Wednesday, 12 October 2011


When I was at Uni we used to joke that there ought to be a “teacher’s edition” of the Philosophical Investigations – one with all the answers set out in the back. This, of course, was a reference to the extraordinary number of unanswered questions in the book – according to Anthony Kenny only 110 of its 784 questions are answered, and 70 of those are intentionally wrong. In fact, this is just one of the Investigations’ puzzling (and sometimes infuriating) features; it has no chapter headings; it segues from topic to topic; it frequently doubles back on itself and doesn’t so much come to a conclusion as peter out in a blizzard of remarks about meaning and intention. It’s easy to put this down to the fact that the book was never finished; maybe Wittgenstein just wasn’t up to the task of writing a “proper” philosophical work. In fact, however, the Investigations is constructed with great care. Far from being jumbled or haphazard, its unusual style is everywhere guided by Wittgenstein’s conception both of the deep roots of philosophical confusion and his strategy for resolving it.

In a way, this conception serves to answer a very pertinent question: if philosophy is founded on error how could so many great minds have got it so wrong for so long? Wittgenstein’s answer is that the error is as much psychological as intellectual. It stems from a threefold difficulty: a) the need to consider things in a way that cuts across the grain of our habitual thought processes; b) our reluctance to abandon normal problem-solving techniques even when they are no longer helpful; and c) the illusion of profundity that these techniques produce when misapplied to philosophical problems.

How, then, had previous philosophers managed to miss the conceptual distinctions that lie at the heart of so much of Wittgenstein’s later work? Well, for one thing language often misleads us by making dissimilar things look the same. Thus “I have a car” has the same linguistic form as “I have a pain”, despite the fact that the concepts “car” and “pain” are very different. But just as importantly, it is extremely difficult to step back and get a clearer picture. When it comes to meaning, our natural bias is towards similarities rather than differences. So, for example, we are used to thinking of different words with the same meaning – we do it all the time when writing. But it is far less usual to think of different meanings for the same word. Consider a basic verb like “to have”. Given “I have a car” it is obvious that (often) we can replace it with “I own a car”. And given “I have a pain” an alternative might be “I feel a pain”. But usually we do not reflect that neither “I feel a car” nor “I own a pain” provide workable synonyms in these contexts. Such distinctions readily elude us because we are simply not used to thinking in that way. It is not a technique we have mastered fluently.

Moreover, even when these distinctions are pointed out, they can seem trivial – beneath the weighty considerations of philosophy (for we have a preconceived notion of what a serious enquiry looks like). But it is precisely such “trivial” distinctions that show how our concepts work. They cannot be understood by any other means. As Wittgenstein remarks at §340: “One cannot guess how a word functions. One has to look at its application and learn from that. But the difficulty is to remove the prejudice which stands in the way of doing so. It is not a stupid prejudice”.

This brings us to the second obstacle to clarity: philosophy turns our normal intellectual virtues into vices. When faced with a problem we have a range of “go to” techniques. Typically, these are reductive in nature: we use inference to the best explanation (see “Open Prison” for an example of how this can cramp our understanding); we seek the essential features of the situation; we look for a law, or a formula or a unifying principle. Such techniques stand as paradigms of intellectual respectability. In particular, the scientific method provides a standard of correctness to which (it seems) all other approaches must aspire. And this is a further reason why it is so tempting to assimilate phrases such as “I have a car” and “I have a pain”: we seize upon a similarity as suggesting an essence because (normally) this is a helpful way of approaching things.

For Wittgenstein, however, the problems of philosophy are conceptual rather than empirical. Solving them does not require new knowledge but a clearer understanding of what we already know. As a result, techniques modelled on the theoretico-deductive method of science are powerless to help. Nevertheless, we persevere with them, not only out of habit but also because the theories they produce seem to reveal something profound about the world. As Wittgenstein says at §89: “logic seemed to have a peculiar depth – a universal significance. Logic lay, it seemed, at the foundation of all the sciences”. Custom is bolstered by bewitchment.

