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10/12/2017 The relentless honesty of Ludwig Wittgenstein | Ian Ground

FOOTNOTES TO PLATO OCTOBER 10, 2017

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Ludwig Wittgenstein K. E. Tranoj


The relentless honesty of Ludwig
Wittgenstein
IAN GROUND

A new series from the TLS, appraising the works and legacies of the great
thinkers and philosophers

If you ask philosophers those in the English speaking analytic tradition


anyway who is the most important philosopher of the twentieth century,
they will most likely name Ludwig Wittgenstein. But the chances are that
if you ask them exactly why he was so important, they will be unable to
tell you. Moreover, in their own philosophical practice it will be rare,
certainly these days, that they mention him or his work. Indeed, they may
very fluently introduce positions, against which Wittgenstein launched
powerful arguments: the very arguments which, by general agreement,
make him such an important philosopher. Contemporary philosophers
dont argue with Wittgenstein. Rather they bypass him. Wittgenstein has a
deeply ambivalent status he has authority, but not influence.

For the more general reader, Wittgensteins status in contemporary


philosophy will be puzzling. The general view is that Wittgenstein is
surely the very model of a great philosopher. The perception is that he is
difficult, obscure and intense, severe and mystical, charismatic and
strange, driven and tragic, with his charisma and difficulty bound up with
his character and his life. Wittgenstein saw philosophy not just as a
vocation, but as a way of life he had to lead. This is perhaps why writers
and artists have found him an object of fascination and inspiration. He is
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the subject of novels, poetry, plays, painting, music, sculpture and films.
In the arts and the culture generally, Wittgenstein seems to be what a
philosopher ought to be.

Born in 1889, Wittgenstein came from an extraordinarily wealthy but


tragically dysfunctional Viennese family. He made friends and enemies
with equal alacrity. He travelled widely. As well as regular journeys
between England and Vienna, he visited and lived for periods in Ireland,
Norway, Russia, the US and, in the UK, Cambridge, Manchester,
Swansea and Newcastle. At various times, he was an engineer, a sculptor,
a photographer, a school teacher, a hospital technician and, of course, a
fellow in philosophy at Cambridge. He knew almost every great figure in
the intellectual culture of the first half of the twentieth century. He gave
away his fortune and, several times, gave up philosophy. He published
only one book in his lifetime the Tractatus-Logico-Philosophicus
(1921) and claimed that this work solved all the (essential) problems of
philosophy. But his later work appears to disown much of it. His
reputation is based on the huge collection of manuscripts and notes
known as the Nachlass, together with accounts made by others of
lectures he gave. Published in various forms, the central work is the
posthumous Philosophical Investigations (1953). But later edited
collections of remarks such as Zettel, On Certainty and Remarks on the
Foundation of Mathematics and others are also of enormous importance.

Consisting of seven propositions, all but the last with multiple sub
propositions, the Tractatus is austerely beautiful but severe and
technically demanding.

One way to approach it is to see the book as the ultimate distillation of a


particular historically dominant conception of ourselves: first and
foremost, we are conscious thinkers. Only after are we active, embodied,
speaking agents. Before we communicate, we must first have something
to communicate. We must first be capable of true and false thoughts about
the world: to be able to think about things, and combinations of things
what, in the Tractatus, Wittgenstein calls states of affairs. Some of
these states of affairs obtain and some do not. The actual world consists
of all the states of affairs combinations of things that obtain: the facts.
(Hence The world is the totality of facts, not of things.) But we can also
represent to ourselves what does not obtain the merely possible and,
as well as thinking what is true, we can think falsely.

We can see Wittgensteins question in the Tractatus as: how is this


possible? What must be the case if we are able to have such true and false

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thoughts of the world? What must be the case if the world, is by us,
thinkable?

