Thursday, 2 April 2015

Why Wittgenstein Matters

I hope in due course to say something myself on this topic. In the meantime, however, here's an excellent talk given by my former tutor, Dr Ian Ground, to the Royal Institute of Philosophy last February.

(I am also, by the way, still working on my next post about understanding. Progress is hard and slow, so bear with me.)


  1. I listened to this and really enjoyed it. I thought his focus on representation was really interesting, but I found him less clear (and less convincing) on the alternatives to representation. The idea that the purpose of life (Man's mission in the world etc) is to create a perfect picture of the world that represents through Tractatus-like isomorphism seems mad when one states it barely - the point is not to live (or to change the world) but to depict it! The other aspect that kept hitting me again and again is the irony of the fact that Wittgenstein's whole philosophical enterprise is about the possibility of communication, while much of the life he lived is about his sense of an unbridgeable gulf between himself and others.

  2. Hi Paul,

    I too enjoyed the talk a lot, but I found the emphasis on representation a bit of a mis-step. It doesn't seem to me to be the fundamental locus of the importance of Wittgenstein's philosophy. Rather, Wittgenstein's arguments concerning representation point towards the deeper "moral" of his work. And if I had to express that moral in one sentence it would be something like: we are not machines, but nor are we some baffling combination of the mechanistic and the supernatural.

    That needs quite a bit of unpacking, both to explain what it means and why it's important. That's my task when I come to write my own "Why Wittgenstein Matters" post! :)

    I agree with your comment about communication. I sometimes get the feeling that, in describing how things are vis-a-vis human communication, Wittgenstein is, in part, upbraiding himself for his own personal failures in that regard.

    1. Well, one positive aspect of the focus on representation is to contrast the slightly mad Tractatus approach that tries to get certainty by assuming that the key issue is truth and correctly representing reality and the healthier attitude of the Investigations that focuses on what we do with words. Instead of manically searching for the essence of all pictures, we can enjoy the variety of games we play.

    2. Well, there are certainly genuine benefits to be had from ditching the misplaced obsession with representation. But I think it's part of wider change in outlook: you stop feeling you ought to view people as mechanistic processes engaged in Game Theory-style strategic interactions. Instead, you view them as they are: people.

      This is liberating if only because what you previously felt you ought to do was actually something you couldn't do - at least, not with genuine rigour and thoroughness. So you were in a "bound to fail" situation.