Skip

Was Wittgenstein Right?
March 5, 2013 8:32 AM   Subscribe

"I want to say here that it can never be our job to reduce anything to anything, or to explain anything. Philosophy really is 'purely descriptive.'" --Wittgenstein. Apart from a small and ignored clique of hard-core supporters the usual view these days is that his writing is self-indulgently obscure and that behind the catchy slogans there is little of intellectual value. But this dismissal disguises what is pretty clearly the real cause of Wittgenstein’s unpopularity within departments of philosophy: namely, his thoroughgoing rejection of the subject as traditionally and currently practiced; his insistence that it can’t give us the kind of knowledge generally regarded as its raison d’être.


This attitude is in stark opposition to the traditional view, which continues to prevail. Philosophy is respected, even exalted, for its promise to provide fundamental insights into the human condition and the ultimate character of the universe, leading to vital conclusions about how we are to arrange our lives. It’s taken for granted that there is deep understanding to be obtained of the nature of consciousness, of how knowledge of the external world is possible, of whether our decisions can be truly free, of the structure of any just society
[...]
If so, then we are duped and bound to be disappointed, says Wittgenstein. For these are mere pseudo-problems, the misbegotten products of linguistic illusion and muddled thinking. So it should be entirely unsurprising that the “philosophy” aiming to solve them has been marked by perennial controversy and lack of decisive progress — by an embarrassing failure, after over 2000 years, to settle any of its central issues.
[...]
Consider, for instance, the paradigmatically philosophical question: “What is truth?”. This provokes perplexity because, on the one hand, it demands an answer of the form, “Truth is such–and-such,” but on the other hand, despite hundreds of years of looking, no acceptable answer of that kind has ever been found.
posted by Golden Eternity (37 comments total) 23 users marked this as a favorite

 
Yes.
posted by srboisvert at 8:50 AM on March 5, 2013 [3 favorites]


Huh. This seems like quite a straw man. The philosophy departments I have seen had great respect for Wittgenstein. (Actually an interesting thing about Wittgenstein is that he's the only contemporary philosopher who is considered to be important by both analytic and Continental philosophers).

This article seems like it might be accurate, if this were 1950.
posted by thelonius at 8:51 AM on March 5, 2013 [5 favorites]


The core utility of Philosophy is the realization that things such as "truth" can never be resolved to a final triumphant chord. They're just generally ... well, to reach to music as an analogy, wittering about in major and minor keys, sometimes coming back to the tonic, but then wandering off again.

Seeking truth is fine, but the realization that the journey is the destination is what many seem miss about philosophy.

Understanding that there are no absolutes but those we decide for ourselves is the foundation of a mindful life.

And that's why I have such profound disrespect for dogmatic religion.
posted by seanmpuckett at 8:56 AM on March 5, 2013 [2 favorites]


Understanding that there are no absolutes

Absolutely! Not even one!
posted by IjonTichy at 8:59 AM on March 5, 2013 [10 favorites]


How would we know?
posted by murphy slaw at 8:59 AM on March 5, 2013 [1 favorite]


The core utility of Philosophy is the realization that things such as "truth" can never be resolved to a final triumphant chord.

I'd say almost the opposite; that the practice of philosophy is an expression of a deep faith that the truth exists and can be found.
posted by Segundus at 9:03 AM on March 5, 2013


I don't know much about Wittgenstein, so I figure I'll just stay quiet on this one.
posted by Philosopher Dirtbike at 9:27 AM on March 5, 2013 [19 favorites]


He was wrong, but what he said sorely need to be said.
posted by Obscure Reference at 9:32 AM on March 5, 2013


How would we know?

Apply his ideas, and see what happens, and if they check out.
posted by carter at 9:34 AM on March 5, 2013


Our best man quoted Wittgenstein in his speech. (I think.)

Wittgenstein! for awesome weddings.
posted by Madamina at 9:35 AM on March 5, 2013


The only thing I know about Wittgenstein is that he was a beery swine, who was just as sloshed as Schlegel.
posted by mfu at 9:35 AM on March 5, 2013 [2 favorites]


All we can know is what can't. Everything else is probability.
posted by TwelveTwo at 9:54 AM on March 5, 2013


Was Wittgenstein right? I don't know. His brother Paul, on the other hand, was left. (sorry)
posted by in278s at 9:59 AM on March 5, 2013 [4 favorites]


Huh. Maybe I should read this dude. Philosophy always frustrated me because it was just guys with different opinions with no way to determine who's right.
posted by runcibleshaw at 10:38 AM on March 5, 2013


There is one absolute.
posted by Apropos of Something at 10:39 AM on March 5, 2013


Wittgenstein was cult of personality. He was a clever linguist and understood semiotics before his contemporaries, but he never really explored anything very deeply, just explained it away with a clever turn of the phrase.
If ever it could be said that he was 'right', it would only be by accident.
posted by OHenryPacey at 10:39 AM on March 5, 2013


I feel I should say something...

