Wittgenstein, Detective

(Digging around in my files, I found what must have been the first handout I ever constructed on Philosophical Investigations (it is dated 5/7/1992). A section of it follows.)

Understanding the Endless Book

Why is the Investigations so “bloody hard”?  Because the book is both a statement of its method and the result of its method.  To quote Cavell:  “The way this book is written is internal to what it teaches, which means that we cannot understand the manner (call it the method), before we understand its work…The Investigations is written in criticism of itself.”

Before even trying to makes sense of these cabalistic pronouncements, it might be a good idea to ask if Wittgenstein gave his reader any hint how to approach the book.  In the Preface he admits that “I should not like my writing to spare other people the trouble of thinking.  But, if possible, to stimulate someone to thoughts of his own.”  Well and good.  What help does this give us?  Maybe a little, especially if we link it with another remark.

What I want to teach you isn’t opinions but a method.  In fact, the method is to treat as irrelevant every question of opinion…If I’m wrong then you are right, which is just as good.  As long as we look for the same thing…I don’t try to make you believe something you don’t believe, but to make you do something you won’t do.

Let me delay comment on this remark long enough to point up its similarity (I think the similarity is instructive, thus the delay) to Kierkegaard’s comments in Section 12  of Purity of Heart.  The talk

…in order to achieve its proper emphasis…must unequivocally demand something of the listener.  It must demand not merely what has previously been requested, that the reader should share in the work with the speaker–now the talk must unconditionally demand the reader’s own decisive activity, and all depends on this.

Wittgenstein, like Kierkegaard, requires more from his reader than merely close attention to the thought–he requires his reader to think the thought as well.  And part of the reader’s “thinking the thought” is the reader having thoughts of his own about it.

To understand, let’s think of the Investigations in a different way.  Wittgenstein had a well-known love for detective magazines.  Interestingly, the letters which follow a detective’s name are “P. I.”–“private investigator”.  Wittgenstein could well have affixed the same letters after his own name:  “P. I.”–“philosophical investigator”.  In fact, Wittgenstein did, in a way, affix them to his name by leaving behind an instruction manual with the appropriate title–Philosophical Investigations.  (Holmes, remember, delighted in calling himself the world’s only “consulting detective”; Wittgenstein may have been the world’s only “philosophical detective”.)  The Investigations is of course more than just an instruction manual, it is also a case book.  When we read it we are watching the detective.  But what we watch is not the completion of cases; nothing is stamped “solved”.  Instead we are given a glimpse into working cases.  We are made privy to conversations with informants, allowed to see mistaken hunches, provided portraits of suspicious characters.  We see reminders, clues not-yet-understood, records of previous crimes.  Interspersed (like voice-overs) are comments on the investigator’s business, how it works, what to do, what not to do, comments on methods that succeed and methods that fail, notes on the variety of temptations that confront the investigator and what happens when he yields to them.  We are taken into confidence, confessed to, told secrets.  In short, we are left with a mountain of pieces, but the puzzles–mysteries, crimes–remain unsolved.  To profit from the book, we must practice the investigator’s technique on the book itself.  We cannot merely read it, memorize it, parrot the book itself.  We must master it.  And mastery requires intense and continuous effort, not only learning the lessons but applying them–on the mean streets, as it were…

4 responses

  1. Absolutely fascinating! Thanks Kelly — very insightful . . .

    I think W’s comment in the preface for his Tractatus — (that it may only make sense to someone who has already had his thoughts) — also reflects this theme. Perhaps this is true for most — if not all — philosophical ideas?

    I have just got a new copy of the Investigations — I look forward to reading it!

  2. Good post. It took me a long time to properly appreciate the cunning behind the PI’s seemingly haphazard design. The detective metaphor is apt, but I’m also drawn to the idea of “therapy” (and, actually, that’s going to be the subject of my next blog post). From that point of view the book is about forcing you, the patient, to work through the problem for yourself – guided by an instructor who occasionally throws you a hint or tip but quite often just sits there and listens. And this process doesn’t end with a triumphant conclusion, it just stops wherever you happen to be when you finally “get it”.

    • That sounds right, Phillip. Thanks, and I will look forward to your post. (I have something more to say along the lines you describe in the chapter on Wittgenstein’s remarks in the Key Concepts volume I edited.)

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