Wittgenstein on Doing Philosophy: Stop or Go?

Yesterday, I had a useful conversation with my friend and former student, Andy Bass.  He described how strongly Wittgenstein’s critical remarks about philosophy struck him and how much they worried him.  Given what Wittgenstein says, why persist in philosophy?  Why not find something else to do?

It seems to me that Wittgenstein’s critical remarks generally should be thought of in this way:  (1) Much of what he says is about Philosophy-as-Other, i.e., philosophy not as he does it but as it is all-too-often done.  (2) Wittgenstein deliberately employs a deflationary rhetoric about the way he does philosophy.

(1) When Wittgenstein is talking about Philosophy-as-Other, he wants to highlight especially the false enchantments of traditional philosophy–highlighting such is important, as Auden notes, because it is a mark of a false enchantment that it “can all too easily last a lifetime”.  Austin provides a nice way of characterizing this false enchantment–the self-image of the philosopher as “a specialist in the sui generis”.

(2) Wittgenstein’s deflationary rhetoric about he way he does philosophy is aimed primarily at himself, I believe, at his vanity and his tendency to high hat.  Wittgenstein’s way of being in philosophy, deeply personal, ascetic, purified, made it easy for him to treat his way of doing philosophy as something special, too special.  He needed to constantly warn himself against that.  But the rhetoric is aimed secondarily at others.  Wittgenstein did not want his way of doing philosophy to falsely enchant.  He knew that it could enchant, and he wanted it to enchant truly, where the mark of true enchantment, as Auden notes, is that it “fades in time.”  Wittgenstein’s deflationary rhetoric is a warning to others against false enchantment, and a warning against the future fading of its true enchantment.  He knew that eventually the enchantment would go and that we would need then to “walk alone in faith”, as Auden puts it–walking alone in faith without either denying the promise of Wittgenstein’s way of doing philosophy, treating its promises as deceptions, or trying to recover its promise by distorting it into something else, something it is not (a form of naturalism, a closeted metaphysics).  No:  we must take up our fly-bottles and follow the path alone.

8 responses

  1. i take it that your reply here amounts to: ‘wittgenstein has not ruled philosophy out, only certain ways of doing philosophy, or certain attitudes toward it’.

    but he’s also raised the stakes for doing it. so he’s given, indirectly, an extra reason not to do it: it’s even less obvious what exactly you should do, were you to keep doing philosophy, than you thought before!

    • I am sympathetic to this, but unsure that I am entirely in agreement. Wittgenstein has given us an example; so, in that sense, I am unsure that he has made it less obvious what you should do than you might have thought before. It is true that certain stories about what you are doing are no longer going to fit–all time and all existence spectating, e.g.,–but he has provided new stories, new similies, new metaphors–showing the fly the way out of the flybottle, e.g.. But I am unsure that I am really in any disagreement with you. I may simply fail to understand what you have in mind. If so, I am sorry.

      • nothing to be sorry about! i am pushing it a little by calling what i have in mind a ‘reason not to do [philosophy]’. a disincentive, let’s say. i’m thinking, i guess, of the sort of line mulhall takes in ‘inheritance and originality’, emphasizing the challenge wittgenstein’s thought poses, to continue it by thinking creatively, under conditions which seem require you to do it ALL anew without making it clear what would count as doing so (while indicating that certain kinds of imitation or reversion to the old would certainly NOT count as doing so).

        this would be akin, i guess, to learning about the novelistic tradition in school, and then learning about ‘ulysses’ being followed by ‘finnegans wake’, and thinking, ‘if i want to be a novelist now i have to do something like, surpass “finnegans wake” in some way like it surpasses “ulysses”‘. also thinking, perhaps, that as interesting or enjoyable as it might be, writing a conventional novel about suburban family life is just not going to count as seriously pursuing the art of the novel.

        only a bit akin, though.

      • omg you totally do! but at the very least the preface/intro is enough to lay that point out. (i suspect you would get a lot from the rest, as well.)

  2. I think that the enchantment that philosophy offers is essentially that of achieving a comprehensive view of things, whether things in absolute generality or things of some specific kind, without need of further information. (This is also what scientifically minded despisers of philosophy despise about it: “Come up with a testable hypothesis and I’ll take your claim seriously; till then, it’s just a lot of wank.”) It seems to me that the offer of such enchantment is common to Wittgenstein’s work and to what he calls “metaphysics,” or what you call “Philosophy as Other.” The point of difference is how such a comprehensive view is to be attained: whether by insight into the essence of things or by grammatical reminders.

    • I agree that we can characterize what Wittgenstein wants and what the metaphysician wants as a “comprehensive view”. I agree too that W’s comprehensive view and the metaphysician’s comprehensive view are attained differently. But I doubt that W’s comprehensive view and the metaphysician’s is, as it were, the same place reached by two different paths, insight into essence or grammatical reminders. That is, I doubt that W’s comprehensive view is the same as the metaphysician’s (despite the fittingess of the phrase for each).

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