary if one is to provide sense to the temporal ascription by analogy with the earthly usages.  One will first have to see how we go about ascribing times to locales—what the accepted practice consists in—and then avoid misleading analogies.  This, of course, is exactly the tonic Wittgenstein prescribes in the case of pain ascriptions.

     Wittgenstein maintains our first person pain ascriptions do not get their meaning independently of the consideration of others and their pains.  Indeed, for him the public and third person usages are primary vis-a-vis the first person use.  To understand “I have a pain” one must first, or at least co-temporally, understand “She has a pain.”  Thus (using another analogy) Wittgenstein maintains that our criteria for saying individuals can speak to themselves include that they can speak—that they can speak out loud (I, 344).  Parrots and gramophones fail to speak and, thus, do not speak to themselves.  Infants fall into the same category—they master internal speech only after mastering the external phenomenon (thus the curious case of Mr. Ballard).  This is not to say, of course, that the internal phenomenon is merely an internalization of something external.  The beetle-in-the-box passages (I, 293-295) are meant to emphasize this.  Nonetheless, the thrust of the argument is that we first understand the public usages and ascriptions and then understand the private ones.

     Much, of course, remains to be said about this set of Wittgenstein’s arguments and about his tendency to argue via metaphor and analogy.  In the passage in question, however, Wittgenstein maintains that no simple analogy will allow us to derive an understanding of “He is in pain” from our knowledge of “I am in pain.”  Mackie does an admirable job, I believe, of showing how complex any such analogy must be in the case of temporal ascriptions—and he offers no proof that it will be any easier in the case of pain.


1 J.L. Mackie, “Five O’Clock On The Sun, Analysis v. 40 (1981), pp. 113-114.  Further references to Mackie are followed by the appropriate page reference.   Back

2 Ludwig Wittgenstein, Philosophical Investigations (New York: Macmillan, 1953), trans. G.E.M. Anscome, I, 350.  Further references to this text are followed by the appropriate part and paragraph numbers.   Back

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