Friday, 2 October 2009

Woodworking & Wittgenstein

Since i am a painfully slow reader, my eyes are shot, and it's much safer (and less weird looking) than reading whilst walking, i've been listening to lectures or readings on my iPod. My most recent find, Philosophy Bites, is a type of Q & A between the show's hosts and leading academics. It's a great intro for those of us whose knowledge of philosophy stems from a limited understanding of the Monty Python sketch below.

Because language is pretty fundamental to my own work, i opted for the discussion on Wittgenstein's conception of philosophy. Basically, according to Wittgenstein, words not only signify objects, but can also function as describing an activity. In the beginning of the Investigations, Wittgenstein's Builders illustrate the potential confusion that arises from the ability of a singular word to perform different functions. Wittgenstein imagines the builder saying to his assistant, 'slab.' This can mean several things: the name of the piece of concrete he wants, the request to bring the slab to his master, or even a suggestion that there are no more slabs left, and that the assistant must go and get them.

Listening to this segment (on my way to the hardware store), i actually laughed out loud. Wittgenstein's treatment of language, reminded me of the oft-repeated frustrations about the limits of the (modern) Hebrew language, invariably sparked off by my encounters with the inarticulate, macho world of hardware stores and lumberyards in Talpiot's industrial area. The fact that he gives the example of builders was hilarious to me.

If you walk into a hardware store here in Israel, and you ask for a זווית, which means 'angle', you could be looking for anything from a try-square to an elbow pipe. Here is an example of the range of tools you get when you search for זווית. Also, in English, clamps are specified. We have bar clamps, pipe clamps, band clamps, angle clamps, parallel clamps, C clamps, hand clamps, etc. I can articulate which type of clamp i want quickly and precisely to the person at the shop. Not in Hebrew. We have one word. מלחציים. That's it. It's translated as 'vice', but i think the root is לחץ, which means pressure. This explains why the average volume in the hardware store is screaming level, and the most important communication is achieved through wild gesticulation. I have learnt not to buy clamps here. The last time i attempted to do so, after failing to communicate 'bar clamp', i had to make do with saying ' similar...definitely not' whilst the man helping me held up different types of clamps, none of which was a bar clamp. Maybe since we don't have a word for it, we can't stock it in shops?

Monty Python seem to enjoy applying philosophy to football, as in this sketch, and another philosophy refresher from them is to be found here.


  1. It's like in 1984 or Anthem, where the states felt if you couldn't express it you couldn't think it. Although that implies that Israel encourages confusion regarding woodworking tools... You may have stumbled upon something huge.

  2. ;-)
    Definitely a conspiracy!