His answer is that the world, language and thought must share a common
form of elements and their possible arrangements. Wittgenstein calls this
logical form. Elements in our representations of the world, true or false,
stand in the same relationship to each other as the elements that constitute
states of affairs. Reality, language and thought mirror each other. It
follows that if we think or say anything meaningful, then what we think
or say must be capable of being true or false. For only then will it picture
or represent a possible fact. Otherwise what we say or think will be
senseless. There must also be a mechanism (which the Tractatus
describes) for allowing more complex meaningful thoughts and
statements to be generated from more primitive ones.

In articulating his account of how it is that we can think and speak at all,
the Tractatus gives expression, sublime and exact but not wholly original,
to a conception of ourselves that was arguably already latent in our
intellectual culture. A conception of ourselves as representing beings
minds which can represent the world to ourselves, think and say things
that are true or false, and can have reliable means of acquiring truths
about the world which we call science. This picture of the nature of
mind, and hence of ourselves, continues to be the default conception in
the cognitive sciences. Minds are representational engines.

But what is most strikingly original about Wittgensteins account in the


Tractatus is his drawing out of the implications which are to a degree
disturbing of this conception. One implication is for values. If I think or
claim that the car is in the garage, then, built into that claim is the idea
that this may be true or false. But when I think that, say, slavery is
morally wrong, I think something that could not be otherwise than true
(even if others should disagree). But then, according to the Tractatus, in
ethical thought, I am not representing how the world is one way rather
than another. So strictly speaking, ethical talk will make no sense. Still,
according to Wittgenstein, we are ethical beings. The ethical is real.
Teaching us how to live in the light of that thought was, Wittgenstein
believed, the true aim of the Tractatus.

This general constraint on what can be meaningfully said also applies to


what philosophers have wanted to claim over the millennia. For
philosophers make claims not about what happens to be true, but what
must be. But if the account offered in the Tractatus of how thought is
possible is correct, then such claims, not being capable of being false, are
strictly meaningless. We might think of it this way: I can use chess
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notation to describe the actual position on a chess board. But I cannot use
chess notation to say how chess notation represents any such chess
position. That shows itself in the way the notation works. Of course, I can
use English (or any other natural language) to say or teach how the chess
notation works. But when we want to explain not chess notation, or any
particular natural language but language (and thought) itself, that recourse
to another medium is not available. There is only the showing left.

With the relentless honesty that characterized all his thinking,


Wittgenstein applies this thought to the Tractatus itself. For the
relationship between thought and the world that the Tractatus articulates
is not one among all the facts there are. It is a condition of there being any
thinkable facts. Philosophy as envisaged by the Tractatus is therefore a
futile attempt to say what cannot be meaningfully said but which can only
show itself. So, philosophy, insofar as it is possible at all, cannot be a
body of doctrines. It must be an activity. It must aim not, like science, at
truth and knowledge, but only at clarity and, with the achievement of that
clarity, peace. This is why Wittgenstein claims that the propositions of the
Tractatus are like rungs on a ladder. We use them to climb up to a
position where we can see things as they are, where we can see the
world aright. But then we throw the ladder away.

In the years that followed which have been examined and documented
in immense detail by scholars Wittgenstein came to abandon and
replace much of this conception of language and thought while
maintaining a great deal of its spirit. Perhaps it was because Wittgenstein
had been able to give such complete expression to the earlier conception
that only he was able to see, so deeply and so clearly, where it came from,
how it failed, what should be kept and what replaced.

This new conception of ourselves of language and of mind is


articulated in his masterpiece, widely regarded as one of the two or three
greatest works of philosophy in the Western Tradition, the Philosophical
Investigations.

The work consists of 693 numbered remarks of varying length (with a


second part whose exact relationship to the main body is a matter of
scholarly controversy). In contrast to the Tractatus, the Philosophical
Investigations, can, indeed must, be read first hand. It contains almost
nothing that might be called technical and mentions only a very few other
philosophers by name. But as Wittgenstein wrote: It will be easy to read
what I will write. What will be hard to understand is the point of what I
say.

