Tuesday, 4 October 2011

Open Prison

[A quick post while I gather my thoughts on the notion of philosophy as therapy.]

At §593 Wittgenstein comments “A main cause of philosophical diseases – a one-sided diet: one nourishes one’s thinking with only one kind of example.” So, for instance, when confronted with a familiar word or sentence we tend to imagine a typical context for it and fail to see that it might also have less obvious applications. In everyday life this might be a helpful time-saver, but in philosophy it can lead us to overlook the complexity of our expressions. The typical context strongly suggests itself; it hogs our attention and can easily harden into a definition that we are loathed to depart from. “It does mean this,” we think, “it’s just so obvious.”

How easy it is to fall into this trap was brought home to me recently when considering family resemblance concepts. Speaking of the misguided requirement for complete exactness in our concepts, Wittgenstein remarks:

Here one thinks something like this: if I say “I have locked the man up in the room – there is only one door left open” – then I simply haven’t locked him up at all; his being locked up is a sham. One would be inclined to say here: “So you haven’t accomplished anything at all.” An enclosure with a hole in it is as good as none. – But is that really true?
Philosophical Investigations §99

Clearly the answer to his question is supposed to be “no”, but to be honest the example always troubled me. “The door is open,” I’d think, “so the man can get out”. I could see it vividly before me: the unlocked door, the man leaving. How else could it be taken? It was just so obvious. I suspected I was wrong, but I couldn't see how and wished (not for the first time) that Wittgenstein had answered his own question with an example.

A few days later, I came across a reference to the famous comment at §309: “What is your aim in philosophy? – To show the fly the way out of the fly bottle.” I realised with a bit of a shock that I didn’t know what a fly bottle was. I mean, I knew it was a kind of trap, but I had no idea how it actually worked. So I looked it up on Wiki and found the following definition:

A fly bottle or glass flytrap is a passive fly trap. In the Far East it is large bottle of clear glass with a black metal top in which there is a hole. Bait is placed in the bottom of the bottle in the form of pieces of meat. Flies enter the bottle in search of food and are then unable to escape because their Phototaxis leads them anywhere in the bottle except to the darker top where the entry hole is.

Now, of course, I realised that (for once) Wittgenstein had answered his own question - it was just that he’d waited 210 sections before doing it. Here was an example of an enclosure with a hole that worked perfectly well as a trap. And finding it broke the spell of the typical scenario. Suddenly I was able to think of all sorts of ways in which an unlocked door still might not allow someone to escape. The door’s handle could be red hot. Or the door could open onto a sheer drop. Or maybe the door was hidden and the captive was prevented from finding it by a fake door that consumed his attention as he obsessively tried to work out how to open it. Once I was released from the grip of my paradigm case it all just seemed so obvious.

There’s a pleasing symmetry here. I had failed to see the simple way out of the problem of how the captive might fail to see the simple way out of his problem because, like the captive, I’d been seduced into looking in the wrong place for the answer. But, on this occasion, the fly bottle had shown the fly the way out of the fly bottle.


  1. Very cool! (also reminds me of some Wittgenstein story about a handle that looks like it opens in the normal way but actually opens upwards, so the door is not locked but only those in the know or lucky can open it). [will try to remember the source of the Wittgenstein story.]

  2. It's like the story Norman Malcolm tells, too, (on p. 44 of his memoir) about a man trapped in a room who would see that he could leave by a door if only he would turn around.

  3. Ha! I've read Malcolm's memoir (years ago admittedly) and still didn't make the connection. Sigh.