My beetle is an elephant

This is a repost of an article from less than a year ago, which went on The Asexual Agenda.  I was recently reminded of this article, and I intend to say more on the subject.

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?


  1. Pierce R. Butler says

    When a word describes multiple objects, it is because we intuitively see a resemblance between the objects …

    Yeah, I always think of two people dueling with épées when I see a wooden or wire barrier…

    I hadn’t known LW taught in a primary school. Did anybody go interview his former pupils about how he did it?

  2. brucegee1962 says

    Have you ever come across a book of philosophy by Bernard Suits titled The Grasshopper? I don’t know much about philosophy, but I like to read about various approaches to different types of theories of games, and I enjoyed the book very much.

    I remember that it starts off with a refutation of Wittgenstein, who apparently used games as an example of the fallibility of language, or something, because we all talked about them without having a clear definition of what, exactly, they were. Suits thought that was nonsense, and proceeded to give a definition of games and defend it in a way that was pretty entertaining. I didn’t come away from the book with a very positive view of Wittgenstein, but that was only to be expected of a second-hand refutation.

    Your description and the video, though, don’t help me to figure out how W.’s insights are very helpful. I mean, probably everyone over the age of ten has come across the observation that the “red” I see may not be the same as the “red” you see. But most people then go on to say “as long as we all agree that this car is red and this one isn’t, there’s no reason we should care about those differences.” Is there a reason to care?

    Furthermore, if we combine the fact that I can read your description of being in love and say “yeah, it feels like that for me too” with the fact that we’re all running variations of the same model of hardware in our brains, it becomes a reasonable hypothesis to assume that a particular experience really does feel the same for most people.

  3. says

    @Pierce R. Butler
    There are accounts of Wittgenstein’s career as a teacher although I don’t know anything about it personally.

    I’ve never heard of Bernard Suits, but a mere glance at modern games criticism will tell you that we still don’t have a decent definition of what is a game. I think Wittgenstein was wrong about many things, but correct about the word “game” being difficult to define. It is not clear what football, The Stanley Parable, and the Iterated Prisoner’s Dilemma truly have in common. And even if you could find a single definition, it would not refute Wittgenstein’s point, which applies to a number of words, not just games.

    Although many kids come up with the thought experiment where we perceive colors differently, I do not think that this means the idea does not deserve serious treatment. Of course colors are a relatively simple example, because we can just point at red objects, allowing us to construct a shared language of what “red” looks like, even if we have different perceptions of it (as must be the case for colorblind people). It’s a tougher question how we construct a shared language of what “love” means. But I have another post written about this already.

  4. Knabb says

    @Pierce R. Butler

    It’s pretty clear that “word” in this case operates as “specific definition”, where the specific definition has a category of objects. Foil (sword) can describe a fairly wide range of things. There’s generally a pretty similar metal blade, but there’s variation in metallurgy, there’s all sorts of different grips and guards, there’s the various different handle materials, so on and so forth. Foil (thin metal sheets) than covers sheets of a lot of different materials, a lot of different thicknesses, a lot of different widths, variations in shape, so on and so forth. There’s also a point where foil (thin metal sheets) is no longer foil but just sheet metal, or wire, or whatever a foil shaped nonmetal is called, depending on how one changes the shape and material. Foil (sword) being something built to specific regulations by specific sporting bodies is a bit less messy here, although I will note that if you go to the larger category all that mess comes right back, much the way most of it is lost if you specify 0.025mm annealed nickel foil instead of just foil.

  5. milù says

    “Of course colors are a relatively simple example, because we can just point at red objects, allowing us to construct a shared language of what “red” looks like, even if we have different perceptions of it (as must be the case for colorblind people)

    You talk of a shared language, and differing perceptions, and as evidence of this you point to the fact that colourblind people still use that language. But to what extent are they actually sharing it?

    Or to rephrase with added focus on power and normativity, whose language are we sharing?

    Colourblind people, though to them “red” and “green” are the same real-world thing, must i suppose learn to rhetorically manipulate a conceptual dichotomy unsupported by experiencial reality, all for the comfort the non-colourblind. The fiction of a truly shared language must be upheld. Colourblindness is thus othered, marginalised in maintaining that we all share a language with an oppositional concept of “red” and “green” on which everyone agrees, private beetleness notwithstanding.

    Similarly, those (of us) who experience sexual/romantic attraction in ways that are not accounted for by mainstream language (e.g. ace, e.g. no experience of jealousy) are left with the uneasy feeling that there should be a beetle in their box, since everyone else is so clearly aware of the appearance and behaviour of their own beetle; and of course we mostly do pretend to have this nice and normal beetle right there, just like everyone else (until, mercifully, we meet other beetle-less or otherwise weird-beetled individuals and sigh with relief).

    Is this a functional analogy or am I getting this all wrong? 🙂

  6. says

    Yeah, that’s the sort of analogy you could be making. One term that occasionally gets thrown around is “hermeneutical injustice”, the injustice of being deprived of the tools to interpret one’s own experience. It’s long been important for aces to have a community (or at least know of a community) precisely because the community can construct a shared language that suits our purposes rather than serving only the purposes of the majority.

    People with red-green color blindness can usually distinguish red and green, but have greater difficulty doing so. That’s one of the things I learned last year when I researched color perception.

  7. milù says

    ah thanks for the precision. I was in fact a bit uneasy about drawing that analogy as in fact i know nothing about colourblindness.

  8. Rob Grigjanis says

    Siggy @6:

    That’s one of the things I learned last year when I researched color perception.

    OT: I think that article also implicitly explains why we see the sky as blue rather than violet!

  9. says

    @Rob Grigjanis

    Randall Munroe once said:

    You may have heard of Rayleigh scattering as the answer to “why is the sky blue.” This is sort of true, but honestly, a better answer to this question might be “because air is blue.” Sure, it appears blue for a bunch of physics reasons, but everything appears the color it is for a bunch of physics reasons.

  10. Rob Grigjanis says

    Siggy @9: Oh dear, that’s a crappy answer from Munroe. Rayleigh scattering immediately raises the question “why isn’t the sky (or hohum, the air) violet?”. And the answer to that is to a large extent in biology (cone cells), unless Munroe is using a ridiculously broad definition of physics. Stick figure man gets a D.

  11. says

    Well, the point I took from Munroe is that it’s strange to bring up all these specific mechanisms to explain the color of the sky, but not to explain the color of anything else.

  12. Rob Grigjanis says

    Siggy @12: If someone asks why something is a particular colour, I see nothing strange about trying to answer the question. And the answer depends on the “something” in question. I’m sure Munroe thought he was being clever, but then that seems to be his raison d’être. Maybe its an age thing. I have less patience for facile smartarses as I get older.


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