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In this work, Wittgenstein thinks and writes with ruthless intellectual


honesty. He pulls at every thread in his thought. To read it is to have the
palpable sense of a thinker in the act of philosophical inquiry. And yet, at
the same time, we cannot as readers be merely the passive audience for
this drama. To read the Investigations as it should be read is to participate
in a shared, essentially democratic endeavour in which we must find our
own place among the myriad voices that enter, have their say, and exit,
call out from off stage, return again in different garb with new parts. We
are invited and must accept to be one of these players. We have to try to
read it as honestly as it was written.

As we struggle to follow the twisting lines of thought the apparently


abrupt changes of topic, the multiple voices and changes in key and
colour, we also have to try to pause and answer the hundreds of questions
it asks. In fact, as someone once counted, there are 784 questions asked in
the Investigations. Of those only 110 are answered. And of those answers,
seventy are meant to be wrong. And more often than not, we find that the
answer we want to give to a question that, if we pause for a moment,
comes naturally to us, is then anticipated and forms the subject of a next
or near passage or remark.

Sometimes he more or less straightforwardly asks a question, makes an


observation and answers it:

199. Is what we call obeying a rule something that it would be


possible for only one man to do, and to do only once in his
life? This is of course a note on the grammar of the
expression to obey a rule.

It is not possible that there should have been only


one occasion on which someone obeyed a rule. It is
not possible that there should have been only one
occasion on which a report was made, an order given
or understood; and so on. To obey a rule, to make a
report, to give an order, to play a game of chess, are
customs (uses, institutions).

Sometimes, he directly engages with the reader in order to end or start a


new track of his investigations:

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510. Make the following experiment: say Its cold here and
mean Its warm here. Can you do it? And what are you
doing as you do it? And is there only one way of doing it?

Elsewhere, anticipating our own first response, he offers further questions


as misleading answers to the original question, and then offers his own,
sometimes sharp, put down:

283. What gives us so much as the idea that living beings,


things, can feel?

Is it that my education has led me to it by drawing


my attention to feelings in myself, and now I transfer
the idea to objects outside myself? That I recognize
that there is something there (in me) which I can call
pain without getting into conflict with the way
other people use this word? I do not transfer my
idea to stones, plants, etc.

Couldnt I imagine having frightful pains and


turning to stone while they lasted? Well, how do I
know, if I shut my eyes, whether I have not turned
into a stone? And if that has happened, in what sense
will the stone have the pains? In what sense will they
be ascribable to the stone? And why need the pain
have a bearer at all here?!

And can one say of the stone that it has a soul and
that is what has the pain? What has a soul, or pain,
to do with a stone?

Only of what behaves like a human being can one


say that it has pains.

There are many other uses of questions in the Investigations (indeed,


Wittgenstein once considered writing a work that consisted entirely of
questions). Responding to them, as we read, makes the experience of
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reading Wittgenstein peculiarly intimate, and also, as very many have


found, including Daniel Dennett, liberating and exhilarating. But
having gone through this process it is then very difficult to stand back and
say, Well, then what we learned was such and such. I can use that idea
here in relation to this current debate or issue. In this respect, reading
Wittgenstein is very like engaging with works of art: it is a process deeply
resistant to paraphrase. You have to experience it for yourself. And it not
just what but how you think that will change.

The Philosophical Investigations discusses the nature of language and


mind, and the confusions about both to which Wittgenstein thought we
and our culture are inevitably prone. He seeks to explore the conception
of ourselves he had so completely articulated in the Tractatus: that we are
fundamentally thinking, knowing, representing beings. And to expose this
conception as a deeply engrained set of mutually reinforcing illusions and
confusions, mistakes and myths. He attempts this not or not mostly by
what philosophy traditionally regards as argument. For a picture is not the
kind of thing against which one can argue. Rather his aim is to break the
grip of the pictures of mind and meaning that hold us captive. Thought
experiments, reminders of perfectly ordinary facts of life or ways of
speaking, striking juxtapositions, elaborate lists of examples and a host of
disputing voices are all brought into play. All the time, he is criss-crossing
the same landscape in different directions, offering sketches, partial and
incomplete, of what he finds and trying to map how apparently distinct
positions on the nature of mind and of language are connected together.
Just as in the Tractatus, in the Philosophical Investigations, the task of
philosophy is not to advance claims or theories, but to be a never-ending
activity of seeking clarity about the ways that we think. One difference
from the earlier work is that the Philosophical Investigations gives us not
a single ladder to climb. Instead it shows us the paths up a series of hills
and promontories, from which we may gain different overviews of the
landscape and, with luck, see the light gradually dawn.

