What’s with Wittgenstein?

What’s with Wittgenstein?

Ludwig Wittgenstein seems still to bestride the narrow straits of world thought like a colossus, reflections of him flickering over cultural regions far afield from his own.

By lamplight, I’ve been spending my recent weeks with the man, reading Ray Monk’s fine philosophical biography just before lights out.  I can’t say I’ve enjoyed his company.

One philosopher, John Nelson, recalled the Wittgenstein effect when he came on a visit to Cornell University:

Under the relentless probing and pushing of his inquiry my head felt almost as if it were ready to burst . . . There was no quarter given – no sliding off the topic when it became difficult.  I was absolutely exhausted when we concluded the discussion.

Oets Bouwsma asked the visitor whether he was able to sleep at night after such mind-wracking sessions.  Wittgenstein replied, with a Dostoyevskian smile,

No, but do you know,

I think I may go nuts.

One thing is clear from the biography.  This was not a pose.  He was not playing at being the tormented genius.  What you saw was what you got.

I consider philosophy a relief from torment, so I hoped to learn from Monk’s book what exactly was the nub of Wittgenstein’s torment.  What I valued about this biography was that Monk did not look for the tie-breaking evidence outside the realm of philosophy itself.

Thus, he wasn’t tormented because he was a genius, or gay, or made vulnerable by his Jewish ancestry — or because everyone who was anyone in his birth city of Vienna was considering suicide.

His philosophic work was what tormented him –

for philosophic reasons!

That might be the definition of a philosopher.  So of course he interested me!

What was philosophy, as he saw it?  I believe he saw it as a sort of auto-immune disease of the mind – one to which any otherwise healthy mind is vulnerable.  He would advise his gifted students to go into some other line of work.  It may be correct to say that, ideally, he would have liked to be the last philosopher, the one who put the whole misguided enterprise to bed and turned out the lights.  And yet, he liked to “talk philosophy” and relished the company of at least some of the most gifted colleagues that he met.  How right – or how wrong – is he?

We have here a real detective story, a whodunnit or whatdunnit.

Philosophy – the name is Greek and means “the love of wisdom” – occupies that part of a person, or a culture, that faces the ultimate questions: what is the difference between right and wrong, are we free, how do scientific fields and ordinary experience relate to one another, is there a divine dimension to our lives, how do mental things relate to physical things — the mind to the body — what makes things beautiful or ugly and do these have any connection with truth or goodness, how should communities organize themselves legally and in terms of shared aims, what can orient and ground our search for truth, what gives meaning to our lives.  The field arises in the ancient, Greek-speaking world and, as a result, there is a history of philosophy: the successive, sedimentary ways these questions have been addressed down the centuries, with each layer responding to the one that came before.

It is a wonderful discipline,

rich and influential

over any culture that includes it.

What was Wittgenstein’s take on what I call “the longest conversation”?  He saw it as misguided – arising out of a misunderstanding or misuse of language.  Ordinarily, he thought, in the normal course of life, we don’t ask philosophic questions.  Therefore, it’s not natural for us to try to answer them.  For him the question becomes, how can we cure ourselves of such a deep and disorienting habit? 

The Wittgensteinian therapy looks for the actual practice that preceded the philosophic question.  It discerns the displacement that allowed the philosopher to veer off course, getting distracted and bemused by his pseudo-problems and pseudo-answers.  To get “philosophical” is to miss what is actually going on.

Philosophy doesn’t have the last word.  The last word isn’t a word at all; it’s a kind of seeing.

I guess it’s time for me to put in my two cents.  I would agree with Wittgenstein that philosophy, being an ancient discipline, has inherited problems some of which can now be set down as useless baggage.  Which problems belong in the junkpile, and how they got to be loaded into the  mixed inheritance, are not self-answering questions.  You don’t throw out a painting because it’s old.  Is it a forgery or an original?  With experience, you can discern the clues.

Here’s an example of a problem that, in my view, Wittgenstein mislabels as useless baggage.  Here’s how he thinks of introspection:

You observe your own mental happenings. How?  By introspection. But if you observe, i.e., if you go about to observe your own mental happenings you alter them and create new ones: and the whole point of observing is that you should not do this – observing is supposed to be just the thing that avoids this.

Wittgenstein’s point is that observing should leave the data unaffected by the observer.  But why should that be a requirement of observation?  Even the physicist has had to give up that condition.  In the mental environment, looking at oneself looking, observing oneself observing, just goes with the territory.  We are affected by being observed, and by our own self-observation.  It’s not a glitch but a feature – of having a mind.

Wittgenstein will identify a particular displacement as having given rise to a philosophic problem, and advise instead to stand back silently and see what is going on.  Don’t try to articulate what you see: just see it. 

For my part, I’d say: Not every conceptual problem is a displacement.


If you say it,

that might help you to see it.

About Abigail

Abigail Rosenthal is Professor Emerita of Philosophy, Brooklyn College of CUNY. She is the author of A Good Look at Evil, a Pulitzer Prize nominee, now available in an expanded, revised second edition and as an audiobook. Its thesis is that good people try to live out their stories while evil people aim to mess up good people’s stories. Her next book, Confessions of a Young Philosopher, forthcoming and illustrated, provides multiple illustrations from her own life. She writes a weekly column for her blog, “Dear Abbie: The Non-Advice Column” (www.dearabbie-nonadvice.com) where she explains why women's lives are highly interesting. She’s the editor of the posthumously published Consolations of Philosophy: Hobbes’s Secret; Spinoza’s Way by her father, Henry M. Rosenthal. Some of her articles can be accessed at https://brooklyn-cuny.academia.edu/AbigailMartin . She is married to Jerry L. Martin, also a philosopher. They live in Bucks County, Pennsylvania.
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