It is so difficult to find the beginning

My graduate seminar this semester was dedicated to reading Wittgenstein’s Philosophical Investigations once again. My motto were three sentences from On Certainty which say: “It is so difficult to find the beginning.  Or better it is difficult to begin at the beginning. And not to try to go further back.” (471) I found this relevant to the question how to begin another reading of the Investigations; but the remarks also puzzled me. One would expect Wittgenstein to say that in philosophy we never go back far enough.  What could he mean by telling us not to go too far back?

My own challenge in the seminar was to read the Investigations, as if I was looking at them for the first time. I was trying to set aside all the interpretations that have accreted around the text and read it, so to say, naively. I was resisting the pressure to go back from the words of the Investigations to those of the interpreters.  But that was not all.

The beginning is always difficult in philosophy. There is always the question what one can assume and what one must argue for. One often finds that one starts somewhere and then discovers that something else needs to be said first and then something else again. Instead of adding more at the end of one’s writing, one adds more and more at the beginning. But how far is one to carry this process? Is there an absolute beginning?

I have tried to think about the beginning of the Philosophical Investigations in comparison to the beginnings of the Tractatus and the Blue Book.  The former begins with a dogmatic philosophical statement, one about the world as a whole. The second begins with a question, one about meaning in general. The Philosophical Investigations begin, by contras more modestly with a quotation.  But why this quotation? Why this passage about language from Augustine’s Confessions? If the issue is one of language and meaning and whether the meaning of a word is the object referred to, Wittgenstein might as well have quoted a passage from Russell or from himself, or even from Frege. So, why Augustine?

My guess is that Wittgenstein assumes that Augustine has something to offer which the others do not. And this is certainly so, even though Wittgenstein does not actually mention it. What distinguishes Augustine is that he speaks of the learning of language, of how a child acquires language, of how language is a means of communication, of expressing desires, for instance, and not just a medium of representation or for saying what is true.  We might as well say that for the Wittgenstein of the Philosophical Investigations the right beginning for thinking about language is the question of how a child learns language. And this learning, we are told right away is not brought about through a process of rational explanation; it is, to begin with, the result of drill (Abrichten).

I now think that the remarks from On Certainty that were my motto this semester refers directly back to the Philosophical Investigations.  The remark continues, in fact, to speak directly of “when a child learns language” (472) and it goes on to say that “language did not emerge from some kind of ratiocination.” (475) Wittgenstein seems to be reformulating here what he had previously said at the beginning of the Investigations.

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