If you haven't read me before, I would start with "On Certainty".
posted by wittgenstein at 11:37 AM on March 5, 2013 [2 favorites]


Wittgenstein is actually still pretty polarizing in philosophy departments. I remember, as a philosophy undergrad in one of the better departments in the world, walking around with pictures of Wittgenstein taped to all of my shit. The department chair once asked me why I had photos of Wittgenstein on my stuff. I said, "because of them all, I think he was closest to saying something right." And he said, "Funny, I seem to think he said nothing at all." And so it ever was and will be.

For me, Wittgenstein is something of a Jesus. My cat is named Wittgenstein, the first thing I do when I go into bookstores is see what Wittgenstein they have, I even have a Wittgenstein tattoo. I no longer debate Wittgenstein though, because, eh. Something about Jazz and Louis Armstrong...

If you haven't read me before, I would start with "On Certainty".


I agree with that, actually. Or maybe "Lectures and Conversations."
posted by Lutoslawski at 11:55 AM on March 5, 2013 [3 favorites]


I've noticed less debate about Wittgenstein vs. Not Wittgenstein and more about Tractatus vs. Post-Tractatus.
posted by cthuljew at 12:05 PM on March 5, 2013 [4 favorites]


> He was a clever linguist

No, he wasn't a linguist at all. One of the banes of my life has been people (including my dear brother, a philosophy major) bending my ear about his supposed insights into language. Just as you can't usefully discuss the nature of matter if you don't know the first thing about physics or chemistry, you can't usefully discuss the nature of language if you don't know the first thing about linguistics. Introspection gets you exactly as far as it does with respect to the physical universe ("It is obvious the sun goes around the earth; let us consider the implications...").
posted by languagehat at 12:15 PM on March 5, 2013 [4 favorites]


The extent of my Wittgenstein was On Certainty, but it is my understanding that Wittgenstein, at least near the end, was doing exactly what this article claims he argued impossible. Wasn't the point of On Certainty that he thought he could provide an answer to questions like "what is truth?"

How many "catchy slogans" were there in On Certainty?! I'd say that, as a basis for contextualism (different than relativism), there is considerable "intellectual heft" in On Certainty.

I will admit, though, that the professor who taught Wittgenstein at my university was of the mind that On Certainty was essentially Wittgenstein's New Testament, and whatever came before was worth reading only to read (if that makes sense).
posted by mangasm at 12:52 PM on March 5, 2013 [1 favorite]




Eh? Surely there's some disgust for Wittgenstien insofar as a lot of people back in the day carried around his books or image like they did for The Little Red Book or Mao, but he's still an important figure in the history of 20th century philosophy and he's by no means a vacuous thinker. I can't imagine anyone seriously thinking him vacuous. It's trivial to go through his works, divide it into parts, and pull out the arguments.

The way I see it, Wittgenstein is a lot like Nietzsche. They attract a lot of people for whatever reason. People who aren't philosophers by trade and so find Wittgenstein or Nietzsche "edgy" or as having the "divine truth" to the real way things are. And this ends up coloring, perhaps unfairly, their image.
posted by SollosQ at 1:15 PM on March 5, 2013




There was kind of a cult-y thing around him, and some of his students would cop this attitude like if you hadn't heard his lectures in person, you were beyond hope philosophically. But you could say the same for Heidegger.
posted by thelonius at 1:27 PM on March 5, 2013


it can’t give us the kind of knowledge generally regarded as its raison d’être.

It can't give us certainty. What some philosophies can do is help us to find a stable point-of-view (aka reality tunnel) that brings wholeness, fulfillment, harmony, balance, insight into our lives. "Are you sure it's right?" is hard to answer; "Are you sure it's working?" is a lot easier.