Thus we’re prevented from achieving a clear view of our concepts, yet compelled to persevere with a misplaced approach. This amounts to what Wittgenstein calls “a sickness of the understanding” (Remarks on the Foundations of Mathematics, p157). He also speaks of “philosophical diseases” (§593) and wryly likens philosophy to madness:
I am sitting with a philosopher in the garden; he says again and again “I know that that’s a tree”, pointing to a tree that is near us. Someone else arrives and hears this, and I tell him: “This fellow isn’t insane. We are only doing philosophy.”
On Certainty §467
Regarding a “cure”, he says “The philosopher treats a question; like an illness” (§255) and also “There is not a single philosophical method, though there are indeed methods, different therapies, as it were” (§133d).

It’s perhaps easy to get too hung up on the details of this medical metaphor. (Was Wittgenstein only writing for those who agonised over philosophy? Did he model his method explicitly on psychoanalysis? And if so, which version? Etc, etc.) The key point, however, is clear: philosophical problems are unusual and therefore require an unusual method to give them rest. Wittgenstein’s own method is exemplified in the style and structure of the Investigations. It is certainly akin to therapy and is based around an insight he spells out explicitly in §86 of The Big Typescript:  “What has to be overcome is not a difficulty of the intellect, but of the will.”

A central feature of this type of situation is that argument alone is not enough to affect genuine change. As Wittgenstein remarked to Rush Rhees: “I don’t try to make you believe something you don’t believe, but to make you do something you won’t do.” The “patient” cannot simply be told how a philosophically “healthy” person sees things; he must internalise the viewpoint. That requires training, practice and a sympathetic understanding of the intellectual temptations that are likely to derail things. The Investigations is structured so as to take the reader through precisely this kind of process.

For example, its striking tendency to segue between topics is not due to unruliness or a lack of ordered thinking. On the contrary, it reflects a deep understanding of the interconnected nature of philosophical problems. What might appear to be a series of discrete issues are (Wittgenstein maintains) linked by deeply ingrained background assumptions that form a kind of self-supporting “mythology”. It is a mythology that reverberates across a huge conceptual range. For example:
  • inner/outer
  • mental/physical
  • subjective/objective
  • emotion/rationality
  • sensation/behaviour
  • private/public
  • symbol/sign
  • intention/expression

Pushing against one part of the structure brings resistance from the rest. So you have to follow the connections and tackle them all, turn and turn about, until the reader understands the true nature of what he’s up against. At that point you can trust him to see the connections for himself and deal with them accordingly. Conversely, if you don’t follow these connections then you don’t do justice to the complexity of the problem. The reader may (rightly) decide you haven’t grasped the strength of his position, because that strength is derived from the support the whole gives to its parts.

Another aspect of dismantling the system is that, in a sense, the reader must do it for himself. Of course, he must be guided, but this is a matter of steering him towards conclusions which he then draws, rather than simply telling him what to think. As a result, he takes ownership of the process and becomes more willing to resist the temptations presented by his old way of thinking. The problems are not merely scythed back but dug up root and branch.

This, of course, is the reason for the cryptic, questioning nature of the Investigations: it forces the reader to explore for himself the incoherence of his position. Equally, it requires him to shake off his old thought-habits and practice a new approach – hunting out connections and distinctions which had previously been brushed aside by the urge to reduce things to a fundamental essence. In this sense, the Investigations resembles a school text-book: it doesn’t just give the facts, it provides exercises so that the reader can properly master the relevant techniques. The book is as much a process as an argument, and working through that process is integral to solving the problems it discusses. The reason there is no “teachers edition” of the Investigations is exactly the same reason that school children aren’t given maths books with the answers in the back.

The notion of the Investigations as a process also explains why the book has no formal conclusion. In a way, it cannot have one because it is not seeking to provide the reader with an answer, but to give him techniques which (properly applied) will release him from the question. As Wittgenstein puts it at §133:
The real discovery is the one that enables me to break off philosophizing when I want to. – The one that gives philosophy peace, so that it is no longer tormented by questions which bring itself in question.
You cannot say in advance when the moment of release will happen. You must simply keep working until it arrives.

Such is my understanding of the relationship between Wittgenstein’s conception of philosophy and the style of the Investigations. Assuming it’s correct, three points occur to me.

First, it’s tempting to see something disrespectful in Wittgenstein’s “diagnosis”. It can feel like he explains how so many great minds have been led astray, but only at the cost of suggesting they were a bit mad rather than a bit stupid. I’m sure he would’ve objected to such a travesty of his position, and it should be borne in mind that Wittgenstein’s analysis draws heavily on his own experience, which he takes to be characteristic (plus, for what it’s worth, his account tallies with my own experience on most points). All the same, considering philosophers as quasi patients is not always a comfortable thing to do.