A guiding theme is Wittgensteins attempt to wean us from the conception


of intrinsically representational, intrinsically meaningful, psychological
states or processes and their non-psychological analogue in the form of
meaning rules.

Central to this conception are two pictures or collections of pictures. One


is a way of conceiving of the inner and the outer: our subjective inner
lives and our outer behaviour in a world of others. We think of our inner
lives as being like an internal space in which there exist various things,
states and processes: thoughts, emotions, sensations. What we do is
merely the outward sign of this inner reality: behaviour.

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The other picture or set of pictures is a way of conceiving of how


language works. We think that language is primarily a matter of naming
things. And that all the other diverse uses to which we put language
detailed at length through the text are trivial compared to the primal,
foundational act of naming things.

Wittgenstein shows how these two sets of pictures mutually reinforce


each other in myriad ways. One way is this: because we think language is
fundamentally about naming things, we think that psychological concepts
must also be names of things, but of things in an inner space. So we
model the reality of the inner on the existence of physical things with the
peculiar property that these mental objects are only visible to and
nameable by their owner. But we are also puzzled about how words can
function as names at all. How they can reach out to what they name?
Words are, after all, just arbitrary sounds or squiggles. We think then that
it must be something special indeed which enables words to have
meaning. It must be some special set of the psychological states and
processes, a picture of which we already have. Our words mean because
we mean. And we can mean because we are in possession of inner,
essentially private psychological states that can intrinsically reach out to
the world. Language is really a collection of private, inner acts of
meaning and naming, a collection of private languages that happen, more
or less imperfectly, to overlap.

In this way, Wittgenstein seeks to trace the deep connections between our
mistaken conceptions of mind and meaning. In their place, he offers an
entirely different vision. He insists that intrinsic meaning, on which
representational capacities depend, only gets going in and through the
shared practices and interactions of living, embodied beings and is only
visible in and through the lives and activity of such beings. These
activities operate in and through language in what Wittgenstein calls
language-games. In the beginning is not the word at all. But the deed. A
consequence of that position is that we no longer think of the inner versus
the outer in the same way. The idea of public language as rooted in a prior
private language is demonstrated to be an illusion. One that fails to
recognize that we are social, communicating beings and that we are so all
the way down.

Say that we become puzzled about money. Here is something that people
deeply desire, spend and risk their lives acquiring. People are worth so
much money and so on. But perhaps we are struck by the fact that coins
and notes are, in themselves just worthless bits of metal or paper. How
can they have value? (Note that we have already slipped, even at the

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moment we first become puzzled, into thinking of value as a kind of


property something has.)

Imagine that someone replies like this: it is true that actual cash is
arbitrary just stuff. What matters is that cash is backed by something
that really does have value. The promise to pay the bearer on demand
on UK notes. The gold in the bank is what really has value. The money is
just an outward sign of that true value.

But gold is also just a kind of metal. Why should it have value? The same
question we asked about the cash can now be asked about the gold.

Someone else might interject: gold is rare and hard to acquire. Thats why
it has value. But lots of things are rare without being valuable. And in any
case, no one actually trades in their money for gold. Banks wont even let
you do that. Yet we go on treating the money as valuable.

