According to Wittgenstein, the bewitching allure of metaphysics has proved empty (§§89-108). It has led to a collection of a priori theories concerning how the world must be, but such theories are founded upon illusions brought about by misunderstandings of, and misrepresentations of, our forms of expression. The result has not been to create a body of philosophical knowledge but to generate a series of seemingly intractable problems – problems that trap us between what must be the case (according to the theories) and what is the case, so far as our everyday lives are concerned.
Thus philosophy is left with the task of revealing the illusionary nature of these problems. They are not to be solved but dissolved: “The results of philosophy are the discovery of some piece of plain nonsense and the bumps that the understanding has got by running up against the limits of language” (§119). Obviously, the proper technique for achieving this cannot itself be theoretical – that would just repeat the process that caused the problem in the first place. Instead, Wittgenstein proposes an altogether different method:
[…] we may not advance any kind of theory. There must not be anything hypothetical in our considerations. All explanation must disappear, and description alone must take its place.
Philosophical Investigations §109
Such description will be tailored according to the problem at hand; we will be “marshalling recollections for a particular purpose” (§127). And the results will not be new facts about the world but a clearer understanding of what we already know, in the same way that a map might give us a clearer understanding of our home town.
This, basically, is Wittgenstein’s New Deal for Philosophy, as set out in §§109-133. It was a radical and controversial idea when the Investigations was published in 1953, and it remains so today. It’s an idea that even some who admire his philosophy find a step too far (John Searle, for instance). And although many of the arguments in the Investigations have been recognised as hugely important, I think it’s fair to say that the philosophical community as a whole has declined to take Wittgenstein up on his offer.
I’ll discuss their reluctance in a future post. For now, however, I want to address an obvious question raised by the rejection of theory, namely: how the hell can you do philosophy without theories?
It seems that such an approach would make it impossible to state any conclusions, because that (surely) involves stating a theory. When, for example, Wittgenstein says “the meaning of a word is its use in the language” (§43), isn’t that a theory? Indeed, isn’t it a counter-theory to “A name means an object. The object is its meaning” (TLP 3.203)? Might we not go further and say that any general statement (eg, “cats are more intelligent than dogs”) makes a theoretical claim about the world? And if that’s true, it’s hard to see how theories can be avoided.
The first thing to point out is that actually not every general statement can meaningfully be called theoretical. A theory operates in an area of contention – there has to be something that’s up for grabs. So “cats are more intelligent than dogs” could be considered theoretical because it is by no means obviously true. There is something to be tested here. On the other hand, “giraffes have longer necks than swans” is not (for us) theoretical. It merely states an established truth. Likewise, it is not theoretical to point out that “losing my mind” is unlike “losing my hat”. We would all admit that I cannot look for my mind or offer a reward for the person who finds it; someone can’t have taken my mind because he mistook it for his own, and so on. Such statements are not contentious and therefore not theoretical.
There is, however, an important distinction between the above two examples. The non-theoretical status of the giraffe/swan statement is a posteriori; it is a contingent truth that we have established about the world. We could imagine a situation where this truth was still up for grabs, and there the statement would be theoretical. We would need more facts about giraffes or swans to settle the issue.
The mind/hat statement, on the other hand, works differently. It does not remind us of an established empirical truth, but a grammatical one. We didn’t discover it by encountering hats and minds; we learnt it when we learnt our language, and the truth it expresses partly constitutes what minds and hats are. The only way it could be “up for grabs” would be if someone didn’t know how we use the words “mind” or “hat”. And that person would require linguistic instruction rather than new empirical facts. In this sense, the mind/hat statement is a priori. I don't mean that it's "true for all possible worlds" or anything like that, but that it is about the concepts we need to master in order to make empirical statements such as “your hat is bigger than my hat” or “your mind is sharper than my mind” (perhaps it would be better to call it a grammatical truth rather than an a priori one). And part of mastering such concepts involves realising that it’s nonsense to say “I’ve lost my mind, stop what you’re doing and help me look for it”.
Since these grammatical observations are not theoretical, it is possible to derive general statements from them which are also not theoretical. Such statements are summaries. They do not rely on deduction and do not express hypotheses. They can be verified, not by experiment, but simply by looking and seeing whether they correctly reflect the established facts.
This highlights the important distinction between TLP 3.203 and §43. “A name means an object” is a dogmatic expression of an a priori theory – it must be so, given the requirements of the Picture Theory of Meaning. By contrast, “The meaning of a word is its use in the language” asserts what we will all admit to be true if we look carefully at our forms of expression and, in particular, at the way the word “meaning” is generally explained (be warned, however, that this is a highly controversial claim). Wittgenstein does not say it must be so (indeed, he explicitly says it is not always so), merely that – most of the time – it is so. And it is precisely this sort of statement he has in mind when he says, “If someone were to advance theses in philosophy, it would never be possible to debate them, because everyone would agree to them” (§129).
Here we might admit that we can draw non-theoretical conclusions, yet still wonder why theories must be ruled out altogether. After all, couldn’t we use our new-found linguistic insights to construct better theories? No. The suggestion misunderstands the flaw at the heart of philosophical theories.
A philosophical theory looks like it’s making an a priori claim about how the world must be, but actually its a priori nature comes from its use of conceptual rules. Determinism, for example, flows from reflections on the fact that every event has a cause. But “every event has a cause” is not an empirical fact (unlike, say “every child has a penny”); it is a conceptual precondition for certain types of activity – scientific investigations, for example. It provides a rule legitimising these activities and guarantees that, given an event, you can always ask “what caused this?” That is the nature of its “must”. It does not, however, guarantee anything about what is or isn’t the case.
It is illicit, therefore, to move from “every event has a cause” to “free actions do not exist” because that is making an unsanctioned existential claim about the world. What you can do, however, is examine the conceptual underpinning of “free will” together with the concept of causation to see how they relate to each other. This involves no illicit move because everything remains at an a priori level. It does not, however, save the theory by getting rid of its mistakes – it gets rid of the theory. That is because we are no longer deducing what must be the case, but consulting the rule-book to see how things are. It’s as if we had a theory that castling is impossible in chess because the king can only move one square at a time. Then we look up the rules and see that under certain circumstances it is perfectly legitimate. We cannot now seriously have a theory that the rules of castling don’t exist, nor that castling is invalidated by the game’s other rules. It is part of the game, and that’s that.
Wittgenstein’s rejection of philosophical theories is not based on the notion that they’re unlikely to yield results. His argument is that they cannot yield results because they are conceptually incoherent. They attempt to deduce a priori truths about the world based on rules that provide no justification for such deductions. Dispensing with them is not (pace Searle) an unnecessary piece of philosophical extravagance; the need flows directly from Wittgenstein’s ideas about meaning as use, language-games, the nature of rules, and family resemblance concepts. If those are accepted then ditching theory is mandatory, not optional.
Finally (and at the risk of stating the bleeding obvious) it is also not itself a theory. It is a proposal offered as the only way of avoiding the endlessly repeated mistakes of the past and providing us with a way to see the world aright when we become entangled in conceptual confusion. The price to pay consists in renouncing philosophy as a heroic endeavour – one where the next great mind might finally hit upon the correct theory and explain things to everyone’s satisfaction. (Two and a half thousand years and still waiting….) Instead it would be a more humble matter of “marshalling recollections for a particular purpose”. It would require patience and skill rather than god-like genius.
For many that price is too high.