Secondly, his account seems to me to provide a quandary regarding the secondary literature. In helping people understand Wittgenstein’s position, there is a danger that such works actually prevent it from being taken to heart. Insofar as they allow readers to avoid the therapeutic task of thinking things through for themselves, any resulting change could be rendered superficial rather than fundamental. On the other hand, given the difficulty of what he wrote, some kind of elucidation seems necessary if his ideas are to be properly understood. Perhaps every guide to Wittgenstein should end with the words “This is what I think – now go back to the Investigations and work it out for yourself”.

Finally, how successful is the therapeutic method he proposes? For Wittgenstein himself, it seems, the moment of release never truly arrived. He kept hammering away at the psychological landscape almost until his death, sure that he was on the right track yet dissatisfied with what he had written and unable to write anything better. What is the significance of that? Maybe it was due to his personal limitations, or his self-defeating perfectionism. Or maybe it’s a sign that he’d made a mistake and marched down a dead-end. Or maybe it was the only possible outcome because even though his analysis of philosophy was correct he was wrong to assume that a satisfying, philosophy-ending survey of our language was actually possible. Maybe it simply can’t be done. And maybe the notion of the philosophically healthy person is every bit as fictional as the notion of the psychologically healthy person. I’m not sure that’s true. But it might be.

That’s what I think – now go back to the Investigations and work it out for yourself.


  1. Very nicely down and I agree with everything you say. But it is interesting that you do not mention philosophy as an attempt to get at the TRUTH. I suppose that is understandable since philosophy can seem just a technical discipline, but surely the real source of philosophy error must be the belief or hope that reason can grasp reality in some profound and superior way, that there is something beyond physics that can put our deeper anxieties to rest. Wittgenstein does not confront the meaning of death or why we can feel so alone, but Heidegger certainly tried to (even though his writing style and conclusions are not particularly to my taste).

  2. As usual you have put your finger on the heart of the matter. I believe the issue you raise is the "ticking bomb" of the Investigations, and it is potentially even more incendiary than the one he delivered in the TLP.

    I believe that Wittgenstein's later philosophy takes us a certain way down a path and then leaves us to take the last few steps for ourselves. It invites us to understand ourselves (as a form of life) via a full description of our language. And what emerges from that description contrasts sharply with our modern conception of the human animal.

    The implications of that corrected vision go way beyond any technical philosophical questions. They strike at the very heart of the currently popular accounts of humanity and act as a corrective to what Wittgenstein called "the spirit of our age".

    The TRUTH that Wittgenstein tries to make us understand is not a truth (a priori or otherwise) about the world but about ourselves.

    I am constantly making notes for a post called "Why Wittgenstein Matters" which will, at least, explain why the Investigations has haunted me for the last 25 years. Doubtless that will clear up these issues once and for all and allow us to see the world aright. Ahem.

  3. Once the philosopher has gone through the course of therapy, presumably this would then allow him to carry out his philosophy in a saner, clearer manner than before - freed from some of his "phantoms"?

    If that is so - and I am not just taking your metaphor and running amok with it - then W's work here is not an end to philosophy (or a cure for the disease of philosophy), but a preventative course to help those practising philosophy from falling into the age old errors of metaphysics.

    Perhaps an alternative metaphor might be found in meditation. The rather Zen-like experience of reading the PI becoming a "journey" towards a new form of philosophical enlightenment?

  4. Indeed. There are many who draw comparisons between W's philosophy and Buddhism. And you're also right to suggest there is an issue as to whether his approach applies only to individuals (who seek to cure themselves) or whether it involves "cured" people seeking to instruct "the unenlightened".

    It may come as no surprise to you that I take the latter route!

  5. The author adds: it should not be thought that W's ideas mean an end to philosophy, any more than finding the cause of diabetes means the end of doctors.

  6. Having read back my comments from yesterday, I've decided not to delete them but have made a mental note that drinking in the afternoon is not a good idea for anyone with access to the internet.

  7. A stimulating post, Phillip. I will continue to think about it, I am sure.