Here of course we will want to say this: actual money (coins and notes)
isnt intrinsically valuable. What matters is only that it is in fact used in
trade and exchanges. The value lies in the use of the money. Its not that
the exchanges use money because the money has value. Rather the money
has value because the exchanges have value. Or rather what we mean by
monetary value is made manifest in and through the activities of
exchange and the myriad things we do with money. And once we see
things that way round, it will now seem rather strange to say that money
is just worthless stuff. It looks that way and we became puzzled in the
first place only because we tricked ourselves into separating out the notes
and coins from their use in exchange. Our problem was how to explain
how certain stuff notes and coins had value. So we started looking for
another kind of stuff to carry that value. That is, we already committed to
a particular view of what an explanation would look like. The solution
was to change our view of what would count as an explanation or indeed
whether one was actually needed at all. We solve the problem when we
dissolve the source of our puzzlement.

The analogy is between the values of notes and coins and the meaning of
words and sentences. We see that particular sounds and squiggles in a
particular language, say English, are in themselves arbitrary, having no
intrinsic connection to the things they stand for. So we think there must be
something standing behind the words which gives them the real meaning.
What could that be? Well, we might suggest idea, thoughts and intentions.
We mean things by our words. Others understand us because they know
what we mean by the sounds or marks we make. The words are arbitrary

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but the thoughts are not. Their meaning is laid up in the vaults of the
mind.

But just as gold was not the real explanation of the value of money,
thoughts are not the explanation of the meanings of words. It is not that
gold or thoughts dont exist. Of course they do. But if its a problem to
explain how words have meaning, it is equally a problem to explain how
thoughts have meaning.

We see people using money and words in all their forms, buying and
selling, speaking and listening. Nothing is hidden. Nothing stands behind
all the activity. The value or meaning lies in the activity. We might
note too that, in our analogy private money a currency that one alone
could use would be nonsensical. Similarly, a private language, the
words of which only an individual could understand is equally senseless.
And a philosophical theory of mind and meaning, which implied the
possibility of such a private language, would, for that reason, be
mistaken.

This set of exchanges and twists of thought is, or is something like, what
is going on in this passage from the Philosophical Investigations:

454. How does it come about that this arrow points? Doesnt it
seem to carry in it something beside itself? No, not the
dead line on paper; only the psychical thing, the meaning,
can do that. That is both true and false. The arrow points
only in the application that a living being makes of it.

This pointing is not a hocus-pocus which can be performed


only by the soul.

455. We want to say: When we mean something, its like going


up to someone, its not having a dead picture (of any kind).
We go up to the thing we mean.

456. When one means something, it is oneself meaning; so one


is oneself in motion. One is rushing ahead and so cannot
also observe oneself rushing ahead. Indeed not.

457. Yes: meaning something is like going up to someone.

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In this passage, the arrow serves of course as the paradigmatic meaningful


sign. Wittgensteins opponent wants to stress the passivity of the sign in
itself and thinks that therefore some account must explain how it is that
thoughts (the psychical thing) actively reach out to the things to which
they refer as if they were going up to someone to shake his hand.
Wittgenstein agrees with this opponent that meaning something is like
going up to someone. But, he suggests, this is not true, as his opponent
intends, in a merely metaphorical sense. Rather, our meaning something
is literally like going up to someone. Meaning gets going because we
move around and act on a world of other objects and agents; pragmatic
engagements in the world, which logically precede language. It is these
practical engagements, rather than the shared logical form of the
Tractatus, that enable meaning. We do not mirror reality. We are
enmeshed in it.

Wittgenstein was hostile to modern philosophy as he found it. He thought


it the product of a culture that had come to model everything that matters
about our lives on scientific explanation. In its ever-extending observance
of the idea that knowledge, not wisdom, is our goal, that what matters is
information rather than insight, and that we best address the problems that
beset us, not with changes in our heart and spirit but with more data and
better theories, our culture is pretty much exactly as Wittgenstein feared it
would become. He sought to uncover the deep undercurrents of thought
that had produced this attitude. He feared it would lead not to a better
world but the demise of our civilization. That perhaps explains his deep
unpopularity today. It is for the same reason that Ludwig Wittgenstein is
the most important philosopher of modern times.

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