When you don't have the flu, and you remember what having the flu was like, that's how much difference it can make in your life. When stuff that used to hurt bounces off, you've hit on something very useful using your head. That's right enough.
posted by Twang at 1:33 PM on March 5, 2013 [2 favorites]


Wittgenstein was a kind of a rorschach test in my experience. People in the department - and outside - were randomly fans or enemies, and you could never tell ahead of time which one would be which, no matter what they specialized in. And of course, you'd also have people qualify which Wittgenstein (pre Tractatus! post! etc.). The problem with having a bunch of "remarks" circulating, is that you can take any single one, or a group and interpret away, without having to reference any coherent system. Great at seeing what you want to see. Kinda like... the bible.

The greatest value - in my experience - of Wittgenstein, was that he could pose interesting questions and problems (whether inadvertently or not). You could pick something from him as a starting point and explore the issue. But was he "right"? Wrong question, in my mind - not really applicable to Wittgenstein, because it's not easy to tell what it is that he's asserting in the first place - especially given that he changed/evolved his views constantly.

And indeed, like Nietzsche, he's a young person's philosophers - not in the sense that his ideas are immature, but in the sense that he attracts unusual devotion from young people (a devotion which sometimes lasts into later years). I think there's also something of a personality and way of expression - my interest in philosophy was more of an analytical bent, and I remember being very impatient with TLPh... my attitude was, "ok, you have something to say, just come out and say it clearly, and quit the posturing and "poetics" and stylistics and stuff - it's not god-given truth, it's just a theory like any other and let's have at it.". But no, the turgid stylistics go on, and on and on. Some people eat up the stylistics though. Then he decides, oh the hell with structure, let's just "remark" - a style that lends itself to folks sitting at your feet in a lotus position while you brood and from time to time release a few words of wisdom. It's cute when you're young, but at some point you realize time is short on this earth, and that if you want to be listened to, lay down your shit and have people at it with the least theatrics possible.
posted by VikingSword at 1:46 PM on March 5, 2013 [1 favorite]


I think there's an issue of context. You can't read Wittgenstein (well you can) without understanding where philosophy as a system was with respect to Russell and the problems of logic that analytic philosophy (and the greatest minds of analytic philosophy of the time) was mired in.

And he just dove right in and fucking blew it up like no one else in the world could (which is probably more due to his personality, and inability to relate to other people in the world). So between his one-of-a-kindness, insight, and Talmudic aphorisms each could divine some mystical power...

This: "But yeah : 'because of them all, I think he was closest to saying something right.' And he said, 'Funny, I seem to think he said nothing at all.'
posted by stratastar at 2:18 PM on March 5, 2013 [1 favorite]


It is true that philosophy (even analytic philosophy) is far less hostile to metaphysics than was the philosophy of the mid-century. But that's how the game is played, things come into relevance and fade away again. I'm not aware of that change being motivated by some kind of general anti-Wittgenstein turn. I think the preoccupation with limiting philosophy to linguistic analysis just eventually played itself out, even among the people who were most sympathetic to it. It just took a few decades.
posted by thelonius at 2:52 PM on March 5, 2013


I've noticed less debate about Wittgenstein vs. Not Wittgenstein and more about Tractatus vs. Post-Tractatus.

I had the impression that 'Tractatus' was a set of mathematical equations, and that 'Philosophical Investigations' was Austrian Zen; I could be wrong...
posted by ovvl at 8:14 PM on March 5, 2013


languagehat, can you comment more on how linguistics makes Witt. look vacuous? What do we know about languages that tosses his work out the window?
posted by spbmp at 8:15 PM on March 5, 2013


More of Godel guy.
posted by wobh at 10:04 PM on March 5, 2013


Bryan Magee and John Searle discuss Wittgenstein (Tractatus and PI). 2345

One of the banes of my life has been people (including my dear brother, a philosophy major) bending my ear about his supposed insights into language.

Wittgenstein had, perhaps, some influence on Chomsky's Linguistics:

Chomsky Amid the Philosophers
“I assumed from my earliest writings in the mid-1950s a kind of “use theory of meaning,” not in Wittgenstein’s terms but perhaps not inconsistent with them.”
— ‘Reply to Horwich’ (2003). In Chomsky and his Critics, eds. L. Antony and N. Hornstein, 2003, p.295.

“Perhaps one might argue that recent semantic theories supersede the intuitions of Wittgenstein… because of their Explanatory success. That does not, however, seem a promising idea; explanatory success will hardly bear that burden. In general, we have little reason now to believe that more than a Wittgensteinian assembly of particulars lies beyond the domain of internalist inquiry [JC: basically, syntax].
— ‘Explaining Language Use’ (1992). In New Horizons in the Study of Language and Mind, 2001, p.45.

