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Thursday, February 17, 2005

Wittgenstein and Clinton

Joesnuff asks "If Wittgenstein were still alive today and a guest commentator on CNN during Clinton's grand jury testimony in 1998, what would Ludwig's comments be after seeing the video of Clinton parsing meanings on the word "is" like he did?"

Two remarks: (1) I am not a Ludwig Wittgenstein nor even a Norman Malcom or an Elizibeth Anscombe, so I would not have any real insight into what he would say. But no doubt that in examining the total phenomenology of the Clinton hearings, LW would have been able to see most any striking characteristic displayed in Clinton's or the questioner's use of language. (2) I will venture to say that in the situation there may be nothing remarkable in the analysis of language games provided by LW's Philosophical Investigations exhibited in the dialogue. At first it seem that Clinton is trying to cash out an ambiguity in the meaning of the word is that is relevent to clarifying the discussion but on my reading of the transcript it is not clear at all which previous use of the word is he is refering to. What does seem clear enough from the transcript is that he is distinguishing saying that he was not having sex with ML at the time of the hearings from saying that he never had sex with ML at all and that if what was said was the former then that statement was true at the time it was made. Clinton also stated that it was a statement, which ever it was, made by his attorney, and that his mind was pre-occupied with his own testimony to know exactly what was being claimed. I don't see anything here that would be more illuminated by the concept of language games.

On the other hand, thinking about the recent special report by Katie Couric on NBC about sex mores among teenagers, I was impressed that today's teenagers do understand oral sex to be sex, perhaps not even an instance of sex of any kind. If Mr. Clinton was working within the same language game as teenagers, then that lawyer's statement comes out true no matter which meaning was intended. Obviously Ms. Couric saw the connection also because she kept asking the teens whether the Clinton hearings had any influence on them. There seemed to be no evidence of this however.

In spite of all this, I don't think Clinton can really hide behind the lines of distinction between meanings of statements and language games. He seemed reluctant to come out and admit that he had sex of some kind with ML at some point while being aware that this is what the commitee was looking for. I also think his reluctance was more than just an attempt to avoid entrapment by some rabid political enemies over what to most people is an inconsequential matter. It is very dubious that as a young political intern serving a president in a working relationship with a huge differential of power and authority that her consent to submit in that way should be properly considered to be rational. ML was being used as a mere means to an end and not seen as an end in herself.

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