“As for semantics, insofar as we understand language use, the argument for a reference-based semantics seems to me weak. It is possible that natural language… has a “semantics” only in the sense of “the study of how this instrument, whose formal structure and potentialities of expression are the subject of syntactic investigation, is actually put to use in a speech community,” to quote from the earliest formulation in generative grammar 40 years ago, influenced by Wittgenstein, Austin and others.” [The quotation is from Syntactic Structures (1957).]
— ‘Language as a Natural Object’ (1994). In New Horizons in the Study of Language and Mind, 2001, p.132.

“[F]actual beliefs and common-sense expectations also play a role in determining that a thing is categorizable and hence namable. Consider Wittgenstein’s disappearing chair. In his terms, we have no “rules saying whether one may use the word ‘chair’ to include this kind of thing” [PI, p.38, as Noam quaintly references it]. Or to put it differently, we keep certain factual assumptions about the behaviour of objects fixed when we categorize them and thus take them as eligible for naming or description.”
— Reflections on Language, 1975, p.45.
Just as you can't usefully discuss the nature of matter if you don't know the first thing about physics or chemistry, you can't usefully discuss the nature of language if you don't know the first thing about linguistics. Introspection gets you exactly as far as it does with respect to the physical universe

I can see how natural language processing or AI in computer science may shed some light on language processing in the brain without the use of any introspection, or neuroscience someday, but other than something like that I don't understand how introspection could be avoided. When studying conscious processes in the brain, like language, I don't see a problem with introspection as a means of investigation - as compared to studying gravity or something.
posted by Golden Eternity at 11:33 PM on March 5, 2013 [1 favorite]


I'm not a philosopher but I've read everything he's written. There's something remarkably familiar in his text. He's subtly illuminating the inadequacies in language. A Laurie Anderson summation turned me on to him; "If you can't talk about it, point to it."

I'd recommend Monk's biography, 'The Duty of Genius"
posted by xjudson at 7:28 AM on March 6, 2013 [1 favorite]


Wittgenstein? Think of a Kafka protagonist compelled to spend eternity in the Castle explaining himself to Russell and Moore. Shudder.
posted by No Robots at 9:57 AM on March 6, 2013 [1 favorite]


> languagehat, can you comment more on how linguistics makes Witt. look vacuous? What do we know about languages that tosses his work out the window?

What am I supposed to say? I mean, linguistics is a whole field of study, with many branches and a couple centuries' worth of results. If you can't accept a priori that someone who hasn't paid attention to what linguists say about language isn't going to have much of value to say about it, I don't see what I can say to convince you.
posted by languagehat at 5:21 PM on March 6, 2013


Those who write off Wittgenstein as being merely a cult of personality, an edgy philosopher who wrote merely ambiguous, talmudic aphorisms, completely miss the logical rigor of Wittgenstein. Wittgenstein is a logician and a mathematician - his work is a response to Russell and Moore and is steeped in that Vienna Circle geist of looking toward math and logic to solve philosophical problems. If his style differs from the norm of analytic philosophy up to that point, that was in fact the point, and did so out of necessity. His way of remarking was not born from a desire to be ambiguous - in fact the opposite. It comes from trying to be as precise as possible.

There is no possible way to read or understand Wittgenstein out of the context of the trajectory of Western (and specifically analytic) philosophy. Just as meaning in general for Wittgenstein is contingent upon context, so Wittgenstein's work itself is. This can be said to a degree of all philosophy, but it is especially true of Wittgenstein. His project was a sort of meta-philosophy that doesn't make sense divorced from the history of Western philosophy up to that point. His work was caught up in that general modernist sense at that time that things were culminating in a special sort of way. It's for the same reason that anyone who tries to read Heidegger divorced from the history of philosophy won't understand what he's trying to do either.

can you comment more on how linguistics makes Witt. look vacuous?

But Wittgenstein was not a linguist. The closest we could say he got to linguistics was the philosophy of language, which is a different thing. Through the philosophy of language, he aimed to understand metaphysical and epistemological problems and to come to terms with things like meaning, ontology, logic, etc. And to be sure, he knew a great deal about language and languages and that informed his work. But to say he was a linguist or that contemporary linguistics has much to say about what Wittgenstein was doing just doesn't make sense.
posted by Lutoslawski at 11:58 AM on March 7, 2013 [2 favorites]


« Older The Lake   |   What's cooler than cool? Newer »


This thread has been archived and is closed to new comments



Post